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Monday, 1 August 2011

YOU CAN STUFF YOUR MARY-SUE WHERE THE SUN DON'T SHINE

Good morning, Dear Readers, and happy Monday. Today, at the urging of some of my lovely Twitter friends and followers, I intend to tackle a controversial topic. You can probably guess what it is from the post title, but if not...well, here's where we wade into the Mary-Sue Morass. It's a deep one. You might want to bring a snack. And a spare pair of socks.

If you regularly read book (or film or TV or other media - but most especially book) reviews of any kind, whether in magazines or on Amazon and Goodreads or on book review blogs, you will more than likely (more than likely) have come across the term Mary-Sue. If you don't already know what the term means, you might have tried to work out the meaning using the context in which the term was used. But, because hardly any of the people throwing this term around themselves understand what it means, you'll have a tough time of it. Even if you've read a hundred reviews talking about Mary-Sue characters, you probably still don't know for sure, although you'll have gotten the idea that Mary-Sue = bad news. Bad character. Bad writing. BAD WRITER, NO COOKIE!

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1) A female character who is too perfect
2) A female character who kicks too much butt
3) A female character who gets her way too easily
4) A female character who is too powerful
5) A female character who has too many flaws
6) A female character who has the wrong flaws
7) A female character who has no flaws
8) A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9) A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10) A female character who is too passive or boring

Do you see, Dear Readers, how many of these aspects of the commonly used term Mary-Sue are...umm...just a teeny bit contradictory? How can Mary-Sue mean 'a female character who is too perfect' when it is also used to mean a female character who is 'annoying or obnoxious'? How can it mean that a character has 'too many flaws' and also 'no flaws'? How can these people have anything in common? It's all so confusing!

Except that it isn't.

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

'A female character.'

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around actually mean when they say 'Mary-Sue' is: 'Female character I don't like'.

That's it. That's all.

So why don't they just say 'I didn't like the female character' and explain why? I mean, there's no problem with a reviewer not liking a female character, is there? Everyone is entitled to like or dislike a character according to their own lights. A character that one person loves may seem utterly vile to another reader, and that is a wonderful thing we should all be very happy about as individuals. How did this strange, contradictory, badly defined term come into such common use in the first place? Clearly it doesn't mean what people think it means - so why not just honestly lay out the reasons you didn't like the female character, the same way you would any other character (by which we mean, a male one) instead of throwing the term Mary-Sue like a mud-pie?

Maybe it's because the reviewers in question, the reviewers who keep saying 'Mary-Sue' as if it was all that needed to be said, don't want to have to explain the reasons why a particular character didn't work for them. Maybe it's because their reasons for finding these female characters just too obnoxious, unrealistic, stupid, passive, badass or talented are just as contradictory and badly defined as the term itself. Maybe it's because the reason they don't like the female characters isn't that they're just too...anything. Except just too...female.

For the record, at this point let's see if we can't dig out the actual meaning of the term Mary-Sue. Because it did have a useful definition once, before it was co-opted and turned into a two-word mud-pie to diminish female characters. And that definition was this:

"A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional." 

The term was made up by people writing StarTrek fanfiction, to describe the author-insert characters (often given names like Mary Sue) who would show up in pieces of fanfiction as a new ensign or science officer and immediately prove to be the best looking, most intelligent, spunkiest, wittiest and most perfect StarFleet officer ever recruited. All the other characters would immediately realise this and hail Ensign Mary-Sue as a genius. If they did not, they were very obviously motivated by spite and jealousy, since Mary-Sue was so clearly perfect (and modest! And humble! And unaware of how beautiful she was!) that no one who wasn't wicked could do anything but embrace her.

She would not only miraculously solve every problem that the Enterprise faced and make instant friends of all the crew, but all the significant male (and maybe female) characters would fall in love with her. Usually Mary-Sue would bravely die at the end of the piece of fanfiction, because the established characters and setting would have become so warped around her utter perfection by then that if she had lived she would have gotten married to either James T Kirk or Spock (or both) and become Captain of the ship, and no one would ever have had to have any adventures again.

In short, Mary-Sue is a wish fulfilment fantasy. And I'm not saying characters like this don't exist. I'm not even saying they are *bad*. In fact, an example of a Mary-Sue in a well-known novel is the character Bella Swan in Twilight (I'm sorry Twilight lovers, but it's really true! I'm not dissing Bella, I'm just stating a fact about the kind of character she is).

Bella moves to a new town and immediately finds that everyone there wants to be her friend (except for two female characters who are mind-cripplingly obviously jealous) despite the fact that she is not interested in any of them. Bella has no flaws apart from being adorably klutzy. She is convinced that she is plain, and wears no make-up, but everyone reacts to her as if she was ravishingly beautiful. She captures the interest and then the undying love of the main male character despite the fact that he nearly has to turn his whole character inside out to make it happen. She also gets the love of the secondary male character. And all the other boys her age start fighting over her too, even though she's got no interest in any of them either. Bella undergoes no character growth or development within the story because she is already perfect when the story begins. And, as has often been pointed out, the detailed description of Bella is a perfect description of the author, Stephenie Meyer.

So this is what a Mary-Sue is:

1) A character who is based, at least partly, on the author
2) A character whom has no significant flaws (except possibly ones the other characters find cute)
3) A character to whom everyone within the story reacts as if they were beautiful and wonderful except characters who are clearly evil and/or motivated by jealousy
4) A character with whom, during the course of the story, every available character of the opposite (and occasionally the same) sex will fall in love given any contact whatsoever
5) A character who undergoes no significant growth, change or development throughout the story

Believe me, when you come across one, you will know.

And yet I see the term Mary-Sue applied to characters who bear no resemblance to this definition at all. I see it applied to such diverse people as Hermione Grainger from Harry Potter, Mae from The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Clary from the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Alanna from The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce, and Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore. These guys, honestly, couldn't be much more different from each other. The only thing they have in common is that they're all girls.

I recently read a book that I loved. In the course of the book the heroine underwent immense physical and mental and emotional ordeals. She was by turns denigrated and treated with disgust, and excessively sheltered and lied to. She was kidnapped, dragged across rough terrain, attacked, threatened, lost people that she loved, was betrayed by people she had trusted, and had almost unbearable burdens thrust onto her shoulders. She evolved - inch by painful inch - from a very smart, yet extremely insecure and self-centred person, to one who was compassionate and empathetic and able to use her intelligence for the good of others. She changed from a passive and largely physically inactive person to one who was physically strong and active. She worked and scrabbled and fought and whined and cried for every bit of progress she made. She lost everything she loved and wanted and pulled herself up and made a new life for herself, bittersweet though it was. And I thought: How wonderful!

And then I saw a review calling this character - this amazing, flawed, revolting, inspiring, broken, beautiful, ugly character - a Mary-Sue. Dear Readers, my head nearly exploded.

I'm sick of it, Dear Readers. I'm sick of seeing people condemn any female character with a significant role in a book as a Mary-Sue. I'm sick of people talking about how the female characters were too perfect or not perfect enough, too passive or too badass, too talented or too useless, when what they really mean - but don't even KNOW they mean - is that the characters were too much in possession of lady parts.

So now I turn away from my wonderful blog readers, who are lovely, kind, sweet people who would never make my head explode, and I turn to you, the reviewers. Not all the reviewers. Just the ones who are making my head throb dangerously and causing the silvery lights to float in front of my eyes.

I beg, I implore, I get down on bended knee and grovel: next time you're about to use the term Mary-Sue, stop and look at my little checklist above. And if the character you are about to describe does not hit all the points on the checklist? DON'T.

And if you're going to ask how on earth you're supposed to know, without photos of the author, if the character is partly based on them? You've just proved my point. YOU CAN'T. Therefore, you shouldn't be using the term Mary-Sue, because you are making a claim about the character/author relationship which you cannot substantiate. Simple as that.

Instead of slapping 'Mary-Sue' in your review and leaving it at that, make a list of four or five traits or decisions or actions that you think were bad, or unrealistic, or obnoxious, about the character. Perhaps you should discuss those points, and why they bothered you, in the review instead.

But before you do, take a moment to imagine that the character you are thinking about was a boy or a man. And don't say 'Well, that's different' or 'But I just can't see a girl behaving this way' or 'It's not about their gender!' or any other excuse. Look at your list again, really look at it. See if, suddenly, magically, all those traits, decisions or actions don't seem bad, unrealistic or obnoxious anymore but like perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable traits or decisions or actions...for a boy.

By attempting this exercise, you might come to realise that you (like every other human being ever born on this planet, except maybe Jesus) have an unconscious prejudice, an unexamined blind spot. And it doesn't mean you are A Sexist Pig, or A Bad Person, or that I Don't Like You. It means you're human. And humans, oh glory, humans can change.

If you can change enough to realise how damaging and unfair the term Mary-Sue is when used indiscriminately and incorrectly to denigrate female characters, you might start to notice some of the damaging and unfair assumptions which are generally made about ACTUAL FEMALES in this messed up sexist world of ours. You might change enough to start dealing with that and make this world a better place in the process. I believe you can. I believe in you.

But only if you shove the term Mary-Sue into a deep dark closet somewhere and leave it there except for very, very special occasions.

Note: I'm well aware that there's a male variant of the Mary-Sue, called a Gary-Stu. When was the last time you saw that term used as a method of dismissing a male character who was clearly nothing of the kind? Yeah. That's what I thought.

Note the 2nd (05/08/2011): I have been receiving a lot of emails about this post, and many of them asked me to do anatomically impossible things with myself and/or die. As a result, I'm sorry to say I won't be opening any more emails with regard to the Mary-Sue issue from email addresses that I don't recognise. And while I'll continue to read all the comments left here, and I'm very happy for you guys to air your opinions and carry on the discussion, I honestly can't keep up with the comments anymore without the whole thing eating my brain. Thanks to everyone who has posted a civil comment here, whether you agreed with me or not! 

NOTE the 3rd: Here's my follow-up to this post, which came together after seeing many other authors react to this issue made me see the whole discussion in a new light.

114 comments:

Liz said...

Hi!

This is a superb blogpost, Zoe - thanks for that. It's made me think about my own main character and I know I am fond of making them too cool, too bad ass, so I'm concentrating really hard on how to make sure they are 3D characters. Heaven forbid I get published some day and someone turns around and calls my character a Mary Sue. I may die just a little.

Lauren said...

Totally with you on this one. I'd actually never heard the term Mary Sue until I started blogging, and reading a lot of YA book reviews. I got the impression that some (not all) reviewers had first heard of the term in relation to Bella Swan, and then... I don't know... felt *clever* when they applied it in their reviews of other books. I like that you've pointed out that it's really not that clever, unless you know what you're talking about and can completely back it up.

I'm kind of amazed anyone would consider Hermione a Mary Sue, actually. Pur-lease. There'd be more of a case for labelling Harry a Gary Stu, though I don't think he is.

Rosie Lane said...

I was stunned when I saw a review calling Mae from Demon's Lexicon a Mary Sue. I have read Mary Sues. You are absolutely correct that you know one when you see one, and she is not one of them.

In fact, I think I can count the number of Mary Sues that I have read in published fiction on one hand. Anita Blake is the main one that springs to mind.

I very much liked a recent post by Kate Griffin where she acknowledged that writing good female characters can be a tricky beast for her, and I love her strategy for dealing with it - in her Urban Magic books she made the narrator a man, but surrounded him with awesome women (like Penny Ngenwe. She just knocks my socks off).

Rosie Lane said...

Oops. Forgot the link to the post I was referring to:

http://www.kategriffin.net/2011/07/28/why-so-many-men/

Zoë Marriott said...

Liz: But there's nothing WRONG with badass, amazing, funny, smart characters! Of either sex! Make them as cool and amazing as you want, so long as they are actual PEOPLE, and have flaws and problems and an emotional journey to undergo. This is my problem - this incorrect assumption that any female character who is awesome is automatically TOO awesome. I had a review call Alex in TSK a Mary-Sue and I just *laughed* because it was so obviously wrong. Don't let them get to you, Liz!

Lauren: Exactly. If you have the faintest idea what a Mary-Sue is, you *can't* apply it to Hermione. But I've seen so many reviews that did! For some readers I think it makes them feel safe to call any female character they don't like a 'Mary-Sue', and then they can label that squirmy uncomfortable feeling in the pit of their stomach as scorn instead of what it actually is - envy for a character who gets to live in the world, get off with the boys, and have the adventures, that they wish were available in real life. They need to get over it, and over hating girl characters just because they're there.

Rosie: Yes! It's not that I'm arguing Sues don't exist, but true ones are fairly rare. If you think that things came too easily to the female MC, or that she was too pretty, or too smartmouthed, then talk about THAT instead of screaming Mary-Sue.

Writing really strong, flawed, REAL female characters is tricky not because real women aren't strong and flawed, but because (it seems to me) female MCs just can't *win*. If they're messed up and twisted then they're 'unlikeable'. If they're smart, confident and together then they're dubbed bossy and too perfect or Mary-Sue. If they're gentle and sweet they're called useless and passive. If they're ambitious or into boys they're called bitchy and slutty. You hardly ever see this kind of detailed scrutiny applied to male MCs.

Thanks for the link!

Emily said...

Excellent post! I've seen people just use the term "Mary-Sue" to mean all kinds of things too, it really bothers me.

Zoë Marriott said...

Emily: I'm hoping word will spread and that ppl will start to feel a bit silly for using a term that they don't actually understand.

Jenni @ Juniper's Jungle said...

Excellent post, I've recently become aware of reviewers using Mary-Sue which I've found surprising as previously I've only known it within various online fandoms where I've seen people criticising certain fanfic authors. I really hope that these reviewers read this post and take heed.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Thank you! A fanfic writing friend of mine introduced me to the term in its correct form, and I personally found it quite useful until all at once it turned into a catchall term for any female character who had annoyed the reader for some reason. Like I say in the post, it's annoying not just because people are using it incorrectly, but also because it's such an easy way to disguise these sneaky, nasty assumptions about what female MCs are allowed to be.

Diane said...

Hi Zoe, brilliantly-written post, and you're so right. I've been aware of reviewers in all genres talking about Mary Sues for a little while now, and what bothered me about it was it ofetn seemed to imply that female characters should be deeply flawed or they were otherwise unlikeable or unbelievable, as you say, "This incorrect assumption that any female character who is awesome is automatically TOO awesome."

Personally, I'd rather read about a character who is real but awesome than one who puts herself down all the time, as if that's how women *have* to be.

Zoë Marriott said...

Diane: Thank you! And yes, that's another aspect of it - it's as if these readers can only like a heroine if she hates herself. If she's got the slightest bit of pride or confidence in her own appearance or abilities, they HATE her. Can you imagine if we expected male characters to conform to that standard?

Liza said...

Awesome blog post, thank you!

I'm just guessing, but... is the great character you say was unfairly described as a Mary Sue Saba from Blood Red Road? If so... totally agree that she's a wonderful character, and I would be horrified if someone actually thought she was a Mary Sue!

Diane said...

You're so right, Zoe: it is often about internalised sexism, and the more that's questioned, the better.

Zoë Marriott said...

Liza: Actually no - it was Elisa from Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns. But isn't it sad that we can all think of a great heroine we loved that other ppl might condemn that way?

Sophie said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for explaining the origin of the term and it's correct usage. As a reviewer, I have never used the term. I think that an explanation of what you liked or didn't like about a character makes for a better review rather than using an over-used label. I'm sure in my reading, there were Mary Sue characters I readily forgave because the plot was interesting or there was a better written secondary character that held my attention. So in the end, does that label even matter except as an insult to the author? And a well written review should never dissolve into a personal attack on the author. Just my opinion. Thank you for bringing attention to this.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Zoe, this is a fabulous post - thank you! It's so frustrating when strong, complicated female characters are labeled with reductionist terms. More than once during blog discussions, I've seen readers/reviewers complain about a female character for x, y, or x, and then go on to note that they wouldn't react the same way if the character was male. And you're right - that does not mean the person is sexist, although it might come off that way. It just means that we all have deeply ingrained blind spots that are very difficult to overcome. Sometimes it helps to step back and try to look at what we're reading from a more objective standpoint. The points you raise in your blogpost provide a handy framework to do just that.

Zoë Marriott said...

Sophie: Ha ha - you're very welcome! I do think it's more helpful to pull apart the reasons why a certain character may have worked for you or not without resorting to labels. Between friends critting work there's room for this sort of shorthand ('This is a dancing leopard you've got here!') but maybe reviews aren't the best place for that.

Anonymous said...

I don't care how a character is as long as the character is interesting or at least makes the story interesting. She could be shy / bright / stupid / whatever .... I hated Bella Swan, but one thing I liked is that she FINALLY was a female character written by a female who was not a cold hearted bitch. She was SUPPOSED to be selfless, but she wasn't .. so the writing for her was terrible. She sucked. But it was just refreshing to have the change. I'm pretty tired of reading the same female character basically over and over and over because girls want to write strong women. Nothing wrong with that .. but there is a lot of it now and I'd rather read about interesting women rather than super strong women. I don't care if she can kick butt and hates dresses. I like strong women .. but I like funny women .. nice women .. shy women .. anything interesting that is not the same old same old

Zoë Marriott said...

Vanessa: Thank you :) I'm glad you caught my point there - that having blindspots and making assumptions doesn't make you A Horrible Sexist. It just makes you human! If we could all discuss it without getting angry and defensive, we might be able to get better.

Anon: I'm a bit concerned that you're having trouble finding female characters written by women who aren't 'cold-hearted bitches'. Off-hand, I can't really think of any YA books I've read that had cold hearted bitches as MCs, even if I didn't *like* the heroines. I wonder what criteria you're judging these heroines by and if you've got your own blind spot about this. But if you'd like some recommendations for books that I think have fantastic heroines, you can try my Books I Love page here: http://zoemarriott.com/pb/wp_5ea40273/wp_5ea40273.html

wandering-dreamer said...

I first heard of this term back on roleplaying forums and I heard that the make term was "Gary Stu" (yay alliteration!) which I've seen used around the internet as well, that might be a (tiny) reason why not as many guys are called Mary Sues.
In any case, after seeing all these wonderful characters be completely misunderstood and reduced to a two word phrase I wish the reviewers would instead say "I just didn't like this character because...." and give justification/invite debate on it.

Mollie said...

The day Westeros.org's forum ripped its pants with me was the day I saw Daenerys Targaryen referred to as a Mary Sue. It's a scary place for women in general, but that was the last straw.

BuffySquirrel said...

If you need any help holding back the hordes of outraged Twilight fans, give me a call. I have a sword.

(It actually finally occurred to me over a year after I read that daft book: eureka, Bella Sue!)

Isabel said...

Wonderful post! You couldn't have gotten your point across better. Hopefully this made some people stop to think while reading. ;)

Merrie Haskell said...

It's like you've been listening to my friends and I at bar night!

Possibly my friends and I need a better topic for bar night, but still!

Thanks for this.

Kelly B said...

I'm going to have to say I disagree with you. While your definition of Mary-Sue is, for the most part, correct, I don't believe that most reviewers are only using the term Mary Sue because they dislike the character. The characters in the books you listed that many people tag as Mary Sue are pretty high profile books, and whether or not a reader thinks of them as a Mary Sue is purely based on opinion. Personally, I don't think Hermione or Katsa are Mary Sues, but I think Clary and Mae are. You don't have to think so, but that's because it's your opinion.
There are plenty of intelligent reviewers out there who confidently use the term Mary-Sue and state why they think so. Maybe there are some reviewers who simply slap on the term, but I've yet to see one. You can think that someone is wrong for thinking so, but like you said there's not really a direct definition of Mary Sue, so who are you to judge?
I think people have there own ideas of what a Mary Sue is. In my mind, it's really not that complicated of a term.
I don't think people are prejudiced against female characters. I think reviewers have opinions. I could have a clean calm debate with someone who disagrees on what my idea of a Mary Sue is, or whether or not so-and-so character is a Mary Sue or not. It's a perfectly acceptable term in the reviewing world and I believe the reason you see the term so often is because there are SO MANY Mary Sues in YA literature! It's so easy to get a Mary Sue published because Mary Sues sell. Why? teens want to relate to the character, and teens relate to Mary Sues, because, like Bella, they can easily place themselves in her shoes.
You may disagree with me, but that's the great thing about reviews--they are based on the readers OPINION. Whether intelligent or not, it's there opinion, and I don't think anyone has the right to say, "You shouldn't use this term, because you're wrong."
But that's my opinion.

Kelly B said...

Oh, and to add to my comment, there is such thing as the term Gary Stue, which is the male version of a Mary sue and I see it used often. I don't think Marys and Garys can be used interchangeably because they're two totally different things. I suggest you watch these couple of videos, this girl is very intelligent and well worth your time.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1EVwxiCkdY
www.youtube.com/watch?v=794rcHuVMmc

Kelly B said...

OH sorry didn't see your teeny tiny note about Gary Stues!

John The Bookworm said...

I've actually used both to describe characters, but only because they do in fact feel perfect without real flaws.

I already knew about the origins and such, so I think I had a little bit more of a reason to use the terms (as in knowing what they actually meant.) Sometimes a character CAN be too bad-ass or something if they don't have any flaws or reason (off the top of my head - picking up sword-fighting or archery or something when they are mortal or have no innate ability for it.)

I think it's just a hard balance. I do agree, though, that people need to realize that a lot of times it's the GUY character (at least from what I've seen) that acts Mary Sue/Gary Stu-ish around his girl. That's just my opinion, though. I think there are a lot of great female main characters out there, and most of their love interests are worth the time. Occasionally it does feel like an author fantasy/cardboard character, but you can find those in a lot of books if you think about it.

Zoë Marriott said...

Wandering Dreamer: Yes, I know about Gary-Stu - there's a little note to that affect in tiny writing at the bottom of the post :)

Mollie: Astonishing! Is there ANY character that people won't label a Mary-Sue? It's like the only defense is a set of man-parts!

Buffy-Squirrel: Oh, I don't think they'll come after me! I'm not saying there's anything wrong with their favourite book, I'm just saying that Bella fits the profile of a certain kind of character. Twifans can't get upset over that can they? I hope...

Isabel: Thanks, Hun :) Nice to see you.

Marie: Taking on Literary Patriarchy is the BEST topic for a boozy night out with friends!

Kelly B: But there is a definition of the term Mary Sue, and I've just given you it. That's not opinion, it's fact. The term is being misused to describe characters who clearly do not meet that definition, and that's not opinion, it's fact. It's not a matter of opinion that Mae from The Demon's Lexicon is not and can never be a Mary Sue because she is NOT an author insert, not flawless, and she does underdo a significant emotional journey throughout the books. By slapping on that Mary-Sue label you're turning your comments on her character from 'I don't really like this character because...' into 'This character is bad' without any meaningful discussion as to why. That's what is so deeply objectionable about the way that many people use the term. They use it to dismiss a female character as simply bad, wrong, unrealistic, too perfect/not perfect enough without admitting that actually, their use of the term 'Mary-Sue' is deeply subjective and means nothing more than 'Girl I didn't like'.

Zoë Marriott said...

John: Oh, yes - I know they exist. I've read them. I've wanted to chuck that book against the wall because a character became the Most Powahful Wizzard Of All Time within five minutes and with no effort, or that geeky and insecure young person somehow got the most smoking hot boy/girlfriend in the world *just because*. But I think, as you said, that these characters are every bit as likely to be male as female. And yet no one seems to be leading a witchhunt against these male characters. No one is leading a witchhunt against male characters full stop.

You just don't see perfectly realistic, flawed, interesting male characters being dismissed out of hand as a Gary-Stu in the way you see it happening to female characters. This term of criticism is ENDEMIC. And it puts a complete stop to useful discussion as to why a particular character did or did not work. As you can see in the comment thread above, people will slap that label on a character who in NO WAY fits the definition, and then defend that label to the death rather than admit that they just didn't *like* the female character, and why.

Lori M. Lee said...

Love this post. Thank you so much for laying this out so clearly and eloquently :D

Gabbi said...

Zoe, this is seriously such a great post. For a while I've been wondering just EXACTLY what a Mary-Sue is, though I had an idea. I have seen Clary from the MI series labeled as a Mary-Sue, which really drove me crazy because the only reason people say that is because she has red hair and green eyes.

I don't judge characters on whther they're a Mary-Sue or not. In fact, I don't think I have ever used that term in any of my reviews. When I am dissecting a charater, I pick out the specific things that I do and do not like about a character and I go into detail about why I do or do not like that aspect of a character. I think that it's okay to think maybe the character is a cliche, but cliche and Mary-Sue are obviously NOT the same thing.

I mean, I'll admit, there are several female protagonists that I just don't like. Some have reasons, many don't. But I don't sit there and refer to them as Mary-Sues. I'll openly admit that there is absolutely no reason that I don't like certain characters. It's human nature. But I do think that the reason I don't like Bella is because of her Mary-Sueness. She just seems like a flat character, really. Her goals and priorities never really change. The only time she had to go to extreme lengths to get back something she lost was going to Italy to save Edward, which, really, OH NO! She had to drive there in a nice car and run through a crowd! And then after that their relationship was all hunky-dory.

Anyways....thanks for this post! Great as usual!

Zoë Marriott said...

Lori: Thanks!

Gabbi: I'm glad it helped, Gabbi. You're right that it's much more useful to anyone reading a review to actually know why you liked or disliked a character, rather than just seeing this label which seems to mean something different to everyone. That red hair and green eyes thing is SO annoying to me. Millions of real girls have green eyes and red hair - what is this crazy idea that fictional characters aren't allowed to? Argh!

Amalia T. said...

All I could think of after reading the creation story of the term Mary-Sue was "why the heck was it not called The Wesley Crusher, instead?" Because, Seriously. If ever there was a character who totally fits the description, it is HE!

Zoë Marriott said...

Amalia: LOL! You're right - but Mary-Sue was from Original StarTrek, so it pre-dates Next Generation. Plus, I think there's another term for the Wesley Crusher and Dawn Summers characters which are inserted into the canon of a show by the writers. Can't remember right now what it is...

Waspy said...

Regarding your comments directed at Kelly B, it's the opinion of the reader whether or not X character fits the definition of a Mary Sue. The moment an author allows their characters into the public domain it is no longer in their control as to how they will be interpreted. That is one of the wonderful thigs about being a reader, you are able to make your own judgemnet calls as to the perceptions you make about character, and other elements of the fiction.

By not allowing this basic right to readers you remove all the fun in reading any form of book. Opinion is opinion, you can't argue with that. You can hold different opinions, but you shouldn't tear down those of others just because they grate against your own sensibilites.

Zoë Marriott said...

Waspy: I'm not arguing that readers don't have the right to react to characters in any way they chose. In fact, my post explicitly states that I'm glad we all have individual opinions and that one person's hero is another person's zero.

This post comes from me as a reader. A reader who wants helpful reviews to aid her in chosing books, a reader who loves to debate and discuss good and bad books. A reader who is sick and tired of seeing people misuse the term Mary-Sue either through ignorance or laziness. Because that's what it comes down to, Waspy. Misuse. While readers have the right to say anything they want about a character, they don't have the right to take a term which *has* a defintion (a useful one) and try to twist it into something else for their own convenience.

How would people react if I were to decide that I would use the term 'plot-twist' to mean 'rubbish'? 'God, I'm so sick of all these plot-twists! Why are all the books I read these days so full of plot-twists? Plot-twists drive me up the wall!' It would be annoying and nonsensical, and that's just what the misuse of the term Mary-Sue is.

That's not a matter of opinion. I'm rather annoyed that people are trying to make it about that. The term Mary-Sue already means something - and it's not 'character I don't like for some reason'. The definition is there in the post. If the character you want to talk about doesn't fit that? Don't use the term. Because you will be WRONG, and that is not a matter of opinion. It's fact. If you want a handy term that means 'Female character who is too perfect/not perfect enough/too badass/too passive' then make one up and use that. Call her a Swizzle-stick or maybe use that well known term TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).

Don't use Mary-Sue unless the character actually IS one.

Anonymous said...

I want to show you how wrong YOU are being. Whether a character is or isn't a Mary Sue is completely opinion, and I'll show you why.

So, here are you rules, just as a recap:

1) A character who is based, at least partly, on the author
2) A character whom has no significant flaws (except possibly ones the other characters find cute)
3) A character to whom everyone within the story reacts as if they were beautiful and wonderful except characters who are clearly evil and/or motivated by jealousy
4) A character with whom, during the course of the story, every available character of the opposite (and occasionally the same) sex will fall in love given any contact whatsoever
5) A character who undergoes no significant growth, change or development throughout the story


I'll use Katsa from Graceling as an example, because I personally feel as if she's a Mary Sue.
1) I don't if Krisitn Cashore is anything like Katsa, as I don't personally know her, so this is a no.
2) I don't remember Katsa ever having any flaws. She is strong--perhaps too strong because she doesn't actually have to try hard at all to accomplish anything--she is smart and makes sure everyone knows it. Score 1 for Mary Sue-ness.
3) Katsa certainly gets everyone's attentions, especially Prince Po. Everyone remarks about how strong she is, and they're all in awe about it. Another point for Mary Sue.
4) I don't really remember if every available character thinks she's God's gift, but the fact that Po manages to fall in love with her despite how abusive she is toward him should give this a point. But because I'm nice, I won't.
5) As far as I can tell, Katsa doesn't go through any growth. In the beginning, she is a horrible character, who acts so horribly to everyone, and towards the end, she's still an angry, ridiculously mean person. She abuses Po and just about everyone she comes in contact with, and the way she treats her horses is deplorable.
I can hear you already, You're just saying that because she's a girl!. Why, no, I'm not. If everyone's genders were swapped, I'd still hate her, because Katsa is just not a nice person in general. In fact, I'd probably hate her more if she were a guy, because, come on, a super strong guy with NO weaknesses? How cliche. The fact that male-Katsa would have gotten away with being abusive to girl-Po (while still horrible when their their normal genders) would just make me even more mad, because Po just laps it up (and let me just say, I think Po is sort of Gary-Stu-ish, especially in how he reacts to Katsa, but that's a story for another time).

So, Mary Sue-ness wins, 3 to 2.
Now, you can argue about how Katsa isn't a Mary Sue until you're blue in the face, and I don't really want to hear it. I really just wanted to show you how reasons for Mary-Sue-ness are completely based on opinions, and I find it deplorable that you, a writer and a reader, are telling Waspy Kelly B that they're wrong for saying that Mary Sues are based on opinion.

Anonymous said...

[part 2]
It saddens me that you're so closed-minded that you can't accept someone's opinions if they differ from yours. I used to be a huge fan of yours, but the way you're acting so petulant is making me lose all my respect for you.

"Don't use Mary-Sue unless the character actually is one." I already know that you think Katsa isn't a Mary Sue, but I completely think she is one. You can't say that it should be glaringly obvious if a character is a Sue if it isn't. One person's Sue is another's heroine.

I know I've written enough, but I'll add one last thing. Mary Sues aren't Mary Sues because they're too female. That's the most laughable thing I've ever heard. That's like saying sinks are sinks because they're potatoes.
If a female character is annoying and just a horrible person in general and whatnot, I'll hate them regardless of what gender they are.
I find it disgusting that you're making such a rant under the guise of feminism. It's faux-feminists like you that give the rest of us a bad name.

Zoë Marriott said...

Anonymous: I normally make a point of not responding to people who refuse to post under their own names, but I'll make an exception in this case because, boy, you seem to be ANGRY. Disproportionately angry. Defensively angry. So angry that I wonder why. If everything is a matter of opinion, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, why are you so angry about mine? Could it be that you've got a squirmy uncomfortable feeling about this debate in the pit of your stomach, and ranting on this blog was your way of trying to work out that feeling?

That feeling is called doubt. You ought to pay attention to it.

Listen: you have the right to hate any character you like. You have the right to rant about them, write whole reviews on how much they suck, and defend that view to the death. If you hate the character of Katsa, I'm 100% fine with that! But you've just proved that you can't call her a Mary-Sue because you have NO IDEA if she's an author-insert. And that's what a Mary-Sue primarily is. Don't make claims about that relationship between the author and the character that you can't substantiate. That's all anyone is asking.

Now, if the fact that I'm willing to come out and stand up for my opinion in this case causes you to no longer be a fan of my work? That's a shame. But I'm going to say that makes you the small-minded one, because the mere suggestion that your use of the term Mary-Sue is incorrect seems to have driven you into this defensive rage where you're incapable of reading what I actually wrote, and instead are just inventing arguments that I never signed my name to. Seeing this behaviour, I'm surprised you were ever a fan of my writing at all.

Finally, the definition of a Feminist: "A person advocating for equal social, political and economic rights for women and men." I fit that definition no matter which way you slice it. And just like in the case of Mary-Sue, you can't re-write that definition to suit your convenience. It stands on its own. Sorry.

Jill Sorenson said...

I haven't seen reviewers misusing the term and I agree with the commenter who said that Mary Sues are open to interpretation. If the character fits some or most of the Mary Sue criteria, in the reader's opinion, her or she is welcome to call her that.

This is a good rant though. I enjoyed reading.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jill: Well, just because you haven't seen a phenomena happening personally, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist :) The term is *widely* applied within YA reviewing circles, often to characters who don't meet any of the criteria at all. And I think that if you're going to use a word, you ought to know what it means. But I appreciate the civil disagreement - thank you.

pedro.c said...

Very interesting blog post. I normally just turn off a reviewer when they feel the need to resort to Mary Sue, because of how vauge and inconsistently it is applied. This article gave some new thoughts about characters Mary Sue could or perhaps could not apply towards.

One thing though, could Mary Sue be applied to characters that may not resemble the author in actuality, but some sort of wish fufillment version of themselves? Let's take, say, Mae. Having learned quite a bit about the author and her sense of humor, it's sort of amusing that anyone would consider Mae to be a Mary Sue, but let's see this one part of it. Ms. Rees Breenan is a large woman, both tall and big boned. She isn't fat by any stretch, but no one is ever going to confuse her for a pixie. Mae and her brother, however, are short in general and in relation to the other main characters. Could this, instead of being an example of authorial insert, be one of authorial wish-fufilment?

Zoë Marriott said...

Pedro.C: Thanks! I'm glad it was interesting.

As to the wish-fulfillment idea...I appreciate your point and the thoughtful way that you present it, but I don't think it's actually useful to anyone to judge characters based on their likeness to the author or lack thereof (that's part of the problem with slapping the term Mary-Sue on characters you dislike in the first place). I mean, in that case, how can any writer win? If she creates a character who resembles her at all, the character is condemned as an author insert Mary-Sue - even if the character is well-written, believable, flawed and evolving (for example, JK Rowling and Hermione Grainger). But then if the character *doesn't* resemble the author at all (as with Mae and Sarah Rees Brennan) that's also counted as wish-fulfillment, and the character becomes a Mary-Sue because she's not ENOUGH like the writer?

The simple fact is that all characters are related to their authors in some way. We create them and for the time that we're writing the story we live their adventures through them. That's the fun of writing! If authors mainly concentrate on eradicating any trace of themselves (positively or negatively) from characters instead of just writing GOOD characters (by which I mean well-written, believable, flawed and evolving ones) then books are likely to get very boring very fast.

Kelly B said...

I'd just like to mention that I found your definition of Mary Sue on Wikipedia, on the top of which it states the article may contain original research or unverifiable claims. Whether or not the author of the article's definition is "true" it proves that there's not one strict definition from a verifiable source. I believe the reason you think so many reviewers are simply "slapping on" the term because there's not a strict definition, and you happen to disagree with them whether or not so-and-so is a Mary Sue.
I don't think you can assume that someone doesn't know what a Mary Sue is because you don't agree with them, or it doesn't apply to "your" definition. It just reiterates that there's not one definition, also the fact that a few other commenters disagree with you as well.
As for the wish fulfillment fantasy of the author, I do believe authors will create a character the mirrored image of themselves--if the author is skinny, their character will probably be curvy, if she has dark hair the character may have light hair, and vise versa. This is not to say that the author should follow some sort of guideline to assure the character is not this way, but when an author does this the character can sort of evolve into a Mary Sue.

Kelly B said...

And I'm going to restate that I have never seen a reviewer just say "Mary Sue" and be done with it. If they have, it's probably because the reviewer has a readership, and the readers probably already know the reviewer's idea of a Mary Sue. I agree that anyone who just uses that term and doesn't explain is probably not a great reviewer, but that doesn't prove that they don't know a "definition" which, again, would be based on his/her opinion.

Zoë Marriott said...

Kelly B: What you say about Wiki is of course true - and that would be a telling point, if I was actually relying on Wiki for my information. But the reason that I know the definition of the word Mary-Sue is not because I looked it up on Wiki. I know it because it is a widely used term within fanfiction. The definition can be found in many, many places that talk about fanfic, or you can talk to anyone who's active in writing fanfic yourself, and they'll tell you what it means. Many fanfic writers responded to this post with complete bewilderment, finding it really bizarre that a piece of critting shorthand from their community had been hijacked this way.

I respect the point you're trying to make here, which is that you've got your own definition of the word Mary-Sue and you stick to it. But really, that just proves my point, which is that if everyone is using this term to mean something different, then it ends up meaning nothing at all - beyond 'female character I didn't like'. And because so many of us have seen this term applied indiscriminately for so long, now the minute we see it in a review we lose all respect for whatever point the reviewer was trying to make.

Just to reiterate: I'm not saying this as a writer, Kelly. For some reason I haven't really seen people call my characters that - although I'm sure there are loads of reviews I haven't seen. The use of the term Mary-Sue is a problem for me as a *reader* and you can see from the responses here in the comment trail that a lot of other readers, bloggers and reviewers feel the same way. I literally can't think of a single female character that I love and admire who has not been called a Mary-Sue at some point. And that's not only silly, it's rather sad that we've all been demanding strong female characters (by which I mean, well-written, realistic, flawed, evolving female characters) for years, and yet now that they're appearing, so many people are out there tearing them down.

Now, taking my reader hat off and talking to you as a writer for a moment - ALL characters have something of their creator in them. ALL OF THEM. The ones you love, the ones you hate, the ones you feel 'meh' about - there are no exceptions. There can't be, because all characters are the product of a writer's heart and mind and soul. But now I see people talking about this as if it were a bad thing. As if anything one of my characters has in common with me makes her a Mary-Sue, and anything about her that's different from me makes her a wish-fulfillment character. How on earth can I - or any writer - win, in that case?

Tere Kirkland said...

Not much I can add to this amazing discussion, but I just wanted to say how right I think you are about how hard it is for female writers to avoid this stigma.

All my characters are a part of me, but I would hate for a reviewer to call them "wish-fulfillment" characters. Just because a reviewer doesn't connect with the MC, they shouldn't automatically assume it's because the character was modeled on the author.

I have brown hair and blue eyes, and the mc of the novel I'm currently revising to go back on sub also has brown hair and blue eyes (the first and only character I've ever written with those physical characteristics), but it's not because she's based on me. That's just the way I saw her in my mind. Other than those relatively unimportant physical characteristics, she and I are very different.

She likes to run. I only run when I'm being chased. And I'd prefer to NOT be thrust backward in time by a witch's spell. No wish-fulfillment here. ;)

Anyway, thanks for this post. I hope it helps to educate some folk who might have been misusing the term.

Zoë Marriott said...

Tere: You're very welcome - and you make a very good point. If anyone called any of my characters 'wish-fulfillment' I would laugh in their FACE. I wouldn't ever want to go through what I put my characters through! That would be masochism, not wish-fulfillment.

Haddayr said...

Excellent post, although some of the more tone-deaf or defensive comments are making me grind my teeth.

In reading this, I began to wonder why THIS particular helpful description lurched slowly into "I just didn't like this female character and I'd rather not be reflective about why."

My theory at least _starts_ with the fact that for so long female writers have been accused of writing from our subjective personal experiences as opposed to male writers, who write Dispassionate Universal Truths.

My theory probably ends with: ". . . and lots of people are just plain lazy, the end."

Jayme V. said...

Brilliant post!

You are right that people use the term Mary Sue for any female character that they don't like/are envious of and it is completely unfair that male MCs don't have to deal with nearly the scrutiny that female MCs do.

Zoë Marriott said...

Haddyr: Oh, you are SO right there! It's automatically assumed that us women writers are only capable of writing about topics 'relevant' (ha!) to females (like ironing, right?). Gradually this seems to be narrowing down to the idea that we're only capable of writing characters who are a version of ourselves - either author inserts or some bizarro universe wish-fulfillment opposite version of ourselves. I can't even... Eugh.

Jayme: Yes, the envy issue is one that I've not really wanted to bring up - but it does seem that when a female character gets the boy character the reader wants? All Hell is unleashed upon her.

swan-tower said...

Very well-said. My own take (formed around sf/fantasy in general, not as much focused on YA) has generally boiled down to: "What’s the baseline problem with an archetypical Mary Sue? She’s unrealistic. So when I see the word being flung at female characters I think are kind of cool, what it says to me is, cool women aren’t believable." (Yeah, I have my own rant on the topic.)

I'll be the first to agree that the definitions of certain terms can change, but I will fight to the death against letting this one be used to tar any female character the reader doesn't like. At that point the term is uselessly vague, and also suggests the writer should be ashamed of having written such a cliche -- even when the problem in question isn't that the character is a cliche. Let's keep the phrase specific and useful, and talk about what we actually don't like.

Zoë Marriott said...

Swantower: *Clutches comment to breast* Yes! YES! This is what I was trying to say all the way through but couldn't quite find the words for! Thank you!

Zoë Marriott said...

Swantower: P.S. Thanks for the link, too! That is a rant made of pure awesome.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

I am so happy to have come across this blog (by way of Sarah Rees Brennan's blog by way of a friend's twitter post....).

I had no idea "Mary Sue" was even a term. And whoa does it seem to have brought up some emotion. But, I do/have proofread/copy edited and read many reviews and - in my opinion - I have to agree with you. Using a term like that is short hand and sloppy on the reviewers part.

A critic and/or reviewer (and reviewers who think they're critics but don't really understand that that doesn't mean criticizing the hell out of something) have a responsibility to the reader whereby they accurately portray how they feel about a piece of work and why. And when they do that, they need to be aware that their audience is not just other critics/reviewers. Many people reading their article are just wondering whether or not they should spend time and money on that book/music/artwork, etc. And those people don't know or care what the terms mean, they just want to know was the story good, were the characters compelling. Then, based on their opinion of the reviewer (I know some people who buy a work when the reviewer hates it, because they know their taste is opposite the reviewers), they decide on getting that piece of work.

Using a term (such as Mary Sue or even Gary Stu) that is overburdened with so much definition is doing more harm than good for the review. As you said, the better course for the reviewer is to simply outline, specifically, why they don't like the character and/or story. I also think it would behoove some of those reviewers to remember that their English teacher would have scrawled "vague" over any paper they turned in that summarized and critiqued a piece using such terms.

Anonymous said...

Whilst I'll agree with the notion that strong, empowered female characters can be relabeled 'Mary Sue' for the wrong reasons, I think that whilst your chosen definition of the term covers Mary Sues, it does not cover all of them. I come from a fanfiction background and learned the terminology there -- was in fact, part of a group of writers that had a thing going called the Protectors of the Plot Continuum -- but I think your strict delineations are too strict.

For me, Mary Sue is a quick way of saying a weak (written) character with poor development and badly thought-through traits, lacking realism. As a summary, that applies to Bella Swann -- who lacks the flaws that would make her a realistic character, who goes undeveloped -- but it would equally apply in the reader-opinion, perhaps, to something like Katsa or Clary or Mae. And I think this is the point commenters before me have tried to make:

Yes, within your definition of Mary Sue as a self-insert, one that is wish-fulfillment alongside a poorly portrayed representation of an individual, female or otherwise, a Mary Sue is 'fact', an either-or. But your definition is not the only one there for a 'Mary Sue', nor does it reach across what is commonly agreed within reviewers' circles. I will agree: I would like to see an end to the throwaway use of such a term as substitution for an explanation as to why a character is perceived as weak, lacking in realism, why perhaps she demands suspension of disbelief within her own world setting, but I don't think the argument you've laid down for why this term should be abandoned marries up with defending the 'Sue-ing' of some characters from others.

Anonymous said...

I get the distinct impression from the argumentative comments here that what a lot of people mean when they say "Mary Sue" is that they found a character that the author clearly wanted them to like but which they find unlikeable. They can't understand why the author would expect them to find this character likable (since they don't), so they make the logical leap to assuming that the author is unlikable but wants a venue in which to try to convince her readers that she is awesome, by writing a character like herself and having everyone love them. Alternate explanations like "the author finds different things likable than you do" or "the author thought the character was interesting even if unlikable" aren't considered.

(Corollary: the accusation of "Mary Sue" is uniquely an attack on the author in a way that many reviews are not. After all, the only reason "too awesome" should connect to "Mary Sue" is if we assume that the author is delusional and self-aggrandizing; that they believe, incorrectly, that they are super-awesome and want to get us to agree. The Mary Sue review isn't just saying the character sucks; it's saying the author is an uppity bitch with delusions of grandeur.)

Mercy said...

First of all: thank you so much for posting this! I got here by way of Sarah Rees Brennan's blog by way of Twitter. This really intrigued me, because I've heard the term Mary-Sue a few times before among my writer friends, but mostly to mean "My character is too boring and/or perfect. What should I do?"
I don't know if you've heard of the quilt pattern Sunbonnet Sue (or if the two are at all related) but I find Sunbonnet Sue to be remarkably similar to Mary-Sue. (Well, except when they're purposely changing the pattern, such as Sinbonnet Sue, who can be a zombie, or a vampire, or a ninja, or any number of "edgy" things sort of to mock the traditional pattern.) But anyway, Sunbonnet Sue is always depicted working, or playing well with other children, or something similar. I think that's just like Mary-Sue's "no flaws" problem: the author depicts a Mary-Sue (in my opinion) as she or he wishes that everyone were. But people aren't like that. They're not going to be perfect all the time, and people need to realize that.
I know that was kind of a reiteration of the whole thing, but oh well. I liked this post.

lilian-cho said...

A++ to anon at 4 August 2011 15:39

I don't think Hermione is a Mary Sue. I think Hermione Granger has cruel tendencies at times, and that she's JKR's mouthpiece for extra-long explanations, sort of like Yoda in Star Wars.

Harry Potter in Book Six is arguably a Gary Stu.

Mae...I like her, so I can't be objective. My reflexive response is: "No."

I don't find Ariadne in Inception annoying, but I do think she's Mary Sue-ish, because she's the catalyst for sooo many things in the movie. And Cobbs opened up to her too easily, IMO. I suppose her only "flaw" would be she's too curious for her own good, but in the movie her flaw is actually a good thing. I think if Cobb had ended up having a romantic moment with her, the balance would've tipped over to Mary Sue for me, but since he didn't...

When I feel an author's "presence" strongly in one particular character, I get annoyed. Because I don't want to feel an author's presence in a non-meta/non-postmodernist fic. It doesn't necessarily translate to the character being a Mary Sue (sometimes, they become mascot-like or Yoda-like or Deus-ex-Machina-ish instead), but it's still annoying.

(I can't really think of _book_ Mary Sues off the top of my head, since usually I never finish books with what I perceive as Mary Sues as MCs. Kinda unfair to cite examples from books I never finish =P)

Molly said...

As a reader, I frequently have to catch my own tendency to label female characters who do awesome things as unrealistic. I've rarely if ever read a male character and thought "well that just doesn't seem likely!" on the basis that he was too awesome, and yet I have that snap feeling all the time about female characters.

I absolutely think it comes from the media messages we're surrounded by, and that we have to be on our guard to prevent slipping into those screwed-up norms--that women can't be awesome or have fabulous skills, that we can't be the stars of the story.

"Mary Sue" is only one of the ways we buy into this (when it's used too broadly), but it's definitely a harmful one.

Anonymous said...

Sorry but Clary is a sue based on your criteria. Absolutely a Cassie Clare self-insert. And I say that as someone who likes the character. I don't think you have to hate every Mary Sue in a story.

Marumae said...

Interesting topic! I came here via a link in Martha Wells' blog. While agree wholeheartedly that Mary Sue is a term that is too often haphazardly applied to any character the reviewer doesn't like (though I don't think it's limited strictly to female characters, is it definitely biased towards female characters, that I agree on). I'm going to politely disagree somewhat with your strict definition of Mary Sue, and I think that a character can fit most of the terms on your list without having to meet all to be labeled still be a Mary Sue, to me it's like saying just because this rooster doesn't crow every morning like Roosters usually do there for it's not a Rooster. See what I mean? To me the very heart of a Mary Sue (but this isn't to say they don't have to meet other criteria to earn the label but this is a foundation stone) is a character who warps canon and plot and characterization are sacrificed to hackneyed and ridiculous proportions all to put said character on a pedestal, this can mean in character within the course of a story (IE, Hero is beloved/worshiped by all) or within the readers viewpoint (you can have a character who acts as a martyred example, constantly bullied, treated badly, abused, etc... put down and sacrificed by characters within the story even though said character is portrayed in a better, more perfect light to the readers eyes).

My main quibble is with the self insert definition, a character doesn't have to be entirely or even partially be based on the author either in looks, personality, personal preferences or gender/sex to still meet that "wish fulfillment/self insert" criteria. One can write a character who fulfills and meets all the definitions of being too perfect or with too many positive aspects and who warps the canon and universe around themselves to the point of ridiculous hackneyed proportions and meet some kind of wish fulfillment aspect in regards towards the Mary Sue definition, without having to be just like or even partially like the author. The idea is that the character is who the author, in part (wants) to be and you can usually tell that by what the author says about the character, how the author looks or how it is conveyed, or related it to their personal beliefs.


To me the very heart and basis of a Mary Sue is as you said: overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional."

I was a part of the original livejournal movement that created the Mary Sues community and later left the community when it became a sacrificial altar to any character that had the least bit of specialness or quite simply the reader didn't like. The craze got insane for a while but it eventually calmed down and now is no where near the proportions it was.

To me the term Mary Sue is applied to a lot of characters in the YA market because, quite simply-because of the Twilight craze, there are a LOT of Mary Sues in the genre right now. Characters who little to no realistic flaws, who twist canon (more then just simply being the focus of the story, let me make that clear to begin with), characters, plot simply as a way to as I stated earlier "put a character on a pedestal" and meet that wish fullfillment aspect that a Mary Sue has.

(continued onto next comment)

Marumae said...

(continued from previous comment)

One prime example to me, of a Mary Sue is Elizabeth Haydon's "Rhapsody" in her "Symphony of Ages" saga, when the character (spoilers) gets magically remade into a perfect being (oh I'm not exaggerating, she's called in canon, BY THE AUTHOR "perfect", using that exact word) and then has five. STRAIGHT. PAGES. describing her "perfection" that's when I gave up the series as Mary Sue fodder, which is sad considering the world she'd created was wonderful, as were the secondary characters and the plot she had.

I see the term Gary Stu used more then I believe you're giving it credit for, especially in the adult fantasy market.

sagaluthien said...

I so agree with you. You have done a great blogg entry about it.

One of my first meeting of the term was in the LOTR fandom and the author had put a female to be a ten person of the fellowship. She of course had to come with them as it was she that would make that the quest in the end succsseeded.

So if there is a team from a book or film (tv-series) and the author put another member to it for solve the quest has been for me a so called Mary-Sue. If what others tagged a story (mostly fanfic) to be Mary-Sue in another way I not always thought so.

I was brought to your entry through a friend at livejournal.

/Sagaluthien

Pamela said...

To me, the real objection to calling characters 'Mary Sue' is not 'you're using it wrong,' but you're being boring. I would much rather read a review that details why a character doesn't work for you rather than a slapped-on label.

(I do by the way, agree with the original definition of MS-ness)

AnneMarie said...

Oh gosh, this post is wonderful - and makes me feel more than a bit guilty, as I've definitely used the term incorrectly in the past.

But I did want to say something I like to do with my characters, to try and get out of gender biases when I write - I genderswap the entire thing. I try to think about how I'd feel about a character if they had different body parts - would they be generally unchanged, would there be some parts of them that wouldn't hold up, or some things that would be more difficult. I don't like it when genderswapping a book changes the entire dynamic - let's take Katsa and Po, versus, say, Alanna and Jonathan from Tamora Pierce which you also cited as an example.

Someone above mentioned that if Katsa were a boy and Po were a girl, their dynamic would take on a slightly skeevy edge to it - which made my eyebrows go up, because it's very true. I really liked Katsa and Po, but when I think about what genderswapping would do to them, that doesn't seem fair. And now I can see where that power dynamic has a skew to 'she's a girl and he's a boy so it's okay'. It shouldn't be.

And then Alanna and Jon. Genderswapping the Alanna story has this whole difficult aspect of, well, changing the entire story, but while the plotlines would have to chance, Alanna and Jon's interaction would be completely the same. Alanna would still be just as tetchy and lovable as a guy, and girl-Jon would still have that bit of high-handedness and privilege, but her good heart. Their interaction would be unchanged, which speaks very well for their strength as characters.

I've seen Alanna described as a Sue before, and I kind of chortled a little, because, well, on one hand yes - but I think Alanna has both too many gifts, and too many flaws. And she is an exceptional person, in the context of her world. She is a larger than life person. That is what she's meant to be. And I think that her personality is, as said before - tetchy and lovable. And it's not all the characters around her that love her, it's the /reader/. That's where the love should come from. We should be able to fall in love with characters, and /then/ see the other characters that we love seeing in them what we've already seen. If that makes any sense.

Okay this is heinously long and I found this via Sarah Rees Brennan as many others did, but I had to say something. This is a wonderful wonderful blog post, it's fantastic.

Eric said...

I wasn't aware of the abuse of the term "Mary Sue", probably because I'm not paying enough attention to non-professional reviews, but I'm also not surprised--thank you for bringing it to my attention.

One of the things I find boggling about the abuse you describe is that the reviewers in question don't seem to understand that "Mary Sue", ironically enough, is actually gender-neutral: you can have a male Mary Sue in a badly-written story just as easily as a female one. E.g. Equality 7-2521 in Ayn Rand's abysmal novella "Anthem" is a physically fit supergenius who can do anything the plot requires him to when he isn't being suppressed by the evil collectivists, and is pretty obviously some kind of wish-fulfillment figure for the author notwithstanding the gender difference (whether Rand wishes she was a man like Equality or was with with a man like Equality really doesn't matter all that much, though one suspects she at least sees herself as sharing the character's mental and moral values). Describing him as a "Mary Sue" is accurate and much less cutesy than calling him a "Gary Stu" or somesuch, and if one knows how the term is properly used, conveys everything you need to know about him (and much of what's wrong with book as a whole) in two words.

Thank you for the post!

Sesana said...

You are very adamant that a character MUST resemble the author closely to be a Mary Sue. That's actually a very unique interpretation that I don't think I've ever heard before. More often, a Mary Sue is the author as she wishes she could be.

Let's take Bella as an example. You've acknowledged her as a Mary Sue, so I trust she's a safe example. Now, take a moment and picture her as a blonde. By your definition, she's no longer a Mary Sue, because her creator has dark hair. It doesn't matter that she hits every other characteristic on your checklist, because Meyer is a brunette. That may make sense to you, but it doesn't to me.

The list that your used for the definition of Mary Sue actually says that the character must be PARTLY based on the author to be a Mary Sue. That part may or may not be physical, and it doesn't need to be an exact match.

marycatelli said...

Ah, semantic drift.

Mary Sue is the victim of a process that has befallen many, many, many useful terms over the ages, because one thing everyone can agree with is that a Mary Sue is a bad thing. Therefore it is used as an insult without concern for its precise meaning, which leads in due course to it having the edge taken off its meaning until it's nothing but a dull lump.

Villain, for instance, though that one is more fortunate than most, because a separation in spelling allows me to point out that it once meant "villein" -- a surly, close-fisted churl lacking in refinement, or (as soon as it acquired a moral edge) one who wasn't actually a churl for his gentle blood but sure acted like it.

Or "gentleman" -- because the process is identical when the term is a good thing and used as a compliment. Once it conveyed a social status. Now it just means "good man" or "man" -- both of which can be conveyed by other means.

I stole the observations from C. S. Lewis's Studies in Words, where he observes "We cannot stop the verbicides. The most we can do is not imitate them." (Great book. I recommend to all writers, including aspiring ones.)

Misty said...

Ugh. The term Mary Sue has always irritated me. (Except when it comes to the website The Mary Sue. Because they are awesome.)
Every time I see it used, it always seems to be used in bitterness. Just angry, angry people who want to pick at a character to either show they are better and more enlightened (though how you do that by being hyper-critical...) OR because something about that character hit on insecurities of their own.

And it implies that the character is not likable, and sometimes with such vehemence that you think the character should be punished for being perfect, when really, there are plenty of 1-dimensional likable characters.

But I think what irritates me the most is that there is no male equivalent. No one tosses around a name for perfect male specimens, or seems to mind when they pop up (<--- that just sounded dirty.)

karaethon said...

I think I am going to throw up. This is disgusting, absolutely vile and disgusting. Not your post, which I agree with, but some of the commenters. In particular, one of your anonymous commenters just made me almost black out from anger. The one posting "proof" that Katsa is a Mary Sue. As a caveat, everyone, I'm probably the only YA reader who hasn't gotten around to Hunger Games yet, so I have absolutely ZERO opinion on Katsa's Mary Sue-ness or lack thereof. But this so-called "proof" has told me that she probably is NOT. Because, and I quote:

"2) A character whom has no significant flaws (except possibly ones the other characters find cute)

2) I don't remember Katsa ever having any flaws. She is strong--perhaps too strong because she doesn't actually have to try hard at all to accomplish anything--she is smart and makes sure everyone knows it. Score 1 for Mary Sue-ness.

5) A character who undergoes no significant growth, change or development throughout the story

As far as I can tell, Katsa doesn't go through any growth. In the beginning, she is a horrible character, who acts so horribly to everyone, and towards the end, she's still an angry, ridiculously mean person."

Self-contradiction within a single paragraph! Really? So what this commenter is saying is "being angry and ridiculously mean isn't a flaw because I say it's not." Which falls extremely nicely into your "6) A female character who has the wrong flaws" in your original post, listing excuses people give for dismissing girls in fiction.

I am appalled and dismayed. For the record, there is nothing wrong with getting a Mary-Sue vibe from a character. There's not. Specifically, I got one from Clary in MI and I got a Gary-Stu vibe from Harry Potter. Both dissipated AS THE CHARACTERS GREW. Don't assume someone is a Mary-Sue and then stubbornly hold on to that assumption just because you didn't like that character. Examine what you don't like, and yeah, run it through this proving checklist. Sure. Any contradictions to yourself and that character is JUST SOMEONE YOU DON'T LIKE.

Sarah said...

Haha! Calm down karatheon, I know somebody is WRONG on the internet!, but you're over reacting like a nutter. "About to throw up" indeed.

stephaniecain said...

*splutter* Alanna? Alanna? Someone called Alanna a Mary Sue? Oh, that's harsh. Alanna was the first true kick-ass heroine I ever encountered, way back when I was ten and The First Adventure was first published. I confess, the books aren't as sophisticated on the thousandth rereading (okay, I'm exaggerating, the hundredth, maybe) as they were when I was ten, but it was Alanna, and for the first time it was a heroic woman who ended up happy, instead of being Queen Lucy the Gentle (boring!) or Queen Susan the Valiant-But-Unfortunately-Fallen-Away-From-Salvation.

And on a side note, your essay makes me want to read the book you mention where the heroine goes through a gut-wrenching journey and builds a new life for herself, and also makes me want to read your books. So I'll be looking for you next time I'm at Barnes & Noble. :)

dragoness-e said...

I don't use the term "Mary Sue" when reviewing fanfic because it's too vague to be helpful, and it just makes the young authors defensive. It's far more helpful to point out the specific problems with a character and the plot: e.g., "X. walks through every obstacle in the story with no more effort than waving her hand. As a result, there is no meaningful conflict, and no suspense, and the story is boring. You might want to make things a bit tougher for X, so we actually worry about whether she will win out."

Marty Stu is another term for male Mary Sue. I think Gary Stu proved more popular, though. I have seen many epic heroes called "Gary Stu", like Kimball Kinnison of the Lensman stories. Some people just don't have a grip on the concept of "epic hero"; they're supposed to be larger-than-life, dammit!

Given that one of the old definitions of Mary Sue included "warping canon characters and plot around her like some black hole of attention-seeking", it is arguable whether the term Mary Sue can even be properly applied to original fiction. On the other hand, when you start to notice the same boring wish-fulfillment fantasies in original fiction as in fanfiction, and there's this well-known term from fanfiction...

There is, in fact, nothing intrinsically evil about wish-fulfillment fantasies. It's just that most people aren't really interested in someone else's; unfortunately the people who post their personal wish-fulfillment fantasies in public frequently do not understand why everyone else doesn't love them like they do.

Misogyny is a disturbing issue in fandom. I have seen the trend you mention of tarring every original female character with the Mary Sue brush, as if girls aren't allowed to be heroes or even characters in stories. Even more disturbing are the female fans who hate canon female characters because they exist.

Pi said...

Just to jump in with my two cents (this is the internet! Of course everyone cares about it!), author-insert characters can be a big red-flag, but they don't mean Sue, and a Sue doesn't have to be an author insert. Honestly, a Sue is a Sue if and only if she is exceptional in a way that breaks her own canon and continuity. Instead of being a part of a story or an idea, the story/idea exists only to spotlight the Sue. She can have flaws and personality and the kitchen sink, but if she turns the story into a 'look at me!' fest, then she's a Sue. On the other hand, she could be the most beautiful/strong/tragic character in a story and pass as the author's twin and be completely not a Sue because of how she's handled.

Take Alanna. She's called a Sue because she hits most of the 'ugh, Mary Sue/cliche' ticky boxes (purple eyes, super!magic, girl in a man's profession, totes gorgeous, I could go on) but Pierce handled her so well in the story that she is an awesome character instead. Meanwhile, Bella's a Sue because she's not part of a story; she's breaking the rules of her world (in this case, the other characters) so the story can be all about her, not the story.

Which is where it gets subjective. I agree that the term is over-used, but you can't just checklist character-traits and go 'yep, Sue' or 'Nope, not a Sue'. It's more about writing quality than anything else, and everyone has a different threshold where they tip into the 'this is just ridiculous, come on now' area.

There might have been a point in here somewhere, but I think I lost it...

Nonny said...

I wasn't initially going to leave a comment, because basically my reaction is "FUCKING WORD", but since you said you've been getting hate mail over this... you are not alone here. I've been seeing this tendency for awhile and I loathe it, both as a reader who loves to read about awesome female characters, and a writer who loves to write them. :)

It sickens me that it's okay to denigrate awesome female characters as unrealistic and Mary Sue-ish when there are so many amazing examples of such women in real life, both in present day and in history.

thesaneminority said...

Oh, thank you for this post! I think the thing that really gets me about accusations of characters being Mary Sues is that it doesn't really matter what the character's like - someone will call them a Sue, no matter how much effort you put into making them believable and flawed.

I'll tell you a secret: I like Mary Sues. On principal, mind you - a lot of them are poorly written and annoying, but the entire reason they exist is because the author is having a grand old time writing themselves into a story, and I don't see the harm in that. Is it good writing? Hell no! But we all start somewhere, and none of us are perfect right off the bat - we all go through stages of self-insertion and just plain bad writing, because that's how we explore and build up our skills.

I'll never understand why people get so up in arms about self-insert characters, either. Every time someone screams "Mary Sue!", what I really hear is "How dare you write what you want!"

Oh, and karaethon: just a nit-pick, but Katsa is from Graceling, not The Hunger Games.

Miriam said...

Basically, if they fail a Mary-Sue Litmus Test, they're a Mary-Sue.

I have to agree with you on so many accounts here. There are characters in literature I don't like. Clary Fray, who you mentioned, Clary and I don't see eye to eye. But she's not a Mary-Sue in any way. I feel like so many people that attach these labels are just being lazy.

(Also, I hate to come to the debate when clearly you're sick of it! But I just got directed here from Sarah Rees Brennan's blog- I didn't know you had a blog before! I loved The Swan Kingdom and haven't got my hands on your other books because... my bookshop sucks. But. Um. Hai.)

Kitty Curtis said...

A long overdue rant.
Seeing almost every (female) character being called a Mary Sue makes writing characters incredibly daunting. You look at your own and think 'help- everyone will hate her and slam her in reviews!'

I love badass female characters who use their brains to solve puzzles and like to have a bit of romance on the side. You shouldn't have to fret over your own attempt at 3D characters who do all that stuff because people are so free and easy with the 'Mary Sue' stamp.

Plus, that comment tells you nothing about what you need to improve on in your character development.

SEO Company said...

Excellent blog. I am agree with you miriam. Character development is not a major things. You can do it.

Anonymous said...

Excelleeeeent! At first when I read 'Gary-Stu' I choked on my own spit! LOL it's too funny! And then I realised I tend to make MY Male characters like that! :( Oh well, your post has taught me alot! Amazing!

Mary H said...

I would like you to do something anatomically possible or impossible (could go either way, really): pat yourself on the back. The Mary-Sue stuff has gotten out of hand. I think people are terrified to write out of fear that characters they have created and love will be villified as MS/GS. I'm really glad you're bringing attention to this, and that you're not taking ridiculous hateful remarks to heart. Well said!

Liesl said...

OH MY GOD.
YOU.
I REQUEST THE HIGHEST OF FIVES!

I can't even get over this. Because I find it so true. And awesome.

MadiBeth said...

AMEN!
I don't think it's possible for me to agree more with you. I write, too, and my characters always have their flaws, their journeys, their highs and lows and all that jazz. I make sure of it because I hate the term "Mary-Sue." And yet it always pops up. Which I hate. A lot. Therefore, if it was possible to hug you right now, I would. :)

Rebecca Lindsay said...

I know this is way past when you first posted this but I just saw somebody give one of my favourite books the phrase Mary-Sue! They only backed it up with one or two points, which were both incorrect and it's plainly obvious that they didn't understand the book! Also, the character they were so against didn't even meet the points you listed! Sorry for the rant. I needed to vent and this post seemed like the best place lol

Cera S said...

Sorry to comment so many weeks after your original post, but as I'm catching up on this conversation here & in other places, it really struck me that the entire 'Mary Sue' criticism seems to only happen in genre. Not specifically the terminology, even, but the entire idea that *writing about yourself is bad writing*.

I mean, Sybille Bedford writes novels about herself as a teenage and she's writing lyrical autobiographical Serious Literature, but if Sarah Rees Brennan was writing herself-as-Mae (which I know she isn't), that would be a Mary Sue oh no!

So yes, I completely agree with you that the way most people use Mary Sue nowadays really just means "female and I don't like that." And I think further it has something to do with the perception of (a lot of) genre readers about what f&sf is supposed to contain and what it isn't.

I'd been going to finish this off by asking if a specfic author writing about themselves could even get published, and then I remember Jo Walton's recent novel _Among Others_, which is deliberately & explicitly a novel about herself as a teenager. But, interestingly, despite being fantasy it got a lot of mainstream litfic press and was getting put in with litfic at bookstores, not with specfic.

Rowan Golightly said...

And then there's the incredible frustration of having been given the name "Mary Sue" at birth.

Why, oh why did 'they' have to select my name for this term?

Ah well, I suppose that's what I get for being named after two old maids.

Excellent article, thank you!

Mary Sue

Lindsey C. said...

Superbly put. I've worked so hard at trying to make sure no character I put in a story, main character at least, will fall into the slot of "Mary-Sue", and finally I can refer to something with ease instead of trying to follow the guidelines of a million contradictions. Though, like you stated, I strive to make sure that my male characters don't fall into the slot either in the exact same way since I never thought it was fair to be bias towards the female gender like so many people tend to be. *grr!* Very very VERY well put good madame. *applauds you*

owlmoose said...

One of the best, most thorough and thoughtful essays on this subject I have ever seen. Brilliant work. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

1. Just because some random person said, "This is the official, one, true definition of a Mary Sue" does not make it so. People can and do use different criteria, and you saying, "USE ONLY THIS DEFINITION AND ONLY IF THE CHARACTER MEETS ALL FOUR" is not going to change that. Nor should it. It's a made-up term, and everyone has a different barometer to measure what they find plausible and what pushes their Mary Sue buttons. And that's okay.

It's like an earlier commenter said, roosters crow at dawn, but if a rooster doesn't crow at dawn it's still a rooster. A Mary Sue can meet some or all of the random definition, but not meeting all of that definition's requirements doesn't make the character a non-Mary Sue.

2. You said in your post that certain characters termed Mary Sues are all very different, as if all Mary Sues have to be exactly alike. They don't. Especially if they are partly based on the author. Different authors will have different personalities, thus so will their Mary Sues.

Anonymous said...

Also, words change. Language evolves. You can post a list saying this is what it is and it can be nothing else, but it can (and seems to have already) evolve to include other meanings. Many words have before, and many words will after.

slaysvamps said...

Holy Crap. I love this post and the spot on description of what exactly a Mary Sue character is.

It helps, of course, that your description of Bella Swan is exactly what I've been saying about her for YEARS.

David Sklar said...

Huh--maybe I don't read enough fanfic critiques, or maybe I was lucky enough to have someone explain it to me the first time I heard the term used (by a woman, in reference to Yoshi the linguist on Star Trek: Enterprise), but to me the term "Mary Sue" has always meant an idealized version of the author.

A few months back I read an article that referred to "Mary Sue" as an overpowered character in general. That was the first time I'd heard it used in any other way. But I don't read a lot of genre crit. The overuse of the term in the way you describe sounds entirely plausible to me.

Sorry to hear that you've had so much flak for writing this. It seems intriguing and well considered.

BTW, for me, Mary Sue is the term regardless whether the character is female male--including the cases where I've consciously put one in some stories of my own.

Thanks for putting this out there.

D. Robert Hamm said...

*Ahem* As they say on BSG, "So say we all."

I'm with you and George Orwell on this one; sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking, and vice versa. Words are symbolic representations of objects, ideas, actions, etc., and for someone writing in a professional capacity about other people's fiction, misusing a term like that is inexcusable. I mean, how much credibility would a science writer have who used the terms "fusion" and "fission" interchangeably, because in his or her opinion, they meant basically the same thing?

If I tell you the coffee is about 34 degrees Fahrenheit, but you burn yourself on it, would you buy into it if I said, "Oh, but I didn't like the way it tasted, and in my opinion, that means it's 34 degrees."

Words have definitions. This is a good thing. Most people would be very upset if they ordered a glass of water at a restaurant and the waiter brought them a vial of sulphuric acid instead. (Although if the guest actually drank the sulphuric acid, his or her state of agitation would most likely be very short-lived.)

Yes, words change meaning over time. When that leads to more specificity of language, it can be a good thing. Unfortunately, it all to often leads to less specificity. Witness our loss of the distinction between the words "will" and "shall." (For anyone wondering, they didn't used to be synonyms.) This is usually due to ignorance--Witness that "couple" is now officially synonymous with "few," meaning that you can look at three or four people walking down the street and say, "look at that nice couple."

As far as using specific characters as examples, I can imagine some wiggle room on what constitutes a significant flaw (although I see pretty much eye-to-eye with you there), but if there's disagreement about examples, it ought to be about what constitutes a significant flaw or something like that to show why that character didn't fit the bill, or maybe even present a case for redefining the word--instead of 'Me like character. You bad person. Definition bad. Want 'apple' to mean 'banana.'"

The thing is, you never even said you disliked the character you used as an example--Just that she was an example who fit a strict application of the definition. In fact, I thought you made it pretty clear that the term should be completely divorced from whether one likes or dislikes a character, and that it was perfectly okay to like a Mary-Sues, or to dislike a non-Mary-Sue.

Tell me if I got this right: This post is, at its most basic, quite clearly about misuse of a term--misuse meaning usage inconsistent with its definition--with a side-order of observations about how that misuse may be, in many cases, at least partially tied to sexism. And the biggest issue you take with said misuse is, as I understand it, that the misuse makes it hard to determine exactly what the reviewer means.

I mean, that was what I got out of it. Did I miss the point entirely? This WAS about clear and consistent use of language, right?

Anyway, it's late on Blorgsday waddum, and I should be blooping my story, lest I miss my gleepline.

Nikki said...

Thanks for your post, and your definition. I'm a young writer, and when I first came on the scene of fantasy fiction, I took Mary Sue to mean any character (male or female) who got "protected" by his/her author, to the point where the author won't give the character make-or-break tests for fear that the character broke. Which creates stories no one wants to read, so they technically shouldn't even have a chance at getting published, but "bad" books do get published, and "good" books sometimes don't. I think the term should be used as tool for authors more than as "warning" for readers, but if one really needs to use it in a review, the reviewer should definitely explain what makes it bad. That's what I as reader want and how I recommend or don't recommend books to my friends. But maybe I just have a different insight into such things, knowing only too well how difficult it is to write a character within the context of a world and a plot that doesn't come off as either hackneyed or contrived.
That said, I bookmarked your post and will refer to it regularly for a reality check for my characters, just in case my love for each and every one of them clouds my judgement.

halinu said...

This is a fabulous post! I've read and written my fair share of Mary-Sue fanfiction in my day, so I know perfectly well what the term means. It's pretty surprising that it's being misused so much! I really had no idea. If anything, I mostly meet people that don't know what I'm talking about when I refer to Mary-Sues.

Great post, though! :D

Frogglin said...

I write, mostly for myself, though I do attempt Nanowrimo every year. I usually try to avoid having females in my stories, which never works because I am female and therefore I know the perspective better than for men.

This year I shall keep this post bookmarked, and remind myself that Mary Sue can only exist if I let her, and I thank you so much for saying so.

Anonymous said...

I honestly agree with you that the term Mary Sue is misused. However, I honestly feel that your article is only going to perpetuate the misuse of the term, because there are way to many things that honestly don't ring true to myself, who also happens to critique fanfiction for the Mary Sue, and has also analyzed actual published work for the Mary Sue.

While there are honestly some good points here, I discourage people from marking this page as an actual resource if you want to be a good writer. Here are the problems with this entry which honestly bother me.

...

Problem One: What is said in the reviews.

Reviewers do NOT define the term Mary Sue within their reviews. Instead, they point out the problems with the writing that causes the character to become a Mary Sue. That list you provided, except for eight and ten are actually considered legitimate criticisms of a Mary Sue character, and they can vary from character to character, what is said.

Sometimes eight and ten are thrown in, in addition to the others, because it is an added problem, but rarely is it ever used to say that a character is a Mary Sue by itself. That said, these things listed should not be taken out of context of the actual review, as not everything listed will apply to every single piece of work.



Problem Two: Author Avatar

As someone else said, not all Author Avatars are Mary Sues and not all Mary Sues are Author Avatars.



Problem Three: Romance

First off, not all Mary Sues have all the available guys fall for them. Second, some Mary Sues only have one guy fall for them and it is love at first site, yet they have nothing at all in common, which brings it down to straight out wish fulfillment. Third, this only applies to the Mary Sues of the Romance genre, some Mary Sues have no characters fall in love with them, like those in the Action genre.

(cont...)

Anonymous said...

(...cont)

Anonymous said...

(...cont)

Problem Four: Feminist Issue

Personally, something I dislike even more then the misuse of the term Mary Sue is the labeling of the term as anti-feminist and/or derogatory. Sure, you say that it is only when the term is misused that it becomes this, but I've seen it done when the term has been used right, and I've also seen it misused and NOT be this kind of issue.

You ask this question about the term Gary Stu. “When was the last time you saw that term used as a method of dismissing a male character who was clearly nothing of the kind?” I am going to say, quite a few times actually, but then I can say I've gone digging through the net doing my research on this subject.

Honestly, you are perpetuating the myth that the term Mary Sue has become sexist because male characters are rarely called out. While it is true that you rarely find the term used in fanfiction, the fact is, you also rarely find male fanfic writers and male OCs so isn't it logical that the term will be rarely used?

As for actual published works, the term Mary Sue and Gary Stu just started being used, and if you take a gander at the examples on tvtropes “The Weasly” page, you'll find Gary Stus to be listed just as much as the Mary Sues. That also said, if you are only looking at reviews where the main character is female, chances are you won't come across the term Gary Stu either.



I do have something to say that cropped up in the comments. Someone said something along the lines, whether a character is a Mary Sue or not is based on a person's individual opinion. The definition of opinion roughly is someones idea that is not backed up by facts to be proven fact. When a person critiques a Mary Sue, they bring facts to the table and thus it is impossible for the term to be simply opinion. Please, learn the difference between fact and opinion.

That also said, I think the people who like to say that Mary Sue is a persons opinion are the ones who are in denial that their favorite characters are Mary Sues. There is NOTHING wrong with Mary Sues. This is where a person starts learning characterization and later on, some people enjoy writing Mary Sues on purpose, even enjoy reading them. Better though, it be intentional, then haphazardly.

What a Mary Sue is, is a character that is not believable in some shape or form. What needs to be remembered is, since a non believable character can become a believable character, a person can take their Mary Sue and fix them so that they aren't a Mary Sue. It simply will take some work on the writers part, some more work then others.

Anyways, hope this helps everyone.

Theme Wedding said...

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Amy Leigh Strickland said...

Amen! Hermione Granger is no Mary Sue!

We use Gary Stu for male characters. But yes, when I define a Mary Sue, I usually point out that she only has "sexy flaws."

Anonymous said...

This post is great! These days, it seems like there's no female character who can possibly escape the Mary-Sue label no matter how multidimensional she is, and that makes the pressure of CREATING an original female character ridiculously huge.
I'll admit I do tend to throw around the term "Mary-Sue" a bit when I'm discussing books with others, but I've been perfectly aware of its meaning (an author's self-insertion for fantasy fulfillment) right from the get-go, and the only character I've ever used it to describe with any conviction is Bella Swan.
Also, though I mostly agree with your point about unconscious sexism, I DID once overhear a conversation where a bunch of people were accusing Harry Potter, of all wonderfully complex characters, of being a Gary-Stu. -.-

murano glass chandelier said...

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Anonymous said...

Ahahahaha. This is just...really stupid. It was later in the article but I just want to laugh at your casual comment about Jesus Christ. I hope you realize not everyone believes in God and Jesus. Or is part of the Christian religion. Okay? Okay.

Moving on, the only correct thing about your article is Mary Sue is applied to females. Your definition is very wrong. Well, actually, it is not wrong. But it's not limited to that!

The characteristics of a sue you listed earlier are correct. Well, some of them. Just because someone is annoying or obnoxious doesn't make them a sue. And having a sue trait doesn't make the character a sue as well. It depends on what else is mashed in there.

I'm going to say this right now. Mary Sue/Gary Stu =/= the author is bad at writing. Harry Potter for example is a huge Gary Stu. His parents are dead, his aunt and uncle abused him, he's the chosen one, he's popular when he gets to Hogwarts, etc etc. But J.K Rowling wrote him in a way that no one really cared he was a stu, because he was a WELL WRITTEN Stu. Sue/Stus can be fun to rp with/read about in a book if the writer can pull it off.

Anyways, back to the definition of sue. You say the ones you first listed are contradictory. That might seem so when you don't know what a Mary Sue is.

A sue is made up of a combination of sue-ish traits if you will. And sues themselves are contradictory a lot of the time. So it would make some kind of sense if the list seemed contradictory.

Now, is the term Mary Sue always used correctly? Sadly, no. I've seen the term thrown around just because a character has had blue eyes and blonde hair and could play an instrument. That's why it's important to actually look at the character before saying anything.

And no, a sue does not have to be based off the author in any way shape or form. A lot of the time sues/stus can be self-inserts, but that is not always the case.


I hope that was helpful. I'm not looking to pick a damn fight or anything, just to educate. :)

Anonymous said...

All this Mary Sue stuff has me too scared to write ANY female characters at all. It's so confusing and frightening because there's no way to really know what a Mary Sue is or isn't.

Claire Ray said...

What was the book you loved called?

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Calvin Brock said...

so why not just honestly lay out the reasons you didn't like the female character, the same way you would any other character (by which we mean, a male one) instead of throwing the term Mary-Sue like a mud-pie?http://jomasmedia.com/

TheAngelGirl1992 said...

This is a well thought and written article about mary-sue and I agree with it on a lot of points, but there is one thing that I disagree with you. In my opinion no character should be called a mary sue. It is an outdated term that has been used too many times to mask sexism - internalized or not. Personally I think that characters who are a self-insert and wish fulfillment is silly, but what is the harm in it? I mean there are numerous male characters that are self-inserts and wish-fulfillment - ESPECIALLY IN THE COMIC WORLD - but they are not scrutinized the same way female characters are.

Even Bella Swan isn't a mary sue to me. She is incredible badly written and seriously problematic, but a mary sue? Nope not to me

TheAngelGirl1992 said...

You should read the amazing mary sue analyse of adventuresofcomicbookgirl. I mainly got my points from her.

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Betsy Hodge said...

This is a wonderful post but I have to disagree on parts of your definition of a Sue.

The way this is presented makes it sound as if a character has to meet all of your criteria to be a Sue when in fact any combination of these factors still qualify. Most readers don't know the authors on a personal level and some don't even know what they look like. So, while author inserts can be Sues not every Sue meets that. That being said most author inserts that are Sues are that way because it's not a true insert. People write themselves as an ideal. For example, I tend to get very loud when I get excited or worked up about a topic. Most of the time I don't even notice until someone says something but I'm told it can be very annoying. I might not include that kind of thing in a self insert, not out of wish fulfillment, but because it's not something I tend to notice.

Your third rule also leaves something to be desired. Yes, I'll agree that sometimes it's just too easy for some characters when it comes to making friends but you have to look at how the story is set up. The people you tend to notice most are the people you either don't like or the people that you're friends with. The other hundreds of people you come into contact with just don't leave much of an impression most of the time.

Your final qualification is interesting and can go a couple of different ways. What would you say is a significant change or growth? Is is choosing to over come their selfishness through some kind of self sacrifice? Is it realizing that your enemy isn't an enemy at all? Accepting that you're the chosen one?The reality is that it's all a matter of perspective. Any flaw and the subsequent over coming of that flaw can make a character a Sue, it all depends on how it's written.

In conclusion I would just like to say that the making of a Sue or a Stu doesn't necessarily lie in the characteristics of a character, but in how those characteristics are presented to the reader.

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