My Problem With Mary Sue

For the record, I have no problem with any person named Mary Sue. It’s a lovely name, with a long and respected history.

However, Mary Sue as a character trope is one of the few tropes I don’t think can ever been done well. This is strange to me, because I have said previously on my blog that almost any trope can be done well. But, in my opinion, Mary Sue is that one exception.

This trope has been talked about a lot in recent years, especially when it comes to movie reviews. But, for this post, I will be focusing almost exclusively on books, though the rare movie example may be dropped in.

Definition and Origin

The essence of a Mary Sue character is that she is perfect, absent of weaknesses and due to this the story is negatively impacted. According to Oxford Dictionary, the phrase is defined as:

“A type of female character who is depicted as unrealistically lacking in flaws or weaknesses.”

On Wikipedia, it talks of this type of character being an author’s wish-fulfillment and are unrealistically better than everyone else (for example, they can shoot a bow better then any other character, even though they have never shoot a bow and the other characters have practiced for years). They may bear some vague weaknesses, like they are “clumsy” or “awkward,” but these tropes have little bearing on the story itself. For the record, the character can be of any gender: they do not have to be merely female, as the name suggests.

The origin come from a fanfiction of Star Trek by Paula Smith in 1973, titled “A Trekkie’s Tale.” Her main character is Lieutenant Mary Sue, fifteen years old and the youngest lieutenant in the fleet. I have not read this story, nor do I plan to, so let’s move on.

The Essence of a Character

For a moment, I want to turn away from Mary Sue and instead look at the principle essence of what a character should be. Picture in your mind your favorite character in all of literature. Some examples might be Harry Potter, Hercule Poirot, Elizabeth Bennet, Hamlet, and Scarlett O’Hara.

Now, what do these characters all have in common, despite their entirely different settings and personalities? Well, the reality is that things do not go well for them. There is adversity to overcome which leads to the happy or sad ending. These characters stumble and fall, letting their prejudice, fear, and weaknesses inhibit them on their story.

But all of these characters also don’t get what they want immediately. Just look at Hercule Poirot. If he solved the murders on the first page, there would be no murder mystery. If Elizabeth Bennet was to see past her prejudice and Mr. Darcy immediately fell in love with her for no reason, we would not have one of the greatest romances of literature. If Harry Potter had killed Voldemort in the first book, we would not have one of the greatest fantasy series of all time. If Scarlett O’Hara had not been spoiled and prideful, she would have had a happy ending.

I think you get my point. These characters were all imperfect, but because of that we are rooting them to overcome obstacles to reach the ending of their story.

The Essential Problem

Now let’s go back to Mary Sue. If everything is easy for her, if she is good without trying, if all the boys fall in love with her for no reason, what point is there to read her story? There is no conflict, no question of will she, won’t she. There is not reason to be invested in her story.

And if there is not reason to care about her, why read the book at all? Is it enough to have wish-fulfillment at the price of a powerful, moving character? I think not.

Let me briefly mention two examples to illustrate my point (I will not be talking about Twilight, since that is an obvious one, and instead looking at more subtle examples): Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games Trilogy and Nancy Drew from the Nancy Drew Series. I picked examples I actually like because I don’t think all books featuring Mary Sue have to be unlikeable.

First we have Katniss. She lives in a dystopian world and volunteers to fight in the Hunger Games. For reference, the more rich districts have been training their children for years, but with only a few weeks of training, Katniss beats them all. She does horrible things to multiple characters, and yet she very rarely suffers any consequences. I actually like this series, but I disliked her character because it felt as if she never grew or changed. She was constantly good at everything, people around her adored her (save for the villains, who don’t count) and yet when you break down her character, she is extremely flat. She doesn’t have to overcome mental and emotional hurtles. I do recall she has some nightmares after the first games, but that’s about it.

Second we have Nancy Drew. Admittedly, this series was written for children, so I am more forgiving of it. But reading Nancy Drew as an adult you notice starkly just how perfect she is. She is good at everything, is constantly making friends with random people who like her for no reason, and she has absolutely no weaknesses. Similar to the Hunger Games series, I enjoyed this series (I still own many of the books), but even I admit the series would have been so much better if Nancy Drew was more of a real character, instead of this bland, perfect ideal.

Conclusion

Let me just say there is nothing wrong with making a character good at something or have one character fall in love with another. However, when you give no rhyme and reason to why everything is going so well for Mary Sue, s/he become a bland and uninteresting character. Like my two examples, this doesn’t make for a horrible book, but it certainly makes for a horrible character.

One of the most prominent Mary Sue characters I can think of in modern media is Rey from the new Star Wars series (she’s a highly divisive character, but I still firmly believe she is a Mary Sue character whether you like her or not). She is good at everything, beating Kylo Ren with zero training in The Force Awakens. She is a blank slate, whose goodness in unexplainable and whose personality is flat. There are many other characters that might be considered, either partially or fully, a Mary Sue.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you mind the Mary Sue trope, or do you dislike? What is your favorite or least favorite Mary Sue character? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

4 thoughts on “My Problem With Mary Sue

  1. So glad to hear you think that Rey is a Mary Sue as well. I cannot stand the new trilogy of Star Wars films for this reason. Luke Skywalker went through three films’ worth of growth and training in the force before beating Darth Vader, yet Rey could beat Kylo Ren in her first bout with him? Ridiculous. I don’t know what’s worse: the fact Rey is such a bland character or the fact the movie trilogy’s writers and directors tout her perfection as some kind of strength. Blech.

    On the topic of Mary Sue characters: I hate this trope. So much. But I also know that it’s incredibly easy for anyone to fall into it. Hell, going back over my WWII novel series, I saw shades of Mary Sue-ism in my protagonist and some other characters. So you better believe that I went through hell and back in my edits to wipe any traces of Sue-ism away.

    One thing I like to do is give the protagonist some kind of mentor figure who teaches him/her how to be good at something, fighting or otherwise. In editing my WWII series I did this with my protagonist Peter when he arrives in Stalingrad. Instead of automatically knowing how to fight like a professional soldier, he befriends a Soviet conscript who looks out for him and teaches him the basics of combat. It’s probably not the most inventive way to alleviate Sue-ism, but I find it to be the most effective.

    However, I would add one thing that I don’t think a lot of readers and writers talk about when discussing the Mary Sue: they come about either one of two ways: either a means for an author to live out his/her fantasy (or wish-fulfillment as you call it); or because the author did not take the time to develop a protagonist and instead focus on writing a book about something he/she loved. In my case, I fell into the latter category. I’m just glad that I caught myself going back over my edits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could not agree more. Yes, Rey is one of the main reasons I don’t like the new trilogy (especially The Last Jedi). I as a writer naturally write Mary Sue type characters too, mostly as wish-fulfillment. I read some of the stories I wrote when I was a teenager and they are filled with Mary Sues.

      At times I can see why you would compare your Peter to Mary Sue. He’s an amazing fighter, and it is easy to fall into the trope where he saves the day effortlessly. But you do really well in also giving him weaknesses.

      But I agree, authors tend to write Mary Sue characters for those two reasons. I honestly fell into the former category (living out my fantasy). Each author is different and I understand why they would be interested in writing a Mary Sue character. After all, it’s so much easier than spending time actually developing a compelling but flawed character.

      Liked by 1 person

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