Within modern creative writing, there are all manner of tropes that we can often slip into – some positive and enjoyable, and others that are considered more negative.
One of these tropes is the idea of the ‘Mary Sue’ character type – something that has often been considered to be a lazy approach to writing female characters.
But what exactly is a ‘Mary Sue’, and what are the telltale signs that you need to avoid?
What Is A Mary Sue?
On face value, the idea of the ‘Mary Sue’ character trope might not seem like a negative thing – depicting a (usually young) woman that is inexplicably competent in numerous fields, has specific gifts, powers, or abilities, and is otherwise unhindered by the shortcomings and problems that we all face as human beings.
However, this character trope has become something of a negative thing, as it neither represents the qualities associated with being a human being – i.e. flaws – nor does it make the character believable and relatable.
As such, the character trope is often associated with weaker, poor writing – usually akin to younger writers at the start of their literary careers.
Where Does The Name Come From?
The actual name ‘Mary Sue’ was first coined in fan fiction in 1973, when writer Paula Smith used the name for a character who generally represented young women throughout Star Trek and wider pulp science fiction.
The term has also been used to describe male characters too, although other variations – including ‘Marty Stu’ and ‘Gary Stu’ have also been used in this manner.
What Are The Telltale Signs?
If you are concerned that your character might be a Mary Sue, there are numerous signs that you can look out for when drafting your piece of writing.
Good At Everything
One of the first signs that your character might be a Mary Sue is if they are inexplicably good at everything that is required of them – this means that they seemingly have a mastery or natural talent towards any skills that might be demanded of them during the course of their story.
For example, when they encounter trouble, they know how to use martial arts (or are otherwise good at fighting), they have expert mechanical skills when their vehicle breaks down, and they can turn their hand to most artistic skills imaginable.
While it is perfectly acceptable to make your character skillful in certain areas – explaining how they became so good, or showing it through their development – it is the inexplicable talent for everything they face that makes a Mary Sue such an unlikable, and unrealistic character.
People Fawn Over Them
Another sign of a Mary Sue character is that all of the main protagonists (usually the men) are all in love with them – or enamored by them – to some degree.
This is usually the case for even the more stoic characters – such as Spock and Dr McCoy in Smith’s Star Trek fan fiction – who despite their lack of relationship to the character, and their general demeanor to everyone else, cannot help but express their admiration for this talented young woman.
This is usually paired with a natural gorgeousness that the character has – one devoid of physical flaws and imperfections, and one that causes everyone they meet to fall in love with them at first sight.
This also goes against the realism that many people strive for during character creation. After all, in our lives, there are many more people who generally do not like us (or are otherwise ambivalent to us) than there are admirers.
As such, the whole concept is generally unrelatable, and seen as ‘wish fulfillment’ on the part of the writer.
Unrealistic Feats & Rewards
One of the telltale signs of a Mary Sue is when they always inexplicably save the day – either through their equally inexplicable talent and skills – or through the sheer strength of their pluck and likability.
This is another aspect considered unrealistic by readers, especially when the character in question has no formal training or experience.
This is often reflected in the way they are promoted or rewarded throughout the series.
For example, James T. Kirk or Star Trek fame was the youngest starfleet captain in history – rising through the ranks due to his charisma, ‘outside the box’ thinking, and general street smarts.
This would not happen in most conceivable scenarios – especially when there is insufficient formal training – and the equivalent would be if you got promoted to the CEO of the company you work for, simply because you were a charming maverick.
Representative Of The Author
The idea of the Mary Sue – and their male counterparts – are also generally considered to be wishful representations of the author themselves, who write the character as a way of living out some fantasy that they have about their perfect life.
As such, this usually doesn’t come across as endearing to the reader, and certainly does not make a character more relatable to fans.
As such, when the inevitable, untimely fate of the Mary Sue comes to pass within the story, and the other protagonists weep and hold memorials, most readers are usually satisfied.
And there we have it, everything you need to know about creative writing, and the telltale signs your character might be a ‘Mary Sue’.
When it comes to modern writing, there are all manner of tropes that can be adopted – some for better, and some for worse – and it can often be difficult not to slip into various traps, just because they have become so familiar.
Luckily though, there have never been so many resources out there to allow you to be aware of the signs before they present themselves.
So if you are concerned your character might be a ‘Mary Sue’, then be sure to refer to this handy guide. Something tells me you won’t be disappointed!