"There's nothing more boring than a perfect heroine!"
—Drosselmeyer, Princess Tutu
Mary Sue is a derogatory term primarily used in Fanfic circles to describe a particular type of character. This much everyone can agree on. What that character type is, exactly, differs wildly from circle to circle, and often from person to person.
We don't get to set what the term means; the best we can do is capture the way it is used. Since there's no consensus on a precise definition, the best way to describe the phenomenon is by example of the kind of character pretty much everyone could agree to be a Mary Sue. These traits usually reference the character's perceived importance in the story, their physical design and an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.
The name "Mary Sue" comes from the 1974 Star Trek Fanfic "A Trekkie's Tale". Originally written as a parody of the standard Self-Insert Fic of the time (as opposed to any particular traits), the name was quickly adopted by the Star Trek fanfiction community. Its original meaning mostly held that it was an Always Female Author Avatar, regardless of character role or perceived quality. Often, the characters would get in a relationship with either Kirk or Spock, turn out to have a familial bond with a crew member, be a Half-Human Hybrid masquerading as a human, and die in a graceful, beautiful way to reinforce that the character was Too Good for This Sinful Earth. (Or space, as the case may be.)
Even back then, there wasn't a total consensus on what was or wasn't Mary Sue, since it's not always immediately obvious which character is an Author Avatar. As this essay reveals, suspiciously Mary Sue-like characters were noted in subscriber-submitted articles for 19th-century childrens' magazines, making this trope Older Than You Think.
The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a Fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She's exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws—either that or her "flaws" are obviously meant to be endearing.
She has an unusual and dramatic Backstory. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn't love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author's favorite canon character—their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series. (See Common Mary Sue Traits for more detail on any of these cliches.)
In other words, the term "Mary Sue" is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.
Over time, a male variant started to see use. Marty Stu (also known as Gary Stu, for those who prefer rhyme to alliteration) wasn't really that much different from Mary. Also an Author Avatar, it usually had implications of being a male crew member that tended to completely outshine established canon members in their roles and often become the best starship captain, ever. See The Ace. Since the female characters of Star Trek were all in secondary roles at best, the relationship angle was generally disregarded as being any sort of qualifier. Because of the not-entirely-unjustified perception that Most Fanfic Writers Are Girls, Marty Stu didn't really catch on for a long time.
Originally, the term used to apply exclusively to fanfiction, but by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the term "Canon Sue" started seeing use, applying Author Avatar standards to canon works (most likely inspired by the backlash against Wesley Crusher; even Wil Wheaton has decried the character's obnoxiousness). It was around this time that the term started to lose a concrete meaning, since the label started getting applied even to characters who weren't explicit self-inserts (such as the title character of the episode "The Empath"), but just happened to use similar tropes. It was also (most likely) around this time that the term started to gain its pejorative tone.
Finally, the advent of the Internet allowed the term to migrate out of the Star Trek community to most fandoms, losing pretty much any real meaning in the process. There are dozens upon dozens of essays that offer interpretations of what the term means, generally basing it off of some usages of it, but none of them are truly comprehensive or accepted. Using the term in most contexts isn't too far off from Flame Bait, generally provoking the defendant into rants. Much Internet Backdraft has resulted, especially if the term is applied to a canon character on a popular show.
These last two paragraphs are why it's so hard to really nail down a definition of "Mary Sue": the term has started to be used in a much wider context, and to mean much wider things, than it once did, and there's no way to figure out which of those characteristics are necessary and sufficient to define a Mary Sue.
Some of the controversies:
- Do Sues appear only in fanfic, or are Canon Sues allowed?
- Can you have a male Sue?
- Are all Author Avatars Sues, even if they're well-written, realistic, and don't take over the story—and, are all Sues necessarily stand-ins for the author?
- Is the most important part how the author de-protagonist-izes every other character in the name of making the Sue seem even more awesome?
- If you have an impossibly competent character with a cool back story and an idealized personality, and they manage to be likable to most of the audience, are they still a Mary Sue, or does Suedom depend on the character being disliked because of their obnoxious perfection?
See these articles for takes on Mary Sue that focus on certain groupings of Common Mary Sue Traits:
- Black Hole Sue -- Everything is about me!
- Purity Sue -- Love me!
- God Mode Sue -- Power overwhelming!
- Mary Tzu --I knew you would do that. In fact, I knew you would do that before I even met you, cuz I'm JUST THAT GOOD!
- Jerk Sue -- I'm a complete and utter bitch and I have constant PMS...love me!
- Possession Sue -- My favourite character is an even better version of me!
- Copy Cat Sue -- I'm just like my favorite character, but even kewler!
- Relationship Sue -- You're my boyfriend now!
- Sympathetic Sue -- Feel sorry for me!
- Anti-Sue -- I'm genuinely useless, but everybody still loves me!
- Villain Sue -- I have you now, my beautiful slaves! Ahahahahahahaha!
- Fixer Sue -- No, that's not how it's supposed to go!
- Parody Sue -- Why don't they fall for my buxom charms?
- Thirty-Sue Pileup -- We are Legion.
Despite the name, Peggy Sue has nothing to do with Mary Sue.
A couple of systems have popped up to classify Mary Sue characters, the most popular of which is a variation on the Characterization Tags system. For example, a Perky Goth sorceress that is also a dragon might be labeled as Goth!Sorceress!Dragon!Sue. Alternatively, something might just be referred to as (insert biggest trait here)-Sue, but that doesn't allow for a whole lot of elements to be tacked on. There are also a couple of tests in the Internet to quickly determine if a character is overdosed with Common Mary Sue Traits (maybe with a couple pointers on underlying Sue structure); you can find most of them by searching for "mary sue litmus test".
See Common Mary Sue Traits for the superficial tropes that get involved in a lot of Mary Sue fiction, but are not immediately evocative of it. Also see Marty Stu, which looks at both this and Common Mary Sue Traits from a male perspective. For a short explanation of non-fanfiction Mary Sue characters, see Canon Sue. See also Possession Sue (when an existing canon character is derailed towards this) and Copy Cat Sue (when a character is a blatant copy of a canon character). See Mary Sue Classic for the extremely common plot framework that the character often uses. Finally, for characters that often evoke this trope (but may not actually be proper entries within it), see Magical Girlfriend, Tsundere, Yamato Nadeshiko, A God Am I, MacGuffin Girl, and Original Character.
Interpretations of Mary Sue
As mentioned above, there are many interpretations of what does or doesn't constitute a Mary Sue. In this sense, Mary Sue isn't so much a trope as it is a brand name, with the usage being determined by both writer and reader. It is not limited in usage, getting applied to all characters regardless of gender, role, or species. Sometimes, even whole groups, organizations, and even societies are labeled as being Mary Sue. This is a list of some of the interpretations. They are here to offer insight into why people might call a character a Mary Sue.
Mary Sue as Protagonist You Don't Like
An alarmingly widespread use of the term, and one reason a lot of people feel that the term has lost whatever useful meaning it once had. There are a lot of reasons why this usage is so common. Most obviously, as rants about and mockery of the Mary Sue phenomenon became increasingly well-known in fandom, it became increasingly easy to throw the term around as Flame Bait. The fact that so many of the other definitions are highly subjective doesn't help.
People who accuse characters of being Mary Sues rarely admit that this is the definition they're using. The best way to tell is if their justifications for the character's Sue-hood are all based on shoehorning, Alternate Character Interpretation, misrepresenting the sources, and Accentuate the Negative. Describe any non-fanfic character as a Canon Sue, and you'll be lucky if no one accuses you of using this definition of the term.
Mary Sue as Poorly Written Character
Related to the above, this interpretation posits that a Mary Sue is simply a character that breaks Willing Suspension of Disbelief due to carrying improbable, contradictory, and even paradoxical elements while being written in an inconsistent manner. It should be noted that almost no writers do this intentionally, and those who do it will usually make the same sort of mistakes with other characters as well. Due to Character Focus, however, one character will tend to gather more of these than the others. Generally only gets thrown around in fanfiction, due to the baseline of the story being different from the source.
Mary Sue as Clichéd character
Draven, orphaned and abused since childhood, discovers he is the Chosen One destined to overthrow The Empire with a new power unique to him, and even within his own family, he is special. And he wields a katana in a setting when they are not East Asian. Watch as suddenly, he is declared a Mary Sue simply for his background. Sadly, this is another use related to the two above (primarily "protagonist you don't like") that has caused the Mary Sue to begin losing its original meaning. Many litmus tests will list traits the author of the test simply does not like to see used in fiction and will try to eliminate it from fiction altogether by listing it as one of the Common Mary Sue Traits, in the hope that it would vanish from fiction as people fearing the "Mary Sue" label will deliberately avoid it.
Essentially, this amounts to treating the symptoms rather than the disease. Averting this will only result in Anti-Sue.
Mary Sue as Author Avatar
Simple as that. The original meaning, this one has lost prominence as a sole definition lately but still often gets invoked. People used to sometimes call their alter ego characters "their Mary Sue", but this usage has mostly died with the proliferation of the term as an automatic pejorative.
Mary Sue as Idealized Character
The interpretation that Mary Sue is a character that is idealized to a fault. A very influential interpretation, this one tends to get applied to most discussions. This theory posits that a Mary Sue is an unrealistically capable and virtuous character, one who simply lacks flaws and is depicted in an overly positive light. This tends to draw the most debate, as this model of character is extremely common, and also a lot more accepted than people give it credit for. Charles Dickens, one of the established classic authors, used to specialize in creating characters like this. A lot of characters in both male- and female-centric fiction simply lack meaningful flaws, but are more than accepted because they work as Escapism for the audience.
However, both this interpretation and a shift of society as a whole towards cynicism has led to many people trying to mask their otherwise idealized characters with either total non-flaws (e.g. being So Beautiful, It's A Curse and other Cursed with Awesome details), flaws by proxy (e.g. Dark and Troubled Past), or flaws that simply don't play any role in the plot at all (e.g. making a character an alcoholic, but never showing them as impeded by it). Often, this leads to a particular extreme where people start treating flaws themselves as Character Development and create a character that simply has no merits outside of being able to do the most basic biological functions (Anti-Sue).
Mary Sue as Power Fantasy
The other influential interpretation, this one posits that a Mary Sue is a character that exists to provide a satisfying fantasy for its author. It should be noted that this type is a widely accepted form of storytelling so long as the audience can relate to it. In this sense, this interpretation gets invoked when it's believed that the story is much too personalized to the author and holds no real appeal to people besides them. Creeping cynicism over the ages has many hold that even characters that do work on a wide scale both qualify under this definition and are therefore bad. Generally gets used in Fan Fiction when the story revolves around this character to the detriment of the canon in which it is set.
Mary Sue as Infallible Character
Related to the above, this is when the idea is that Mary Sue is a character that simply never fails. This might sound less subjective than many of the other definitions, but in practice it's at least as bad—very few characters are truly infallible, because initial failures are such an obvious way to create drama and make the eventual victory that much sweeter. Conversely, there are plenty of well-liked fictional heroes who are mostly infallible, because watching them succeed is usually more satisfying than investing your emotional energy into failures. And on the third hand, there's plenty of wiggle room around what really counts as failure. What if the character fails at lots of insignificant things (they can't learn to play the banjo, they can't cook a decent meal, they never manage to show up on time for meetings), but always succeeds at anything remotely important? What if they frequently don't succeed at what they set out to do, but the author always makes it very clear that the failure wasn't really the character's fault? And so on, and on, and on.
In practice, therefore, most characters fall somewhere on a continuum between constant failure and constant success, and it's up to each person to decide how often a character needs to fail to be realistic, how significant the failures need to be, and so on. Characters who unambiguously qualify as Sues under this definition are quite rare, usually the result of authors who are so much in love with their precious creations that they can't bear to see them face any setbacks whatsoever (see also the "Author Avatar" and "Power Fantasy" definitions, above).
Mary Sue as Center of Attention
Similar to the above, this posits that a Mary Sue is someone who gets too much attention from the other characters, especially if their personality and actions don't seem to fully justify such strong reactions. It's important to note that this isn't confined to positive attention; if every single villain the Sue encounters develops an intense, personal, obsessive hatred of them, that qualifies too. In fact, most Sues by this definition combine both types of attention: they're loved by every sympathetic character they meet and hated by every unsympathetic character. It's true that most fictional characters are designed to be charismatic, striking individuals who inspire strong reactions in the audience, but it's also true that in the real world, no matter how charismatic you are, most people you know just don't spend all their time thinking about you. It's been said that the best writers remember that every character, no matter how minor, is the hero of his or her own story—think of the anecdote about the actor who played the gravedigger in Hamlet and described the play as "a story about a gravedigger who meets a prince." Conversely, if every supporting character in a story seems to spend more time obsessing over the main character than they do worrying about their own lives, that main character is probably a Mary Sue by this theory.
One advantage of this definition is that it can apply to canon characters, but it also explains why Mary Sues are especially annoying in fanfiction: if you're reading fanfic, it's probably because you're interested in the canon characters and want to hear about them—you didn't download the fic just so you could see the canon characters become props used to demonstrate the awesomeness of some OC in whom you have no stake whatever. It also helps account for the striking amount of overlap between Author Avatars and Mary Sues—many if not most people have a hard time truly accepting that they aren't the center of the universe. And, finally, it also explains why some characters who have no shortage of significant flaws are still often considered Mary Sues. After all, say what you will about the classic, idealized Mary Sue, but at least you can see why she makes such a strong impression on all the other characters. How much more annoying is it when the character doesn't have any obvious virtues, and yet the universe still seems to revolve around them?
Mary Sue as Alien Element
A largely fanfiction interpretation, but it still rarely gets used in terms of actual shows. This viewpoint posits that Mary Sue is a character that involves changing the dynamic of a work and shifting the focus away from the established characters and styles. This may include characters that break the established rules of the setting (particularly if the explanation for it is poor or nonexistant). Often involves rewriting of canon elements and derailing of characters in the process.
This overlaps slightly with the center of attention reading above, as the entire world is redesigned for the benefit of a specific character. Very, very common in fanfiction that is written as an escape for the author rather than an appeal to a larger audience. In works with a shifting set of writers, this interpretation often gets used on characters that were introduced by a new writer that change the work in an undesirable way. This interpretation often gets used on characters that were always part of a particular work's dynamic simply because of the implausibility surrounding them. Again, this is subjective. See the Black Hole Sue page for an in-depth look at this interpretation.
Mary Sue as Original Character Protagonist
Similar to Alien Element, this interpretation extends to any and all original characters who take roles of similar importance to a canon character regardless of their ultimate impact. Often gets applied even when it's perfectly logical that a new character would end up in such a role (for example, a story that takes place within a fictional setting and explicitly doesn't focus on that setting's main characters.) Invoked by more cynical readers disillusioned about the average fanfic author's ability to create characters that fit the original source's setting and contain no traits related to the author's personality and cultural upbringing.
Mary Sue as a Sturgeon's Law Character
Despite the widespread use of the term with negative connotations, within many there is a glimmer that a Mary Sue can be done right. Maybe they have one or more of the qualifications but somehow the story retains a genuine entertainment quality about it. Maybe they were written with a bit of Deconstruction of the character type. Maybe somehow despite the blatant Center of Attention (being The Chosen One or whatever) they end up having one or two quirks that you find redeemable... possibly a good sense of humor.
It can be a shocking reminder that there is a lot more to a story or character than just good, bad and mediocre. As with all of the different qualifiers it only gets really bad when you combine all of them together. When they only have one or two they have a chance at redemption... or be the poster child for it.
Mary Sue as Character Type
Sort of a merge of elements between Yamato Nadeshiko, Mysterious Waif, Magical Girlfriend, MacGuffin Girl, Friend to All Living Things, and/or Too Good for This Sinful Earth, usually with an emphasis on feminine perfection. Tends to have a Dark and Troubled Past to emphasize specialness. This label doesn't really hold that much negativity to it, since there are people that actually label their stories as having them. See Mary Sue Classic for the plot framework that often gets invoked.
Marty Stu as Character Type
Ruggedly handsome, charming, skilled, and respected by his peers. Think of a Captain Fantastic type. Kind of like The Ace, but not always played for comedy. Also often has a Dark and Troubled Past, but usually in such a light to emphasize their capabilities rather than their inherent specialness. Isn't nearly as common as Mary Sue as Character Type, but it certainly exists (some characters have been called "Marty Stu done right" before).
Not A Mary Sue
Just as there have been many attempts to classify what Mary Sue means, a whole set of definitions to nullify the term have also come up. These are just as subjective as the above.
Likability/Real World Popularity
The claim that likability nullifies any amount of Plot Bias, Character Derailment, implausibility, etc. Simple as that. Most people won't invoke just their personal feelings when using this, usually saying something along the lines of "well, millions of people do watch his antics every week". This interpretation is just as big a source of Flame Wars as its counter-part above. See also Quality by Popular Vote—however, it's not quite as obviously fallacious here as similar arguments usually are. After all, the original definitions of the term Mary Sue usually involved the claim that these traits made a character boring or unsatisfying to watch or read about. There's no real consensus about whether a character who technically fits any or all of the above definitions, but is also very widely enjoyed by audiences, actually qualifies as a Mary Sue or not.
The other influential Not A Mary Sue argument, this claims that having a Fatal Flaw (or two... four... four hundred) makes them not ideal and, thus, not a Mary Sue. As mentioned in Mary Sue as Idealized Character, this usually results in other extremes that aren't too desirable.
The claim that a character's Mary Sue status can be explained away by pointing out the plausibility of all the events. This kind of ignores the fact that most fiction is supposed to be about exceptional people. (Otherwise it's not interesting.) However, a major part of the issue with Mary Sues is that they break suspension of disbelief by being implausible within the setting. Many are willing to forgive a character on the basis of them not breaking SOD.
The claim that a Mary Sue is nullified if it is brought to the attention of the audience and turned into a meta-concept. The actual success of this may vary just like with any use of lampshade hanging.
The fact that a character was never really a "Chosen one" or suffered any abuse or heavy conflict often annuls a character of being called a Mary Sue. Unfortunately, this has almost become a full circle cliché from people trying to avoid being declared a Mary Sue that they make a mediocre "Middle class comfort" character.
No real life examples, please; this is a trope about how characters are depicted in media.