Writing: The Mary Sue (and Why I Hate That Term)

When I first started writing, I did what most young girls did. I created a new character (usually female), threw her into a show or book I liked, and either rewrote what had happened in the show or set it after the show was over. And I will be the first person to admit…those stories were awful. I had no concept of how to plot, and because my brain functions so highly on visual input rather than audio, there would be far too many details. I also had no concept of what made a good or balanced character. I just made what I thought sounded cool and what I wished I could be if magic was real.

Cue the many cries of the fandoms in question declaring my character a Mary Sue.

Eventually, I learned what that term meant. I tried to do better, to not go so far in my characters. But remember, I’m a fourteen year old girl. I just want to have characters that I think are cool and happen to be my own gender in shows I like, since many of the shows/movies/books in question at that time were focused on making the boys cool and the girls…pretty twirly love interests with no real substance. None of it worked, and I even left one fandom that I loved, no longer able to tolerate their views on anything that deviated from the blessed, misogynistic canon.

Thus started my hatred for the term Mary Sue, and honestly as an adult and trained writer? I still hate it.

Once upon a time, a Mary Sue was a character who could do nothing wrong, knew things she had no right to know, and clashed with whatever fandom she was put into so bad, it was jarring. I mean throwing a magical girl into Lord of the Rings, jarring. Obvious author inserts were also lumped into this category (never mind that people like Mercedes Lackey do this in their original work). It originated from a Star Trek fanfic, and it’s just grown in infamy.

Now? Now it simply means a character has traits that people may or may not like. Is your character attractive and ends up in a romantic relationship with a male in the show? Mary Sue. Can your character sing and/or dance? Mary Sue. Has anything happened in the backstory that could be considered tragic? Mary Sue. Since the wonders of Twilight, is your character a klutz? Mary Sue. If you’re dealing with a fantasy story dealing with nobility at all, is your character nobility or royalty (and maybe doesn’t know it)? Mary Sue. And if your character is perfectly ordinary and has nothing special about her except MAYBE ending up in a relationship with a male in the series? Not only is your character a Mary Sue, it’s a BORING one. Do you see how ridiculous this is?

What makes it worse is the term has made its way to describing original fiction characters, which really blows my mind. I understand the main character maybe being poorly balanced or written, but I don’t understand how they can clash with their setting as poorly as a Mary Sue is supposed to…unless it’s because again, we are using the word to simply describe a character we don’t like, rather than what it is supposed to mean.

Let me make it even worse. There isn’t a definite name for male Mary Sues. Some call them Gary Stus, Marty Stus, or just male Mary Sues. It is nearly impossible to write one, either. Why? Because male power-fantasy characters are easily accepted in our current society. Seriously. Batman, Indiana Jones, Anakin Skywalker, even friggin’ King Arthur himself. All of them if they were female? Would be labeled as Mary Sues. But as male characters, they are accepted and are even made to be some of the greatest characters ever.

But their female counterparts are turned into one of three things or a combination of them. Helpless damsels in distress who are constantly kidnapped (because sadly, Guinevere becomes this way too often, and Indy can’t KEEP a girl). They get trapped in being the girly love interest whose supposed moments of awesome are just annoying or make no sense (Padme, I love you, but you play pretty pretty princess and awkward love interest and that’s it). Or they get hypersexualized until girls no longer want to read the comic (…the entire comic industry, really, is this. And much like Indy, Batman can’t keep a girl).

And when there is a strong, feminine, powerful character for female power fantasy? Mary Sue.

As I said earlier, I still hate the term, just in general. I wish instead, we could say, “I don’t like the character for x reasons.” Because then we could have a healthy conversation about the reasoning behind it. And honestly, that’s my response to original work too. If someone tries to say my main character is too perfect or too tragic, I want to know what specifically bothers them, so this way we can have a discussion about it. Is there a possibility my character is out of whack? Yes. But there is also a chance that this is just the patriarchal structure of our upbringing talking.

And I don’t know about other writers (except Tamora Pierce, she’s all sorts of awesome about this), but I’m pretty determined to get some female power fantasy characters out there who aren’t dependent on romantic love.

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About Rebecca M. Horner

A spinner of yarns (of the story sort, though I do crochet...and sew, and learning to make armor...) View all posts by Rebecca M. Horner

2 responses to “Writing: The Mary Sue (and Why I Hate That Term)

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