Discussion The Mary Sue - what they are and why we should avoid them

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction and Writing Resource' started by Kurisan, Mar 20, 2017.

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  1. Kurisan Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Apr 26, 2016
    star 2
    Hello fellow forumites,

    It has come to my attention that with the term “Mary Sue” many of us have different ideas as to what exactly it means. This is not a surprise to me; I only learned it when a more experienced writer was kind enough to explain, and since then I have seen it thrown around as a derogatory critical term so often that it seems to me that it has expanded and mutated, and diluted in meaning.

    The purpose of this discussion is for everyone to present their idea of a Mary Sue – and please let us all remember these are opinions and it is just fine, indeed good, to have our own opinions. I'm looking forward to hearing other definitions and expanding my knowledge. But the other purpose is also to act as a guide for those who wish to avoid the dreaded trap of making a Mary Sue character.

    So, part one: What IS a Mary Sue? I believe these exist on three levels.

    Level 1: Sue Me
    This, as I understand it, is the original and “true” meaning of Mary Sue: The insertion of the author themselves into a story. I believe the legend goes that it was a Star Trek fanfiction written by a hopeless Shatner fan who inserted herself as “Ensign Mary Sue” onto the Enterprise. I have since heard that this itself was a parody of prior stories.

    Whatever the truth, the pure meaning is just about a writer putting themself into the story.

    But here I have to say, in my own opinion, that this is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, everything we write contains a little bit of our soul, our experiences, what we think of right and wrong. Every character has a little bit of ourselves within them – even those we create as villains are only so because they are doing things WE consider to be bad. We are all consciously or unconsciously transmitting messages through our writing and it is folly to try and hold back. It is in fact a good thing to draw on our experiences and relationships and use these to add authentic drama to our characters and tales.

    The problem, I see it, is when we try and idealise these characters that are acting as avatars in our stories. Which leads me to the next level of Sue...

    Level 2: Super Sue!
    This is, I believe, the most recognised definition of the Mary Sue these days: She graduated top of her class, at the youngest age in history, and is also the greatest sharp-shooter, and is also proficient in fifty languages, and can fight twenty stormtroopers in hand-to-hand combat, is an ace pilot, and can fix a hyperdrive in ten seconds flat. And is a Jedi Master. Oh, and did I mention she is stunningly attractive and every male character that has the fortune to encounter her in any story will fall instantly in love with her?

    Yawn. You can spot these Super Sues pretty instantly when writers give extensive infodumping about how beautiful (or cool, for the Stu’s) they are for several paragraphs while literally nothing happens in terms of plot. I’ve read fanfic stories with entire regiments of Mary Sues in this vein – peerless soldiers who have never lost a battle, ever.

    But here’s something to think about: We talk about balancing the “power” levels of characters, but is that any more realistic? Life is not a RPG where everyone progresses at the same points value. Sometimes one person will roll all the 6s, be more proficient/skillful/stronger than another. If we talk in terms of the Super Sue only, Gandalf looks a bit like a Mary Sue to me (he even came back from the dead lol), and to a lesser extent Aragorn (every female character he meets falls in love with him - and he's the only human who can resist the ring). What about Luke? He’s the only Jedi throughout the OT and even turns his dad with pure charisma.

    We all had that friend at school who was clever, in top set for everything, AND was good at sports AND was a really nice girl/guy to boot. As long as we don’t totally overdo it I – again as a personal opinion – don’t think it is necessarily a terrible thing to have “power level” disparities between characters. The original Justice League comics made a whole theme out of this when placing Batman – a regular guy, alongside Superman – functionally a god.

    The problems really occur, in my opinion, when a character is totally without flaw – or conflict. Which brings me to the ultimate Mary Sue…

    Level 3: Mother Theresa Sue
    This is the character that I think we really ought to try and avoid: Someone who always does the right thing, always makes the right decision, is loved by everyone around them, and suffers no conflict whatever throughout a story.

    Not only is such a character boring to read about, they are unrealistic. Truly altruistic people like the real Mother Theresa – who is rightly revered as a Saint – are very rare. But that doesn’t mean we have to make everyone a selfish b*stard either. It’s the struggle that makes a character interesting. Look at Han. He’s arrogant and totally self-centred for most of ANH. In fact, if you listen – really listen – to how he talks to almost everyone around him, he’s a complete a-hole! He’s much more fun than Luke, if you ask me. I love the bit when Luke’s trying to convince him to rescue Leia on the Death Star and he just says, “She’s rich.” Chewie growls, knowing Luke has hit the soft spot. It’s a very pure trope to work with, but it’s authentic and makes Han realistic as a character, to me.

    But he has an attack of morals at the end and overcomes his flaws to do something right. That’s drama. If Han were like Aragorn from the start, the ending would never have been so satisfying.

    So, that’s my understanding of Mary Sues, for now. I’ll bet others will have their own opinions. Let ‘em fly! Then maybe we can get into tips on to how to avoid them…

    As a suggestion for a third section, I'd like to introduce the Anti-Sues - villains who are totally 2-dimensional and just do bad stuff for the sake of it...

    K
    Last edited by Kurisan, Mar 20, 2017
  2. Cowgirl Jedi 1701 Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Dec 21, 2016
    star 4
    There is nothing wrong with author avatars. Most OCs are probably author avatars just a little bit, even if they're not intended to be. And that's okay.

    There is nothing wrong with beautiful/handsome characters who are good at pretty much everything, if they have some internal conflict(s) and/or personality flaw(s) to balance out their physical perfection.

    There is nothing wrong with characters who are universally popular, have no internal conflict and always make the right choices, if they have physical limitations to balance out their mental perfection. (Examples: homeliness, a physical disability, or a skill that, no matter how hard they try, they're just plain bad at it.)

    Characters who are both physically and mentally perfect, however, should definitely be avoided, unless their presence is some kind of plot device.

    Do you mean the kind of villain that when another character gets the chance to ask "Why?", he/she says, "Because I'm evil, duh!"?

    P.S. About Gary Stus. I've also seen them called Marty Stus, and I've always thought they were the exact same thing as Mary Sues, only male, though according to some stuff I've read recently, some people apparently don't agree.
    Last edited by Cowgirl Jedi 1701, Mar 20, 2017
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  3. Sith-I-5 Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Aug 14, 2002
    star 6
    There certainly seem to be a lot of interpretations of what makes one.

    My Agent Nifesta failed the online Litmus Test twice, and I eventually decided that I did not give a ****.

    The Level One Sue, original template of a Starfleet ensign, loved and reveered by everyone, saves the ship on first day, flawless; is what I accept as being a potential Sue.
    Last edited by Sith-I-5, Mar 20, 2017
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  4. Kurisan Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Apr 26, 2016
    star 2
    Hi @Cowgirl Jedi 1701

    Not sure I totally agree with that - note I'm not saying I'm right and you're wrong, just that I feel slightly differently about the matter. I sometimes see a writer accused of a Mary Sue who has no conflict and is perfect in every way go away then come back with, "Aha, now he has a limp!" or "Aha, now she can't play bass." It's kind of a cop-out or "false" flaw, in my opinion. I'm wary of using a physical disability as a "flaw", as if something is wrong with the character (and I'm sure that's not what you meant, don't worry).

    I'm the same with "lack of confidence" as a supposed mental flaw. I nickname it the Aragorn Complex. Everyone else loves the character and thinks they are King/Queen and can do anything they put their mind to, except the character himself or herself. Then, lo and behold, when they actually try they can do everything that everyone thinks they can do.

    So, to reiterate, I'm not saying your statement above is wrong - this is all about opinions and how we feel about characters. But, for me, it's the conflict that makes them non-Sues.

    EDIT: Hmmm the computer seems to have edited out my own example of a mary sue I struggled to correct. Never mind... /EDIT

    Yes, exactly. There are several levels to realistic villains, I think, from doing-bad-things-but-not-knowing-it to doing-bad-things-for-a-good-reason and it probably requires me thinking about another mini-essay.

    Thanks for answering. It's important to me to get other perspectives.
    Last edited by Kurisan, Mar 21, 2017
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  5. Chyntuck Force Ghost

    Member Since:
    Jul 11, 2014
    star 5
    I'll be back with comments on this discussion later, but for now I just want to link to a few resources on this topic on the boards:

    Three *very* old threads about Mary Sues here in Resource:
    Dispelling the myth - the Mary Sue problem (truncated thread, no backup on the Wayback Machine)

    Also, there was a discussion about Mary Sues in the NSWFF Writer's Support Group back in 2015 (the link goes to the post that initiated the discussion).
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  6. Tarsier Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Jul 31, 2005
    star 4
    Personally, I think the term should be banished in its entirety. It discourages writers from even attempting to write OCs, and I think that is just sad. Writers should be able write what they want. If readers don't like it, they don't have to read it. No need to resort to name calling.

    I do think there is one defining characteristic of a Mary Sue - the reader using the term does not like the character. There are so many canon characters out there that would fail any Mary Sue test, but they aren't called Sues because people like them anyway.

    (There was also some discussion of Mary Sues in the Fifty Titles in Search of a Story Challenge last year.)
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  7. Sith-I-5 Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Aug 14, 2002
    star 6
    I would agree with that.

    Apart from that first Trek writer doing the parody, I don't think that anyone ever referred to their own creation as a Sue or Stu, without someone else saying it first.
    Last edited by Sith-I-5, Mar 21, 2017
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  8. Ewok Poet Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jul 31, 2014
    star 5
    They absolutely and totally exist.

    Mental disabilities (especially when pictured wrongly) as flaws are my pet peeve. Anxiety is common enough, crippling anxiety is a characteristic of a variety of conditions, but most medicated folks can still be too "perfect".

    He's handsome!

    And that trope is so oooooooold. I'd rather have the opposite or the character having enemies and then getting into the I AM GOING TO SHOW YOU ALL phase, or have a small support network. More realistic, too.

    To me, this is Gary Stu. It's original fiction, not fanfic. I am not showing the author's name or anything. Imagine 30K words of...well, this.

    Show Spoiler


    [IMG]



    So, anybody "looking mildly academic" when in gym, boiees?
    Last edited by Ewok Poet, Mar 21, 2017
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  9. Sith-I-5 Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Aug 14, 2002
    star 6
    Can you get tonsillitis more than once?

    I thought that it was one bout, you take it out, as if it burst, the toxins were fatal to the system.
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  10. Ewok Poet Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jul 31, 2014
    star 5
    They grow back in many cases.

    Also, they can get spent, a lot, when somebody has allergies. Same for the uvula. Been there, I remember being surprised that I had no tonsils and then, six months later, surprised again that I had them.
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  11. Kurisan Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Apr 26, 2016
    star 2
    @Tarsier

    I understand where you're coming from, I really do, and I like this forum as a place to encourage rather than criticise - where we can feel uninhibited and just post for the fun of it.

    HOWEVER, I think when a writer is serious about improving and seeks help with that, these sort of terms can prove useful shorthand rather than explaining the same problems over and over again. Once we get familiar with something like the Turkey City Lexicon, it is quite useful to be able to say things like, "You've got a Sue here when you really need a Stapledon to come on and explain why, and cut the Brenda Starr dialogue here to get a smoother transition into the scene" etc.

    In fact, becoming familiar with the terms kinda helps in its own way as they help us to avoid a lot of the beginner problems.

    I'd say the problem in particular with Mary Sue is that it is thrown around too often as a blanket criticism, and what it actually means has become unclear. So it doesn't actually help the writer to fix it - and then it just makes us feel bad.

    So in that way I'm entirely in agreement with you: Don't say it unless you know what it means and you're trying to help a writer.

    (And right here on the JC forums - don't offer help unless it is specifically asked for)
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  12. Kurisan Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Apr 26, 2016
    star 2
    @Ewok Poet

    Aha, glad you showed up. I'm interested in what you consider different between a Sue and a Stu - aside from the usual gender discrimination over what we consider to be "ideal" male/female characters. I have a hunch it is about active/passive approaches to problem solving, but I've been wrong before!O:)

    RE: Mental disability depicted wrongly - don't get me started. All I can say is that it is not well understood - even by the professionals - so I suppose there is room for sympathy for those who at least try.

    RE: Your example Stu. Ugh. I couldn't even get past the first three sentences. I scanned on and saw the first sentence of the second paragraph. Let me guess; throughout the entirely of that passage, the only two active sentences were going to the gym (sorry, spending time in the gym, then going home and bathing/reading).

    That is what I mean about the tip-off for a Sue/Stu: the writer spends far too much time telling you how great they are rather than actually showing a kriffin' story!

    K
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  13. Kurisan Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Apr 26, 2016
    star 2
    @Sith-I-5

    Yes, I believe Sue has become shorthand (for some) for any character we do not like.

    I personally don't like that. It's not helpful to a writer. It's a lazy criticism - we don't think about why we don't like the character.

    And I'm 100% sure you don't do that - just so we're clear lol!
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  14. Sith-I-5 Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Aug 14, 2002
    star 6
    Just looked it up. Tonsil tissue can regenerate. So, if any is left behind, or the surgeon only partially removes the tonsil, it can grow back. If they do it right the first time, and extract the entire organ, the thing will not grow back.

    Pretty certain that I have never levelled that accusation at a fanfic character, though after a Youtube video spelled out the requisite conditions, and pointed towards some movie character who, with no training, had bested a lightsaber user taught by Luke Skywalker and Supreme Leader Snoke; knew more about the Millennium Falcon than her owner of thirty years, Han Solo; and got the bereavement hug from Leia that Chewie should have gotten, I cannot support extinguishing the term, just yet.
    Last edited by Sith-I-5, Apr 22, 2017
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  15. Nehru_Amidala Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 3, 2016
    star 5
    This is why I always create a character profile sheet for my OC's and look at it like I am creating an RP character.
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  16. Pandora Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Apr 13, 2005
    star 3
    I wrote this on the matter of Mary Sues in 2007.

    And now, nearly ten years later, I don't really have much to add to it. Basically, I don't care for the term--it is often used as a critically-lazy shortcut, and while I softened my words back then (after all, this was literally years before the explosion of anti-sue calling essays showed up on livejournal and such--if anyone else had written anything similar, I hadn't come across it) I won't now: it has lost any relevant meaning it ever had, and it is time for it to be tossed out an airlock. And oh yes, it is indeed used to describe "any (usually female) character I don't like." We have always had a positive and supportive approach to OCs here--it wasn't why I came, but it is why I'm still posting here--but in other places I've drifted through over the years, it's a different story, to go along with this general attitude of "How dare you put your own characters in the same universe as the characters we know and love!"

    (And yes, the italics are necessary.)

    Unfortunately, I was wrong about one thing: shortly after I wrote this, critic Laura Miller dragged the term into literary fiction in an essay on Salon.com. Of course, she was also addressing an audience to whom it meant nothing, so I don't feel too bad about keeping the staff in the closet.
    Last edited by Pandora, Mar 21, 2017
  17. Ewok Poet Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Jul 31, 2014
    star 5
    The wide audience is something else - they love to hate everything they love and they're freaky.
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  18. Cowgirl Jedi 1701 Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Dec 21, 2016
    star 4
    Fifty thousand words of..... that? Forget it. I forced myself to read the whole two paragraphs, but honestly, I lost interest somewhere around "a renaissance man wrought in breathing marble".

    Can you say "wall of text"?
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  19. Mistress_Renata Manager Emeritus

    Member Since:
    Sep 9, 2000
    star 4
    I think for me, it ultimately comes down to: If I am reading the story and rolling my eyes and thinking, "Oh, give me a break!" it might be Sue/Stu territory. And I think I've had some OCs who don't pass the test. I think you give them flaws, you also give them obstacles, and sometimes, they can't overcome those obstacles. Sometimes they fail. When they can fail, and learn from things, and succeed the next time, you're on the right track.

    There was a mention, in one of @Chyntuck's links, about the problem of Jedi. With all the "woowoo" Force powers, they run the risk of being Sues/Stus. I personally think they got way overpowered in some of the books, and seem more scaled back in the movies. Which might bring this thread back to the OC thread and a discussion of how not to make your OCs Sues/Stus, which was how this thread came into being in the first place...? 8-}

    I do have a Jedi character, and from the get-go, I decided that he was an AVERAGE Jedi. He didn't have any extra-super-special Force abilities, couldn't use telepathy, just had a regular blue lightsaber, and the Jedi mindtrick never, never worked for him (it was sort of a joke). I tried to have him solve problems using simple deduction, diplomacy, and some competent lightsaber work. He did end up many stories in the Healers' Ward. His last name wasn't Klivian, but it probably should have been...
  20. Kurisan Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Apr 26, 2016
    star 2
    @Nehru_Amidala I do that! :) It's the perfect way to make sure your skills are relevant and at the right level - the difficulty ratings for tasks keeps a track of what your character should/shouldn't be able to achieve, too.

    @Pandora Seems like I'm recycling a discussion from ten years ago. Almost exactly.:(

    @Sith-I-5 *gasp* are you suggesting that Rey... :eek: Well, yes, you have a point. :oops:I can get past most of it but I wonder how she got to be such a great pilot if she never went anywhere. [face_thinking] While we're at it, I thought Obi-wan was a bit too perfect at times in the prequels, too. I would have liked to see some more flaws in him for Anakin to rebel against.

    @Mistress_Renata I have to agree re: some Jedi in books written by the pros. It's OK to have superheroes with lightsabers, but when you build them up too much it seems lame when they do get beaten. See Trebor whats-his-name in Episode II. I think you have a neat solution there with your Jedi.
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  21. leiamoody Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 8, 2005
    star 4
    The Mary Sue Affair is a discussion that's been going on in fanfic circles even before people started hurking their stories up on the Internet. Sometimes it's a merited criticism, other times it's simply an accusation thrown against writers who deal almost exclusively in OC's (which wasn't so much of a problem back in the day of the print zine, because there were so many OC's that you almost couldn't publish a halfway decent zine without including some of the better stories).
    It's just a stupid term nowadays.
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  22. Tarsier Jedi Master

    Member Since:
    Jul 31, 2005
    star 4
    I gotta be honest, if a beta-reader gave me that kind of feedback, it would make me a little crazy. I'm sure it works for some people, but it wouldn't for me.

    Mary Sue has so many different meanings to different people, it's become a generic insult unless there is a lot of additional explanation. It seems to me, if a reader is going to take the time to leave constructive criticism, they ought to be able to spend a few extra minutes explaining specifically why a character is a Mary Sue. If a reader thinks an OC reads like a self-insert, why not just say that? Or that the OC seems too popular, overpowered, unrealistic, unrelatable? I think "It seems like a lot of canon characters are really smitten with your OC, that can be a real turn-off for some readers" is much more helpful than "Your OC is a Mary Sue."
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  23. Briannakin Grand Moff Darth Fanfic & Costuming/Props Manager

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Feb 25, 2010
    star 5
    First off, please remember not to double or triple post – we have unlimited editing time here and fanfic. Also, normally I would merge a post like this into something like the fanfic pet-peeves thread, but I feel like this is a big enough thing to warrant its own discussion thread.

    Okay, mod-voice off, and I’m going to try not to let this devolve into a super long rant.

    Like other people in this thread, I feel like the term Mary Sue(/Gary Sue) is a lazy critique/insult thrown around WAAAAAY too often. I feel like it has recently evolved (or perhaps devolved) into a term used by misogynists to classify representations of female characters who don’t fit their view of how women should be represented (particularly in sci-fi). Case in point, people were calling Jyn Erso a Mary Sue AFTER ONLY SEEING THE TRAILER. I could rant on, but this is about fanfic.

    Yes, there are some annoying one-dimensional original characters. I have seen the classic example of the original Mary Sue as defined by this quote “idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities”. But I think all the “tests” are bantha shavit. I hate to break it to people, but Luke and Anakin both fail any litmus tests, and probably many other Star Wars characters do too. So, yeah, I say don’t bother; the litmus tests are not made for a magical realm like Star Wars.

    I mean, yes, if you have a character that is universally loved and saves the day with no reason to be universally loved or no training that would have made saving the universe possible, you might want to work on character development. BUT I ALWAYS SAY PEOPLE WRITE FANFIC FOR FUN. Hey, if you have fun writing a young slave-boy that can take down entire droid armies with no formal training, just write it. Let the haters hate.

    I certainly have characters who have their “Mary Sue” moments -- but kriff it. No one wants to write or read a story about some Jedi who gets stuck in trade negotiations for their entire lives.

    Too long has the fear of the dreaded “Mary Sue” stopped people from having fun creating characters.


    This was probably everywhere, but my point is just kriff it. Write what you want to write. Have fun.
    Last edited by Briannakin, Mar 21, 2017
  24. Kurisan Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Apr 26, 2016
    star 2
    LOL I think @Briannnakin just won the thread.
  25. Cowgirl Jedi 1701 Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Dec 21, 2016
    star 4
    Yeah! Go Bri! You da winnah! [face_dancing][face_laugh]
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