Recently, I’ve seen quite a few posts about Mary Sue characters cross my dash that I don’t feel accurately deconstruct or understand the term. As someone who feels very strongly about the representation of women in media, (and as someone who has been reading fan fiction since the age of Yahoo emailing lists and live journal) I felt the need to write an article on the subject. Hopefully this will help inspire some writers and settle the concerns of others.
1. What Is a Mary Sue Character?:
The term “Mary Sue originates from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story “A Trekkie’s Tale" published in her fanzine Menagerie The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue ("the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old"), and satirized unrealistic Star Trek fan fiction. The best fan written definition I have come across can be found: here
In essence: A Mary-sue character is a female character that shares three major characteristics:
- They are poorly written and one dimensional with incredibly predictable personality traits.
- They are the romantic interest of nearly all the male characters within the text.
They are infallible in many ways. Including but not limited to intelligence, battle prowess, wit, and the consequences of their own actions.
What I believe most people who criticize the Mary Sue trope are missing, is that these characteristics all have different weights of importance to the development and identification of a Mary Sue character.
The most important characteristic of the three is the first listed: That Mary Sue characters are poorly written.
The reason that this is the most important characteristic is that without this aspect of the term, many of the strong amazing female characters who you would never even dream of considering “Mary Sue” characters would have to fall underneath the term.
It is the defining difference between characters of quality who happen to be strong and interesting and compelling, and characters who seem to have inherited these personality traits from osmosis. Meaning that the difference between a strong/diverse female character and a Mary Sue is the quality of character development and (in many cases) the understanding of well studied character design.
Without understanding the importance of this particular aspect of Mary Sue characters, the following characters would be considered Mary Sues: Xena, Martha Jones, Anne of Green Gables, Eowyn, Rose Tyler, Sailor Moon, Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Katniss Everdeen, Allison Argent, Lisbeth Salander etc.
As you know, these women are decidedly NOT Mary Sue characters.
The list above is designed to showcase how vital being “poorly written” is for a character to qualify as Mary Sue. There is a certain… laziness that is associated with the personality and character development arc of known Mary Sue characters (Like Bella Swan for example). And one cannot be defined as a Mary Sue character without it…