Often, especially deluded, obsessive, or unimaginitive writers of fan fiction write themselves into their stories, in a role that usually fulfills their fantasies. "Mary Sue" is the generic term for this character, and the story itself, as in "Wow, buffygirl_23 really cranked out a first-rate Mary Sue this time!". Usually, Mary Sue is attractive, smart, witty, and anything else the author wishes he/she was. Mary Sue frequently saves everybody, and earns the respect (and often the hot, sweaty monkey-love) of the actual characters from whatever movie or TV series the story is about.

I support everybody's right to produce fan fiction of whatever quality they desire and are capable of producing. The really funny thing about Mary Sues though, is that many have been published as "official" series novels! Many a Star Trek novel features a minor character who is the same gender as the author and seems to get an inordinate amount of attention paid to them. :^)

Mary Sue is no longer simply a name for an author inserting themselves, but a parasite attaching itself to Fan fiction that was once good and holy. Within the past few years, as fan fiction became more and more popular, people have mutilated and bloodied the art.

Fan fiction, for the sub-rock dwellers, is a genre of mostly internet writing that borrows setting, and characters, for an original plot. However, these days, people don't understand the concepts of planning. They simply plop crap onto a word processor and upload it to websites such as www.fanfiction.net, that don't have a filter system.

While Mary Sue's are commonly pretty, intelligent, perfect, and have every guy swooning for them, there is the other side; the Angsty Sue. In order to be more original many authors have turned from making the ideal person, to creating an ideal horrible situation. These Angsty Sue characters usually have broken homes, evil step-relatives, a dead friend or parent, and are usually cutters, suicidal, into 'punk' music, angry and badass.

Angst in fan fiction is ok, and an intelligent original character is also decent. What writers of Mary Sue characters don't know, is realism. Authors aren't discouraged from writing original characters, but sifting through fifty new Mary Sue fan fiction to reach a gem is tedious work.

The best advice for any author is "write what you know" and most authors know themselves better than anyone else (or at least they should; abject lack of self-awareness doesn't often accompany good writing skills). Consequently, most well-written, well-rounded protagonists are based at least partially on the author's own life experiences, fears, loves, etc. combined with his or her observations of other people along with a healthy dose of imagination.

When a person (usually a non-writer) says that a Mary Sue (or her male counterpart, Gary Stu) is the inevitable result of an author inserting him- or herself into a story ... that's pretty clearly bullshit from the "write what you know" standpoint. And unhelpful bullshit at that; I've heard from many a beginning writer who got completely stuck on a story because he or she felt it was somehow wrong to write about personal experiences in fiction, for fear of creating a dreaded Mary Sue.

The term "Mary Sue" comes from Paula Smith's 1973 Star Trek parody "A Trekkie's Tale." The story features 15-year-old Lieutenant Mary Sue as a send-up of all the adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies that Smith had seen in Trek fan fiction.

The problem with a Mary Sue isn't that she's based on the author. The problem with a Mary Sue is that she's unrealistically flawless: the author can't imagine anyone better than Mary Sue ... and consequently she's dull as dirt. She's pure wish-fulfillment without any regard to what makes for an interesting, growth-worthy character and compelling conflict.

Mary Sue is often a teen prodigy. She's beautiful. She's super-smart. Her hair and eyes are a rare color. Her clothes are fabulous. She had a tragic childhood in an exotic country but emerged plucky and upbeat (and probably inherited a lot of money in the process). She excels at everything she tries: cheerleading, singing, horseback riding, gymnastics, mathematics, piloting, martial arts. She's the first to figure out the puzzle and she wins every fight.

There isn't any compelling conflict in a story with a Mary Sue protagonist because there's never any real question as to who will be victorious: Mary Sue will. Immediately. Without mussing up her hair. So dull.

There are several Mary Sue quizzes around on the Web to help you determine whether you've got a Sue on your hands; some are better than others. From my perspective, the key to avoiding creating a Mary Sue, even in superhero fiction, is to focus on making a character who's believable within the world you've created.

It's a given that your character is probably going to be an above-average person, particularly if you're writing a fantasy, and that's fine: the key is to make sure your character has interesting flaws* he or she is trying to work around or overcome as well. If your character had a genuinely tragic childhood, chances are good that he or she will be carrying around some emotional baggage that makes her less than upbeat and plucky all the time (but try to avoid excess teen angst, because Angsty Sues are just as annoying as Mary Sues. Remember: interesting flaws, not annoying ones). If your character is super-good at gymnastics, chances are that he won't be much good at puzzles. And if he's good at both, he's probably hyper-focused and perfectionist and spends a lot of time with his books and pommel horse and not a lot of time with other people. Consequently he doesn't have a lot of friends, doesn't have a lot of patience for people he sees as less capable than himself, and generally doesn't know how to play well with others.

Always remember: good conflict emerges from character interactions, and characters should be changed by the conflicts they survive.


* Character "flaws" can be largely subjective, and situational. Every character trait has potential positives and negatives. For instance, being energetic is usually thought of as a good thing, right? Consider a naturally-energetic, intelligent character who is good at sports and can hunt zombies for 36 hours straight ... but who also finds it difficult to sit still for long periods, and consequently he doesn't have much of a clue about computers and doesn't read books. He may have convinced himself that reading isn't that important ... until the day he's desperately got to send a message to his team, and all he's got is a malfunctioning PC, and for the first time in his life he's got to RTFM or he's dead.

The dark side of self-confidence is arrogance; for prudence, it's cowardice; for persistence, it's stubbornness, etc. It may help to think of characters as having traits that help them achieve their goals within a story along with traits that will complicate/hamper their efforts rather than focusing on "flaws" per se.

I should know better than to wade into this quagmire.

I have seen on more than one occasion the claim that the term Mary Sue has been over used to the point of complete and total meaninglessness. Bella Swan is a Mary Sue because a vampire falls in love with her despite her complete lack of personality, Superman is a Gary Stu because he's pretty much invincible and exist to be a perfect savior, Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres is a Sue because he's smarter than an child has any right to be. Yada, yada, yada.

Well I'm going to argue that Mary Sue is a valid category and further more I will argue that no character, no matter how powerful, pretty, smart, cool, or adjectiriffic is ever a Sue because of those qualities. Rather, what makes a Sue is the way the setting and the writing relate to them. The core of the Sue is that the world revolves around them. If characters exist they exist only in relation to Sue. If an attractive person of the opposite sex exists he will fall for Sue and his love for her will consume his every thought. Bad people will pick on the Sue, becoming obsessed with one-uping/demeaning/humiliating her. Most character's moral alignments can be judged on how friendly they are to Sue and how quick they are to agree with her opinions. Antagonists will either be unpleasant in some way that is obvious to her or attractive and redeemable. Likewise, all scenes are about Sue whether she is present or not. If she's there then it's all about her. If she's absent the conversations will be about her. If the conversations aren't about her then they're fore shadowing something in her future. No world building, no unrelated character development, it's all Sue all of the time.

Not every narrative that fits these points will host a Sue. Some stories are going to stay in the protagonist's point of view throughout, some are going to have heroes that are really good and wise and disagreeing with them is usually bad. What makes a true Mary Sue is that the story is for the character rather than the character being for the story. Not only is any tension removed (I would argue stories are typically formulaic enough and tragedies rare enough that this is true for a lot of tales anyway) but any notion of coherent causality is stretched if not broken. Sues are about wish fulfillment at our core we all want a life that is interesting and meaningful and entirely more convenient than reality.


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