Character Study: Mary Sue


The Strongest
Sep 3, 2015
The term Mary Sue has been thrown around a lot of time in varies content in the medium. Yet, no one seems to be unable to agree on a singular, consistent definition of the term. Instead, it lost whatever meaning it originally had and now being used as an insult or a description of characters that conform to one’s liking (especially if the character in question happens to be a woman). 

So, what exactly is a Mary Sue? What criteria does a character have to do to become one? Based on your definition, are Mary Sues a negative aspect in writing?

Based on the definition given, what are ways that makes a character not a Mary Sue? Are all main characters considered Mary Sues?

The purpose of this discussion is to find a common ground of the term to truly see what characters falls in that definition. It also serves to help us think more about our characters when we create stories—and be mindful of tropes, clichés and pitfalls associated with the term.
A typical Mary Sue is generally considered to be able to solve the plot with ease, ruining dramatic tension and emotion due to the overall simplicity of the execution of the plot. While not an exact definition, it's a start.

For example, Rey from Stair Wares: Teh Farce Engorges, is considered a Mary Sue due to ease of gaining mystical abilities despite previously established difficulties gaining and using them, with a jarring narrative feel.
In my opinion, a Mary Sue is a person who, no matter what, cannot lose regardless of the outcome or situation he/she is currently in. On top of not needing any support characters (Because they can practically deal with every mental and physical problem by themselves with flying colors) we never even care about the support cast because they are obsolete when the plot thickens. 

An example can be the following: It can be the end of the world and this villain is only able to be defeated by a very specific (and nearly impossible to get) item/method. Many powerful and notable people have tried it for several years and none have come even close (including Lil' Sue) which is heavily established in the story (it's the friggin plot). However, here comes Lil' Sue and literally pulled the solution out his ass (Sometimes not even the item or method needed) and defeats the villain, putting everyone else to shame and the entire build-up to that dilemma is pointless.

Now, I know this sounds familiar to every typical Main Character (Naruto, Goku, Ash, Luffy, etc) and while I agree that sometimes the show's method for Said character solving a problem is bullshit, I usually call this type of thing 'Main Character Syndrome.'

Main Character Syndrome is (in my opinion) more of an 'expected' outcome or rather one that we want to happen due to the story of the Main character. Each main character has a flaw (for the most part) and, to a degree, we can somewhat relate to their actions or characteristics because we know they are not perfect.

Naruto: Stupid, stubborn, and inexperienced ninja who wants to be the strongest in his village. Everyone heckles him that it's a stupid goal and he should give up because he's not strong/good enough.
After a billion episodes and through many hard wins and loses, death of friends, and destruction of his people, he finally manages to become the Hokage, showing to his village that not only was he capable but hard work and determination pays off.

Goku: Some alien from space who's race is bent on fighting and that's it. Turns out he's not very smart and is blunt, naive, and sometimes childish. Recklessly gets into fights and can forget that his actions have consequences. 
After a billion episodes, we know Goku wins his fights because he is training very hard just like everyone else and he's a Master of Martial Arts. Each fight shows us how far he and his friends have come in terms of battle.

Ash Ketchum: A stubborn, oblivious, and naive kid who will battle anyone if he is given the chance to. He often tries out new things and styles with little regard of his safety and can even spread to those around him, including their Pokemon. 
After a billion episodes, Ash is known to think on his feet as his friends stated. He's not the best but he's above average compared to most. He shows everyone that you don't need a team of fully evolved Pokemon to win battles. If you put as much hard work as your Pokemon do, you can expect great things in battle.
I'll be elaborating further, Grey's got the same idea of what a Mary Sue is like I do.

There's quite a lot of criteria to consider if we want to do a bit of a "litmus test". The criteria in my opinion, is more or less universal, but there are certain criteria that may be exclusive to fanfiction characters and original ones. However, just because a character may satisfy a small handful of criteria does not a Mary Sue make. I'll elaborate on this in a bit. We also have to consider the quality of the story's plot and its other characters in relation to the one under scrutiny. Some criteria can be nullified if we also look for traits that may De-Suify a character. The term arose in a certain sect of the fanfiction community, that much can be assured. Mary Sues however, contrary to popular belief, are not as obviously written these days if you believe just one or two criterion are all that it needs.

My "credentials": I used to write Mary Sues in fanfiction all the time before I got my shit together. I have read fanfiction of many types for years across Livejournal, Quizilla (defunct site that was originally intended to make fun quizzes and polls, not fanfiction), and Fanfiction.  :heeheee:

General Criteria
  • The character is conventionally attractive in more ways than one and is described like this by the author repetitively in either obnoxious detail or excruciating details in places that aren't appropriate times to do so. And by obnoxious, I mean OBNOXIOUS. The kind that not even the most vain person you know would describe themselves-- they go beyond even that.
  • Plot revolves entirely around them such that if they do not act to it, the rest of the world is essentially unmoving in terms of action until they show up.
  • "My life sucks, but a lot of conveniently good things have happened to me that would not happen to anyone else in my circumstance. My life still sucks mega dick and I'm going to whine about it a whole lot."
  • Dead Parents of Legacy whom left a legacy for their child to follow in their footsteps. Can be De-Suified.
  • Unusually dramatic/melodramatic background that just seems to stick out like a sore thumb against the setting and background of the other characters.
  • They create melodrama everywhere they go, and never apologize for it because nobody will get angry about it (or won't stay angry for long). Can also have sociopathic tendencies but the other characters will not perceive them as such.
  • Inexplicably obtain broken powers that the author doesn't bother to set sensible limits for, or applies limits when they realize the plot isn't going to progress if they don't have the power mysteriously stop working at that very second.
  • Everyone, even people meant to act antagonistically against the character, likes them OR likes something about them. Even the ones that hate their guts for some reason or another. Ex. "I really hate you, but I admire your [some trait that gets wanked repeatedly]".
  • Authority figures do not realistically punish any wrongdoings the character does, because it's justified by any applicable logic.
  • They seemingly are presented as if they are flawed, but their actions and personality and abilities contradict this completely. They may be over-skilled, which turns into plots or Deus Ex Machinas which essentially quickly resolve conflicts in the story. This is usually done so side characters may essentially shower the Sue with praise.
  • They are an over-idealized projection of the truth; a self-insert of the author, if you will. However, self-inserts in particular are a tricky thing since they may be de-Suifiable. A self-insert, or persona, may be a Mary Sue if the author is writing something that is intended to be taken seriously, but the complexities are merely a farce. Sue Inserts are a hybrid; they serve as wish-fulfillment and self-congratulatory fodder for the writer at the same time if they are written with no blatant flaws, or these flaws get fixed fairly easily. More on Self-inserts and my admitted on-the-fencedness about them below.
  • Their skill may outshine everyone else's or have a minor flaw that can be filled in by a supporting character who goes back to the bench when they fulfilled their purpose to the main character. The supporting cast essentially exists solely to either convenience the main character or temporarily create drama or friction with the MC. They are not given any chance for the reader to care about their fates in the story or their relevance. They lose their dynamic potential in favor of "developing" the Sue. (This development usually doesn't happen with a Sue; you are instead given an illusion that they've developed).
  • The character has a strange trait or hereditary disorder that does not exist. An example of this is the Violet pigment eye disorder; it was long debunked as a myth created by a fanfic author for their Sue as an excuse for the unnatural eye color. Is not a de-Suifiable trait if in a world where "unnatural" hair and eye color don't exist.
  • The plot is resolved in a less-than-satisfactory way because the Sue is just that good at solving problems! The plot may not even be a quality form of plot because the author is more preoccupied with making the MC way past cool rather than telling a compelling story and developing the world within it.
  • A completely blank slate-- arguably an anti-Sue-- that the reader can project themselves onto and fall under the illusion that the character is complex and layered with depth.
  • Essentially a God in a world of other mini gods-- "I can blow up entire universes with the snap of my fingers, cause I said so."
  • Oversimplified mental illnesses or trauma used by the Sue to force someone to love them and "fix them"-- a subgenre of Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Fanfiction-specific Criteria (can be added to list of general criteria when evaluating a fanfic sue)
  • In a relationship with a canon character that absolutely would not get along with them, let alone pursue romance. Bonus Sue points if the canon one happens to be in a relationship in-universe, but will defile that relationship for the Sue. Not applicable if it is unrequited love.
  • Sue essentially retells the original story to include them.
  • Child of 2 powerful canon characters and happens to possess the powers of their parents. Essentially a carbon copy of the parent characters rather than actually being their own person. Also possesses their personality traits, as if they were inherently genetic.
  • Born with unnatural hair and eye color in the universe that does not have such things.
  • "I'm just like a canon character, but a cooler version"
  • Manages to fix things in the plot that drastically alters development of canon characters. Essentially a timeline manipulator in a figurative sense.
  • Everyone likes them. EVERYONE. Even has a list of Friends, best friends, and frenemies. Their enemies are probably just enemies for a shallow thing about the Sue, and not because they are affiliated with the Hero cast.
  • Possesses a power that in the universe shouldn't exist.
  • "Fixes" a part of the plot the writer didn't agree with. May not be applicable if these 'parts' happen to be a commonly criticized thing by other fans and can fix the plot in a way that would improve the story.  Ex. Fixing the Soul Eater ending so it may continue into a more intricate 'new' story brought in by the author.
  • Villain Sue -- edgy and evil to show off how much stronger they are than the main characters. May also be brought in to induce drama between a second Sue and a canon character.
Self Inserts
I'm on the fence about them because they are generally harmless concepts that in theory, nobody would know about so long as the author didn't tell you outright. Hell, Stephen King infamously uses self-inserts, and he's one of the most lauded writers out there. So would a self-insert, regardless of how well or not the author writes them, constitute a Sue status? Not for me! 
If a self-insert is realistically written and is given their own set of flaws that make them feel real, I don't think they would deserve getting slapped with the Sue sticker.

A common issue is not that they are too perfect, if the author actively is writing their character out of self-criticism; it may be more that they are too boring to care about. Flaws that don't give any interesting facets about the character may contribute to this. 

Besides, I've heard many a time that people put a part of their selves in their OCs; maybe one has their angry side, another manifests their optimistic naivety for the world, etc. It'd be hypocritical of me to condemn self-inserts as nothing but bad when it's fairly common to insert a part of yourself in some of your characters often enough. It's all how you work with them that counts  ;)

Do  I consider a properly identified Mary Sue to be a bad thing? Well, I think Mary Sues are some of the most annoying and boring things to read about. But generally, it depends on the degree of Sue-ness and the circumstances; maybe they need to have some Sue traits in order for the adventure to begin (like Harry Potter).

What makes a character a non-Sue? Well, they feel real. They have complexity to them; they act differently according to different facets of a situation. The character has more to them than a few adjectives, part of them remaining a slight enigma until the plot begins progressing in such a way to reveal more about them and how they'd react to many different things. Some bits of De-Suifying traits, in my opinion are:
  • You write things to poke fun at the character's faults, and/or make it a running gag. Maybe it becomes its own source of conflict.
  • The character sometimes does things impulsively without rational thinking of the consequence that impacts how other characters see them in a potentially negative light. Further De-Suifiable if the other characters will call them out on it.
  • They are reckless (either sometimes or continuously), rush into fighting without thinking, and gets their shit pushed in. Bonus points if they get berated by their allies afterwards about it. 
  • The character has a flaw, weakness, or some form of physical  disability they cannot compensate for in any way on their own. (Or at all! Sometimes there's nothing anyone can do to help).
  • The character has a debilitating fear, or cognitive disorder that greatly affects how they can respond to situations in less-than-desirable outcomes.
  • You character has to rely on others for help because they realize they cannot do everything by theirselves.
  • They question their own morality and/or others question their morality. Maybe they'd admit to being wrong even if they didn't mean it because they didn't want their supporting cast to disapprove of them.
  • They have flaws that make them insecure to their core, or they have fears/trauma that no amount of love or kisses can melt away. This trauma also has been extensively looked into so you can portray it with tact.
  • the MC is a subverted trope, or portrays non-Sue traits that make them interesting for being a certain species (i.e. a vampire who has no moral issues with killing humans and thus is a manipulative sociopath that no number of pretty pixie dream human girls can civilize)
Are all main characters Sues? Again, my answer is it depends! Perhaps they have outlandish strength that nobody has managed to successfully outdo-- like Saitama from One Punch Man, but is ultimately not a Sue because he is 1) Bland looking/Bald despite being a young man, so he doesn't get any ladies... lol 2) he's a penny pinching miser and is not ashamed about it 3) Blunt in speaking to the point of insulting others 4) is an anti-Sue because nobody takes him very seriously even when he demonstrates his power through inopportune times (such as destroying Sea King after ~10 C-S class heroes attempted battle. Civilians instead held more respect for the fallen heroes because they believed they weakened Sea King, and Saitama just landed a lucky final blow). 

Rey from The Farce Engorges (as Grey has said) may fall under category of a Sue because
  1. She has no memory of her parents besides being alluded to as people who abandoned her on a desert planet, but the Force has resonated with her enough for her to be able to wield Luke's saber. Because the Force "works mysteriously".
  2. She was immediately able to start using her powers without any training.
  3. Was able to fly the Millennium Falcon and impressed Han Solo (you know.. the guy who can drive it) even though it apparently was the only one of its kind when she and Finn found it.
  4. She's done a lot in the movie without much intervention from the supporting cast; a contrast to this is Jyn from Rogue One. (Granted her team all died, but they accomplished something significant enough that without them, the plot wouldn't have progressed like it did).
  5. Is being foreseen as the one to counter Kylo Ren, and will presumably train under Luke Skywalker since she found him (we'll see how this goes in EP8, seeing as it is titled The Last Jedi).
  6. Hasn't been shown to have any crippling flaws in her personality yet, unlike her companion Finn who considered abandoning everything and backing out at some point in the movie. For now I could consider her a blank slate in the storytelling department besides "jaded cynical teenager". We'll have to wait for the next movie to come out to really be sure of her status as a possible Sue.
I don't remember enough things to De-Suify her because it was so long ago. you could argue Luke and Anakin were sues at one point in the story as well but later became De-Suified with later installments. 

This got really long so I better get some fookin likes
Rey shows a lot of Sueful power traits, with the entire lack of a personality besides the "I'm an orphan wah" melodrama she's very much a Sue in Episode 7. I could go into a discussion about how that movie needs to be judged on it's own rather than the half baked story it is that ends with a direct tie into the obvious sequel for little narrative payoff, but that would be derailing.

I had a whole thing typed up about Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes in the BBC adaption showing how much their personality suffers (not that they become boring or bland, but how much their power effects them) due to their Sue levels of power, and then all of the effects from that personality damage causing issues, but I'm not sure if it's truly revelant.
I think an important distinction to make is the difference between Sue overpowered, and narrative approiate overpowered.

A Sue overpowered is where the narrative ends because the Sue main character can just beat up the plot.

Regular overpowered is a god the main character fights for the favor of to rewrite reality.
After reading that long list, main characters being sues seems to get a bit muddled. I don’t think a main character, overpowered or not, should fall into that name. Mary Sues should be characters that suddenly good at everything with no flaws whatsoever, gets the girl/guy, suddenly gain excellent guitar skills, and start slaying monsters left and right with little to no explanation.

Superman isn’t a Mary Sue. He had character dynamics (and especially depending on the comics/writers) constantly at war at himself. Goku and Satoshi aren’t also mary sues because of the sheer numbers of things that counteract their personalities, their losses and their overall effect in the plot. I don’t think Rey qualifies that based on the list you shown.

When the plot stops engaging and bends over the will of the character, I think that’s where the definition of the mary sue should qualify. I think Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a character that was basically a god in anything he did for one example.
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