W

hat is a Mary Sue? This much-maligned character type is often the subject of fierce online debate, and pinning down a precise definition requires sorting through swaths of debate and disagreement. In this post, we will be explaining everything you need to know about the Mary Sue trope. We’ll get started with a definition, then examine why this type of character is so derided, look at some examples, and attempt to end things on a positive note by searching for a silver lining.

Mary Sue Meaning

First, let’s define Mary Sue

There is a lot to cover when unpacking the Mary Sue definition as the term is hotly contested. If you encounter any other unfamiliar terms, our ultimate guide to writing terminology is a helpful resource for looking up definitions for terms like Chekhov’s gun or script doctor.

MARY SUE DEFINITION

What is a Mary Sue?

Mary Sue is a derogatory criticism for a character that fits either or both of two character archetypes; 1: an author-insert character used for wish-fulfillment and/or 2: an idealized character who is talented at everything and has no meaningful flaws but may have a tragic backstory. These characters often fit both definitions but may also only fit one or the other.

The Mary Sue trope is primarily applied to female characters but some apply the term without gender barriers. The male-specific equivalent is sometimes referred to as a Gary Stu, Marty Stu, or other variations of similar names.

This derisive term is informal, and there is quite a lot of debate and disagreement over the precise characteristics. Certain circles insist that a true Mary Sue character must fit both of the above archetypes. Others suggest that the character only needs to fall into one of the two archetypes to be classified as a Mary Sue.

The term was coined in 1974 within a work of Star Trek fan-fiction that was meant to parody idealized author-insert characters. The derision of author-insert characters in general, however, stretches all the way back to literature circles of the 1800s. Though the term began in relation to fan fiction and literature, it is also applicable to other forms of storytelling such as theater, film, and television.

Mary Sue Definition

  • Can refer to author-insert characters
  • And/or idealized female characters lacking flaws
  • Began in fan-fiction but can be in all storytelling formats

Mary Sue meaning

The case against Mary Sue characters

The Mary Sue trope is frequently misused and misattributed online. Some commonly expressed but incorrect definitions include: a cliched character backstory, a female protagonist that readers/viewers dislike, or a character that is generally poorly written. 

There are also individuals who use the Mary Sue trope and label for thinly veiled misogyny against any disliked female characters in prominent roles.

What does Mary Sue mean in regards to sexism

Though the term is sometimes used for sexist arguments, the term itself as a point of criticism is not inherently sexist. Condemning weak or lazy writing based on idealized author-insert characters is perfectly valid criticism. But it is important to acknowledge that male Mary Sues (or Gary Stus) are just as, if not more, prevalent in the grand scope of storytelling.

Character examples

Mary Sue examples in film

Just as there is debate over the definition of the Mary Sue trope, there is also debate over whether or not particular characters qualify as Mary Sue examples. Since the term is informal, there is no concrete ruling on whether or not any given characters are true Mary Sue examples.

Rather than a yes or no ruling on whether or not a character is a Mary Sue, we have something closer to a sliding scale of acceptance of the term. At one end of the scale, we have characters like Bella from Twilight, Anastasia from 50 Shades of Grey, and James Bond, who are all widely accepted as examples.

Toward the middle of the scale, we find some disagreement over whether or not certain characters are Mary Sue examples such as Harry Potter, Superman, or Katniss from The Hunger Games.

Then, at the extreme end of the scale, there are characters whose status is hotly debated. This is the area where online discourse frequently gets extremely heated and often messy. This includes characters like Captain Marvel, Rey from Star Wars, and Katara from Avatar.

The Mary Sue is a character type to be avoided. But, can an author-insert character ever be a good thing?

Exceptions to the Rule

Can an author-insert character be good?

It is best practice to avoid writing a Mary Sue character in the vast majority of instances. However, there are certain situations where an author-insert character (lacking the flawless & idealized portrayal aspect) may be a viable option as a story’s protagonist. One place where the author-insert character often makes an acceptable home is in the coming-of-age genre.

Coming of age films

Many of the best coming of age films have an auto-biographical or semi-auto-biographical nature to their storytelling. And in instances such as this, an author-insert character makes perfect sense for the role of the protagonist.

Films like Almost Famous, 20th Century Women, and This is England all pull heavily from the lives of their creators, and the protagonists essentially serve as author-insert characters.

In This is England, writer/director Shane Meadows even cheekily named the protagonist Shaun Fields to illustrate the auto-biographical nature.

Watch the full film  •  This is England

If you are telling a deeply personal story, then an author-insert character might make sense for your protagonist. Just be sure to make them a complex and flawed character and ensure that they have a character arc. Follow our do's and don’ts of protagonists for more tips. In all less personal stories, it is best to avoid author-insert characters outright.

UP NEXT

What is a Character Study?

That was everything you needed to know about the Mary Sue character type in dramatic storytelling. Character studies are a great place to turn to when looking for examples of complex and flawed characters. Up next, learn what a character study is and take a look at both classic and recent examples.

Up Next: Character studies explained →
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