Who is Mary Sue?

I’ve been wondering this lately due to the frequency that reviewers seem to use it on Amazon for many Urban Fantasy novels.  I love this genre and get tired of uninformed people casting the term “Mary Sue” at every single female heroine.  This led me to look the term up and find out who the real “Mary Sue” is.  I was quite surprised by the answer because it was a lot more complicated than I first thought.  This is the first paragraph from Wikipedia on the subject:

A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfilment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional. While the label “Mary Sue” itself originates from a parody of this type of character, most characters labelled “Mary Sues” by readers are not intended by authors as such. Male Mary Sues are often dubbed “Gary Stu”, “Larry Stu”, “Marty Stu”, or similar names.

Further into the article, I discovered the identity of the original Mary Sue:

The term “Mary Sue” is from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story “A Trekkie’s Tale”[1]:15 published in her fanzine Menagerie #2.[2] The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”), and satirized unrealistic and adolescent wish-fantasy characters in Star Trek fan fiction. Such characters were generally original (non-canon) and female adolescents who had romantic liaisons with established canon adult characters, or in some cases were the younger relatives or protégés of those characters.

There is much more information on this if you should check wiki here, but I don’t want to take any more information away from the site.  I went on to check other sources so as to get a fuller picture of who “Mary Sue” might be and found the following information from tvtropes that gives a little more insight:

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series. (See Common Mary Sue Traits for more detail on any of these cliches.) In other words, the term “Mary Sue” is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

This is a link for common traits that have come to be coined with any character identified as a Mary Sue.  I’ll list a few below just to give you an idea:

1) Highly persuasive, regardless of the actual content of their conversations. Everyone finds her opinions are just better than their own – even when they’re usually stubborn bastards. This is especially likely in an Author Tract.

2) Is either brave and cheerful (despite her past), or unnecessarily mopey and depressed.

3) Her “major flaws” will be stubbornness and a bad temper. These will only ever help her, never hurt her — because she’s always right, so whatever cause she dedicates herself to with such stubbornness will be a good cause, and whoever she loses her temper with will deserve it.

4) Regardless of what skill level the canon characters have established, she might just simply be better than them, often in ways that do not make sense. See also: Always Someone Better, God Mode Sue.

  • Not to mention that if she isn’t already skilled at something, she’ll pick it up in a fraction of the time required.
  • That’s if she even needs to learn them at all.
  • Magical powers similar to what the other characters have, only with the limitations removed.

5) She tends to not have normal sex, but the most mind-blowingly divine sex ever, regardless of how experienced she actually is.

6) Skilled in a type of martial arts in a setting or with a backstory that doesn’t allow for it. Not regularly skilled either; she could kick the ass of the resident ninja of her choice.

7) She might have a waiflike figure, so slim and delicate… and yet her breasts are perky, supple D-Cups (because obviously, otherwise boys won’t appreciate her personality), totally disregarding the fact that in reality, the slimmer you are, the smaller your breasts are likely to be (though there are real-world exceptions, a few even natural). These breasts never get in the way, or make running difficult, or sag. If height and weight figures are given, expect it to violate physics (unless she’s made of Styrofoam or something).

  • This particular trait is magnified if her role in the story has her doing things that would require a lot of upper body strength and therefore bulk, such as wielding a sword or fighting hand-to-hand. It’s magnified even more if there are other female canon characters with similar roles who are built more like female mixed martial arts fighters. Having one lone waifish and delicate young girl in that group because the author thinks muscular women are gross-looking and to have that lone waif fight just as well or better than someone with more muscle mass despite her physical limitations is a bog standard Mary Sue trait.

8)She’s The Chosen One. Even if the canon hero is already The Chosen One, she either ‘shares’ the position or just steals it away from them.

  • Or she might be part of the same specialized species/organization as the hero. See Sailor Earth.
  • Alternately she is “destined to help the destined one fulfill their destiny” which pretty much means do all the real work except for the final blow so the prophecy isn’t technically wrong.

9) She might turn out to secretly be half-human, half-(insert species here). Or maybe just full (insert species here). Elf is extremely common, but any sufficiently human looking, “pretty” race will work. For added points, make her feel outright shame because she’s not human even though, if anything, it only makes her more beautiful and/or powerful.

10) Redeems the villain through her overwhelming goodness. Might be through Redemption Equals Sex (bonus points if it leads into IKEA Erotica). Even more bonus points if the story decides to mention that this is her loss of virginity. Yet more bonus points if the villain comments on how awesome she is in bed despite said virginity.

  • As she gives the most awesome, mind-blowing, divine sex ever, it obviously comes with super-redeeming powers. Yet, if the villain isn’t her choice love interest, her love interest of choice will be better at it.


There are many more examples, but I’ll let everyone to check the list for themselves.  It can actually get quite comical. Now, I can agree some of these really do show up in novels with strong female leads.  They are common devices used in all types of fiction, regardless of whether the lead is male or female. Yet having a couple of these factors does not make a Mary Sue.  She should have many of them.  Also, some of them are just bad choices on the author’s part.  I never understood how a virgin could be mind-blowing in bed unless she has been watching a heck of a lot of videos and/or underwent some special sex training that did all but break her hymen.

If you are writing a book and worried about whether your character is a Mary Sue, here is a great litmus test.  It is also good for making you think about your characters and story to ensure they makes sense and have no major issues that will be red flags to readers. I was reassured after taking it to discover mine (at least according to this site) was not problematic in most areas.  The few where I was guilty, it wasn’t enough to be worried about.

As an added bonus, there is another litmus test that can tell you if the race you created for your story is a “Mary Sue Race” (guess there are those too).

I hope this helps end some of the confusion as to who this mystery woman is (if you are like me and didn’t really know).  For the most part, it seems that Mary Sue originated in fanfiction and later migrated to genre fiction.  If you want to avoid getting one of your female leads coined by this term, you might want to take a close look at the list.  I haven’t seen any of the regular authors on here that are guilty of this (if I’ve read your book), but I have caught a few indies that were and they got reviews blasting them for it (not by me since I had no idea who the heck Mary Sue was until now).  It’s good information to know for future reference, if nothing else!

If anyone else would like to weigh in on this topic, feel free to do so.  I think it is something that should be discussed since it seems to be coming up so often in book reviews.

~ by Suzie on March 23, 2012.

5 Responses to “Who is Mary Sue?”

  1. I love your post, Susan. I too was curious about the origins of “Mary Sue” (but too lazy to do the research), so thank you for that.

    • Don’t feel too bad. I’ve been putting off for many months now figuring out who Mary Sue is. It was only after seeing a recent review that really went into claiming a book had such a character that I broke down and checked. In this case, the reviewer was absolutely right. The character was a Mary Sue all the way, but not all accusations of that are true. It was a good learning experience to do the research. There are so many cliches in the litmus test that I never even thought about. Not that you can avoid them all (I don’t think it’s possible) but at least keep them to a small number. Anyway, glad someone found this post helpful. That was what I was hoping for!

  2. Your posts are always helpful, Susan. Whether for solid information or just for a smile or a chuckle. There is a healing component to humor, you know.

  3. How interesting. I’ve seen that term in reviews too, but didn’t really know what they meant. I thought it just meant like an over the top good girl. However, based on this information, that’s not accurate. Thanks. 🙂

  4. Thanks for this article 🙂 I have loathed that term since I saw it gain popularity in a few critiquing groups who just labeled any female lead as a Mary Sue (yes, there were some overly sexist twonks involved in that) but now, knowing the history and actual meaning of the term, I can make a more informed statement about the accuracy of such descriptions in future 🙂 Happily I am yet to be accused of it myself!

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