What the fuck is a Mary Sue?
That’s…surprisingly difficult to answer. It’s kind of like porn. “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it” kind of deal. It doesn’t help that there a several sub-species of the Mary Sue (i.e. the Anti-Sue, the Sympathetic Sue, the Jerk Sue, etc.), all of which are very different from each other but still undeniably Sues.
Let me quickly address the gender thing. A lot of people are quick to label any powerful femme character as a Mary Sue. These people are called sexists, and we will be ignoring their opinion in this article. While the liberal use of the Mary Sue accusation against femme characters is sexist, the Mary Sue trope itself is not, as it can be applied to characters of any gender, despite the feminine name. So we’re going to be diving into what the Mary Sue actually is and why it’s harmful.
Which means we first have to define the damn thing. So again: what the fuck is a Mary Sue?
Some people say that it’s an idealized version of the author written into the story. But author-inserts have been going on for centuries without anyone getting pissed about it. (See: Luke Skywalker being an insert for George Lucas.) So it’s not that.
Most people say that it’s an overpowered character. Like, really overpowered. The one who can do literally anything and everything without breaking a sweat, or who learns impossible skills impossibly quickly. But while that’s a common feature (and mandatory for the God-Mode Sue), it’s not what makes a Sue a Sue. The Anti-Sue is specifically a character who is laughably incompetent, yet everyone loves them anyway. Which leads us to our next contender:
Mary Sue is someone that all the other characters absolutely love and fawn over no matter what—unless they’re the villain, of course, and that’s how you know they’re the villain because they don’t like the Sue—and that’s…actually, that definition is much closer to the truth. But it’s still not quite on the mark, and here’s why:
A Mary Sue has little to do with the character themselves and more to do with the story and characters surrounding them. A Mary Sue, for whatever reason, warps the universe around them. They are the center of their own world.
Now, this is not the same as having a story centered around a main character. In those stories, the main character may be the star of the show, but they are not the center of the universe. The world isn’t constantly observing their every move, and the other characters have their own narrative arcs. We may see the story through the main character’s eyes, and they may have a major role to play in that story, but they’re just one part of the whole.
A Mary Sue story, on the other hand, makes everything about the Sue. Whether the universe is literally conspiring against them to take away every single thing they care about in a mountain of misery porn, or how miserable a group of people are until just the right person waltzes into their lives to fix all their problems and make everything better, or how the plot is just the Sue being better at everything than everyone else, the story is 100% about the Mary Sue.
A while ago I started reading the series The Clan of the Cave Bear, a historical fiction. The first couple of books were fun to read, but I stopped after book three. Everything about this world is about Ayla, the main character. Every single character we meet has to comment on how beautiful/smart/sexy she is (again, unless they’re the villain, at which point it will be their soul mission in life to destroy her because SHE’S SO PERFECT GUYS, AND THIS VILLAIN JUST CAN’T HANDLE IT). She never makes any mistakes. Anything any of the other characters do, she can do better, though of course they still love her and bear her no ill will or jealousy (again, except for the villain). Despite having their own issues/families/tribes to worry about, the primary concern of all of the other characters is Ayla. It just got really boring.
In other words, a Mary Sue story is an empty story. It does not exist without the Sue. If you were to remove Harry Potter from Harry Potter, you would still have a world and a story, albeit a very different one. Voldemort would be rampaging around the wizarding world, Snape would be whining after a dead Lily and taking his anger out on hapless students, and Neville would probably have to step up as the Chosen One with Ginny as his bully-punching bestie and Luna as his adorable sweetheart. All of the characters have their own narrative arc, even the ones closest to Harry like Ron and Hermione, and while those arcs are undeniably affected by Harry’s very presence, they could still exist without him.
So, for the writers out there: you can have a character who’s overpowered, or has an implausibly tragic backstory, or is inexplicably really popular and lovable. But when every single thread of the story wraps around them, then you have a problem. The universe does not revolve around any one person, so it shouldn’t revolve around your character.