Defining Character: the Mary Sue

If you think there’s going to be any rhyme or reason to these posts, then you’re sadly mistaken.

Today, after looking at some things, I wanted to talk about character types. Or to be more exact, one particular character type: The Mary Sue. I’m sure many people have heard of the Mary Sue and have hated the Mary Sue. And because of this hatred I feel it’s necessary to talk about her, or him. At least when it comes to fantasy fiction and not fan fiction. It’s only in published fiction that I think a Mary Sue is a problem.

In fan fiction they’re essentially harmless. Yes, they may completely break the rules of reality for the world, but it’s not like they’re canon. And they’re written for fun. They’re written by people trying to make themselves worthy to be with their favorite characters. After all, you have to be pretty impressive to get the attention of someone like Harry Potter or Legolas or Loki. Admittedly the characters are often out of character, but it’s wish fulfillment. It’s wish fulfillment and learning how to write. I think the Mary Sues in fan fiction might be a bit more acceptable if they were well written.

Lots of things are excusable if they’re well written. Including Mary Sues. In fact, if they are well written they no longer become Mary Sues. Which is what’s found in a great deal of published fiction. In fact a great deal of published characters would fail the Mary Sue test going straight into the abort and redo from start territory.

But they’re not.


Because of context.

Not so much the context of the story, but the context of the world itself.

Deep down, a Mary Sue’s biggest problem is that they don’t fit in. They’re exceptions to the rules and laws of reality and morality. Or the story’s reality and morality.( If we were to deal with things on our reality alone then nothing would work.) Because of this, while Wonder Woman could be considered a Mary Sue if she were in, say, the Firefly or Harry Potter universe, she’s not in the Superhero universes because they deal with things just as bizarre and ridiculous. In her universe alone there’s aliens who somehow manage to get super powers by being on Earth because the color of our sun is different, a ring that gives its wearer the ability to create constructs out of green (or other colored) energy, aliens that can ride motorcycle space ships without needing any protective clothing from the emptiness of space and so on and so on. And all sorts of characters that run around in tight costumes that shouldn’t really be possible. So, a woman who is made of clay and given life by a Greek goddess and has a lasso that lets her make people tell the truth isn’t so out of place.

She’s able to do things that other people in her universe can do.

So, not a Mary Sue.

However, if there is corollary to this, as mentioned with the second part of the definition of a Mary Sue – that is dealing with the world’s morality. A favorite example of mine is from Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series and involves comparing two characters: Eragon and Lord Barst. At one point in Brisingr, Eragon and Ayra run into a patrol of Galbatorix’ soldiers. They could have easily avoided them as they had about an hour’s leeway to find a place to hide or turn themselves invisible, as Eragon had done so a few chapters earlier. Their magical elven senses were able to pick out the patrol before the patrol could pick out them. Instead they end up deciding that they can’t do anything but wait for the soldiers to catch up with them and then they attacked the men, brutally killing them in manners that included punching one of the men through the ribcage. Then Eragon chases after a lone soldier who made a break for freedom and, though the man begs for mercy, claiming he was forced to join the army and he didn’t want to be there, Eragon snaps his neck, complete with the line “this will hurt you more than it will hurt me”.

Meanwhile Lord Barst is accused of ripping a man’s head off and burning the man’s family alive when he defied the order to join Galbatorix’s army.

Both of these actions are reprehensible, but we’re supposed to be okay with Eragon’s actions because he’s the Hero. The writing doesn’t get down upon Eragon for doing these things, but it does get down on Lord Barst for doing what he did. This fact that there’s nothing considered wrong with what Eragon does is what makes him a Mary Sue. He does something just as horrible as Lord Barst – if anything it’s worse because he could have avoided the situation – but we’re supposed to laud him and still condemn Lord Barst. Eragon only gets away with it because he’s the hero. And by making him the exception to the laws of morality, he becomes a creature out of place in his world and pushes him into becoming a Mary Sue.

There is nothing wrong with what Eragon does because he’s the protagonist. The protagonists in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series do things just as horrible as Eragon did, but we’re never expected to think they’re doing good things. A great many times the reader is utterly appalled at what happens and the other characters in the book are, too.

Thus it shows that it’s not the actions of the characters that make them a Mary Sue so much is the reactions of others. Especially when they contradict similar reactions to the same actions done by other people. The Mary Sues in fan fiction works follow this same pattern, however it’s more important that the published works should avoid the Mary Sue.

Published works are creating worlds with rules that the readers expect to be followed. They are creating the foundations of lives and stories. They have a higher standard to follow. Using a Mary Sue in a published work is a form of laziness and selfishness. The author doesn’t care that their pet character breaks the rules. The character is more important than the story and the laws. If they can’t find a way to create the same story without creating a Mary Sue then perhaps they should learn their craft a bit better.