Who's Mary Sue?

If you've heard this term, then you're one step ahead (knowing is half the battle, and all that). A Mary Sue is a character that is perfect, the one that has or does cool things just because they're cool, and everybody likes them except for people who get their comeuppance in the end. Mary Sue is the author's wish fulfillment.*

Sue is most common in fan fiction. You know, where the author's character is best friends with Luke Skywalker or Jean-Luc Picard, or the author's favorite minor character becomes the star of the show (e.g. Wesley Crusher and Boba Fett).

There's nothing wrong with having a Mary Sue in these contexts; the purpose of this kind of fiction is to live out a fantasy, right? But if you're trying to get published, you want to do away with Sue. Sue is the mark of an amateur, flat, stereotypical, and -- once a reader realizes what's going on -- totally unlikable.

And I have a confession to make. I don't like making it because it's going to ruin my book for all of you, but... Sam Draper is totally a Mary Sue. He's not as bad as he could be, but: named after a pirate in my family tree, wears a cloak because it's cool, most feared pirate in history, most skilled elite soldier in history, and never loses a fight except against his rival.

Now, I'm not a terrible writer. I realized when I started Air Pirates that I had to give Sam a reason for the cloak and his fighting skills (and I did). I knew I had to make him flawed, so he's proud and bent on revenge to the point of stupidity. But Sue is still there, underlying it all.

At least he's the second character in the story. Because Hagai is totally not a Mary Sue. Hagai is everything I don't (or didn't) like about myself and then some, and he and Sam play foil to each other (in my head at least). With any luck, what Sue-ness is left can be buried deep enough that only the meanest critics will notice.

So. If you've got a character that you just LOVE, ask yourself why. Is Your Character appropriately flawed? Do they ever lose? Do other characters (who aren't jerks or villains, but are likable characters on their own) ever dislike Your Character or treat them badly? Perhaps most telling: when someone says they don't like Your Character, do you take it personally?

If you think you've got a Mary Sue, you need to cruelly examine everything about them and everything they do. Mess them up, make them fail, and ask why they are the way they are.

Who's Mary Sue in the end? It's you.**

* The term 'Mary Sue' was coined by Paula Smith in 1973, when she wrote a parody Star Trek fan-fic starring Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest and most-loved Lieutenant in the fleet. You can read it here. It's kinda hilarious.

** And also Steven Seagal.


Matthew Delman said...

Ah Mary Sue ... how we love to decimate her.

You know they say that Wesley Crusher was Gene Roddenberry's version of a Mary Sue. Food for thought.

writtenwyrdd said...

Bwahahaha! I knew what a Mary Sue was, but I'd never known the origins of the term. That story is hilarious.

Jennifer said...

I laughed out loud at the Steven Seagal comment. How true!!

I've heard of Mary Sue before, but I haven't given her much thought when it comes to my own WIP.

And now I'm afraid...


Joshua McCune said...

Luckily, I don't write Mary Sues or Pollyannas. If anything, my characters tend to be too flawed, or if they're not, I turn them into vampires :)

Myrna Foster said...

I'll have to keep this in mind, though I don't think I'm guilty. Bad things happen to my characters, and they aren't universally loved. I have a novel that I want to write this year though with a character that I'll have to be careful with. Are they a Mary Sue if they don't realize people love them?

Myrna Foster said...

Never mind. I just read the Mary Sue story, and my characters are not Mary Sues. Thank you for sharing. Funny stuff.

Adam Heine said...

Matt: I didn't know that, but now that I think about it...

writtenwyrdd and JenE: Glad to know folks are reading the footnotes. I put the most important stuff there you know!

Bane: Be careful. Vampirism does not preclude a Mary Sue. Even certain sparkly, angsty vampires could be accused of Sue-ness :-)

Myrna: There are tests online you can use, though they're pretty strict. Use with care.

Cindy Heine said...

You just gave away everything from your first published novel! That was not smart; that was not smart. :)

jjdebenedictis said...

Here via Writtenwyrdd's link.

I had a Mary Sue in my first novel. Thankfully I realized that in time and split her into two characters.

Which worked out great because they fought like cats in a sac! Part of the reason Mary Sues aren't interesting is everything is too easy for them. That makes for zero story tension.

jjdebenedictis said...


Darn, I wish these comments had after-the-fact edit buttons.

Adam Heine said...

"Part of the reason Mary Sues aren't interesting is everything is too easy for them. That makes for zero story tension."

Absolutely, jj. That's something I'm revising out of Sam. Today in fact!