It’s not uncommon for the same subject to come up on several of the writer’s groups that I follow at the same time, which I attribute to a kind of Fortian/Jungian mass unconscious, although it’s more likely because there’s a lot of overlap and one person sees a post on a subject and decides to put down her or his own thoughts on the subject.
In any event, the subject of Mary Sue Characters has come up several times and upon reflection I have decided that the most significant aspect of Mary Sue Characters is that they don’t exist.
Let me explain. As I understand it, the original meaning of the phrase comes from the Fan Fiction community and refers to a character inserted into a story as a stand in for the author and specifically intended to represent the author’s own fantasies regarding the established characters.
Usage of the phrase has drifted some over time, as terminology tends to do. I do believe, however, that the essential characteristic of the term as a literary concept has less to do with the character her- or himself (there is a masculine version of the term, “Marty Stu”, but I don’t see the utility of it. As far as I am concerned “Mary Sue” is a gender neutral descriptor) than the relationship between that character and the supporting characters.
It is not being competent in a number of areas that makes a character a Mary Sue.
It is being more competent than everyone else that makes a character a Mary Sue.
Thus it is relational rather than absolute. It is the presence or absence of Mary Sue Support characters that define the limits of the trope, I believe.
How do we define a Mary Sue Support (MSS) character? (And can we come up with a snappy descriptor for them?)
Well, I think that there is a particular character arc that defines an MSS (Sue Mary? Naw, that sounds dumb.) Not all characteristics need to be present, but I think characters who exhibit a plurality of these traits define the Mary Sue trope better than focusing on the main character. I’m going to divide the MSS tropes into three groups, those exhibited by the antagonists, those exhibited by the hero’s friends, and those exhibited by significant unaligned characters.
First, the bad guy(s) are:
- Introduced with clearly stated advantages over the main character. Wealth and social privilege are probably the most blatant of these. Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter, for example, is shown at his first appearance as the son of a wealthy and influential family, and also surrounded by his admiring fans. MSS characters seldom are revealed to have influence, it’s usually stated at the beginning (usually by the MS’s sidekick) that this guy has all the breaks that the hero does not.
- Have a reputation for being the best at a skill that the hero also possesses. This is a little different than the previous point, and may not be the same character as the first one–although frequently the “one to beat” is also the “snooty rich kid.” Again this tends to show up right away, either in conversation, or by humiliating a sympathetic minor character in a contest of skills.
- Are willing to cheat to win. This is the dark secret (if you can call something so inevitable a “secret”) of the “one to beat”–she or he hasn’t earned the reputation for being the best. The fact that the character cheats is generally known by the hero prior to the final showdown, but the hero cannot prove it and goes into the competition knowing that the opponent is cheating and determined to win anyway. Generally the cheating is revealed after the contest, with the attendant praise that comes from triumphing in an unfair fight.
The hero’s friends, like the antagonists, exist primarily to show how wonderful the hero is. The Mary Sue, being truly selfless, is willing to be friends with all of the characters that everyone else hates. Consequently they tend to fall into several broad categories.
- The unjustly reviled. This character has an unearned bad reputation. It might be from bad luck, or deliberate slander from the antagonists, but until the hero appears on the scene no one is willing to befriend the character. Usually instrumental in discovering how the antagonists cheat.
- The discriminated against. A little different than the above category (although they can be combined into one character) this character is assumed to be less competent because of an innate characteristic rather than a reputation for failure. If the Mary Sue is male this is often the only female character in an otherwise all-male cast. This character usually is shown beating whichever of the the main antagonist’s henchmen are most prejudiced.
- The one-trick pony. This is the only character who is permitted to be better than the hero at anything. It is generally one relatively minor part of the main skill set, but there is usually a scene where that one particular talent is vital to success.
- The secret mentor. This is the old hero now in disgrace, working in a menial position, whom the hero befriends and learns the super-secret talent that nobody else knows because everyone else ignores the sad old man.
Significant unaligned characters, including whatever authority figures are important to the story, tend to follow a particular character arc.
- Initial bad impression by the hero. Through absolutely no fault of her or his own, the hero makes an initial bad impression on the authority figures in the story. Showing up late, or out of uniform, or unprepared, or all of the above. Sometimes this is due to deliberate action by the antagonists, more often it is simply bad luck. The hero either is not given a chance to explain or refuses to make excuses.
- Minor praise that triggers an out of proportion response from the antagonists. Early on the hero shines in some way and comes to the notice of the authorities. This results in a jealous reaction from the antagonists and sets up the rivalry. The hero generally tries to bury the hatchet unsuccessfully at this point.
- The hero’s star falls. Again, through no fault of the hero. Something goes bad, either through sabotage or bad luck and the hero is in (temporary) disgrace. (As an aside, this sequence of events is not uncommonly pointed to as proof that the character is not a Mary Sue.)
- Punishment that leads to progress. The hero is required to do some sort of penance as a result of the incident in step 3. This will result in the hero learning more skills and perfecting a particular technique that will prove vital in the big showdown. (Frequently this is how the secret mentor character is introduced.)
- The big showdown. At this point everything is stacked against the hero. Usually it’s only through the unexpected removal of a neutral party that the hero is even allowed into the situation where the competition occurs.
- The payoff. This is where everybody gathers around the hero and praises her or him. The big, “I was wrong about you,” speech from the head cheese, the abject humiliation of the antagonists, the cheering of the crowd. The hero’s friends are usually celebrated as well (although, of course, not as much as the hero).
Reading back over this I realize that the characters and scenes that I describe can be found in a great many works of fiction, many of them quite good. Formulaic doesn’t mean bad, after all, and a good writer can use a predictable sequence of events to create an engaging overall story.
Like many things, I expect that Mary Sue is a continuum rather than a hard definition.