There’s a girl we’ve all come across at one time or another. She lives next door,is average in every way but simultaneously stands out from the crowd and attracts the attention of every major character she breathes the same air as. She is ridiculously beautiful, intelligent, talented and spins the entire plot, however implausibly, on her dainty little finger. She seems to have it all but is the most hated character type in any fan circle… and her name is Mary Sue.
It’s a strange phenomenon, saturating many genres of literature, especially things aimed at the YA audience and fuelled somehow by magic… but not that strange when you think about it.
First of all, some people may not know who Mary Sue is. Let me explain. It’s perfectly simple.
After all, that is the main trait of a Sue: her perfection. If she does have flaws they are usually passive ones of little consequence, or ones that are found endearing, the most common being clumsiness, or lack of skills in a certain subject, usually maths… because what heroine needs maths anyway? Mary Sue is beautiful, and great lengths are gone to make sure that the reader knows this. There are lengthy descriptions of what she looks like and what she wears, and of course Mary Sue is deserving of far more elegant words than the common character! Why say that she simply has fair skin, black hair and blue eyes and is slim-figured when you can say that she’s a delicate, willowy goddess with flowing tresses that shimmered onyx like the feathers of a raven and sparkling cerulean orbs that shone like the ocean? (I take no credit for writing that, by the way)
Mary Sue’s beauty, however, is often understated by her, to show her humbleness and good nature. Denying her amazing looks or even stating that they are a curse is common, but of course, everybody else in the story notices them and can’t help but react. Her beauty is also often paradoxical… she will have a waiflike figure with perfect curves and large perky breasts, which never get in the way or cause any trouble or follow any of the laws of physics. And the male characters in the story universe she resides in can’t get enough of her. At one point or another, blown away by her utter perfection, they will all gravitate towards her and radiate their charms. She is commonly found in the middle of catastrophic love triangles, the poor thing. She usually goes through phases of innocent courtly love with the other guys but will always choose one true love at the end, and the others will bow out and accept because they want her to be happy, and will usually stick around to do her bidding anyway, regardless of how much they may hate the guy who she ended up with. The power of Sue love knows no bounds!
In terms of personality, however, a lot of Mary Sues are flat as a roadkill pancake and made to be plot devices rather than people, orchestrated to have amazing things happen to them instead of being developed as a real person. Either that, or Mary Sue is the ideal human being: she is kind, a friend to all animals, talented in many fields but usually adorably shy to add some slippery semblance of balance and lead in the excuse for her to blush a lot. The kind of girl everyone wants to be and all the guys want. But she isn’t stuck up about it, oh no! She’s a perfectly lovely lady. Even if Mary Sue does things that are unreasonable or vicious or just plain stupid, her actions will be shrugged off by the other characters, or she will apologise profusely until (very quickly) they realise the error of their ways for scolding her and take her back in with snuggles. After all, no one can stay mad at Mary Sue. She’s just too amazing. If anyone does detest her for long periods of time, it will be revealed at some point that they were just jealous.
Possibly the greatest and most cringe-worthy signification of a Mary Sue is that she is often, in her purest form, a projection of the author, or what the author wishes they could be like. This is especially common in the world of fanfiction, where original characters are inserted into the story, immediately gain the attention and respect of the characters the author loves and kicks in the face the characters they hate, then celebrate with some hot, steamy, badly written romance with the characters they find most attractive. The name, in fact, comes from a Star Trek fanfic from the 1970s which featured a character that, for the purposes of parody, embodies all of the traits of a perfect Mary Sue. She was half-Vulcan, beautiful, intelligent and capable: she captivated at least three of the main characters and saved them all with a hairpin while they were rendered uncharacteristically useless, and then ran the Enterprise singlehandedly and easily when she was, for some mystical reason, immune to the disease which had taken down the rest of the crew. She died gracefully at the end and was wept for by the characters. She was an image of perfection in body and mind, and was adored by the people whose opinions mattered.
This unfortunate archetype is older than most people think, however, appearing in short stories by wistful young ladies who wrote into a 19th Century magazine , many heroines displaying features associated with the Mary Sue, as discussed in this article.
While boys tended to write non-fiction articles, girls most often wrote stories and poems – some about wonderful girls whose accomplishments and charms are tangibly appreciated by those around them. Emily Martin, who in 1862 saves a sleeping Indian chief from certain death by bear; Maia, whose gentleness and kindness are extolled by animals and elves in 1858; Unella, a white child raised by Native Americans in 1865, so lovable that she holds the entire village in a gentle thralldom; even little Ellen, who dies beautifully of her mother’s thoughtlessness in 1849 — all have elements we associate with Mary Sue.
She may have been cute in 1860, but now the savvy and somewhat bitter fandom world despises her for being a shallow and unrealistic image of a female character. She is a cliché and an easy way to kill the integrity of a series and the self-esteem of anyone who compares themselves to her for long enough, but I don’t see Mary Sue leaving any form of literature very soon, not so long as people still want to read and write about people having apparently perfect lives that they don’t.