In geek culture, the term “just another Mary Sue” is thrown around on a daily basis. When I first heard the term it was as an insult. This made me curious to figure out “who the heck is Mary Sue”.
Basically Mary Sue is (as Wikipedia states) “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.” The term “Mary Sue” comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story "A Trekkie's Tale" published in her fanzine.
In simple terms… Mary Sue is a character that is just too perfect at everything and everyone loves her for it. Side note: Not all are female. There are very notable male “Marty Stu’s” as well.
I started looking into “who is a notable Mary Sue”. I had my list. I knew exactly which characters got under my skin with their flawlessness. I was ready to write this story. Well, until I started chatting with other people. The more I dove in, the more the term became more of an opinion rather than true characteristic. If you dive far enough into any character, I am starting to believe you can form a good argument that anyone can be a Mary Sue.
Let’s go with the most recent and most popular internet battle, Star Wars: The Force Awakens' main heroine - Rey.
It is easy to say Rey is a total Mary Sue. She never is seen being taught any of her skills, yet she is just naturally the best. Throughout the Star Wars movies, it is noted over and over again that no one can master the Millennium Falcon but Han and Chewy. She gets behind the controls and is a pro first try, impressing even Han Solo. She is raised on a planet as an orphan, yet speaks multiple languages, fixes and can fly any craft, and anyone who tries to fight her stands no chance. Han, Chewy and Finn immediately love her. She is able to beat Kylo Ren (a trained Sith apprentice) with her inexperienced Jedi skills. It took her no time to “mind power" the storm trooper when she was imprisoned, and even less time to use the force to grab a lightsaber. It is hard to find any flaw in Rey, hence the name Mary Sue.
Maybe Rey is not a Mary Sue though.
She is abandoned as a child. She has learned to adapt to rough living conditions (how to scavenge) and has picked up many traits along the way because of that. Jedi folklore appears to be rampant in this universe which would make her adaption to the skills a little more believable.
But who am I kidding, a Mary Sue is whoever the audience does not like.
The one character I got everyone to agree on was Bella Swan from the Twilight books and movies. Yet, is she? She doesn’t have any real skills other than having both the vampire and werewolf fall madly in love with her. She doesn’t obtain any real powers until she herself is turned into one of the vegan vampires. Nonetheless she appears a flat and week character to most audiences, even despite her (hard to find) strengths.
I am finding that no matter which direction you go, you can spin pretty much any character.
So what is the point? What can we take away from the Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) arguments?
I hope that it forces writers/creators to give characters a bit more depth, more layers. Realistic characters need flaws. They need to show growth or struggle because of those imperfections. Victory is in the path it takes to get to triumph. It is (or should be) no different with character development.
Those reasons are why characters such as Lagertha from History Channel’s Vikings or Furiosa from Mad Max Fury Road are so intriguing. Lagertha fights along side Ragnar. She is defeated and victorious. Furiosa fights to free the slaves but at her own defiance and oblation. Both fight for what they feel is right and they have the battle scars to prove it.
We naturally are turned off by those who appear to be a Mary Sue because they are terribly written. In history, it is why we are always drawn to stories of Joan of Arc, Pocahontas, Anne Oakley and Helen Keller. They are real women who never stop fighting for a cause, learning everything they could along the way. We need more characters with life.