Meet “Mary Sue”: A Guide to the Archetype + How to Transcend the Trope

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Photo Source: Faiz Zaki/Usa-Pyon/SHutterstock/Marvel Studios

Oh, Mary Sue. What a divisive term you are, my dear. Up there with the likes of the manic pixie dream girl, the Mary Sue is an archetype reserved almost exclusively for female characters. Frequently misused and loaded with negative connotations, the trope is something actors, writers, and directors must understand. The expression may have started in fan circles—namely fan fiction—but its place in storytelling is nearly ubiquitous at this point. 

So what is a Mary Sue, and why is it such a charged label? What characters are considered Mary Sues in popular culture? Read on and arm yourself with a better understanding of the girl on everybody’s lips—for better or for worse.

What is a Mary Sue?

A Mary Sue is an idealized character: talented, capable at anything and everything. She is essentially an author-insert used for wish fulfillment; a Mary Sue navigates the world with an ease and proficiency untethered from reality. There are several characteristics in varying combinations that signify the trope:

  • They’re preternaturally talented at anything they do or try. 
  • They have no struggles (internal or external); conflicts resolve without obstacles or hardship.
  • They have no weaknesses or flaws, and suffer no negative consequences for their actions.
  • They may have a tragic backstory, but the Mary Sue is a pure victim of it.
  • They’re attractive, desirable, and loved by everyone.

It should be noted that “Mary Sue” doesn’t always denote gender, but male characters with these same traits are sometimes/often/also called a Gary Stu or some variation thereof (Marty Stu, Terry Stu, etc).

No matter which way you slice it, “Mary Sue” is a criticism. However, as with all things, the concept is often misused, thrown at (again, often female) characters for misogynistic reasons. For example, many female protagonists have been incorrectly labeled as a Mary Sue simply because the person lodging the claim didn’t like the character. 

Origins of the idea

Though the idea of these sort of author-proxy characters has been around—and derided—in the culture since the 1800s, it was Paula Smith, a “Star Trek” fan fiction author, who coined the term in 1973. In her “Star Trek: The Original Series” parody piece, “A Trekkie’s Tale,” Smith dreamed up a character named Mary Sue, a 15-year-old girl who boards the Enterprise and has her every wish fulfilled. From there, the idiom took flight (for the curious, you can read more about Smith’s thoughts on that here).

Why is “Mary Sue” controversial?

The pitfall of the “Mary Sue” criticism is how regularly it’s wielded against a female character who is simply a capable woman in a story. In misapplying it, the accuser belies the reality of the sexism and misogyny women (in real life as well as fiction) face constantly. Often, their abilities can be seen as unrealistic or their wins unearned. 

For example, the term resurfaced with a vengeance with the premiere of “Captain Marvel,” starring Brie Larson in the lead role of Carol Danvers, spurred on by Disney’s branding of the character as the strongest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Corners of the fandom took umbrage with Carol’s quick ascent, ignoring that (a) the MCU was built on other (male) superheroes adopting powers with charming ease, and (b) the entire film (and its sequel, “The Marvels”) tracks a cogent character arc for Carol. 

“Mary Sue” also occasionally stands in as a catch-all for any poorly written or realized character—any creator’s worst nightmare. So while it is totally fair to call a character a Mary Sue, it’s important to think thoughtfully and critically about whether your critiques have merit beyond a knee-jerk feeling.

Characters called “Mary Sue”

Incorrectly or otherwise, there are several iconic characters who have been tagged with the Mary Sue label over the years.

Bella Swan (and Edward Cullen) from “Twilight”: There are few examples so bandied about in current popular culture than Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and—to a lesser extent—her sparkly vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). These two both have “troubled” backstories but seem to aw shucks their way into and out of every single complication that comes their way. People immediately take to and trust them, despite their unfriendly demeanors; they’re simultaneously awkward and extremely capable; and all their troubles are wrapped up with ease (see: Bella’s romantic triangle with wolf-boy Jacob).

Harry Potter from “Harry Potter”: My goodness, Harry. You’re a wizard who’s been gifted the magical world on a platter. You are exceedingly average in all your studies, yet you somehow manage to defeat the most powerful, evil wizard the world has ever known. Sure, you lost your parents when you were young (tragic backstory!), but since then you have ridden on the back of Destiny toward being the ultimate hero. You can also just magically speak snake, which is something! Those, my friends, are some Mary Sue–ish tendencies.

Rey from “Star Wars”: Rey (Daisy Ridley) from the most recent trilogy of “Star Wars” films, is perhaps the best example of a wrongfully accused Mary Sue. Raised mostly by herself, Rey has amassed a set of skills (engineering, bartering, piloting, etc) that certain fans of the “Star Wars” Universe found unearned. As many others pointed out, however, hers was a story that felt similar (primarily on purpose) to that of Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original trilogy. Her ability to wield the Force was harnessed over time—as evidenced in scenes with Luke (Mark Hamill) and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher)—but some didn’t see it that way. Many critics of this characterization of Rey claim that this ill will comes from a place of misogyny and sexism, and, well? We tend to agree with them. 

So what do you do with a Mary Sue?

What happens if you encounter a character you think may be a Mary Sue? Well, short of rewriting the role and causing more than a few issues on set, you can:

  • Dig deeper on your own. Deepen your own understanding of the character’s wants, drives, needs, and machinations, even if they aren’t present in the script. Ask yourself the 5 essential questions for building a backstory and write a bio for your character. There’s nothing wrong with telegraphing additional depth and nuance onscreen so long as it doesn’t fundamentally change the ultimate vision or story being told. 
  • Subvert wherever possible. Although the plot might not offer obstacles for your character, that doesn’t mean you, as a performer, can’t play against type in the moment. Show weakness, show fear, show hesitancy, even if it’s just in the way you hold yourself or a subtle shift in your face. 
  • Lean on collaborators. With any collaborative artistic medium, it’s always helpful to talk with your creative compatriots to ensure the best possible product is delivered at the end of the shoot. If you hit a wall, get an outside opinion from your scene partners or director on how they see this character. 

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