Mary Sue

A Mary Sue is a generic name for any fictional character (usually female) who is so competent or perfect that this appears unrealistic for the world's settings, even in the context of the fictional setting. Mary Sues are often an author's idealized or flawless self-insertion.[1] They may excel at tasks that should not be possible for them,[2] or they may upstage the protagonist of a fictional setting, such as by saving them. They may disregard previously established aspects of the fiction such as characterization and natural laws. They may also be praised by every other character in the work, especially by the antagonist of the work, regardless of whoever the Mary Sue characters are.[3] The Mary Sue is a type of stock character.

The principal criticism of the Mary Sue character as a literary device is that it undermines the drama and conflict of the narrative by presenting the protagonist as omnipotent and universally accepted. Narrative structure requires a protagonist to have a character arc, a transformation from one state to another, weak to strong, fearful to brave, naive to sophisticated. They confront an obstacle they can't overcome, make an internal change, and overcome the obstacle, or in the case of tragedy fail to do so. A Mary Sue has no internal flaw to confront, has no arc and therefore there can be no drama.

Mary Sue characters were first identified in fan fiction in 1973, but they have subsequently been identified in professional fiction and in films. A male character with similar traits may be labeled a "Gary Stu" or "Marty Stu". Critics, writers, and commentators have debated the way the term is used, both in general, and in its application to specific fictional characters.

Origin and development of the meaningEdit

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"[4]:15 published in her fanzine Menagerie #2.[5] The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue ("the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old"), and satirized unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction.[6] The complete story reads:

"Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky," thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. "Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet - only fifteen and a half years old." Captain Kirk came up to her.

"Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?" "Captain! I am not that kind of girl!" "You're right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us." Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. "What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?" "The Captain told me to." "Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind."

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.

But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies, Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.

However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday on the Enterprise.

In 1976, Menagerie's editors referred to the original story, writing:

Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.[7]

While originally used to describe fan fiction characterization,[8] the term has also been applied to professionally published fiction, one example being the main character of the Star Trek novel Dreadnought! (1986) by Diane Carey.[9][10][11]

The term "Mary Sue" has gained a connotation of wish-fulfillment and is commonly associated with self-insertion, though the characterization of upstaging the established protagonist remains fundamental. True self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author; most characters described as "Mary Sues" are not, though they are often called "proxies"[12] for the author. The negative connotation comes from this "wish-fulfillment" implication: the "Mary Sue" is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting.[13]


In chapter four of her book Enterprising Women,[14] Camille Bacon-Smith states that fear of creating a "Mary Sue" may be restricting and even silencing to some writers. Smith quotes an issue of the Star Trek fanzine Archives[15] as identifying "Mary Sue" paranoia as one of the sources for the lack of "believable, competent, and identifiable-with [sic] female characters." In this article, author Joanna Cantor interviews her sister Edith, also an amateur editor, who says she receives stories with cover letters apologizing for the tale as "a Mary Sue", even when the author admits she does not know what a "Mary Sue" is.

According to Edith Cantor, while Paula Smith's original "Trekkie's Tale" was only ten paragraphs long, "in terms of their impact on those whom they affect, those words [Mary Sue] have got to rank right up there with the Selective Service Act".[16] At ClipperCon 1987 (a Star Trek fan convention held yearly in Baltimore, Maryland), Smith interviewed a panel of female authors who say they do not include female characters in their stories at all. She quoted one as saying "Every time I've tried to put a woman in any story I've ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue." Smith also pointed out that "Participants in a panel discussion in January 1990 noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the community is damned with the term Mary Sue."[17]

However, Bacon-Smith notes that fans have argued that in Star Trek as originally created, James T. Kirk is himself a "Marty Stu," and that the label seems to be used more indiscriminately on female characters who do not behave in accordance with the dominant culture's images and expectations for females as opposed to males.[18] Author Ann C. Crispin is quoted as saying: "The term 'Mary Sue' constitutes a put-down, implying that the character so summarily dismissed is not a true character, no matter how well drawn, what sex, species, or degree of individuality."[19]


"Marty Stu", "Gary Sue", or "Larry Stu"[a] are alternative names given to this trope, when the same wish-fulfillment aspect is applied to male characters.[20] In 2012, Paula Smith told Cynthia Walker that the male alternative is rarely pointed out as they both cited popular characters James Bond and Superman as Marty Stus.[6] She argued that male Mary Sues benefit the male audience's coming of age: "[W]hat gets focused on in the culture is defined by boys and young men. Psychologically, there's a turning point in men's lives. There's a point where they need to break away from women in their youth, and then later they come back to women as grown men, but many men never make it, never quite come back to a world that includes women as human beings."[6]

The Star Trek: The Next Generation character Wesley Crusher (who was actually supposed to represent Star Trek fans in the series) was described, in hostile terms, as a "Gary Sue" by the feminist popular culture magazine Bitch.[21] There is speculation among fans and academics, mainly pejorative, that Wesley was a self-insertion character for Gene Roddenberry, Roddenberry's middle name being Wesley.[22] One possible reason cited[by whom?] for Wesley's poor overall reception was the writers' general lack of skill, actual or perceived, in writing about or for characters younger than twenty-one years of age, as actor Wil Wheaton was at the time of his original casting in the role. Creator of the original phrase Paula Smith agreed with Cynthia Walker in a 2012 interview that are also Marty Stu characters.


In 2004, David Orr, in a review of online fan fiction websites and Godawful Fan Fiction for The New York Times Book Review, referred to "Mary Sue" as "a ludicrously empowered author proxy".[23] The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Superstar" has been analyzed as being a deliberate satire of Mary Sue/Marty Stu type of stories.[24][25]

A popular subject of debate pertains to whether the Star Wars sequel trilogy features a Mary Sue in its protagonist, Rey. Screenwriter Max Landis opined on Twitter in 2015 that the character fits this description,[26] claiming that Rey is excessively gifted at a variety of skills.[27] Conversely, Caroline Framke of Vox contended that Rey did not fit the Mary Sue profile, stating that "Any additional skills Rey has—mechanical work, hand-to-hand combat, climbing, etc—are explained when we first meet her... If she hadn't picked up those skills, she'd probably be dead".[28]

Other writers, such as Tasha Robinson of The Verge, have defended the idea of Rey being a Mary Sue, stating that "for women who've felt underrepresented through decades where most of the ladies onscreen were victims, tokens, rewards, or shrews, it's natural to feel a sugar rush of fulfillment over [strong] characters like Katniss Everdeen and Imperator Furiosa", though these two characters are often not considered Mary Sue characters due to the villains occasionally overcoming or outsmarting them.[29]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Paula Smith's alternate is "Wesley Sue"[6]


  1. ^ Segall, Miriam (2008). Career Building Through Fan Fiction Writing: New Work Based on Favorite Fiction. Digital Career Building. Rosen Publishing Group. p. 26. ISBN 978-1-4042-1356-2.
  2. ^ Walsh, Ricard (2018). "T&T Clark Companion to the Bible and Film". Bloomsbury Companions. Bloomsbury Publishing: 77 – via ISBN 0567666212, 9780567666215.
  3. ^ Mohr, Jacob. "The Problem with Perfect Characters: Mary Sues, Gary Stus, and Other Abominations". Retrieved September 16, 2020.
  4. ^ Verba, Joan Marie (2003). Boldly Writing: A Trekker Fan & Zine History, 1967–1987 (PDF). Minnetonka, Minnesota: FTL Publications. ISBN 978-0965357548. Archived from the original (pdf) on April 11, 2005.
  5. ^ "SF Citations for OED: Mary Sue". Retrieved May 20, 2006.
  6. ^ a b c d Walker, Cynthia W. (2011). A Conversation with Paula Smith. Transformative Works and Cultures.
  7. ^ Byrd, Patricia (Spring 1978). "Star Trek Lives: Trekker Slang". American Speech. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 53 (1): 52–58. doi:10.2307/455340. JSTOR 455340.
  8. ^ "Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal (Comm/Ent), Volume 33". Hastings College of the Law. Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal. 33: 168. 2010.
  9. ^ Gardner, David (March 2004). "Mary Sue Gives Birth, Baby Undergoes Sex Change. The Role of Star Trek Fan Fiction in the Creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation". The Internet Review of Science Fiction. I (3).
  10. ^ Cheeseman-Meyer, Ellen (April 26, 2012). "Mary Sue Fights Fascism: Diane Carey's Dreadnought! and Battlestations!".
  11. ^ Bacon-Smith, Camille (December 1, 1991). Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 98–99. ISBN 978-0-8122-1379-9.
  12. ^ Orr, David (October 3, 2004). "The Widening Web of Digital Lit". The New York Times. Retrieved October 2, 2006.
  13. ^ Milhorn, Thomas (2006). Writing Genre Fiction: A Guide to the Craft. La Vergne, Tennessee: Lightning Source Incorporated. p. 55. ISBN 978-1-58112-918-2.
  14. ^ Bacon-Smith, Camille (December 1, 1991). Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-1379-9.
  15. ^ Cantor, Joanna (1980). "Mary Sue, a Short Compendium". Archives. Danvers, Massachusetts: Yeoman Press (5).
  16. ^ Smith, p. 96.
  17. ^ Smith, p. 110. A footnote states this was reported to her by Judy Chien, who attended the panel at MostEastlyCon 1990 in Newark.
  18. ^ Bacon-Smith, p. 97.
  19. ^ Bacon-Smith, p. 98.
  20. ^ Kukkonen, Karin; Klimek, Sonja (2011). "Gary Stu". Metalepsis in Popular Culture. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter. p. 96. ISBN 978-3-11-025278-1. Retrieved December 20, 2012.
  21. ^ "Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture". 31. Portland, Oregon: Bitch Publications. 2006. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. ^ Leigh, Megan (July 13, 2013). "Nostalgic Impulse: In defense of… Wesley Crusher". Pop Verse. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
  23. ^ Orr, David (2004). "The Widening Web of Digital Lit". The New York Times. Retrieved October 2, 2006. When you've had your fill of slash, gen, and 'ship fiction (fanfic terms for various character entanglements), when you groan at the arrival of each new "Mary Sue" (a ludicrously empowered author proxy) ...
  24. ^ Carroll, Shiloh. "Psychology of a "Superstar": A Psychological Analysis of Jonathan Levinson". Slayage Archived from the original on November 19, 2012. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
  25. ^ Wilcox, Rhonda V.; Lavery, David (February 25, 2002). Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer?. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-8001-5 – via Google Books.
  26. ^ Landis, Max [@Uptomyknees] (December 19, 2015). "they finally did it they made a fan fic movie with a Mary Sue as the main character" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  27. ^ "Screenwriter and vocal Twitter user Max Landis recently drew a lot of heat for describing Rey as a 'Mary Sue', which refers to a trope wherein characters are over-powered and learn intense skills far too quickly, or easily." Woburn, Dan (December 25, 2015). "Eight Problems Nobody Wants to Admit About Star Wars: The Force Awakens". What Culture. Retrieved July 16, 2018. Rey is too powerful too quickly
  28. ^ Framke, Caroline (December 28, 2015). "What is a Mary Sue, and does Star Wars: The Force Awakens have one?". Vox. New York City: Vox Media. Retrieved July 16, 2018.
  29. ^ Robinson, Tasha (December 19, 2015). "With Star Wars' Rey, we've reached Peak Strong Female Character -- And There's Nothing Wrong With That". The Verge. New York City: Vox Media. Retrieved July 16, 2018.

External linksEdit