Tag Archives: mary sue

Q&A: Mary Sues: Deja Vu Edition

how can i write my protagonist as accomplishing stuff without them turning into a sue?

Didn’t I just cover this?

It’s entirely reasonable for your character to be skilled. It’s entirely reasonable for your character to have past achievements. The only question is, “does it meshes with their history and focus?”

The problem with the Mary Sue label is that it’s over applied to female characters, and drastically under applied to male characters. This means there’s a lot of people who don’t understand the term. They’re sure that being a Sue is a bad thing, but all they understand is it’s pejorative for characters they don’t like, and a label to cry about when it’s attached to a character they like.

I’ve provided multiple definitions, many times, but the very short version is that a Sue is an uninteresting character who trivializes the rest of the story they appear in. The result is that the character overpowers the work as a whole. You don’t get a compelling story. You don’t get anything else of interest. All you have is this single character, and they tend to be fairly boring.

Okay, so, here’s the problem, most Sues (male or female) are going to be overpowered. When you don’t have a concrete grasp of what a Sue is, it’s easy to mistake any powerful character for a Sue, and just apply that label whenever you dislike a character, while arguing that characters you do like couldn’t be Sues.

What this means for you is, if your character is interesting, and doesn’t overwhelm the story, they can be powerful without becoming a Sue. Like I said, I’ve gone into far more depth on this in the past.

Something else I’ve said before, and I’ll repeat it for those in the back, misogynists are always going to label your powerful female character as a Sue. It doesn’t matter how well written they are, whether they fit their world, whether they’re actually overpowered, or just powerful enough to participate in the story. They’ll attack, and there was nothing you could have done to avoid it.

Do not be afraid to write powerful characters. Be careful, but not afraid. Someone will lob the term, “Mary Sue,” around because invoking a fifty year old parody fanfiction might hurt your feelings. As critique, it’s mostly meaningless.

If something in your writing doesn’t work, don’t be afraid, work on it, and fix it. But don’t give up the dream because somewhere a “well akshully” neckbeard feels threatened.

The only important thing to remember, when writing any character: Your loyalty is to the story not the characters. The story you’re telling is what matters, there’s no value in making things easy on your characters. The harsher their trials; the sweeter their tribulations.

You will always have people who dislike your work. That’s life. If they can articulate things that don’t work for them, you might see weaknesses in your work that you can improve. Don’t take criticism as a personal failure, look at it as an opportunity to improve. If a critique doesn’t tell you anything, it’s not useful and you can junk it. “Your character is a Mary Sue,” without any further discussion is not useful.

How can your character be powerful without being a Sue? Tell a good story with compelling characters.

Be unafraid.


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Follow-up: Rey is Kinda a Problem

If you wanted to highlight a Mary Sue/Gary Stu style character on your blog, you could have chosen Luke instead, as his instant skill with lightsabers/the force is much less believable than Rey’s. The fact that you went after a rare sci fi female lead and echoed the voices of so many misogynist male fans is just disappointing to me. This is not what I’ve come to expect from this blog.


Luke is, actually, a pretty good counter example. His, “instant skill with a lightsaber,” consists of pointing it at his own face as soon as it is handed to him.

In A New Hope, the height of his demonstrated ability is to avoid lopping off his own limbs while trying to learn how to parry blasts from the remote. In the first film, Luke’s preferred weapon is an E11 Blaster Rifle. The first time we see him use his lightsaber in combat is a single swipe with it on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. Luke doesn’t use his lightsaber in combat in the first film.

So, in ANH he gets limited training from Obi-Wan. This is enough for him to start learning Force Pull, though he clearly struggles with it. Having been, “learning on his own,” for three years, he still struggles with very basic Jedi powers, and this is as someone who has been told that The Force exists, and received some introductory training. He barely manages to pull the saber to him in time to save his own life from a wampa.

Rey has the ability to override a Sith Lord’s Force Pull. She has the ability to use Affect Mind, and she has lightsaber proficiency on par with, again, a Sith Lord.

So, back to Luke, he goes to Dagobah receives training from Yoda, a Jedi Master, and returns with a slightly stronger grasp of how to use The Force, and operate a lightsaber. Vader immediately hands him his ass.

The duel on Cloud City is a bit of a sham. It fits what I said about balancing your challenges against the strength of your heroes. Vader knows Luke is his son. He spent decades cleaning up the remains of the Jedi Order. He’s able to go toe-to-toe with Obi-Wan without issue. Luke has a couple weeks of training under his belt. The only reason he’s able to survive is because of two conflicting factors. The Emperor wants Luke alive, “as a prize,” and Vader is having conflicting ideas about killing his own son.

Jump ahead to Return of the Jedi, and we see that Luke learned force choke, and has learned affect mind by this point. However, the finale still runs into another duel against Vader that’s a sham. Again, the point isn’t about killing Luke. Vader doesn’t want to kill his own son, he wants to turn Luke to the dark side, turn on The Emperor together, and take control of The Empire. Luke doesn’t want to fight his father, he’s trying to turn him from the dark side. Palpatine wants Luke to kill Vader and take his place, but he’d be fairly happy so long as one of them takes a dirt nap.

Again, this is not about Luke being a godlike fighter, it’s about him working through his incredibly dysfunctional family issues.

Rey’s got none of that. Kylo is a psychopath who has no qualms about waxing his own father. He doesn’t care about her. He’s a weak, and whiny villain on his own merits, but he is still A Dark Lord of the Sith. He has completed force training. He’s gone toe to toe with with trained Jedi and somehow avoided dying. There is nothing to keep Kylo from killing Rey in the first film except her inexplicable use of active Force powers and specific Force related combat skills (like fighting with a lightsaber) at odds with every other screen canon protagonist.

Let me break this down:

Luke: minimal training, struggles against wildlife, captured by possessed teddy bears, loses his hand in domestic argument. Dude never has his shit together.

Anakin: significant training, holds his own against other Jedi and Sith, but can’t beat Sith without a tag team. Loses limbs during academic dispute.

Rey: no training, no prior knowledge of the Force, defeats Sith Lord on first outing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Rey are the only characters in screen canon who can beat Sith Lords in single combat. I don’t know about you, but something is off with this list.

This is unfortunate because Daisy Ridley is actually really good. So is Adam Driver. There was a lot of excellent casting in those films, but they’re undermined by shoddy writing. There’s roughly two thirds of a decent film there, and then everything derails.

J.J. Abrams and George Lucas have something in common. They’re both extremely fond of emulating material they found elsewhere, repackaging and re-purposing it. This where you’ll find a lot of Kurosawa “homages,” in the original trilogy, and why The Force Awakens is almost a beat for beat retread of A New Hope. In the process, something got seriously scrambled.

The version of Luke that you’re thinking of, the egregious Mary Sue, doesn’t actually exist on screen. It’s pop culture gestalt, conflating the original trilogy into a jumbled clip show bereft of context. Parts, the duels with Vader lose their narrative context. Parts from Anakin in the prequels may get meshed in for good measure. (There is a legitimate argument that Anakin is a Mary Sue in The Phantom Menace, and the only reason I don’t want to delve into that topic is because it involves thinking about TPM for more time than is absolutely necessary.)

The worst part is, those misogynistic shitheads aren’t threatened by Rey. Rey doesn’t have the potency to hold their attention. They’re pissed with Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers drives them into a frenzy, because she is a very powerful character, and their only attack is to accuse her of being a Mary Sue.

The point we’re at now, a small cadre of fans who’ve gone off the deep end have no response to critique of Rey beyond crying about how it’s misogynistic. Which, doesn’t help your case.

You can do better. There are much better female leads in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Off the top of my head, Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens) and Sarah Conner (Terminator 2) set a much higher bar for female protagonists in science fiction who completely own their space. I already mentioned her, but Captain Marvel is easily another example from recent years. Moving beyond that you have characters like Aeryn Sun (Farscape), Ambassador Delenn (Babylon 5), and Captain Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager). And if one second you think Aeryn or Delenn aren’t leads, because they’re not getting top billing in ensemble shows, you really need to sit down and actually watch those.

If you want to see why old guard Star Wars fans are pissed with Rey, grab a copy of Heir to the Empire, and then realize that Disney erased all of that from existence to pave the way for Rey. We lost the version of Leia who became the leader of The New Republic. We lost Jaina Solo and Mara Jade. They destroyed all of that so J. J. Abrams could regurgitate a stale rendition of A New Hope without competition.

So, no. Fans who lost decades worth of characters they loved are going to be a little upset, especially when the replacement is breaking all the rules in a setting they adore and still can’t manage to make the stage. More importantly, if a female character needs to break the rules to appear powerful in their setting that’s not feminism or girl power.

This is an exceptional post, but perhaps consider that Rey raised herself on a desert planet? She probably learned to tap into the force to survive, even if she didn’t know exactly what she was doing. I wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue for that. Unless you’re going to call Luke a Gary Stu for being able to destroy the death star while flying an x-wing for the first time. If a character is believable if you switch the pronouns, the character isn’t the problem.


The irony here is, there’s elements for both parts. We know from the three untrained Jedi we encounter in the films that force sensitivity manifests with heightened skills. Being force sensitive makes you unusually talented at the things you focus on. Of those three, Luke is the least egregious. If we were to ignore the active force powers and lightsaber proficiency, (and inexplicable piloting skills), Rey would be fine, unfortunately, we can’t.

With Rey, we do see that she has an unnatural aptitude for finding and maintaining scrap on Jakku. That she’s been able to survive as long as she has is a pretty good sign that she’s force sensitive, and that’s consistent with what we’ve seen before. That part is absolutely fine. The problem is the situations where her skill hasn’t been set up.

When we first meet Anakin in TPM, he’s already a supernaturally skilled podracer pilot. I’d like to be able to purge the entirety of the podracers from my memory, but we’re all here together now, and I’m pretty sure Sartre only said what he did about hell because he didn’t know that TPM would exist one day.

All these years later, I still have issues with Anakin piloting a fighter for TPM‘s finale, but, I’d be lying if I said the vast majority of that film isn’t a massive, painful blur for me.

What we see from Luke is reasonable. We’re told he wants to be a pilot, and it’s something that he’s been training for. His initial goal is to leave Tatooine, and enroll at The Imperial Academy. He claims he’s “not such a bad pilot.” We’re later told that he’s been practicing precision shooting at high speed using a sub-orbital fighter. (It was later stated in background material that the T-16’s controls and handling were similar to the X-Wing, though I suspect Lucas was thinking of piloting as a kind of universal skill, and the connection between the T-16 and X-Wing were retrofitted on later.) We see Obi-Wan teaching him to use the force in a way that specifically sets up the trench run. The biggest offender here is, simply, that there’s a lot of telling rather than showing. When you dig into earlier drafts of the script, there were scenes outlined that couldn’t be shot in ’76/’77, so the resulting development was dumped back into exposition. As a writing decision, this is something you’d want to avoid, but when we’re talking about a film, shooting considerations may require less optimal solutions.

Switching the pronouns doesn’t fix anything. There are plenty of male Mary Sues, just like there are plenty of powerful female characters who are not Sues. A female version of Luke wouldn’t be a Mary Sue; a male version of Rey would still be one.

I don’t fault Rey for having an intuitive grasp of The Force. I fault her for having fully developed Force powers, and lightsaber proficiency, without training.

But…Rey does do force training? What the fuck? This is a strange post


With whom? Han may believe in the existence of The Force, but he’s no Jedi. He can’t teach her how to use the force. She has no one to train with in The Force Awakens. You’re thinking of the second movie, That Which Shall Not Be Named, the rough draft from Rian Johnson where she gets her training with Luke. She fights Kylo in the first film completely unaided. This is where her Mary Sue rep comes from and why she never shakes it.

What she does is spontaneously manifest Force abilities. By that point, we had six films that hammered home the idea this not how you gain force powers. If that was the case, Vader’s crusade to exterminate the Jedi Order would have been fundamentally impossible, as the Order would be reinforced by spontaneous Jedi popping up. This retroactively makes all of Palpatine’s plotting from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi both pointless and incomprehensibly stupid. Makes you wonder why the Jedi need to recruit kids young if Jedi just pop up fully formed like daisies.

This is before we look at the lightsaber. That is an incredibly difficult, and dangerous to use, a weapon, which Rey has no problem operating, in spite of having no formal combat training of any kind. Much less fighting on an even keel with a trained Sith Lord who has been handling one for most of his life.

This is like a character who hears about the existence of martial arts, and then instantly gains advanced combat proficiency… by shadow boxing for a few minutes. Yeah, that’s a Mary Sue. (And, the comparison of Jedi training to martial arts comes Lucas himself.)

My point is: Rey is not the representation you’re looking for. There are a lot of fantastic, well-rounded, and well-acted female characters with a wide variety of personalities and outlooks in the science fiction genre if you’re willing to look for them. Daisy Ridley does her best, but she can’t save Rey. That’s unfortunate, but crying misogyny or trying to rewrite the films doesn’t help your argument stand up to scrutiny.

-Starke & Michi

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Q&A: Building Characters

What do you think about “character specialization”? I’m afraid of giving my female character too many skills like Rey in SW and make her a Mary Sue.

The problem with Sues (regardless of their gender) isn’t that they’re proficient in multiple areas, it’s that they’re, “the best,” at everything important. I’ve said this before, but a Sue is a character who doesn’t inhabit their own world, they’re simply an authorial power fantasy. Beyond that, they have no background to justify their ability. There’s no explanation for their skill, they simply are.

So, let’s look at a different character from Star Wars, who walks the line with being a sue. One of the many victims of Disney’s Star Wars purge was Mara Jade. She was, “The Emperor’s Hand,” a combination secret apprentice and personal spy/assassin/inquisitor for Emperor Palatine. She was first introduced in Heir to the Empire in 1991. Both women have access to the full suite of common force abilities, both are proficient with lightsaber combat. When we’re introduced to them, their backgrounds (and the source of their abilities) are mysteries. The difference is, you never had to ask, “why would Mara Jade know how to use force pull?” You’d never need to ask, “how did Mara learn to use a lightsaber?” In both cases, there’s a clear answer, “Palpatine trained her.”

Mara Jade has the kind of, “exceptional background,” that can easily signal a Sue, but it does explain her skill set, and her abilities do dovetail with who she’s supposed to be. She’s very clearly written to be part of the larger story, and not to dominate it. In case it’s not clear, I don’t think Mara Jade is a Sue, however the risk was there.

Maybe Disney’s expanded universe has compelling explanations for how Rey gained her force training, or where she learned to use a lightsaber, but, what I saw before I lost interest was, “she’s just that special. No explanation needed.” Literally every other character in Star Wars gained force powers from training and practice. But, not for Rey, she’s special.

You can make hyper-competent female characters without them being Sues. The important thing is that they must exist as part of their world. Their background needs to make sense, explain their skills, and mesh with who they are now.

So let’s talk about specializations in an entirely abstract and extreme way, using classes in role-playing games.

The class “trinity,” in RPGs is usually the Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. The names change, but the basic idea is fairly central to that genre. You have characters that interact with violence, with stealth (frequently this includes social skills), or with magic. Alone it’s very reductive, but it carries a larger context that’s worth thinking about when you’re building your own characters. (This is unrelated to Tank/Healer/DPS. That’s MMOs.)

The fighter is a professional combatant. They’ve spent most of their adult life training for, or engaging in violence. They could be a professional soldier, a mercenary, hired muscle for a criminal group, they may have moved between these roles during their life. The end result is a character who is better suited to combat. Their background makes them better suited to violence than other characters, and that’s realistic. The class concept itself is an abstraction that limits who the character is, but the idea that someone who’s spent their life training for and engaging in violence is going to be a better fighter makes sense.

The rogue illustrates the weakness in simply lifting these systems without question. If you’re wondering why I chose the D&D names, it’s the rogue. Traditionally the rogue has been called “the thief,” and many games will use that name. The rogue may have been a thief, a spy, an assassin, or any number of other clandestine professions. Where the fighter has a clear identity, the rogue is a muddled collection of related ideas. There’s a huge difference between a burglar who sneaks into places undetected, an agent who infiltrates a foreign government to feed them bad information, and an assassin who covertly murders for pay. It makes sense if you have a character who worked as an assassin and, as a result, has a phenomenal grasp of human anatomy. It makes considerably less sense for your burglar who abhors violence to have that same knowledge, however they’ll frequently get the same sneak attack bonus.

D&D (and many games for that matter) address some of the limitations by adding (somewhat) redundant classes to provide more flavor. If your character is patterned off Conan, then you have the Barbarian class. If you’re looking at Aragorn or Legolas, there’s the Ranger. If you want your character to be a holy knight, roll a Paladin. This a band-aid solution that can be easily applied in game terms to address the limitations of the classes. Fortunately, as a writer, you have the freedom to create your characters’ history individually. You don’t need (and don’t benefit) from sticking to classes beyond the general idea of what your character does.

Your character’s skills and knowledge will be shaped by their history. People do specialize, and given enough time they can become quite proficient in a number of fields. They can also generalize. A character who spent twenty years campaigning across “The Empire,” will (probably) be a very proficient combatant. A character who studied magic for those twenty years will (probably) be quite skilled at it. A character who studied as a mage when they were younger, but was recruited to become an Imperial agent, never completed their studies, but has spent the last fifteen years working as a spy may not be quite as good at, “being a spy,” as someone who specialized in that exclusively, but they’ll still have their magical education, and whatever else they picked up along the way. In fact, they’ll be better able to deal with situations involving magic, where their limited training gives them an advantage over someone who spent their entire career as a spy.

While I don’t encourage rigid class systems driving your characters, the idea that your character has a background and history which inform their current skills and identity is very useful. Saying, “my character has 6 levels in Rogue and 3 in Wizard,” isn’t particularly useful, but the idea that your character may have been more than just one thing in the past, transitioning from one career to another can produce interesting, and unique characters. That said, there is nothing wrong with saying, “my character dedicated their life to being the best wizard The Empire has ever seen,” and actually making good on that.

There is another useful lesson in RPGs: In a well balanced game (either a tabletop campaign or a video game), your characters will face foes worthy of their power. For example, if you’ve created this once-in-a-generation mage, their powers will be wasted picking fights with bandits and goblins. This is the kind of character who spearheads investigations into a curse that threatens to destroy The Empire, or plays politics to try to get closer to the Emperor. The greatest thief will be looking for the greatest score. The greatest warrior will be the Emperor’s champion, facing off against things no one else could hope to stop. No matter how powerful your character is, they need challenges that will push them further. They also need to see those challenges through, it’s unfair to the players to take away the struggle and hand them an easy win, it’s equally unfair to your audience to pull that victory down for your characters and drop it in their laps. One of the major symptoms of the Mary Sue is that they don’t face these kinds of challenges. They glide over any opposition without facing any real threat.

A weakness in this lesson is that RPGs tend to get more bombastic as you climb through the levels. Weak enemies frequently fall off, and your characters start facing off against epic monsters, but if your character is still human other people may still be a threat. Getting the challenge “just right” becomes increasingly difficult as your characters become more powerful.

Having a character who is extraordinarily talented within their field is entirely valid. The problems start when your character is extraordinarily talented at everything, without giving up anything. Someone who spent decades of their life improving themselves gave up a lot along the way.

This idea that you need handicap a female character in case she’s too competent and becomes a Sue is very self-destructive. The misogynists you’re worried about placating will label any powerful female character as a Sue. No one else will care if she’s compelling.

The panacea for the Mary Sue is simple: Make an interesting character and give her legitimate challenges.


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How do I write a female character that doesn’t fall under the “Beautiful Badass” trope? I feel like she either ends up a Mary Sue or becomes a cold, heartless, pessimistic, combat-ready-yet-gorgeous queen of badassery. What’s the middle ground?

By making them characters.

With female characters, many writers feel there’s an underlying need for them to be “better than” when it comes to combat. They can’t just be. They end up written in comparison to male characters, and whether it’s a conscious or subconscious belief that they need to be the “best, best, best” and better than all the boys or they’re worthless.

Sexism is pervasive.

Whether you’re male or female, the vast majority of media consumed over the years will have taught you that objectification is the status quo. And yes, both those two characters you listed are treated in their narratives as objects. Struggling to hit the societal standards for what a woman “should be” in fantasy, beautiful, desirable, wanted, powerful, but also dependent. The fantasy society dangles in front of us. The issue with the fantasy is that the fantasy woman in question is always an object. A vessel to insert your desires into and not an individual, not a person with their own wants and needs. Being the desirable vessel is what women are told they should want to be. It’s a woman’s duty to exist for the pleasure of men.

Why are the badass and the Mary Sue always stunningly beautiful?

For women, our physical attributes are paramount, linked intrinsically to morality and goodness. You can’t be a good woman if you’re ugly. If you’re ugly, you’re most likely morally moribund. Our desirability is a necessity, it’s treated as the ultimate form of freedom but is, in fact, the cage. If you can transform a woman from a person and into a fantasy, she goes from challenging uncomfortable gender norms to being “safe”. The vast majority of female characters that we’re told are challenging gender norms are actually safely inside the narrow band. What is treated as “girl power” is often just a different version of the fantasy, as much for men as it is for the women it’s ostensibly appealing too.

A woman’s narrative importance is determined by her fuckability. Many of these characters are at once both the hero and the hero’s girlfriend. They are still the hero’s girlfriend, while masquerading as the hero, and thus must be worthy of their love interest. They aren’t actually any different, we’re just told that the hero’s girlfriend is the protagonist now. And the hero’s girlfriend is a moniker tied to the man, her existence about the man, and not herself.

She must be accessible, objectified, and always within reach. Better but lesser. Capable of nurturing the hero, taking care of others, and self-sacrificial. Her backstory is about the men in her life, and often she’s had to take on a masculine role due to circumstances outside her control. She doesn’t “choose to be”, she’s “talented enough to become”. She’d give it all up if she could. She’s dangerous but not too dangerous. Outstanding enough to defy the gender constraints, able to run with the boys and beat them, but still deeply insecure in herself and looking for someone to “tame” her or “take care of” her.

It is a woman’s role to be subservient.

When you are a fantasy, you are no longer dangerous or in defiance of the status quo. You are not a deciding actor, but an object moved around by the narrative’s will. There to be pretty, no matter how much ass you kick in the meanwhile, until you go away.

There is no way to stop writing these characters if you’re unwilling to unpack the gender norms and societal expectations which creates them in the first place. You also need to stop writing them in comparison to men, with men as the norm, and the gold standard that they must defeat in order to be worthy of a role in the story.

Why does the badass need to be beautiful? Why can’t she just be brutal? Why does it matter what she looks like when she fights?

These characters can be mediocre and struggling, and it’s better if they are. Badassery is not a state of being. It’s a title earned through the character’s actions in the narrative. It’s not a single standard, but a contextually changing one based on the challenge.

A woman who fights to escape an abusive environment without violence is a badass. The teenager who studies all night in order to pass an exam in their worst subject, overcoming deep seated insecurity and self-doubt is also a badass.

Greatness is not what we are, it’s what we fight to become.

Women are asked to sacrifice their own desires for the good of others. So, let these characters ask, “what about me?” Fill them up with wants, desires, and dreams. Let them travel the path from mediocre to excellent. Weak to strong. Figure out their feelings and their emotions and figure out what they want. What they could be or can be, dreams that are perhaps stolen from them in context of their narrative.

Writing well-rounded female characters requires breaking past the fantasy in which we perfectly fit into society by the standards demanded of us. That we can fit into the dimensions, force ourselves into shape, while simultaneously defeating them. To recognize, whether male or female, that not only are those standards unfair, they’re also unnecessary.

If you’re stuck between the Mary Sue and the stone-cold beautiful badass, it’s because, on some level, you still believe a woman needs to be more than human in order to succeed.


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On Mary Sue

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Mary Sue is every young writer’s worst fear. Writing advice from all corners hounds and hounds on and on about avoiding Mary Sue. They list categories and traits, they say it’s the worst kind of writing. The demon in the dark as it were. The female Mary Sue is mocked more often than her counterpart Marty Stu, but only because she stands out more. The advice tends to be that Mary is all together terrible and you should avoid any semblance of it, even though many of the traits one might ascribe to a Sue are not actually an issue in and of themselves.

What is Mary Sue?

She’s an outline. A cardboard cutout. A first stab.

The trouble with Mary Sues is that most characters actually begin their lives as one. Conceptually, many characters in a blanket swath will fit the bill. They sometimes come into our imaginations as these phenomenal and powerful individuals adored by the people around them. We really love them and because we love them, we begin to fret. We worry. We fear that maybe we’re doing something wrong. We run these characters through every internet test and (gasp) we turn out a positive. Sometimes a very high positive, but that doesn’t mean the character is automatically bad. There’s nothing wrong with your character being special.

Many of the complaints you’ll find about Sues around the internet are actually symptomatic. They don’t address the real issue at a Sue’s heart. You can have incredibly powerful characters with incredible eyes and hair colored in a way that doesn’t appear in nature, who are deeply kind, or nearly invincible without them being a Sue. Superman and Batman, for example, are both rather classic examples of characters who could (and sometimes do) count as Marty Stus. Yet, they manage to escape the trap, remaining both as compelling characters and cultural mainstays. Idolized rather than despised. Part of this is genre and expectation, but another real aspect is the realization that the traits aren’t what matter. The application is.

The trouble with actually identifying a Sue in your own writing comes with the understanding that every Sue is individual to their writer. Usually, Mary Sue is a character that we love and adore. She fulfills our deepest fantasies and desires. She exists without us having to worry about reality. She can do what we would do and say what we would say. This is why Mary Sue is not anything to be ashamed of. She is the purest of pure fantasy. She is want and desire, everything that we wish we could have been. It is fantasy without the intrusion of any reality, not even that beholden to the worlds they exist in.

Again, this is why Sues are not inherently bad. Let your imagination run free during the character creation process, no matter how weird, out there, or overpowered it might seem.

A Sue becomes a Sue by presentation and context. They face no true challenges. They do not struggle. Everyone wants them, everyone wants to be them. They are often supposedly kind, compassionate, and wonderful. Though these traits tend to be informed, rather than actually seen. The characters of the world that they exist in do not react to them in any kind of realistic fashion. They take actions that would be generally forbidden by their setting and receive no repercussions for any reason other than being either a protagonist or the protagonist. Often, they so flagrantly defy their own setting rules that they undermine the drama presented.

However, the real crux of what makes a Sue a Sue is how other characters react to them and how the narrative frames them. Other characters are not given a voice, they no longer act for themselves. Their entire existence becomes dependent on the wants, dreams, needs, and desires of the Sue, even when it makes no sense given the context the narrative has previously set up. More than that, the narrative often smooths their path for them. They are the best even when they screw up or do something that would get another person killed with no explanation other than “ProtagonistTM”.

What makes Mary Sue bad writing is actually the over focus on a single character. It’s not that she’s in defiance of some iron clad writing rules, which she isn’t, or breaking with gender norms (which… she usually isn’t either). It’s that everything else in the story must bend into a singular, selfish focus. Instead of building the characters around her up, Mary Sue makes her compatriots less and thus diminishes the story by extension. No one is more of a badass, regardless of whatever training they have or how the narrative presents them. No one else is cleverer or more skilled, unless it’s specifically pointed out that it is okay for X reason. No one else is capable of performing their own actions or living their own lives or pursuing their own goals unless the narrative authorizes them to do so. Anyone who breaks with the Sues opinions or disagrees with the Sue is evil, or soon will be down the line. They are painted as antagonists hurting her goal, even when their suggestions are reasonable.

There are no shades of gray, the world of the Sue is black and white.

As a result, the characters in question end up as puppets. They dance on the strings in accordance to where the plot points them. Their side narratives are rarely fulfilling and they rarely receive full character arcs. It’s often easy to feel the overhand of the author shuffling the pieces around to drive the plot forward, like the Wizard of Oz with neither the curtain nor the Oz.

This is why Sues are more obvious in fanfiction because the reader is already familiar with the pre-established world and they don’t feel like they belong. They are just as prevalent in regular fiction, but harder to spot due to having no prior experience with the setting.

Having one in your own work isn’t some shameful mark and fixing it is fairly easy, you just need to start thinking from the perspectives of other characters in the story. Begin humanizing them, begin having them react the way they’d react to any other character, and your Sue problem will go away in fairly short order.

No need to throw what could be the beginnings of an awesome character in the trash bin. It’s not unfixable, if you want to correct it. Besides that, there’s nothing wrong with a character being special.


Avoiding the Combat Sue/Stu

We often treat Mary Sue like she’s the greatest offense to the literary world. Down with Sue! Or, so the chant goes. Less commonly heard is; Down with the Stu! But, I digress. There’s no shame in writing a Mary or a Gary, we’ve all done it. Mary Sue is the embodiment of the power fantasy and I don’t mean that on a literary level, I mean it on a basic, reality level. Mary Sue is a personal fantasy, she’s the dream. She is the inspiration we find in stories and the first stepping stone on the path to creation.

Mary Sue and Gary Stu are most obvious in fanfiction because they don’t belong. We know they don’t because the characters don’t follow the behavioral paths we expect. Check out, this short story Fan Fiction by Shannon K. Garrity of Narbonic.com for the webcomic Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Folio as a great (non-chastizing) send up of Mary Sue.

Remember, if you want to write then you need to first give yourself permission to fantasize.

Let’s talk about some simple ways to take your Sue to the next level.

It’s not the skills your character possesses or how powerful they are that creates the uncanny valley–a term normally applied to video games but works in the context of almost human, but not quite right–of the Stu. It’s not whether or not their actions or abilities are realistic. Realism is created in setting by the rules and laws and our own societal expectations for gender are already unrealistic. No, a Sue comes from the removal of a single important element: there are no guarantees.

Combat is a risky business. This is a truth that is always in play, regardless of whether your character is a drunken wastrel stumbling out of a bar or the greatest swordsman in the land. Your super skilled combat professional can be murdered easily by a mook who catches them off guard, just as easily as they could be by the main villain in his tall tower. Combat is contextual. It relies on luck as much as it does skill. Every time your character leaps into a fight, they are endangering their life, their health, their mental well being, and the lives of their friends and family. This can be a difficult concept to grasp if the entire point of a character is to feel powerful, unstoppable, or invulnerable to harm. Sues and Stus invariably are about creating a sense of safety in the narrative. They’re so strong we don’t need to worry about them. This is a mistake if the author buys into their overconfidence because it cuts the character’s enemies and even their friends entirely out of the equation.

Spike: But you can kill a hundred, a thousand, a thousand thousand, and the armies of hell besides, and all we need is for one of us, just one, sooner or later to have the thing we’re all hoping for.
Buffy: And that would be what?
Spike: One… good… day.

Do any of your characters ask: why can’t that day be today?

Sports movies heavily favor the underdogs. They’re more interesting and more intriguing because it’s all about beating the odds and coming from behind to do the thing no one expects through hard work and dedication. These rules apply just as easily to your mooks as they do to your heroes. There is no such thing as: “I’m so good it doesn’t matter” except in a character’s own head. Being able to fight isn’t an automatic pass past physical realities and laws of chance. If your character is so powerful that people live in fear of them, hate them, reject them from society then there will be those characters that will move to destroy the thing they fear. They will attempt to eradicate it and eliminate it, or may simply throw rocks at it from the safety of a window. People do not like to be made afraid and they will often lash out against the perceived source of that fear. These may be innocent people on the street as easily as it can be the story’s villain.

The real trick to avoiding the Combat Sue is to force your character to deal with their setting, to be a coherent part of a world that doesn’t always function around them and can continue on if they aren’t present or choose not to play along. Stus and Sues need to be needed, if they aren’t there the world in the novel stops turning. They solve their problems, usually with asspulls and in the case of the Combat Sue always with violence. Except, violence isn’t the solution to every problem, violence can often make a situation worse. Every character your character kills is someone’s son, someone’s daughter, someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s mother, there’s nothing stopping their surviving family from swearing vengeance. This is before we get into complex political implications if your character murders or harms a character that is in a protected position of power such as a lord in a neighboring country. As Witty Hawke says during Sebastian’s second mission in Dragon Age 2 to take vengeance for his murdered family: “This is why the cycle of violence never ends.” Said in jest, but it is how the cycle continues.

Your character’s fight scenes can’t exist in a vacuum, everything they do will affect someone else. The choices they make and how they deal with those choices will affect the story. How other characters respond to their actions will also affect the story, give your side characters the freedom to make up their own minds.


We need more Mary Sues. We need more unapologetically powerful female characters, on a wish-fulfilment level of awesome. We need them to be gods and superheroes and billionaire playboy philanthropists and science experiments gone wrong and normal kids bitten by spiders who now save the world. Why should female characters have to be realistic, while male characters have all the fun? Why shouldn’t a female hero appear alongside Iron Man and Thor, in a way where she can truly hold her own?

We Need More Mary Sues (via matchgirl42)


(via writingweasels)

I’ve seen a lot of these posts around lately. There’s one talking about Batman as the ultimate Mary Sue but it’s OK because he’s a dude so he can’t be a Mary Sue. There’s another one talking about how men get all the wish fulfillment stories and women get laughed at or accused of Sueism if they do.

I just want to clear up some things that make me angry about this whole movement.

  1. Despite the name, Sueism is not a gender-specific term. Do not hesitate to call male characters out on their freaking Sueism for the love of R’hllor. Male characters can be and are Sues! If you think that male characters are not being called out as Sues, then go do it. If men think their little fantasies are immune to scorn, then let’s call them out on it. 
  2. “There aren’t enough female heroes!” Damn right there aren’t, especially on the big screen. I would love to see a hero as powerful as Thor smashing her way through her foes. I would also like to see her well-developed, much as I would like to see any protagonist well-developed. Muscley idiots spitting out pithy one-liners are just as dull as perfect women. 
  3. “We need more female gods/superheroes/billionaire playboy philanthropists.” Yes, we do. We need more women who aren’t sexy lamps, who aren’t sexy at all, whose characterization has nothing to do with them being attractive (if they are), who don’t spend ¾ of their plot wrapped up in a romantic subplot, and who aren’t sexualized. Now make me a well-rounded god/superhero/billionaire playboy philanthropist instead of stooping to the patriarchy’s levels to win. 
  4. Wish fulfillment characters are boring as hell. This quote discusses the Marvel superheroes. I’ve seen all the movies and liked most of them, but overall the movies were formulaic and predictable: there’s some jokes, stuff blowing up, and the ~evil villain~ but you know at the end of the day the guy will win and get the girl. B-O-R-I-N-G. I yawned so hard my wretched soul escaped out of my body.
  5. Bad does not wash out bad. Your Mary Sues are not going to wash out decades of Gary Sues. We should have all characters of all genders developed as fully-developed people. 
  6. “But empowerment!” Guess what? You can still have female characters who are powerful and well-rounded. You can have male characters who are powerful and not wish fulfillment. It’s not mutually exclusive!
  7. Mary Sues are literally the worst character

tl;dr I don’t care where your character is on the gender spectrum. Don’t write them as Sues.

(via clevergirlhelps)

I think there is a nasty habit going around in the writing community right now that’s equating Mary Sues with powerful characters. Your female characters don’t need to be Mary Sues in order for them to be powerful. You don’t need to create a Mary Sue in order to challenge gender stereotypes. The truth is: when you create a Sue, you aren’t challenging those stereotypes. Characters who are Sues are usually treated as the exception in the narrative, they leave no room for other characters (regardless of gender) to follow their example. When we write an Action Sues, they often become the only one of their gender to ever do the thing and that only serves to uphold the damaging idea that women don’t or can’t handle violence. It says that women can only be good at combat if they are better than the men, that men are the golden standard and the only ones who have ever fought ever.

It doesn’t normalize the behavior, it makes the character the exception to the rule and that hurts all women out there who can and do fight. It upholds the myth, instead of looking at the reality.

We have all written Mary Sues at some point, they are part of the writer learning experience. However, they are not the end all and be all. Don’t be ashamed of them, but learn how to make them real characters and part of engaging stories.