Avoiding the Mary Sue; A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

A Mary Sue character is a character too perfect to maintain verisimilitude with the audience. She (or he, the male version is the Marty Stu) is strikingly beautiful, talented in a multitude of unrelated skills, is always on the side of right, and lacks any real personality flaws – her ‘flaws’ tend to be disguised virtues. She is often the protagonist in amateur fanfic, as she is often an author avatar or proxy. She gets the dramatic back story, saves the day, and if she doesn’t have a heroic death then she wins the love of one of the main characters in the universe the fanfic is set in.

So, you suspect one of your characters might be a Mary Sue/Marty Stu … how do you go about recognising the type?

One Note: Is your character all ‘one note’ emotionally? Is she always brave and optimistic, always wins an argument, and never suffers from a bad hair day. Is everyone her friend, and if they aren’t her friend, do they admire and respect her anyway – or are envious.  This is a typical Mary Sue and simply awful characterization, and is the sign that a one note character is poor writing. This is a flat characterization and often an audience grows weary of the Mary Sue’s lack of flaws and lack of a realistic emotional life. Such a character never really comes alive to an audience, because they are are cardboard cut-out with no individuality. A well rounded character wins through by overcoming their flaws, or in spite of their flaws, not by being flawless to start with.

Good At Everything: Oh no, the first violinist is sick, but Mary Sue just happens to have a talent for playing the violin and knows the score. And, gosh, the hyper-link has gone down but Mary Sue can fix it with a hair pin even though the chief engineer was stumped. And Mary Sue is the only one with the rare blood type need to cure the sudden illness of the Intergalactic Ambassador. About now, you might be thinking that Mary Sue should be cracking under the pressure, but the little dear just soldiers on. (Mind you, the second violinist and the chief engineer probably hate her.) Again, this is rather dreadful characterisation, because it is hard for an audience to relate to someone so perfect. You might argue that such a character is perfect for a genre like Steampunk, because it is escapism. But you can stretch the verisimilitude to breaking point and lose an audience when the protagonist never actually suffers any real problems. Where is the tension when we know Mary Sue is going to always overcome?

Cliché Girl: At this point, I’d like to stick my fingers in my ears and hum, because I have been guilty of this – though in my defence, I was twelve. I wrote a horse story that was a direct rip-off of The Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell, and I included every cliché from those books. My main character, Allinta, was an equine Cliché Girl, or, in this case, Cliché Filly. It was a fanfic before I even knew what fanfic was. This Mary Sue happens when you stay very close to your original inspiration, and the protagonist tends idealise everything that you love about that inspiration. Forty years on, I can’t reread Allinta, the Flame without groaning and laughing in equal measure.


As you might guess, I have worked very hard to make sure that my characters are well-rounded and are not Mary Sues, Mary Stus, or even Anti-Sues. I have to mention Anti-Sues … this is what happens when you try your hardest to avoid Sue-ness, and fail. You’ve made your character ugly and clumsy and a sad little loser …but all the other characters still love her and the plot still twists itself into pretzels to give her a happy ending, this is an Anti-Sue. My Anti-Sue was a Goth chick who was secretly a Pollyanna do-gooder. Thank goodness I abandoned her in the planning stages when I recognised the signs.

A good writer can write escapism without resorting to the use of a Mary Sue character. The major problem with a Mary Sue as a protagonist is the lack of real tension or conflict in your narrative. However, if you want to write a humorous parody, a Mary Sue or Marty Stu character is a marvellous place to start. Look at Captain Carrot from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; he most certainly started life as a Marty Stu parody. Pratchett’s genius was turning Carrot into a complex and nuanced personality while remaining true to the original stereotype.

In my Steampunk novel, my main villain hides behind a Marty Stu persona for a couple of chapters. Because when somebody is too good to be true, I get suspicious. I hope my audience feels the same way.



Filed under Characterization, Steampunk Genre, Writing Style

18 responses to “Avoiding the Mary Sue; A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. My character Aretha Tyne Astin in An Unsubstantiated Chamber seems to fit the bill but only on the surface. Highly skilled? Yes. Gorgeous? Yes. She is thriving on a multitude of denials and imperfections not dealt with, and has certain bad guy ideas. Great blog and advice on avoiding this pitfall.

  2. Excellent post. The Mary Sue characterization is such an easy trap to get into, it makes writing a more challenging experience. I know I’ve been guilty of this from time to time. Then I have to go back and rewrite whole sections to fix my characters.

    I think one of the most effective deterrents to writing these types of characters is to read some of the truly awful fanfic that employs the use of Mary Sues and Marty Stus. Once you read some of those works, you know what NOT to do, and keep that in mind as you work on any of your writing projects.

    • Ah…fanfic. I think every writer starts off writing horrible fanfic, because they were inspired by the deathless prose of someone else. It is working past this stage that separates the writers from the fangirls & fanboys. Mind you, I have read some rather well-written fanfic online, and often wonder if those fangirls go on to write their own books.

  3. One of the early reviews for A Gentlewoman’s Chronicles labeled its hyper-competent protagonist a Mary Sue. I worried at first that I’d made the deep-seated psychological issues that the trauma she endured through the books too subtle, but as more reviews came in I was relieved to see that most people “got” it.

    Not that that early reviewer was wrong; the meaning of a book and the nature of its characters are created when someone reads it. I was simply pleased that most people were having a fictive dream where the character I’d presented was nuanced.

  4. I think a few of my characters had Mary Sue or Marty Stu-like qualities. Hopefully I’ve learned from my mistakes.

  5. My first book (and my most successful by far (*huge* sales, 4 nation release)), was riddled with ‘Mary Sue’s and her male equivalent. They ALL were, except for the cardboard-cutout villains.

    I think if my editors had remarked in it, I still wouldn’t have got the concept.

    The flip-side of this are characters written by cook-cutter instead of a keyboard. The novice painfully cobbles together an equally unbelievable character effectively wearing a sign saying – “Look, I’ve got flaws!”

    The problem, IMNSHO, is that too many people are trying to be writers with a book (or laptop) propped beside them titled “How To Write More Betterer”, and are not allowing their instincts to guide the process (at least a *little bit*)
    Maybe I’m being unnecessarily cynical.

    • It isn’t cynical when there were THREE bookcases of ‘How to Write’ books in Borders Robina before it closed its doors. On a tangent, I recently bought a ‘How to Write’ book from the 1950s at the Lifeline Booksale. Things have certainly changed in 60 years! And yet one thing remains the same, people who want to know the secret of learning to write. When we both know the first rule is ‘Sit down, and write, dammit.’ Just talking about writing means that you never get any writing done. (Meanwhile, my work-in-progress has hit 118,000 words.)

      • 118K words! Well done! (my books are currently touching 130,000, quite consistently.)

        Another funny thing: I’ve never read a book on how-to-write … Oh wait: “Everything I know about Writing” by John Marsden.

        But I sure don’t think about all the *things* while I write!

      • You are naturally talented, and good at so many different things, like sculpting and drawing and architecture, and making cosplay outfits.

      • “You are naturally talented” …
        Can’t deny that. I write on book, my first, my only, and BAM: extraordinary success! Sales that would make some people weak with envy. Reprints.
        No awards. they’ve eluded me.
        – This is something I just can’t understand. Why does one person just *Get It*, and another, naturally gifted with fervour, commitment, desire and perseverance – *Not get It* (and never get it).
        Life is strangely unfair.

        Did you see my recent blog on writing?

      • Alas. Even knowing the writing will never make me a rich woman, I am a hopeless addict. Even if I never get a book published, I will keep writing. However, I have been the Voyager Online Science Queen for nigh on 15 years, I am published by Paper Droids Online Magazine, and I’ve had a handful of short stories published. I might not be rich, but the job satisfaction is brilliant.

      • Job satisfaction. Well, I’m glad you’re getting some. Cheers!

      • I just wrote a blog post dedicated to you.

  6. (Still can’t type the word ‘one’ accurately, tho’.)

  7. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    I was halfway through a short story when I realised my protagonist was a Marty Stu. At least I had the sense to recognise a Marty when I reread my work. Pity I didn’t realise my mistake sooner.

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