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.