A Mary Sue is a character archetype in fiction, usually a young woman, who is often portrayed as inexplicably competent across all domains, gifted with unique talents or powers, liked or respected by most other characters, unrealistically free of weaknesses, extremely attractive, innately virtuous, and/or generally lacking meaningful character flaws. Usually female and almost always the main character, a Mary Sue is often an author's idealized self-insertion, and may serve as a form of wish fulfillment. Mary Sue stories are often written by adolescent authors.
Originating from fan fiction, the term Mary Sue was coined by Paula Smith in the 1973 parody short story "A Trekkie's Tale", as the name of a character standing in for idealized female characters widespread in Star Trek fan fiction. The term has been applied to male characters as well, though a male character with similar traits may be labeled a Gary Stu or Marty Stu.
As a literary trope, the Mary Sue archetype is broadly associated with poor quality writing, and stories featuring a Mary Sue character are often considered weaker for it. Though the term is mostly used negatively, it is occasionally used positively.
The term Mary Sue comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 in the parody story "A Trekkie's Tale", published in Smith's and Sharon Ferraro's Star Trek fanzine Menagerie. The story featured Lieutenant Mary Sue ("the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet—only fifteen and a half years old"), and satirized idealistic female characters widespread in Star Trek fan fiction. The full 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.: 94–96
In 1976, Menagerie's editors wrote:
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.
Smith and Ferraro created the character to parody a recurring pattern found in author submissions to Menagerie, in which a young woman would arrive on the Starship Enterprise and quickly win over the established characters. While the Mary Sue character did not originally have a specific gender, these submitted stories tended to be written by women. According to Smith and Ferraro, women made up most of the Star Trek fan base, unlike the larger science fiction fandom. Smith and Ferraro had initially considered other (male) names such as "Murray Sue" or "Marty Sue". Comparing the character to male proxies such as Superman, Smith later said, "It was OK for [men] to have placeholder characters that were incredibly able".
While originally used to describe fan fiction characterizations, the term Mary Sue has been applied to characters and stories in commercially published fiction as well.: 98  According to folklorist Camille Bacon-Smith, the stories that represent the "pure" form of the Mary Sue character are "found in the Star Trek section of any bookstore",: 98 for example, cadet Piper, the protagonist of the 1986 Star Trek novel Dreadnought! by Diane Carey.: 98–99 Mary Sue can also refer to the fan fiction genre featuring such characters; these stories feature female heroines who are young, attractive, and exceptionally gifted, and serve as the author's self-insertion into the story. They often resolve the conflict of the story, win the love of the other characters, and die a heroic death at the end.: 53 Mary Sue stories are often written by adolescent authors. An author may create a new character based on themselves, or they may alter an established character's personality and interests to be more like their own.
The two characteristics of idealization and self-insertion are usually cited by fans as hallmarks of a Mary Sue character. Angie Fazekas and Dan Vena write that such characters "provide an opportunity for teenage girls to write themselves into popular culture narratives as the heroines of their own stories". According to Jackie Mansky in Smithsonian, some critics argue that "Mary Sues opened up a gateway for writers, particularly women and members of underrepresented communities, to see themselves in extraordinary characters". Author Ann C. Crispin described the term Mary Sue as "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".: 98
Bacon-Smith writes that Mary Sue stories are "central to the painful experience of a female fan's adolescence", especially for those who could not or would not remain intellectually or physically subservient to their male peers; they represent a combination of active protagonist with "the culturally approved traits of beauty, sacrifice, and self-effacement".: 100–101 In fan-fiction versions, the protagonist traditionally dies at the end of the story; Bacon-Smith says this expresses the "cultural truth" that to enter womanhood in a male-dominated American society, one must kill the "active agent within [herself]"; Mary Sue thus embodies a "fantasy of the perfect woman", who exists to serve the needs of men while minimizing her own abilities.: 102 Less commonly, male characters may be used to personify the same wish-fulfillment functions. Called Marty Stu, Gary Stu, or Larry Stu,[a] these characters are typically discussed in fan culture as adjuncts to the Mary Sue trope. For example, fans have argued that in Star Trek, the character James T. Kirk is a "Marty Stu".: 97
Smith commented in 1980 that her intent was never "to put down all stories about inspiring females".: 96 In a 2011 interview, she said that the male alternative is rarely pointed out, citing James Bond and Superman as popular "Marty Stu" characters. 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".
The Mary Sue character has acquired a negative connotation in fan communities: 53 as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting. According to Bacon-Smith, the label is "the most universally denigrated genre in the entire canon of fan fiction": 94 and may represent "self-imposed sexism" by limiting the qualities allowed for female characters.: 97 Mansky writes that as the term gained in usage, fans—most often male fans—have used it to denigrate any capable female character.
Bacon-Smith argues that fear of creating a "Mary Sue" may be restricting and even silencing to some writers. She quotes an issue of the Star Trek fanzine Archives as identifying "Mary Sue" paranoia as one of the sources for the lack of "believable, competent, and identifiable-with female characters".: 110–111 The zine quotes writer Edith Cantor as saying 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. Cantor stated, "in terms of their impact [...] those words [Mary Sue] have got to rank right up there with the Selective Service Act".: 96 At a Star Trek fan convention ClipperCon in 1987, during a discussion by female authors, one author stated, "Every time I've tried to put a woman in any story I've ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue".: 110–111 In a 1990 panel discussion, participants "noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the [fan] community is damned with the term Mary Sue".: 110
Writing in feminist popular culture magazine Bitch, Keidra Chaney and Raizel Liebler describe Star Trek: The Next Generation character Wesley Crusher as a "quasi–Gary Sue", who is "a brilliant teen who always seems to discover the answers to problems and who is promoted to the crew of the Enterprise with no formal training".: 56 According to writer Pat Pflieger, the character may have been a stand-in for Gene Roddenberry, whose middle name was Wesley.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw of The Daily Dot describes the fan fiction My Immortal's main character, Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way, as "a Mary Sue protagonist who was clearly a glorified version of the author". The character Arya Stark from HBO's Game of Thrones series has been labeled a Mary Sue for her heroic role in the show's finale; frustration with this characterization inspired a response on the feminist website The Mary Sue, which took its name as an effort to "re-appropriate" the term. Twitter users have debated whether the Star Wars sequel trilogy features a Mary Sue in its protagonist, Rey, on the basis of Rey's seemingly natural skills as a mechanic, a fighter, a pilot, and a user of "The Force", which draw admiration from the film's other main characters.
- Author surrogate
- Competent man
- Goody Two-Shoes
- Ideal womanhood
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl
- Tuckerization, when someone is written into a story by someone else
- Paula Smith's alternative name is "Wesley Sue".
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