The “Mary Sue”: A Writer’s Fear of Failure

by Sera James

A Mary Sue is slang, based in a Star Trek fanzine published in the 70s, for a character who is so perfect, they become unrealistic and flat. The term is sometimes criticized as sexist (“Oh, so women can’t be incredibly smart, and sexy, and tough, and rich, and funny, all at the same time, huh?” is the essential body of the retort), but as an eye-witness of the Marty Sue, I reject this complaint; some writers get distracted by the name being female, thinking this means all annoyingly perfect characters are female. Sues have nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with depth of character. It’s the hallmark of a newbie to be using one, much less two (if you happen to be writing, for example, a romance about Mary and Marty Sue bumping heads over the same astrophysics text in the library), so let’s start talking about what makes a Sue, and how to dismember one.

I worked with a man we’ll call Zach who had a persistent blindness to the Sue-ness of his main character. No matter how ardently I workshopped with him, he would not give up the perspective that his Sue was constantly winning. And that, in a nutshell, is a Sue. I’ve seen them described as being oddly flawless, and I’ve seen them described as having quintessentially female “positives” (for instance, being a virgin), but a Sue, in its heart, doesn’t actually have to be a rock star, or a princess, or a prodigy, or a half-dragon twin who is “fated to redeem the people of Blah Blah.” Much speculation circulating regarding the Sue condemns this character for its bland and flat perfection, but a Sue is actually inside the author. You can’t fix a Sue by taking out a certain skillset, or adding a piece of backstory. The Sue is in you. The Sue is in your unflinching inability to construe your beloved main character as a failure, ever.

Back to Zach, and “winning.” Zach had a main character, and a compelling premise for a novel. I would have loved to have helped him, but his knuckles were white on the reins of this baby. The problematic Sue was in the storytelling itself, and relates back to insecurity–Zach’s own actual insecurity. Because, to him, this book wasn’t a real story. This book was an important fantasy he needed to maintain. His main character wasn’t an actual person. It was a vehicle through which he could experience his own world-building skills.

Zach’s character never failed. Even his failures were written like successes. (This is how a writer can have a Sue and never realize it; they build in flaws that are later glamorized, or only appear in exposition, but never actually hinder a task.) In any particular scene, there is a particular requirement. Maybe a certain interaction between characters calls for badassery and combat, while another calls for romantic intimacy, and still another calls for quips and snark. Zach’s boy could do all of it, depending on the scene. If the scene required that his main character was no longer feuding with a long-established rival, the feud would disappear from the narration, or be sufficiently downplayed, to allow the main character to, at all costs, continue winning.

Which is where the conventional definition of the Sue and my interpretation of the Sue convene again. A Sue does too much. A Sue can do anything (except fail). Here is my advice for avoiding the incidental construction of a Sue:

  • Don’t self-insert. Writers instinctively protect their self-inserts, and it encourages the subconscious mentality that your story is a fantasy world for you to play in, and not a real story. Real stories demand failure. Not cool, magnificent failure. Real failure. Real failure does not feel cool. Real failure feels like losing. (Self-inserts also experience automatic underdevelopment because the writer feels no particular need to invest a backstory; self-inserts are just that. They provide a mode of transport for the writer, and fulfill their perceived purpose fully enough by merely existing.)
  • Develop the character before you develop the plot around them. If you have a mandatory checklist of actions before you have a human being (or whatever) with a meaningful history, you will be forced to create a patchwork person to satisfy the requirements of the plot, which is the inorganic and forced nature of the Sue that readers find so uninspiring.
  • Beware specialness. I (tried to) work with Sues that were infamous students, wounded killers, prophecy babies, et cetera (all at once). They were marksman who never missed a shot, and if they did, it was heartbreaking and beautiful (so much winning). Try to keep it within the realm of possibility. The Sue is a unique blend of not enough, and too much.

In summary, the Sue has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with the writer themselves. A Sue is the product of a writer’s unwillingness to sacrifice their fantasy for the sake of authenticity. This is fine, but it’s also unpublishable. So you just have to ask yourself what you’re writing: a real story, or a daydream?