The Mary-Sue Character
--Homer Simpson, The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show
JOEY: Who the hell is Gary Stu?
--Yu-Gi-Oh! The OTHER Abridged Movie
The Mary-Sue Character is a situation where an original character in a story has an uncharacteristic bias in both abilities and the attention of other characters. This normally leads to the character being the center of attention in the story, impossible to defeat and very different to the other characters from the start. In many cases, the Mary-Sue character is a thinly-veiled and very flattering self-insertion of the Author as a means to interact with his own universe and characters. It is a common element of fanfiction or amateur storylines to have a Mary-Sue character, or some variant of it, whether as a main character or as a recent insertion to an old cast.
That was the short definition. Now on to the giant article.
Imagine the start of your webcomic; you come up with the premise, the story, the first strip, the second strip and, oh, the third strip! That one will be awesome! But hey, who are the characters? There's this guy, that other guy, these bunch of chicks, and... well...
you this other guy who's kind of the protagonist but it the whole cast gets shown around.
You suddenly stop at the mention of that one character. Well, how does he look? What's his name? How is he? What's his past? What motivates him? What does he do? You feel obligated to answer an avalanche of questions about this character for some strange reason, and in all that rush and excitement you answer many questions with facts about... well...
you the first thing that came to your mind, some of which happened to be a similar to you but hey small world.
By the time you have fantasized enough of this character, you start to lose interest in this whole characterization thing. Do you have to go through that entire process again for the rest of the cast? What do they matter? If we spend all this time planning, we'll never get to the part where the comic starts, or all the funny jokes and the epic action and the heart-breaking drama! So you move along, giving the other characters some basic traits. That doesn't matter, because the start of the story will just focus on that one detailed character you got: who he is, what's his story, because... you know... he's...
you the protagonist, the chosen one, the team leader, my lost brother, the guy that looks like me, the one I identify myself with, me in a brighter/darker light, how I would look like in this universe, etc.
Yes, you are him. And you're awesome. It's a Mary-Sue.
Definition and Origin
Mary-Sue is a term that originated in no other place than fanfictions, and in no other fandom than the First Big One: Star Trek. The name was coined by one Paula Smith in her Star Trek fanzine in the early '70s. She wrote a story called "A Trekkie's Tale", and in mocking common fanfictions of the time (not that anything has changed), she introduced a feminine original character: a young, exotic, overqualified, admirable girl named Mary Sue. Paula drew attention to a common thread in most fanfiction stories: the introduction of a new character into the vast Star Trek universe, normally feminine (most fanfiction writers of the time were women), with very unique physical characteristics, a dark past, young age and impressive skills at everything, who got readily involved with the original characters and created many romantic storylines along the way, rather than a serious recreation of a common Star Trek episode. The Mary-Sue in fanfiction is normally some sort of tool for the author to have the chance of interacting in this universe with characters he/she loved so much. A fantasy. And very twisted, erotic fantasy at times.
Today, the Mary-Sue is a derogative term pointed at characters in all media. It's usually named after characters in a story that somehow seem to always have an upper hand in the story, have more attention to them than other characters and have a very unbalanced characterization, lacking any significant flaws and being highly skilled at everything they pursue. A Mary-Sue is also the main discussion topic among all the other characters, putting them in the spotlight even when they are not present. Many Mary-Sues are often used by authors as the main Plot Devices or Solutions, making their role as protagonists vital to the structure of the comic. The existence and characteristics of the Mary-Sue, depending on the degree of "Sue-ness", can sometimes challenge the Sense of Reality or Suspension of Belief (what your reader/viewers are willing to accept) of a comic, to the point it may alienate or bore the fans, who can't possibly relate to them.
The regular Mary-Sue has many, if not all, of these common traits:
- ...is the suggested protagonist of the story/arc, and often entitled with a great responsibility like being the One or having a very ambitious dream.
- ...has a very detailed and unique look, focusing on trivial details like eye, hair, and make-up color, facial traits, privileged body complex, etc.
- ...is usually considered to be more attractive by than the other characters due to such characteristics.
- ...has a dark past, normally involving teen traumas such as broken families, drug addiction, loneliness, suicidal tendencies, close deaths, insecurity and social awkwardness.
- ...easily develops a rivalry with the main antagonist over a disagreement of opinions or a dark past. If a new insertion to an old cast, he/she will likely clash with the former protagonist.
- ...regardless of her initial skill or age, eventually becomes the most skilled, and can master anything within a short amount of time.
- ...has the tendency of walking into new plots all the time, and is able to solve them alone or with very little help from others.
- ...always has the most noble/correct/appropriate thoughts, good intentions, and stands for the good side, which is always victorious, prettier and has the hottest chicks.
- ...bears resemblance or is an over-idealized portrayal of the Author. He also defends Author's stands on controversial topics.
- ...never permanently dies in the course of the story.
- ...has one or more love interests, a best friend, a protegé, and an archrival.
- ...puts his problems ahead of other people's problems.
- ...can only be ridiculed for the purpose of parody, for a short moment. He does not have permanent flaws other than being too good at everything.
- ...has an often-used freedom of expression (a gateway for VERY IMPORTANT OPINIONS).
In relation to that, the other characters...
- ...either love him dearly or hate him profoundly. There are no characters who are indifferent to him, which adds to his omnipresence.
- ...constantly discuss or ponder about him, often more than they do about themselves.
Variations of Mary-Sue
The presence of the Mary-Sue over the years has lead to much talk about the subject. Consequently, many variations of Mary-Sue have been devised.
The Male Mary-Sue (aka Gary-Stu)
Since the Mary-Sue is normally feminine in its fanfiction self, some point the male Mary-Sue as a "Gary-Stu", "Marty-Stu" or some variation. Gary-Stu shares many of the basic characteristics of the Mary-Sue, but from a male perspective of self-over-idealism. Gary-Stus have a more sexual appeal, since sex is all us boys think about. Also, they have a deeper edge towards "coolness" and "power", rather than Mary-Sue's "skill" or "sociability" (I blame it on rap music... and DBZ). As such, many Gary-Stus are bad-ass renegades or anti-heroes in their personal strive towards achieving their goals, some even being Villian-Sues (more of a FanFic case). Others, however, follow Son Goku's Path of the Kind and Good Kick-Ass Superhero, like Dominic Deegan.
Another breed of Gary-Stus are the "cool person" variant of the author of the comic: an edgy, awesome and wacky character that has many peculiar adventures in his everyday life and handles them in a high-voltage action or sitcom-esque way. This aspect is primarily used for slice-of-life, gag-a-day and gaming webcomics, like Ethan from Ctrl+Alt+Del. Gary-Stus LOVE to rant and say whatever they want, making them ripe for some Author opinions. Fisk Black, anybody?
When concerned about making a Mary-Sue, many novice authors try to reverse the situation by making a complete opposite of a Mary-Sue: an ugly, stupid, powerless, universally hated, unfunny bastard who everybody disagrees with and that can't win a fight to save their life (which make them die or become injured very easily). Since it's a complete opposite, it isn't a Mary-Sue, right? WRONG.
The Anti-Sue is a character that tries as hard as possible to be the complete opposite of a Mary-Sue, but actually fulfills all the conventions of the syndrome. An Anti-Sue, though hated or disagreed with, is still normally on the spotlight of the comic and is widely discussed by the other characters. He still plays a major part on the comic and has often unbalanced characteristics (he's not good at anything) that give him an unrealistic characterization. This even introduces the concept of being unrealistically bad or stupid, which raises the question of why characters even bother hanging around with him. Such scene puts an even bigger strain on the Suspension of Belief problem.
Why It's Bad
Fans are reading this comic, y'know? Fans read a comic. They read it and enjoy it and discuss it, and they normally give it their own interpretation. That's the whole "art" aspect of this thing. As such, they will pick different aspects and characters of your work that they like best. If you start favouring one character too much or give them unfair powers to the point they make other characters redundant or mistreated, their fans will feel alienated by you. Minus points if the Mary-Sue shaking things up is a newcomer. This is the leading cause of broken or divided fanbases, since the supporters of a certain character feel that the Mary-Sue is pushing them away, loyal fans of the comic. If the Mary-Sue has a conflict with said character in the comic, or the supporting character actually bows away to the Mary-Sue, it's a death sentence to a portion of your fanbase.
Fantasy is a genre, not a motivation for making a comic. The prime motivation of many authors to create their slice-of-life, gag-a-day, gaming or adventure comics is some fantasy that they have about themselves, which is weak and arrogant. Not to say fantasy isn't a base for fiction, all the contrary. However, if in your fantasy you are king of the world and fucking rule over life with incredible powers that all the ladies line up for, perhaps you should keep it to yourself. That's a hard image to sell to us, the other repressed egomaniacs of the world.
Contradictions are a Weakness. When you set up the universe for your story, it should always be something that stands on its own. Basing it around the whims of your favorite character often leads to many contradictions. Characters are constantly evolving and changing and shouldn't be able to bend universal laws to fit them. Suppose the Mary-Sue is once caught masturbating. After some jokes and half-digested rants, everybody finds it totally acceptable. Then what happened when, before that, Harry got caught and everyone ridiculed him? This is more common than you think, although not as colorful as my example. The regular case is that, as the battle between good and evil deepens, the good Mary-Sue is progressively allowed harsher methods to fight crime and enters the gray area of anti-heroism. Are you gonna make all people cheer him and regard that he does it with his good intentions like he always did? No second thoughts or doubts? A little hypocritical, if you ask me.
You don't hang out with that Harry Potter everyday! As much as movies, TV, and books try to make Harry Potter a well rounded human character, fans often have a very simple image in their heads: A wizard boy with a dark past who is the One and is destined to defeat Evil with his unparalleled powers. And that's the Harry Potter they resort to when they think the Hero of their story. Before you know it, another Mary-Sue Potter is born! What they don't seem to understand is that a ridiculously superpowered character is too arrogant and shallow for people to relate to. Thus, they don't consider him the protagonist like their authors hope. That's the reason most Mary-Sues have a dark past: to draw some "awwww..." from the fans. Except their stories are so clichéd and angsty, they normally come as annoying or not enough for justifying them. Dark pasts in these Mary-Sues also are conveniently tampered with to influence current storylines or arguments, which leads to contradictions and fan outcry.
Discussion Point 1: "Nowadays, the term Mary-Sue is used so loosely and widely that it's lost some of its meaning. It seems I can't create any new character without it being a Mary-Sue or an Anti-Sue or an Anti-Anti-Sue or a Mary-Jay-Sue-Bob, or whatever."
- Seagate's Stance: I do believe that Mary-Sue has become a very popular buzzword among fans, especially in fan creations like fanfiction or fancomics. That's because people are often very conservative of the things they believe in, and they hate an uneven representation. Also, it's become some kind of offense normally flung at newbies for demotivation or spite. We at BWW try not to fall into those pitfalls, but we can't promise you to be perfect. The best thing you can do is dedicate some time to planning out your characters and the way to will insert and relate them in your comic. It may sound like extra work, but that what all good things need: planning and patience.
- Author Surrogates: Though Mary-Sues are often self-inserts of the author, an author surrogate isn't automatically a Mary-Sue. Provided these characters aren't a perfect, super-duper, intensely badass, chick-magnet ideal of the author, they can't just be rubber-stamped "Mary-Sues" and thrown in the reject pile. But, if that character doesn't grow (because you can't improve perfection), is too close-minded (because they're always right), lack flaws that would balance things out, is THE character that the world spins around on, gets involved with everyone and everything and walks right in and solves the issues without much trouble, then that, my friends, is what you call a Mary-Sue.
Time and again, people of the world have accused Dominic Deegan (from the webcomic Dominic Deegan: Oracle for Hire) to be a Mary-Sue and an over-idealized portrayal of its author, Michael Terracciano. Beyond the fact that Dominic and Michael look alike (which we blame on the limited set of faces Mookie can draw), Dominic portrays many symptoms from the Mary-Sue disease. When the first half-serious quest appears (a lady curses him and he must find an antidote) he, rather than taking matters in his hands like an actual hero, pushes two burglars into stealing the antidote for him. They serve as bait while Dominic saves a girl from suicide and reveals her mother's evil plot. But when the mother for revenge, a knight kills her. The daughter then thanks and heals Dominic. Please, he didn't do shit. That's about half of the comic for you: big bad appears, Deegan rallies his gang, they put up the real fight while Dominic takes the important shots and revelations, and finally, he stands victorious over the carcass of his friend's bodies. And he gets sex with her wife. Ain't he a mother-flippin' HERO?
Mookie recognizes the issue, and Dominic is often known as the "puppet master" of the good side. The most painful example of this is the Snowsong Arc, where Gregory manages, with the power of teamwork, to stop a confused villain from destroying Barthis. Then along comes Dominic (almost absent from the whole story) to Mayor Pam's office and tells her that he had caused everything. Not just that, but several days and strips are spent to explain how he maneuvered everyone into position for the plot to move. Of course, that makes him the hero, not his half-dead brother who almost lost his life to save a town. I'm glad he cleared that up. For a moment I thought he wasn't the center of the universe.
When Dominic is actually in the front of the battle, it's even worse. Dominic is constantly nearing defeat when he suddenly develops a new power out of thin air. This normally results in him becoming the Avenger, the Most Powerful Man on Earth, the One, the Last Hope, or just a giant in scant leather underwear, and pins the bad guy down effortlessly. It's important to notice that when Dominic is fighting, he's usually alone and rarely receives the help of his friends, except in moments of extreme weakness or when the plot still hasn't taken its drama pill. Meanwhile, his friends must always team up to stand a chance against anyone, and invariably receive the help of Dominic to deal with the menace of the paperboy or a stray dog.
To top it all off, he is also flawless and impossible to have an argument against. Rather than admit that people may have differing opinions about him and his family or at least deal with it like a mature adult, he goes into rage mode. When a protester ranted about Dominic's mother, not only did he humiliate her in public, but nobody cared about it. "Oh, she was just a lonely, crazy bitch. Nobody really likes her." Some of the points he defends could actually be agreed upon if he didn't categorize people so blindly. Dominic is especially critical of things like newspapers, who always seem to go against him for not being completely aware of all his great feats. I mean, we've never seen actual reporters in the comic, so how can he blame them? And as you probably noticed, Dominic has a very vocal characteristic that his author occasionally exploits for his VERY IMPORTANT OPINIONS, but not as much as other offenders.
What does it feel to be a hardcore gamer loved by a huge mass of fans that hail you as King of your own holiday and religion? It feels like you did a shitload of drugs, and have a giant ego. Or maybe you're Ethan, from the webcomic Ctrl+Alt+Del, a new generation of Mary-Sues.
Nobody walks around the issue, not even Mr. Buckley. Ethan is dumber than a brick. Nobody can stand to be in his presence for more than a minute without getting pissed off. Yet, in all that idiocy, he is an obsessive gamer who gets everything handed to him on a plate. Despite the fact he can't even manage the most mundane of daily tasks, is socially retarded and can't handle even minor responsibilities he somehow builds a robot, owns a gaming store and holds down a girlfriend . A girlfriend that MARRIED him. Willingly! Venturing even further into the realms of delusion the creator (and thus owner) of a gaming holiday (Winter-een-mas) and has a church of followers for a GAMING RELIGION.
Ethan is both flawed and skilled at a level of contradiction I can't understand, but irrationality is not new with Mary-Sues. He's also some form of expression of the author, but not like we usually see. We got a Mary-Sue self-insertion with some dashes of Anti-Sue to cover up. He's like Peter Griffin, you know? Both are resounding idiots (Peter is even a legal retard) who can do anything. Never mind their infrahuman aptitudes, they might be better off in life than you! Even if they always screw up things and burn down a house. The wife will eventually forgive them and they'll have sex (you see a pattern forming?).
Everything goes Ethan's way to such an unrealistic degree that it's not impossible to imagine the comic as the insane delusions of Ethan as he rolls about a padded cell in a strait jacket, gibbering incessantly and muttering to himself. Think about it: Ethan's opponents are not only easily defeated, they are normally portrayed as dumber than him. That's crazy talk! Like the corporate guy who thinks he needs to steal a holiday to market it or Christian, the rich guy who tries to steal Lilah from Ethan at any cost. To say there's a world where people support this guy, agree with him, or are defeated in a battle of wits with him, implies Ethan is somehow smarter than them. Then Buckley's laptop explodes and he has to start all over.
Despite all the above evidence for the case of Ethan being a Mary-Sue, including the fact that Buckley's drawn self is creepily similar to him, there is one more thing. In the latest strips, while Ethan continues to have everything fall onto his lap, Lucas has to deal with real life. He was cheated on by his girlfriend, and spent half of 2008 on the rebound. Now he wants to go to college, but can't afford it. Coincidentally, Ethan now has a store and needs someone to run it with him. Shiiiiiit, this is so sad. Lucas is slowly being forced by the universe to bow down to Ethan and work for him. The animated season already spoiled it for us: Lucas will accept. Someone with real problems who is ten times more likable than Ethan will now have to surrender to the king of Buckleyland. I thought I'd never say this, but from all the puppets in CAD, my favorite is Lucas. He can tell how stupid he and everybody else he lives with is, which provides the only comedy I can scratch off this thing. But now his pride must be slaughtered because Buckley will not risk having Ethan treated as anything less than the fucking God-Emperor by the other characters. Shame on him.
Who's that big republican cat with grenades galore who all the chicks dig? Fisk! You damned right.
Fisk Black from the webcomic Better Days is what author Jay Naylor would've wanted to be if he had enough balls. It's his inner fantasy of a motherfucking badass hero (more like sisterfucking, amirite?) that loves his country more than 16 Rambos wrapped up in an American flag with an apple pie on top. How do I know that? Unlike the other authors who at least try to keep separate from their Mary-Sues (and fail miserably), Naylor embraces the online persona of Fisk Black. Even his LiveJournal goes by that name.
Who is Fisk? He has a dark past that beats any other Mary-Sue to shame: broken home, dead dad, incest, lost friendships, traumas, pointless relationships, promiscuous mother, sex at an early age... The guy is a collection of scars. That's supposed to make us feel warm and tingly about him, so we can support all his claims. Like how women are all ass and no brain (except his family and many girlfriends), or how early sex and incest are alright because it's the fucking '80s (and he loves his sister so much), how euthanasia is unacceptable and people should suffer through what's left of their lives, how Vietnam was the right thing for the US to do, how the army is cool and being an above-the-law patriotic mercenary is even cooler, how black people are usually inferior and/or broken, how polygamy is acceptable, modern art is wrong, and socialism is freaky and lesbian. If you noted 2 or less contradictions, read this paragraph again. C'mon, you can do it. No reader left behind!
His beliefs may seem unstable, but I'll be damned if Naylor doesn't use everything at his disposal to make it happen. As disorganised and protracted as Fisk's thoughts are, he always makes sure to state them clearly to the face of others through Walls of Text, passionate speeches, or perhaps by throwing some grenades around. Whoever has an opposing opinion to Fisk's is not important and will either disappear violently or convert to Fisk's side after being thoroughly humiliated. The basic point here is that Fisk is the embodiment of Naylor's belief in objectivism: that people are heroic humans (or furs, in this case) who must pursue happiness and fulfill their wildest dreams at the expense of a society that must be completely vowed to radical individualism and hardcore capitalism. You know, when it's to their benefit. When it's not, it's all about how everything is fucked up, not their fault, and they need to get help. BAILOUT PLAN!
Fisk is not only our token IMPORTANT OPINIONS Mary-Sue combo, but also a Mary-Sue in that twisted fanwork sense where the term originated. You see, Naylor created Fisk to fit into the continuity of a friend's comic, Badly Drawn Kitties. In that comic, "Lucy" had a brother and an incestuous relationship with him. That character was Fisk, and from that shallow foundation Naylor built the sort-of-prequel named Better Days. He made a huge and detailed story of a secondary character someone else mentioned and claimed it as his own persona, a badass totally awesome furry who sleeps with everybody, even his sister. It got to the point where Naylor distanced from BDK for its "Anti-Americanism", and separated his Lucy and Fisk into his own universe, assuming complete creative control of his comic. The result is this... interesting piece of work we have today. Good job, "Fisk".
Now, what we can get out of this whole article? When I reviewed Dominic Deegan, I said that art can't be wholly subjective, because then anything would be perfect and things like worth would be impossible. There are objective things in art, especially in webcomics, because you're selling this to an audience. Sometime figuratively, sometimes actually. You're offering your work to the people of the Internet, and it's up to them to like it and support it. That's the prime directive of webcomics art. You can't force people to agree with you on stuff. You can't shove badly drawn art and writing in their mouths, and shoot down people who say you could do better. You can't have a character who defies everything you yourself created on a piece of art just because you like it that way. Well, I guess you can can, but here's the twist: you can't do all of the above and even assume you will get everyone to like you. It's impossible. We want something out of this comic too. You should know that, you put this crap on the Internet! If you were really only trying to humor yourself and didn't care about our opinion, why bother? I might not know much about many things, but I know this: loading up images on your own hard drive is much faster, and ad free! And not having forums and Twitters and shoutboxes save a lot of bandwidth.
But you do want other people to see it. You do want other people to like it, link it, say good things about it and give you money. So what's it gonna be? Are you going to try and improve your comic so that more people like it? Or are you just gonna wait for someone to crown you Big Brother and brainwash us into liking you? This isn't so hard to recognize, it's basic grasp of reality. People don't just wake up one day and are the master of the universe, or the biggest stud on the planet. You need to make your characters 'real! Full-fleshed! Balanced! Human! Or whatever real is on the world you made them live in. Credibility is one of the hardest things to achieve in a work of fiction. Don't fuck it all up so you can like your fantasies online. That's what your friends-only Livejournal is for.
- The Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test - A good test for checking if your own character is a Mary Sue, or to check other people's characters for a laugh.