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Overall, a Mary Sue is a character that is shamelessly self-inserted, fawned over by the canon characters, poorly developed, without flaws, and/or stupidly overpowered, who the story focuses on at the expense of the actual regular main characters. /tg/ hates Mary Sues.
Unfortunately, after so much rage and so many troll threads, /tg/'s definition of Mary Sue has become blurred to the point that any character at all can be (and probably has been) accused of being a Mary Sue on even the flimsiest of pretenses.
Some accept nothing less than the above description, and will sooner gut you then look twice if you say it's anything else. Others prefer a more generalized definition, which refers to an overly-idealized character who exerts an unjust amount of influence upon their respective setting or story. Others still carry this meaning out to extremes and use the term to describe anyone who isn't a homeless junkie or a brooding sociopath with an alignment of Chaotic Batshit Insane.
However, there is a conundrum regarding the definition. If the character is overpowered, idealized and part of an established story (such as some portrayals of Wolverine and Batman), some say that this is not a Mary Sue, as they are a canon character in an original story. For them, the term "Canon Sue" is used. The only difference between a Mary Sue and a Canon Sue (I'd like to take the time to apologize to any real-life people named "Sue" who are reading this) is a Canon Sue is an established character in the story/wish-fulfillment for the creator of the story (NOTE: few people will admit if the fictional character they create is for wish-fulfillment). For the sake of this page, the definition of Mary Sue will also include Canon Sues.
Another problem is when people use the term "Mary Sue" to refer to a "creator's pet"; a character that part of the fanbase dislikes but is adored by the creator of the character and gets treatment such as increasing focus, magnifying the importance of their role, and having the other characters talk about how awesome they are in painful ignorance — or sometimes in spite — of the fans' obvious hatred. This is not a Mary Sue though a character can be both; the two types share common traits and a Creator's Pet is more easily defined. For example; Marneus Calgar is a creator's pet, while one character who is a Mary Sues and a creator's pet is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek.
It is worth noting, however, that very rarely, authors have the skill to pull off the Mary Sue, creating a character of such epic awesomeness (e.g. Jean Luc Picard) that no one gives a shit.
Before you ask: Male versions of Mary Sue (and there are plenty) are known as Gary Stu or Marty Stu (both work, with usage depending on whether you prefer it to share initials or to rhyme), although for the purposes of sanity, we'll default to "Mary Sue" when referring to them.
- 1 So, what's this "Mary Sue" thing got to do with /tg/?
- 2 Origin of the Concept
- 3 A Few Special Cases of Sues
- 4 Watsonian vs. Doylist definition of "Sue"
- 5 How Can I Tell If My Character Is A Mary Sue?
- 6 "I Hate This Competent Character"-Syndrome
- 7 Mary Sues in Roleplaying Games
- 8 Negating the Mary Sue
- 9 Hard Men Making Hard Decisions (While Hard)
- 10 Gallery
- 11 See Also
- 12 External Links
- 13 Footnotes
So, what's this "Mary Sue" thing got to do with /tg/?
- GMPCs have their own section in our NPC article, so we'll direct you there.
- Settings have a tendency to grow Sue-level characters if they have a sufficient number of high-powered NPCs. This is because an author needs somebody to impose some stability to the setting, and so you usually wind up needing a character that has many traits of the Mary Sue. And from there, it only takes a few writing mistakes to go into Mary Sue territory head first. (Elminster is a notable example here, but plenty of others exist.)
- Certain authors (and any setting with many authors will probably eventually find themselves with at least one of these) want to include Perfect Heroes or Perfect Villains in their settings. The problem with Perfect Heroes is that they tend to be just one or two steps from Mary Suedom, and these authors are usually bad enough writers that the resulting "Hero" goes veering off into Suedom like a plane that loses both wings goes veering off into the ground. (Matt Ward is merely the most /tg/ notable example here; more and worse examples exist, trust us.)
- A somewhat common subspecies of 3 is the "Waifu" Sue author. He wants to create his perfect Waifu, and the result is usually among the Suiest Sues Who Ever Sued. (Husbando-perpetrating female authors exist, as do gay and lesbian authors who do it for the appropriate sex, but Waifuing male authors are the most common subset to get called out, for various subtly obvious reasons.)
- When imagining a species or race, some authors lose sight of the concepts of competitive balance and competitive advantage and make one race superior to all the others, forgetting that the rule in good storytelling is that flaws and limitations are more interesting than powers.  The most common race to get this treatment are Elfs, but other examples exist.
- Humanity gets both ends of this frequently: Depending on the bad writer in question, we can either be the best thing ever, or utter shit compared to their perfect Mai Waifu Master Race.
(Points 2 and 3 overlap, but are distinct enough in cause that they're worth separating.)
Origin of the Concept
The name "Mary Sue" comes from a parody of shitty Star Trek fanfiction called A Trekkie's Tale (no, seriously, that's the origin, look it up if you don't believe me.) First written in 1974 by Paula Smith, the original Lieutenant Mary Sue was a parody of the half-Vulcan jailbait and other shameless self-inserts that had been clogging up the Star Trek fanfic magazines. The trolling was so epic that her name became permanently ingrained in the vocabulary of every fandom on the planet, and this makes Paula Smith a paragon of trolls.
The term is commonly used by trolls, and can most easily be spotted by a blanket accusation of a character being a Sue without attempting to justify actual reasons behind it. More clever trolls will attempt to offer some explanation that is deliberately intended to get under the offended party's skin.
A Few Special Cases of Sues
Here are a few complicating factors in any simple definition of what "Mary Sue" means, because critics are mean like that:
First and foremost: A Mary Sue, as stated above, does not need to be a female, woman, or girl. There are plenty of male Sues, usually called "Gary Stu" or "Marty Stu". (See also the "Hard Man Making Hard Decisions (While Hard)" well below.)
Note that the Mary Sue need not be the hero of the piece. A large minority of Sues are villains (either protagonist or antagonist).
Some well-known characters with a tendency in the hands of bad writers to become Villain Sues include The Joker, Magneto, Doctor Doom, and Admiral Thrawn. And then there's the flat-out Villain Sues in a single writer's (or at least well regulated and coordinated between several) canon, such as Red Hulk's initial appearances, or the show version of Ramsay Bolton. Or, to be more directly /tg/ relevant, Fabius Bile and Samuel Haight.
Sue Species And Orders
Further, it's possible for the Sueness to be spread across an entire species or other group of people. The accusation is more commonly (and more properly) thrown around on the species side of that line (Internalized Fantastic Racism be a Real World thing, yo). The best-known cases of species-wide-Suedom are probably Chakats and any given Elfaboos' version of Elves. The best known case of a Sue Organization or Order are the Ultrasmurfs.
The AntiSue and Sympathy Sue
You'd think that the opposite of a Mary Sue wouldn't be a kind of Mary Sue all its own? Well, you'd be wrong. Comes in two flavors:
- The perpetrator of the Sue might think "I'll just pull a George Costanza, and do the opposite of my instincts!", not recognizing that what made their instincts bad was more in amplitude than in direction. There are two subflavors of this:
- Characters who are Just The Worst in some way (ugly/stupid/unpopular/what-have-you), but is still recognizably a Sue (see, for reference, the worse Neelix episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, or Bella Swan from Twilight)
- There's also the "Butt Monkey" type, where the character is essentially just a Mary Sue in full reverse; there's the same "the plot entirely revolves around the main character" problem, the same "that makes no sense" and "things that only happened because the Author said so" plots, the same "there must be mind control involved" character reactions, just set to negative instead of positive. This version's inclusion in Suedom is rather more controversial, as so much is mirrored that it's hard to differentiate the "real Sues" from just "the author's chew toy". The result is still bad writing; it's just that there is some debate about whether it counts as "Mary Sue Bad Writing" or just "Bad Writing".
- The perpetrator of the Sue is going for Sympathy. Which, again, is only a change in direction, not in amplitude.
The "Butt Monkey" case results in an extremely noticeable character archetype that is not usually called a Mary Sue, but is just as annoying: the one guy who is theoretically on the side of the heroes, but is useless, wrong about everything, an asshole, and generally disliked by the rest of the heroes, and who spends all of his or her time complaining or offering obviously stupid ideas. Remember Eric the Cavalier from the 1980s D&D cartoon? How about Nathan Ramsey from Seven Days? The Grand Vizier from War Planets? The magical ragdoll character "One" from the movie "9"? Avoid writing characters like this. Please.
The Comedy Sue
This is where a Character is a Sue and they are utterly perfect, but the audience is not supposed to be in awe of how good they are, we are supposed to laugh at the ridiculousness of it.
This kind of Sue can actually work; for examples, see the anime "Haven't You Heard I'm Sakamoto" and to a lesser extent "One Punch Man" or even Popeye at times for examples of this kind of Sue. They never fail, but we're suppose to laugh at them doing it.
The methods used for this humor range from deconstructive parodies (e.g. "We've needed a new house here at Hogwarts to accommodate all the...special girls, so welcome to House Sparklypoo!") to straight deconstruction (Take One Punch Man's Caped Baldy: instead of people fawning over him, nobody believes his feats and call him a fraud, while he's also constantly frustrated by the lack of a good challenge) to anti-climax (God-Man, pictured below in this article) to the whole thing being a mere joke delivery system (classic Bugs Bunny or Popeye cartoons).
However, in order for this to work you need your tongue so far up your cheek it's basically bored out through the other sides, and you actually need talent. And the talent part applies even when the character exists solely for joke delivery (and thus requires no characterization beyond a couple of basic traits).
For that extra bit of mind screw: There are cases of the "Mary Sue" accusation being thrown, with some justice, at entire civilizations. TVTropes calls this particular variant "Mary Suetopia". Just about any Utopian work, and many a Dystopian work (*cough*Draka*cough*) can have this accusation thrown at them; commonly comes in three subspecies:
- Pure Preaching. Not just religious, but, in the story, any ideology that the author thinks knows The One True Path To (Happiness/Truth/God/Prosperity/etc.). Usually the most Sueish of the lot.
- Stories about or involving the Fall of such a civilization (sometimes incidentally; see, for example, many interpretations of Krypton, where the only important part about the place is that it blew up after sending one last ship out to Earth), or about the conflict between two civilizations, one of whom is theoretically "better" than the other (e.g., some of the Culture books, or, on the flip side, Orks vs. just about anybody else). Can be Sueish, but can also avoid it, depending on the focus, nature, and quality of the work.
- Social Satire/Commentary. Here, the point of the work was less on how perfect this civilization is, and more on using it to comment on the culture in which it was written, or the state of the world at the time. Think 1984, Gulliver's Travels, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, the original Utopia, and so on. Can be the least Sueish of the three, depending on writing quality.
(As a side note, this version of Suedom is particularly /tg/ relevant; each version of Warhammer alone has vast amounts of the latter two (although admittedly in a usually fairly non-Sueish way), and there are too many cases of the first case in Science Fiction settings.)
Watsonian vs. Doylist definition of "Sue"
A futher complicating factor in any definition of "Mary Sue" is the Watsonian vs. Doylist definition problem.
For the unfamiliar, criticism sometimes differentiate between a "Watsonian", or "in-universe based" explanation of something (e.g., "Superpowerman got beaten by Evilvillianman because he had the flu!") and a "Doylist", or "author-centered" explanation (e.g., "Superpowerman got beaten by Evilvillianman because the rest of the story doesn't work if Superpowerman wins that fight.") "Watsonian" and "Doylist" are named for the fictional and real life authors of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr. John Watson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle respectively. Holmes fans being really creepily fond of coming up with Watsonian explanations for plot holes probably helps.
How does this relate to Mary Sue definitions? Well, the two common ways of describing a Sue are Watsonian, where being Overpowered and Always Right is the relevant problem, and the Doylist definition, where the relationship of the author to the character is the relevant problem. We employ a mixture of the two, because guessing what the author was thinking can get very unreliable very quickly and even when they're questioned about this authors - like any other people - can be blind to their biases or lie. Regardless, the purely power-and-rightness-based definition can easily start returning false results if context and sanity are not considered.
How Can I Tell If My Character Is A Mary Sue?
Each "Yes" answer gives your character a piece of Mary Sueness.
- Does their personal morality always perfectly match objective reality? To put it another way, is there no difference between describing their opinion and simply narrating what was actually going on in a scene?
- Do they start the story at the pinnacle of achievement and have no way to grow or improve?
- Or do their new skills and abilities come from your ass at just the time they need them?
- Do they have unexplained frequent good luck, even when by all logic they should fail in that area?
- Is it a fan character that is better than the canon characters? (As in, "more powerful and gets all the attention", not "better written". If it's the latter, all the power to you.)
- Do they have physical features, powers or items that are impossible to have or extremely rare going by the rules of the setting (ie; a human with cat eyes and wings with no explanation in real-world based fiction, or a ridiculous item such as a weapon which is chainsaw, electric-guitar and machine-gun combined in a swords-and-sorcery setting)?
- Do they have the most powerful ability or power in a setting, without any sacrifices? (For example, a character that can use magic which would destroy any enemy, without any negative effects. But if a character has that ability, and it reduces his lifespan, damages him forever and/or kills everyone including his comrades, it's not that overpowered.)
- Are they connected to the canon characters or do they become connected to them? This usually takes the form of being a "long-lost" relative or love interest to a canon character.
- Do they get a lot of shilling? For example; do all the canon characters suddenly start talking about a fan character, with their presence in the story largely relegated to providing opportunities for the new character to show how pure, powerful, good-hearted, etc they are?
- Do you never allow other characters to dislike them?
- Or do you punish those other characters for disliking your character by portraying them negatively and/or making something terrible happen to them? (For example; making them unlikable, a secondary villain, or having the one character that dislikes the Mary Sue "coincidentally" have their home destroyed)
- Are they someone's self-proclaimed fursona? (If so, stop reading this list and burn them for heresy).
- The Sonichu exception: If the author is making fun of somebody else's fursona, and isn't a furry themselves, everything is perfectly fine, at least as far as Mary Suedom is concerned.
- Do they always make good decisions? And/or bad ones that are suddenly revealed to have been a good choice?
- Do you use absolutes like "always," "everybody," or "never" when describing their abilities? (Those word being used to describe their behavior are usually okay, if slightly suspect (bad writers have an attraction to absolutes).)
- Do they feature an entirely contrived "weakness" that doesn't affect them any time it would harm them (such as being clumsy unless they are required to perform a great feat of athleticism) or isn't really a weakness (such as being too kind or righteous "for their own good") which was clearly added solely so the author could point to it when accused of writing a Sue?
- Is the main problem in the story one that this character can easily fix or solve on their own? (Doesn't count if they're the only character in the story).
- Do they have powers that no-one else has.
- Is it a protagonist character written by Matt Ward, Kim Dal Young, Stephenie Mayer, Karen Traviss, Onision, Ayn Rand or Terry
GoodBadkind? (Note, a Mary Sue can be written by someone who's none of these people.)
Since then, it's been realized that a character doesn't need to be a self-insert to be a Mary Sue, but it helps. Everyone has their own criteria for what makes one, but the big three traits are:
- They are super-powerful/hyper-competent. In established settings, usually more so than canon characters. Better leadership skills than a McDohl, faster than Sonic, etc.
- The story completely revolves around them, even in... no, ESPECIALLY in established settings.
- They can do no wrong. Everyone loves the Mary Sue and defends them even against perfectly reasonable concerns, invariably demonizing people that make these concerns.
- The Mary Sue's competence doesn't match the creator's knowledge, leading to things like "The greatest Scorpion Clan shinobi EVAR" walking around in broad daylight in stereotypical ninja gear.
- The Mary Sue is a hypocritical monster and the creator is totally blind to this fact.
- Other characters comment on how much better at their own skills the Mary Sue is like they're happy for her, even if the character is known for being arrogant and standoff-ish.
- Characters that don't react well to the Sue's 'harmless pranks' see the light and begin to love the Mary Sue as well.
- Those that don't turn out to be evil spies or something.
A lot of traits (e.g. too-long-names and heterochrome eyes) are assumed to be signs of Mary Sues, but in themselves don't make a character one. This is because the "But I'm Specul" features are more a symptom than a cause, and all of them can be used in a non-Sueish manner (for example, a character with a twenty-part name is meant by the author to be taken as overly pretentious, and is reacted to in-universe as such).
"I Hate This Competent Character"-Syndrome
Believe it or not, of the vast majority of characters called Mary Sues or Gary Stues in fandoms, only a small handful will actually qualify as a true Mary Sue. Remember, one of the defining traits of Mary Sue is in their relation to the author; either the author sees them as herself/himself, or views them as fap or schlick material (or worse, waifu material). As a general rule: If the character makes a mistake, and it's clear that the author understands that the decision is a mistake, then they're probably not fully a Mary Sue.
The rest are what could be called "I Hate This Competent Character"-syndrome. This happens when a character, usually in the spotlight (so not the background character that has no bearing on the story), is widely disliked by a large part of a fandom, but with no tangible thing to latch that hate unto. What happens is that the character gets called a Mary Sue for being too competent, but this accusation has some issues of its own. One, as we've seen in this page, a true Mary Sue is a self-insert (and if the character is a super-naturally competent self-insert; yep that's most likely a Mary Sue), and a competent character need not be.
Second, in all the fiction we so love, like fantasy, sci-fi and all the rest, main and side characters are ridiculously competent, sometimes as a byproduct of what kind of setting it is. That is why settings like A Song of Ice and Fire is notable for deconstructing competence, showing that a sword in hand does not a hero make - but that's a deconstruction. In most settings, heroes just are competent; the real sense of adversity and challenge usually comes from something else, like emotional struggles, political or societal issues and other faults. Even if there's a plotpoint about a hero being too weak to beat their enemy in one-to-one combat, chances are the main feature of that story arch is how the hero feels about it, rather than the struggle itself. Yeah sure, our hero learns the cool "I Win" technique, but that's not the important part; the important part is what kept them from learning it in the first place. Is it too dangerous? Did they damage themselves or friends with it once? Does it take them too close to the enemy they hate? And so on.
Let's take a classic, Superman. Superman is hyper-over-the-top-super competent, being so strong, resilient and fast that no one can stand up to him - but it works, because his challenges lies in how he utilizes that power, and how he relates to a mostly muggle world. So the character isn't a Mary Sue - but if you do not like Superman, maybe you wanna latch unto something to hate on... And that is likely this competence.
It's especially notable in settings where characters are automatically assumed to be competent if they are a main character. Examples like Star Wars, Mass Effect, Dungeons and Dragons (depending on the whims of the GM), Lord of the Rings and other magical settings are filled with characters who are just competent by being a hero.
Good examples of "I Hate This Competent Character"-syndrome are characters like James Bond, Jon Snow, Eldrad, Thrall, Batman, and Rick Sanchez; all main-ish characters who are competent and may be dislikable for various different reasons... And if you dislike or even hate some of these characters? That's totally fucking fine. But make sure to actually use your ding dang words rather than hop on the bandwagon and use a term that doesn't mean what you think it does.
We all love and hate different characters, that's called taste. But competence, even relatively unexplained competence, is not a marker that indicates Mary Suedom.
Bad Writer (Sub-)Syndrome
A further note to the above: There are a non-trivial number of these type of characters who pass through the hands of a lot of writers; in this case, they can be Sues, but only when in the hands of unskilled writers. A bad writer will focus on the awesome, not on the structure and contrast that support it.
For example, hypercompetent characters like Batman or The Doctor are usually only interesting in scenarios that actually call for that hypercompetence. In that case, if the audience can see the solution a mile away, or can see an obviously better solution to the situation, the result is usually not as "awesome" as the author desires--unless the point is to demonstrate the flaws of the character, in which case, we're still moving away from "awesome", but intentionally this time.
If this is happening, just relax, and let the Dork Age pass, hoping that the next writer will actually be competent.
Mary Sues in Roleplaying Games
It is important to realize that when playing an RPG, either as a player or as a DM, the standards for "unacceptable Mary Sue" change dramatically. Unlike if you are writing a novel, you are not the sole author of the story, nor are you the only main character. Thus certain traits that are completely fine for a character in a novel become become thing to avoid when making a character (NPC or PC) in an RPG. A good example of this would be Harry Potter. As the main character in a series of novels, making him the Chosen One is perfectly fine, because the story literally revolves around him, and the reader is meant to identify with him. If someone where to make Harry Potter in an RPG, it could easily become a problem, since him being "The Chosen One" by definition overshadows everyone else's characters. That is not to say that it should never be done, but it is something that should be discussed and agreed upon by the entire group beforehand. The reverse can also be true: what makes for a good RPG character does not always make for a good character in a novel (or, more accurately, unless well written, certain traits common in RPG characters do not always make for a good character in a novel.) This is even more important when you are the DM; the players are the main characters, not the NPCs, and trying to pretend otherwise (usually via DMPCs) is one of the quickest ways to ruin a campaign.
For our purposes, we at 1d4chan try to keep our focus more on the tropes related to Suedom, and specific examples (usually Warhammer related). If you have a story of a specific Sue-abusing player or DM, there's probably a thread in the obvious place. Go bore us there (where we can ignore you) instead of boring us here (where we'll need to revert you).
Negating the Mary Sue
Interestingly, there hasn't been really much written about how to defeat a May Sue aside from trolling, but we may identify a few ways to deal with Mary Sues and even Canon Sues:
- The first one, and quite accessible is character development, while this implies a risk of expanding the infection it is possible to remove a Sue status with a good writer either making fanfiction or a spin-off where the Mary Sue is changed for the better. Examples of this has been seen in long-existent characters which, due to good writing, become more down to earth, with the added bonus of annoying fans of the Sue period of time to no end. After all, one fanfic denies another.
- The second one is retcon, as the easiest way to annihilate a Mary Sue is to achieve the general consensus that it never happened. This is harder of course, as it requires the creators recognizing they made the wrong decisions or at least conceding to the fans. It can happen, but it can only be through official involvement, which requires a lot of fan reaction to happen.
- Third, have them operate in something resembling the real world; their impossible perfectness is treated as impossible by the people within the setting, and their actions have unforeseen consequences. (See, for reference, good quality Superman and Batman stories that don't focus on making either character more "human". Or the two protagonists from One-Punch Man, who are very much overpowered, but the focus of the series is a comedy based on how little satisfaction they find due to their overpoweredness. The comic book Irredeemable is another good example, as the Plutonian comes across as a deconstruction of this character, showing how he uses his powers like an immature man-child and wipes out an entire country all because the entire world doesn't love him completely and adore him, demonstrating how much of a dick he is.)
- Finally, when it comes to reality, badly written characters end falling by their own weight. This is the reason no one remembers most of the overpowered characters added in fanfiction.net while everyone remembers cool, well-molded characters - after all, reality ensues.
Note that like overpoweredness, Mary Suedom is relative to the context of the work. Much like how if in a game everybody is overpowered, nobody actually is; if you are describing everyone in a setting as a Mary Sue, more than likely you're just in a "cast of snowflakes" setting, like superhero comics or transformers. Here, everyone of import is super amazing and special with a lot of weight put on their decisions and actions. (Exception: If one side of the conflict has a monopoly on both awesome and author-intended-sympathy, the "Sue" accusation starts becoming more relevant again.)
Hard Men Making Hard Decisions (While Hard)
A side note: A specific kind of male version of Mary Sue is also well known. He is usually described as a "Hard Man making Hard Decisions", but works using that description are usually sufficiently closer to "porn logic" than actual human logic that it's usually called "Wank material". (Note that "Hard Women making Hard Decisions" is also very much a thing, but tends to be less common for various reasons.)
Note that not all "Gary"/"Marty Stu"s are Hard Men Making Hard Decisions (While Hard); there exist Stus who are diplomatic or are idealistic but no less annoying. It's just that HMMHD(WH) are the subset that's the most predictable (and thus describable); other equally common types are the kind who makes all female characters want to sleep with him, or otherwise just gender-swapped versions of other Mary Sue archetypes.
- TVTropes' article on Mary Sues, that discusses the phenomenon and its many forms in detail.
- sup/tg/ archive of a hilarious thread with ultimate Mary Sue and PURE ENERGY in it.
- sup/tg/ archive of the Ultimate Mary Sue thread continued.
- sup/tg/ archive; ITT, the most grimdark setting ever conceived.
- Mirabelle Armitage, D&D Mary Sure beyond Drizzt.
- The many different types of Mary Sue
- For example, any given Superman (the character, not the book) story is not that interesting unless you either introduce an equal (or more powerful) and opposite threat (such as General Zod or Darkseid), or lean heavily on either his morality, secret identity, or kryptonite, all of which act as constraints on his power.
- To repeat the message of this entire collection of Sue types: The definition of "Mary Sue" can be rather slippery, even when ignoring internet trolls.