In the spirit of fairness, it’s time to re-examine the issue of Mary Sue characters in popular fiction and associated media. As my first couple of rants focused almost exclusively on Rey from the Star Wars franchise, it’s only fair I devote some time to male characters who exhibit the qualities of the unfortunate Mary Sue / Gary Stu type.
If you don’t recall from my earlier tantrums, a Mary Sue (for men sometimes called a Gary Stu) character in literature meets the following criteria:
- Mary Sue is almost always an ‘add-on’ to a franchise, a new character who quickly becomes the star of all existing and future narrative arcs.
- Mary Sue never knows her parents, or she knows that they are legendary figures, possibly the love-child of central characters in the franchise.
- Mary Sue possesses any skill at any time without explanation, or she possesses magical powers.
- Mary Sue is invulnerable.
- Mary Sue’s presence changes established lore or backstory.
- Mary Sue is a writer proxy or alter-ego of the author.
In short, Mary Sues break stories. They are overpowered characters, obvious and shallow in their implementation, and should only appear in the worst of fanfics. Editors mock them, decent writers avoid creating them, and poor writers manufacture them.
So far, Rey exhibits the first five of these criteria and so avoids being a full-blown Mary Sue. She lacks the writer proxy quality, though not by much.
What about the boys? What about Gary Stu? Can we find a legitimate example of Mary Sue’s ever real male persona?
To paraphrase those awful mixed-tape commercials for K-Tel records from back in the day: Remember Star Trek: The Next Generation? Remember Wesley Crusher? Do you wish you could forget him? We all do!
There was a reason we all hated Wesley–he was a little fraud, a faker, a complete jerk out-of-phase with the rest of the show. When he left for Starfleet Academy, a collective sigh escaped Trekkers and Trekkies alike (and at one point in time, that meant something.) Wesley’s departure reduced the remaining cast to what some described as The Magnificent Seven: Worf, Dr. Crusher, Commander Riker, Geordi LaForge, Data, Deanna Troi, and Captain Picard. Sans Wesley, the scripts became more engaging, more adult-themed, and the relationships between remaining characters are allowed to flourish.
Wesley Crusher represents the ideal Gary Stu. He is perfect, exhibits near god-like powers at more than one point, is selfless to the point of being Jesus-like, and saves the day more than a few times. Further, he’s the stand-in for series creator Gene Wesley Roddenberry. All one has to do is look at Wesley and remember the unbridled hatred so many die-hard Trek fans had for the character to know why the Mary Sue / Gary Stu character should never be included in fiction.
In my earlier Mary Sue rant, I brought up Kvothe, the protagonist from Patrick Rothfuss’ The King Killer Chronicles. While not an author proxy, the character is too perfect for some. I would relegate Kvothe to the category of Pseudo-Stu because he isn’t always the answer to his own problems. In fact, for as much as Kvothe saves others, he is often saved by his friends and teachers.
In the end, I think it’s best to avoid perfect characters. They sort of ruin writing.