So What's A Mary Sue, Anyway?

A Mary Sue is a character (male, female, or otherwise) who is given or is expected to be given unwarranted preferential treatment and unearned respect, thereby compromising the integrity and believability of the story and/or its characters.

A hallmark of the Mary Sue is that xe will have few, if any meaningful challenges, hardships, or handicaps. Obstacles that exist for others are virtually nonexistent or pose little to no challenge for a Mary Sue. In fact, it'll often seem that the very fabric of the universe is bending to accommodate the character. For example:

Mary Sues rarely, if ever, have to deal with realistic consequences to their actions.

A few hypothetical examples:

Very often, Mary Sues are created for the readers to admire, envy, or pity rather than empathize with.

This is basically an offshoot of the "unearned respect" problem - the writer/player expects everyone to think their character is awesome and worthy of admiration or respect. This type of character is nothing new - Puritan literature frequently featured too-good-for-this-sinful-Earth heroines who were created as role models to Puritan children. You've probably heard the expression "Little Goody Two-Shoes," which is frequently used to refer to someone who acts in a sanctimonious manner - this was originally the name of one of these heroines.

Mary Sues don't just happen in fanfiction.

Original authors have created characters who are considered just as bad as those created by fanfiction authors - take Wesley Crusher, Bella Swan, Edward Cullen, Rayford Steele, and Buck Williams, for example.

Mary Sues aren't just characters you don't like, nor are they simply love interests thrown in out of left field.

With a genuine Mary Sue, you'll feel like the writer is constantly trying to rub your nose in how awesome, special, or virtuous the character is. Mary Sues are often involved in poorly-developed relationships, but not all characters in poorly-developed relationships are Mary Sues. Genuine Mary Sues bend the fabric of their universes to accommodate them and give them what they want.

Mary Sues aren't simply strong and/or talented female characters.

If a female character annoys you, ask yourself a simple question: would I find the character equally annoying if she were male? If the answer is no, then the character probably isn't a Mary Sue.

Mary Sues aren't simply the protagonists of wish fulfilment or power fantasies.

There is nothing wrong with wish fulfilment or power fantasy stories in and of themselves. The problem comes in when the fantasies are fulfilled in ways that damage the credibility of the story or its characters (eg, the protagonist is beloved by everyone despite actually doing very little for them or treating them badly) or make the story boring to sit through (eg, there is absolutely no question that the protagonist will get what xe wants or win with very little trouble or effort).

Before declaring a character that isn't yours a Mary Sue, or if you get people declaring your Mary Sue character for questionable reasons (eg, the character is simply a powerful female)...

Please see/show them Before You Go Declaring Other Peoples' Characters Mary Sues...

See also:

The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test
Mary Sue Subtypes
So You Want To Have A Powerful Or Talented Character Who Probably Won't Be Perceived As A Mary Sue?
Basic Tips To Improve Your OCs & Fan Characters
Tips To Create Better OC Relatives of Canon Characters
Basic Tips To Write Better (And More Likeable) Badasses
Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them (And Write Better Descriptions In General)
Basic Advice For Giving Useful Feedback To Creators

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