Articles / On Writing

Today, we are going to talk about the evolving nature of the much beloved loathed character staple, the Mary Sue.

So what is a Mary Sue exactly?

There are several definitions of a Mary Sue and even several versions of a Mary Sue. She’s a character of many faces. A Mary Sue can be anything from an idealized and innocent yet sexy version a female (sometimes an author in character form) to a highly sexualized and unrealistic version of an author’s fantasy female to a plastic character who is little but a cardboard placeholder in the story. If you’d like a more in-depth definition, Diva Jen wrote a wonderful article on the Mary Sue.

We are discussing feminine version of what could more correctly be called: fantasy character syndrome.  The truth is, an author’s gender has little to do with whether a character is a fantasy-fulfillment caricature or not. To put it succinctly, women are not the only ones guilty of writing Mary Sues. Guys do it, too. All the time, in fact. They just write a version of her that doesn’t feel so Mary Sue-ish.

Can you spot her?

In this article, we are going to focus on the gender-biased versions of the Mary Sue. Oddly enough, there is quite a difference between a guy’s version of a Mary Sue and a girl’s version, but Marty Stu tends to have the same traits regardless of the sex of the author.

When a woman pulls a Mary Sue, she is, more often than not, inserting an idealized fantasy woman into the role of the protagonist. When a man pulls a Mary Sue, he is generally inserting a caricature of a fantasy woman into the story, usually in a secondary role in which Mary is sexually involved with the protagonist. But either way, male or female, the author is inserting an over-the-top fantasy version of a female character into their story.  Therefore, they are writing a Mary Sue.

So let’s contrast the male author’s version of the Mary Sue with the female author’s version of the Mary Sue. Please note this is not an exhaustive list of Mary Sue traits, just the ones that come immediately to mind.

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Female Author’s Old-Fashioned Mary Sue Male Author’s Mary Sue
Shy Confident
Beautiful in her ordinariness Beautiful in an exaggerated way. Her physical perfection is generally too good to be true.
Smart but has lacked opportunity to improve herself. Smart but not offensive
Long haired Long haired
Sweet tempered. Her personality is generally too good to be true. Generally doesn’t have a temper, sweet or otherwise. These Mary Sues tend to be flat lines emotionally. She may be venerable and noble or a femme fatale.
When she speaks, both men and women listen to her Doesn’t speak often, but when she does her dialogue is idealized. Regardless of this, men respect her.
Men fall in love with her Men desire her. In some versions, men are tripping over themselves to love this character as well.
Sexually faithful Sexual faithfulness could go either way
Waiting to be awakened sexually Skilled and enthusiastic lover
Needs to be rescued Generally strong but may need to be rescued when it is convenient to the plot
Dresses plainly, even shabbily at times Dresses sexy
Unskilled with a lackluster job instead of a career Variety of careers, but generally successful in her field.
Marriage minded Pleasure minded
(What is perceived to be) Perfect mother/wife material Perfect lover material
Unconfident sexually, needs to be taught Sexually confident and she is an equal sexual partner
May have some hurt or psychological wound in her past that makes her leery of relationships Generally does not have a problematic past
May be downtrodden or victimized by friends or family or despised by others for various reasons Generally loved by all. Other male characters are jealous the protagonist is with this version of Mary.

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Take a look at the list above. Do you notice something?

The male author’s version of the Mary Sue is now starring in modern romance novels written by female authors. Why is that?

Like their male counterparts, female authors are still attracted to and tempted to write a clichéd version of a female character, but the prolonged maligning of the standard Mary Sue has led authors to adopt the male version of this character staple (with a few notable exceptions in the traits) in an effort to avoid being accused of writing a Mary Sue.

Let’s take a look at the male version of the Mary Sue when it is contrasted with the newly evolved female version of the Mary Sue.

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Male Author’s Mary Sue Female Author’s Evolved Mary Sue
Confident Confident
Beautiful in an idealized way. Her physical attributes are generally too good to be true. Beautiful in an idealized way. But if she is too beautiful, it may be detrimental to her in some way that is meaningful to the plot.
Smart but not offensive Smart and not afraid to show it
Long haired Long haired
Generally doesn’t have a temper, sweet or otherwise. These Mary Sues tend to be flat lines emotionally. She may be venerable and noble or a femme fatale. Feels strong emotions but may not give into an outward expression of them. She will have personality traits that are too noble or too good to be true.
Doesn’t speak often, but when she does her dialogue is idealized. Regardless of this, the men respect her. Speaks confidently and frankly. Open and humorous but not necessarily well-liked by others, though she may be.
Men desire her. In some versions, men are tripping over themselves to love this character as well. Men desire her. In some versions, men are tripping over themselves to love this character as well.
Sexual faithfulness could go either way Sexual faithfulness could go either way
Skilled and enthusiastic lover Skill level varies. But she is enthusiastic nonetheless.
Generally strong, but may need to be rescued when it is convenient to the plot Generally strong, but may need to be rescued when it is convenient to the plot
Dresses sexy Is confident and knowledgeable in her fashion choices. She knows how to show off her body to its best advantage.
Variety of careers, but generally successful in her field. Variety of careers, but generally successful in her field.
Pleasure minded Pleasure minded but is also relationship minded.
Perfect lover material Perfect lover material. The maternal nature of this Mary Sue is generally overlooked or not emphasized unless an unplanned pregnancy is part of the plot. The men in these stories care more about her sharp mind and the fulfilling sexual relationship between the characters than her potential to have a child.
Sexually confident and she is an equal sexual partner The Mary Sue’s sexual confidence and knowledge may vary according to the needs of the plot.
Generally does not have a problematic past May have some hurt or psychological wound in her past that makes her leery of relationships
Generally loved by all. Other men are jealous the protagonist is with this version of Mary. Mary’s relationship with others is tied to the plot. She may be downtrodden or victimized or despised by others for various reasons, or Mary may be well liked, respected, and even regarded with jealousy. It is common for her to have a small group of “true” friends.

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This new Mary Sue sounds like the protagonist in your favorite romance novel, doesn’t she? Well, that’s because she is. The rise of this Mary Sue has created a vital and highly sexualized genre of romance novels that are marketed to the “modern woman.” And they are flying off the shelves.

The modern romance author has borrowed the often underdeveloped version of the Mary Sue from her male counterparts, and she has breathed new life and vitality into her and turned this caricature into spots on the bestsellers lists.

But regardless of how popular and accepted this new caricature is, it’s still a Mary Sue.

In a quite amusing twist of irony, this new Mary Sue has become so popular she’s turned the tried and true Mary Sue into something of an anti-cliché. And, dear bibliophiles, you’ve gotta love that. 🙂 Perhaps I’ll be around to pen another article about the cycle of Mary Sues when the tide turns and the old-fashioned Mary Sue becomes popular again.  You never know!

So, does all this mean that there is something terribly wrong with all Mary Sues?

Well…of course not! I enjoy Mary Sues—both modern and old fashioned. They entertain me, give me hope there is still innocence and unyielding goodness in the world, and they amuse me.

In fact, there’s a reason why Mary Sue is such an enduring and popular cliché. Readers like her because they like fantasy and they like idealism. Problems arise when Mary crosses the line. So remember, while much forgiveness is given to the use of the handsome, sexy, smart action-hero version of the Marty Stu, the same allowances are not given to our dear Mary if she is too old fashioned or plastic.

What’s the cure?

Well, as it is when trying to eradicate something fake, you must replace it with something real. If you like Mary, give her life in your novel, but temper her idealized caricature with meaningful moments, realistic dialogue and reactions, and avoid the appearance of contrivance (since this element in a story only makes the characters feel more phony). If you do this, your readers may not even notice that they have fallen in love with a blatantly clichéd character.

Now quit procrastinating and get back to writing. 🙂


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