Don’t Name Your Character Mary Sue

By Mark Nichol

Are your lead characters a menagerie of Mary Sues? A Mary Sue is a walking cliché, unrealistically flawless and therefore flat and boring — a hero in your story, but a villain in your efforts to create well-rounded characters.

The label for this trope is from a character in a fan-fiction Star Trek parody featuring a winsome but tiresome teenage hero by that name. The story poked fun at the adolescent (or adolescent-minded) authors of fan fiction who create characters — often idealized self-representations — notably lacking in personality flaws and seemingly incapable of making mistakes. The result, invariably, is a dull Dudley (or Dolly) Do-Right.

But wait, you protest — some of the most memorable characters in storytelling traditions have been Mary Sues! What about all the heroes of folk tales and fairytales? What about the central figures in Horatio Alger Hiss rags-to-riches stories and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries? What about icons of the small and big screens like Captain Kirk and Luke Skywalker?

There’s no law against coaxing a Mary Sue to life in any creative medium. But recognize that the presence of a gosh-and-golly go-getter is an element that marks the framing narrative as pulp fiction. If you want to produce pulp, have at it; the demand for it is insatiable. But if you wish to be taken seriously as a writer, understand that realistic characters — those with hopes and dreams and desires, yes, but also with doubts and faults and weaknesses — are full of depth and dimension. Characters who always know what to do and what to say, who always do the right thing, are less appealing, because we are less likely to see our own imperfect selves reflected in them.

A faultless character is, like a story free of conflict, a flimsy basis for a good story. Tales appeal to us because we empathize with people who fail but then get up, dust themselves off, and try again, because that’s what we do every day, and that’s what builds our character. If your name is Mary Sue, you never fall — and you (and the story that surrounds you) can therefore never truly be admired.

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11 Responses to “Don’t Name Your Character Mary Sue”

  • Debra Koontz Traverso

    Hmmm, great posting. Thought-provoking. However, I’d aruge that Harry Potter was just about the more boring name I’d ever heard, before I read that series. Sometimes there’s delight and intrigue in using a mundane name and breathing unexpected, unique life into that character!

  • Chihuahua Zero

    This is a good overview of the concept.

    But you manage to go so long without covering this topic?

  • Mark Nichol

    Anatomy of an error: The name of the author of juvenile rags-to-riches tales eluded me, but I remembered “Alger” — Alger Hiss! Type, type, type. No, that’s not right: Horatio Alger. Type, type, type. Oops — forgot to delete “Hiss.”

  • Curtis

    There’s actually an online quiz form you can use to see if your character is a Mary Sue:

    http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm

    It’s a hoot to use. Check it out.

  • Rebecca

    This was a fun read to me because I have a few characters and stories rolling around in the bucket. Being from the south, girls, and guys for that name are so often given names like these…Bobbie Sue, Billy Jack, ect.!

  • mary

    I don’t quite get the concept of a Mary Sue so I visited the site Curtis, above, mentioned………
    Oh……..sort of like Suzy Barton, Barnyard Nurse. Love this site, love the MS site! Definitely will read more!

  • Curtis

    For an old, dated example of a male version of Mary Sue, you can’t do better (or is it worse?) than Doc Savage. Check some out; it’s truly awful.

  • Stephen Thorn

    First, thanks to Mark for this cautionary article. I have a friend who tends to create male Mary Sue characters based on himself. I knew this flaw made me uncomfortable with his stories but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was or what to call it. Now I know.

    Secondly, I will defend Doc Savage. I’ve read many of the DS novels and enjoy them as escapist adventures. I agree that the character is too perfect to be real, but he’s intended to be a mortal Superman and we should remember that these novels were written in the days before Marvel’s Spiderman, which ushered in heroes who were supposed to be inner-conflicted and flawed. Back then an almost god-like hero was an accepted device, whereas today it might be almost considered a parody.

  • Tracey

    It’s true naming your character is just as important as the story itself. Before character name generators I would watch movie screen credits and jot down names.

    Thank goodness the internet has arrived and there are programs to do this for us.

  • Rick Morgan

    Just watched the BBC series Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond. Lots of derring do, but the last scene of the last episode explains James Bond perfectly. Ian FLeming tells his brother of a game they played at school: take two boys names and mix them up. Henry Bond and James Atkin become Henry Atkin and James Bond. Ian chose Atkin for the name of his new fictional spy. His brother recommended Bond!
    A great name generator if you choose wisely!

  • Anita Diggs

    Great article! Stereotypes and “Mary Sue” characters are so easy to fall into when writing. The first thing to do to create a great character is to make them seem real. Avoid stereotypes “the prostitute with a heart of gold”, is a stereotype. Avoid stereotype characters that we’ve seen over and over again.

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