Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of debate online about what a Mary Sue (or its male equivalent, a Gary Stu) actually is.
That’s because there is no one definition of it that everyone can agree on. For instance, some people think it’s always a self-insert character, but that’s not the case, and not all self-insert characters are Mary Sues. Just look at Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver. Some think that it’s a character who is powerful or superhumanly adept… and again, that is not what defines a Mary Sue.
Some pretend that Mary Sues aren’t a real thing, or are something made up by misogynists to complain about Strong Powerful Women. Both of them are extremely incorrect, and these people are either ignorant of how fictional characters and their narratives work and exist in the real world, or are just cowards who don’t want to risk public disapproval by supporting criticism of this character type.
Seriously, I dare anyone to read the Anita Blake series and tell me, “Oh no, she’s not a Mary Sue.”
But one thing that has contributed to the dismissal of Mary Sues as a concept is just the fact that no two people can agree on what one is. It’s like two people trying to discuss rodents, but one of them is talking about capybaras and one is talking about rats. Furthermore, a lot of people are incorrect in their belief about what Mary Sues are, because they incorrectly believe them to all be synonymous with self-inserts, or characters with superpowers, or things like that.
The thing is, those are not definitions of a Mary Sue. There are self-inserts that are not part of some kind of personal fantasy, and there are Mary Sues who are not self-inserts. There are also Sues who have superpowers, and Sues who do not; conversely, there are many characters with superpowers who are not Sues. You could make a case, for instance, that Batman is much more of a Gary Stu than Superman is, since instead of being a part of his biological makeup, his abilities are simply that he has become the best at almost everything.
There are also gradations of Sueness. It’s not a binary thing, where all characters who qualify as Sues are Rey from Star Wars. Plenty of characters who are not really Sues or Stus have qualities associated with such characters, but because it’s low-grade, it’s easier to forgive. Harry Potter, for instance, has some Stu qualities, but I wouldn’t say overall that he is a Stu, because he is noted to be unexceptional and average in many ways, and his status as the “Chosen One” is confirmed by Dumbledore to be a matter of Voldemort creating the enemy he feared would arise rather than actually just being The Special.
However, it is possible to create a definition or description of “Mary Sue” that pretty much describes all of them, and I stumbled across one a few years ago. I think it more or less covers almost every single Sue or Stu I’ve come across, and addresses the core problems with the characters rather than the superficials like “has amazing powers” or “is extremely capable.”
That description is simply that a Mary Sue is a character who warps the universe, characters and rules of the world he/she is written into.
Let’s use Bella from Twilight as an example. Bella is a petty, selfish, hateful and rather unintelligent person, but every character around her is warped to only think of her as a selfless, glorious, brilliant figure whom everyone is either jealous of or adores. No one gets to legitimately dislike her for any of the things she does, and the universe is slanted so that she will receive everything she desires and more with minimal effort – I mean, the villains literally want her to have exactly what she wants. In addition to the characters, the universe and rules of the world around her are warped, in that she becomes the only newborn vampire to immediately gain perfect control of her thirst, so everyone can stand around marveling at how magnificent she is. The rules don’t apply to her.
And the sad thing is, a character being a Sue can be dodged very easily. All you have to do is write them as not instantly being the most well-beloved, the most improbably powerful, the one for whom the world’s rules, consequences and probability do not apply.
Take John Wick. He’s almost a Stu. He’s ridiculously skilled and practically legendary, and he spends 85% of the movie carving his way through the Russian mob. But John gets hurt, sometimes very badly. He’s forced to abide by the laws of the assassin underground. His actions have consequences. And he can’t do everything alone – he has to be rescued by Willem DeFoe sometimes, which leads to even more consequences. Furthermore, he isn’t an elegant killing machine just mowing through enemies – he almost dies in undignified ways several times, sometimes by stuff like being throttled by a piece of plastic or thrown bodily from a balcony.
So the fact that the universe and characters around John don’t bend to accommodate him is what keeps him from being a Stu. His struggles are what keep him grounded, and also what contribute to us cheering him on. The fact that he’s an elite assassin with superior skills who ultimately wins over everyone does not make him a Stu.
So that’s my perspective on Mary Sues/Gary Stus. It’s not having powers or skills or attractiveness or whatnot that decides whether a character is a Mary Sue – it’s how they bend and twist the universe around them to glorify them and give them what they want.
Again, read Anita Blake if you want proof that they exist.