According to Urban Dictionary (always a reliable source), a Mary Sue is “a female fanfiction character that is so perfect as to be annoying”. Many people that read fanfiction are well aware of this kind of character: she is as smart and cunning as she is beautiful, and she can do no wrong. But let’s be honest: this kind of character—the Mary Sue—exists in other forms of media as well.
The easiest way to spot a Mary Sue is looking at the character’s realism and flaws. Is she able to pick up skills with the drop of a hat? Is she soooo talented that she outshines everyone in almost anything she does? Is she so beautiful that she can land any person of her preferred gender without even trying? These are all hallmark symptoms of a Mary Sue.
But what really seals the deal is when you can’t name more than one or two flaws. Any good character, as most character-creators know, should have enough flaws to balance out their admirable traits. When the scale is tipped in favor of the good parts of a character, it does not automatically make for a Mary Sue. It is exactly how much thought was put into the flaws that are there, if any at all, that will tip the scale far enough to create the Ultimate Special Snowflake.
So why is this a problem? Why do we need to understand the Mary Sue and how unrealistic or even how offensive she can be?
Well, characters in the media shape our beliefs about what it acceptable in society and how we see ourselves. They become our heroes, our aspirations. Is it healthy to aspire to be someone who is completely unrealistic, flawless to an annoyingly perfect degree? You tell me.
Though the more outlandish Mary Sues (like Bella Swan of Twilight) are often easy to spot, sometimes borderline Mary Sues (like, I would argue, Emily from Pitch Perfect 2) are not. Realistic representation, as I’m sure you’d agree, matters greatly for any underrepresented group. We need less Mary Sue, more originality and individuality that stems from the real world and not the male (or female) fantasy of what the perfect women should be like.
But… a new question arises: if female characters are only “good” if they are realistic, what about the male characters? How many male characters are so perfect it’s annoying? A lot, actually. We just don’t talk about it or even notice it enough because it’s more acceptable for a man to be perfect than for a woman to be.
There is technically a term for the male Mary Sue: Gary Stu (doesn’t role off the tongue in quite the same way, but you get the point). However, though Mary Sues are criticized constantly in the realm of fan works AND mainstream media (think of all the Twilight backlash!), I don’t hear many complaints about too-perfect male characters.
Sexism can work in implicit ways, and one of the consequences of living in a male-dominated society is that female characters are under a scrutinizing lens while male characters can get away with much more. Though Mary Sue characters produce unrealistic expectations and are overall annoying to see produced over and over again, there are plenty of problematic Gary Stu characters in literature that we don’t ever talk about.
Superman is actually a complete Gary Stu when you think about it, as are many other superheroes in comic books and movies. Easily able to win any battle, gets “the girl” every time, and has few flaws overall. Which superhero did I just describe? A bunch of them, that’s who. I love superheroes as much as the next fangirl, but even I have to admit that there’s a serious lack of realism in those characters.
The next generation of writers and consumers (myself included) need to understand the Mary Sue and Gary Stu tropes in order to better understand our own selves. Often times, many people call Mary Sues “self-inserts” in fanfiction; the Mary Sue tends to be everything that the author wishes she were and ISN’T—hence the unrealism. It’s telling that imperfect and likable characters are hard to create, but it’s so important that they exist. The imperfect-but-likable characters are important because they are the people who we love in the real world. The Mary Sues and Gary Stus, on the other hand, don’t exist in the real world (and if they did I’m sure everyone would be extremely frustrated with them). I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather read and watch characters that are like my friends.
We can have powerful female AND male characters without making them unrealistic. Take them from the ones who live in a world we already know (it's called life).