As I’ve been doing reviews I keep hearing the same criticism about characters ‘he’s a Gary Stu” or for a girl “she’s a Mary Sue”. I have to admit I always thought this was a way of describing a boring, uninteresting character in a story. Turns out the official description is:
“(fandom slang) A fictional character, usually female, whose implausible talents and likeableness weaken the story”
So this is basically what we call in Mormon circles a “Molly Mormon”. Someone who is so perfect it doesn’t seem realistic. Well, as someone who has been accused of being a Molly Mormon on occasion I suppose I have a unique perspective on this topic. In fact, I have a little bit of a defense of this much maligned character in stories.
First of all, implausibility is completely in the eye of the beholder especially when we are talking about morality. For example, being a virgin to some may be seen as impossible or as an ‘unrealistic’ character trait in a story but amongst me and my unmarried Mormon and Christian friends it is very common.
What personally annoys me much more than a character that is ‘too perfect’ is the tendency in especially modern novels to tag on negative traits because the authors are afraid of being accused of Mary Sue’s and Gary Stu’s. I can think of less examples of this in movies than in books but you will frequently have a novel where a character has an affair tagged on to their story because ‘no marriage is perfect’.
For example, a book called the Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith drove me crazy because it was about a sweet girl named Ivy who grew up, learned and had a happy family. At the end of the book she is standing in a field and a man comes up to her and she sleeps with him in the field. The message in the book is ‘now she is fulfilled’ . Groan. It ruined it. Another book with that message which ticked me off is The Awakening by Kate Chopin. A lot of feminists love it but I hated it. She is living a perfectly happy life but it’s not ‘enough’ and she has to leave her family and have meaningless flings and suddenly her soul has all of this purpose and meaning.
Give me a Molly or Mary Sue any day over this kind of ‘modern’ character. Even the ultimate Gary Stu, Superman (who is basically supposed to be a Jesus type) was all ‘modernized’ and made a wounded conflicted character in Man of Steel and I hated it. Where was the fun? It was so bleak and violent and in the end so off putting. It was not a more complex character just a boring, obvious, everyday character without any of the cheeky fun of the comics. He even rings the neck of Zod which was so out of place given the Messianic imagery throughout the film. Give me the original cheesy Christopher Reeve version any day over that modern dreck.
So I hate the opposite of a Mary Sue but let’s talk about the trope itself. It is often said the Mary Sue is ‘annoying’ in the story. Again, that is totally relative. Like beauty, annoyingness is in the eye of the beholder too!
First of all, it entirely depends on the kind of story that is being told. For example, if I am watching a B summer action movie I don’t want my hero to be all conflicted and complex. I want him to save the day! Let’s think about Indiana Jones. He is handsome, charming and he always figures out the clues that others have spent generations toiling over in a manner of minutes. Do we care? No, because he’s Indiana Jones and we want to see him fight Nazis, jump over cars, and find the Holy Grail. That’s what made the 4th Indiana Jones movie so obnoxious (one of the many things) is they kept bringing up all of Indiana Jones frailties, how old he was, and that he wasn’t the same guy as before. Also, they pushed the trope too far. In the originals Indy always got beat up bad but would save the day . In the 4th he survives a nuclear explosion in a fridge…Too far!
Other examples of this type of character are Ethan Hunt, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, and McGyver. They are our heroes and we want to see them prevail and not be ‘realistic’. Sure their talents are implausible and they are charming in the way no man is in real life, but it’s perfect for the type of movie we’ve signed up for. That’s why I didn’t mind Milo in Atlantis because it was this type of action, treasure hunting B summer movie that such a character works well in. The same is true in Goonies. Do we care that the kids find a ridiculous treasure easily under the city? No because it’s a fun adventure with a charming troop of hunters. I thought the troop surrounding Milo was a lot of fun and so I enjoyed the adventure. The mythos, language and lore they created also compensated for a less interesting lead character. I didn’t miss or need Milo to be anything more than what he was.
The same is true with Hercules. I enjoyed the stuff around Hercules enough that I didn’t need him to be all dynamic and crazy. Megura, Zeus, Hadeus, Pain and Panic, the music was all fun enough for me to enjoy the picture. I recognize that isn’t the case for a lot of you but again what annoys one doesn’t annoy another. What charms one drives another nuts. I was okay with Hercules being an unrealistic guy because he’s a demi-God. He’s supposed to be that way. Like Superman, Hercules just have to have a modicum of flair and personality so that all around him can shine.
There are also dramatic characters that could be described as ‘unrealistically perfect’ that I are considered classics. For example, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make a wrong move the entire movie or book. He is always loving, kind, honorable and virtuous but I have never heard anyone say that he was a bad character. He is typically thought of as one of the greatest characters in English literature. Sometimes we need a character to stand up for right and truth consistently in a story. I feel like now writers would make Atticus an alcoholic or tag on some other vice to make him more “relatable”. What a shame that would be.
Another example of a Gary Stu that I love is in Christmas Carol. Bob Cratchit is an implausible character in many ways. Few men would put up with such treatment and certainly Tiny TIm is a rare angel on earth but they are needed in order for Scrooge to see the error in his ways. Sometimes an ultimate contrast is what a story requires for the plot to move forward. If Tim was just kinda sweet and kinda nice than Scrooge would have written him off but his goodness has an effect. From the moment he see’s Tiny Tim, Scrooge begins to change.
Both Atticus and Tiny Tim are trying to teach us something within the story and they do it very effectively. So maybe next time you see a ‘Mary Sue’ trope you can stop and say ‘what is the author trying to teach us here?’. Maybe it will work, maybe not?
The truth is all characters are ‘implausible’ because if we wrote about real life it would be very boring. Most of us do the same routine every day interrupted by moments of clarity. A good screenwriter must make craft a tale that is not simply moments but a story and sometimes Gary Stus and Mary Sues are needed for the particular story to progress.
At the very least saying a character is a ‘Gary Stu’ is kind of like saying he is boring or food is gross. It doesn’t really give me any information. Why is he implausible? Why are his traits unlikely and why do they weaken that particular kind of story? I will probably still disagree with you but at least we will understand each other’s perspectives better.
On the Wikipidia article on Mary Sue’s they have an interesting passage about how the fear of the ‘Mary Sue’ label is making some authors hesitant of including female characters at all. “Smith interviewed a panel of female authors who say they do not include female characters in their stories at all. She quoted one as saying “Every time I’ve tried to put a woman in any story I’ve ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue.” Smith also pointed out that “Participants in a panel discussion in January 1990 noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the community is damned with the term Mary Sue.”
For example, I did not respond to the character of Pocahontas. I didn’t find her interesting because she doesn’t really grow and for the type of story they are trying to tell I found her selfish, a poor listener and stubborn in an uncharming way. She also preaches to people when she talks instead of having conversations. This makes her less relatable and her actions predictable. You see how that is a more fleshed out description than just attaching some label?
I think that fear is what causes writers like Smith to tag on the adultery or other flaws so they have a defense against the Mary Sue label. That is not good! The fact is most people I know are probably Mary Sue’s so they exist and are real. Let’s have stories about these people too!
So, I say think about the story you are watching. What genre is it and are the character tropes and types appropriate to the story being told? You can still dislike the movie if it doesn’t do those things well but at least it won’t be an automatic Gary Stu or Mary Sue?
Then if a character rubs you the wrong way, if you find them annoying, think for a second about why. Is it their voice, actions, mannerisms? What? Let’s dig a little deeper than Mary Sue or Gary Stu.
I mean after all Jesus was the ultimate Gary Stu and he changed the world so let’s be a little more open minded when it comes to these things and not just stick a highfalutin label on things.
Sincerely your friendly neighborhood Mary Sue or Molly Mormon or whatever you want to call me… 🙂
8 thoughts on “In Defense of Mary Sue and Gary Stu”
A Mary Sue/Gary Stu character is actually not that easy to define. Yes, they are often implausible talented, but you can say the same about a lot of characters in literature. The true way to recognize is a combination of two things:
1. What the Author tells the reader/audience about a character is not the same as what is shown.
2. The plot revolves around said character to a degree that other characters either act stupid in order to give said character a moment to shine, or act out of character so that the Mary Sue/Gary Stu character can basically do what he/she wants.
I try to explain on the example of Atlantis. I think I mentioned beforehand that the basic plot of Atlantis is very similar to the one of Stargate (the movie). Milo is in my eyes a rare example of a male Gary Stu. The main character from Star Gate, Daniel Jackson, is not.
For starters: Daniel Jackson looses his job, his reputation aso. He got picked up by an old lady who offers him a job with the Star Gate program. He then spends a lot of time trying to puzzle out signs nobody was able to decipher so far. And when he does, a mission to another star is launched on which he has to participate because there might be the need of translation on the other side, and he is the only one who could do it.
Milo looses his job and is invited by an old man who tells him that he used to have a bet with his grandfather. And now he intends to finance a mission to make good on said bet. Milo, at this point, has done nothing to prof himself, and yet he joins the mission as “the special one” from the get go.
Both Daniel Jackson and Milo have problems to get accepted by the group due to their nerdy behaviour. Daniel Jackson eventually gets the acceptance after helping the group to make peaceful contact with the people of Abydos, figuring out that their language has developed from old Egypt, finding a way to get back home and seemingly dying. With Milo they just decide one evening “oh we were mean, let’s accept him now”.
I could continue, but the point in all this is that nothing Milo gets in Atlantis is earned. He just gets it because he happens to be Milo and the protagonist of the story. And that is bad writing.
Ironically, I think that Mary Sues in professional writing are actually fairly rare. They happen way more often in fanfiction, usually because an inexperienced author uses either uses a OC or (more rarely) a pre-existing character for wish fulfilment. The only canon Mary Sue I can come up with on the spot is Bella Swan from Twilight…you know, the main character who claims to be an ugly, uninteresting outsider, but somehow every character in the book floks around her to be her friend (and those who don’t are eeeeeeevil). There is also the occasionally badly written love-interest in TV which have Mary Sueish elements to them, but for me, that is less a Mary Sue problem, and more a “character is written as love interest and plot tool instead of character” problem. In fact, since a Mary Sue has always a strong element of wish fulfilment to her, and (unlike fanfiction writers, who tend to be female) most professional writers are still male, it is way more likely that you encounter a Gary Stu. Examples on the top of my mind (other than Milo) are the original Tarzan (paragon of a man who grew up with apes, but is truly a lord, and who was able to teach himself to read and write and speaks multiple languages…there is a reason why no movie or TV adaptation ever really followed the books that closely) and Wesley Crusher from Star Trek; The Next Generation (a TV show in which the best officers the fleet had to offer got boots of incompetence, just so that a 14.year old could be the hero in the end). The latter is also a know self-insert.
The true problem with the Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu term is that too many people flung it around without really understanding it. An unusual eye-colour or some sort of fate doesn’t make a Mary Sue. If that were true, most main characters in literature would fall under the category. Bad writing does.
Thanks for taking the time to explain that. What I read was different and more the Molly Mormon kind of character (goodie tooshoes). I still think the type of story makes a difference and for B Summer Adventure movie a Gary Stu even as you describe doesnt bother me. To me that’s part of the fun of the genre. Kind of campy and over the top. Like I said everything in indiana Jones is kind of presented that way. He just happens to find just the right book, with just the right second half from his father and the nazis are digging just off and then he escapes. The whole time is like that but the performances are charismatic, good music, energy and great stunts make for a fun experience. I had that same experience with Atlantis although not as good as Indiana Jones. I would put it on the level of National Treasure which also is the same kind of story with the same kind of ridiculous luck and treasure hunting but I think they are fun. I guess just not your genre. I get that.
My main point is that the story plays a lot into my accepting any characters. I actually didnt mind Bella at first because it fit the genre of a romance novel without the smut. Kind of the wanted woman with desire smoldering. On a campy level that was fun and good romantic tension. The third book when she cemented the love triangle ruined it for me. That felt tired for me and I was done with Bellas damsel in distress routine.
So the type of story and genre weighs in a lot for me even for your definition. But I get what you are saying now so I’m glad I wrote the post anyways because I honestly didn’t get it and you are right it’s a phrase totally thrown around too much.
Oddly enough too I found almost no information specifically on Gary Stu. It was all Mary Sue with a little footnote about Gary Stu. But I’d agree with you women are more likely the pixie or smurfette or other tropes. Tropes dont bother me when they are executed well. They can be an effective storytelling device or be terrible. Just depends
The “wish fulfilment” that Swanpride mentions is the definition of a Mary Sue that I’m most familiar with: the character is meant to be a stand-in for the author and is used to live out their personal fantasies. So in fanfiction, the focus is always on them and the most desirable characters fall in love with them. In the Twilight series, Bella Swan has at least five guys who are in love with her, ends up getting everything she could possibly want without any work or sacrifice (e.g. upon becoming a vampire, she isn’t consumed by uncontrollable bloodlust like everyone thought she would be, for no adequately explored reason) – and many people point out that her physical description is very similar to Stephenie Meyer. The definition of “implausible talents and likeableness” often naturally goes hand in hand with the wish fulfilment.
That’s a good point. I see what you mean about the wish fulfillment. I still think that is more palatable in some genres than others but it could be annoying. No doubt. If Twilight had stayed a tame romance novel and kept up the camp factor I could have had fun with it but then in book 3 it started to take itself seriously. Huge mistake and the love triangle was the worst. I hate love triangles! Jack Bauer, James Bond, Indiana Jones all have that kind of wish fulfillment in a way. They are what everyone would want to be but for the type of story they tell it works. It’s kind of like the old John Wayne movies. He was always the paragon of virtue and manliness, but it fit the genre and was entertaining. And they never took themselves too seriously. That is key. For a B summer action movie to work it has to be fun. Same is true for a romance novel. If Twilight had kept itself on the Telenovelas level with vampires I could have had fun with it but it took itself very seriously and ruined it.
But yeah you make a lot of sense. Thanks!
Interesting article on Gary Stu’s and Mary Stu’s and Molly Mormon’s and other terms I’ve never really heard before…or I’ve heard them before, but forgot about them, lol. And yeah, I agree with you about not liking when authors just tag on negative qualities just so they don’t get called Gary Stu or whatever.
And yes, I too am a virgin and waiting till marriage, so I DEFF know how “unusually perfect and weird” that seems to most other people.
We are a unique but strong group! Thanks for sharing that. 🙂 Isn’t that the worst when they tag on negative traits just to keep their character from being ‘too perfect’? I hate that!
It’s like people don’t like good role models with positive qualities anymore.