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… 🙂