Mary Sue/Gary Stu – Valid Critique or Cynic’s Bandwagon?

Today we give the platform to one of my favorite authors, Janny Wurts. She wonders if you think the Mary Sue / Gary Stu critique is being overly applied by cynical critics these days. Two commenters win copies of both The Curse of the Mistwraith and Initiate’s Trial, the first and most recent books in Janny’s THE WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW.

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Lately, the Mary Sue or Gary Stu label for book characters who seem ‘too good to be true’ is used freely by professional and amateur reviewers alike as a slur that implies a literary fault. Time, I think, to question the critique’s unilateral validity.

A well drawn character demands strengths and flaws to avoid being saccharine. Yet amidst a shrill trend towards ambiguity and base motivations, has the anti-hero been set on a pedestal? Deemed ‘realistic,’ lauded as the breakthrough that steps fantasy literature beyond children’s tales, the ‘new grit’ sells us a corrupted humanity, and disenfranchises upright protagonists as naïve fools enamored with the bankrupt concept of hope.

Is this ‘frontier’ the new rage, popularizing a theater of limited expectations? Cynicism itself is the MYTH of never questioning its own assumption, with the negative as status quo bloated into tyrannical pessimism. Hope, joy and empowerment are resigned by CHOICE, and what’s left? Misery triumphs. Such distortion denounces all striving against an inevitable morass of futility. The character with a moral compass — despite shortcomings — gets dismissed as a Mary Sue/Gary Stu. By rightfully belittling the literary fallacy of omnipotent perfection, perhaps the tags have been carried too far. Crabs in the bucket sell us a fad to dismiss the astounding resiliency of our human strengths.

Is today’s story hero simplistically debased because we refuse to, or cannot relate? Why strive, when defeatist wisdom insists we must fail? Has upright action been cashiered for the brainwashing crap served up by clever sensationalists who are too lazy and weak to stand firm, to foster the powerful concept that goodness can matter?

Our ‘real’ world has its sociopaths AND its Mother Teresas. We are gifted by examples of transcendence and joy amidst the villainy and shortfalls.

What do you think? Has the label Mary Sue/Gary Stu become the bludgeon to trample the qualities of a genuine voice? Speak your piece.

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JOHN HULET (on FanLit's staff July 2007 -- March 2015) is a member of the Utah Army National Guard. John’s experiences have often left a great void that has been filled by countless hours spent between the pages of a book lost in the words and images of the authors he admires. During a 12 month tour of Iraq, he spent well over $1000 on books and found sanity in the process. John lives in Utah and works slavishly to prepare soldiers to serve their country with the honor and distinction that Sturm Brightblade or Arithon s’Ffalenn would be proud of. John retired from FanLit in March 2015 after being with us for nearly 8 years. We still hear from him every once in a while.

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  1. Great post! Thanks for taking the time to write it for us! :)

    I’ve actually got a different perspective on the Mary Sue or Gary Stu. To me, a Sue/Stu isn’t someone who’s too moral. When I use the term, it’s usually more describing a character who conveniently has every skill the story requires without having to work at it or have a convincing explanation for why they know it at all; a character who attracts the romantic attention of pretty much every attractive character in the story; and sometimes even a character who does morally awful things and yet is lauded by other characters and by the authorial voice for being heroic (you’ll have this moral dissonance where everything is great and wonderful as long as it’s the protagonist doing it).

    Basically, a Sue/Stu, to me, is someone the author tells me is great but without showing any reasons he or she is actually great. Informed Awesomeness.

  2. Melanie Goldmund /

    I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment, as I can’t really say that I’ve come across this problem in the book reviews that I’ve read. But if reviewers are giving the label of Mary Sue/Gary Stu to characters that do have obvious shortcomings, but who, as you say, have a moral compass, then that is completely wrong. I think that label should be reserved for those characters that are so sickeningly perfect that they do absolutely everything right — and make the reader want to throw the book across the room. Fortunately, it’s been my experience that these sorts of characters are rare outside of fanfiction (though I have found one or two.)

  3. John Hulet /

    I really think that you have a real point. There is a tendency to write characters who are flawed and failed…because so many people are almost offended by that desire to be something more than mediocre.

    • Flawed characters go back a long way, though, and sometimes it’s really interesting when someone is both great and has a great flaw or makes a great mistake. Look at Greek tragedy or Shakespeare.

  4. I’m with Kelly. To me the “Mary Sue” is the simple small town heroine who just happens to have a black belt in several martial arts, read ancient Sumerian, be beautiful,dance divinely, always have the witty comeback, and even though she only learned to cook by helping grandma in the kitchen, is a Michelin-caliber chef. Oh, and she just happens to break the mysterious code that even the military intelligence folks gave up on.

    I think a good example of a hero who is not a “Gary Stu” is Lois Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan. He is brilliant and witty; physically damaged, self-centered,impulsive, but always trying to do what’s right.

    • Marion, that’s a good example for a non-Gary Stu. I’d say that Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye is another good example as a non-Mary Sue.

  5. I agree that it can be overused as a cheap-and-easy critique and the emphasis on the anti-hero is sometimes overdone.

    On the other hand, some authors do put their heroes on too much of a pedestal. A good contrast to the Miles Vorkosigan example above is Honor Harrington. As the books have gone on she has become more and more perfect at everything she does, with hidden skills and talents in all aspects of life, never failing at anything she tries, always the shining example of how it “should” be done, no matter what the field or discipline or skill needed. A character who did not start out as a Mary Sue but has become one through author…laziness?

    • It’s funny that you say that, Michael, because I thought the same thing about Honor and when I just went back to read my review, I actually called her a Mary Sue in the review. I thought I had never used the term before, but I guess I did.

  6. Clearly I’m not reading enough criticism as I’ve never even seen those terms. It seems there are too different types in this discussion—the characters that are “too good” (or maybe “goody” would be better) and the characters that are “too good at stuff”. The latter seems to me to just be a poorly written character, filled with deus ex machina potential—the infinite Swiss Army knife type of character where the author can just pull out the needed tool at just the right time: “Lucky for us Brad, I learned how to speak ancient Sumerian that time I was stuck in a tomb until my archaeologist parents noticed I’d fallen down a hole . . . “

    The other type, the one Janny seems more concerned about, it the “too good/goody” type and it’s a far more interesting question. I do think the new “grit” sometimes is a bit too enamored of itself, thinking it is somehow automatically a “more serious” or “better” story because not only do terrible characters do terrible things, but all the characters do, even the ones we’re supposed to care about. From my view, it automatically makes them do terrible things; it doesn’t automatically make them more interesting, which seems to be the hope.

    That said I do find flawed characters more interesting in general than those without. I think because with the flaw comes the struggle, interior as well as exterior, and so that offers up more grist for the drama mill. In this case, striving and goodness are thought to absolutely matter; hope and joy are there—they just don’t rain down like a shower from above or aren’t just imprinted like a birthmark on a character. Instead they’re that funny little thing you’ve somehow always had with you that you pull out now and then and turn in your hands and try and figure out just exactly how it works and why you have it.

    That doesn’t mean a “too goody” character can’t be part of an interesting story, but I think what I might need then is how that “goodness” causes struggle, if not in the character, in those around them—either because the good character forces them into situations (akin perhaps to Rob Stark’s upholding his principles to the destruction of all around him) or because the goodness causes the others more introspection—“man, do I suck . . . “.

    I can’t think of too many characters I’ve felt were “too good.” Aubrey, perhaps, in the Laws of Magic, YA series, which I said had a bit of that old-time Tom Swift/Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys feel. And I know even as I was making that connection, part of me was bemoaning the fact that I thought of “simple goodness” as “old-fashioned”, something you found in your grandparents’ dusty attic next to that huge rotary phone. Which is just a little sad, I admit.

    • I agree with you that “goodness” in itself can make for some great character struggle–both Robb and his dad fall into that, actually! :)

      And I love me some inner struggle. The imperfect hero doesn’t have to actually do anything awful; in fact, one of the tropes I love most, I think, is when a character is tempted by the wrong thing and then does the right thing in spite of that. Characters who are never tempted can come off as goody-goody, yeah. In general I want my heroes to do the right thing…through struggle.

  7. Elizabeth B. /

    Long time lurker here :)

    My understanding of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu is that they are almost completely one-dimensional characters who have an extra-ordinary talent in one or two or ten (you get the idea) areas, who are always good, who are loved by everyone and who are incapable of failing. More importantly, a Mary Sue/Gary Stu lacks the capacity for any character growth.

    Based on that definition, I would say that to plant the label of Mary Sue/Gary Stu on a character just because he or she happens to have a strong-moral compass is a misjudgment on the part of such critics. A character can have a strong-moral compass and still have more dimensions than just the one. And an upright protagonist can be just as fascinating as an anti-hero depending on the story. As long as there is believable character development, I think it’s near impossible to label any character as a Mary Sue/Gary Stu because a Mary Sue/Gary Stu is supposed to be “perfect” from the get go. They’re not supposed to change or attempt to better themselves because they are perfect. On the other hand, a “good guy” protagonist is just as capable of making mistakes and doing horrible deeds in the name of “good” as his enemy is.

    On a side note: I think that a large part of the reason why there has been a decrease in the popularity of upright protagonists has generated from the fact that usually the anti-heroes, grey characters, or “bad guys” are a lot more fun. They can be mischievous and witty, they can pull pranks or devise cruel but entirely appropriate punishments for their enemies, they can have quirks, and they can come up with entertaining ways to fight their dark side (for example, the character Monroe from the TV show “Grimm”, a modern day big, bad wolf, fights his animalistic side by doing palates). On the other hand, the upright protagonist in fantasy/science fiction doesn’t seem to have that same kind of freedom to let loose and be silly. It seems to be very hard for this type of character to ever take a break from his “work day” and relax.

  8. Monroe from Grimm might actually be a good example of the “modern” good character; he is fighting an inner nature that is bestial, and in spite of it he is a force for good.

    Tycho from JC Grimwood’s Assassini novels is a good example; he is a demon, and to become the person he wants to be he has to fight that nature every day — the opposite of the “just be yourself” characters of the free-wheeling 1960s and 70s, I guess.

  9. The way I understand it, it’s okay for a character to be naturally talented–the problem is when the character succeeds at everything without so much as breaking a sweat

    It’s also okay for characters to have magic powers–if the powers they have are realistic for the world and abide by any rules of magic the writer has set down

  10. I agree entirely that the Mary Sue/Gary Stu phenomenon has gotten out of hand. It was originally coined, to my understanding, for use primarily regarding a character that the author did ridiculous favours to (usually a blatant self-insert of some variety). Recently, though, people have been using it, as was said above, as a blanket criticism of all “unrealistic” work (a bit problematic when the genre is fantasy).

    Aristotle was of the opinion that tragedy (theater) was philosophically of greater profundity than history, as history only related what was or had been, while tragedy related what might be. I tend to have something of the same opinion in regard to fantasy literature. A bit of realism is fine, but make the portrayal of the world as it is over the world as it might be the chief end, and you lose something fundamental. I realize I’ve gone a little afield from the mere “Mary-Sue” stuff, but I think this is something of the debate that prompts people to use that critical term…

  11. April V. /

    I’ve heard the term used before but never about a character I’ve read or gone on to read so I can’t speak to its use or overuse by reviewers (and I read so few reviews anyway).

    But, since I’m enjoying the discussion above I’d like to throw in my two cents:

    1. Perfect characters are just plain wrong, simplistic and boring. Even children’s literature characters aren’t perfect – there is no story if nobody is learning or growing.
    2. Every character is a flawed character because there is no such thing as perfection. Character without flaws are caricatures and of no use as a main character. However, a hero must BE a hero for me to want to read the story. Doing the right thing, making the hard choices and yes, saving the world.
    3. While the anti-hero might be popular these days, I prefer the ‘real’ hero – the one who might want to do the wrong thing but doesn’t and who loves and cares for others. Often I find ‘anti-heroes’ to be selfish, vain and morally shaky and I see way to many of those in real life. I want to smile and be happy when I’m escaping into fantastic, literally and figuratively, fiction.

  12. I’ve never seen the Mary Sue/Gary Stu label placed on a character just because he/she has a strong moral compass. It’s generally applied to ones who are good at everything they turn their hand at, loved by everyone and they either have no flaws or the flaws that they do have make them more endearing. To me the opposite of a Mary Sue isn’t an anti-hero (in fact there are many anti-heroes I’ve come across in fiction who are probably Mary Sues since they are anti-heroic to make them seem more cool), it’s just a three dimensional character.

  13. This is quite fun. Either try it with your own characters or put in a character you’re familiar with and answer how you think the author would if you want to see if that character is a Mary Sue.
    I tried it with one of my characters and scored 52%. Uh-oh.

  14. Michael Rosenberg, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks. Please contact me (Tim) with your choice and a US address.

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