– Jacob Foxx –
When I was younger, I dreamed of being a Jedi fighting alongside Obi-Wan. In the climactic battle, I was the one who finished off the Sith Lord, of course. The force was strong with me, endowing me with epic Jedi skills. There was also a time when I fantasized of being an officer on the USS Enterprise mixed in with fantasies of being a Navy Seal, ninja, or pilot of a battlemech. In all the dreams, I was the awesome hero in the end. All of them were about my path to power and status, things I did not have as a kid.
These kinds of fantasies are usually normal and healthy, but they don’t make for good stories. Some authors write protagonists that are really an avatar for themselves, allowing them to fulfill all their fantasies of glory. Their ridiculously talented, attractive, and universally adored protagonist is known as a “Mary Sue” character, or “Marty Stu” for the male equivalent. Some call him Gary or Larry Stu but I prefer Marty Stu. The term Mary Sue began as a parody of a common character in early Star Trek fanfiction. The character was usually a young female ensign who saved the Enterprise and ended up with one of the major characters (Kirk, Spock, etc.). It was a way for fans to put themselves on their favorite ship and live in the universe of Star Trek.
The term has since broadened to include all situations where the author is inserting themselves into the story via a character that is a little too perfect. In science fiction, Marty Stu’s are prevalent in military science fiction. The no-name private rises up to become a war hero thanks to his tactical genius, unwavering bravery, and supreme martial skills. Marty and Mary are also common in young adult fiction, which is largely becoming the genre of wish-fulfillment. It is the place for anxious, insecure teenagers to live out their fantasies of obtaining popularity, success, and wealth.
How do you know you’ve written a Mary Sue character? There is no official test (although there is a good unofficial one here) or exact definition. Most commentators do seem to agree there is a sliding scale, with many protagonists exhibiting some Mary Sue traits.
Here are the basic elements of a Mary or Marty:
Marty and Mary aren’t just talented, they are REALLY talented, blessed with powers that push the boundaries of realism. They are often gifted in multiple areas, even if they are completely unrelated (i.e. a master engineer, award-winning singer, and a Olympic-medal winning gymnast). The plot is structured so that they have several opportunities to demonstrate their talents, typically in a public setting. They might begin as a diamond in the rough, unknown and unappreciated. Members of the opposite sex just do not appreciate them, at least not yet. When Marty finally gets his chance to demonstrate his skills, the ladies come flocking. Mary often gets her choice from a cohort of admirable men who fall in love with her. They do not necessarily obtain power and status in the end, but always receive honorable recognition from those around them.
In Star Trek, you will find a Marty Stu in the character Wesley Crusher, who was an author-insert for creator Gene Roddenberry (his middle name was Wesley). Wesley seems to possess a genius despite his young age and limited education. He is young and handsome, with a bright future, and has among his friends the top ranking officers of the crew. Captain Picard even treats him as a surrogate son.
Attractive in so Many Ways
In addition to their awesome abilities, Marty and Mary are almost always attractive physically, or have one unique and captivating physical trait such as exotic colored eyes or an intricate tattoo. In the beginning, the author will try to describe them as plain or unremarkable but this faux humility falls apart later. The other characters inevitably find them attractive.
They are also great people, better than you in every way. Other characters get a good feeling about them when they meet them. The only people who don’t like Mary and Marty are evil morons, obviously unworthy of their virtuous foes. Our godly protagonists are compassionate, trusting, loyal, understanding, and incredibly charming. Even if they had a rough upbringing, they retain these sage-like qualities. Everyone around them recognize their saintly nature, are easily persuaded by their arguments, and will try to emulate them.
The only allowable character flaws are stubbornness or a temper, but neither flaw has any adverse consequences when it is exposed. Whenever Marty gets angry, his rage falls upon someone who desperately deserved it. All excuse him for his outburst, even celebrate his loss of self-control. When Mary gets set on something, she won’t let anyone stand in her way. Naturally the story rewards such tenacity because their ultimate aim is always righteous. They are described as bold, fierce, passionate, fearless, brash, a loose cannon (if they’re a cop), a rebel, or someone “who plays by their own rules.” Whatever supposed flaw they possess, the author will spin it into a virtue.
Fascinating and unique backstories are very common for Marty and Mary. They are the last of their kind, possess rare genetic traits, are descendants of legendary characters, grew up extremely poor or disadvantaged, or possess some valuable one-of-a-kind artifact. They are different and special. Sometimes, the other characters stand in the wake of their celebrity, whispering to one another “they are the chosen ones! They will do A,B, and C for us!” Yes indeed, incredible things always seem to happen around them.
Everything Revolves Around Them
The story must dedicate itself to the steadily unfolding awesomeness of Marty and Mary. All the other characters talk about them constantly, and have their actions driven by them. Most apologize for the slightest insult or act of rudeness, except for the villains or are infinitely rude. Pages and pages are spent describing Marty and Mary, from physical appearance to backstory, the inner feelings, which are always righteous. Nearly all conversations among the other characters are about them. Whenever something happens, the author’s first question is “how does it affect Mary?” The impact on all other characters is irrelevant.
It is easy to understand why authors do this. They want to live vicariously through their fictional character. We all do it in our imaginations, from a young age all the way to adulthood. That doesn’t make it a good story. It results in a poorly-developed protagonist and an implausible plot. At the same time, most modern heroes have great abilities or an exceptional back story. Some are paragons of virtue as well. How is it that they are highly successful yet so many Marys and Martys fall short?
Well, the vast majority of successful heroes and heroines are towards the lower end of the Mary Sue/Marty Stu scale. Let’s apply the elements described above to the protagonists of the biggest sci-fi franchises:
Katniss Everdeen is a talented archer, brave, and selfless. At same time, none of her talents or admirable traits are implausible when you learn her background. She also has a temper which does not serve her, and she always seems to be a step behind everyone else. While she has two men vying for her attention, she is described as plain looking and ends up with permanent injuries and a few ugly scars. In terms of backstory, she is unremarkable among the many poor of District 12. Given that the novel is written in first person present tense, her domination of the plot is justifiable. With only one element satisfied (plot domination), Katniss cannot be labeled a Mary Sue.
Luke Skywalker is a more of a Marty Stu. He is the son of the chosen one, Anakin, and the force is unnaturally strong with him. In the Star Wars universe, there are numerous individuals with force abilities, therefore his talents are not unrealistic or extraordinary given the setting. Neither Luke nor his famous father really demonstrate supremacy in their skills. Anakin is defeated by Count Dooku on Attack of the Clones and later the less powerful Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke loses a duel to his father and is nearly killed by Darth Sidious. In terms of personality, Luke is just an all around great guy that everyone adores. In terms of plot domination, a good part of the original three movies does not involve Luke at all; it is the story of Han and Leia. That is two elements satisfied (attractive, exceptional backstory).
In Force Awakens, Rey is emerging as a Mary Sue. She has multiple talents, which have not been explained yet (she has Jedi skills without training). She is a great person, compassionate and kind. We do not know her backstory yet but we get the impression she is attached to one of the legendary Jedi names (Kenobi or Skywalker). Even if she isn’t, she grew up on the rough world of Jakku just like Luke and his impoverished hellhole of Tatooine. Yet still grow up to be good people. A good part of the movie does not involve Rey. Fin, Han, Leia, and Kylo Ren play major roles in the plot that often do not involve Rey.
Firefly/Serenity sports several quality characters but none have unrealistic abilities. Mal Reynolds is a skilled fighter and clever captain but many episodes involve his follies. He plays the rogue at times but is a principled individual, a typical anti-hero. With a common backstory and lack of plot focus on him, Mal is no Marty Stu. None of the other characters come close.
Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead is brave, strong, and good with a gun. His background as a former cop and his experiences in the zombie apocalypse all plausibly explain his skills. There are moments when he seems to be a great leader and father, while other times he is emotionally absent. As for his backstory, he was just a cop before the zombie apocalypse. Rick is zero Marty.
The Doctor in Doctor Who qualifies as a Marty Stu, in my opinion. He is all-knowing with extraordinary abilities thanks to TARDIS and his sonic screwdriver. All of the Doctors are great and admirable people with a couple quirks here and there. The backstory is certainly unique but the Doctor does not always dominate the plot. In many episodes, it is the trials of the companions that drives the plot. Still, Doctor satisfies three of four elements. If you look at the motivations behind a Marty Stu, you also have to wonder. The adventures through space and time are very likely a form of wish-fulfillment.
Star Trek is a franchise that typically includes several talented officers with impeccable character. Their genius is demonstrated time and again, pushing the bounds of realism but there are also episodes where they reveal weaknesses in their abilities or a minor character flaw. Most have average backgrounds with the exception of Worf (only Klingon in Starfleet) and Data (only android in Starfleet). Wesley Crusher was clearly a Marty Stu. Captain Picard could be a Marty Stu. There is certainly some wish-fulfillment for Mr. Roddenberry but Picard doesn’t receive much in the way of tangible benefits. More likely he is an author-insert, the person the author wished he could be. The franchises largely overcome having less realistic characters by being much more plot-driven in many episodes, or requiring a team effort to overcome challenges as opposed to a single protagonist shining high above the others.
Also, I do not think it is a coincidence that Wesley Crusher was deeply disliked among fans. In one episode, he accidentally let some nanites loose because he was exhausted from all his endless studies. Apparently he was going for a triple-doctorate at age 16. This is the plot equivalent of a humble brag. “Oh I screwed up because I am so busy getting A’s in twelve graduate level courses.”
Neo is a pretty big Marty Stu in The Matrix. He is the chosen one with godlike abilities, a great guy, and dominates most of the plot. As a character, he is pretty dull. You never really get to know the messianic Neo. I suppose I love the movies anyway because Neo is very mortal and average outside of the Matrix. There are philosophical and religious facets to the movies that are brilliant, but I would have to admit Neo is not a well-developed character.
What about superheroes? All of them have incredible abilities from a conventional standpoint but are far from omnipotent in their universe. They can be outmatched at times. Two are portrayed as paragons of virtue: Superman and Captain America. Superman has an extraordinary origin and the plot largely fixates on him. Some consider him the prototypical American Marty Stu. Captain America is not as high on the unrealistic abilities scale as many of his foes have similar or even greater powers. His selflessness and ability to persevere are his defining traits, both character related. Trailers for the new film, Civil War, suggest he is fallible however. In most of his movies, there are several things going plot-wise. I’d say he is a moderate Marty Stu.
As you can see, having one or two elements of a Mary Sue isn’t a problem. It is when you have most or all the elements in high doses, that the character loses appeal. Even then, there are ways to get away with it. In the right context, they can appeal to an audience. For science fiction, they tend to do better in military and young adult action/adventure sci-fi. These novels typically appeal to niche audiences but not the broader population of sci-fi readers. Also, if the novel or movie is plot-driven as opposed to character-driven, a Mary or a Marty is more tolerable. The other elements and themes must be strong enough to carry the story. Otherwise, authors should avoid inserting themselves into their stories as a form of wish-fulfillment. Take some time to develop the protagonist to include some real imperfections.
Want to know if you’re protagonist is a full-on Marty or a Mary? Here is a good Writer’s Test that will tell you where on the scale they are.
Jacob Foxx is the Editor of Prescientcifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.