Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.” — Excerpt from A Trekkie’s Tale by Paula Smith.
She is the woman with the jewel colored eyes, the model-level good-looks, the black belt in three different kinds of martial arts, and the intelligence to solve Hilbert’s Sixteenth Problem in her spare time. Every man she comes across falls in love with her. Every woman either sees her as their best friend, even her worst enemy. Who is she? Why Mary Sue of course.
“Mary Sue” is a term that originated in fan fiction circles and has spread to canon works. She is usually female, although her male counterpart Gary Stu or Marty Stu can be spotted on occasion. What is the difference between her and a strong female character that you just created?
It all comes down to two words. Believable flaws. Mary Sue is perfect in all ways. She is breathtakingly beautiful with her exotic eye/hair/skin color. She is intelligent enough to have a college degree with honors at a younger than average age. She has incredible physical prowess without the need for practice. If she does have a flaw, be it physical or mental, it only serves to enhance her perfection and does not detract from her in any way. If she is in the military and happens to snark (sorry Melissa) off to a commanding officer, not only did their CO deserve it, she is more likely to be promoted because of her insubordination instead of spending time in the brig. Not only is the captain of the starship she serves on in love with her, but the first officer, the chief medical officer, and several random ensigns of any gender. She may or may not reciprocate these feelings and worry about hurting the other people who have fallen for her charms, but only gets to express her emotions before dying tragically to save them from whatever crisis was about to cause their imminent doom.
How do you figure out if you are writing a Mary Sue? A good place to start is the The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test. I don’t agree with all the questions necessarily being indicative of a Mary Sue since they have an all-or-nothing approach. If a question makes you stop and think, that’s a sign that you need to consider that aspect of your character a little more closely. Also, keep in mind that one person’s Mary Sue is another person’s strong female character. If you hear your character is a Mary Sue from more than one person giving you feedback, then it is time to make some changes.
What can you do make sure your character is not a Mary Sue? Add a few flaws that hinder instead of help. Let her struggle and fail a time or two before attaining her goal or even better, fail to reach her goal just because she is supposed to. Not only will you be avoiding writing a character that is too perfect, you will be adding several plot points that can add a richness and reality to your story.