There is a fascinating discussion right now on Quora on Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters. People argue in favor and against the possibility of writing a well-crafted, enjoyable character like that.
For anyone not familiar with the Mary Sue term (Gary Stu or Lary Stu are the male equivalents), Wikipedia explains what it is all about.
Who is Mary Sue?
The term “Mary Sue” comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story “A Trekkie’s Tale.” The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”) and satirized unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction. The complete story reads:
“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.”
Captain Kirk came up to her. “Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?”
“Captain! I am not that kind of girl!”
“You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.”
Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?”
“The Captain told me to.”
“Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”
Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she, too, was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.
But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies, Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, 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.
However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay, as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability, and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.
The Mary Sue test
So, does your novel have a Mary Sue in it? Here is a small test, courtesy of DailyWritingTips:
- Is your character an idealized version of you? (Be honest!)
- Are they popular with pretty much everyone?
- Are they a bit “too good to be true”?
- Do they have a surprising range of skills / expertise?
- Have they advanced a long way in their career despite being very young?
If you answered Yes to all of those, you likely have a Mary Sue, and should ask:
- Does the character have any real flaws? (“Clumsy” or “poor at math” are not flaws.)
- Do they ever fail at anything, in a significant way, in your story?
- Do they change in some way (for better or for worse) during the course of the story?
Now to the question at hand.
Is it possible to have a well crafted, enjoyable Mary Sue or Gary Stu?
Chris O’Leary’s answer in Quora proved to me beyond doubt that yes, it is. But only under very specific circumstances, like children’s books. Or…
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you:
Westley, from the Princess Bride.
An idealized form of the author, living in the story, Westley is immediately popular with everyone he meets, is way too good to be true, has an inconceivable range of skills and expertise, is very young, but is the most famous and feared pirate in the world, has no flaws to speak of, never fails at anything, and does not change at all throughout the story.
BOOM. The Dread Pirate Gary Stu. AND a GREAT character whom everyone LOVES.
What do you think? Can we have a Mary Sue without ruining our entire novel?