While Mary Sue is too nebulous to be judged by any hard and fast standard, certain traits have become surprisingly popular. In an effort to make their characters more attractive without having to do the leg work of natural character development, the authors just add some of these superficial traits to their character. Below are the ones that the collective unconscious (so to speak) find especially attractive and end up incorporating into their characters with regularity.
With the way the word has mutated over time, a great many people just end up labeling any character overdosed with these traits as a Mary Sue regardless of her importance within the story (or because they just don't like the character). That's not necessarily true. Even if a character has quite a number of the traits described below, Mary-Sueness can still be averted by a good enough explanation for why they're there. Some female characters may seem over-powered and a bit "too good to be true" on paper but when placed in context they can be well-developed, three-dimensional characters. It's when a trait exists more to make somebody stand out than to develop them as a character that it starts going into Mary Sue territory (unless it's Played for Laughs). Alternatively you may feel as if the writer is frantically trying to justify a trait to themselves and the reader.
Sadly, a lack of these traits does not automatically mean the character isn't a Sue: see Anti-Sue and Suetiful All Along.
This article will concern itself with gender neutral and female traits. For (the few) male-exclusive variants, see Marty Stu. For a litmus test that draws on much the same source material, see here.
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What personality? In these cases, it's fairly blatant the author is just writing the character for amazing stuff to happen to instead of a character that actually exists as a person. Obviously, this is only a Mary Sue trait if what happens gives the character special powers, fantastic romances, or somehow lets her be a big damned heroine; otherwise it's just another faceless first-person perspective.
The personality of a Mary Sue - if she has one - is not nearly as important as how other characters react to it. No matter how shy or socially awkward Mary Sue is supposed to be, other characters will be drawn to her and inexplicably prefer her company over that of anyone else, all of her ideas are brilliant, all of her jokes are funny, all of her advice is an amazing breakthrough, people will trust her immediately, or very quickly, and feel more comfortable talking to her than to anyone else (even their own family or their significant other) even if she hasn't done or said anything to make them feel that way about her.
If another character doesn't feel this way about Mary Sue, it's usually to portray them as either bad or just an idiot.
Mary Sue doesn't have to actually do anything to be considered a good person, she just is good and by extension anything she does is good and even when she does nothing she brings more good into the world simply by existing than any other character ever could. Goodness just seems to seep out of her body like radiation.
Incorruptible. In fact, unaware of the possibility of temptation.
Occasionally a complete asshole, especially when she's supposed to be all of the above. Nobody will call her out on her abrasive, casually abusive behavior. Plus, strong badass characters who would normally rip someone's spleen out for looking at them cross-eyed are instantly cowed and become meek, spineless Wangst factories as soon as she "puts them in their place."
Her "major flaws" will be stubbornness and a bad temper. These will only ever help her, never hurt her — because she's always right, so whatever cause she dedicates herself to with such stubbornness will be a good cause, and whoever she loses her temper with will deserve it.
Sometimes they'll mess her up once so she can learn an important lesson. And then they'll help her for the rest of the story.
A character who's described as being blunt to the point of rudeness or tactlessness will be praised for being "refreshingly honest" or for "telling it like it is." Only the bad guys will be offended by it.
I Just Want to Be Normal: Being super awesome is a curse. Now in a franchise like X-Men, a character can find their awesomeness a curse, but at the very least it's because mutants are feared and their powers can cause them serious problems. Mary Sue claims she wishes she was normal even when there's no actual downside to her powers.
Skilled in a type of martial arts in a setting or with a backstory that doesn't allow for it. Not regularly skilled either; she could kick the ass of the resident ninja of her choice.
Just random magical powers, such as telepathy in a universe where it's never even been mentioned.
Or in a universe where her ability is naturally impossible to have, say... bog standard real life?
Absurd natural athletic ability - she can run like the wind without ever having worked on her running, and has impossibly high acrobatic skills.
And with all this - don't expect the Green-Eyed Monster to show up. Envy appears in the Mary Sue's life only as a means of angst, and so does not appear just because the Mary Sue has everything.
Alternately, anybody who does get jealous is a bitch and is wrong. This is typically a single other character and may be Die for Our Ship or for other reasons.
Mary Sue always has excellent fashion sense, even if she's meant to be a rough-and-tumble, Tom Boy type who doesn't care about that sort of thing, she will always look effortlessly beautiful (Unkempt Beauty) and other characters, often males, will frequently talk about how they like that she isn't as high maintenance as other girls (if she has a female rival they might mention her specifically.)
All skills and traits unusual for setting can pretty easily fall into this, since young authors usually forget to portray all consequences of picking a certain trade. For example, a medieval peasant girl will have no problems becoming a respected genius scholar.
Unusual hair relative to canon is another common characteristic of Mary Sue. Alternatively, these features may be amazing in other ways - shining and shimmering eyes, or Anime Hair in non-Anime fandoms.
Note that White Hair isn't really considered all that unusual in anime-based fiction. It only becomes Sue-ish if it makes her special.
More important than colour is highlights. Of course hair dye is nothing special, but somehow Sue's streaks are not only a colour completely different to the base, but also natural. Nature allows some leeway here - blonds with dark roots aren't unheard of, but that's not what Sue is after.
Similarly, these "natural" highlights are often a color such as blue, pink, purple or any other color that doesn't occur naturally in hair outside anime.
She might have a waiflike figure, so slim and delicate... and yet her breasts are perky, supple D-Cups (because obviously, otherwise boys won't appreciate her personality), totally disregarding the fact that in reality, the slimmer you are, the smaller your breasts are likely to be (though there are real-world exceptions, a few even natural). These breasts never get in the way, or make running difficult, or sag. If height and weight figures are given, expect it to violate physics (unless she's made of Styrofoam or something).
This particular trait is magnified if her role in the story has her doing things that would require a lot of upper body strength and therefore bulk, such as wielding a sword or fighting hand-to-hand. It's magnified even more if there are other female canon characters with similar roles who are built more like female mixed martial arts fighters. Having one lone waifish and delicate young girl in that group because the author thinks muscular women are gross-looking and to have that lone waif fight just as well or better than someone with more muscle mass despite her physical limitations is a bog standard Mary Sue trait.
Mary Sue is also never depicted as putting too much effort into maintaining her body, she may get an Adrenaline Make Over, but she never has to diet or exercise (she may exercise for other reasons, but never just to maintain a certain weight or to look a certain way) or use any cosmetic products, she just naturally looks (the authors idea of) perfect and usually doesn't understand why everyone is so impressed by her effortlessly flawless appearance.
No matter what she's been through, Mary Sue will never look ugly. The worst she'll ever be reduced to is Unkempt Beauty, and even if she is somehow injured and scarred or handicapped, the scar will always be a cool looking, Bond villain type scar that serves as more of a decoration than anything else. Plus, when she overcomes the handicap, she will be just as amazing as she was before getting injured (or better.)
Likewise, if Mary Sue has a birth mark, it will be in a significant shape (heart, half moon, etc.) and never in a place that compromises her beauty.
Expect the Mary Sue to consider the birthmark to make her unattractive. This will be despite the fact that other characters insist that the birthmark makes her more attractive, especially in comparison to physically flawless characters.
She'll often wear revealing outfits with tons of gems, fishnets, Frills of Justice, and other extraneous details, even if it may be difficult or impossible to find such an outfit in her world (or be well outside of her realistic price bracket). Such flashy outfits will likely be just too impractical to wear in Real Life. Even if the rest of the cast wears uniform.
Descriptions of her looks are usually overly-detailed and distinctly violet-hued. Because saying she's slim with long black hair and blue eyes only tells you what she looks like. Saying she's a delicate, willowy goddess with flowing tresses that shimmered onyx like the feathers of a raven and sparkling cerulean orbs that shone like the ocean and radiated with femininity tells you she's special.
Likewise she will describe her clothing in pretentious Purple Prose. Sometmes she'll do it with every outfit she wears.
If you're on a roleplay site that takes faceclaims or playbys (celebrities that represent what the character looks like), you can bet their faceclaim will be someone who's in their late 20's while the character is 16. And you'll be lucky to find one that doesn't use a faceclaim who's universally perceived as lovely. (Megan Fox, Selena Gomez, Miranda Kerr, Adriana Lima and other Victoria's Secrets models...) Bonus points if it's an emo-sue with Amy Lee as their face.
A katana. Now it's not impossible to have a katana outside of Japan anymore, but when it's because Katanas Are Just Better (especially in a place they either shouldn't exist or would be technically useless), you've got Sue-ness coming on. Two katanas is almost always a dead sure sign.
Sometime they'll use guns instead, especially if the setting doesn't usually have them, and in which case they're almost always revolvers. Or a minigun.
If she has her own transport, it will always be cool and expensive. Sometimes she has her own Time Machine - even worse if it's based on something from a different canon.
She may have access to a Humongous Mecha in a universe that lacks them, or only hands them out on a case-by-case basis.
The web exists everywhere for her - she can whip out her laptop anywhere and have access to both our normal internet and the local internet of whatever world she lives in. And use it to hack toasters and the Pentagon. Additional Sue points if her laptop displays an unnaturally long battery life. (i.e. the battery never runs out, even while adventuring in places where there's no obvious means of recharging it, such as forests, deserts, or mountains.)
Bonus points if the story is set in a world or time period where the internet doesn't exist, such as a medieval fantasy world or prehistoric Earth, among other possible places.
If the Suethor's favorite character has a one-of-a-kind weapon, Mary Sue can have a related weapon. The trait is reinforced when Mary Sue's weapon was handed down to her through generations, especially if, in canon, no one knows where the original weapon came from. For example, if Sephiroth has the Masamune, the Mary Sue that has been foisted on him in a particular story will have an identical weapon called the Murasame.
Canon Character Relationships
Some Wish Fulfillment with a character you think is hot isn't that bad. But Mary Sue seems to grab their attention straight away. Even if they already have a stable love interest in canon, that relationship will be treated as either non-existent, or the couple will be split up in some way.
Bonus points if the love interest stands aside or sacrifices himself/herself so Mary Sue can be happy, or is twisted intoa hateful person to justify Mary Sue breaking up the canon couple.
Or perhaps Mary will be introduced as the canon character's New Old Flame and this is their rediscovery of each other, though it's never really explained why they split up in the first place if they loved each other so much.
She may be related to a canon character in some other way. This can be the explanation for a Copy Cat Sue. And why spend chapters explaining why the heroes accept a total stranger into their midst so readily, when they can just shout, "Luke, I am your sister!"
Even the characters who don't have sex with her give her more heed than they normally would. Characters she likes can't stop talking about her beauty and power. Characters she doesn't like can't stop making themselves look bad by insulting her. There may be just "something special" about them, with no particular reason why anybody would think that. In the worst-case scenarios, they pay no heed to their own responsibilities or lives, only to Sue.
Bonus points: the disliked character behaving badly toward the Sue eventually sees the "error" of his/her ways and grows to love Sue as much as everyone else does.
More bonus points: the bad behavior and treatment of the Sue by disliked characters is portrayed as jealousy.
Previously-established personalities change in reaction to her. Arrogant gimps may admire her for everything. Sweet, mild-mannered characters (that she and the author don't like) insult and degrade her. A leader with responsibilities pays attention only to her. Young, reckless characters who would never settle down just yet will become totally reliable. Evil characters follow her around like a puppy or seem uncharacteristically obsessed with her. Extremely competent characters become stumbling buffoons who require her help to do anything. The characters in general just seem unnaturally focused on her, positive or negative.
If she's inserted into a story from before a canon character turned out to be evil, she will be the only one who suspects him.
She gets special treatment in-universe. The classic example is the Harry Potter "exchange student" fic where a sixteen-year-old American girl enters Hogwarts as a sixth year, is immediately given a spot on the Quidditch team and doesn't have to wear the uniform. Chances are good that Sue will be making all the calls that should be somebody else's prerogative; she's probably the one telling the Sorting Hat which house she's going to be in. note Yes, we know Harry got to do this, but that was a special situation. He was equally qualified for any house, so the Hat had enough leeway to consider his choice.
May serve as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if her love interest is especially dark, brooding or troubled. She "cures" him of that, often at the expense of his characterization.
She may have relationships of some kind with multiple major canon characters. For example, she's the secret daughter of A who gave her up to be adopted by B's parents, making her his sister, and she goes on to have a passionate affair with C, remaining friendly with him even though she goes on to marry D, and she's E's best friend, F's closest advisor...and so on.
If she has any flaws intentionally written in by the creator, expect them to be Informed or not really flaws to begin with. Bonus points if they're genuine flaws that would actually be pretty awesome were it not for their drawbacks (e.g. substance abuse, nymphomania, etc.), and of course the drawbacks will never be shown.
Clumsiness is not a flaw. It is a potentially cute character trait and if it is implemented heavily enough into a character to be a flaw, the character devolves into Plucky Comic Relief and if they are the protragonist, the story risks becoming pure slapstick.
Sympathetic Sue has an unusually Dark and Troubled Past to the excess, but other subtypes often have them too, just to emphasize how brave and special she is to live through it. This past is never really a point in the story, just dropped casually into the conversation to get attention. Alternatively it's written badly owing to not doing much research. How much she Wangsts about it is usually out of proportion with how bad it really is.
In some cases she's somehow half-human + half-elf + half-veela + half-angel + half-saiyan + half-God-like ridiculous hybrid creature. Bonus points if one or more of these races does not even exist in the story's canon, or if the end result would be illogical by definition (i.e. a half-demon/half-angel).
If the character is already a furry, they'll typically be some incomprehensible hybrid, a rare or little-used (always pretty) species, and/or have wings regardless of species.
Bonus points if whatever species she is makes no sense in canon. Sure it's okay in a fantasy book, but in a regular fiction book there probably shouldn't be any elves walking around.
Redeems the villain through her overwhelming goodness. Might be through Redemption Equals Sex (bonus points if it leads into IKEA Erotica). Even more bonus points if the story decides to mention that this is her loss of virginity. Yet more bonus points if the villain comments on how awesome she is in bed despite said virginity.
On a similar note, the Changeling Fantasy is popular enough in its own right without ever involving Rags to Royalty to begin with. It's certainly advantageous to the writer to have a set of cruel parents that can be replaced with ideal ones.
This can be taken to the point of being from another setting entirely. It's no coincidence that many of the most notorious fanfics are mega-Crossovers.
Sometimes, the Sue has only one supernatural power: being The Chosen One. Her chosenness makes her critically important to the world, but since she has no other godlike powers, she will spend most of the story being kidnapped (usually by a villainous love interest) and/or otherwise victimized. This is becoming more common as writers catch on to GodModeSue, since it allows her to continue stealing the spotlight while still avoiding the "god mode" label.
In fanfiction at its most unoriginal, an Author Avatar is sometimes just inserted into the story as it happened (the Tenth Walker is to The Lord of the Rings as the American exchange student is to Harry Potter) and has basically no effect on the plot — she's there to either elbow aside each of the canon characters in turn and take over the plot points they were responsible for, or even more boring, just stand around and watch them do their thing, thinking all the right thoughts to show what a good judge of character she is — maybe with a romance with a canon character or an occasional Fixer Sue moment thrown in. Reading these fics is like experiencing the original work with a thirteen-year-old fangirl talking in your ear.
Mary Sue is also often written into fanfiction as a character that not only was not shown in the actual movie (book, graphic novel, etc.) but who was really super important behind the scenes.
You remember that dark, brooding, emotionally closed off character who always had his guard up and never confided in anyone? well, little did you know, he had a best friend/relative/therapist/love interest who was the only person he ever felt comfortable talking to and he told her all of his hopes and dreams and secret motivations.
You know that lone vigilante who saved the day and then disappeared into the night? Well, little did you know that he had a friend/love interest who was secretly by his side through it all and even helped him to execute his plans/ helped him come up with all his best ideas/ was his whole inspiration to be a hero in the first place!
Writing an OC who has a connection to an existing character isn't necessarily bad but must be handled delicately; too many fanfiction writers make the mistake of making their OC solely responsible for everything that was good about a particular character or putting her behind every significant canon event.
May be named after the author in some form. Becoming less frequent as people catch on to the Litmus Tests.
May have an unusual spelling of a normal name, like Krystal or Syndi. Substituting a 'Y' for any other vowel is generally a warning sign. Substituting multiple Ys for vowels makes it virtually certain.
May have a masculine-sounding name. Feminized spelling (like Micki or Harrie) is optional.
The reverse can also occur in other cultures, when people are given "exotic" English words for names. Often results in name which doesn't mean quite what the author intended, due to the large vocabulary and connotations attached to many supposedly synonymous words in the English language.
It is not uncommon for a Sue to have a combination Japanese/Western-type name, e.g., Hikari Rose Nightshade or Sapphire Morimoto. While such names are not unheard of in real life, they are practically a six-foot-high neon sign flashing I'M A MARY SUE when it comes to fanfic.
Which raises another point: if standard western names have 3 or 4 parts—a first, middle, and last name—expect her to have four or more. For example, Robert Charlie Smith and Mary Jane Jones will be friends with Raven Fire Trinity Helena Hope Marissa Insanelylongandhardtopronouncelastname.
Her name may be an awkwardly feminized version of the author's favorite male character's name. For example, Final Fantasy VII fanfic is littered with Sephiras, Sephirothas, Sefiras, etc. There has even been a Sephora.
A massive amount of time gets spent on describing her every feature in her introduction. Obviously, most canon characters are already well-defined to the reader whereas the new character needs an adequate description, but if it spends paragraphs, continues cropping up throughout the story, and includes detailed appendices on every little detail, just abandon all hope.
She gets Purple Prose (usually with heavy Fetish emphasis) while no other character (canon or otherwise) gets it. Whereas her love interest extends his hand out to her, she slowly but confidently raises her slim, tender, yet dexterous left hand that has a ring on her index finger to hide a small birth mark, shifting her weight to her front stiletto adorned foot and causing her long, flowing aquamarine hair done with two front tails to ripple and her supple yet firm right breast to shift ever so slightly, rubbing against her slightly loose but supportive black lace bra and causing her heart-shaped face to gain a slight bit of blush underneath her sparkling emerald eyes.
Relatedly, many things about her are described as "[adjective] yet/but [adjective that often comes into conflict with the other adjective]".
In visual media, the camera just can't stop staring at her. Every angle is seen several times and her every action gets a heavy emphasis with close-up shots galore. Other characters don't get to be in the frame alone if it can be helped.
When the character is off screen, if ever, the other characters are still talking about her, taking it as a chance to speak "honestly" about the new girl. If they like her, they sing her praises; if not, their dislike will be taken as jealousy, as her "haters" will only talk about petty issues (Sue's background, perceived promiscuity, etc.), and not genuine gripes (massive attention whoring for starters).
The story is often told entirely from the POV of the Mary Sue, sometimes in first person so the focus can never shift away from her.
Author Investment in the Character
The same character—either literally the same character or the same in spirit—tends to appear in all of the works by a particular author or artist because they identify so closely with the character.
The author takes personal offense at any criticism of the character or story, no matter how well-meaning or justified it is.
The author may get upset when she sees her favorite character paired with anyone but her OC.
In extreme Small Name, Big Ego cases, the author will create a fan club for her own Mary Sue and/or aggressively ships the Sue with a canon character and makes a fan club for that.
The author/artist has a massive gallery of art exclusively of the character. A few illustrations to give an idea of what a character looks like is a good idea. Over a hundred illustrations of a single OC is an obsession.