Must be Monday. New podcast! Just click on the fancy logo below.
"I glanced in the rearview mirror and scrunched my forehead in dismay as I realized for the millionth time that I do not consider myself at all attractive, although roughly 85 percent of the male characters I encounter either fall in love with me or want to kill me, or both, and in the movie version I am portrayed by a total babe."
— "Fangs of Endearment: A Vampire Novel" by Dave Barry
is a constant issue for writers. She frustrates the reader with her flawless appearance, outrages them with her inability to do any wrong, and bores them with how perfect everybody seems to think she is. It's a trap that most amateur writers fall into, but surely, just removing all those possibly offensive traits would make her a regular character, right?
is not always about how she has radiant purple hair
, a perfect seven octave singing voice, and can slice Superman
with her katana
. It's about what she does to the story. There's a fine line between a well developed character and Mary Sue
, and it's certainly not defined by her appearance, justification (or lack thereof) for her abilities, or how fantastically improbable her backstory is. It's about how the character is defined exclusively by external traits and her actions to the point of shallowness, and about how all other
characters are defined by their attitude to her (or him
; as examples will show, this trope applies to both sexes). It's about how, in Fan Fiction
, she completely overtakes the canon characters in importance. It's about how people act wildly out of character around her and elevate her to a status well above what she should realistically be able to obtain.
In original fiction it's a character who can get away with almost anything, about whom no one can shut up, or a character who is flawed, sure... but seems to live in a topsy-turvy world where flaws function like virtues and are fetishized accordingly. Above all, it is about wish-fulfillment, and wish-fulfillment comes in many forms. There's nothing wrong with a little or even a lot, but when the wish-fulfillment a character embodies starts to warp the narrative and characterization around it, then you may be looking at a Mary Sue
, even if she's in disguise.
In the most blatant cases a writer will try to disguise a character's Sue-ness by claiming that she's "not beautiful" before launching into a description of a goddess just without using the word 'beautiful', or by sprinkling her with physical traits such as thinness or a "wide mouth" that have
been considered imperfections in the past but are rather more fashionable today. In fantasy or sci-fi examples, an author will sometimes invent a culture where some trait the audience is likely to consider attractive or neutral is regarded as horribly ugly, bad luck, etcetera. The most common of these tend to be a certain eye or hair color, or perhaps something like Pointy Ears
indicating partially elven ancestry in a culture prejudiced against elves
. But looks aren't the half of it. It is other qualities - abilities, personality (or lack of) and the way that not just the story, but the WORLD revolves around a character, even though it logically wouldn't - that make a character Suetiful All Along
. In addition, he or she never wants for attractive admirers.
Note that a lot of this trope is in the tone. For something like historical fiction, even assuming a third person narrator, we would expect that the story is related by someone familiar with cultural mores of the time. So, let's say we're in a time period where fat people are considered the hawtness, and our lead is a thin person who is attractive by modern standards. Averting this trope would mean defining our lead, not in terms of positive exploration (willowy frame, slender legs, delicate arms), but a more negatively tinted one (stick-like frame, spindly legs, stiff arms). It's all a matter of language.
Before you spot your favorite character on the list and rush to perform a Justifying Edit
, consider that in rare cases even full-blown Purity Sue doesn't necessarily mean a ruined character
, and the character who's Suetiful All Along
is often more sophisticated than that. Sometimes it's just one eye-rolling event too many that leads you to think back over your hero or heroine's career and wonder "Is she ever wrong about anything that's important?
" or "Is there anyone in the story who isn't completely obsessed with him?" Sometimes Sue-ness is occasionally annoying, but livable-with.
Will often appear hand-in-hand with Hollywood Homely
in visual media. Also consider Anti-Sue
, a more deliberate attempt to avoid making a character into a Mary Sue
open/close all folders
- Wolverine of the X-Men is constantly described and depicted as physically ugly, has a distinct aversion to bathing, and is shorter than most teenage girls. He's also got a personality so abrasive it's a miracle he ever lasted as part of a team in the first place (he drove founding X-Man Angel off the team and across the country in his second issue). Unfortunately, he speaks 17 languages, his powers make him functionally immortal (he's 112 years old—Which might actually help explain some of the languages), he has two adopted daughters, he's been married twice, and he's had more romantic relationships than any other X-Man, in spite of the negative qualities listed above.
- He is, however, written slightly more realistically within his own series, though this varies from writer to writer as he has become Progressively Prettier and he's gradually getting taller. It's often considered to be Mark Millar's fault.
- The fact that the makers of the live-action movies chose to disregard the above description and cast Hugh Jackman as Wolverine probably did not help...
- Amusingly averted in Secret Wars—though still distinctly Bad Ass, he spent a good bit of the story being a drunken pain in the ass, with realistic reactions from the other heroes.
- Carlie Cooper of recent Spider-Man fame. More than once she's been described as "perfect." And any complaints she has against any of the main cast are instantly regarded as totally justified, including getting on Spider-Man's case for not revealing his identity to her.
- The fact that she is named after Joe Quesada's daughter and came in right after the One More Day debacle specifically to replace Peter Parker's love interest (and wife) for decades doesn't help her reputation with the fans. At all.
- Iris of Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister, despite being one of the stepsisters, is actually rather pretty. It's not true in the book, though, so it may just be Adaptational Attractiveness.
- At least in the book she doesn't really qualify because the world does not revolve around her, and she doesn't seem to be any better off than any of the other characters.
- Similar to the Wolverine example, Riddick's Marty Stu qualities really show themselves as his role expands from Pitch Black to The Chronicles of Riddick. In the first film he is an, admittedly cool, dark horse character who presents a dilemma to the other survivors: he's perfectly equipped to help save everyone, but he also might be an untrustworthy and unrepentant sociopath who'd cut your throat for looking at him funny. In the second film he's a legendary figure, talked about constantly. A fearless, nigh-unstoppable killing machine, soon to be Last of His Kind and known in advance to be pivotal to saving the universe, circumstances allow little mystery as to which way he is going to jump. In person, if you aren't trying to lock him up or otherwise disturb his loner existence, he's generally urbane, funny, even charming. The closest the film gets to his reputed evil is merely the oft stated disregard he has for the well being of anyone but himself.
- It was already such a trope by 1911 that it's parodied in Zuleika Dobson: "Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been...She had no waist to speak of." (Zuleika is a hilariously exaggerated Femme Fatale, whose allure drives so many men to suicide that she depopulates an entire town).
- Before the third book, Harry Potter was almost the poster boy for this trope. Sometimes acting rashly and with limited understanding of the consequences of his actions, which is hardly a real flaw in the eyes of the readers, since he does it out of idealism. There is no end to how the other characters will praise his unlimited potential and heroic destiny. The few boys who oppose him are carefully designed to serve as an emphasis of Harry's status as a cinderella-knight in the making.
- Harry's flaws start to show themselves in book 3, when, while hunting for Sirius he almost kills Sirius, even though it turns out he was innocent the entire time, and his parents' real betrayer was Wormtail. The real kicker, Wormtail gets away because of Harry insisting that Lupin and Sirius don't kill him.
- It especially comes out in book 5, where Harry's heroism (which has always, always been in direct violation of rules and rationality) sets him up for a Batman Gambit which kills Sirius and severely injures and almost kills several of his friends.
- Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind is introduced as "not beautiful" (but with flashing green eyes and magnolia skin), and she's self-centered, mercenary and amoral. But she's so extraordinarily successful, so resilient, so significant in the lives of everyone around her and so magnetic to men that it's hard not to see her as a wish-fulfillment figure - rather like a female James Bond.
- Some characters start out as genuinely plain or flawed characters, but develop into Mary Sue characters as they age. For example, Frederica Potter in the Virgin in the Garden tetralogy by A.S Byatt. She starts off as a brainy, skinny, red-haired teenager who's not pretty but attractive as an acquired taste. Lots of people don't like her. Fine. But as the series goes on, she acquires an angsty past, her thinness (and her "wide mouth") become ever more aestheticised and harder to explain as she eats a lot of delicious, sophisticated food, she gets through a never-ending stream of attractive men, she becomes famous without having to lift a finger to work for it. When she's occasionally still described as not being pretty it seems ridiculous when she's just been described, at thirty-something, as looking like Alice in Wonderland. Oddly, lots of people STILL don't like her, for no particular reason but that comes to seem as an obvious marker of specialness as if everyone liked her for no particular reason.
- Actually subverted in Atlas Shrugged, where the author is able to show that Dagny's features (thin, leggy, cheekbones) are beautiful—and that the reason people dislike her is her cold and abrasive personality. The people who do come to find her sexy are those who share her Conveniently Common Kink of "making a profit from running my business."
- Anita Blake. According to Laurell K. Hamilton, her Sue is supposedly not attractive because instead of being a tall willowy blonde, she's a short (actually average height) curvy brunette with enormous boobs, collagen lips and a superslim body. Oh, and her * gasps* invisible Hispanicness also obviously detracts from her allure as well. Not to mention the "Is there anyone in the story who isn't completely obsessed with her?" factor.
- Considering how many races can be considered Hispanic (I.E The entire continent of South America), that's incredibly insulting. (Doubtful the author planned to insult them but...)
- Christopher Pike (the teen horror writer, not Kirk's predecessor as the captain of the Starship Enterprise) invariably describes his heroines as not being especially attractive. The fact that he then goes on, invariably, to elaborate that this unattractiveness takes the form of having breasts far too large for their waifish frames may raise some suspicions about the integrity of the narrator.
- The heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess is convinced that she's unattractive ("I am one of the ugliest children I ever saw") because she doesn't have dimples and golden curls. The narrative voice subverts this trope when it assures us that she is "a slim, supple little creature" with "an intense, attractive little face" and "big, wonderful eyes with long black lashes".
- The key word in her introductory description is "interesting;" she doesn't believe herself to be pretty, and she isn't, by usual standards. She's not rosy or cheery, she's bony, with plain coloration, and rather quiet and pale. Adults find her a trifle unsettling. However, the narrative points out that she is unaware that there is something else about her that compels people to attend to her — not beauty, but not ugliness, either.
- At the beginning of the first Twilight book, Bella Swan goes on at length on how plain-looking, unremarkable, and clumsy she is. The first sign that Sueness is lurking around the corner is her name, which means "beautiful swan". The second sign is her attracting no less than three male admirers at her new school, despite claiming to be a nobody in her former hometown. The rest of the series consists of Bella being in a Love Triangle with Edward the vampire whose absolute perfection and beauty are constantly described and Jacob the werewolf, and getting her Happily Ever After with Edward by becoming a vampire, which coincidentally makes her stunningly beautiful and graceful in the process. Note that these are two more boys vying for her love, totaling five altogether. The only flaw remaining for Bella is her boring narrative voice, and that's unfortunately not one that the in-story characters can see. Only that turns out to be what makes her special to Edward — that he can't read her thoughts.
- Let us not fail to mention that the werewolf in question is a six-foot plus boy who looks about eight years older than his seventeen years, with "inky" black hair, rippling muscles, superhuman strength, a posse of nearly equally hawt Quiluete beefcake, a motorcycle and an obsessive need to meet all of Bella's emotional and physical needs. God, her life SUCKS.
- Inverted, though, with Edward Cullen. The books constantly go on about how good-looking he is, but when actually describing him, he sounds fairly plain, or even a bit below average.
- Bella's first description of herself in Chapter 1 of the first book is an example of this. Bella does her best to give the impression that she's ordinary in appareance—while using very flattering terms to describe herself ("ivory-skinned," "slender" and having a clear complexion) AND to establish that instead of being a typical ex-resident of Phoenix, Arizona ("tan, sporty, blond"), she's unique (a pale, un-athletic brunette).
- Rhapsody from the Symphony of Ages series. Despite being magically transformed into the embodiment of Hello Nurse, she constantly puts herself down (especially when feeling Wangsty), calling herself lowborn and ugly (which was still an exaggeration from her previous life and wouldn't have been true anyway for centuries)
- Achmed arguably inverts this trope, as well. He has a long list of traits that traditionally would make him a Sue type character (half breed, unstoppable assassin, succeeds at anything he does, strong willed enough to resist a full blown demon, etc). It's inverted because despite all of his skills and all the important things he does in the plot (like forming one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world), the plot places almost no emphasis on him unless what he is doing directly involves Rhapsody. He has almost everything needed to become a Sue, yet the narrative just doesn't seem to find him interesting enough to focus on.
- Robert Langdon from Angels and Demons is described this way at the opening of one of the books. "He was not classically handsome" followed shortly by "tall", "dark hair", "piercing eyes", "voice was like chocolate for the ears" and "swims thirty laps of the pool every day". And he gets the stunningly hot love interest at the end of it.
- If you read through his other books, a lot of Dan Brown's leading men seem to share this trait.
- Ayla of the Earth's Children series is the epitome of this trope. Ayla believes she is ugly because she grew up among Neanderthals, whose beauty standards are different. However, she's described in ways that would look pretty to a modern reader, and once she meets other modern humans they find her not just normal-looking but a stunning beauty. Beside looks, most of her other "flaws" are things only the Neanderthals disapprove of.
- In "Being of the Field" by Traci Harding, the author mentions repeatedly that the main character Taren is supposed to be shunned by society as a loony madwoman. But from the first moment the story begins, praise is lavished on her nonstop by every other character in the book, everyone comes to her for advice, and everyone clamours to be her friend and/or romantic partner. A shocking case of Sue.
- This is only 'cause the other main characters are also seen as a bunch of weirdos be the rest of society, too.
- Crime and Punishment: most (if not all) female characters are introduced as strikingly beautiful, but filthy, but sickly, but actually quite homely, and really not pretty at all, but very desirable, and so determined and strong, one might even say - beautiful.
- Heinlein's later protagonists
show fall headfirst into this, culminating in Lazarus Long. Lazarus calls himself ugly often, but every character he interacts with either wants to be BFFs forever or at least sleep with him on a long-term basis. Their descriptions of him dance around describing him as glowingly as one can without using the word "handsome".
- Merry Gentry, Laurell K. Hamilton's other major protagonist (see above), looks pretty much like Anita Blake with fewer scars, scarlet hair, Kaleidoscope Eyes, and (probably) even bigger breasts. Growing up surrounded by tall willowy blond elves, and with
Hispanic human blood, she also has the exact same issues with her appearance. Unlike Anita (when Anita isn't being forced to seduce various gorgeous menmales people), Meredith is a politician who uses sex appeal as a tool, and has on occasion displayed her insecurities to manipulate.
- Jean Muir of Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask is a plain, demure, mousy governess with no money or title, yet the rich sons of the households she works in always seem to fall for her, all while she proclaims that she just wants to be left alone and it's her great misfortune that every man she meets falls in love with her. Turns out that's because she's a con artist of sorts who's manipulating all of these men in an elaborate plan to snare the richest and most high-ranking of them. Her looks matter less than the fact that she's a good actress who can read people well.
- Honor Harrington is effectively a half-Asian, half-white woman. While real life gives us such lovelies as Maggie Q and Michaela Conlin, everyone around Honor knows she's attractive, but her own serious self-esteem issues prevent her from seeing it. This would not be this trope if not for the fact that the narration says her friend thinks of her as "not pretty, but beautiful". This could be the Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic prevalent in the series, or it could be Weber trying to have his cake and eat it too.
- Odile in The Black Swan has high cheekbones, knee-length silver hair, wide eyes, and a willowy figure and the best she can say of herself is "not unattractive." Justified since she has no one but the swan maidens to compare herself to, particularly Odette who is more of a classic beauty.
- September, the protagonist of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, has a formulaic background and nothing really endearing about her, and yet everyone loves her, the only people who don't are the villains, and she's so utterly selfless and brave that she does absolutely everything that no one else would dare to do (to the point of stepping up to save a child when the child's own mother wouldn't). The problem is, to make sure there's enough brave and selfless stuff for her to do, the author has to make it so that no one else in the book does anything for themselves, even when there's no real reason why they can't. After the dozenth time someone calls her amazing and wonderful, you start to suspect the only reason she's described as such is because no one else in Fairyland is capable of solving their own problems.
- Similar to Bella Swan above, Anastasia Steel from Fifty Shades of Grey is often complaining about how plain-looking she is next to her gorgeous best friend Kate while everyone tell her she's beautiful and at least three guys are fond of her.
- Which makes sense as Fifty Shadesof Grey was originally a fan-fiction of Twilight, so Anastasia is basically Bella Swan with extra Sue-ness
- Mia from The Princess Diaries views and describes herself as rather plain and awkward looking with wide mouth and unmanageable hair, while other characters see her as quite conventionally beautiful: tall, thin and blonde. Justified, considering she's a very self-aware teenager at the start of the story and actually grows to be more confident and comfortable with herself over the series run. Puberty and taking more interest in fashion have something to do with it as well.
- Deliberately toyed with in the Discworld novel, 'The Truth', in the form of Sacharissa Cripslock. She is described as being eclectically pretty; The individual features of her face are absolutely perfect.... albeit, from the point of view of different time periods and their associated fashions. 100 years ago, her eyes would have launched a dozen ships; 200 years ago her nose would have made a famous artist bite his paintbrush in half; 300 years ago her chin would have had sculptures weeping in joy. Add it all together, though, and she is just 'reasonably pretty' by modern Ankh-Morpork standards.
- Anne of Green Gables is an example of the "not conventionally pretty" type whose looks are used as a litmus test for the person judging them — narrow-minded people think she's plain (which is often Played for Laughs) and more sensitive people think she's attractive. Her very introduction contrasts what an "ordinary" and an "extraordinary" observer would see in her appearance. She starts off as a prepubescent, skinny, freckled redhead with greenish-gray eyes (both considered negative traits at the time), but as she grows up she develops an elegant figure, her freckles disappear, her hair darkens (unsympathetic people continue to call it red, while her friends agree that it's auburn), and her eyes settle on gray, making her the period equivalent of the hottie who used to be a nerd in school. After these developments we're given frequent and deliberate reminders that she doesn't resemble the curvy, vivacious standard of the period and that she is pretty nonetheless. Even Mrs. Lynde, who represents conventionality in every way, has to admit she has a certain something:
"It's nothing short of wonderful how she's improved these three years, but especially in looks. She's a real pretty girl got to be, though I can't say I'm overly partial to that pale, big-eyed style myself. I like more snap and color, like Diana Barry has or Ruby Gillis. Ruby Gillis's looks are real showy. But somehow—I don't know how it is, but when Anne and them are together, though she ain't half as handsome, she makes them look kind of common and overdone—something like them white June lilies she calls narcissus alongside of the big, red peonies, that's what."
- Very transparently done in the second Old Kingdom book, where Lirael has goth-girl coloring that officially makes her ugly in a land of Dark Skinned Blondes but is likely to be more attractive to the demographic.
Live Action TV
- Peter Petrelli from Heroes is constantly made to carry the Idiot Ball, since he's so supremely powerful that if he just acted sensibly, it would be all but impossible for the writers to create any drama for him. However, no one ever seems to hold his plentiful mistakes against him or suggest that the world might not need quite so much rescuing if Peter could just get his act together for once. The worst he's been accused of (and invariably by a villain - any Heel Face Turn seems to be automatically followed by a sudden appreciation of Peter's awesomeness) is being too self-sacrificing and idealistic.
- Mama Petrelli does get in a small What the Hell, Hero? scene, but it's with a version of Peter from the future (which just goes to show how tightly Peter hugs that Idiot Ball).
- Peter seems to have ditched the Idiot Ball in later seasons. Well, not so much 'ditched' as 'tossed to his brother', who ran with it.
- He uses the limited version of his power to good effect, which is a lot more fun to watch than when he always had the ability to resolve any situation in five seconds flat, but was too much of an idiot to do so. In addition, as of Volume Five, we actually get to see him being self-sacrificing and idealistic (even to such a downright self-destructive extent that it might be considered a genuine character flaw) instead of just hearing about it all the time. In fact, the Peter of later seasons has had so much Character Development that he can be said to have finally escaped this trope, despite starting out as the poster boy for it.
- Max of Dark Angel is not only the only one of the transgenics to have had a mother who loved her, the one Lydecker based off of his dead wife... Was anyone surprised in the second season when it turned out she was the Chosen One destined to save humanity?
- Chuck from Pushing Daisies is definitely this. The main protagonist Ned is defined by his adoration for Chuck after he brings her back in the first episode. She also can do NO wrong, as evidenced by the many times she defies common sense and Ned's directions and yet is always immediately forgiven (for a perfect example see "The Legend of Merle McQuoddy"). And many times, through some convoluted series of events, her behavior that at the time was ignorant and risky actually ends up being beneficial in the end, just to prove how awesome she is. The rest of the cast are also completely defined by her existence and love her despite the trouble she causes them. Admittedly, it can be argued that it's because of the complications she brings to the group that she so seems to affect their lives - however closer scrutiny simply shows that Chuck can do no wrong and is the most completely lovable beautiful person that ever lived (twice).
- Prue from Charmed fits this trope to a T. She often made a ton of rash decisions and often jeopardised her own sisters' safety for the sake of vanquishing demon or saving a random innocent. One aggravating season 3 episode saw her set a trap with a circle of crystals that would set off an electric charge when anyone walked through it. Cole did and was nearly killed. Phoebe made a justifiable argument, calling Prue out on the fact that she'd nearly killed a district attorney but Cole was actually a demon so Prue was right all along.
- The same episode also had Prue get a stalker. Prue insisted her life wasn't perfect and wondered why the stalker would want to be her. Riiiight, except she's got a high paying job, is excellent at photography, is somehow able to wear as little as possible to work at an auction house, has men practically begging for a glance from her and oh yeah, is a superpowerful witch with telekinesis and astral projection powers. And the stalker didn't even know about the powers.