Mary Sues

A couple of weeks ago, Megan taught me about McGuffins. I also recently learned about Mary Sues.

According to Wikipedia, Mary Sue “is a pejorative term for a fictional character who is portrayed in an overly idealized way and lacks noteworthy flaws, or has unreasonably romanticized flaws. Characters labeled Mary Sues, as well as the stories they appear in, are generally seen as wish-fulfillment fantasies of the author.” (More at Wikipedia. )

The term originated in the Star Trek fan fiction community but I think romance novelists, too, often skate a fine line with Mary Sues.

Consider these characteristics of a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu).

“The typical Mary Sue is always physically attractive, and her appearance may include an unusual but natural hair or eye color. Eye colour may also be depicted as changing according to time, place, emotion, or other causes. Mary Sue’s name often has a special meaning, and if so, either she or the author will inform the cast or reader of it.”

“Mary Sue is beautiful, so Gary Stu is handsome.”

“Tragic backgrounds are also common among Mary Sues, and frequently include family abuse or neglect.”

“While Mary Sue is often bright and cheerful no matter what her past has dealt her, Gary Stu tends to be brooding and frequently violent.”

Dangerous territory for a romance author! Most of us try to depict our characters as attractive (though not always perfect) and to give them some serious problems to tackle. So when does a character become a Mary Sue?

I decided to put the heroine of my current mess-in-progress through The Original Fiction Mary-Sue Litmus Test.

Imagine my relief when she scored a mere 19 points, in the 11-20 “Non-Sue” range. 🙂

Then I decided to give the test a whirl with the heroine of Barbara Cartland’s HAZARD OF HEARTS. Even when I was a thirteen-year old reading this classic story of a heroine whose father gambles her away to the hero, I knew it was a guilty pleasure. I had to guess how Barbara Cartland felt about her characters based on things I’d read about her and tried to be conservative on those questions. But even considering that, and the fact that she has no paranormal abilities (other than surviving with chronic breathlessness), Serena Staverley scored a respectable 53 points. As I suspected, an Uber-Sue.

Given Barbara Cartland’s undeniable popularity, there were–and probably still are–many romance readers who love a good Mary Sue. Maybe Mary Sue heroines are wish fulfillment for some readers as well as their authors?

As readers, when do you think an author crosses the line between creating an attractive character with problems in his/her past to creating a Mary Sue/Gary Stu? Do you enjoy reading the occasional romance with a Mary Sue?

And fellow writers, do let us know what happens if you try this test on your characters!


About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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