“A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as “Mary Sues” is that they are too ostentatious for the audience’s taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the “Mary Sue” character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an “author’s pet”.
While the label “Mary Sue” itself originates from a parody of this type of character, most characters labeled “Mary Sues” by readers are not intended by authors as such. Male Mary Sues are often dubbed “Gary Stu”, “Larry Stu”, “Marty Stu”, or similar names.
While the term is generally limited to fan-created characters, and its most common usage today occurs within the fan fiction community or in reference to fan fiction, original characters in role-playing games or literary canon are also sometimes criticized as being “Mary Sues” or “canon Sues,” if they dominate the spotlight or are too unrealistic or unlikely in other ways.”
Here’s the deal. They aren’t just in fanfiction anymore. I’ve suffered through a few books in my time with the ‘perfect’ hero or heroine. Actual published works that were approved by a staff of editors and publishers. I’m not going to rag on any particular characters since the one I have in mind has an established following that may hunt me down and beat me with Emily Bronte books and Debussy CDs then war with themselves over necrophilia versus bestiality. (That was not obvious AT ALL)
The thing is that a lot of times authors want the readers to like their characters so they try to make it impossible not to by making them over-the-top wonderful. Everyone in the story loves them and they have attributes the author thinks make for a winning character. While this tactic may work on some I happen to like a character that takes time to appreciate and has flaws to overcome.
Character development is part of the fun in stories and to give the cast unflattering quirks is a way of creating friction and conflict that generates interest. It’s sort of like with sex scenes. You don’t want to put the sex in the very first chapter (unless you have one hell of a way to keep the story interesting afterward). Instead it needs to get worked up to. Sure the time it takes may very but it’s always more rewarding to work up to the big moment rather than have it right there off the bat.
The same can be said for characters. Rather than having the perfect character from the start give them several flaws to overcome that are more interesting and troublesome than just being clumsy and a little bit oblivious. As the story progresses throw challenges at them that they have to deal with their short-comings to advance through.
For example: If you start the story with a heroine that is vain about her appearance later in the story make her have to sacrifice her looks. It could be temporary, like she has to trudge through mud to get to an item of value. It could be permanent, like she risks her life to save someone and is scarred in the process. If you go with the temporary then the flaw is dealt with. If you go with the permanent then you have a brand new flaw to work with and through. That is a lot more interesting than a heroine that can just shrug everything off or is saved from every dilemma that comes her way.
It takes more than an excellent plot, accurate and interesting setting, and beautiful writing to make a good story. It’s possible to have all those things and fall flat because your lead characters just aren’t rich enough. The cast should be more than shells the reader can put themselves into, they should become people to the reader: Friends.
This goes for villains too. Do not skimp on the bad guy (if your story has one) to focus on the good. The antagonist can be just as fantastic to experience. Give them a back story and motivation that is more meaty that the simple fact they are bad and want to do bad things.
Side character also deserve love since sometimes they can be more likeable than the stars of the story. In fact, if they are enjoyably enough you might be prompted to reuse them and make a sequel or even a series. There is so much to offer and such a variety of personalities and faults to use.
It pains me to see a plot that is oozing potential crash and burn due to the use of Mary Sues and Gary Stus. Interesting characters are an integral part of the formula to a fantastic romance. Romance already gets enough bad press with beefcake covers and recycled clichés. Don’t add a cardboard cast to the list.