The term “Mary Sue” (or “Gary Stu,” if the character in question is male) tends to be thrown around a lot nowadays. Once upon a time, it referred to an incredibly specific archetype: the “wish-fulfillment” character, one instantly and irrationally beloved by their fellow characters, one whose strengths might include “the power to disassemble the entire universe at the atomic level” and whose weaknesses trended toward “having a hard time waking up in the morning.” To qualify as a Mary Sue, a character had to be truly outlandish.
Unnaturally-colored hair in a realistic setting. Surreal, enemy-redeeming charisma. Impossible lineage (e.g., ½ Saiyan, ½ Maiar, and ½ time dragon). Being absolutely right and unflappable and perfect. Having everyone in the story recognize that perfection. Bizarre and unpredictable self-pity regarding that perfection.
In short, the Mary Sues from days of yore had a tendency to warp the entire world they inhabited by virtue of their very existence. And they had to do it with no explanation, no forethought, not even a polite “how d’you do?”
Nowadays? Well, so far as my amateur lexicographical efforts can tell, it can mean one of two things.
1 : a character with anything special or likable about them at all
2 chiefly Moronic : a character the speaker doesn’t like
We can safely ignore definition two, as the people in Moronia consistently have their heads jammed up their asses and, as such, can’t tell shit from Shinola.
The first definition is the real problem, here. There is an incredibly vocal subset of individuals, consumers of media, who believe that only your Average Joe will do as a protagonist. It doesn’t matter if Protagonist is weathering a zombie apocalypse, fighting back an alien invasion, or swinging a sword in a pitched battle. They damned well better be an Everyday Guy Slash Gal or you’re doing it wrong.
Oh, and if that Protagonist is endearing to the audience at all? Well, that’s just stepping right over the city line into the town of Mary Sueville, population: sparklety-three.
Basically, as employed nowadays, “Mary Sue” is a completely useless term that has been co-opted to describe, not a specific phenomenon, but a broad swath of character archetypes essential to storytelling past, future, and present.
So I have a mind-boggling idea. Let’s just stop using that phrase. Let’s all agree that there are well-written characters. There are middling characters. There are characters that suck eggs. There are characters who some people think are well-written, but who other people think suck eggs. And we should let those characters stand on their own terms, because the fear of penning a Mary Sue is potentially crippling. It’s the authorial version of McCarthy calling you out as a Communist, or of Abigail Williams branding you a witch. How can you defend against it? You can’t, because “Mary Sue” has become so broad that it is fundamentally meaningless. It’s a set of constantly shifting goalposts manned by increasingly fickle douchebags.
So let’s just stop using the phrase. And if you’re still afraid of your character being branded a Mary Sue, I have some very easy advice that will ensure you never, ever write a Mary Sue.
Keep your characters human. 100% Earth-grown, free-range human.
Keep them human, even if they’re alien cat people. I’M LOOKING AT YOU, AISHA CLAN-CLAN. No, you’re doing good. That’s why I’m looking at you. Carry on.
Keep your characters human, because it is well within the scope of human experience to be skilled or likable or downright special. It’s also well within possibility that any given human being might be cowardly or selfish or foul-tempered. You have the vast petri dish of your very own species to operate within. Your only responsibility is to make sure your characters remain grounded. Yes, even if they are able to fly. Especially when they are able to fly.
After all, flying is only amazing if you have the feel of the earth beneath your feet to compare it to.