I recently responded on a thread on Whateveresque about the term "Mary Sue," its use and misuse and its drift from fanfic circles into more mainstream criticism. To review (for those who didn't just click and read the Wikipedia link I provided) the term "Mary Sue" originated in Star Trek fan-fiction circles to identify fan fiction that centered around new non-cannon characters that were generally better/smarter/more capable than the existing cannon characters, as well as being able to hurdle story problems without trying, as well as having the coolest hair/eyes/psychic powers/angsty backstory. Such characters can be wish-fulfillment and sometimes even authorial inserts.
Domini, the author of the thread, took exception to the use of the term beyond fan-fiction, because:
But...the term Mary Sue creeps into people criting original fiction, because many SFF readers wade in both worlds. (I do!) And that's where I REALLY get my feathers ruffled. Because it only takes a quick glance at some of our SFF classics and not-yet-classics to dredge up LOTS of main characters that fit the Mary Sue Don't List. The Hero archetype--Superman is an example of this--is chock-full of things on the Mary Sue Don't list.
And so I think, very strongly, that terming a character in an unpublished...or even published...original work a Mary Sue is terribly incorrect. It's not an issue of Laser Eye Beams...readers will happily believe your Laser Eye Beams...IF you are a good enough writer that you can get them to suspend their disbelief in general.
Which is true, I think, as far as it goes. But I happen to disagree and think the term "Mary Sue"/"Gary Stu" has a place in critiquing original work. A good example of this is in the hilarious recap of the movie Eragon on the Agony Booth. The reason is because the prototypical Mary Sue isn't a checklist of character traits, those character traits are merely a symptom. It also isn't necessarily the fact that the Sue is overshadowing characters from an existing cannon, it's the fact that the Sue overshadows any and all other characters in the work.
To come to a workable general definition of a Mary Sue, we can ignore all the specific character traits (weird hair and eye color &c.) and get to the meat of the issue: how does our potential Sue interact with the rest of the story?
Here's my Mary Sue checklist.
- Is the character the most capable/talented person in the story's universe for a given area of expertise, and solves major story problems because of that expertise?
- Does the character easily solve story problems outside of his or her established area of expertise? Possibly with a neat new surprise talent we're just now hearing about?
- Is the character rewarded with position, fame, riches with little effort/consequence?
- Do secondary characters like/love/respect/fear the character with little or no established reason?
- Does the character easily pick up new talents/skills/magical powers with little effort/consequence? (see #2)
- Is there one or more secondary characters that should, by dint of training, experience, or simple logic, exceed the main character's capability is some area, and are eventually overshadowed by the main character's mad skillz?
- Is there any instance where the main character "solved" a story problem by luck alone?
- Are the society's rules in this universe bent or broken to accommodate the main character? i.e. youngest to command, first human on the szantar council, only woman to ever join the Scarlet Rangers?
- Does the character break the rules/law/societal norms, but suffers little or no consequence? Is even rewarded for daring?
- Is a villain redeemed simply by changing attitude to the main character?
ADDENDUM: Here's the original Mary Sue.