A purpose for Mary Sue characters

First off, the premise of what exactly constitutes a Mary Sue needs to be defined.  This isn’t going to be a post about what is and isn’t a Mary Sue character, but rather, can this character actually be useful in a story?  The concept of what entails a Mary Sue can be found here for starters.  I, personally, have only come across this concept fairly recently.  A colleague of mine was presenting an interesting, well-reasoned, though debatable, argument that Mary Poppins was a Mary Sue character (for which she almost entirely referenced Disney’s 1964 version, not the mystic-inspired P.L. Travers’ version, nor multiple interpretations offered in what I found to be a surprisingly contemplative Saving Mr. Banks’ version – another rant for another time, but I thought it posed some rather nuanced and profound questions as to, among other things, the role of imagination in peoples’ lives.  Does it do more harm than good, such as artistic people suffering under the weight of reality and failed dreams, or could it even be used as a therapeutic tool? but…another rant for another day)


My first thought, not knowing what a Mary Sue was, was, is that a foil character, as in a one-dimensional character who’s sole existence is to flush out a main character?  This is typically the damsel in distress in many stories, Curly’s wife in Of Mice and Men, so foil as to not even have a name, many female characters in general, but not necessarily so.  I was told that a Mary Sue character was not necessarily a foil character, but, rather, a character who is too perfect, who has no flaws, as well as other characteristics.  The site above mentions that it’s not just the character’s perfection (I don’t think people see Superman as a Mary Sue, but they may like Batman better, in that Batman is mortal, has far more obstacles, whereas Superman, except for kryptonite, really is too perfect to be relatable).   Other main characteristics for a Mary Sue, for my point of argument, I’m taking from the above website, are that not only is the character perfect, they also have undeserved respect, face little to no obstacles, and do not face negative consequences.

Since a character’s flaws are their humanity – what makes them enjoyable characters – it seems to reason then as to why Mary Sue’s may be instantly dislikable characters.  or, very dated characters.  Characters from antiquated myths were held to entirely different standards than the expectation of modern day characters.  and/or it depends on the target audience and/or intent of the story.  I can understand, and appreciate, that if your target audience is a young kid, and/or you want to convey a strong simple blunt moral message, that non-flawed characters may be suitable.  In this vein, nearly any character from an ancient fairy tale is simplistic and perfect – perfectly innocent, or even perfectly evil.  I’m not arguing that there is anything wrong with that.  Though I will posit that children, solely by being children, are not incapable of handling more complex ideas, more nuanced messages.  Modern-day examples aimed at kids, from My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic to the recent Maleficent movie, attempt to convey strong morals and tell child-friendly stories, but with a great deal more nuance, sophistication, and subtlety.  Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, and Doctor Seuss all handled children’s topics with maturity, sophistication, and complex messages, that did not ultimately speak down to, nor disrespect, children.  Neither did Mr. Rogers, for that matter.

Particularly the Maleficent movie – ok, yes, Aurora is perfectly perfect – but the main character is not 100% evil, nor 100% good, hence making her both a more interesting character (to modern audiences), a more complex character, a more realistic character, and, especially from Disney’s standpoint, a more modern character.  (and I’m segueing into Disney again, how they are faced with the conundrum of being loyal to their core audience, to their brand, to traditional values, while branching out to incorporate a larger audience, and create more modern characters that can serve current girls – and boys – to encourage the same kinds of values – honesty, kindness, bravery, etc. – without the harmful antiquated gender stereotypes…yet, bearing in mind that age-old fables will have age-old gender roles… yet, with Saving Mr. Banks and Maleficent – I haven’t seen Frozen, but hear it also fits – they seem to be walking this fine line rather well)

Just a mention, while characters such as Cinderella (German’s Aschenputtel – not modern German, “aschen” as in ash, by the soot, together with “puttel” as a kind of little one, or name for a house servant), Sleeping Beauty (again, German, Brothers Grimm Briar Rose), Snow White (Brothers Grimm again, possibly “originally” – because folk tales don’t necessarily have specific origins – Little Snowdrop)…while you’d expect these characters to be perfect, because you are telling a story about Good versus Evil, a moral fable for children, or because the maids are meant to represent pure Innocence, not all characters in fables are portrayed as such.  I believe Pinocchio and Hansel and Gretel have a bit more complex morality to their protagonists.  Or perhaps Little Match Girl from Hans Christen Anderson?  Some of Aesop’s Fables may have a touch more nuance, such as The Fox and the Grapes, the Grasshopper and the Ant, The Wind and the Sun.  What about the hero from a Baba Yaga story I heard once as a kid, where I believe the hero had to resort to some cleverness, courage, and trickery, to escape the witch, rather than either be rescued or win by sole virtue of goodness.

Jung suggested these basic characters, the witch, the princess, and so forth, are archetypes, and thus why these basic types, basic characteristics crop up again and again.

But mostly, when I think of non-one-note characters in fairy tales, I think of Greek myths.  Greek mythology doesn’t really portray gods as Good or Evil, but, like humans, fickle, chaotic, and all of the above.  In fact, Greek myths are based, in large part, on human flaws: vanity, hubris, curiosity (Pandora), and so on.


But back to Mary Sues, in modern movies, in stories not meant to be moralistic fables.  I think they could conceivably be realistic.  Likable, relatable, not necessarily, but realistic yes.  There are people, people whom everyone probably have encountered some time in their life, who have had unearned advantages, who have had relatively obstacle-free (the key word is relatively) lives, who are loved by everyone, desired by everyone, given everyone’s attention, who don’t face the same consequences for their actions another person might, and so on.  why, because no one said life was fair.  Maybe it was because this person was white, or male, or tall, or pretty, or rich, or a celebrity, or related to someone with influence, any or all of the above, and more.  Thus, in this light, an author could use a Mary Sue character to highlight social inequalities and injustices: racism, sexism, superficiality, vanity, poverty, fame, and nepotism, respectively.

In that respect, in answer to the complaint that Mary Sue’s are not realistic because they aren’t adherent to the same rules of the universe as other characters, well, that is an aspect of reality.  Also, a Mary Sue doesn’t have to embody those particular traits mentioned above, or, more accurately – it’s not so much having one gender/ethnicity/appearance/etc. as it is having the one associated with those in power in that area, which shifts depending on when and where you are.

To be fair, a Mary Sue doesn’t have to have any of those characteristics (if the author doesn’t want to make a statement about gender or socioeconomic class and so on), it could more simply be a character who hasn’t experienced any real adversity, for whatever reason.  Maybe they were sheltered.  Maybe they grew up in a time and place that had no war.  (In America, for example, if one grew up in a somewhat stable middle class position, in a safe area, during perhaps the ’80s or ’90s, too young for the identity-defining crises of the major wars and the Depression, the civil rights clashes and so on, and too old to be “of an angsty impressionable age” during 9-11 or the Recession and so on.  Some have argued that a lot of later generation punk and grunge came from disaffected suburban teens who were more defined by their lack of a great generational, and thus potentially unifying, crisis, than for the presence of one)  or just growing up comfortable and sheltered anywhere.

One might even be able to argue (though at the risk of pretentiousness and …searching for the right word? ignorance? unempathetic? unable to comprehend the depths of actual suffering that other people have gone through) that lack of character conflict is a character conflict.

Perfection, itself, can also be a flaw unto itself.  Below: Mr. Manhattan from The Watchmen, modeled after DaVinci’s model of ideal man.

Mr. Manhattan from The Watchmen

If there are any House MD fans, in Season 8, the “Parents” episode, House suggests to Adams that, “your parents screwed you up by not screwing you up.”  Another example, from House, is the character Martha M. Masters.  Some could suggest that she is a Mary Sue character, brilliant from a young age, knows everything, a competent doctor, honest, moral, one could even argue wealthy and/or attractive (most TV characters are attractive).  But her know-it-all quality, as with House’s brilliance, can simultaneously be portrayed as a gift and a curse.  And one could argue that Masters has her flaws, such as in meekness or naivete or social inadequacies.

One could also argue that audiences’ preferences for characters have shifted over time, from wanting to see perfect characters, Superman, to not-perfect-but-basically, Kirk, or Brady Bunch, to flawed but essentially good (um? MacGuyver? Frasier? Monk), to flawed but trying to be good (cast of Lost; I might put the character House here, but debatable), questionably neutral (Seinfeld, Homer Simpson), bad but in denial, an antihero trying to get by (Family Guy?, Barney Stinson, Charlie Sheen, Lindsey Lohan – the characters of themselves), to out and out bad guy as the protagonist (Walter White).


However, perfect doesn’t mean perfectly good.  You could have a Mary Sue villain as well, given that they face no obstacles, live by a different set of rules, have unearned respect.  perhaps more villains fall into this category than protagonists, as villains do tend to be one-dimensional and hyperbolic.

Maybe Mary Sues could be used to highlight audiences’ attitudes towards complexity, nuance, and flaws, moreso than fairness.  In any case, I think something useful could be done with the concept of an otherwise “unrealistic” character.


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