I surf around the fringes of the sci-fi and fanfic internets, so I’d been hearing the term for several years, as well as where it originally came from (Star Trek fan communities). But my personal working definition is not the strict-construction fanfic one, rather one alluded to best in Leigh Dragoon’s tips on breathing life into your characters (written for a sci-fi, fantasy and fanfic reading audience who wanted to branch into writing original fiction), specifically tips 3 and 4:
3. Don’t love your characters too much!
It’s important to love your characters, but try to love them the same way you love your family: don’t be afraid to acknowledge their faults. Everyone wants readers to like their characters, but it’s very easy to make your character a little too likeable. At that point, you are well on your way to creating a Mary Sue. Also, when you’re handing out those flaws, make sure you add in a few good ones! Avoid the Playboy Pin-Up Characterization – eating dessert and watching R-rated movies are not really flaws.
4. That said, avoid Mary Sue/Gary Stu’s siren song. “Luke, it’s a trap!”.
Mary and her male counterpart Gary will pretend to be your best friends. They will lie to you like there’s no tomorrow. The lie they tell most often is, “The more perfect you make me, the more everyone will love me!”.
First off, how many perfect people do you know in real life? I’m willing to bet not a one. Perfect people are boring! Nobody wants to read about someone who is physically flawless, never makes a single mistake, and is loved by the entire supporting cast for no real reason. I’ll be the first to say that it doesn’t help that so many actual published novels and comics are peopled with Mary Sues. A prime example of a “canon” Mary Sue is the hero of Mercedes Lackey’s “Magic’s Price” trilogy, Vanyel Ashkevron, a classic Emo Stu.
In my estimation, Mary Sues happen when the author becomes concerned with making her protagonist likable to readers. Symptoms include overcompetence, unearthly beauty, and other characters taking time out to admire the protagonist’s awesomeness. I don’t think a Mary Sue has to be the author’s self-insertion in the sense that Mary has anything in common with the author, and if the test is “created with likability too much in mind, to the point where the opposite results”, that covers Snapper Sues just as easily.
But you could say that creating a character whose primary purpose is to win readers’ love and adoration is a self-insertion, because Mary is a stand-in for the love the author himself wants to receive. That’s why I find folks like Chris Ware’s, Dan Clowes’ and Adrian Tomine’s self-insertions (either straight autobiographical personae or your standard white*-guy comic-reading loser protagonist) to be just as insufferable Mary Sues in their own way; I’m gonna make this guy such a loser that you’ll hate him because I hate myself so much.
I am, for obvious reasons, very interested in (semi-)autobiographical protagonists as Mary Sues. I think the key to avoiding them is to make a character that doesn’t desperately radiate either “love me!” or “hate me!” vibes, but just manages to be a compelling character among compelling characters. Phoebe Gloeckner’s Minnie is my prime example of this, and as Noah notes, Ariel Schrag’s Ariel pulls it off as well. Schrag herself mentions Art Spiegelman as an influence. I think Maus does it well, but in the new Breakdowns there’s way too much of both love me (do you see now how much of an innovator I was?) and hate me (I’m still a neurotic loser despite my success!).
Speaking of Clowes, it’s been awhile since I’ve either read or seen Ghost World, and neither of them really affected me deeply. But to weigh in on the comic Dan Clowes/movie Steve Buscemi character debate going on in comments here: the way people describe it, in the book he’s not a Mary Sue because 1)he’s not the protagonist and 2)he’s shot down and ridiculed by the protagonists. In the movie he’s not a Mary Sue because 1)he’s not the protagonist and 2)… I saw the movie before I read the book. So the first thing I thought when the Buscemi character was introduced was, “Hey, that’s R. Crumb.”
I didn’t think Zwigoff had him in there because Zwigoff wanted to sleep with teenage girls, rather Zwigoff wanted to be a zaftig teenage girl so he could sleep with R. Crumb. I thought Zwigoff’s earlier, celebrated documentary about Crumb was an amazing story, but the hero worship is palpable, especially as concerns Crumb’s sexual prowess. Aline Kominsky-Crumb has certainly expressed exasperation with that aspect of the doc in interviews.
And as long as this post is just a big mash of comment responses rolled into one… I don’t think, per Tom’s post, that a merely super-confident, super-cool character who garners widespread respect is of necessity a Mary Sue. There are a lot of stories that make use of inhumanly competent characters for non-mary-sue reasons. The one that always comes to my mind is Corwin in Nine Princes in Amber (any other fantasy geeks in the house?). He’s stupidly resourceful because it’s thrilling to watch his resourcefulness, not because it’s just awesome how awesome he is. An overcompetent character can escape sueishness by having flaws or mistakes that cost him as much (or almost as much) as his genius gains him. If Michael Corleone has a downfall, and if the downfall is his fault at all (no, I haven’t read the books, or even seen the movies, shamefully), then he’s not a Mary Sue by my definition.
Hopefully I’ll write a more cohesive post on the theme soon. Or I’ll just keep dredging up arguments from comments. In the game show we call: “Mary Sue or Nary Sue?”
*ok, so in Tomine’s case, he’s vaguely ethnic.