At Kelly's new blog, Crossover, Twilight was being discussed and someone mentioned how Bella is a Mary Sue. Gail Gauthier at Original Content takes up the question, How Do I Avoid Writing Mary Sue?
So my question is, how do you identify a Mary Sue in an original book, when he or she is not in a fanfic context?
Wesley Crusher is often pointed to as a Mary Sue. And this is probably why, to put it mildly, there are fans who don't like him. From Wikipedia, "A "canon Sue" may also refer to a character whose canon portrayal itself is seen as a "Mary Sue", rather than a character who has been altered in fan fiction. Typically, this refers to a character accused of being overly idealized or having other traits traditionally associated with fan fiction "Mary Sues", such as being "special" by having a gratuitously tragic past, unrealistic skills, or a seeming inability for the character to do wrong." The Urban Dictionary has an amusing list of the various ways Mary Sue can manifest.
JL Bell, in comments to Gail's post, cautions,"I'm seeing some Mary Sue witch-hunting out there. People have learned so strongly that Mary Sues are a sign of bad writing that they stamp the label on characters too quickly. Any sympathetic, capable character might be labeled a Mary Sue, which would leave out a lot of the heroes of literature. And suggesting that an author who expresses a sympathy of feeling or outlook for a character is inserting a Mary Sue is to miss a major point of storytelling: authors are supposed to be able to understand all their characters."
I don't think a "sympathetic" character is a bad thing; but thinking the way to create a sympathetic character is via a tragic backstory? Is bad writing. You know what I mean -- "she's an orphan! so now she's sympathetic, right?" Um. No.
Keep in mind, "overly idealized" does not necessarily mean perfect; often the way the character is kept from being perfect is to be given a negative trait. However, if that trait is turned into another reason to lurv the character? It doesn't stop the overly-idealized. Yes, I'm talking Bella's clumsiness.
Gratuitously tragic past means the past tragedy has nada to do with the present situation, except to make the reader/other characters feel sorry for that character and "feeling sorry" translates immediately into "liking them and being friends." Bina in Madonna's English Roses series (her Mom's dead? Oh, now we're her friends!).
Unrealistic skills. This is why Ally Carter's Cami is NOT a Mary Sue. Within the context of the Gallagher Academy, Cami's skills are not unrealistic; plus, she's surrounded by people who share the same skill set, sometimes doing it better than she does.
Inability for the character to do wrong.
OK, so that's Wikipedia for you.
When you're reading an original story, what about it sets off your Mary Sue Radar? What book?
For me, a big thing is usually when a "plain Jane" girl has a "too cool for school" boy instantly fall for her for no apparent reason. But, frankly, it comes down to poor characterization. The Mary Sue never becomes a real, breathing character; rather, she or he is a list of characteristics and back story. The "inability to do wrong" means not that the character always makes the right choices; but, rather, her choices are never questioned and always championed by the author and the other characters.
EDITED TO ADD: I had no idea there was a Mary Sue discussion over at TOR. I'm linking to it now and off to read it myself. Also, the conversation continues at Gail's blog, link above.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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