Mary Sue and Gary Stu: phenomenon or cliché?

Written by Dasha Werner

Ed. Lauren Godfray

When Wattpad and other similar writing platforms appeared on the Internet, people all around the world fell in love with short stories published by beginning and professional authors. With time, many texts were published as official books and even debuted on the big screen introducing to the public specific types of literary characters: Mary Sue and Gary Stu. They are beautiful, rich, and live perfect lives. Superstars, children from rich families and royalty, they haven’t got any worries and their every problem is solved in a blink of an eye. Every Mary meets her prince (or a celebrity idol) and every Gary has his princess. Their relationships are often toxic, but love always wins, doesn’t it?

Why did they gain so much popularity among young authors and readers? Why are they either hated or loved? And most importantly: is this scheme a key to success or a harmful stereotype repeated by more and more writers?

Introducing Mary and Gary

Mary Sue first appeared in 1972 by Paula Smith in her short story A Trekkie’s Tale – a parody of the Star Trek TV series. Mary Sue was a young, extremely talented, and beautiful captain of the Starfleet known for her marvelous abilities. Citing Smith in the interview with Cynthia W. Walker: “Everybody else in the universe bowed down in front of her. Also, she usually had some unique physical identifier—odd-colored eyes or hair—or else she was half-Vulcan. The stories read like they were written about half an hour before the zine was printed; they were generally not very good”. From the beginning Mary Sue was created for parody, however, characters of that type are now present in modern prose written without mockery. It even gained a male equivalent – Gary Stu.

To sum up, Mary and Gary are god-like characters that have none or almost no disadvantages. They are adored and can achieve anything without the slightest effort, and most of all – they seem to be almost everywhere.

Examples in pop culture

One of the recent examples of Gary Stu in literature is Hardin from Anna Todd’s After. Like many Marys and Garys, he debuted in a fanfiction story on Wattpad. After gaining over one million readers, the story was published as a paper book and adapted into a film. But does this popularity mean that Hardin is a good character? The answer, at least for me, is simple – no. Hardin is a specific type of Mr. Stu. He has very serious defects, such as he disrespects his love interest, and does everything to make their relationship as toxic as possible. This does not stop the author from describing him as suitable boyfriend material. But is it fine to support relationships full of toxic, verbal, and psychical violence and present them as something normal? Todd defends her book by claiming that the love story of Hardin and Tessa is not an example to follow, however, this is not relayed to the book’s young audience as it lacks any reflection on toxic relationships and does not carry any didactic value.

Besides texts published online by amateurs, Mary Sue and Gary Stu appear in literature written by experienced writers. For example, most readers consider Annabeth from Percy Jackson as a typical Mary Sue. She looks like a “stereotypical California girl” and has “pretty’” eyes. Also, she is the daughter of the brave goddess Athena and inherited her mother’s divine wisdom. But that is not the end of her positive features! Without Annabeth the whole lightning bolt quest would have ended just around the corner, she is the best at everything and the most brilliant of all her siblings. She even wins the heart of the main character. Among all these abilities, there is not a single serious flaw that can be spotted in her character. Sounds familiar?

Relief from reality or destroyer of the self-esteem system?

From the earliest years, children become close friends with Mary and Gary-like characters. Little girls see a lovely and slim Barbie with perfect facial features – small nose, full lips, ivory skin. Thus they compare themselves to their idol in turn making rhem aware of their own imperfections. Boys receive an image of super-powerful heroes with muscles bigger than their heads and hardly any fat on their Greek statue-like bodies. When they grow up, things do not change. Teenage literature is also full of stereotypes and almost unachievable body standards. Why can this be harmful? Mary and Gary are ideological versions of people therefore young people may start searching for impeefections in themselves. The characters within literature achieve all they want in a blink of an eye and hardly experience the consequences of their actions. This influences teenagers with low self-esteem to feel a lack of control over their lives and lose the motivation to work hard to achieve their goals.

What makes a good character?

Many beginning writers struggle when creating new characters. Of course, not every talented or ambitious character should be regarded as Mary Sue or Gary Stu. The key is to remember that the world and people are not perfect. A well-written character has defects but tries to change them. He achieves success with hard work and learns from his mistakes. It is okay to create typical “guilty pleasure” literature unless it displays harmful stereotypes and presents dangerous or destructive behaviors. It is important that authors asked themselves how will their works affect their audience? What if someone with depression reads it? How will it impact someone in a toxic relationship? They should observe people, prove that everyone is always enough, and never be afraid of doing an appropriate research.

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