Updated: Sep 2, 2022
Let me present you with a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that I’m pitching a YA novel about a young witch who, through circumstances outside of her control, became world-renowned at a very young age. She was treated cruelly by an adoptive family for no reason until fate stepped in. While not having grown up around magic, she’s naturally gifted. She’s generally well-liked, and those who don’t like her are portrayed as bullies who are just mean to be mean (at least at first). Most likely, responses would call my protagonist a Mary Sue, claiming that she needs more flaws and layers, that people don’t want a main character that perfect.
Would the response be the same if I said that all I did was describe Harry Potter and change the pronouns?
As writers, we tend to treat the term Mary Sue as the strongest curse in our vocabulary. It’s not without reason: we want to write characters who are interesting, who have depth and flaws and could reasonably exist in our world. We want readers to resonate with our characters, and it’s hard to resonate when someone gets everything right on the first try.
However, in our efforts to avoid the dreaded Mary Sue, I think we often lose sight of the more escapist elements of fiction. As a reader, while I thoroughly enjoy stories with complex characters, sometimes it’s just fun to live vicariously through the protagonist. Mary Sues can often serve to fulfill a reader’s fantasies: being popular, being multi-talented, and even being sought after.
While it’s not very true-to-life, it’s fun, and sometimes that’s all a reader needs. I don’t always need a three-page backstory on why a character is good at something or well-liked. As a reader, I can accept it in the narrative. Readers are willing to suspend disbelief for more than you would think.
The most well-known modern Mary Sue is Bella Swan, the narrator throughout the Twilight saga. Critics and writers (including the one writing to you now) have railed against Bella’s character as being too perfect despite constantly claiming to be ordinary.
However, the Twilight saga is massively popular with preteen and teenage girls. Bella’s character acts as a vessel for a lot of common fantasies, mostly that you can be ordinary and still have extraordinary things happen to you. It’s a feat to get your readers to see themselves in your protagonist, but sometimes it’s equally rewarding to have your readers do that and want to be them. It’s not terrible to strive for that every once in a while.
Should every character fall into Mary Sue territory? Of course not: stories need a balance of personalities to work. However, I don’t think we should be afraid to indulge in protagonists who are popular and naturally skilled every once in a while.
Fiction is often an escape for the reader: if we can revel in fantasy and sci-fi, there’s no reason to not add a better-than-average protagonist to that list. If nothing else, it allows us the chance to truly escape into our work. Escapism can work both ways, so why not indulge in your own fantasies every now and then?
About the author: EJ’s writing passion is a mix, though most of it is focused on the young adult genre. She seeks to put her own spin on genres like urban fantasy, slice of life, and classic teen mystery. She’s also always eager and ready to talk about writing craft and style, particularly when it comes to point of view.
When she’s not writing, EJ formulates story ideas while crocheting or taking a walk. Even away from her keyboard, she’s always writing. Words and language are her passion: her studies of Writing, Communication Studies, and Applied Linguistics would be enough to show for that. You can find EJ on Twitter at @andromeda_falls