How to Spot a Mary Sue

by Josephine Darcy

Lately I've been reading a lot of fiction in the Harry Potter fandom -- a fandom that seems to spawn Mary Sues rampantly. Granted, unlike many of the other fandoms I read, Harry Potter has a very diverse age group of writers -- many of the writers (some of them extraordinarily talented) are extremely young. To that end I can forgive some of the Mary Sue cameos -- but it still quite frustrating. The worst thing is when she shows up unexpectedly 20,000 words into a story that's REALLY good. And then suddenly there she is, in all her annoying glory, and the reader is left wondering why someone would do such a horrible thing?

I think the biggest problem is that many new writers (and even some old writers) don't quite know how to recognize her. They create a character, insert her (or him) into their story, and then moan and complain when people accuse them of creating a Mary Sue. "But it's not a Mary Sue," the writer protests. "It's just a character I made up....who happens to be the best friend of Draco Malfoy....and really pretty .... and really sarcastic....and really interesting...."

Actually Mary Sue doesn't need to be 'really' anything. Frequently writers will attempt to make her 'plain' or 'ugly' just to disguise the fact that she's a Mary Sue. What they fail to notice is that she's typically 'really' pointless.

Incidentally, if you see a summary for a story that mentions a new character along with the disclaimer "I promise this is not a Mary Sue", it is probably a Mary Sue.

But I need a new character!!!!

As a writer I understand that you often need an outside character to advance your plot. You need the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to threaten Harry. Or you've killed off Belatrix Lestrange and need another woman just as twisted to do something really nasty. Or Harry has been thrown in Azkaban prison and you need a guard for him to talk to --- I get the necessity of requiring 'new' characters. The problem is in the details and whether or not a character like this already exists. The following are some of the most typical places where Mary Sue appears.

The Unnecessary Mary Sue:

Scenario: Harry needs to vent about the horrible beatings he received at the Dursleys. Draco needs to confess his unrequited love of our boy hero. Snape needs a drinking buddy to unload his troubles on.

In this case you need your main character to talk or confess his or her secrets-- you need to get information across to the reader and the best way to do it is by using dialogue between your main character and their best friend. I can almost guarantee in all cases here that if you 'invent' a character, it will be a Mary Sue. The problem with this scenario is all these people already exist. Harry already has a best friend -- Ron. Or Hermione, or Hedwig, or Ginny. Draco already has a long list of 'friends' he can choose from as well -- if he needs a best friend then pick Blaise or Pansy or Crabbe or Goyle. There is no reason to invent someone when there are so many 'real' characters already waiting in the wings to take that position. (Snape would NEVER unload his troubles on anyone . . . so right there you have a problem.). Even if one of the standard characters won't work, you could always pick one of the talking portraits. It doesn't have to be a new character that we've never heard of.

The Most Extreme Mary Sue:

Scenario: Harry has suffered a horrible summer locked in the closet at the Dursleys. Dumbledore has just informed him that the Prince of Vampires (Snape) is demanding he marry him, and Harry is facing the end of the world as he knows it -- suddenly the Order of the Phoenix arrives at the Dursley's house to take Harry away to meet his bloodsucking husband-to-be and we're treated to 5 pages of dialogue about what a wacky and crazy driver the newest member of the Order happens to be.

Another way of identifying a Mary Sue is based on the description of their looks, their language, their behavior or their powers. One of them will be extreme or exaggerated. There's a bizarre trend in the Harry Potter fandom to make Mary Sue a bad driver or a crazy broom pilot or more accident prone than Tonks. Writers assume that by giving the character a flaw they can 'prove' it's not a Mary Sue. The moment a character shows up on the scene and someone begins complaining about what a bad driver she is, I know we've got another Mary Sue. Why would you waste several paragraphs (or pages for that matter) having characters quip back and forth about what a bad driver so-in-so is? What's the point? The fact that the new female Auror, who is going to escort Harry to the Prince of the Vampires, is a wacky individual who snaps off quick one-liners and sarcastic quips does not advance the plot at all -- it detracts from the main characters and main plot of the story.

The Mary Sue Shop Clerk:

Scenario: Harry decides to change his image and become a goth (okay, this is a plot that really annoys me in the Harry Potter Fandom . . . in a world like the Potter Universe why would anyone play-act at being dark and dreadful when the real thing already exists??). He goes into a goth store, only to discover a girl (or a boy) working at the counter who is willing to give him a complete makeover. Suddenly we're being treated to the life history of the store clerk. Harry becomes best friends with the store clerk. They start going to clubs together. Turns out the store clerk's sister is really a witch. The store clerk has a magical tattoo that makes her more powerful than Dumbledore....

You get the picture? I remember reading a story where Snape and Harry went into store to buy new clothes for Snape. Later Snape also had a makeover at a salon. Both times the writer introduce non-Mary Sue creations who actually managed to advance the plot. The man in the clothing store flirted with Snape and attempted to get his phone number -- which made Harry a bit jealous and stroked Snape's ego. And the bizarre cast of characters in the beauty salon made the Fab 5 look conservative and boring. Not a Mary Sue in sight --- in both cases, the characters walked onto the stage, did their thing, and then walked off . . .end of story. We weren't treated to exposition about the characters' backgrounds or life histories (we don't care about them -- we care about Harry and Snape), and we weren't treated to unnecessary dialogue about something that didn't matter. That's not to say that Snape didn't talk with them -- he did -- but the dialogue was used to develop Snape's character, not the strangers'. And in both cases the characters were never mentioned again -- which is as it should be.

The problem starts when the characters linger -- or introduce our hero to their friends. The store clerk becomes a focal point in the story. First off, store clerks aren't this helpful. Second -- we don't care about the stupid store clerk!!!! Get back to the part about Harry. That's why we're reading the story in the first place.

The Mary Sue Relative:

Scenario: Draco's cousin shows up at the manor and proceeds to annoy him to death.

I've actually read a couple of great stories about invented relatives. One of the best stories I read in the Harry Potter fandom was about a relative of Sirius' who was a necromancer. She had all the makings of a Mary Sue -- especially since a huge portion of this very long story was about her. And yet the writer managed to flesh out a fascinating and very believable addition to the Potter Universe -- no easy task. This writer did so without once making you stop and think 'Mary Sue'. So why was an outside character acceptable in this instance, but not in others? It has to do with the fact that she never once moved 'above' any of the main characters. She was necessary to the plot -- ultimately they required her necromancy ability to resurrect Sirius from the Veil. It's when these characters suddenly usurp the rightful place of another character that they become Mary Sues.

For example it's perfectly believable that Draco has a cousin. It's perfectly believable that the cousin might spend the summer with Draco. But the moment this cousin begins dominating the scene (best one-liners, most sarcastic quips, powers that Draco doesn't know how to respond to, mind-controls Lucius, defies the Dark Lord and lives) that's when he or she becomes a Mary Sue. I don't care if the mysterious cousin defies the Dark Lord and refuses the Dark Mark. What I'm interested in is how Draco might react to the cousin's behavior. We don't need to know the cousin's motivation or angst ridden dialogue or thoughts; we just need to know what Draco is going to do, what Draco is thinking, how Draco is going to react when the cousin dies a painful death (if the cousin doesn't die a painful death we now have a Mary Sue Voldemort which is even worse than a Mary Sue).

The Wise and Powerful Mentor Mary Sue:

Scenario: A new defense against the Dark Arts teacher arrives at Hogwarts and teaches Harry how to harness the mystic abilities of the Power Rangers. Our brilliant, but somewhat deranged DADA teacher will shock and amaze the students of Hogwarts, tell Dumbledore that he's wrong and doesn't know what he's doing, save Harry from Voldemort, seduce Snape, or Remus, or both, and then finally reveal that she's really a vampire and suffering a tragic life and everyone feels so sorry for her that they resurrect Sirius Black so that he can show up and marry her and live happily ever after.

It's perfectly reasonable to expect to see a new DADA teacher each year -- I don't have a problem with that. But unless it's a DADA teacher we already know like Remus or Snape or Umbridge -- why make the person a main character? If you need a mentor for Harry, pick one that already exists -- like Dumbledore or Remus or the ghost of Salazar Slytherin. Why invent ANOTHER mentor -- Harry has enough of them as it is? I remember reading a story where the new teacher was a brilliant but odd, old man with a long beard and wacky personality quirks. He was more powerful than Voldemort, manipulated everyone around him and took over the leadership role in the fight against Voldemort. So basically, he was Dumbledore, only with a different name. What's the point??? Just use Dumbledore if you need a powerful old man to give Harry advice.

The Wise and Powerful Evil Mentor Mary Sue:

Senario: Same as the one above, only she's really evil and threatens our boy hero.

I'm all for coming up with creative new bad guys -- and it even fits the Rowling's approved plot if the bad guy in question is the DADA teacher. But don't drown us in the details!! If you need a bad guy to threaten Harry, then just keep the character in the background until needed for a dastardly deed.

Take Umbridge for example. Umbridge was a brilliant bad guy. In fact I'd go so far as to say that I think Umbridge was nastier than Voldemort -- but did J.K. Rowlings torment us with her life story or long pointless history that we don't care about? No -- she came to Hogwarts, she bored the students, she acted ineffectually, she tormented Harry, and then she got stomped on by centaurs. Every scene she was in existed to show how Harry or one of the other main characters reacted to a situation she created. We know she liked the color pink -- but we were never bored with the reasons for this. We know she gave a very long boring welcome speech, but thankfully we didn't have to listen to it. It was enough to say that the students had to listen to it -- Rowlings didn't need to write out the speech for us to read. The moment you start giving a new character more lines than the main character you run the potential of creating a Mary Sue.

The Mary Sue who Suffered More than Anyone:

Scenario: A new girl shows up at Hogwarts. She's been beaten, raped, held captive by pirates, tortured by Muggles, turned into a dark creature by Voldemort, and has a bomb in her head that's going to destroy the world unless she overcomes great adversity and makes everyone feel really sorry for her.

Please!!!!!! The Potter universe has a great potential for suffering. You can do absolutely unbelievable things to the characters in this world and make it perfectly believable because of Magic. But why do it to a stranger when you could just as easily do it to Harry or Draco? Why write about what a terrible life Harry had at the Dursleys and then introduce a new character that had an even more terrible life? It sort of takes the focus away from Harry. If the point is to create a character that we readers need to sympathize with so that we can cheer when Harry rescues her then use Hermione or Ginny or Neville. Why create someone new when there are so many other possibilities to choose from?

The Super Mary Sue:

Scenario: Turns out Harry wasn't the only Boy Who Lived. There was another boy who was also hit by the Killing Curse and he lived too and is now more powerful than Harry and has an even cooler scar than Harry.

There are certain laws that must be adhered to when writing a story. There are certain facts that make up the realty of each fandom -- and if you step outside those facts you are no longer truly writing in that fandom. In the Potter Universe, Harry and Voldemort are inexplicably tied together. You can write an AU where Voldemort is the good guy and Harry is the bad guy -- but the two of them still balance each other. Harry can kill Voldemort and become the new Dark Lord, but the conflict between Harry and Voldemort must be held stable. In the Potter Universe we are told that Voldemort is the most powerful Dark Lord around, Dumbeldore is the only wizard he fears, and Harry is the only one who can defeat him. That triumvirate of power should not be messed with. Suddenly introducing a new character who is more powerful than Harry or Dumbledore throws the Potterverse out of kilter.

It's always fun to read a story where Dumbledore is really evil and Harry and Voldemort have to team up to fight him -- but it causes problems when a new girl suddenly shows up who can summon the mystical unicorns that can turn her into a dragon which is more powerful than a thousand phoenixes and speaks Japanese fluently. Why not just write your own story about the girl and set it in your own universe where you can create your own laws of existence? We read Harry Potter stories because we like the Potter Universe. Don't rewrite it so utterly that it is no longer recognizable.

The Crazy American Mary Sue:

No Scenario -- speaks for itself. The moment you see even a summary of a story where a 'wild and crazy' American arrives on the scene, you know you have a Mary Sue. First off, crazy-American stories are almost always written by Americans who don't realize that they're just not all that crazy. Americans are no crazier or cooler or hotter than the next nationality. There are plenty of crazy people in Britain -- you don't need to import Americans to fill the job. And in a world where the sport of choice is Quidditch, I don't think Harry and gang are going to care all that much about the differences between football and soccer. And Voldemort isn't going to hesitate or scratch his scaly head in bafflement when someone shouts an American slur at him instead of a proper British curse. If you create a character whose most defining characteristic is the fact that they are American or Mongolian or Australian, you've not only created a Mary Sue but a walking cliche as well.

Spotting a Mary Sue in a summary.

The following are fictitious summaries (though I've read hundreds just like them) where you can spot the Mary Sue a mile away. Can you spot her now?: