The Gary Sue character type explained

ko-fi Written by Andruid
Attractive man in a sleek gray suit and the text, "The Gary Sue character type explained."
Attractive man in a sleek gray suit and the text, "The Gary Sue character type explained."

Learn what a Gary Sue character is (with examples) and where the term "Gary Sue" comes from. Plus, get tips for adding depth to your own characters.

Table of Contents

    If you’ve ever done any creative writing or roleplaying, you’ve probably come across the term “Mary Sue.”

    But did you know there’s also a male version called Gary, Larry, or Marty Sue/Stu?

    Most people will tell you that the Mary and Gary Sue character types should be avoided. In fact, critics tend to look down on these character types and see them as hallmarks of poor writing.

    However, you may find that these character types have their place in the worlds of fanfiction and roleplaying. I’ll leave it to you to decide after reading this post.

    Here’s what I’ll cover:

    • what a Gary Sue character is and how it relates to the Mary Sue character type
    • where these terms come from
    • why these character types commonly appear in fanfiction and text-based roleplay
    • why they’re sometimes frustrating for readers / fellow roleplayers
    • how to add depth to a character so they don’t come across like a classic Gary Sue or Mary Sue

    I’ll also provide some examples along the way to help demonstrate these points.

    What is a Gary Sue character?

    In fanfiction and roleplaying games, Gary Sue (or Gary Stu) is any idealized male character who is so incredibly talented and flawless that it’s hard to take his story seriously.

    The Gary Sue character type is the male counterpart of the more widely-known Mary Sue.

    Like Mary Sue, the term carries negative connotations. When someone calls a character a Gary Sue, they usually mean he’s too perfect to the point of being one-dimensional and uninteresting.

    Origins of the terms Gary Sue and Mary Sue

    In order to understand the origin of the term Gary Sue, it’s important to understand where the term Mary Sue comes from.

    The term Mary Sue first appeared in Paula Smith’s parody short story “A Trekkie’s Tale,” which was published in 1973.

    In the story, Mary Sue was the name of the exaggeratedly perfect protagonist, who was designed to poke fun at, and draw attention to, what Smith saw as a common trope in fanfiction: the idealized self-insert heroine.

    Idealized female characters – those too perfect to be believable – were henceforth known as Mary Sues.

    Over time, the community invented similar labels for male characters, including Gary Sue, Larry Sue, and Marty Stu, but these terms have never been as common as Mary Sue.

    Qualities of a Gary Sue

    Similar to their female counterparts, Gary Sue characters are idealized and overly perfect. Where they differ is that Gary Sues are male and tend to overemphasize desirable masculine traits, such as being physically fit, a capable leader, or an incorruptible hero.

    Here are some qualities of a “typical” Gary Sue:

    • flawless or nearly so
    • exceptionally skilled or talented in multiple areas
    • instantly an expert right when the need arises
    • extraordinarily attractive and physically fit (often without trying)
    • incorruptible, heroic, noble, or self-sacrificing
    • adored by many but often lacking in deep relationships
    • rare lineage or special destiny
    • unwavering moral compass

    It’s not necessary for a character to have 100% of these traits to be labeled a Gary Sue by critics; these are just some of the most common features that Gary Sue characters share.

    Examples of Gary Sue characters

    If you’re looking for examples of characters with Gary Sue traits, you only need to look at some of the most popular characters in literature, comics, anime, movies, and TV.

    Here are a few male characters that have been criticized for their Gary Sue-ness (affiliate links on the right):

    • Edward Cullen (Twilight series)
    • Kirito (Sword Art Online)
    • Percy Jackson (Percy Jackson and the Olympians)
    • Neo (The Matrix)
    • John Wick (John Wick series)
    • Dominic Toretto (Fast & Furious franchise)
    • Aragorn (Lord of the Rings)

    As well, both Superman and Captain America exhibit their fair share of Gary Sue traits, such as being nigh-invulnerable and amazingly physically fit without ever having to work at it.

    Is Batman a Gary Sue?

    Since I brought up superheroes, you might be wondering if the Dark Knight is also a Gary Sue.

    You could indeed argue that Batman is a Gary Sue, as he possesses several Gary Sue traits:

    • extremely skilled in multiple areas (as a detective, martial artist, strategist, technologist, etc.)
    • physically fit, attractive, and rich
    • special lineage (heir to the wealthy Wayne family)
    • super resourceful and often prepared for any situation
    • few deep relationships

    Because of his abundance of talent and resources, Batman can be seen as something of an unrealistic character, for sure.

    On the other hand, Batman is also portrayed with complex and relatable flaws. He carries the burden of a tragic past, struggles with inner demons, and must make personal sacrifices.

    And unlike many other superheroes, he actually has to work out to stay physically fit. 😂

    Throughout his adventures, Batman also makes mistakes and faces setbacks, and these add depth to his character while making him more relatable than a typical Gary Sue.

    Ultimately, I’d say Batman is a mixed bag, and that’s what makes him more compelling to his fans. He’s a Gary Sue in some respects but is balanced out by his failures and flaws.

    Sign on a chain-link fence that reads: WARNING: Vigilantes patrolling in this area.

    These days, you could possibly say the same for characters like Superman and Captain America.

    Like Batman, they have also undergone significant character development and exploration over the years, with many stories delving into their personal struggles, identity, and vulnerabilities.

    So are they truly Gary Sues? Up for debate. The degree to which these superheroes are Gary Sues probably depends on the version or iteration you’re talking about.

    I’ll leave it to you to decide.

    Why Gary Sues are frustrating for readers

    Readers who expect character depth, meaningful character growth, and some amount of realism are easily bored or frustrated by Gary Sues.

    After all, with the cards already so heavily stacked in Gary Sue’s favor, it’s hard to feel impressed by his achievements.

    Other frustrating aspects of Gary Sue characters include:

    • unrealistically multi-talented, often from a very young age
    • lack of believable flaws and limitations
    • plotlines are predictable since the hero always makes the morally “right” choice
    • rarely makes mistakes or has to deal with the consequences of a bad decision
    • comes across as wish-fulfillment or self-insertion of the writer

    Readers may find it difficult to relate to these characters because most of us are flawed, deal with curveballs on a regular basis, and have to work hard to succeed.

    For us regular folk, life is hard and messy.

    Meanwhile, Gary Sue’s struggles can seem shallow compared to the hardships, stresses, and complexities of real life.

    Superman is a good example to bring up again here. Everyone knows he’s vulnerable to kryptonite, but the fact that kryptonite is so rare can make it seem like a weak weakness.

    Gary Sue tropes in roleplay

    When it comes to roleplaying, all of the above points about Gary Sues are applicable, but there’s an added element of social interaction to consider.

    For example, in text-based roleplaying, players write stories together from the perspectives of their characters. This can lead to conflicting narratives, as what counts as praiseworthy and attractive is subjective and up to personal preference and opinion.

    While one player might portray their character as perfect and adored by all, other players may not necessarily honor that portrayal. The other characters will have their own views and desires, some of which may conflict with the so-called hero.

    While in-character conflicts and differences of opinion are often the source of interesting and engaging roleplay, they can be quite frustrating when the players themselves aren’t aligned.

    As a result, players can end up engaging in things like metagaming, power-posing, and passive-aggressive RP.

    One way to avoid this trap is to build meaningful flaws into your character from the get-go. Doing so can also help you roleplay more immersively.

    Why Gary Sue characters are so popular

    Frustrations aside, both Gary Sue and Mary Sue traits are quite popular, especially in fanfiction and roleplaying games.

    When you think about it, it’s not hard to understand why people are drawn to Gary Sues. They offer a very tempting avenue for wish fulfillment.

    What is a wish fulfillment character?

    When referring to a Gary Sue as a wish fulfillment character, it means that the character is designed to fulfill the desires and fantasies of the writer or audience.

    The character represents an idealized version of a person, embodying qualities that other individuals might wish to possess or experience themselves.

    Thus, Gary Sues offer an escape, allowing readers to vicariously experience a life of exceptional abilities and effortless success.

    Through a Gary Sue character, one can:

    • escape the constraints and limitations of real life
    • be extraordinary or destined for greatness
    • be popular and attractive
    • play the part of an undaunted hero
    • be the exceptional person you wish you could be
    • explore themes such as power, invincibility, and perfection

    Just like Mary Sue, Gary Sue can be the expression of one’s fantasies while at the same time serving as fuel for the imaginations of others.

    Muscular, physically fit male flexing from behind.
    Many people fantasize about being physically fit, talented, or extraordinary. Is it really any surprise that some of these fantasies end up in writing?

    For example, the fact that Gary Sue isn’t usually in a deep relationship leaves the reader more room to imagine themselves as his one and only soulmate. 💘

    Parodies of the Gary Sue trope

    With so many Gary Sue-like characters out there, it’s no surprise that there are also characters and stories that make light of the Gary Sue trope.

    One of my favorites is Saiki Kusuo, the main character in “The Disastrous Life of Saiki K” by Shūichi Asō.

    Saiki was born an incredibly powerful psychic, yet his extraordinary abilities are presented as a burden rather than as an avenue of wish fulfillment. Socially awkward, Saiki just wants to keep a low profile and live a normal, unextraordinary life, but his family and schoolmates make this difficult for him.

    Saiki’s foil is the self-centered Kokomi Teruhashi, who believes she is the epitome of beauty and perfection. She constantly seeks attention and admiration from others and considers herself superior to everyone around her. When the detached Saiki fails to show romantic interest, however, Kokomi begins to obsess over being noticed by him.

    The fact that Saiki can hear Kokomi’s delusional thoughts makes the interactions between these two characters all the more hilarious!

    (Btw, you’ll find similar themes in “The Daily Life of the Immortal King,” which also features an all-powerful protagonist just trying to lead a normal life, though the story isn’t intended as a parody.)

    Other characters that parody the Gary Sue trope include Captain Hammer from the musical web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” and Captain Zapp Brannigan from the TV series Futurama.

    Balancing out a Gary Sue character

    Let’s face it: characters with Gary Sue traits can be interesting and compelling, both in writing and roleplaying.

    The trick to making these characters appeal to a broader audience is to balance them out with realistic flaws and limitations.

    Flaws and weaknesses make characters more relatable, allowing us to empathize with them more. Difficulties and setbacks also help give the narrative more credibility by ensuring that the character comes across as more than just a vehicle for wish fulfillment.

    A tired-looking jogger resting with his hands on his thighs. Definitely not a Gary Sue.
    Normal people have to work out to stay fit. Gary Sues rarely do.

    Example of a multi-dimensional character

    For an example of a more believable, multi-dimensional character, let’s look at Ender Wiggin, the protagonist of “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card.

    Ender is initially presented as a highly gifted child with strategic brilliance, which makes him a natural leader in Battle School.

    While Ender is a prodigy and may even seem destined in some ways, the story delves into the personal toll his abilities and circumstances take on him. The character’s growth, internal conflicts, and the examination of the consequences of his actions contribute to a more interesting narrative.

    Ultimately, the portrayal of Ender Wiggin encompasses much more than wish fulfillment. The exploration of his vulnerabilities, loneliness, and the weight of his actions adds depth and complexity to his character, distinguishing him from a one-dimensional Gary Sue.

    On the other hand… context matters. It’s fair to say that a character like Ender might be too heavy for some.

    If your goal is to write fanfiction that readers can escape into, for example, you might not want to focus so much on the unpleasant consequences!

    It’s always important to keep in mind your audience and the context in which you’re writing or roleplaying.

    "There's no one way to play a game. If you're having fun and nobody else is being hurt by it, that's the right way for the game to be played. ... Do what makes your heart happy."
    One of my favorite quotes from blogger TBQ. While about video games, her point is also applicable to writing and roleplaying. If writing a Gary Sue-like character makes you and your readers happy and isn’t hurting anyone else, then do it! Everyone needs an escape.

    Tips to write a more balanced character

    Finally, here are a few tips to help you balance out your exceptional characters and find a sweet spot your audience will appreciate:

    1. Give your character realistic flaws and weaknesses that they can overcome or work on throughout the story. It’s important to make these genuine flaws that impact the character, not just superficial inconveniences. For ideas, see this list of character flaws.
    2. Clearly define your character’s goals and motivations. These can be both conscious and unconscious, external and internal, driving their actions and decisions. A well-rounded character has fears and desires that go beyond their surface-level traits.
    3. Explore different facets of your character’s personality, backstory, and experiences. Consider their past, relationships, and beliefs, and how these elements shape their behavior and perspectives. This complexity adds layers to the character and makes them more interesting.
    4. Introduce some moral ambiguity. Avoid making your character strictly good or evil, or they’ll become too predictable. Introduce moral dilemmas and conflicting choices that challenge their values and force them to make difficult decisions. This will add depth and nuance to their story.
    5. Show how your character interacts with others and how they are influenced by the people around them. Develop meaningful relationships that impact their growth and provide opportunities for conflict and resolution.
    6. Use a character workbook to keep everything organized. If you like having a physical book you can hold in your hands, you can get one online or at your local bookstore. Alternatively, you can use note-taking software, such as Notion.

    And when it comes to roleplaying, try not to impose your character’s Gary Sue-like qualities on the other player-characters.

    Remember: it’s up to them to decide whether they adore your character or despise him.

    Instead of trying to portray the perfect character, portray a layered character that offers multiple hooks and opportunities for development.

    If you need a place to start, the character arc roadmap will be useful for several of these tips; I highly recommend it!

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Common questions related to the Gary Sue and Mary Sue character types:

    Why is the term Gary Sue less common than Mary Sue?

    One reason is that Mary Sue came first. Another is that in the world of fanfiction, incredibly talented male characters have historically been more accepted and less subject to criticism.

    ….Which is also part of the reason why Mary Sue came first.

    What are the differences between Mary Sue and Gary Sue?

    The main difference between Mary and Gary is their gender. Both are idealized characters, but Gary Sues may emphasize traditionally masculine qualities.

    What does it mean when a character is one-dimensional?

    One-dimensional characters are flat. They lack depth and complexity. They’re often exactly the same at the end of the story as they were when it started, which is why many people find them uninteresting.

    What are some well-known examples of Mary Sue characters?

    Bella Swan (Twilight), Rey (Star Wars sequel trilogy), and Anastasia Steele (Fifty Shades of Grey) have all been criticized for their Mary Sue-ness.

    Some critics have argued that Hermoine Granger (Harry Potter series) and Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones) are also Mary Sue-like in some respects.

    Whether they’re deserving of the label “Mary Sue” is up to interpretation, however.

    How do I know if my character is a Mary Sue (or Gary Sue)?

    Ask yourself whether the character has flaws and, if so, whether those flaws have a meaningful impact on how the story plays out.

    If the answer is no, then your character might be a Gary Sue (if male) or a Mary Sue (if female).

    Is there a non-gendered term for Gary Sue?

    Not in common usage. You could use synonyms such as “one-dimensional” or “too perfect.” Or you could make up your own term with a unisex first name, such as “Terry Sue” or “Perry Sue.”

    What is a self-insert fanfic?

    A self-insert fanfic, also known as a self-insertion or SI fic, is a type of fanfiction in which the author inserts themselves, or a fictionalized version of themselves, into the story alongside the established characters.

    In these fanfics, the author becomes an active participant in the world or narrative of the original work. However, they are often criticized for being a form of wish fulfillment and self-indulgent fantasy.

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    About the author

    Andruid is a writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. “Be excellent to each other.”