Mary Sue, by Ben Jeapes

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I had a conversation about a TV series with a friend who kept referring to a character as a “Mary Jane”. My two understandings of Mary Jane are: shorthand for marijuana, or Spiderman’s girlfriend. Neither seemed especially relevant to the conversation.

Then I realised he meant “Mary Sue”. Ah!

A Mary Sue is a character, not always female, that it’s very easy to put into a story, but you really shouldn’t. They are an idealised embodiment of every point that the author is trying to make, often a reflection of the author’s own self-perception. Good looking, intelligent, physically fit and above all right about everything. No problem or conundrum exists that a Mary Sue cannot solve to everyone’s satisfaction with a few words and a bit of razor-sharp insight.

The earlier in your writing career you are, the more likely you are to include a Mary Sue of your own, just to make sure everyone gets the point you're trying to make. It leads to very dull fiction.

Fortunately, to avoid your character being a Mary Sue you don’t have to make them the exact opposite: they don’t have to be ugly, thick, unfit and always wrong. They just have to be … human. Fallible and contradictory. Messy, like we all are. Holmes has his drug habit. Bond (in the books) skirts depression and comes close to giving up his job a couple of times. Harry Potter has anger issues.

It occurred to me writing this that Jesus is the ultimate non-Mary Sue. Good-looking? We don’t know, but if Isaiah’s Suffering Servant description is anything to by, maybe not. Intelligent? Undoubtedly. Fit? With all that walking, almost certainly. Right about everything? Well, yes; at least, where it mattered. He was, let’s say, mission focused. Yet there were times he could have been more tactful without endangering the mission. And we don’t know if he ever stubbed his toe or bit his tongue or bumped his head on a too-low door. It’s hard to imagine him not doing so if he’s also to share all our sorrows.

“Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”? No. “Tears and smiles like us he knew”? Absolutely.

When it came to deciding which gospels to include in holy scripture, and which to leave out (the ones we would now call the apocryphal ones), it was the Mary Sue gospels that got excluded. The ones where the child Jesus turns clay ducks into real ones, or throws dead fish back into the water and they come alive. In other words, ones where he essentially shows off. Or alternatively, the ones where he wasn’t so inconveniently, paradoxically both divine and human: the ones where he does what any sensible guy would do and marries Mary Magdalene, or doesn’t really die, or dodges the Cross altogether. Either way, the authors of those gospels probably did love Jesus, in their own way, but they took the wrong route to presenting him. They didn’t trust Jesus to speak for himself, or they didn’t trust the audience to get it, so they presented an edited version.

But it’s the awkward, inconvenient one who lasted 2000 years.
Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer.


  1. Thank you for this! Your blog post gives clarity as to what I am learning regarding characterization for my novel. (well, the re-write for the sixth time!) As a non-fiction writer, this post gives a Biblical interest that assists development as a novelist. In reality? I just loved your writing. Thank you!


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