No, Rey is not a Mary Sue.
Consider this your final warning for Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers!!!
Originally, the Mary Sue trope referred to an authorial insertion character often found in fanfiction. A parody of the character type named the trope back in the early ‘70s, and since then the idea has been applied to any character that exhibits a certain set of traits. The character has effortless, often unearned, success. The character has an incredible skill set, eclipsing others around them even supposed experts. The character has a special, unique relationship with other characters in the story that allows access to opportunities for adventure or success they otherwise wouldn’t have had. The character will lack meaningful flaws with the exception of a tragic backstory that motivates the audience to sympathy but which never burdens the character.
Think Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and you have the exact idea (had the trope not been named in the early ‘70s, I suspect it would be the Crusher instead of the Mary Sue.)
So, the Mary Sue is a wish fulfillment character. Better, stronger, faster, smarter than everyone around them. Is that always a bad thing? We like to read about superhuman characters, characters who go above and beyond, characters who excel. That’s true, so what’s the problem with this trope? The real failing of the Mary Sue is the unearned nature of their excellence. Whereas other characters struggle to become good leaders, practice to become great warriors, or study to become scholars, the Mary Sue is simply gifted by authorial fiat. It short circuits not only the Mary Sue’s character development, but it undermines the development of everyone around them. It doesn’t necessarily make them bad characters, but it makes them problematic characters. No matter how much we love reading about the excellence of a hero, we also want them to struggle. We need to seem them earn the achievement, to deserve the accolades.
How does this apply to the character of Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
Well, she has a fantastic set of skills, that much is true. She’s a crack combat fighter with her staff. On the Millennium Falcon, she shows remarkable aptitude for repairing and modifying technology. Her piloting skills rival those of Han Solo, the benchmark the first trilogy used for a great pilot. Her skills with a blaster are decent, even enviable. When she discovers she has a connection to the Force, she begins mastering that connection rapidly, using a Jedi mind trick on one stormtrooper and focusing the Force during her lightsaber battle with Kylo Ren. She appears to speak passable Wookie. She even has the special, unique relationship. She sees Han as a father figure, and he takes her under his wing, letting her copilot his beloved Falcon. She has a tragic background too, full of portents and mystery.
So, does this mean the weight of evidence indicates she’s a Mary Sue?
Above, I said the most important characteristic of the Mary Sue was the unearned nature of success. It isn’t their skills. It isn’t their heroism or bravery or smarts. Brienne of Tarth is a brave swordswoman with skill sufficient to defeat champion knights. Sam Gamgee is the most loyal friend you’ll ever find, stalwart, brave, honest, and he gets to go to Mordor with the Ringbearer. Jean-Luc Picard is a great diplomat, scholar, and starship captain. Malcolm Reynolds is the quintessential rogue with a heart of gold. Linden Avery is a skilled surgeon in our world, and in the Land she masters the power of white gold with more facility than the rightful owner of the wild magic ever showed.
None of those characters fit the Sue trope. They all earned our respect through suffering, through the wisdom of experience, through training, hardwork, sacrifice, and their own determination. All of them are flawed characters who sometimes fail. They experience doubts that a Sue would never face. When they stand at the heart of the narrative, they do so because they’ve earned that place.
Rey earns that place too.
She grew up on a desolate world in a frontier region of the galaxy. We see her eking out a living by scavenging parts from crashed Imperial war machines and barely surviving. She carries a weapon, and we see her willingness to use it in early scenes. Anyone surviving in a harsh, brutal environment where beating the competition means getting enough to eat will have learned some skills. So when she later shows some facility with technology similar to the stuff she scavenged, that doesn’t come as a surprise. By the time she picks up her lightsaber, we’ve already seen her established as a skilled melee warrior.
Skilled enough to defeat a Sith? I hear someone ask from the audience.
Well, I’m not entirely sure Kylo Ren is a Sith Lord. He’s a Force user and has a willingness to swing that red lightsaber, but Snoke straight out says Kylo has incomplete training. So I don’t think we’re looking at Jedi level saber combat. Second, Kylo has a serious injury from that Wookie bowcaster blast he took. We see him bleeding and clutching at his side. Third, he doesn’t want to kill Rey. He has a chance or two to do so, and he doesn’t take it. He’s playing with her early in their duel. He doesn’t want her dead; he wants her turned to the Dark Side – even offering to be her teacher. Finally, he’s overconfident, cocky, and brash. Rey beats him by taking him completely off guard. I don’t mean to diminish her by that. She shows mad skillz and the willingness to use the hardearned melee fighting techniques she learned growing up on Jakku. But the fight was Kylo Ren’s to lose, and he did.
She’s a great pilot, sure, but so was Luke, and he’d never even seen an X-Wing before he started the attack run on the Death Star. Before climbing into the cockpit of the Falcon, she claims she can fly it. I have a strong suspicion that Rey will turn out to be a Skywalker, and so piloting would be in her blood, as it were. Her backstory, once we get it, may fill in a lot of gaps. Did she learn Wookie at the knee of a certain fuzzball? Did she inherit the Force from her father and grandfather? Or from her mother? Force users do strange things, even before they know what they’re doing. Luke used the Force to blow up a battlestation long before he could have been called a Jedi.
As for the tragic backstory? Well, Rey’s is more than a little plot relevant. Why was she on Jakku? Why was she alone? Her abandonment troubles her throughout The Force Awakens. It isn’t ignored. She comes to the center of attention by making affirmative choices. She rescues BB-8. She chooses to befriend the spherical droid, and rejects the offered fortune in payout of the bounty. Both of those actions earn Rey a place at the center of the narrative. They place her on the path to becoming a hero, but that isn’t even the path she wants or desires. When handed Luke’s old lightsaber, the flash of visions shake her to the core, and she flees into the woods. Those are the actions of a flawed and troubled character taking the first halting steps on the hero’s journey, not the actions of a Mary Sue thrust into the center of things undeserved. She stops being a scavenger just trying to survive. She chooses to take up the lightsaber and fight Kylo Ren – to avenge Han Solo, to defend Finn, for her own reasons which remain shrouded in those flashes of vision which showed the Knights of Ren tied up with her own abandonment. It also establishes a rivalry with Kylo Ren that I believe we’ll see develop in the future installments, and which may form the crux of the trilogy.
She does form an attachment to a central character, of course. I’m almost certain that future revelations about Rey’s backstory will put her relationship with Han Solo into perspective. Her uncle? Her…father? Either is possible, and either would explain a lot from Han’s trust to Leia’s empathy to Rey’s early mastery of the Force. That’s a part of the story we have yet to see, but we do know that Han Solo appears to know who she is – when Maz Kanata asks, the camera cuts away before he can answer. Neither Maz nor Han was surprised when Rey was led to Luke’s lightsaber, and neither was surprised when Rey has a connection to the old relic. That means the story is plot integral. She isn’t given a relationship with Han to further her character. The plot depends on that relationship. Judging the character before we even have that story makes little sense.
So no, I don’t believe Rey is a Mary Sue. She’s a fascinating character, and we’ve only seen a small fraction of her story. She has what promises to be a powerful narrative arc, but it isn’t a complete arc yet. I can’t even guess how her story will unfold, but I can’t wait to see what Episodes VIII and IX bring.