Is Your Character a Mary Sue?

Is your character a Mary Sue? You might be writing one without even realizing it! Learn the warning signs and how to fix them to create a character with more depth and realism. It’s hard for writers to be hard on our characters, to tell them no or make them suffer or give them flaws. Like proud, doting mothers, we want them to be our perfect children who can do no wrong. We want them to be successful. We want to spoil them, and we want readers to love them. Heck, we might even want them to inherent some of our own qualities. But unfortunately, this type of attitude often leads to the creation of a Mary Sue.

What Does a Mary Sue Look Like?

A “Mary Sue” is either a female or male (sometimes called a “Gary Stu”) character who embodies the perfect hero/heroine. Often, she is an idealized version of the author herself. Mary Sues are usually beautiful, talented, have few or no flaws, and are loved by everyone.

The problem is, all this is bestowed upon them without them having to “earn” it. They are effortlessly beautiful; they have special abilities or prodigy-like skills they don’t have to work to develop; other characters want to be their friends or lovers or lavish them with admiration without them doing anything to deserve it. Not only is this unrealistic, but it serves to irritate the reader and often turn her against the Mary Sue.

As for examples of Mary Sues, it’s been argued that characters like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Rey, Superman, Eragon, Bella Swan, and Edward Cullen fall into this character type.

I’m not going to debate in this article whether they do or don’t, but I would like to point out that some of the characters on this list are loved by many, while others are despised. So a Mary Sue character doesn’t automatically spell doom, but I do think it’s wise to avoid creating one if possible.

Mary Sue Signs and Solutions

Okay, I’m going to share a secret with you: the heroine of my first novel was a Mary Sue. It wasn’t intentional, but as a new, 14-year-old writer I did end up putting a lot of myself into the character. She was also beautiful, talented, and fit into nearly every one of the categories below. When I realized the mistake I had made I gave her a major over-haul in later drafts.

Sometimes–especially if you’re new to writing stories–you might create a Mary Sue without realizing it. But with a little bit of work you can re-shape your character into one with much more depth and realism.

Below are 6 warning signs of a Mary Sue and how to fix them. Note that if your character fits one or two of these categories, that doesn’t mean they’re a Mary Sue. The real trouble comes when your character fits a bunch or all of these categories. So don’t panic if your character has a special talent or is a chosen one!

1. Beautiful, Yet Plain

A Mary Sue usually sees herself as plain or average, but really she’s beautiful or even gorgeous. Guys don’t fail to take notice, and her friends and family reassure her of her beauty even as she laments about how plain she is. Often, she’ll have a special hair or eye color to make her more unique, or exotic features.

Solution: Try to avoid words/phrases that describe characters as beautiful/handsomeΒ  unless it’s important to their character or the story. Also, if it’s not important don’t give your heroine gold or violet eyes in an attempt to make her more unique. Not only do these colors not exist in real life, but I feel like it screams trying to hard to make the hero “special.”

Now, when you’re describing a love interest through the eyes of the character who loves them, it’s fine to be more biased about looks because of course when you love someone you’re going to be attracted to them! But don’t go crazy with it. Try to avoid creating a cast of supermodels.

2. Talented

A Mary Sue is extremely talented, often in more than one area. She doesn’t have to work at her skill, it just comes to her naturally.

Solution: This doesn’t mean that you can’t give your hero a talent. It’s good for heroes to have a strength, and in real life people usually have something they’re really good at. But it’s usually one thing, and they have to work very hard at it. Often, there are others who are better at it than they are.

Try to limit your hero’s talent to one thing, make him work for the skill, and consider not making him best person in the world at it. Also, offset his talent by showing other areas in which he struggles. For example, he may be good with a sword but can’t shoot a bow to save his life.

3. Destined

In Fantasy, it’s not uncommon for Mary Sues to have some sort of destiny or prophecy to fulfill. They’re often “The Chosen One,” the only one who can stop the villain or save the world.

Solution: This is the hardest issue to fix because it involves changing your plot. See if you can avoid making your hero The Chosen One. Instead, try to find a way to make him commit to defeating the villain, saving the world, etc. without being cornered into it by destiny.

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo chooses to take the ring to Mordor and destroy it of his own free will. This makes him a much more admirable and brave character than if some curse or prophecy had made him the only one who could destroy it.

4. Without Flaw

Mary Sues have few or no flaws. They can do no wrong, and are often very moral or “goody-goody.”

Solution: Give your characters real flaws. Being ugly or clumsy are not real flaws. This is often one of the hardest parts of creating a hero because we’re afraid of making him unlikable. But strangely enough, a flawed character is actually more likable because he’s more relatable and more interesting. He has layers, different sides to him that contrast and conflict. Need ideas? Check out this list of character flaws.

5. Loved by All

Mary Sue characters are surrounded by people who adore them–except the villain, of course. They might even have several love interests clamoring for their affection. It doesn’t matter what they do or how rude they’ve been, everyone will still love them. The Mary Sue doesn’t even have to give them a reason or earn their trust/friendship/admiration.

Solution: Of course your hero will be loved by friends, family, and maybe a love interest. But not everyone they meet should automatically like them. It’s just not realistic. Give them enemies besides the villain, or have them meet people who just aren’t fond of them. And make sure there’s a reason why people like him–whether it’s friends, a love interest, or strangers.

6. No Struggle

Everything is easy for the Mary Sue character. She doesn’t have to work for anything. Everything she wants falls into her lap, and defeating the villain is a breeze. If she makes a mistake or does something wrong she doesn’t have to face consequences for her actions.

Solution: Don’t make things easy for your hero! Let him struggle, fail, and make mistakes. Don’t give him everything he wants like some spoiled child. Make it difficult for him to defeat the villain so that he “earns” his happy ending.

Have you come across any Mary Sues in books or films? Have you written any yourself? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

signature

Share this!

29 thoughts on “Is Your Character a Mary Sue?

  1. Yay! I requested this one! thanks Kaitlen! I read twilight the other week and I thought Bella was such a Maty Sue. Does anyone else agree?

    1. Thanks so much for the request, Hannah! I loved writing this article, it was a great topic to cover! I think Bella definitely falls into the Mary Sue category, and Edward as well πŸ˜‰

    2. My mom thought that Bella was a whiner since she always whined a lot, especially about her birthday and also who she loved more, Edward or Jacob.

  2. I had to read. I’ve heard the term Mary Sue before, but I didn’t know what it was. I do, however, recognise the character; they are perfect in every way. They’re eye-rollers.

    I may have written this type of character in my teens, but I am far from that now. My characters are flawed. They are usually beautiful only in the eyes of their lover. Otherwise, characters think they’re average or less.

    The main male character in my fantasy novels does have high morals and is a goody-two-shoes. Except he’s to the extreme which causes him and those around him trouble. He’s learning he can’t always be honourable, but the young boy in him still strives to please and follow all the rules. He lost his daughter because of his honour, and he almost lost the woman he loves. Being too much of one thing is a flaw too.

    I’ll have to bring this up at my writers’ meeting in case others haven’t heard of Mary Sue. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Diane! I think it’s natural to write this type of character in your teens when you’re still learning, I did the same as well. I like how you turned something that could be considered a strength into your character’s flaw! That adds some wonderful complexity, doesn’t it? πŸ™‚

  3. Love, love, love this post! I think my MC has two of these Mary Sue qualities: Destined & Without Flaw. Unfortunately I need the Destined one, but I can definitely give her a flaw(/s) and make her more relatable and stop Mary Sue for creeping in!

    Thank you for writing helpful posts which also have very pin-able images as I will be pinning this one!

    1. I wouldn’t worry too much about the destined one, I think readers will forgive it since it comes up a lot as long as you still have an interesting plot/characters. And yes, flaws will definitely make your heroine more relatable! πŸ˜‰ Thanks for reading (and pinning), Jo!

  4. Thank you for all the tips. Your website is beautiful by the way.

    After reading this, I would say that Harry Potter is definitely NOT a Mary Sue.
    1. JK Rowling only mentions his eye color because it’s a constant reminder of his parents’ absence. Also, she talks of his wild brown hair (not exactly an attractive trait).
    2. He has to work hard to become a great wizard. Unlike Hermione, he doesn’t have a lot of raw talent.
    3. Yeah, he’s destined.
    4. He has plenty of flaws. He has anger issues, he often gets depressed, he becomes irritable…
    5. Draco Malfoy, Dursleys, Slytherins, fellow Gryffindors, etc.
    6. He is constantly struggling against Voldemort through the entire series. The Deathly Hallows pretty much revolves around the fact that Harry IS STRUGGLING.
    So, these are just a few reasons why I think Harry is not a Mary Sue.

  5. I want to thank you so much for writing this article! I never really understood what people meant when they said a character was a ‘Mary Sue’ but I get it now.
    I have read too many books were the hero of the story is just too perfect. No matter how good the story may be, a Mary Sue character is just one big nope for me. I don’t want to get frustrated or feeling the urge of throwing my book against the wall when yet another boy falls for the oh so beautiful girl, who is, by the way, very skilled at everything you can possibly imagine. Learning to fight with a sword? No need for that! Cooping with emotional/psychological traumas from almost dying several times? No need for that! She’s already forgotten everything and is ready to ride off into the sunset with the love of her life!

    I am a 16-year-old myself and it frustrates me so much to read about that kind of characters. That’s why I wanted to change things in the story I’m trying to write. I hope I’ll succeed because writing a Mary sue character is one of my biggest fears.

  6. My character is not a Mary Sue as she has a flaw which is lack of self-confidence but she can’t be too doubtful of herself which means that she would need to know her good qualities as well in order to achieve her goals.

  7. So I usually have two types of documents working. One is a novel. The other is my Mary Sue document. In that one, I allow myself to write whatever I want. There’s no plot, no story. Just a mundane day-to-day story of a character and the people around her. I use the Mary Sue document to unblock or get into rhythm. No one will ever see it and knowing that allows me to write whatever. It helps! πŸ™‚

  8. Hi, I have an idea that if a character is a Mary Sue or not is very different for each person since we value each characteristics differently. Something that I might think is a good thing maybe is a flaw according to you and vice versa. Also different stuff is a struggle for us which could be a reason someone think a character is only wining while another can connect. What I mean is that just because I experience something as easy doesn’t mean that you feel the same way. A strong man that have been doin’ martial arts for years is probably going to think that handling a angry and violent person is a piece of a cake while I would rather stay in distance, maybe even panicing and screaming out of panic who knows. Maybe that was an extreme example (call me drama queen) but I think you get my point. To me both Bella and Edward in Twilight is filled with flaws and struggles so I don’t get them as Mary Sues as some of you. I’m talking about the books now then, if we would talk about the movies my opinion could be a bit different.

    Anyhow. Thanks for a good article! I will pin this and have it in thoughts when creating my characters.

  9. Great article! πŸ™‚ I’ve actually been worrying that the protagonists in my two main projects are almost mirror images of one another, so it’s always nice to come across such a handy, distilled guide to making diverse characters. In all the brain-ache of plotting, you sometimes have to simplify what would normally be perfectly simple on its own!

  10. Thanks so much for this article, Kaitlin!
    I’ve found it very helpful going through this list and checking each thing with my characters to make sure they’re not guilty of it.
    However, my protagonist of my WIP currently has violet eyes and is part of a prophecy.
    The eye color don’t really symbolise anything, but that is generally what people first notice about this character. Do you think this is a bad thing?
    I definitely agree with you when you say that the Chosen One/Destined part is the hardest to change. I thought about making it a fake prophecy, but then I’d have to change quite a lot of my plot. Do you have any other advice?
    Anyway, thanks heaps for helping me determine what I need to do to make sure I’m not writing any Mary Sues! Bye!

    1. I think so! As long as you develop the character well and don’t fall into other Mary Sue traits I don’t think having one unique characteristic will hurt anything πŸ˜‰

  11. My MC has white hair despite being African-American (in appearance) along with other unique traits that are common in her kind (which are humans with blood mixed with the precursor species so rather uncommon as a whole). However, she’s an anti-hero/destined villain, I’d explain her personality but it’ll end up an essay. There isn’t really a way I can wrap her up in a single sentence or two for that matter.

  12. I despise Edward Cullen for his “too perfectness”, although I didn’t have the knowledge to articulate it at the time. I never related to Bella Swan as a character, either. Is it obvious I don’t like Twilight?

    Anyway, great article.

  13. I thought my daughter wasn’t a Mary Sue, but it’s been so hard to create her. Now I’ve read some drafts I had and she seems so boring. Do you have any recommendations for excersises to create characters?

    Thank you!

  14. Hi when I took some time to dissect Harry Potter I noticed several things that make him a Mary Sue. He makes the Sorting Hat put him in Gryffindor too easily. I felt like he should have gone to Slytherin for the sake of adding a challenge. Speaking of challenges his battles against Voldemort in the first book and the Basilisk in the second book victory came to him far too easily And he makes hard decisions too easily in his very first year at Hogwarts. And he has been characterized as almost always having the right instincts which in addition to Harry’s rule breaking goes mostly unpunished fueling his ego which caused him to go save Sirius and endanger his love ones. In other words Snape was not wrong to call him arrogant. What do you think?

  15. One more thing I agree with much the article because I have spent much of my time trying to make my characters not Mary Sues. But lately it has very difficult. I once made a character that was very much a Mary Sue but I reduced him to something more plausible by making him more of a thinker than a fighter. Then I decided to take a step further by removing any fighting abilities I gave him. Unfortunately I made him this ninja-like infiltrator and my plot will not work if he has no fighting abilities. So I considered just reducing his skill level by having his training cut short will that make sense?

  16. The Mary Sues I have read about are usually in dystopian societies with long brown hair,a male friend who is a love interest that has few emotions-but this girl is special!she sucks at fighting and is weak yet becomes a ninja because a prophecy insists.she is plain but also gorgeous.

  17. Great article that I will likely take my characters through when I’m more awake. There is just one tiny thing I wanted to point out, though, because it bugged me. You specifically called out violet eyes and said that they don’t exist in real life. Well… Elizabeth Taylor would like to disagree with you, as would one of the girls I went to high school with. They aren’t a COMMON colour by any stretch of the imagination, but they also aren’t completely unheard of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *