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/handsome 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.
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.
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!