How NOT to create Mary Sue

The dreaded perfect girl. You don’t want her in your story. And yet, it seems so easy to slip and create a Mary Sue character (or her male counterpart).

Some people believe Mary Sues belong to fanfiction. Wrong. They are often found in fanfiction, because the authors are inexperienced or not particularly talented, but published authors, even famous ones, create them. Stephenie Meyer’s Bella Swan is a perfect example of this, though the quality of the said work is painfully close to mediocre fanfiction. But J.K. Rowling, a much better storyteller, has one, too (Harry Potter has often displayed Gary Stu tendencies). Heck, even Tolkien himself had one (Aragorn), though in his case it’s understandable, since the whole work is basically a construction of a myth.

If you, as a writer, feel you might be creating one, fear not: you are not alone. It seems to be easy to get carried away. But you definitely don’t want to make your character(s) Mary Sue. So, how to avoid this?

In order to know how NOT to create a Mary Sue character, one needs to understand what is the most striking thing about such characters. Usually, people define it as a character being perfect, without significant faults. This is close, but there are Mary Sues with many faults, even more serious ones. And there are perfectly realistic characters who don’t seem to have many faults.

What makes Mary Sue is the fact author sees her faults as good things.

So, no mater what fault you give her (be it selfishness, or vanity, or annoying temper, or rudeness), as long as you don’t present those as real faults, you are stuck with a Mary Sue. She can do anything, be mean to people, hurt them, do dumb things – but as long as you don’t make it clear these are bad, you are making a Mary Sue character.

An author can express her support for the characters in numerous ways, and one of the most annoying is finding excuses for them, even if anybody with a common sense understands the things described are plain wrong, or that the person who did them is stupid. Another sign of supporting Mary Sue is making other character react in illogical way around her, for example, praising her even if she didn’t deserve it, or being full of understanding when her actions call for people’s angry reaction.

So, your goal number one would be treating faults as real faults, and not making excuses for the character. Which brings us to another issue:

You should not get too attached to the character. See the character as a tool for telling your story, not as a beloved friend, love interest or (which is the most common), yourself.

This is very important and yet, almost impossible to do. We all get attached to our characters, to the point we feel they are real, living people. One might even argue that seeing characters as tools create sterile stories, and yes, I would agree. Stories need both heart and mind, and using only your rationality won’t make your story compelling. You need to relax a bit, and yes, part of it is getting attached to the characters and the story itself. I understand it.

But don’t go as far as seeing a character as yourself, or a person you want to be. This is the most common mistake that creates Mary Sues and yes, we’ve all been there. Just step back and try to focus on other characters, too. If you need to attach yourself, or give characters your physical appearance, backstory or interests, at least divide these between all of your characters (even villains!) so you won’t be tempted to get too carried away with one.

The third thing you need in order not to make a Mary Sue is, obviously, your plot. It needs to make logical sense, and one person, even if it’s protagonist, can’t be in charge of everything. If everything important happens to only one character, if she is the only one heroic, if all her dreams come true without an effort… Step back and rewrite at least some of it. Supporting characters exist for a reason. Give them their time to shine. Let your protagonist make mistakes. Let him fight for his happy ending (if you intend to make a happy ending at all).

By following these three easy steps, you will avoid making Mary Sue characters. You can bet on it.

Links

Common Mary Sue Traits
Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism
The The Original Fiction Mary-Sue Litmus Test
The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test

6 thoughts on “How NOT to create Mary Sue

  1. Aiyo

    The Mary Sue are littered in fantasy fiction. Even Sookie from True Blood is a Mary Sue on crack, she supposed to be perfect but is so self-centred and has no agency and the second she get some she does something stupid and needs somebody to save her. Yet she talks about fighting back and being strong.

    Just like Bella.

    I was listening to podcast that discuss the tropes in fantasy fiction and there is almost always a annoying Mary Sue.

  2. Sigg3

    You’ve gotta admit that actress is a great Mary Sue, though!

    You stare into her eyes and there’s absolutely nothing staring back at you..

  3. Dr. Vagrant X

    It seems as though Mary Sues are becoming more prevalent in modern fiction works. As Aiyo indicated, most popular media/stories feature prominent and obvious Mary Sues like Sookie from True Blood, or Bella from the infamous Twilight series. I’m sure they’re are plenty of male examples, but as I’m not a fantasy fiction fan and tend to avoid works that feature Marty Stus or Mary Sues like they’re the bane of my existence, I can’t think of any.

    What’s really sad to me is not the fact that it all reads like horrible fan fiction, but that, ultimately, it just reads as horrible fiction period.

  4. Mira

    Yes, there are many Mary Sues around. But I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon: one would expect many of them in the pre-woman emancipation days.

    But I guess people expect contemporary female characters to be three dimensional. Which is not so difficult to do, if authors do present them as imperfect people who make mistakes, AND (this is very important) if they don’t get so attached to them they are unable to see them as anything less than perfect. (That’s why seeing yourself as a protagonist is not the smartest idea; if you must include your own traits, interests and beliefs, give a little to all of your characters, not just one).

  5. Erica

    This is a wonderful article that you wrote! Thanks for pointing out the obvious Mary Sue of Bella to all the Twilight fans who might have read this. I hate hearing the argument “but Bella is clumsy, therefore not perfect, therefore she is not a Mary Sue” bull-shittery. She IS a Mary Sue, Stephanie Mayer IS a shitty writer, and her novels are nothing more than fan fiction, thankyouverymuch.

    I’ve spent about an hour looking around your website and reading your articles. I like you and your website very much. :)

  6. Mira Post author

    Erica,

    Welcome and thank you for your comment!

    I’m glad you liked my site; sometimes I worry that only the people I know would like my blog. It’s nice to see it can actually make somebody stay for an hour!

    Yes, Stephenie Mayer is a crappy writer. I’m still not tired of saying this. She is a disgrace for teen literature. Her book is not even mediocre. I have no idea how she managed to find a publisher for “Twilight”.

    Bella is clumsy, and it can be a real fault. Anything can be real fault if presented that way. On the other hand, a criminal could be a Mary Sue if the author is making excuses for her. It’s not really about what you choose as a fault, I think, but the way you treat it.

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