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.