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How to Avoid the Dreaded Mary Sue

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Characterisation

The dreaded Mary Sue, or Gary Stu - the ultimate insult to a writer! The utterly perfect, endearing character who stands in for real characterisation and mocked as such. Many writers unintentionally create Mary Sues early in their practise but, as we all know, practise makes perfect!


Here’s the rundown of the dreaded term, its disadvantages, and perhaps a route or two into making it work for you.



Who is Mary Sue?


'Mary Sue' is a generic name for a character - usually female, though there is the male equivalent 'Gary Sue' to keep things fine and dandy - who is so competent or perfect that it borders on absurd even in the context of a fictional setting. They are almost boring to readers for lack of flaws and real depth, and other characters stand in stark contrast when sharing a scene with them. Often, Mary Sues are an author’s flawless version of themselves – a idealised self-insertion. Writers new to the writing game are more prone to this as they fear including real personality or physical slights to their characters will turn readers off them.

Why Avoid Writing a Mary Sue?


Their inclusion is often seen as the mark of bad writing and are judged harshly as a result. How could this be when the characters are pretty much 'perfect'?


Simply put: characters should be flawed! There must be room for self-growth. Otherwise, their arc is all action and no thought. The ability to overcome personal factors and barriers in place due to their negative traits is one of the most interesting aspects of a character's make up. Readers often despise Mary Sues, or at least harbour intense dislike for them, resenting their unearned perfection and being unable to connect to him or her as they might a more realistic character.


You can't blame them: Mary Sues rob them of a unique uphill climb that ends with a satisfying breakthrough.



Her Traits, And How to Avoid Them

Trait: The character is based, at least partially, on the author themselves. Avoid: There's nothing wrong with inserting some personal traits in there, but tread carefully: it is easy to unintentionally install an idealised version of yourself into your story. This stems from a desire to create a character who is likely to act and react the way you think a person should, or who possesses the best traits you have but none of your worst. Take an honest look at your lesser qualities - your readers may connect far more favourably to your worst habits than your best! Trait: The character has no significant flaws – except ‘flaws’ which other characters find cute or endearing Avoid: Choose a personal flaw which puts them at odds with other characters or prevents them from fixing the story’s conflict. This will force them to work on themselves and see personal growth throughout your narrative. Readers are not fooled by cutesy quirks disguised as weaknesses, and many will not appreciate the mask! Trait: The character is treated as wonderful and beautiful by others. Many fall in love with them at one point given any contact whatsoever. Exceptions are clearly evil, ‘not right’, and/or motivated by jealousy. Avoid: Include relevant flaws, use unembellished descriptions, and don’t even hint at romantic interest unless it develops the story significantly. Let's stress that last point: avoid unnecessary or unimportant shows of romantic notions. Don't shy away from physical flaws, either, unless you truly believe having one would actually make a character unlikable. (Hint: It won't.) Trait: The character undergoes no significant growth, change or noteworthy development throughout the story. The have overcome no personal inner struggles, experienced no learning curve, and always got it right the first time round. Avoid: Plot in advance: why can’t they ‘succeed’ at the start, and what transformations are needed before the climax? Once you know the trajectory of their personal development, you can start plotting obstacles they will fail at and learn from. Privilage and dumb luck will only get them so far! Trait: The character alone has all the skills needed to fix the story’s conflict either from the get-go or gathers what they need fairly independantly as the story goes. By the end of the tale, they really are the only one who deserves celebration. Avoid: Break down requirements to ‘fix’ the conflict or problem, give some other required skills to others who can then help form a team. Allow for portions where the would-be Mary Sue needs to rely on others because they are not able to continue on without outside support.

Trait: The character will be extremely talented or intelligent with no evidence of work behind it to have reached the level they are at. They could pick up an object and just 'get the knack for it' when others would struggle.

Avoid: Have solid ‘evidence’ to explain any skill you give them. As the mathematics teachers would say: show your work! Highlight when and where they became so skilled, and if you plan to easily explain it away by alluding to a training period which pre-dates the story, a great idea is to have this commitment come at some form of cost – for example, training so hard they didn’t have time to work on some social skills. This feels like a fairer trade-off to a reader who doesn't want to stretch the realms of possibility with some 'damn convenient' skillset. Bonus: Try to include a lack of skill too, for example, a fine soldier could be an awful cook or archer if their father only taught them how to swordfight.


Can They Ever Be Used Well?


Some readers, especially teens and young adults, like to slot themselves into the place or a flawless, self-idolised character so there is a demographic out there! Choosing to place the character in a secondary role may also be a road forward as they aren't expected to be as fleshed out or laid bare as your primary cast. Having your flawed and realistic protagonist be related to / roommates with / competing for love against / in some other way linked to a Mary Sue can open up many plot and character development opportunities. After all – how does one combat a Mary Sue? I’d like to find out!


The dreaded Mary Sue, or Gary Stu - the ultimate insult to a writer! The utterly perfect, endearing character who stands in for real characterisation and mocked as such. Many writers unintentionally create Mary Sues early in their practise but, as we all know, practise makes perfect!


Here’s the rundown of the dreaded term, its disadvantages, and perhaps a route or two into making it work for you.



Who is Mary Sue?


'Mary Sue' is a generic name for a character - usually female, though there is the male equivalent 'Gary Sue' to keep things fine and dandy - who is so competent or perfect that it borders on absurd even in the context of a fictional setting. They are almost boring to readers for lack of flaws and real depth, and other characters stand in stark contrast when sharing a scene with them. Often, Mary Sues are an author’s flawless version of themselves – a idealised self-insertion. Writers new to the writing game are more prone to this as they fear including real personality or physical slights to their characters will turn readers off them.

Why Avoid Writing a Mary Sue?


Their inclusion is often seen as the mark of bad writing and are judged harshly as a result. How could this be when the characters are pretty much 'perfect'?


Simply put: characters should be flawed! There must be room for self-growth. Otherwise, their arc is all action and no thought. The ability to overcome personal factors and barriers in place due to their negative traits is one of the most interesting aspects of a character's make up. Readers often despise Mary Sues, or at least harbour intense dislike for them, resenting their unearned perfection and being unable to connect to him or her as they might a more realistic character.


You can't blame them: Mary Sues rob them of a unique uphill climb that ends with a satisfying breakthrough.



Her Traits, And How to Avoid Them

Trait: The character is based, at least partially, on the author themselves. Avoid: There's nothing wrong with inserting some personal traits in there, but tread carefully: it is easy to unintentionally install an idealised version of yourself into your story. This stems from a desire to create a character who is likely to act and react the way you think a person should, or who possesses the best traits you have but none of your worst. Take an honest look at your lesser qualities - your readers may connect far more favourably to your worst habits than your best! Trait: The character has no significant flaws – except ‘flaws’ which other characters find cute or endearing Avoid: Choose a personal flaw which puts them at odds with other characters or prevents them from fixing the story’s conflict. This will force them to work on themselves and see personal growth throughout your narrative. Readers are not fooled by cutesy quirks disguised as weaknesses, and many will not appreciate the mask! Trait: The character is treated as wonderful and beautiful by others. Many fall in love with them at one point given any contact whatsoever. Exceptions are clearly evil, ‘not right’, and/or motivated by jealousy. Avoid: Include relevant flaws, use unembellished descriptions, and don’t even hint at romantic interest unless it develops the story significantly. Let's stress that last point: avoid unnecessary or unimportant shows of romantic notions. Don't shy away from physical flaws, either, unless you truly believe having one would actually make a character unlikable. (Hint: It won't.) Trait: The character undergoes no significant growth, change or noteworthy development throughout the story. The have overcome no personal inner struggles, experienced no learning curve, and always got it right the first time round. Avoid: Plot in advance: why can’t they ‘succeed’ at the start, and what transformations are needed before the climax? Once you know the trajectory of their personal development, you can start plotting obstacles they will fail at and learn from. Privilage and dumb luck will only get them so far! Trait: The character alone has all the skills needed to fix the story’s conflict either from the get-go or gathers what they need fairly independantly as the story goes. By the end of the tale, they really are the only one who deserves celebration. Avoid: Break down requirements to ‘fix’ the conflict or problem, give some other required skills to others who can then help form a team. Allow for portions where the would-be Mary Sue needs to rely on others because they are not able to continue on without outside support.

Trait: The character will be extremely talented or intelligent with no evidence of work behind it to have reached the level they are at. They could pick up an object and just 'get the knack for it' when others would struggle.

Avoid: Have solid ‘evidence’ to explain any skill you give them. As the mathematics teachers would say: show your work! Highlight when and where they became so skilled, and if you plan to easily explain it away by alluding to a training period which pre-dates the story, a great idea is to have this commitment come at some form of cost – for example, training so hard they didn’t have time to work on some social skills. This feels like a fairer trade-off to a reader who doesn't want to stretch the realms of possibility with some 'damn convenient' skillset. Bonus: Try to include a lack of skill too, for example, a fine soldier could be an awful cook or archer if their father only taught them how to swordfight.


Can They Ever Be Used Well?


Some readers, especially teens and young adults, like to slot themselves into the place or a flawless, self-idolised character so there is a demographic out there! Choosing to place the character in a secondary role may also be a road forward as they aren't expected to be as fleshed out or laid bare as your primary cast. Having your flawed and realistic protagonist be related to / roommates with / competing for love against / in some other way linked to a Mary Sue can open up many plot and character development opportunities. After all – how does one combat a Mary Sue? I’d like to find out!


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