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Monday, August 7, 2017

Fixing the Mary Sue Character in Your Story

The term "Mary Sue" started in fanfiction, back when someone wrote a Star Trek story that had a character with that name, but a Mary Sue can pop up in original fiction too. Really, she can pop up anywhere. But she hardly ever pops up in published fiction or professional fiction--because she often bars those works from those markets. So if you've only ever read books you can buy off a bookshelf, you may have never meet her.

"Mary Sue" is a derogatory term for a particular (yet reoccurring) character type that many beginning writers write about. But she's a problematic and poor character for several reasons. A lot of people may have different definitions for what "Mary Sue" means, and there are different subcategories for different types.

Probably the most common Mary Sue is the one that is inexplicably talented at everything, falls in love with a hunky guy or is related to a significant person, gorgeous, and embodies pure wish fulfillment. This sort of Mary Sue is what usually crops up in fanfiction, because she's inserted into an existing universe that the author already knows and loves.

However, as someone who edits unpublished, original fiction, the Mary Sue I often run into is a different type.

Does your female character embody these?

Is Your Character a Mary Sue?

  • - Often she contributes almost nothing to the story or plot--and yet, everyone adores her. (Alternatively, she's insanely talented and every problem is ultimately solved easily by her--more common in fanfiction.)

  • - At some point, she might eventually be considered very valuable, by others or to the plot, but often it's a passive value. Something she just *is* instead of anything she does.

  • - She's probably clumsy. Sometimes ridiculously so, as in, she can't even walk down the sidewalk or go down a couple of stairs without worrying she's going to fall. Bonus Mary Sue points if a male (usually a love interest or family member) comments on how klutzy she is and has to have her hold onto him just to walk somewhere. Extra bonus Mary Sue points if she falls in front of a cute guy or the love interest or when it would be most embarrassing (which, of course, is in front of a cute guy). 

  • - She doesn't see herself as beautiful, but somehow the author finds a way to convey to the audience that she is drop dead gorgeous without even trying.

  • - She does nothing, but yet people feel sorry for her and her problems. These are often problems she makes little to no effort to fix, or problems she doesn't even consciously think about fixing or improving.

  • - She needs a lot of saving--either from these problems, or because she's a helpless [insert character trait (hint: probably has to do with being a klutz)]

  • - Often other characters (usually male) go out of their way to help her with her problems--and sometimes really out of their way, like they might miss the most important meeting of their career, a prestigious performance opportunity, their mom's birthday party, or work. Whatever they miss, one thing often holds true--it was more important than whatever the female character needed help with. It might be an injury she got while being clumsy or maybe she's just sad about school and how "hard" (hint: she has one of the easiest lives of all the characters) her life is, or maybe it's just that perennial problem that she has and has made zero effort to try to solve and/or would not have even been in to begin with if she weren't so darn passive. Whatever it is, people (friends, males, family, males (whoops, did I say "males" twice?)) inexplicably bend over backwards for her. Usually people--plural, not singular.

  • - She probably cries more than any other character, even though many of the other characters have more significant things they could cry about. She cries sometimes over day-to-day challenges that the average person faces anyway. It might be over a problem she hasn't tried to fix or that she puts herself in (though the author never points those things out). For example, she might cry repeatedly over a school club she's a part of but hasn't bothered to leave. She probably cries on the behalf of other people too--people who don't even cry about their own problems.

  • - She'll likely trip in the first 50 pages, but in a way that highlights and exaggerates her beauty.

  • - If you took her out of the context of the story, you might realize she's actually kind of pathetic and passive, and yet, inexplicably, everyone STILL adores her.

  • - Often she feels stupid or foolish, but the hottest guys fight over her (heaven knows why).

  • - She's more romantically or sexually inexperienced than the love interest and worries about not knowing what she's doing and what he'll think. (Bonus points if she somehow ends up being the best thing he's ever had regardless.)

  • - All in all, she just attracts a lot of male attention, whether it's romantic or brotherly or just male strangers in the street.

  • - A lot of the time she's a wish-fulfillment character (traditionally, the author's wish fulfillment). This is why she's adored and hailed as the most important person in other people's lives and considered very special, even though she feels stupid, uncoordinated, and helpless; this is why she's actually gorgeous when she feels ugly; this is why people drop the most important moments of their personal lives to save or nurse her back to health.

  • - The flaws she has are meant to be endearing and don't actually contribute to the main problems of the plot. They may exist, but are unimportant beyond the very surface of the story

  • - She tends to be in "parent-child" relationships. This relationship can be exaggerated with her parents, but it often crops up in other relationships--whether it's from the best friend, love interest, or brother. Whatever the case, she's usually the "child" while the other person is her "parent" in the relationship. The "parent" is taking care of her, warning her, helping her, praising her, directing her--even though she's 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, or 23 years old. Whether or not she obeys, she listens to them and maintains her role of "child" in that relationship. In fact, she often seems utterly accepting of her "child" role.

Bonus Round (yes, there is more) 

  • - She has a unique hair or eye color (in a story with fantasy or sci-fi elements, the colors may change or be unnatural compared to ordinary humans) and it's described in "I'm-trying-to-be-poetic" language (a.k.a. "purple prose"). Extra, extra bonus points if it takes at least five words to describe.

  • - She has an unusual or rare name.

  • - She's a stand-in for the author (an extended version of wish fulfillment), so that the author can live in this fictive universe. This is especially true for fanfiction. ("I wish I could go to Hogwarts and be in a relationship with Draco Malfoy")

  • - She's a half-breed of some sort. Half-blood, half witch, half alien, half elf, half animal, were-dragon, (again, this is something that makes her special based on what she *is* and not what she does).

  • - She discovers she has a familial bond with another character or discovers a family secret. Extra points if there is a tragic (often cliche) backstory.

  • - While she might be uncoordinated or pathetic, in other versions she's unusually and unrealistically talented at just about everything--more things to further extents than anyone could realistically be that good at.

  • - In the opening of the story, she's late to somewhere important. Extra points if it's her own fault, negligence, or because she slept in.

  • - She may have over emotional reactions to things that don't merit such an emotional reaction. For example, she might yell at someone who is trying to help her or cry because her (ordinary) school day is "hard."

If you are sweating it out now, don't. I'm going to give you some tips that will help.

First off, an important point. Can a male character be a Mary Sue? Yes, but they are called a "Marty Stu" or a "Gary Stu." They may be a little different than a Mary Sue, particularly in the fact that they don't necessarily need a ton of female attention or a romantic plot line (though it's not uncommon to have a million girls falling all over him either). Just as a version of Mary Sue is that she is good at everything and that her flaws are meant to be endearing rather than real flaws, Marty Stu is often insanely good at everything too, and any flaws he might have might actually be cool or tough or likeable (like being overly arrogant). Marty Stu is not as common as Mary Sue though, and he's usually more tolerated in today's society, as his attributes are still often praised as the epitome of male-ness, while today's society finds many of the traits of Mary Sue to be offensive to women.

Not all of the Mary Sue Traits are Terrible

There are reasons this character type reappears over and over and over again--hundreds or thousands of times a year (most of them don't make it to the bookshelf or big screen, though both Bella from Twilight and Rey from The Force Awakens have been accused of each being a Mary Sue). It's because there are people who are attracted to those character traits. Not all the Mary Sue traits are bad, but together, they cause problems. Look at what kind of person those outlined features created. And yet everyone and their dog adores them? Love interests fight over them? It doesn't make sense. Look at how unrealistic that person is.

Many of these traits would be fine added to a more realistic, rounded character:

  • - She's beautiful, but doesn't know it.
  • - She has innate or inborn value
  • - She's half human
  • - She discovers a family secret
  • - She's inexperienced
  • - She's clumsy

None of these are inherently bad (though most of them are overused--especially the first and last in the list).

Wish fulfillment isn't innately bad either. There are loads of successful wish fulfillment characters and wish fulfillment stories. In fact, most if not all successful stories feed into some sort of wish fulfillment (that's usually why people pick up the book).

The Problems of the Mary Sue

One of the main and common problems with the Mary Sue is that the relationship between her traits and how others treat and react to her, don't make a lot of sense.

If you knew a person in real life who cried regularly about her problems but did next to nothing about them, are you really going to miss your chance to break into a big acting career to go nurse her pathetic, fragile emotions? Probably not. (And if you are, aren't you just enabling that kind of mentality?)

If you knew someone who acted as the "child" in all her significant relationships, would you really look up to her?

If you were a love interest, would you really fight over a girl who is so passive she gives Bella Swan a run for her money?

If there was a girl who got scratched up from watching Aragon take on armies of orcs and Frodo almost die destroying the Ring, would we later compliment how brave she was?


Sometimes what's unrealistic are the character traits themselves. In some cases they may even be contradictory. For example, she's incredibly clumsy but later in the scene she wins an athletic competition. Everyone tells her how beautiful she is, and she acts like she's hearing it for the first time . . . . every time. All the guys in the story have crushes on her, but she's shocked when the hot guy actually asks her out, and we learn she has no experience with guys (even though she's always wanted a boyfriend and every guy in the story ogles her). The other characters have lived through more trauma, but she subconsciously expects or hopes that they will nurse her insignificant problems.

If she has any flaws, they are portrayed as endearing or acceptable. As a society, do we really want to portray passivity and incompetence and uncoordination and child-like dependence as endearing? Acceptable? Now, I'm not saying you can't have a character who has these traits, but it's important to watch how they are handled, and the ideas that have already been established and perpetuated in entertainment (especially outdated entertainment).

By the way, it's completely possible to make your character endearing through other traits. In Harry Potter, in Harry's viewpoint in the sixth book, Hermione is described as endearing in passing because of her loyalty and faith in libraries and books. Intelligence and tenacity can be endearing, not passivity. Endearing comes from other characters knowing and appreciating a character's traits or personality.

Nursing the Mary Sue Back to Reality

The Mary Sue character isn't some gross, obscene character that only the most incompetent people write. She has a name because so many passionate writers have written her at some point. If you have a Mary Sue character, you're probably normal.

In an effort to fix the Mary Sue, some writers try to take her traits (some or all) to the far opposite, creating what is called an "Anti-Sue," which really isn't much better. I talked about this similar thing happening in my post The "Twins as Clones" Writing Epidemic, where in an effort to differentiate twin characters, the author tries to make them extreme opposites. This can be just as cartoony and unrealistic.

If you really love your Mary Sue character and can't part with her, you are free to keep some of her traits and abilities. But in order to create a more rounded, likeable, believable character, you need to be her best friend, brother, love interest, or mysterious stranger that nurses her back to the real world--or at the least the real fiction world.

Some of these things may seem straightforward when you start looking at them. If she's crying a lot, cut the crying. Excessive crying often happens in stories when the author is trying too hard to create sympathy for the character, instead of empathy. But true empathetic emotional power often comes from focusing on and rendering what causes those feelings rather than only on the feelings themselves.

If everyone loves her inexplicably, change it. However, be careful not to make the only people who don't like her rude, unlikeable, and unsympathetic, which is another telltale of a Mary Sue in a story.

Cut the clumsiness and give her a flaw that is more unusual.

If she's passive, make her more active in the story and in solving problems. She can fail, fail, and fail again, but in her sphere of power, she should at least be trying, and if she's not, show us a clever reason why. For example, in M. Night Shyalaman's most recent movie, Split, the protagonist is a very passive, young female. But not only do we learn multiple reasons why she is so passive (and they're legitimate), but we see that in reality, she does have a plan, but it's quiet, subtle, and requires waiting for the perfect moment.

If everyone bends over backwards for her, give the secondary and side characters their own lives, and moments where they chose their own lives over hers.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the most effective way to nurse a Mary Sue is to brainstorm not broader, but deeper. Don't make her more broad by adding more and more things to her; instead, dig deeper and deeper into her psychologically and explore interesting inner thoughts, motivations, fears, and contradictions, and how those things manifest themselves outwardly and in the story. Brainstorm and brainstorm and brainstorm some more, because the cliches are always what come to mind first, and if there is one thing about nursing a Mary Sue to reality, it's moving beyond cliches.


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