By Glen C. Strathy
How do you write a character your reader can admire, look up to, and have fun imagining being, without make her so unrealistic you get accused of writing a Mary Sue? How can you write about a character who succeeds against the odds or goes from zero to hero quickly without making them or the story too far-fetched for the reader to suspend disbelief? This can be a real challenge, especially in genre fiction where readers expect an element of escapism and heroes that are larger than life -- or at the very least lead lives far more exciting than their own.
If you're not familiar with the term "Mary Sue," chances are you will encounter it in any discussion of heroes. And being told you're writing a Mary Sue is usually not a compliment.
So let's look at the origin and essential traits of a Mary Sue character and how to avoid the worst examples of Mary Sue-ism in your fiction...
To understand what a Mary Sue character is, you have to understand it's origins in fan fiction. Fan fiction arises whenever people love a work of fiction so much that they want to write their own stories that take place in the same fictional world.
For example, Jane Austen's romance novels were published in the UK in the early 19th century and featured what what was then a contemporary setting. Austen's books have remained popular ever since, so much so that the demand for similar novels has always been high and hundreds of authors have written original romances that take place in the same era, country, and social milieu that Austen's characters inhabit. Regency romance has become a major subgenre of romance literature.
Obviously, you can't copyright a historical or real world setting, so there is no reason anyone shouldn't write a novel set in the same historical or contemporary setting as another author. However, many books have imaginary settings, as is the case with speculative fiction. If you choose to write a story that takes place in a fantasy world or imaginary future invented by another writer, that is act of plagiarism, and can get you into trouble if the other writer's work is still under copyright. Fan fiction goes even further and borrows characters from other authors' works, which is also a form of plagiarism. For this reason, you can't sell or generally make money writing fan fiction, though many people write fan fiction for fun.
The volume of fan fiction being written greatly increased in the last half of the 20th century, inspired particularly by film and television works, the most notable being Star Trek. And within the field of Star Trek fan fiction, arose a particular character type known as the Mary Sue. Writing a Mary Sue character into a piece of fan fiction is a fairly common practice, especially by those who write stories mainly for their own gratification.
If a young person is passionate about a work of fiction, whether Star
Trek, Pride and Prejudice, or any other, it is only natural for them to dream
of being in that world, having the chance to interact with their
favourite characters, and doing many of the exciting things characters
in those stories do. Any passionate fan of a work
understands the appeal of self-insertion fantasies.
Of course, at
the same time as you are imagining yourself in a fictional world, you
will also imagine yourself as the person you would want to be in that
world. Why be in the world of Austen's romances if you still have all the shortcomings
that are stopping you from finding genuine romance in your real life?
Why be in the world of Star Trek if you have none of the skills needed
to join the starship crew on their adventures? So you imagine an ideal version of yourself, the person you would want to be in that world, with all the qualities
you wish you had in real life. You might see yourself as stronger,
braver, smarter, more attractive, more popular, more highly regarded,
more interesting, and more exceptional in every way. That ideal self may be what you base the hero of your fan fiction on.
As long as you're putting an ideal version of yourself at the centre of your fan fiction, you may as well put that character at the centre of the story, and make her better than all the other
characters from the work you're borrowing from. You could make your character wittier and more charming than Elizabeth Bennet, smarter
than Spock, a better captain than Kirk, perhaps a bigger rogue and cad than Mr. Wickham. Your alter ego could be possessed of a wide range of talents and abilities you lack in real life and able to solve every problem faster and easier than the characters
in the original stories. Why not? It's a fantasy, after all, so why not
have fun with it?
The Mary Sue is a character type that began in Star Trek fan fiction as an embodiment of the self-insertion fantasies that many fans indulge in. It's name derives from a character in a flash fiction story by Paula Smith called, "A Trekkie's Tale," which was a parody of fan tiction intended to draw attention to how often young, female writers found themselves inserting an idealized version of themselves into their fan fiction. Here's a video reading of Smith's original story, so you can to familiarize yourself with it (it's short)...
As you can see from "A Trekkie's Tale," the basic traits of a Mary Sue are...
You'll notice that the common thread here is that the actions and nature of Mary Sue seem implausible. Mary Sue stories make one feel as though the writer thinks the character is awesome and wants the readers to think she is awesome, but has not managed to write a story that conveys the character's awesomeness with enough plausibility that the readers can suspend their disbelief.
Setting fan fiction aside, authors of wholly original works of fiction are sometimes accused of writing a Mary Sue as their main character. Characters can be labelled Mary Sues if they are possessed of exceptional talents or admirable qualities that give them an unfair advantage over characters, if they are clearly "better" than everyone around them, or if they seem to solve problems too easily and consistently. They are also more likely to receive such accusations if the story seems overly contrived, as if the writer is loading the dice in favour of the character, or the story universe is bending its own the rules to make the character appear awesome at the cost of good storytelling. (Good stories are about people doing hard things, not characters for whom everything is easy.)
This has made some people wonder if the term Mary Sue can be applied to all heroes who are larger than life-- who are possessed of exceptional skills or traits. Is Superman a Mary Sue? What about Batman? Where do you draw the line between a larger than life hero who readers will agree is awesome and a hero readers refuse to accept as awesome, despite the writer's best effort?
More importantly, how do you know if you are writing a Mary Sue? And if you are writing a Mary Sue, is that necessarily a problem? Here's what I think is the best strategy to avoid the negative criticism you might incur by inadvertently writing a Mary Sue...
As I noted above, the biggest sign that a character is a Mary Sue is the sheer amount of implausibility associated with her. Her traits are implausible. Her victories seem implausible. And the writer seems willing to violate the plausibility of the plot in order to bestow the character with praise and accolades.
So, as a writer, the best thing you can do to prevent your character from being accused of being a Mary Sue is to make sure that, no matter how awesome they are, they must be plausibly awesome. The story universe must not bend the rules to make things easy for the character. The character must earn every victory and accolade she receives. The character must not be so over-skilled that nothing is a challenge, because that takes away all tension in the plot. If the story is plausible, few will accuse you of writing a Mary Sue. Instead, she will just be an awesome character.
Here are some specific ways to avoid writing a Mary Sue...
Real people have strengths and weaknesses. There are things they are good at, and things they are not good at. There are aspects of their personality that help them in some situations, but hinder them in others. In real life, if someone seems perfect, that just means you don't know them well enough to see their flaws.
If you're writing a main character who is an idealized version of yourself -- the person you would like to be in another life -- be honest. Don't just give your character traits and skills you might have had if you had been privileged enough to be born in another body, era, or world. Give her the problems and challenges you might have had if you were born into those circumstances as well. Deny her the benefits you received from being born into your current life. Your character must come across as a real person, and no real person lives an ideal life. In fact, even if someone has what looks like a perfect upbringing, such an upbringing would come with its own challenges, including the risk of developing unlikeable personality traits. (If you don't have to be nice to people in order to get along, you may never learn to.) In other words, make your character as much like a real person as possible. Shun idealization for realism.
Along the same lines, don't make your character good at everything or possessed of such a wide range of skills that they seem unrealistic. You especially don't want a character who just happens to have the right skills for every problem that comes her way. Give her skills, by all means, but make sure it is plausible for her to have gained the skills she has. And, have realistic gaps in her skillset. There should be things she doesn't know how to do.
As the comic book creator Richard C. Meyer likes to point out, the only time anyone ever called Spiderman "amazing" was in the title of the comic book series, The Amazing Spiderman. In the actual stories, no one in Spiderman's world thinks Spiderman is amazing. He's unpopular in school. The press portrays him as a dangerous vigilante. Even other superheroes talk down to him or find him a nuisance. Nonetheless, the fact that he does heroic deeds despite seldom getting any kind of gratitude or reward makes him seem amazing to the reader.
On the other hand, nothing makes a character seem more like a Mary Sue than having other characters constantly showering her with compliments and saying how awesome she is, especially if you haven't shown your character doing awesome things. Simply having other characters simp for your heroine does not make her seem awesome. It just reads as phony or unjustified. Worse is if your character gets lavish praise for poor decisions or mediocre accomplishments.
While it's true that teachers and parents will often praise children for minor accomplishments in an effort to build up their self-esteem, adult life usually doesn't provide people with such cheerleaders. Often, an unsung hero is more admirable than one who receives undue praise.
Sometimes a character will come across as a Mary Sue because the writer has been lazy about researching the character's profession or the world in which the character operates.
For instance, perhaps you want your character to be a world-class brain surgeon, but you don't know anything about brain surgery. How likely is it you will be able to write a novel in which your character performs difficult brain surgeries in a believable way? Unless you do your homework and learn about the realities and procedures of brain surgery, chances are you will be unable to write the story in a way that feels authentic. You may have to cut corners in your description to gloss over your lack of knowledge. As a result, your character may seem to be solving difficult cases far too easily to be plausible.
You must do your research so you can describe your character's actions realistically and authentically. If your character succeeds at something, she must do so within the boundaries of what is plausible, given the nature of her background and her world. If the reader can see that the character's accomplishments make sense and are earned, you are less likely to be accused of writing a Mary Sue.
In a similar vein...
It is very difficult to write a character who is smarter than you. Characters with gifted intelligence don't think the same way an average person does. They make connections average people don't. They process information differently.
You can write a character who is more knowledgeable than you -- by first taking the time to acquire the knowledge yourself. You can write a character more quick-witted than you, by taking the time to come up with witty remarks and having your character spout them off the top of her head. But if you are not a genius yourself, it's very hard to depict a genius character with any authenticity.
This can be a problem, because if you claim your character is a genius, and other characters say she is a genius, but you can't actually show her thinking and behaving like a genius, then you may be writing a Mary Sue. It may seem like other characters or your narrator are giving your character unjustified praise.
Usually, it is best to simply show your character behaving as intelligently as you can, and let the reader decide if she is a genius. Don't have other characters or your narrator heap praise on your heroine that her actions or decisions don't justify.
The same is true for any other quality or trait. Have the character behave in a way that is authentic, and let the reader conclude from that evidence what personality traits the character possesses. Don't say your character has a beautiful face and figure. Show how men react around her. Show how her physicality plays a part in her efforts -- giving her both advantages and challenges -- and the readers can draw their own conclusions. If you feel inclined to give her an exceptional trait (e.g. violet eyes, multicoloured hair) just to make her seem awesome, consider instead making her do awesome things in a plausible way.
Writers who want their character to seem awesome sometimes make the mistake of having her succeed at every challenge, solve every problem, accomplish every intent, and win every fight from the start of the novel to the end. Unfortunately, this does not actually make the character seem awesome. Rather, it makes the character seem unrealistic and makes the story dull and predictable.
Instead, it's usually better to have your character fail most of the time, especially in the first half of the story. Failure creates pressure for your character to grow, to re-examine her approach, and find a way to get better.
A story about a character who becomes awesome is more interesting than one about a character who starts out awesome and never changes.
It's better to write about a character who keeps getting into worse and worse situations and suffering losses until she is forced to realize her mistakes -- and then makes a heroic effort to take control of the situation and earn a big victory in the end. That's far more interesting than a character who succeeds at everything all along.
I don't mean all your brain surgeon's patients must die in the first half of the story. But it might feel more plausible for her to have a patient die on the operating table during a particularly difficult operation early in the story. This event could force her to question herself and perhaps work to upgrade her skills or change her approach so that, at the climax of the story, when a patient who needs an even more difficult operation shows up, she will be able to save his life.
Undergoing failure is part of most people's lives. We all start out with no experience, skills, or wisdom and must acquire them through challenge. A character who must cope with failure and learn from the experience comes across as more heroic, realistic, and relatable than one who just breezes through life winning at everything.
Of course, there are some adventure stories in which the hero manages to win in almost every situation and doesn't undergo the kind of internal arc in which they come to doubt themselves, grow, and change. Some heroes walk on to the page fully developed and are basically unchanged in the end. Are you necessarily writing a Mary Sue when you create such a character?
A character who has little internal conflict can still work in plot-driven stories without coming across as a Mary Sue, if the external conflict is a serious and genuine challenge to her abilities. Your character can have some small victories along the way, but at the same time make sure the villain has greater ones. Make the threat posed by the villain grow larger as the story progresses. Let the main character suffer costs and setbacks along the way. And above all, don't let your hero defeat the villain until the climax (maybe just have her defeat underlings).
Another problem with writing a Mary Sue is that characters who win too easily or consistently tend to lower lower the stakes and the tension. If the readers have no reason to think the character might fail, they will be less emotionally engaged in the story.
A good example of unintentionally writing a Mary Sue is the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which introduces the character Rey as a potential new Jedi knight.
In the movie, Rey receives a light sabre (a weapon she has never used before) and is forced into a fight with Kylo Ren, an evil Sith Lord who has spent much time honing his skills with the Force and his own light sabre.
And yet, Rey defeats him.
She's never been in a fight with such a weapon, yet she defeats an expert in her first attempt.
Clearly, the movie was trying to establish how awesome Rey is, to turn her into the new hero of the franchise. Yet, by making her succeed so easily and so quickly, the effect was to deflate all the tension from her story and make her seem like a Mary Sue. If a character wins so easily and implausibly on her first attempt, with the odds heavily against her, clearly nothing else will be much of a challenge for her, so there's less reason for the audience to be emotionally invested in her story.
It also did not help that Rey, who was never shown driving anything more than a tractor in the first act of the movie, was able to repair and pilot a spaceship like an expert when called upon. An unrealistic skill set is another Mary Sue quality.
Moreover, Rey's victory in the fight ruined Kylo Ren as a villain. I suspect the filmmakers wanted Kylo to come across as scary, powerful, and menacing -- much as Darth Vader did in the original trilogy. But being defeated by an untrained person so easily made Kylo look weak and ineffectual -- no threat at all.
Traditionally, one of the most important traits for making any hero likeable was to give her personality traits people generally find virtuous or admirable. One of the most common traits people like is humility. If a hero -- male or female -- is smarter, stronger, or more talented than those around her, humility becomes an even more important quality. On the other hand, a character who suffers from pride, arrogance, an exaggerated sense of self-importance or entitlement -- one who seems to think she is smarter, better, righter, or more deserving of attention than others (including those who deserve respect) -- is more likely to come across as unlikeable, just as they often are in real life.
However, in recent decades there has been a bit of a shift toward female main characters who exhibit a lack of humility. In part, this may be due to the idea that women, having been oppressed by living in a male-dominated society, need to be given role models who reject their oppression by being more assertive.
The challenge then is how to make your character assertive without coming across as arrogant. Where do you draw the line between a character who refuses to settle for less than she deserves and one who comes across as entitled? How much self-esteem can she posses without seeming full of herself? What's the difference between self-promotion and bragging? How can you make a character stand up for herself without writing a Mary Sue?
I suspect the place where you draw the line has to do with whether your character thinks of herself as better and more deserving than the people around her, or whether she is simply asserting her right to be treated as well as her peers. And I also suspect much depends on the milieu in which she finds herself. Average treatment in one milieu may be above or below average in another. The type of milieu the typical reader lives in will also influence whether they see a character as entitled or heroically assertive.
To avoid writing a Mary Sue, make sure your hero is likeable and plausible. If she is to be awesome, justify that awesomeness by having her demonstrate awesomeness. Make her someone others would like in real life. Make it plausible for her to have the skills she has, and don't give her an unrealistically big skillset. Have her earn every accolade. Keep your thumb off the scale.