What’s the deal with these Mary Sues?
Most of us are quite familiar with the term, but if you’ve heard it passed around without a proper definition, a Mary Sue is a (traditionally female) character who’s known for being flawless. She’s powerful, beautiful, intelligent, more skilled than her peers, gets herself out of every bad situation with ease, (usually wowing a crowd of bystanders in the process), and ever other character in her age range is either in love with her, wants to be her, or is raging with jealousy for everything she has.
This, ironically, also describes a large percentage of all popular male protagonists ever created. We could rip apart the inherent sexism in the fact that it’s the Mary Sues who are almost exclusively called out, but honestly I don’t have the lung power, nor the energy to roll my eyes at the mob of basement dwellers who will rise out of their holes to sob threateningly at such a discussion.
Why should we avoid writing Mary Sues? Here’s the catch – we shouldn’t always avoid writing Mary Sues. (I’ll touch more on this later.) But a very good reason not to write flawless characters is that real human beings aren’t flawless. Real human beings fail. And so should your characters.
How to avoid writing Mary Sues.
The immediate reaction of most writers trying to avoid writing Mary Sues is to go “well Mary Sues are strong, so the way to avoid writing them is to write weaker characters,” but the reason Mary Sues are often badly written characters is not because they generally fall into some timeless trope of power and prophecy and become the center of the world – it’s because they don’t have to fail in order to grow.
Mary Sues already have (or very quickly acquire) all the traits, skills, and knowledge they need to use their strengths in order overcome all the bad things the story throws at them.
Well written characters have flaws and misconceptions that lead them to fail, thereby personally creating the bad situation they now have to work their way out of. They mean to use their strengths to overcome the bad things, but instead they start out by making things worse, by being slowly crushed by their own flaws and losing the world’s (positive) attention, until finally they choose to grow as people so they can apply their awesome abilities in the right way and finally succeed.
All you have to do to kill your Mary Sue is to almost literally kill them:
- Give your Mary Sues flaws.
- Let your Mary Sues fail because of their flaws.
- Let your Mary Sues create larger and worse problems because of these failures.
- Let other characters abandon and give up on your Mary Sue as these problems grow.
- Then, at the very last minute, let your Mary Sue grow as a person and learn to use their amazingness the way they were meant to, and succeed.
Are Mary Sues always bad?
Not in the slightest. Mary Sues have two amazing uses:
1. As protagonists in children’s and middle grade books. As adults and older teens, we have reached a point in our lives where we’ve all failed miserably at something, and we desperately need to be told that failure isn’t the end, that we can succeed despite the messes we’ve made. Children don’t usually need that yet. They just need to know that dragons can be beaten. That heroes exit. That we’re made of amazing and impossibly cool things.
Which isn’t to say that children’s and middle grade books shouldn’t have characters who grow and learn and fail at times, but the rising tension in children’s books is often created by the protagonists growing continually to meet bigger challenges, while rising tension in books for older readers is caused by the protagonists failures making the challenges increasingly harder and their own emotional state more and more tragic.
2. As the main character in those stories we write for ourselves for the sheer enjoyment of it. If you want to write Mary Sues in your escapist fan fiction, then write those damn Mary Sues. If you want to read about Mary Sues being boss and flawlessly conquering the world, then by all means, read what makes you happy!
Don’t ever feel bad because occasionally a Mary Sue story is more appealing then a story with a realistic protagonist. We all have a little bit of our childhood in us still, and sometimes we need to return to the times in our lives when perfect heroes were believable, even if it’s just for a little while.
In my opinion, the problem with Mary Sues isn’t the Sue, but the world around them. Mary Sues warp the characters and world that surrounds them so that everything revolves around them. Everyone loves them or hates them, to a degree that is downright obsessive. They’re always the most important character in any scene, and the plot always revolves around them and them alone.
So, to fix a Mary Sue problem, fix everyone else in the story. Make sure their behaviour makes sense from their perspective, and that the majority of side characters have motivations that aren’t completely centered around your protagonist.
There is nothing wrong with having a character who is special and unique. What’s wrong is having everyone in the world they live in agree that they’re special and unique.