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No One’s Perfect, Except for Mary Sue: Why Your Characters Shouldn’t Be Flawless

September 14, 2023

Have you ever been told your character is a Mary Sue? Or maybe you’ve heard someone refer to a character from a book or a movie as one. Calling a character “Mary Sue” can often be derogatory feedback, but what does that mean? This article explores some of the definitions and characteristics of Mary Sues and what you can do to prevent your character from becoming one.

What is a “Mary Sue”?

A “Mary Sue” is a term often used to describe a specific type of character in literature. While there isn’t a universally agreed-upon definition, the idea of a Mary Sue originated in Star Trek fan-fiction. It is generally understood as a character, often female, who is an author-insert or an idealized version of the author serving the purpose of wish-fulfillment. 

This character is usually perfect in every way, plays a crucial role in the story, is exotically beauty (typically with a rare trait like unusual hair or eye color), overly talented in many areas, and has answers to every problem. Everyone in the story is often overwhelmed with admiration for her, even characters who are normally antisocial or distrustful. 

The term has evolved to be derogatory, meaning either an author-insert character or an idealized character who is exceptionally talented, has no meaningful flaws, but may have a tragic backstory. 

The male equivalent of a Mary Sue is known as a Marty Stu or Gary Stu. He outshines other male characters in every aspect, being brave, handsome, intelligent, and incredibly capable.

How to identify a Mary Sue

Mary Sues or Marty Stus are often one-dimensional, flat, and lack nuance. Nothing about them distinguishes their wants and needs from others. They typically show one or all of the following characteristics:

  • They are extremely talented at everything. Their skills appear without explanation and outmatch everyone around them.
  • They remain at the forefront of the conflict or the conflict revolves around them. Because of their talents, they have the solution to every problem and almost single-handedly save the day.
  • They have an exotic nature. This can include an unusual name or beauty, or both, which makes them incredibly attractive.
  • They have a dramatically tragic backstory.
  • They lack weaknesses or realistic flaws, making them immune to negative consequences. They have no struggle, and because of this, no arc.
  • They quickly establish a well-loved position among the other characters. This can look like being admired and taken into the others’ trust or having a close relationship with an important character, such as a lost sister, lover, or illegitimate child.

Misuse of “Mary Sue”

The term is often misused or misattributed to characters that don’t actually fit the definition. Some common misuses include referring to any cliched character backstory or any character that is poorly written. 

It is sometimes used as a misogynistic term to label a prominent female character a person dislikes for any reason.

Examples of Mary Sues

There are three categories of examples. Confirmed examples are characters who are universally agreed upon, mildly debated examples are the subject of casual discussion, and hotly debated examples can be found online as intense arguments.

Confirmed Mary Sues/Marty Stus:

  • Bella, from Twilight
  • Anastasia, from 50 Shades of Grey
  • James Bond, from the 007 franchise

Mildly debated Mary Sues/Marty Stus:

  • Harry Potter, from the Harry Potter series
  • Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games

Hotly debated Mary Sues/Marty Stus:

  • Captain Marvel, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe
  • Rey, from the Star Wars franchise
  • Katara, from the Avatar: The Last Airbender series

How to avoid creating a Mary Sue

  • Give your characters flaws and weaknesses. This makes them more relatable as people and helps the audience connect with them. Make sure the character doesn’t seem too perfect, and that their flaws are meaningful and relevant to the story. A trivial flaw would be something that is irrelevant to the story, such as being bad at pottery. Unless your story is about a person trying to run a pottery business or submit a piece to an art show, this has no effect on the story, the character themself, or the characters around them. To make meaningful flaws, focus on an internal weakness or way or thinking that they need to correct by the end of the story in order to feel whole.
  • Give them psychological and moral needs and desires. This adds depth to the character and allows you to create conflicts that oppose their goals, hindering them from getting what they need and want.
  • Have your characters face the consequences of their actions. Let them make mistakes and bad decisions, and ensure they learn from them as the story progresses. Nothing should happen “just because.” Mary Sues often get away with everything and don’t have to face real consequences because they’re too skilled – this is unrealistic and frustrating. Real people make mistakes – they mess up even when they have good intentions. Well-written characters do too.
  • Create a backstory that influences their personality and motivations. This makes your characters feel three-dimensional, even if you don’t include their entire backstory in the narrative. As long as you know what it is, it will influence how you write them and how they come across to the reader. 
  • Avoid making your character the center of attention all the time. Ensure all characters have their moments to shine and contribute to the narrative. There is a reason you created the other characters, or there should be. This reason allows them to take center stage at least once. If they don’t have a purpose, try reworking them or cutting them out.
  • Develop a well-rounded world. Ensure side characters have lives, desires, and opinions separate from the main character, and that they can have conversations and interactions that don’t revolve around the main character. Remember that to them, the protagonist is a part of their lives, but not the focus.

When are author-insert characters acceptable?

Author-insert characters can be good in certain contexts, such as the coming-of-age genre, where the story is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. These characters are acceptable here because they make sense as main characters – the story is about discovery, finding identity, and exploring who you are as a person. 

However, it’s important to ensure that the character is complex, flawed, and has an arc. For new writers, creating a Mary Sue can be a learning experience and a gateway into imagination and writing. It can serve as a tool to see themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Using Mary Sues can help new writers understand the importance of creating well-rounded, flawed characters.

***

In summary, the term “Mary Sue” originated as an author-insert character in fan fiction, it has evolved into a derogatory term referring to an overly idealized and flawless character. While it can be undesirable in many situations, there are some circumstances where a Mary Sue is an acceptable character and can be used as a learning tool. To avoid creating a Mary Sue, it is essential to develop well-rounded, flawed characters, with needs and desires, who face the consequences of their actions, and exist in a well-developed world.

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