Fixing Mary Sue

Who is Mary Sue? Mary Sue is a character that is too perfect, the one that has or does cool things just because they're cool. Everybody likes them, and anyone who doesn't gets their comeuppance in the end. Mary Sue is the author's wish fulfillment.

Sue is most common in fan fiction.* You know, where the author's character is best friends with Luke Skywalker, Jayne Cobb, and Jean-Luc Picard. I don't think there's anything wrong with Mary in these contexts, but if you're trying to get published, you want to do away with Sue.

I don't think real Mary Sues appear in fiction as often as some say they do, but they do happen.

How do you avoid this? I mean, I [try to] make a living out of writing cool characters who do awesome things. And basically every character draws from myself in some way. How do I keep my super-cool pirates/ninjas/mech pilots from becoming wish fulfillment?

Here are some ideas:
  • Give them a flaw. Not an adorable non-flaw like "clumsiness," but a real flaw like "hell-bent on revenge and too proud to admit it."
  • Support their awesomeness. Why are they the youngest, most clever assassin in history? Did they train harder than everyone else? Were they kidnapped at birth and brutally trained to be a killer by a father figure who never loved them?
  • Make them fail. It's even better if it's their flaws that cause them to fail.
  • Don't let them be the best at everything. Have other characters be better than them at some things, both friends and enemies.
  • Give them likable enemies. Not just spiteful, ugly step-sisters, but characters whose opinions the reader can respect.

I don't think Mary Sue appears as much as the internet thinks she does, but it is something to watch out for. If you think you've got a Mary Sue, you need to cruelly examine everything about them and everything they do. Mess them up, make them fail, and ask why they are the way they are.

Who's Mary Sue in the end? It's you (and also Steven Seagal).

* The term 'Mary Sue' was coined by Paula Smith in 1973, when she wrote a parody Star Trek fan-fic starring Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest and most-loved Lieutenant in the fleet. You can read it here (page 25). It's kinda hilarious.


Matthew MacNish said...

I always thought of Mary Sue as only being a potential love interest (or at least best friend) of the protagonist. Whereas a flawless protagonist was more like author insertion. Still, I do think they overlap, and it's clearly a problem (though I agree, not as widespread as people argue).

vic caswell said...

this- 100%

Sarah Ahiers said...

LMAO at the Segal line!
Man, you should've seen the awesomeness of my Mary-Sue character in my high school FanFiction. IT WAS EPIC!

Have you seen this Mary Sue Litmus test? I play around with it all the time. It's hilarious

Litmus Test

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Why couldn't they have named her Mary Jane?


Steve MC said...

Yikes - the Litmus Test link made me afraid of having committed a major Mary Sue.

Then I read the Star Trek story and felt a lot better. The only part I was guilty of there was giving my character the Tralfamadorian Order of
Good Guyhood.

Thanks for the tips!