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The Dreaded Mary Sue: How Not To Write Like a Teenager

What is a Mary Sue? When I started writing more seriously I heard this term bandied about, but did not know what it meant.

Turns out it's one of those things that you probably recognize it when you see it, you just didn't know there was a term for it. Urban Dictionary defines it as:

A female fanfiction character who is so perfect as to be annoying. The male equivlalent[sic] is the Marty-Stu. Often abbreviated to "Sue". A Mary Sue character is usually written by a beginning author. Often, the Mary Sue is a self-insert with a few "improvements" (ex. better body, more popular, etc). The Mary Sue character is almost always beautiful, smart, etc... In short, she is the "perfect" girl. The Mary Sue usually falls in love with the author's favorite character(s) and winds up upstaging all of the other characters in the book/series/universe.

In short, it's a stand-in for you. A too-perfect character who gets to do all kinds of cool stuff, and has no flaws (except for rugged, silent, powerful character flaws), and does everything well. They are the chosen one, and nothing bad will ever happen to them, except for angsty cliché backstory like their parents dying in a car crash, making them the cold warrior they are today.

Don't get me wrong, you can have a main character's parents die in a car crash, you just don't need to stack up that cliché along with so many others.

Reading my writing from my teenage years always makes me blush. The characters are clearly me just "roleplaying" on the page, generating my favorite character, and giving him a cardboard stack of enemies to take out, just for the sake of it. I could write it with style and pizazz, and in that genre (the genre of making your character look good in front of your roleplaying group) or in the genre of fan-fiction, it's expected, and it works.

But outside of that insular club, it's just not going to make a good story.

In order for people to feel like real people on the page (and this applies if your "real person" is, in fact, a dragon) they have to be fully-realized. They have to have flaws. And not edgy, "done to death" flaws selected solely for coolness factor.

"I have trouble trusting people, and a fear of abandonment ever since my parents died, coupled with a burning passion to avenge their murder that often alienates others. Inside, I'm a wellspring of broken feelings and roiling emotions. On the outside, I am stoic."

I mean, give me a break.

Someone who is not a Mary Sue is:

  • Not always the best in every situation.
  • Does not always have the answer.
  • Makes mistakes, and often big ones.
  • Tends to, like most real people, have one thing they do rather well, another thing they do pretty well (related to the thing they do rather well) and a handful of things they do decent at, as well as any average person, and then at least a couple things they seem to have no talent for, or no interest in at all.

You can run your character through the Mary Sue Test just to be sure.

Here are some obvious things to watch out for, when writing your characters:

  • Are you too close to the character? Does hurting the character feel like you are hurting yourself? If so, you might protect them too much, leading to the dreaded Mary Sue invulnerability problem. Nothing can hurt your character, and the reader is made painfully aware of that through several scenes of your character being an effortless badass, and suddenly they just don't care anymore.
  • Are you more fixated on describing how "cool" the character is rather than on who the character is? It's okay that you think your character is cool. But expect an eye roll or two if you belabor their dark eyes or intense stare or how their trenchcoat flares behind them as they execute their killing move. And please, for the love of all that is holy, do not talk about how your character's face is perpetually in shadow.
  • Your character has a scar or deformity, and it actually makes them hotter somehow...no one seems to be bothered by it, yet the character will still sometimes agonize about how "they took everything from me" when they scarred up the character's face. In that case, Dude/Lady, apparently the guy who scarred you up actually improved your social life.
  • They are the best. They are a prodigy, and no one can even come close to their raw natural talent. Bonus points if no one has ever seen anyone like them before, and masters in their field find themselves like a child next to them.
  • You describe their wardrobe in elaborate detail. "He was dressed like a summer storm, all blues and yellows, with finely-tailored inseams resting gently at the tops of his polished loafers. His hands and eyes were delicate, like flowers, and within the depths of his azure-green-emerald eyes there was a hint of sorrow, gleaming like all the half-remembered yesterdays. Meanwhile, his hair flowed in amber waves down his alabaster shoulders...."
  • In short: The character is just too perfect to be real, and thus, we don't care.
  • Stop trying to make the character "cool". Your focus is in the wrong place. Your character should be interesting and believable within the world you've created, and within the context the character is in.

Weaknesses often grow from strengths, but just be sure that your weakness is part of creating a whole character, rather than just another way to illustrate how unbelievably badass your character is.

Do that and your characters will be one step closer to believable people, rather than cardboard cutouts of "cool" people.

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