Mary Sue. It’s the phrase that makes nearly every writer cringe. To have a character labeled a Mary Sue is probably one of the worst feelings in the world, but why is that? What exactly is a Mary Sue?
The term Mary Sue originated as, yah you guessed it, a character named Mary Sue in the 1973 Paula Smith story entitled “A Trekkie’s Tale”. The story was a parody fan fiction centered around a 15 year old girl who epitomized the Mary Sue term we know and dread today. She was the youngest, smartest, prettiest, most well-trained teen ever to grace the Star Trek universe. Not surprisingly, the character was so ridiculously over-done that readers could only sit back, shake their heads, and laugh over how nauseating the character was.
Now, the original Mary Sue was a parody, but what she stood for was a very real problem. Throughout fan fiction and amateur writing at the time there was a prevalent trend of young female characters often characterized by an overblown assortment of skills, beauty, and intelligence. These characters were often the protégé’s or love interests of older canonized characters, and Paula Smith was right to point a finger at them and say “Look how ridiculous these characters are. Why are we letting authors get away with this?”
The term Mary Sue has changed a bit since then, but the core definition remains the same: A Mary Sue is a character that is often categorized as wish-fulfilling or as a self-insertion/proxy of the author. The character is usually endowed with a wide assortment of positive characteristics that makes all but the very worst of plot conflicts a breeze. They are usually “the best”at any number of things, or somehow special in a way that no other characters in the story are.
Chances are, if you’re a budding writer, you’re probably worried about creating a Mary Sue. No one likes to be told that their characters fall into this category, and there are any number of articles and “tests” you can find on the internet that will tell you what you can and can’t do to a character to prevent them from becoming a Mary Sue. These usually also get tagged with the advice “your character should have an equal amount of positive traits/flaws”. They aren’t wrong, but before you freak out and start taking quizzes that are somehow magically supposed to tell you if your character is a dreaded Mary Sue, take a deep breath.
Okay. Here’s the thing… no quiz, no single article is going to be able to tell you which traits you can and can’t use on your characters in order to avoid turning them into a Mary Sue. Characters are complex, and I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to use your common sense for a moment. I know it’s scary. I promise I’m right here with you.
There’s this trend going around right now where writers and bloggers are telling other writers and bloggers “You can’t use this trait. Your character can’t have this color hair. Don’t do this… don’t do that.” and it is complete and utter rubbish. There are a million and one ways to make a character with any number of these so-called “off limits traits” that won’t turn your character into a Mary Sue. Your character CAN have pink hair. They CAN have two different colored eyes, and they can shape-shift. It’s okay if they’re extraordinarily beautiful, smart, and witty. Soak that in for a second. I’ll wait.
The main thing you need to remember when it comes to avoiding Mary Sue’s is this—be realistic. There’s no magic number of flaws that is going to make your character okay. There’s no limit of positive traits that will stop you just this side of becoming a Mary Sue. There’s no particular hair/eye color or superpower that is going to turn your character into the dreaded “she who shall not be named”. You just need to aim for realism. If your character is beautiful, witty, and a shape-shifter. That’s fine. Go for it. If she can also speak 3 languages and hack… you better have a pretty damn good reason for it… but it’s not impossible. Your characters need to fit within the world you’ve built for them, and there needs to be logical reasons for why they are the way they are. If you keep this simple fact in mind… you, and your characters, are going to be okay.
The phrase “Mary Sue” gets thrown around a lot these days, but if it were me, we’d replace it. “Mary Sue” isn’t a phrase that tells us anything. New writers don’t inherently know what it means when someone accuses their character of being a Mary Sue, and it leads to a whole lot of panicked writers freaking out because they aren’t sure what’s wrong with their characters. So let’s call it what it is: unrealistic character building.
If you find yourself wondering if your character is a dreaded Mary Sue, or heaven forbid, someone accuses you of already having done it… take a deep breath. You can fix it. Just ask yourself a few questions:
- Do all my character’s physical traits make sense based on their family genetics and/or circumstance?
- Are my character’s super powers or abilities relevant and necessary to the plot?
- Is my character the correct age, social standing, and intelligence level to have realistically earned the knowledge I’ve given them?
- Do my character’s relationships with other characters make sense based on personality, situation and age?
- Did I give my character a reasonable amount of personality/physical flaws to offset the amount of positive traits I gave them?
This isn’t the end-all, be-all of checklists, but I think you get the general idea. It’s safe to say that if you answer these questions, you’ll have a decent idea of where your character falls into the Mary Sue spectrum. Just keep telling yourself it’s all going to be okay, remember to breathe, and of course remember: nobody’s perfect.