My first fanfiction was set in the world of the movie Sky High, and my main character was a girl named Lorena who had every superpower that I could think to give her. She was gorgeous, shy, modest, sweet, and was in total control of…everything. And she managed to turn a total jerk (Lash, if you’ve seen the movie) into a nice guy just by making him fall in love with her.
Oh, but don’t worry—she had a severe facial scar. Because that clearly redeemed her.
When I first heard the term “Mary Sue,” I didn’t realize that there was such a thing as a character who was too perfect. In case you haven’t heard the term, the first definition that pops up in google is this: “A Mary Sue is an original character in fanfiction, usually but not always female, who for one reason or another is deemed undesirable by fan critics. A character may be judged Mary Sue if she is competent in too many areas, is physically attractive, and/or is viewed as admirable by other sympathetic characters.” In other words, someone who a) couldn’t exist in real life and b) you would hate if they did.
Of course, one of the most important things to mention is that Mary Sues—since they’re original characters—can exist in fanfiction or original fiction. They’re easy to spot in fanfiction since there’s a pre-established world, but they’re just as annoying in original stories too.
So when my friend, in all niceness, called Lorena a Mary Sue, my defenses certainly came up. After all, why wouldn’t I have a character who was exactly who I wanted to be? And why wouldn’t other people enjoy reading about her?
The truth that you’ve probably discovered in reading but may not be aware of in your writing is that readers like a character with flaws. You want a relatable protagonist, not an idealized one. So if you’re like me and instinctively want to smooth out your characters’ rough edges, here are some tips:
- APPEARANCE: Make your character’s appearance average—perhaps admirable or attractive, but not the kind that draws attention from everyone they pass
- PERSONALITY: If your character has a really good character trait—say, they’re just really kindhearted and good—you have to balance that out. You can do that two ways: 1. They have a flaw that contrasts that trait, like the tendency to lie to make people feel better, or 2. That good trait goes overboard and causes more problems (eg: they’re really nice to someone who turns out to be a murderer and inadvertently encourages them to kill people).
- ABILITIES: If they’re good at something, make them really good at one, maybe two things, OR moderately good at a handful of things. They have to have a specialty and then be weaker in everything else.
- RELATIONSHIPS: In relationship to other characters: give them some enemies and/or people who are just indifferent towards them. They can have good friends and love interest(s), but not everyone should fawn over them.
One of the greatest resources I’ve come across to help process the concept of Mary Sues is this online “litmus test”: http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm. Just to give you an overview of what to expect, the test asks questions about your character’s physical appearance, powers (physical or supernatural abilities), effect on other characters, and personality. Even if you haven’t created an Original Character yet, this detailed list will give you an excellent idea of what to avoid. It was a real shock for me when I put Lorena through the litmus test and she scored way above the minimum in order to be considered a Mary Sue.
If you’re just learning about Mary Sues and discovering you have a tendency to write them, don’t worry. You might feel a little defensive at first; I certainly did. But character development requires a different and new skill-set than writing in general. You can be an excellent writer who happens to be creating Mary Sues right now. However, now that you’re able to evaluate how your character ranks on this Mary Sue scale, you can see qualities that you can change and enhance to create a more likeable, believable character.