I think with any characterization there’s a point where you empathize, no matter how much of a deviance his or her actions may be from your understanding of humanity.
Today, sports fans, I’d like to talk about a subject that is long overdue: the Mary Sue (or the male equivalent, Gary Stu). But before I can talk about her, I think I should define what I think she is. This is important because the webs are teeming with varying definitions, and my idea of what she is may not jive with other people’s; the definition I see most often calls to mind Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way – but I’ve also seen the opposite, where she is described as being impossibly weird. She’s got a bizarre (and an impossibly long) name, eye color, hair color, or other distinguishing feature that somehow signals she’s “special.”
But defining a Mary Sue is hard because characterization is a very complex thing, and it goes well beyond oversimplified statements that accuse her of being a self-insert, or a proxy for the author in the story. Depending on who you ask, some authors adamantly deny having any resemblance to their characters whatsoever. But other authors, yours truly, for example, believe that all of their characters, whether for mainstream literature or fan-fiction, carry a piece of them inside of them. I can’t speak for other writers, but I can definitely point to every character I’ve ever made and tell you exactly what part of me is in them. So if we say all Mary Sues are self-inserts, then by that train of logic, all characters are Mary Sues, and I find such a conclusion to be reductive at best.
Personally, I define her as a walking cliché; she’s the prom queen you hated in high school, or the girl who is radically emo and anti-social, or the girl who is so tough nobody could ever hope to beat her in a fight. She’s all one extreme or another, but she never falls on the middle of the spectrum. She’s never vulnerable, she’s never weak, she’s never flawed. In terms of fan-fiction, she’s either there to upstage the canon characters in the quest they are supposed to undertake, or she’s there to boink the author’s favorite canon character, and in the words of my friend Obelisk of Light, those two things usually intersect. She’s like Superman – infinitesimally boring because she’s painfully predictable.
To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, it is the writer’s job to create people, not characters, because characters become caricatures. This is a problem every writer struggles with at some time in his/her career, and the only real solution to it is to practice. Unfortunately, inexperienced and/or young writers don’t always accept that answer – they just want to quickly slap together a character and dump extremely superficial traits on them before calling it a day.
Perhaps you just don’t know you’re doing that, and you need to be pointed in the right direction. So, here is a list of three generally agreed-upon traits that are hallmarks of the Mary Sue:
PROBLEM: Mary Sues tend to automatically garner the other characters’ respect and adoration without first having earned it.
Think about Snow White – I mean the Disney cartoon version of her. Do you remember how everyone just loved her, even if they didn’t know her? She was so beautiful, virginal, and inhumanly kind that even the animals in the forest just had to be around her. The only people who didn’t like her were Grumpy and the Evil Queen, but even Grumpy came around after five minutes. Who do you know in real life who is like Snow White?
The problem that most Mary Sues have is that they’re just too damn good. They never have a bad hair day, they never tell a bad joke, they never say anything dumb. Everybody, even if they don’t know her, falls down in proverbial worship of her, and if they don’t, it’s because they are either stupid or wicked. A lot of times, she becomes “The Chosen One” to fix all the problems, yet there is no clear reason as to why it has to be her.
SOLUTION: Strive to sculpt an honest-to-God person.
Again, I know this is hard work, and it’s a skill that takes years and years to truly master. But start incorporating good habits into your work now so that you start getting better at it. Please refer to my other tutorial, “Characterization,” for a more detailed guide to creating characters, but for the Cliff Notes version, remember that you should strive to make your characters act like real human beings. Real human beings are characterized not by superficial traits, but by the way they interact and affect their surroundings.
There are undoubtedly a lot of you saying, “Well, I gave my character flaws. She’s stubborn, has a bad temper, and drinks a lot.” Good! You’re on the right track. But the difference between a well-developed character and a Mary Sue is that the flaw isn’t just a minor problem for the former, it’s a fatal flaw – it’ll be the thing that brings about her downfall. With a Mary Sue, her flaw never has any repercussions, and nothing bad ever comes from it either. In fact, her flaw will have the opposite effect; it’s going to help her through whatever obstacles come her way. And none of the other characters call bullshit. If they do, then they’re idiots or they’re evil.
Consider the etymology of the word “character.” The word stems from the ancient Greek words kharaktēr and kharassein meaning “engraved mark,” “symbol or imprint on the soul,” “instrument for marking,” or “to engrave.” It wasn’t until the 1600’s that the word began to take on the connotations we assign to it now – that is, the sum of the qualities that define a person. If we consider the original definition of the word as we create characters for our stories, we should be reminded that they should leave a mark on our readers’ souls. This is only possible, however, if we create characters that we can empathize with, that we can understand on a fundamental level. Mary Sues, by their very nature, defy this understanding. We can’t relate to Snow White any more than we can relate to a dung beetle. In fact, we can probably relate better to a dung beetle than we can to Snow White.
PROBLEM: Mary Sues generally have inexplicable or implausible skills.
What do you mean, P.D.? Well, follow along.
1. No matter how powerful the other characters are, she is somehow stronger and more powerful than they are. If she isn’t better at something, she’ll learn in a fraction of the time it took them to learn the same thing. For example, she will have no prior knowledge of the martial arts, yet overnight, she’s suddenly beating up on ninjas who’ve trained their whole lives. In addition, she’s got tremendous athletic prowess, even if she’s never trained as an athlete. She has magical abilities in a universe that never establishes it’s possible. If the rules of the universe do allow for magical powers, her powers aren’t limited and they’re stronger than the other characters’ powers.
2. She can either sing like one of the Sirens (and to the same end – with men falling down in worship of her) or she can play a musical instrument flawlessly.
3. She is as skilled in bed as a porn star, even if she is a virgin, and her reactions to the situation are just as fake as a porn star’s. Bonus points to those who blatantly rip off any Harlequin romance novel…
4. She’s fluent in several languages, but being fluent in languages makes no sense to her character’s role in the story. Like, if she were an ambassador to the U.N., it’s entirely plausible for her to speak seven different languages. But if she’s a fry cook at McDonald’s, that’s probably not going to happen (unless she’s like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting or something). If that’s not the trouble with your Mary Sue, the languages she speaks aren’t consistent with the time/place she lives in. Like, she lives in France in the Middle Ages, when most people were illiterate, but somehow she can speak the language of the indigenous Amazonian tribes. You better have a damn good explanation for that if it’s in your story, like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine good.
5. She somehow masters a trade that isn’t consistent with the time/place she lives in. For example, she’s a young woman in ancient Athens who easily becomes a high-ranking politician. Anyone who knows a shred of history will tell you that women had precious few rights in Athens, and could only have jobs that were considered “women’s” work like sewing or baking. Again, see The Time Machine reference from #4.
6. When men speak of her outside of her presence, they praise her for being low-maintenance and demure, or any other sexist idea of the “perfect” woman. Oftentimes, all the men in the story will fight over her for the right to have her as their romantic partner, even the villains, who will, because she’s so pure and good, melt and become good too.
7. She is naturally beautiful, and it takes no effort on her part to look this way. Of course, being attractive isn’t what makes a character a Mary Sue; it’s that she doesn’t have to work for it and she still insists she’s ugly as sin, even when the other characters tell her how pretty she is. For her, being beautiful is a curse.
I don’t necessarily mean reality as we, in this world, know it. I mean the reality of the universe that you’re writing about. For example, if you’re writing an anime fan-fic, it’s not uncommon to see characters with white hair that are really good at martial arts and have magical abilities. That’s a hallmark of that universe and probably one of the reasons why it’s so popular. The problem starts when those traits make your character in that universe infinitely more special and powerful than the other characters.
Listen to me…Real people struggle, even through happy events. Take romance, for example. Real couples, especially if they’ve been together a while, usually fall into routines and get boring. The euphoric butterflies and rainbows only last for so long before you start getting way too comfortable with each other and start taking each other for granted. Couples argue. About big things, about little things. I am constantly fighting with my husband about his goddamned snoring. He gets mad at me if I level up in my Kung Fu class ahead of him. We both look at the couples still in the throes of puppy love, the ones who send love notes to each other on Facebook, like they’re absolutely revolting, and wonder if we ever looked that frickin’ stupid when we were first together.
And while I’m on the subject of romance, you want to know what real sex is like? It’s when you’re going at it, and your dog is at the edge watching you intently while your cat thinks that’s the best time to take a nap on your face. Or, my personal favorite is when you’re going at it, and that’s the time your gastrointestinal system decides it’s the perfect time to let out a huge, rip-roaring fart. Love and romance are not what you see in pornos, so you’d do well to keep your characters out of unrealistic situations like that, unless, of course, your character is a porn star. But even then, I’d be more interested in seeing inside that character’s mind than seeing the down and dirty details of what she’s doing on the outside.
Conflict is the same way. I talk about this a little in my tutorial, “How to Write Fight Scenes,” but a real fight is not how it’s often depicted in the movies or video games. In real fights, people get seriously hurt. They can’t get gut shot and keep fighting as if nothing happened. Even Superman, the almighty poster child of the Gary Stu, isn’t completely vulnerable to injury, at least when he’s been exposed to kryptonite. Similarly, your character can’t take on ten super-baddies who have superpowers of their own and expect to win the fight, let alone walk away from it unscathed. I read somewhere that in order to keep your protagonist compelling and realistic, you have to let the villain win sometimes. Otherwise, your audience will get bored by your story because they know what’s going to happen. So, let your character get her ass handed to her once in a while. It makes for more compelling reading, and it keeps her from straying into Mary Sue territory.
I think a lot of things that cause Mary Sues can be resolved by doing ample research. If you’re writing about Joan of Arc, for example, take some time to brush up on your French history. Look into the Hundred Years War. Familiarize yourself with the culture and politics of the day. Learn why it was such a big deal for a woman – and a teenage girl, no less – to lead an entire army against the British troops. That way, you avoid putting her into completely implausible scenarios.
Here’s why research is so important: your readers can suspend their disbelief and go with you on a completely impossible journey. They know it’s absolutely fantastic, and in the case of fantasy or sci-fi, completely make-believe. But in order to keep them hooked into your delusion of grandeur, you have to work even harder to get the other details accurate, no matter how small. If they see your female character from 17th century Russia competing in the Olympics in martial arts, they’re gonna call bullshit because the modern Olympics didn’t start until 1896, and those readers are probably going to give up on your story. Readers are fickle like that. They can only put up with so much unrealistic stuff and inaccuracy before they abandon you to the wolves.
In short, you need to strive to be as realistic and true to human nature as you can when you’re writing. In order to avoid creating a Mary Sue, you should become a people watcher – study how real people in real life behave. Don’t trust Hollywood to educate you. Do the legwork for yourself.
PROBLEM: Mary Sues never face any real problems, or any real consequences.
One of the biggest hallmarks of the Mary Sue is that she is virtually above conflict – she faces very little, if any, hardship, challenges, or obstacles. Things that would ordinarily make an emotional and/or physical impact on a person just aren’t there with a Mary Sue, and if those things are present, she conveniently escapes having to deal with them. This is especially true of consequences; the Mary Sue will never have them. For example, let’s talk about Twilight and the Queen of the Mary Sues, Bella Swan – and stop right there, Twi-tards, I don’t give a rat’s ass how much you love those books and wish you were her. Go run her through one of those Mary Sue litmus tests out there before you start griping to me how unfair I’m being towards her. She is off the charts bad.
You know, if you look at Twilight from an objective standpoint, you start to imagine that the world is just magically bending its will to be convenient for Bella.
But that is the point of mentioning her. Mary Sues are the pampered princesses of the writer. Whatever she wants or needs – be it power, love, beauty, happiness – is hers for the asking, and because the writer is essentially God, he/she gives it to her freely without making her earn it first.
SOLUTION: Create serious problems for your character.
For a more detailed look at how to do this, please refer to my tutorial, “Writing Conflict: Sadism at its Finest.” But in essence, you’ve got to have your character endure problems. Let her feel genuine pain. Let her feel loss. Be as mean as you possibly can to her, even in little ways. Let no victory come easily for her. You have to divorce yourself from your emotional attachment to that particular character, and in fact, you must take sick joy in finding ways to confound her and ruin her life.
But this advice doesn’t just end with you throwing things in her path. This also extends to the consequences she faces for her actions. If she burns down an orphanage, her punishment can’t just be a slap on the wrist. If you’re doing your job right, the people around her will react strongly. Not everyone will just stand around having a big ol’ laugh about her mischievousness; not everyone will think she’s cute. Some people will get angry, some people will want to string her up in the middle of the town square to punish her. Not only should she behave like a real human being, the people around her must behave like real human beings and react accordingly.
Ultimately, if you want to avoid creating a Mary Sue, you need to work hard to create a real person, and to do this you need to depict her as realistically as you possibly can. She cannot be simplistically depicted and hope to be successful. Remember, a great character is not one that is free of flaws, but one who has flaws that she must overcome in order to do great things.