Every aspiring writer has met her at least once, whether in his own works or in those of others. The alluring temptation of a perfect character taunts the author from one side while his muse urges him to keep writing from the other. Who wouldn't love her? She's the most beautiful, talented, fantastic woman in the universe, with not a flaw in sight. Every woman wants to be her; every man wants to marry her, so why would anyone want to kill her? Who would want to murder Mary Sue?
I would. I and many greater authors have been working hard to keep this succubus in her proper place: the trash can. Mary Sue is one of the worst enemies of good fiction, second only to poor spelling and grammar. And the seductress tempts even the most cautious writer. Her many disguises can make her difficult to spot, allowing her to weave her way into every plot twist and turn, slowly destroying the author's work. By the time shes found, she may have done so much damage that the only way to repair the story is to start over entirely. This is why we need to learn to spot her early, and kill her before her destructive charms go too far.
Who Is She?
Surprisingly few authors Ive met have ever heard of Mary Sue. Admittedly, shes very difficult to define, given that no two Mary Sues are exactly alike. The best definition Ive seen opens a Wikipedia article on the subject, and can be summarized as such:
Mary Sue is a derogatory term for a fictional character whose traits, skills, and abilities are inadequately justified, thus failing to maintain believability. These characters are overly idealized and cliché, lacking in noteworthy flaws, and usually function as an authors means of wish-fulfillment or self-insertion. A Mary Sue is often described in excessive detail when compared to other main characters, and is found most often in fan fiction and original fiction. The unbelievable nature of the character frequently causes the audience to immediately dislike her.
Now thats a mouthful! Its very difficult to describe Mary Sue in any less terms, however the bottom line is simple: Mary Sue is unrealistic. This is why many beginning authors are deceived into creating her; they try so hard to write something unique that they forget the element of believability that has to be maintained. This isnt confined to female characters either. Marys male counterpart Gary Stu is just as bad. Good writing depends upon spotting these characters before they get out of hand, and the following guideline will help you get started.
Whats In a Name?
Lets begin with perhaps the most important part of any storys main character: her name. Without a name of some sort, a character is quickly brushed off as unimportant, as background, as a minor detail behind the real protagonists. Yes, names are very, very important. There are many essays on choosing the right name for your characters, and giving a complete tutorial of this task is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we will only focus specifically on what should not be done when naming characters, or at least used with caution.
#1 Variations of the authors name. Is your characters name the same as or a variation of your own name, be that your first, middle, last, or nickname? Using my name as an example (Katherine Elise Logan), Mary Sue could be called any of the following: Katherine, Kathy, Katie, Kate, Kat, Katran, Catherine, Elise, Ellis, Logan, Kel (my initials), Kelly and so on. This isnt even including nicknames. Now, an author shouldnt be discouraged from using his own name as his characters just because it could lead to a Mary Sue; it is generally only considered bad when used to name a main character in fan-fiction. Obvious allusions to the author (such as using your name exactly) should still be avoided unless the character is supposed to be the author, since readers will immediately recognize this as a self-insertion.
#2 Unusual spellings of ordinary names. This is an easy one to catch. There is a significant difference between a character named Alexander and one named Alyckzandre. Generally speaking, names shouldnt look like they were generated by randomly pushing buttons on a keyboard. Avoid this as much as possible, unless there is a logical explanation for the unusual spelling. For example, Frank Beddors The Looking Glass Wars is a new twist on Lewis Carols Alices Adventures in Wonderland. In this book, the name of the main character is Alyss, and its spelling is contested by the Liddells when they adopt her and force her to use the more traditional Alice. The reason for her unique name is because she is from the magical world of Wonderland, where such things are the norm.
#3 Opposite gender names. As with unusual spellings, characters shouldnt be given names meant for the opposite gender. Note that there are many unisex names such as Shannon, Nancy, and Kyle, as well as short versions of longer names that sound like they were meant for the opposite gender (Charlie for Charlene, Ash for Ashley, etc.). These do not fall into this category.
#4 Nouns and verbs. Have you ever been tempted to name a character any of the following: Raven, Willow, Speed, Ruby, Eclipse, Katana, or anything that was a noun or verb (regardless of spelling or variation) not normally used as a name? This, like naming a character after yourself, isnt necessarily bad, but should be used with extreme caution. Anime in particular is notorious for using this method of naming. Take the villains from the first two seasons of Sailor Moon, who are almost entirely named after gemstones: Malachite, Nephrite, Jedite, Zoisite, Queen Beryl, Prince Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald, and Rubeus, a male variation on Ruby.
#5 Self-named characters. Unless the character was an orphan or had some logical reason to change her given name, there is no reason she should be naming herself. Because she didnt like her original name is not a good excuse.
#6 Another characters name. If youre writing a story in which the main character is a wizard, dont name him Harry. Borrowing interesting character names from other fictional worlds is fine as long as the similarities end there.
#7 Anachronistic and foreign names. Its going to be really hard to take your medieval knight seriously if his name is Sir Jamal, especially if hes Anglo-Saxon. Likewise, it makes no sense for an African-American gangster with no Asian heritage to be name Kojiro. Make sure your characters name fits with his time and culture.
Looks Are Important
The first thing readers usually learn about a character is her appearance. Writers are constantly struggling with how much detail is put into this important part in the characterization process, and beginners tend to waver between too much or too little. Mary Sue is always described with excessive detail, often having grossly more descriptions than her non-Sue cast. The following points are what should be looked for when figuring out what your character will look like.
#1 Look-a-likes. Never, ever should a characters description begin with anything along the lines of looks just like That said, you shouldnt use details that are obviously the same as another, existing character; we all know who has messy black hair, round glasses, and a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt on his forehead. Characters who look just like you should also be avoided, although this isnt nearly as damaging. Lastly, making minor changes to the characters appearance (Its a moon shaped scar!) still counts as making a look-a-like.
#2 Exceptionally beautiful characters. The man is tall, dark, and handsome; the woman is curvalicious. Describing your character as an idealized beauty is a major warning sign of Mary Sue. A character should never be completely perfect or the most beautiful woman in the land. Make the man short and fat. Give the woman small breasts and a crooked nose. Its these details the flaws that make the character interesting. Having no flaws makes the character flat. Also keep in mind that how other characters react is important too: even if your character looks like Quasimodos identical twin, it defeats the point if all of the other characters still think shes the most beautiful thing that graced the Earth. Have some think shes ugly. Have some not care at all. Only have a scarce few who truly fawn over her.
#3 Unrealistic physiques. How would you look if you lived off of pizza and chocolate cake and never exercised? You certainly wouldnt be pencil-thin, and neither should your character if this is how he eats. As with the above, characters should have figures that fit with their eating and exercising habits. A college student who eats poorly and doesnt exercise doesnt have to be a blimp, but there is no way she is going to have a nice flat stomach or rock hard abs. Simply put, be realistic.
#4 Poetic terms. Its alright to say that your characters flaxen hair cascades down her shoulders like a waterfall; it isnt alright to say her luscious flaxen hair cascades gently down her bare shoulders, as smooth and pale as cream, flowing like a river in spring blah blah blah. Using poetic or flowery terms to describe a characters appearance is best done with caution and moderation. Hair should rarely be referred to as locks, waves, or curls, and there is no appropriate synonym for eyes. For the love of good writing, never call them orbs or spheres unless they are no longer in the characters skull. As true as the shape may be, eyes are never completely seen and dont look spherical.
#5 Colors. Certain colors simply dont appear naturally in humans. The more a characters hair, skin, and eye color deviates from what could naturally occur, the closer they are to being Mary Sue. In other words, a human with red or gold eyes and naturally hot pink hair is dangerously Sue-ish. This particular point, however, is directly relevant to the fictional universe in which the character exists. If Technicolor skin is the norm in your world, then dont worry about making your character dark green.
#6 Stereotypes. As with look-a-likes, dont use a stereotype to describe your characters appearance. His outfit should not be a ninjas outfit, or pirate garb, or anything similar. This is one of those instances where more detail (instead of less) is needed.
#7 Hygiene and injuries. This is one of those common sense mistakes: if a character has been working out for hours, he isnt going to smell very pretty. Likewise, a character who has been in battle wont just smell horrible, but will probably also be injured and bloody. Dont be afraid to describe him as such, because it simply doesnt make sense for an active, skilled warrior to come out of battle completely clean and unscathed.
#8 Practicality and anachronisms. A chain mail bikini is not practical armor, nor did it ever exist prior to modern times. Hot pink latex is not a practical spy suit for an ancient Japanese ninja. Skin-tight leather is hardly practical for anyone other than heavy metal singers. Just as you wouldnt wear a suit of armor to bed, nor should your characters dress in clothing that doesnt fit the time period or setting.
Its Whats Inside That Counts
Personality is what makes characters come alive, and great care should be taken when giving life to your creations. How your character reacts to situations or how others react to your character is an integral to believable characters. Most Mary Sues have very flat personalities and are easy to recognize as bad, but characters with overbearing personalities should also be avoided. As a general rule, if you wouldnt expect to find someone like your character in real life, then you shouldnt expect her to work well in your story. This is also where the characters history and heritage come into play. These details are the final part of fleshing out your character.
#1 Unusual sub-races and hybrids. Lets just get this one out of the way: if youve established a norm for a particular race in your story, dont have your character deviate too much from that. For example, if vampires in your world turn instantly to dust when sunlight touches their skin, dont make your character the sole vampire who can prance around during the day without being harmed. Additionally, avoid anything other than half-human hybrids: half-angel/half-dragon is a bit extreme. Remember that your characters parents had to conceive him in some logical manner. Lastly, your half-breed should have strengths and weaknesses of both races, not just the strengths. He should be a true half-breed: not as strong as a purebred, but not as weak either.
#2 Ms. Popularity. As mentioned in the previous section on appearance, your character shouldnt be everyones favorite girl. Conversely, she shouldnt be loathed or envied by everyone either. Theres nothing wrong with her being popular, but there should be some realistic reasons that readers can relate to. Even if those reasons are superficial (Shes so smart!), as long as someone recognizes them as such in the story.
#3 The best of the best. Being the best of the best is frequently a major plot point in stories. Just make sure your character is only the best of the best of one thing. Any more than that is unreasonable. Also allow ample time for this training. An expert swordsman who learned skills in a month that normally take years to master is absurd.
#4 Inexplicable wealth. This one is short and simple: if your character has wealth with no logical explanation (a job, wealthy parents, etc.), then he needs to be revised. Characters with money need some explanation for having it, no matter how they get it.
#5 Classic clichés. There are so many of these that they all cant be fully detailed. The most common cliché background characteristics are:
- The character suffers from amnesia.
- The character discovers s/he is really a noble (before or after amnesia).
- The character is a noble in disguise.
- The character was orphaned or abandoned at an early age.
- The character is unusually accomplished for his/her age, occupation, and/or social status.
- The character is inexplicably multilingual.
- The character inherits/possesses a powerful artifact.
- The character was mistreated in some way as a child.
- The major villain kills the characters family and/or friends during his/her youth.
- The character was responsible for the death of his/her family and/or friends (accidental or deliberate).
- The character witnessed the death of his/her family and/or friends.
- The character is the chosen one.
- The character is the last survivor of a race.
- The character was raised in extreme poverty.
- The character was a slave.
- The character ran away from an arranged marriage.
- The character had some sort of pain-filled, horrible, tragic past.
- The character has a job normally associated with the opposite gender.
- The character seems to get out of tough situations on luck alone.
- The character discovers a new power at a crucial moment.
And these arent even all of the possible clichés. To avoid them, ask yourself how often youve heard of something similar before. The less times you can think of, the better.
The Bottom Line: Use Common Sense
All of the above advice should be taken with a heavy dose of common sense. Just because your character has many of the characteristics listed doesnt mean that shes a Mary Sue, it just means that you need to keep an eye on her. There are plenty of characters that have multiple Sue-ish traits that arent: Harry Potter, for one. He was orphaned as a child, considered a sort of chosen one, has limitless access to money (though a brief, if somewhat unbelievable, explanation is given), is one of the best Quidditch players in the history of Hogwarts, is also the youngest Seeker, is uncannily lucky, and has a tendency to discover some new ability at just the right moment to save him. Yet Harry Potter is not a Mary Sue. This is a guide for everyone, and good writers will learn to use all traits to their advantage. As with any story, use your best judgment. With practice, youll never have to deal with Ms. Sue again.