A Mary Sue is a perfect gal. She’s also a bit boring to say the least. Sorry, Mary! But let’s explore why this is and how we can avoid you, or better yet, make you a little more interesting. This was a question from Quora that I answered. If you’d like to follow me on Quora, head over here to keep up to date with my literary journey.
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Ah, the Mary Sue character. She’s sweet but your readers are always left with a bitter taste.
Basically a Mary Sue character is someone in your novel who is, for want of a better word, perfect! She’s great at everything, she’s beautiful, she’s friendly to your other characters, she has in some ways been created by the writer without any thought on flaws.
There are a few pointers to consider if you’re writing a protagonist, generally a female lead that is. I’ll list them here to give you an idea.
She’s Beautiful – There is nothing wrong with beautiful characters, but when describing her, it’s probably best not to make this her defining feature. Who cares if she’s got flowing blonde hair or sparkling white teeth? Unless you can give me a really good reason for this, there’s no point going out of your way to ensure she’s a stunner.
She’s Super Friendly – Again, nothing wrong with a super friendly character, just make sure she’s realistically friendly and not a caricature. Give me a specific reason for her friendliness that’s related to her goals or backstory. Give me other characters who both dislikes her or better yet are impervious to her friendliness.
She’s Talented For No Reason – Talent for characters is important for progressing plot, but never fall into the trap of giving a character talent unless it’s related to her backstory and/or is earned throughout the novel in aid of a goal. If she’s talented because a certain trait is needed at some point in the novel, your readers will not believe it.
She’s Inhuman – Not a word I like to use that often, so I’ll explain what I mean by this. There is very little to suggest your Mary Sue shows traits that resemble a normal human attitude. She’s rarely tired, she never smells after days of battle, she’s never peckish for bag of chips, her hair never gets greasy, her face is always free from spots or wrinkles. She never farts or picks her nails! Humans are gross sometimes! And believe it or not, readers love relatable characters, even if it means throwing in the odd cringy bit.
Story Arcs Are Familiar – It’s your story, so of course you tell it how you like, but know that many Mary Sues have arcs that are similar. Notably the repressed young girl who becomes self aware of her talents and prevails over the antagonist with little effort. She will always win, she will never be damaged by her experiences and everything will turn out rosy.
They Adhere to Gender Bias – Bare in mind these points can relate to male characters too, but we see it less because Mary Sues are based on gender bias, meaning their actions and personality are designed around what is stereotypical of a woman. She’s made to look sexy even if she’s cleaning the house or killing monsters. Remove the gender bias and you’re well on your way to avoiding a Mary Sue.
I do hope this has helped. There are many other points to a Mary Sue, these points above I personally watch out for when I write female characters, because Mary Sues don’t really exist, they don’t bring much to your dramatic elements and they’re quite frankly, totally boring. Good luck!
Bonus! The Bechdel Test – Try this little test when you’re writing your female character. In order to pass the Bechdel Test, your female protagonist must have a conversation with another female character about anything but a man! Bonus points if you get the chance to name them both in the scene. You’d be surprised how scarcely books and scenes pass this!
I really hope this has helped in your journey as a writer. Writing characters can be a really rewarding and creative experience, and they all deserve the best attention. If you’re interested in hearing about my own journey as a writer and literary student, sign up to my newsletter! I’d love to have you along for the journey!