How to Spot and Kill Your Mary Sue Characters

How to Spot (and Kill) Your Mary Sue Characters

At the heart of all good fiction beats the heart of a good character. But—naturally—there’s a flip side to this coin. If this heart of your story is beating inside of the chest of Fiction’s Most Wanted, the nefarious Mary Sue, your story isn’t likely to get out from under the sassafras tree, no matter how great your plot and your dialogue may be.

So just who is this Mary Sue person—and why has she got a price on her head? “Mary Sue” (or “Marty Stu” if the character in question is male) is a term coined for characters who suffer from a number of symptoms—all of them lethal to your story. Your character might be a Mary Sue if…

  • She has no flaws to speak of.
  • She’s a fictionalized version of the author.
  • She saves the day every. single. time.
  • She’s drop-dead gorgeous.
  • She’s a fictionalized version of who the author wishes to be.

In short, Mary Sue characters are those who live in the black and white planes of the paper thin. She’s idealized to the point that she’s unrealistic as a person and, worse, uninteresting as a character, since she is unable to give the reader interesting moral conundrums to chew on or internal conflict to relate to as she attempts to overcome flaws.

Authors want readers to fall in love with our characters, and we’d like to enjoy their company as well, since we’re going to be spending months of our time locked in our offices with them. But, in our attempts, to make sure our characters are winsome, fun, and sympathetic, we can sometimes lose sight of the somewhat ironic fact that likability and personal perfection aren’t necessarily synonymous.

As imperfect people, readers love reading about imperfect characters. We want flaws, we want warts, we want failures. We want conflict, and Mary Sues—in all their saccharine glory—can’t provide it. A story is an arc, a progression, a growth. Readers want to see your character grow, and he can’t grow unless he begins the story from a place of lack.

Now, before we get all fired up and start pounding out all kinds of grubby, gross, and grouchy characters, remember that, as in all things fiction, balance is the key. Realism means balancing the good and the bad. So make your character drop-dead gorgeous, but also make her a total klutz. Make your character a grand theft auto convict, but also make him a faithful contributor to the Old Ladies’ Bingo for Charity Society.

Finding this balance can take trial and error. Enlist beta readers who can make sure you’re representing the character on the page just as you imagine him—pitchfork, halo, and all. In the end, you’re likely to discover that writing flawed characters is ten times more fun than writing unrealistically perfect Mary Sues, just as your readers are ten times as likely to enjoy reading them.

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. That checklist was extremely helpful. I’ve been struggling to get to know my main character because, although I know her place in the story and how she’ll grow and transition (and even the ending!), I don’t really know her. Since the story is plot-drive so far in my planning, I’m getting to know my characters last, and this is proving hard, as if I’m filling in the gaps. Your checklist showed me that I’m scrambling to come up with a great lead by plugging in pieces of myself, along with traits I’d like to have–and all of this just feels inauthentic. Does anyone else struggle with this part of plotting? I know that a character can’t be fully realized until the story in under way, but I often wonder how authors create a completely unique person to begin with!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Plot and character are so integrally linked that it can be difficult to approach first one, then the other. We can end up with two halves that don’t quite mesh, as you’ve discovered.

  2. This is a good article for introducing a new writer to the concept of Mary Sues. I’ve been writing both original and fan stories for many years now and have come across many a tutorial and rant against Sues, somehow less helpful than others.

    Idealism is a good word to describe Sues, but I would say that “perfection” is not the trademark trait of one. Indeed, one can find much written about the Jerk Sue (characters who have the flaws, but they suffer no realistic repercussions to them, e.g. punching out an old lady and not losing the respect of team mates or love interest). There is also the Anti-Sue, which results in the author attempting a complete 180 to show a flawed character but still manages to make a Sue due to giving them unwarranted rewards and respect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, what it really comes down to is characters who lack dimension. They’re unrealistic because their behavior isn’t varied – and no one around them seems to notice.

  3. Aleksandra says:

    I have some issues with this whole concept, in that I believe it is a concept invented and maintained by cynics who do not wish their dark world view to be challenged by idealistic characters and stories that take an idealistic approach. While I agree that there are some badly written, boring, characters out there whose sole purpose is to help bad authors live their fantasies through these characters, I also think that other characters, such as Aslan, Gandalf or Superman who represent a certain philosophical concept should not fall under this category. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with creating a character who is an allegory for goodness or purity. I hate the term Mary Sue, its not a constructive criticism but almost a taunt reminiscent of classroom bullies. I think serious writers and critics should do away with the term altogether and instead focus on specific flaws of specific characters in a case-by-case basis.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The term “Mary Sue” isn’t necessarily indicative of all idealistic characters (as you say, why would we want to get rid of those?). It’s a term that indicates badly written, usually vapid, one-dimensional characters. Insofar as that is the case, we definitely don’t want Mary Sues showing up in our work.

      • Aleksandra says:

        I completely agree with you as far as one-dimensional characters go (at least as far as protagonists, antagonists, and main supporting characters are concerned), however I’m not sure what you mean by vapid (if they start off shallow and develop depth, why not – it worked with Ebeneezer Scrooge and Jane Austen’s Emma).

        However, in my experience the term is usually applied to idealistic and allegorical characters as well as author avatars. My biggest issue with it is when cynical people use it to insult the idea behind a story (ex. a character who refuses to play by the rules of an unjust world). I’ve seen it applied to Galadriel, Captain America, Sailor Moon, Superman, Bella Swan (in this case, perhaps justly, but that’s seriously up for debate), the Bennet sisters, Spock, Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus, Wolverine, etc. I think there’s something wrong with a term that has no specific meaning and can be so broadly applied, usually to characters we don’t like or whose world view’s we don’t agree with.

        While I do have a huge problem with author avatars even these aren’t always badly written. Sure, the author living out their fantasy vicariously through a fictional character might produce eye rolling, but even that can have value if looking at it from a psychoanalytical point of view.

        Finally, I find that most writers write “Mary Sues” when they are starting out. Its typical of beginner writers. Calling their stories “Mary Sue” instead of pointing out the specific flaws and suggesting specific ways in which they can improve only discourages them from writing.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I agree with you. But the major problem here isn’t so much the term itself as its broad misapplication by people who don’t understand its correct definition.

          • Aleksandra says:

            True. But the problem is that people apply the term to any character they don’t like. Often enough they are in fact right not to like the character (who may be underdeveloped, annoying, too idealistic, etc), and they will throw the label Mary Sue around to the point where every poorly written character is a Mary Sue, no matter what is wring with them.

  4. I pursue fanfiction as a hobby, so I’ve encountered the “Mary Sues written by teenage amateurs” more often than “canon Sues” (i.e. Sues that exist in professionally published media), but I’ll give my two cents.

    Mary Sue was originally coined by Star Trek scriptwriter who was satirizing the recurring themes that kept appearing in “fan submitted” episodes, and in the original story, Mary Sue was a half-Vulcan who joined the Enterprise, got the attention of the hot officers, and impressed everyone with how easily she saved the day.

    From this one-sentence synopsis, you can see what the real flaw is – basic storytelling. Bear in the mind, the fan scripts being satirized *were being sent in with the express purpose of becoming actual episodes.* The intent of the fan author was to have a cool character (created by them) impressing the author’s favorite main characters – and that was the basic premise for these kinds of episodes. As opposed to, “The crew wants the big story goal, and conflict happens until finally a resolution happens.” Who cares about goals? Who cares about obstacles standing in the way of those goals? My half-Vulcan must catch the eye of both Kirk and Spock, and then she saves the day.

    A big problem here was fan authors writing what they personally wanted to see – not what would make a good story for the thousands of people watching at home. While I can’t speak a lot about original fiction (where calling a character Mary Sue can be subjective), I would guess it suffers a similar problem – the author’s intent for these characters is more important what is actually happening in the story. A Sue is just their puppet, and this fictional universe is the nice, little sandbox the author can play in.

    I guess, in part, to fix a Sue, a writer needs to learn the basic foundations of storytelling: what is the goal? What is keeping the characters from achieving that goal (internally and externally)? What is at stake? Why should we want the characters to win?

    • Sorry, quick fix – when the fan episodes were coming in, the scriptwriters did notice the trend and dub the fan-created characters “Ensign Jones” whereas the term “Mary Sue” was from a fanzine – BUT my point still stands. A few lessons in basic storytelling can go a long way to fixing the problem.

    • I’ve seen people trying to plaster the title “Mary Sue” on Rey, from The Force Awakens, and I’m trying to figure out why exactly this is happening.

      Ok, yeah, maybe she doesn’t have these gigantic flaws right up top like Anakin did, but let’s not forget how everyone hated him, too!

      And besides, you’ve gotta actually get your character into the story before you can see their flaws and before they can encounter tension with others and their surroundings. This was the first time we had ever met Rey, and she was this innocent girl who had lived in a junkyard her whole life. Of course she’s not gonna be full of problems to be worked out right from the start!

      Many fresh new characters like this, who have never really been out in the world, have to experience conflict BEFORE their major flaws begin to show. Rey experienced lots of conflict over the course of TFA, now we have 2 more movie to show how she deals with that and works through the flaws it brings out in her. You can’t call a character a Mary Sue because of their lack of flaws when you’ve only read the first chapter of their story! My opinion is that we’re gonna see some big ole’ problems in Rey over the next 2 movies, ones that will be comfortingly familiar to those in Anakin.

      This is actually my main fear for up-coming Star Wars stories in general. As you said above, RJ, what’s often going on with Mary Sues is that they’re simply what fans want to see. Who cares about what makes a good story? Let’s just do this thing because it’s cool.
      While I don’t think this is what’s going on with Rey and we’re gonna see some flaws and imperfection in her soon to put on the naysayers in their places (at least, that’s what I’m telling myself…), I am worried that we’ll see it happen more and more as time goes on. Knowing who now has the ultimate say over what happens in Star Wars, and that they’re so strongly governed by fan opinions (cause fans are the ones with the money, after all), are we gonna see a rise in Mary Sues in the future, as opposed to the past characters who were not always so loved by fans but moved the story forward in incredible ways?

      *(and thanks for the awesome Star Trek story! I never knew that’s where the idea for came from, and it’s a great lesson in storytelling. 😀 )

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