By Brooke Thompson
Have you ever picked up a book and instantly disliked the main character? Maybe they made a huge mistake or committed a heinous act. Perhaps, they had strange ideologies or were an unreliable narrator.
Or, you found yourself rolling your eyes at the character because you thought they were too perfect, pretentious, and unrealistic. Nothing about the character is likable or interesting, yet all the other characters seem to like them. They always seem to get their love interest or trapped in a love octagon. They never seem to struggle with anything, seem to consistently do the right thing, and constantly get what they want.
Characters like those described above are called “Mary Sues.” The word is often overused and carelessly tossed around in reviews whenever a reader dislikes the protagonist. However, there are several defining features of a Mary Sue versus an unlikeable character.
What is a “Mary Sue”?
A “Mary Sue” is a term that came from “A Trekkie’s Tale,” a fanfiction featured in the Star Trek fanzine Menagerie in 1973. The story was intended to be a satirical piece about all the cliché tropes often seen in fanfiction. (Funny to think that even fanfiction existed before the internet!)
These tropes include: a tragic past, the Mary Sue being the author’s self insert, having more than two people being in love with the protagonist, being praised for anything and everything, having a natural ability for any skill imaginable, being exceptionally beautiful, and, the most defining trait of a Mary Sue, never having a flaw and are (and treated as) perfect.
While these tropes mainly exist in the realm of fanfiction, they do exist in literature, especially in Young Adult literature. One infamous example is Bella Swan from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.
While she doesn’t have a tragic past and isn’t Meyer’s self-insert, Bella is a very unlikeable character. Despite her negative attitude and bland personality, she is somehow popular at her school. Several of the boys in her class ask Bella out; she sits with the popular kids at the lunch table, and she later dates the most mysterious boy in school, Edward Cullen. Edward is later revealed to be a vampire who can read anyone’s minds, except Bella’s.
As the series progresses, she gets caught up in a love triangle between Edward and Jacob, who later becomes a werewolf. In the third book of the series Eclipse, she strings Jacob along, cheats on Edward with him, and both boys seem fine with how she treats them! She never faces any repercussions for any of her actions.
Not to mention, in the fourth book Breaking Dawn, when she becomes a vampire, all the characters go, “Wow! She seems so suited to be a vampire!” Bella is repulsed by the smell of human blood, and even gets a superpower as a mental shield.
There is a male equivalent to a Mary Sue called “Gary Stu.” Kirito from the Reki Kawahara’s light novel series Sword Art Online is often considered a Gary Stu. Like Bella, he has a very bland personality. While he has certain personality traits, like being quiet and socially awkward, and even hints at Kirito’s possible character flaw of pride, these characteristics never affect his relationships with his allies, and he hardly ever suffers the consequences of his actions.
He is ridiculously overpowered and considered one of the strongest players in the game. He also gets random abilities that are never mentioned again, like how he is able to quickly regenerate or how he can hack into the game’s programming. Every time a girl appears in the book, she instantly falls in love with him.
Towards the end of the light novel, where he and his in-game wife Asuna are killed, they somehow miraculously survive, despite the development director saying at the very beginning of the book that if you die in the game, you die in real life.
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Why Should We Avoid Creating a Mary Sue
Whether you are writing for children or teens, you want your readers to relate to and like your character. Writers tend to always showcase their characters’ best qualities, like how kind they are to people or how great they are at a hobby or sport.
Unfortunately, that’s how a Mary Sue is created. Writers get so wrapped up in trying to show the readers how awesome their character is to the point that they appear exaggerated or bland. Nobody likes (or wants) their protagonist – the character the audience is supposed to be rooting for – to be like that.
To avoid creating a Mary Sue, a good rule of thumb is to remember that nobody is perfect. Therefore, you should not treat your character like they are.
They need to face consequences for their actions (no matter how noble). They need to fail (even if it is at least once). Their peers do not always have to like them. A character facing the consequences of their actions, their failures, and the fact somebody doesn’t like them will make your audience sympathize and relate more to your character.
But if you’re still feeling unsure on how to make a relatable character, here are five ways to avoid creating a Mary Sue.
You may also like: Character Descriptions: How to Write for Youngsters
Ways to Avoid Creating a Mary Sue
1) Give your character a flaw
The most annoying thing about Mary Sues is that they do not have any flaws – be it physically or mentally. While we know that books are fictional, we know that everyone has flaws. By giving your character a flaw, not only have you made them more relatable to your audience, but they also appear more realistic.
Your audience will not be rolling their eyes at your story and thinking, “Nobody acts like this.” Instead, they might reflect on a moment when they displayed the same flaw and identify with the main character.
Let’s look back at Kirito. His flaw has hinted to be pride, yet it never affects anything. Flaws need to influence the character’s actions, which consequently determines the actions of other people. There is no point giving a character a specific flaw if it does not impact the story in any way.
For example, if your character is kind to people, maybe their flaw is that they are a people pleaser and can never say no. Since they can never say no, they end up stretching themselves too thin and are always stressed out and miserable. Eventually, they bite off more they can chew and end up missing an opportunity or disappointing a lot of people.
Here are some other character flaws from popular children and teen fiction.
Harry from the Harry Potter series was lazy and arrogant. Firestar from the Warriors series couldn’t resist helping others in need, even at the cost of his own safety or his clan’s security. Percy Jackson from Percy Jackson and the Olympians was impulsive and willing to sacrifice everything if it meant his loved ones were safe. Katniss from The Hunger Games was stubborn and paranoid.
Despite these characters’ flaws, readers of all ages were able to identify with them and still enjoy their characters. What makes these characters so relatable is how well their struggles translate to any age in real life. We all rush into things without thinking. Sometimes we don’t feel like doing anything. And sometimes we care too much about other people that we forget to take care of ourselves.
Therefore, by giving your character a flaw, you have also avoided creating a Mary Sue.
2) Give your characters goals and obstacles
Another annoying trope of Mary Sues is that they easily overcome obstacles. Everything is either handed to them or they get what they want with ease.
To avoid creating a Mary Sue, you need to give your character challenges and obstacles. In real life, we all face obstacles whenever we want to achieve our goals. Despite your novel being fiction, the same should go for your character. Remember: nothing in life comes easy or for free. Utilize that principle in your story.
Let’s look at an example from The Saddle Club: Horse Crazy. One of the main characters Stevie Lake wants to go on an overnight mountain ride. However, she is not doing well in math, so her mother told her she will not pay for the trip. Since Stevie wants to go, she works a series of odd jobs to earn enough money for this venture. This causes her character to grow and gain some responsibility.
Giving her these obstacles made her into a better developed character and shows positive aspects about her: she is hardworking, determined, and stubborn. She had a problem and handled it in a realistic way. Children and middle schoolers can empathize with her situation and place themselves in her shoes.
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3) Assign them personality traits
One thing readers see with Mary Sues is that they virtually have no personality. Their “personality” revolves around what they are good at or how hot everyone perceives them to be.
Therefore, in order to avoid creating a Mary Sue, give them some defining personality traits. It also helps to think about the type of person your character is and what their background is.
Perhaps, your character is a social butterfly. Their personality might be that they are charismatic, bubbly, friendly, and flirtatious. Or maybe your character is a gamer that hardly leaves their room. Their personality could be that they are reclusive and socially awkward or loud and opinionated.
4) Don’t make everyone fall in love with them.
A fourth trope about Mary Sues is that it seems that everyone on the entire planet falls in love with them, or there are characters going on and on about how beautiful they are.
Again, while this is often seen in fanfiction, this tends to happen a lot in young adult literature.
Going back to the Twilight example, in the first book, it seems that every guy in the Forks region falls in love with Bella Swan, even the mysterious Edward Cullen. Unless this story is meant to be a comedy, try to limit your characters’ love interests to two or three. Having more than two or three will make it hard for your audience to keep track of everyone.
With that being said, if you want to have a character where everyone falls in love with them, perhaps make it a character flaw. Maybe they like all the attention from others and it makes them vain. Or, perhaps they are never satisfied with whoever they are with, and that makes them greedy.
To add to these flaws (and so your audience doesn’t have to keep up with all the names), perhaps your character doesn’t remember all the people that like them or can’t remember a particular person’s name on a date. Including these details will make your character more realistic and add depth to them.
Also, do not put characters in your story only to have them over compliment the protagonist. Unless that specific character is meant to be creepy or a potential love interest, do not add them.
In short, if you want to avoid creating a Mary Sue, limit your characters’ love interests or how many people hit on them.
5) Try to limit the plot conveniences
Plot conveniences plague Mary Sues. This trope is often seen in fanfictions where the protagonists are always getting out of trouble at the last minute by either having someone rescue them, finding out they have an ability, or coming back to life.
Having a plot convenience isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a story as long as it follows the rules of the story’s universe or is a realistic action of your character.
For example, in Warriors: The Darkest Hour, there is a pre-established rule in the series that whenever a cat becomes clan leader, they get nine additional lives. So, if a cat loses one life (be it from sickness or an injury), they can come back to life. This rule comes in handy towards the end of the novel when the protagonist Firestar is killed in battle by a rival clan leader named Scourge. During the battle, he comes back to life to avenge his own death. Therefore, while this rule may seem like a plot convenience, it did not break the story’s canon.
On the other hand, the Warriors series is filled with plot conveniences that often contradict or even break the story’s canon. For example, in the same book, one of the clan leaders Tigerstar is murdered by Scourge. While he should’ve had his wound healed and came back to life, the cut was so deep that it “ripped all of his nine lives away.”
When Firestar was later killed by Scourge, the same thing should have happened to him, yet he came back to life with no problem. Therefore, this situation becomes a plot convenience.
To avoid plot conveniences, write out the list of rules your universe has (if any). As you write your story, refer back to the list whenever you feel stuck or question whether or not it will work in the story. (Pro tip: if you feel like it would break canon, do not include it. It will annoy your audience, instead of impressing them).
Try to make your character act according to the rules. If you want to give your character a plot convenience, like in the Warriors example, make sure it works within that universe.
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Mary Sues can ultimately ruin great stories. Unless your intention for your character is to be hypocritical or completely unlikable, do not make your character perfect. While you want to showcase your characters’ best qualities, still give them flaws and have them fail in your story. Not only will including failures and character flaws make them more realistic but also will allow your audience to relate to them.
If you’re feeling unsure of whether or not your character is a Mary Sue, here are a couple of online tests. These will help you determine how much of a Mary Sue your character is.
The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test
Is Your Protagonist A Mary Sue! (also includes niche quizzes, in case your character is an animal or a fan character)
And if your character is a Mary Sue, do not be discouraged. Remember: as long as you give them flaws, defining personality traits, and obstacles, you are on your way to a well-rounded character.