The Dreaded Mary Sue

Before all your comments and the links I read fade from my memory, I’m going to jump ahead to Kara’s question last week, How do you avoid writing Mary Sue’s?  Later, Kara also wrote, By “Mary Sue”, I mean a character that’s perfect in every single way.

F asked, And, adding to that – how do you make your character ‘human’? Imperfect, with flaws, etc. I mean, I really don’t want to just insert a flaw for the heck of it, but that’s what I’ve done. That, or made the MC similar to me…and that’s not good. Have you ever had that problem? The character being too similar to yourself?  Further on, F added, It’s the author basically writing herself/himself into the role, or rather, a glorified version of themselves. I’m scared that most of my characters are just extensions of various parts of me that I wrote unconsciously, and I don’t want that! I want original, UNRELATABLE characters.

And later on Rose wrote, …I’m also interested in a “how to” on making characters relatable-to.

I had the uncomfortable feeling as I read the definitions that Ella of Ella Enchanted might be a Mary Sue.  She’s beautiful and everybody who’s good loves her.  Some people have a talent for picking up languages, but Ella is almost magical at it.

Then there’s Aza in Fairest.  Although she’s ugly she can out-sing Maria Callas.

For Ella Enchanted more than any of my other books I drew on books I’d loved, and I suppose some of them had main characters with Mary Sue qualities.  For example, Anne, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, which I reread a thousand times when I was little, has a tragic back story.  People are constantly finding something special in her, particularly when they look in her enormous green eyes.  And, as she grows older, she becomes stunningly gorgeous.  Put this way, she seems a total Mary Sue.  But Anne is engaging.  As a child she talks too much and uses ridiculously big words.  She has a temper, holds a grudge, and is immovably stubborn.

If you’re writing a sympathetic main character it may be impossible to avoid all Mary Sue or Gary Stu-ishness.  For instance, if Warren is likable, other characters are going to like him.  In fact, you may have to show him being liked to convince the reader that he is appealing.  However, some may not take to him, and here is a chance to avoid the Gary Stu.  You can make a person who doesn’t like him sympathetic too, thus showing that not everybody who fails to fall for Warren is rotten.

As for beauty, perfection is probably not as attractive as mild imperfection.  Your main character can have a weak chin or over-sized ears.  When I wrote Aza I made her physically unattractive but I didn’t give her terrible weeping eczema or brown and crooked teeth, which might make the reader recoil rather than slip inside her. 

Oops!  My advice is sounding formulaic, so I’ll mention a memoir I read some years ago called Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (high school and up).  The author had a kind of cancer as a child that eroded her jaw.  She writes about her reconstructive surgery, the degeneration of the surgery, her feelings about being disturbing to look at.  The narrator’s voice is engaging.  I was certainly on her side on the page, but I was forced to wonder how I would respond to her in person.  I recommend this book.  The writing is excellent and there’s lots to think about.

If I remember right, some of the power of Autobiography of a Face comes from the author’s suffering.  An ingredient in the Mary Sue problem may be loving a main character too much to let her get hurt.  We know Mary Sue has to be challenged or there will be no story, so we make something bad happen.  But because we don’t want her to feel pain, we give her an ability that enables her to overcome the misfortune, or we bring in some other plot development to mitigate her misery.  Then we recognize that the bad thing fell flat.  We escalate the next difficulty and make what ensues dreadful in an oversized way.  Afterward, we have to save her again, which lands us in a cycle of rising misery that may even become comical.

Scaling back is probably the answer.  Say Don is actually a superhero.  He’s inhumanly strong.  This is okay if he’s also shy.  Or impulsive.  Suppose he’s not good at sizing up situations and keeps rescuing people who are doing fine, and suppose some of these people are friends or schoolmates.  Resist the impulse to make him so adorable they immediately forget he crashed through a window to save them from a tiger that actually was a dog.  Let one of them tell him an unpleasant truth about himself.  He may be strong and kindhearted, but he’s also a busybody.  Let him feel hurt, and let the hurt linger.  Let him not learn from it immediately.  Have him repeat the same mistake a few times.

The small things make a reader identify.  Imagine that Valerie’s mission is to achieve world peace and she actually succeeds.  The reader will share her triumph only if he sees the failures that precede success.  Show her fussing over the conference room before the big meeting and yelling at an assistant.  One of the world leaders is a chain smoker.  Valerie thinks smoking is a vile habit.  She takes the ashtray out of the conference room then brings it back and repeats this a couple of times.  She carries in a fan, then worries the fan will offend the smoker.  She places his chair at a distance from everyone else’s and worries again.  The reader fears that a cigarette and Valerie’s attitude may cause World War III, and he invests in the outcome.  His caring comes partly from the big ideas, the important goal, but largely from the tiny moments.

As for characters who are too much like you – I don’t see this as a problem.  You should mine yourself for character traits, in my opinion, not an idealized you but the real one.  And don’t let modesty make you worse than you really are, either.  You are the person you know best, the one you experience directly.  Why eliminate your most available source?  Ask yourself what makes you likable and what gets you into trouble.  It doesn’t matter if others disagree with your assessment.  You’re looking for material, not an accurate psychological profile.

Wilma in The Wish is more like me than any of my other main characters, particularly in her need to be liked.  Near the end she pretty much begs three popular girls to like her.  All my characters when they’re funny have my sense of humor.  How could I write humor that wasn’t my own?  Or any emotion, now that I think of it.

And as for entirely original characters, I don’t think they’re possible.  It’s like when I used to paint I’d sometimes wish for a new color.  Some birds can see a color we can’t, and aliens may think in ways that are entirely foreign, but if they’re entirely foreign no human writer can write them.

However, we can write characters that surprise the reader.  Suppose Merry Lou’s train has hit another train.  She’s trapped in a sleeper compartment with another passenger who’s severely injured.  Alas, she doesn’t have superhuman strength and the sight of blood makes her queasy.  What can she do?

Naturally, I would start by making a list.  I’d also think about what’s available to her in the compartment and within reach outside the train window.  I’d wonder how I might respond in such an emergency and how people I know might respond.  As I considered the scene I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Mary Sue may fail or may only partially succeed.  She may be totally useless in this crisis.  The passenger may die and then she’ll have to deal with that.  Afterward, another passenger can ask her why the heck she didn’t use her cell phone, and she can realize she forgot she had it.  Or maybe she has an iPhone and surfs the net for first-aid tips, wasting precious minutes while the passenger loses consciousness.  Or maybe she pulls off a rescue at the last moment.

Young adult writer Kimberly Willis Holt is a master at characterization.  I particularly remember When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (middle school and up), which is well worth reading and studying.  Wicked (high school and up) by Gregory Maguire shakes and rattles with surprising characters.  In Doodlebug (upper elementary and up)  by Karen Romano Young, which just came out, the main character Doreen is a delight –  fresh, unique – and the reader fuses with her.  Some of the fusion comes from the drawings but more comes from the level of intimacy the author draws us into.  This is another one to study.

Also, I suggest you read outside your comfort zone occasionally.  I confess that I don’t seek out even good books I’m not likely to enjoy, but sometimes I have to read them, and often they help my writing.

Wow, this has been a long post!  Try the situation above, Merry Lou stuck in a train, as a prompt, and here’s another one:

This time Merry Lou has gotten into warrior school, scoring higher on her entrance exam than any other candidate in the school’s history.  She’s gorgeous.  Everybody loves her.  She can read thoughts.  Her reflexes are faster than Superman’s.  Now make her go to her first class and do everything wrong and totally embarrass herself.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Awesome post! Thanks a bunch – this gave me a lot of things to think about.

    I have a question that sort of ties into this. One of my character's flaws is his habit of acting rashly sometimes. Another character tends to hold grudges. These two characters get into a heated argument, but I'm afraid maybe it comes out of nowhere. I don't want them to seem out of character. Does anyone have suggestions on how to build up to this moment?

  2. Ms. Levine, I almost squealed when I saw that you were dealing with this issue first! 😀

    I enjoyed this post immensely! I have to say, you really helped tone down my misgivings. I'm feeling a lot more confident about my characters now, and that's really a comfort, knowing that I don't have to go out of my way to change them, make them worse/better. Thank you for that.

    @Silver the Wanderer: Since one of your MCs tends to hold grudges, it's easier for the argument to build up. Say the two are going somewhere, and see something that reminds the grudge-holding one of a grudge he's holding against the rash one. [Maybe a theme park, where the rash one suddenly decided he was going to go onto the biggest roller coaster ever, and ended up unconscious]. MC G(rudge) comments on the scenario, saying something like 'Thank goodness we're not going in, I don't wanna take care of you again because of your rash foolishness'. The other one gets angry and denies being rash, the first one supports it, and before you know it, instant fight!
    I hope that was easy to understand, haha. And I hope it helps! Your characters sounds interesting.

  3. I really liked this post, even though too-likable MCs usually aren't my problem. It still helped me along ;). I occasionally use my own faults (i.e. shyness, temper, irritability on bad days) or those of people I know (without making it obvious ;D) as well as those numerous good things to form a character. My next big self-challenge is making a villain based partly on myself. I've been wanting to do it for a while, and I hope it shall be interesting. Maybe I'll do that for NaNoWriMo or something… Loved the last post, too.

    Good luck with your characters, Silver. That sounds like it will be fun to write!

  4. Thanks for this post, it will definitely be helpful to me.

    @Silver the Wanderer – I agree with F, I would build up to the fight. Show something that the rash one did that he/she maybe later regretted, but the one who holds grudges is mad and the rash one is too afraid or proud to apologize, so things just get worse. If you show it building up, a reader will not only anticipate the fight, but she will understand why it is going on and will even sympathize or fear for one or both of the characters.

  5. Thanks for the post, I'm always worrying if my characters are too Mary Sue-ish, or the exact opposite.

    I have to say I love your prompts. I like imagining the situations, though I rarely actually write them down.

  6. Ms. Levine – I don't think Ella is a Mary Sue…and even if she is, we love her anyhow! That's the important thing.

    Thanks for another great post! I love the second prompt – a lot of authors could use something like that for their annoyingly "amazing" characters.

  7. Thank you thank you thank you!
    I needed this post today.
    I gave my MC claustrophobia after I finished writing the story. I have a scene where she needs to go through mining tunnels to rescue her boyfriend and I thought it would be interesting to see how she copes.

  8. This post was great. It really made me think. I really don't think about character flaws too often I just subconsciously add flaws to my characters sometimes- if that makes since. But this is very thought provoking.

    On another note, for anyone who wants to know I joined NaNoWriMo and my username is candlelightwriter. I posted my plot synopsis for my story this year and am now counting down the days until November. 🙂

    Thanks again Ms. Levine, this post was marvelous.

  9. This was very helpful! Real/non-stereotypical characters are hard to create, so thank you for the advice!

    I agree with Rose…I don't think Ella is a Mary Sue, and I think it's the little things that save her. I don't think a Mary Sue would be quite so difficult as Ella learns to be (making Mandy chase her around the kitchen, etc.), and Ella is unpopular at finishing school. While Hattie and Olive are definitely not "good" characters, we as readers don't know most of the girls there well enough to say whether they are good or bad. Because of that, they could be at least partially good, and maybe they have some reason not to like her.

  10. Oh, yes, I definitely agree: I LOVE Ella. She's amongst my favourite characters, and Ella Enchanted is one of the books I brought with me to college for some 'comfort reading'. 🙂

    @Grace: Welcome to NaNoWriMo! 😀 I'll hunt you down somehow. 😛

  11. Firstly, I agree with everyone here that Ella definitely is not a Mary Sue! I was shocked when I saw that, she's one of the best characters out there.=) At least, in my opinion.=D I never thought of her as beautiful, and even if she is, the things she goes through, slaving for Hattie and family, being covered with soot, they don't make her pretty physically for sure, at least for a while. She's just so much fun.

    Oh, and neither is Aza. We see unattractive people who're not deformed all the time, and so it so much easier to relate to her.

    Thanks for this! I wondered when the Mary Sue post would come out, but didn't expect it ot be so soon! I really like the Merry Lou situations, especially her on the train, it sounds so much like something I'd do.

    I thought The Wish was great, and Wilma has many flaws, and goes through all the drama of high school, if I had read it 2 years ago, I think I"d have handled my own entrance to high school better.=)

    On another note, I was wondering, how do you handle writer's block? I hope this isn't too off-topic. My way is trying to forget the story for a while, but I don't think it works. How do you guys cope, especially if you really love the story?

  12. I think it's difficult to pin the term Mary Sue on Ella, simply because the way I've come to define Mary Sue (from putting my characters throught the tests in the past couple of days) is basically a cliche, and is mostly aimed at very new writers who are probably in their teens and therefore neither all that mature nor well-versed in good literature and that which makes it good. So many of the points are really good ideas (can your character fly? are they a chosen one or part of a prophecy of some kind? were they adopted into a race that is not their own? are they of or related to the nobility? do they have amnesia?), but they have certainly been done before. The trick to non-Mary Sue-ism, I believe, is finding new spins on old ideas. That's exactly what Ella is. A new, fantastic, glowing, what-I-would-grab-if-my-house-was-on-fire-and-i-had-to-get-out-fast spin on a very old tale.

    Mya, I think there are posts up here about writer's block… Something I do a lot when I'm stuck for ideas, or when I'm just trying to spice up my work some more, is make a list. It's really based off the prompt at the end of the chapter "Eureka!" in Ms. Levine's Writing Magic book. I title it "25 ways to bring Emir back into the story", or "25 ways to make the ending more suspenseful", or something to that extent, and then I think up 25 things. yes, 25. They can overlap a bit. Often I'll use more than one of those ideas combined. Personally I find coming up with ideas quite easy (the execution is what I have trouble with), but if you find it hard, just press on anyway. Write down the stupid ideas. Don't give yourself a break until you're done. No snacks. No TV. No bathroom breaks.
    Okay, maybe bathroom breaks. But only if they're really urgent!
    Hope this helped…:)

  13. Ella is most definitely not a Mary Sue! She has too many flaws and problems for that, if you ask me. I think Ella is a great character, fun to read about and very lovable. Not a Mary Sue at all!

  14. Thanks everyone for the advice about my argument! I had such a fun time writing that scene…I'm so mean to my characters! 😛

    @Mya, whenever I have writer's block, I spend time writing something different that relates to my book. Sometimes this will be "character profiles" or "articles" about information that might never make it into my story. Sometimes I'll just ignore the block and press on, motivated by parts of my book I'm anxious to write but haven't gotten to yet. Hope this helps you! 😀

  15. The others are right. Ella isn't a Mary Sue. Charlotte explained why rather well.

    I don't think Anne is a Mary Sue either, for reasons you stated: Though she is special in certain ways, she "she talks too much and uses ridiculously big words. She has a temper, holds a grudge, and is immovably stubborn." These are believable, realistic flaws that make her relatable. She's not the ideal, but that's why we love her so much.

    Like Charlotte said, these characters are not cliché, therefore not Mary Sues. Being a Mary Sue is more about being so perfect they become uninteresting characters, rather than about being drawn from real life inspiration. Like you said, no one can make up something completely from scratch—if was even possible, it wouldn't be relatable!

  16. I did check out the post, very helpful too. Thanks Mrs Levine.=D

    I had almost given up on one of my stories, the creative juices just didn't flow anymore, but now I'm back on track.

    Charlotte and Silver the Wanderer: Thank you both for the suggestions! I tried out both your ways, and its definitely more than mine, which is mainly to run on willpower.=) It really is useful to have writing advice.=)

  17. Actually, Mya, the "running on willpower" thing really can work. Jack London was once quoted as saying: "Don't loaf around and invite inspiration. Light out after it with a club, and if you don't get it, you'll get something that looks remarkably like it."
    One of my fav pieces of writing advice ever, even though I don't listen to it half as much as I ought to. 😉

  18. I'm writing a novel, and I want some advice. here's whatI got so far:

    Ring ring ring. Ring ring ring. RING RING RING. RING!! RING!! RI-
    "do you EVER leave me alone!?"
    "Nope. Are you driving?"
    "Well, I am an adul-"
    "You're not supposed to be driving. Besides I'm just as much an adult as you are!"
    "You're twelve."
    "But I look sixteen, at least!"
    "Bye"
    "But-what! wait! I uh" The phone was dead. Victor was gone. "Victor Loradon strikes again." Bellise muttered as she walked into the kitchen and grabbed an apple. The crunch of the fruit sounded in the air at the same moment that a 1979, yellow cacamaro got hit by a drunk driver and slammed into the garage door of Bellise and Victor's home.
    This crunch would change their lives forever.

    That's some of it, and I'll fill you in on the rest. The camaro belonged to Victor Loradon. Victor and Bellise are orphans who lived in Venice with their Grandma Loradon. They ran away, because she had several flaws of judgement(she wanted to turn Bellise into a fine little lady).
    That's about it, but I need author opinions and advice(actually, any advice will do) on how I should continue. I'm a little confused right now about how it will all work out.
    Thanks!

  19. Hi, I know I'm posting two in a row here, but I forgot something. That whole Mary sue thing, well I think it's kind of impossible to write a Mary sue. In the beginning, she might seem all goody-two-shoes, lovely, perfect person, but wait a bit. Give her some competition, let the unfairness and anger get at her a little bit. If nothing happens, or the result isn't satisfying, keep pushing at her. Hey, authors can bully their characters!

    p.s. that cacamaro thing is a mistake, I ment camaro, not cacamaro(it's not a poomaro)

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