The Dreaded Mary Sue

The topic of the Mary Sue comes up occasionally in writing forums. Everyone agrees: you don’t want your character to be a Mary Sue. She’s the worst of the worst, beloved only by the author and despised by the reader. She is the undeniable sign of the bad writer, the demoness, and once part of a story she cannot be expunged; the whole story is doomed to the deepest pit of hell.

But what is a Mary Sue? Now there’s a question.

My perception of a Mary Sue is a character who encompasses what the author sees herself as and what she wants to be, the very best traits of the author mixed with her dreams of what it would be cool to be, without consideration of motivation, internal conflict or flaws. She is bad because she is uninteresting. She is never wrong, or only ever wrong on insignificant things that don’t matter. She doesn’t grow as a character, she just becomes better at things, at actions and skills, not as a person. Her flaws, if she has any, have no real place in the story or are manipulated to create shallow, side conflicts.

You may have seen various Mary Sue tests for writers – like the Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test, the Writers’ Mary Sue Test and the Mary Sue Test. They look at a number of criteria – the character’s name, whether they’re an orphan, whether they’re related to royalty, whether they had a traumatic childhood, what they look like, whether they’re some sort of mixed species or unusual species, whether they have a cool weapon or are good at swordplay or cooking. But it’s all nonsense.

You see, these are mostly features of a clichéd character, and cliché isn’t the same as Mary Sue. If a character has flaws that drive the story and a complicated inner conflict, but also has cool massive sword, a scar across her eye, is the orphaned child of an elven king and an orc queen and has no visible source of income but plenty of cash to flash, then she isn’t a Mary Sue. She is cliché, as I have said, but that’s not what makes a Sue. And cliché is a whole other kettle of turnips, one I won’t go into.

So how do you avoid having a Mary Sue?

One way is to stay away from Mary Sue tests. They’re just not useful to writers. Fun, sometimes, but not useful. The whole concept isn’t useful to writers. Forget about Mary Sues. Why? Because obsessing over whether your character is a Mary Sue or not is just not a helpful way of thinking about character.

Obsessing over Mary Sues leaves you with one defining characteristic to every character you create: the attempt to make her not a Mary Sue. Trying to avoid all those things used to measure Sueness in those tests leaves you with a character who is just the opposite of a Sue: lacking any defining features. An Anti-Sue.

And meanwhile you’ve spent hours trying to create a character who isn’t a Mary Sue when you should have been trying to create a character who is relatable, interesting and portrayed in a human way. You’ve wasted your time and you still don’t have a good character.

If what you want is an interesting character your readers will sympathise with and want to read about, forget the whole concept of Mary Sue. Write a character you find relatable and interesting. Give her flaws and let them drive the story. Give her something she wants and an obstacle to achieving that, and then up the tension. By all means go right against the advice of Sueists and pour some of yourself into her, some of your own inner conflicts and your experiences and your biases, because it is only by giving your characters something from a real human that you can create a character who feels like a real human.

And you’ll find, quite by accident, that you’ve ended up with a character who is… not a Mary Sue.

2 thoughts on “The Dreaded Mary Sue

  1. Alice,

    Good commentary on the subject; I agree completely. The point is to create real characters and tell the story through their eyes. If you do that, you don’t have to worry about it.

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