If you’ve been around just about any Internet writing forum or site, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu” (generally accompanied by dramatic electronic eye-rolls). For those of you that are new to the hobby, let me introduce you to Mary Sue and Gary Stu, two characters that should never be written.
A Mary Sue is a character that suffers from very real character development issues. The Mary Sue name came from a story written as a parody of bad fanfiction and bad fanfiction characters, and she’s a female because many female authors tend to gravitate toward female protagonists.
The creator of a Mary Sue (or her male counterpart, the Gary Stu) thinks they’ve got a well-rounded and developed character.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Characteristics of a Mary Sue
- She’s perfect. Too perfect. She’s the most talented, the most gorgeous, the most athletic, the most creative… She’s so perfect, if she were real, you’d want to bop her on the nose and mar that pretty face.
- She’s too much like the author. Many times, Mary Sues are an extension of the author, just in an ideal form. “If I were rich…”
- She’s entirely unique. She often has insanely unique characteristics–like everyone else is blonde, but she has celery green hair and puce skin (yet everyone is still obsessed with her and feels she’s the most gorgeous creature to walk the Earth).
The Mary Sue Litmus Test
There are actually several “tests” you can put your characters through to determine their “Mary-Sue-ness”. One example is available here: http://onlyfiction.net/ms-test.html.
When using any of these tests, keep in mind that it’s not a bad thing if your character has some of those characteristics. It *IS* a bad thing if they have all of them–or if they have a characteristic that you haven’t chosen for a specific reason.
There’s actually a rant about those litmus tests that you can read here: http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/gary%20stu
Instead of focusing just on the litmus test results, you really need to consider your character’s depth (as in, do they have any?) and development throughout the text.
Fixing a Mary Sue
Mary Sues, aside from being shallow characters, are often annoying–and that’s a bad thing for your book. It’s one thing to love to hate a character (who doesn’t cheer a little when Regina gets hit by the bus in Mean Girls?), but it’s another thing to find a character so annoying that you put the book down, never to return.
So, give her a flaw. Or two. Maybe three. But not ten. It’s possible to go overboard and rip a powerful character to shreds to try and avoid giving them Mary Sue traits. Just make them believable. Give her dimension. Don’t just throw a flaw in so you can say “But she’s not perfect! She has split ends!” Make the flaw part of your plot, and make the character have to work around it.
And, as always, ask yourself WHY. WHY does she have this odd hair color that no one else has? Does she have to have it for a reason, or did you just do it to set her apart? WHY does it matter that she’s able to sing in the most angelic soprano known to man?
If you can’t answer that question, change the character. Make her believable. Make her real. Just giving a character a lot of traits does NOT make them well-developed. Knowing why they have those traits, well, that’s something else altogether.