So, you need a character — and you’ve heard that you want to avoid creating a “Mary Sue.” But what is a Mary Sue character? She can be wish fulfillment on the part of the author, presenting him- or herself as an idealized individual without noticeable flaws. Then, too, there are Mary Sues with enormous flaws or an outrageously disastrous past that moves the character from tragic to saccharine. Mary Sues are often highly unrealistic in experiences, abilities, and their interactions with other “normal” characters around them; many are far too young to have amassed the experience for their job, like a 15-year-old bridge officer or a Jedi Master. Mary Sues are often identifiable, too, by their unusual looks: unnatural hair or eye color described in more detail than what the story needs, almost as if those attributes were characters themselves. Mary Sue isn’t always a female; as a male, the character is often known as Gary Stu. Gary Stus are similar to their female counterparts, but will often protest that he has too many girls chasing him around.
The name Mary Sue originated in 1973 with a Star Trek fan fiction whose central character was named Mary Sue. The original Mary Sue was smart, sexy, and was a bridge officer at the tender age of fifteen; Kirk, McCoy, and Spock were infatuated with the character in an impossibly short time. The most notable Mary Sue/Gary Stu to Star Trek fans is Wesley Crusher, named for and designed by Gene Wesley Roddenberry.
But now that you know what a Mary Sue is, how do you avoid it? There are a few tips that you can follow to help avoid the pitfalls of a Mary Sue. And even if your character’s not in danger of Mary-Sue-dom, following some of these tips can make your character even better.
The first and most important step to avoid a Mary Sue is to give your character at least one flaw. It doesn’t have to be a terrible flaw, but it should be something with which the character can struggle. Is the character a brilliant scientist who is agoraphobic? Or perhaps she’s a great security officer, but couldn’t tell a plasma manifold from a waffle iron. Or maybe he’s afraid of insects and so suffers panic attacks during a mission with an insectoid race. Everyone has a flaw, and your character should be the same, as exploring or even overcoming that flaw can be just as satisfying to write as saving the ship.
Every problem your character faces will be as part of a crew and will have multiple solutions, and everyone working on a problem has somethng to contribute. When your characters works as part of a team, you — the writer — provide a better experiance for everyone. While it can be tempting to be the solution to every problem, it takes the fun away from everyone around you, and no one wants to work with the person who knows everything.
Compelling, believable characters must be able to evolve and to change with their experiences. Throughout their career, your character will go through events and experiences. These experiences — including overcoming character flaws and discovering new flaws to overcome — can make him or her a better person. Good characters, the ones that will last for many years, can’t be static.
A Mary Sue never fails. Whether it’s due to luck or skill, a Mary Sue will always come out on top. But if nothing’s risked, then nothing’s gained; no risk means no reward. One of the best learning experiences a character can experience is failure. Where does your character go afterwards? Don’t be afraid to let your character fail at something. You might be surprised to see what he or she learns!
Afraid your character is a Mary Sue? Take this simple litmus test and find out!