Characters People Loathe, Part One: The Mary Sue

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Everyone reads a book now and then that makes you want to punch one of its characters in the throat. Sometimes that’s because one of them is a total jerk, and you’re supposed to hate him. Sometimes it’s an unintentional side effect of a peculiar quirk that just rubs you the wrong way.

The worst of them is the Mary Sue.

Mary Sue isn’t a jerk. She doesn’t have any weird quirks that make you want to kick a puppy. In fact, she doesn’t have any flaws at all. She’s pretty and she’s kind, and everyone loves her. Everything in the world loves her. Except for Chad, but that’s just because he’s a jerk and we all hate him, but wait! Chad likes her now! Oh, thank God, I thought for a moment that there would actually be real contention between her and another character. It’s a good thing Mary Sue inexplicably has the perfect talent for basketweaving to save Chad’s Home Economics grade!

Basically, Mary Sue is perfect. Things that would take years of training to learn– like martial arts, or painting– she picks up with ease, grace, and poise. She’s really cool, but she doesn’t like thinking that she’s cool, because that would be uncool. Her dad is such a drag, because he loves her and wants her to make good decisions. Like, what do you know, Dad? You’ve just had the benefit of an extra few decades of life experience, it’s not like you’re an expert or anything. But her mom was great! Before she was tortured and murdered in front of Mary Sue when she was six, of course. But don’t worry, because Mary Sue is just perky! Except for when she doesn’t want all of this attention everyone is piling on her. Then it’s just annoying that she’s so popular. What do you mean, you can’t relate? She’s just like you! Only better.

I hate Mary Sue.

The problem with this type of character is pretty obvious, but I’m going to spell it out anyway, because we need to end it. Only through information and education can we, as a society, disabuse upcoming authors from the notion that writing a Mary Sue is a good idea.

Here are some of the common traits of a Mary Sue. Keep in mind that having all of these traits does not a Mary Sue make; it is possible to have them all and still be interesting, but there needs to be a legitimate reason for them to be there. Okay? Okay. Also, Mary Sues can be either gender. They’re just called Gary Sues instead. So don’t take my usage of the feminine “she” and “her” to mean otherwise.

1. Mary Sue is inexplicably gorgeous, despite describing herself as “too” something. Usually she’s “too thin” or “too pale.” She typically doesn’t think she’s attractive, even though everyone tells her that she’s beautiful all the time, usually talking about little else.

2. Everyone loves her for no good reason. Everyone; jocks, preps, class clowns, the Russian mob, the surly bartender who hates all people, the school bully, the villain— all people, everywhere, love Mary Sue. This is in spite of the fact that she has no real personality. And speaking of which…

3. She doesn’t have a personality. Most of her time on screen or on the page is spent developing how one-dimensional she is. All of her characterization is done relative to her relationships with other characters. Usually, she’s defined by her romantic involvement with one of the main cast.

4. Men fall over themselves to court her. It is made abundantly clear throughout the text that Mary Sue can have her pick of men. If she doesn’t start the story in a relationship, expect that her romantic partner will be somehow unique, and, after a standoffish period in which he is uncharacteristically cold and callous toward her, he will reveal that he secretly loved her the whole time and just didn’t know how to show it. The rest of the text will likely be dedicated to showing how much he loves the crap out of her and how perfect their relationship is in all ways. If she does start off in a relationship, expect her to dump him after angsting over the new boy she has all of those crushy feelings for. The old boy will likely step aside, insisting that Mary Sue should be truly happy, even if that means not being with him, and, if this is an action story, expect him to make a heroic sacrifice to save Mary Sue later on down the line.

5. Mary Sue is important. Literally the entire plot revolves around her in some way, whether she is a figurehead for some kind of movement, a Chosen One who is the only person capable of defeating the enemy, or that her ability to love and befriend all living things enables her to become one of those. If you remove the Mary Sue character from the plot, there is no longer any plot.

6. She has an innate ability to learn things that would take anyone else years to do. Whether it’s magic, martial arts, painting, or whatever, Mary Sue can excel at just about everything without having to expend any effort. Often, she’ll outstrip experienced people at whatever it is they’re teaching her, usually almost immediately.

7. She has one flaw that isn’t actually a flaw and only serves to make people like her more. The most common is clumsiness, though that’s starting to come out of vogue. The klutz aspect never affects the plot. It is only there to endear her to her less clumsy friends, who will often heave an exasperated sigh before cleaning up the mess.

8. She has a disturbing backstory. Usually this involves watching one of her parents get murdered in front of her, parental abuse or abandonment, or, distressingly becoming more common, rape. It’s intended to add depth to her character where there just isn’t any, and it usually doesn’t work. As a side note, please be careful when discussing rape in any text; it’s a sensitive issue, and shouldn’t be something you use for shock value.

There are dozens more common traits, but these tend to be the most prevalent. For a more complete list, check out this TV Tropes page.

Probably the most famous example in recent literary history is…

You guessed it! Bella Swan from Twilight!

Bell is the worst. She spends the entirety of four novels angsting over her relationship problems while men throw themselves at her feet. Her biggest problem is that she is too perfect. Her popularity annoys her, because she just wants to be left alone! Her dad– the most likable member of the cast– annoys her, because he doesn’t want her to date a boy who happens to be a vampire. She has no problem with the fact that her boyfriend subsists entirely upon blood. Her one flaw– the clumsiness mentioned above– serves no purpose, and is almost completely an informed trait; she brings it up frequently, but only a handful of actually klutzy events take place in the twenty-five hundred page book series.

Her parents are divorced, which makes her terrified of marriage, even with Edward. This would make sense, if she didn’t preface her distaste for the institution by asking him to turn her into an immortal vampire so that they could literally spend eternity togetherSERIOUSLY. 

I can complain about Twilight for hours. I have complained about it for hours. Because it’s terrible. Also, I’m envious of its success.

But, before I get too real about my emotions, let’s take a look at some ways to avoid writing a Mary Sue.

Bella is an empty slate. Some say that she’s an Author Avatar for Stephenie Meyer, and while I won’t presume to know what is going on in another author’s head, I will say that there is likely some truth to that. Bella’s biggest internalized problem for the first book is that she could have too much of a good time in high school. For a female bookish future writer, it’s not much of a leap of logic to say that Meyer’s high school career might’ve been less than fun. While it might have just been an attempt to make a character that appealed to teen girls, I feel confident in saying that there was some significant wish fulfillment taking place as Meyer wrote the book.

Author Avatars don’t have to be bad. It’s okay to write something that scratches an itch you’ve had for a while. Maybe you wish that you were a superhero, and you write a character who is an awful lot like you who inexplicably gains superpowers! That’s fine! In fact, on some level, I encourage it! The danger comes in when you get too caught up in your own fantasy that you skimp on actual characterization.

So, here are the steps to avoid it:

1. Give your character an actual personality. They should have things that they loathe, things that they adore, and reasons for their feelings about them. They should be funny, or pissed off, or terrified, but they should never not react– unless it’s funnier if they don’t. People freakin’ feel things beyond Devoted Love for Their Tortured Romantic Partner. They should have opinions, and other people should make them feel stupid for having some of those opinions. They should change over the course of a story. Nobody saves the world and goes back to living exactly how they used to. They should dislike certain people because they are mean or obnoxious, and like certain people because they’re supportive or funny. Or vice versa, if you’re writing someone who is totally weird.

The point is that you can’t just have a main character who’s entire personality is defined by their relationships with other characters. Ask yourself this question: how would my character react in this _______ situation? If you can’t answer, you have some more work to do.

2. Give your characters goals. Make sure they have real motivations, things that they want, things that they’re actively trying to achieve. It isn’t enough to say that Joey wants to be a photojournalist. Have him pursue that goal. Even if he already has a talent for it, he should be working on it! Taking classes, researching techniques, experimenting with new methods! Whatever it is, make sure that he or she doesn’t just pick up a camera and walk onto a job at the New York Times because they’re just so naturally gifted. It’s boring as hell.

The gist is that people want things, and those that are successful are the ones who do the work necessary to get those things. If you have a character who is inexplicably awesome, it not only sets a bad example for young readers (I spent years thinking I could become a professional photographer thanks to Spider-Man), it’s also bad writing. Remember that success bears a pretty close resemblance to hard work and determination. When your character achieves his or her goals, your reader will be way more likely to be genuinely glad about that if you’ve demonstrated the work they had done. Or, conversely, if they miss the mark, they’re more likely to share your character’s pain. Writing a good character can connect your reader to your work in ways that few other things can.

3. Give your other characters reasons to feel the way they do about your character. If everyone loves your character, there had better be a damn good reason for that to be so. I’ve never met someone who had universal adoration. Even if your character is the sweetest and most adorable person on earth, there will still be some jerkface who doesn’t like them. If nobody loves your character, there had better be a good reason for them to be an outcast.

Reasons don’t have to be particularly deep. Most of us go ahead and make snap decisions about people we meet within minutes, if not seconds. Maybe that girl just rubs you the wrong way, or that guy seems way too arrogant for you to ever be friends. Or maybe they just seem like a good person, and you kind of can’t help but like them. Whatever the case might be, you need to have a reason for someone to like or dislike your character– and no, not every character’s reason for being a jerk should be “I’M SECRETLY IN LOVE WITH YOU.” That isn’t a twist. That is terrible writing.

4. If your character is important, there needs to be a plausible explanation for it. My favorite excuse for character importance has to be random chance. But not everyone can be foreordained to overthrow the Dark Kingdom of the Shadow People. It’s done way too much. This is more of a personal thing, but I like it best when someone just happens to be there at the right time and place. I find it to be far more realistic than prophecy.

5. Do not let your character be defined by looks. This happens a disturbing number of times. Edward himself can be considered a Mary Sue in Twilight, because here are the things we know about him: A) He loves Bella, like, the most. B) He is pretty. That’s it. Edward can’t appear on page or screen without everyone commenting about how amazingly gorgeous the dude is. He’s just… so handsome. This isn’t a personality trait. It has nothing to do with his value as a character. Ditto anyone else who is portrayed this way.

People don’t decide to like or dislike someone (at least not romantically speaking) based on how they look. And they certainly don’t spend the majority of their time gushing over how handsome someone is. If your other characters are constantly commenting on the looks of your character, then you have some more work to do.

Be careful not swing too hard in the other direction; making your character deliberately ugly doesn’t make them more interesting, especially if everyone else is still commenting on your character’s looks at a disproportionate rate.

 

If you’ve taken these steps and you’re still worried that your character is a Mary Sue, then go ahead and take this test. I use this thing so frequently it isn’t even funny. I keep it bookmarked.

Most writers have written a Mary Sue at one point in their lives. That’s perfectly okay. It’s part of learning how to be a better writer.

Just don’t let it become a habit, or it will haunt your whole career.

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