Strengths and Weaknesses: Let's Cull Mary Sues!
What is a Mary Sue?
Broadly speaking, she is a perfect character—normally beautiful (and often oblivious of this fact), often very intelligent (sometimes without any evidence of this ascribed trait), supposedly funny (again, the evidence can be lacking), often unaware that at least one male character is attracted to her, in possession of various powers if the story is a science fiction or fantasy setting (and sometimes if it's not), lacking any kind of flaw…
The list is long and painful. Hopefully this little chapter will help you identify the most prominent features of the dreaded Sue so that you can purge her from your writing.
And, yes, there are male Sues too.
Naming of Names
More often than not, our Mary Sue will have an 'odd' name. Whether this is a different spelling of a normal name or a completely different name, it is normally exceptional for its surroundings.
Odd names are perfectly fine in science fiction or fantasy, provided they fit with the established system in your world. For example, if you have Germanic sounding names in your isolated village, don't give your heroine a Japanese name. For this reason, the name Trifmara fits into my scifi setting; but if I was writing a high school, it's about the last name I'd consider giving to one of my characters.
(For more ideas/tips on names, check out the previous part of this guide.)
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the prettiest of them all?
Why, the Mary Sue, my dear!
FACT: Most of us like beautiful people. Given the choice, most of us would like to be beautiful people. Naturally, a lot of us like to imagine and write about beautiful people.
I personally love to write about beautiful people, and I also believe that there is nothing wrong with this—provided that their beauty is not a central plot point.
My character Trifmara is very attractive in my opinion and, though she's aware that she gets admiring looks sometimes, she's pretty blasé about the whole thing. She likes to look good (most girls do by the time they're 18), she grows her hair long because she thinks it looks nice that way, she steals a dress at one point in the story because she thinks it's pretty—but these are minute features within the greater story. She never angsts about her appearance, or even thinks about it for more than a moment. It's not crucial in any way to the plot or her major character traits.
One of the great clichés, often found in high school stories, is a main character who is stunningly attractive (and we're talking supermodel hot normally) but has absolutely no idea about this.
Oh really? Does she not have a mirror at home? Unless she's blind (ooh, interesting flaw… more on those later), she's got to have noticed what she looks like. And, please, if she is so unbelievably gorgeous, she must have noticed that any male in the vicinity gawks at her as she walks past. I just can't believe this kind of thing. The similar idea of a geeky loser getting made-up and being suddenly beautiful is such a cliché that it got parodied in 'Not Another Teen Movie'. Hint: If your plot point is in that film, it's been done and it's not viable any more unless you have an amazing new twist on it.
Angst layered upon angst layered upon glittering orbs of woe
One variation of Mary Sue is angst!Sue. She is normally at high school. All the popular people hate her for no apparent reason and play harsh pranks on her; sometimes everyone at school hates her, teachers included. Her parents hate her; or, if her parents died tragically when she was younger, her guardian/foster parents hate her. She sits in her room listening to emo music and writes long, beautiful poems that are usually 'good enough to be published'. No one understands her and it is all very very tragic. Oh yes, and she has glittering orbs, usually bizarrely coloured, that convey all the hidden depths of her emotional soul to the one person who cares about her.
Angst can be done well. A lot of the time, it's done badly.
I don't think there is anything wrong with a character having a traumatic past—a lot of mine do. But do we really need to read page after page about her sitting in her room slitting her wrists and weeping? Do I even need to answer that question? The best angst story I've ever read was so good because it was about what she did around the angst, how the angst affected her life and, crucially, how she tried to get better. She was bulimic and a self-harmer but I didn't feel I was overloading on her woes. The throwing up and cutting almost always took place off-stage. There was plot. Wangsting is not plot. The story in question is 'Cadence' by Alaskan Airlines. It says a lot more than I can about writing good angst.
Side rant: Eyes are not orbs. They are not glistening pools with hidden depths. Jeez, you cannot even see someone's eye colour from more than a metre away, let alone tell the depths of their emotion. Facial expression and body language will tell you a lot more. So let's try to cut down on the glittering orbs of woe. Please. /Side rant
My darling, you are perfect!
And it is definitely not a good thing.
FACT: People are flawed.
There is no getting around this one. No one is wonderful at everything. I am of above-average intelligence but my language skills leave much to be desired. My singing makes cats cry. I am unfit. I sometimes have the co-ordination skills of a drunken wombat—yes, I have walked into a lamp post. While sober.
A purebred Mary Sue will have no faults. She will shine at whatever she puts her hand to, and normally with little effort. Learn a musical instrument in a week? Easy! Outfight an experienced swordsman? Barely broke a sweat! Solve a complex puzzle that experts have failed at many times? Not a problem!
When things like this happen over and over again with your character, something very bad is happening.
I appreciate that you want to give your character some skills so that they can solve the problems they face during the story. But rather than having one amazing character with some assistants, how about a group of specialists who have to come together, combining their particular skills. At the very least, let your side characters possess some skills that your protagonist does not.
One important thing to remember is that, even if your character has a special skill or two up her sleeve, the challenges she face must actually be challenging. If everything is too easy for your character(s), the story will be boring. Make her struggle, make her use all her wiles and cunning to get through to the end goal.
For example, someone recently said that some of my fight scenes aren't difficult enough for my characters. Since then, I've been trying to introduce more challenges, at the very least more moments when it looks like everything could go wrong. That nail-biting moment—Will they break the code in time? Will he get out of the building before the bomb goes off or is he going to die behind this blocked passageway? Will she defeat the bad guy in the final fight?—can make all the difference. Especially in cases where the outcome is pretty much a foregone conclusion (the aforementioned final fight), you must make it a challenge otherwise it won't be worth reading.
One way to limit your character is to draw up a list. On one side write down her strengths, and on the other side her weaknesses, the things she is not naturally talented at. Try to balance them as closely as possible. There might be things she's average at; write those in the middle. If your diagram is seriously skewed towards talents, you need to rethink your character. As suggested above, spread out the necessary talents across a few characters, or how about getting rid of some? Why does she have to be a genius? If she's of average intelligence and has to struggle to figure it out, the end result will be far more rewarding.
(Considering strengths and weaknesses of a character are highly fundamental, I'll probably be returning to them in another post.)
I keel you with my power ball of doom!
An offshoot from the above discussion, relevant to writers of science fiction and fantasy:
Often Mary Sues in these genres are in possession of formidable, unrivalled powers, magical or otherwise. It takes them next to no time to learn these powers; within weeks or months they are greater than the acclaimed masters. Or, even worse, the true strength of their power only manifests itself in a situation of dire need. cough deus ex machina cough
In real life any skill takes time to acquire. Sure, some skills are acquired more quickly than others by some people. But anything as complex as a good magic system should be will take a long time to master. After a few months a character might be proficient, but mastery takes far longer—ask anyone who plays a musical instrument. It's a long, ongoing process, and there is always more to learn.
Why does she have to be the best? Why can't she be good, working with other talented people?
In short: Why does she have to be the one who saves the day?
No, a prophecy does NOT count. They are beyond cliché and belong only in the realms of satire and parody.
Mary Sues can be discussed and summarily executed in far more words than I have given them here, but hopefully I've given you enough food for thought. Next time I might give villains a bit of coverage, considering the poor guys and gals are treated so badly in much fiction.
Please let me keep my sanity by Winterfox – A snarky essay about the dreaded Sue.
From my little black heart by Winterfox – Forgot to reference this one last time. An essay about general dos and don'ts of writing.
If you want to check whether your characters are straying into Sue territory, type 'Mary Sue litmus test' into google and you should find some tests for Sueness. Very handy tool, and I heartily recommend checking your main characters regularly. If you score too highly, take a look at those positive/angsty traits and figure out which ones your character doesn't really need.