You: “Oh man, people are going to love my female MC. She’s a total badass!”
You: “Because she has all sorts of magic at her disposal, she can fight with swords, she’s got a genius-level IQ, and she’s beautiful. Guys just swoon for her, but she’s a virgin, saving herself for her True Love.”
Friend: Rolls eyes. “Of course. What does she do?”
You: “I’ve got a whole series of books planned. She’s from a fantasy world, but she’s transported to our world in the 21st Century. She then learns about guns while wielding magic. She has to fight Neo-Nazis, werewolves, evil corporations, and gives a speech at the U.N. on women’s rights. She doesn’t need a man to save her.”
Friend: Sighs…loudly. “That’s it? What’s her flaw?”
You: “Umm…flaw? Oh yeah, she was abused a lot by her parents. She doesn’t know how to love. She can’t decide from the six men who are chasing after her, but she can’t let a man in her life though she did have some girlfriends with some buxom elves and hot shifters. She–“
Friend: “Stop! Just…stop. I have a major headache now and I need a drink.”
What did I describe to you? If you guessed that the author had created a Mary Sue character, you’re right. What is a Mary Sue? I won’t get into the origins of such a character (but you can read about it here), but they are a very powerful, virtually flawless character who overcomes any obstacle in the story. Ultimately, they are boring characters because they will plow through every scene by their sheer will alone.
I write this post because if you’re an indie author or an amateur writer who is looking to publish, this is a very common mistake to create a main character who can do everything. Trust me, as I write this, I’m not writing this from a pedestal looking down upon you. I’m guilty as charged as well and this post is also for me as well (I have a few characters in my Rise of Evil Series that I need to take a hard look at and pare them down a bit).
So, let’s get back to the boring part and what you can do to fix them or at least create believable MC’s the reader can get behind. Remember, these are guides, not hard rules.
- Outline all the challenges a character has to face in your story. Hand them some failure that sets them back and if you want to make it impressionable to your reader, make those failures debilitating. Say, for example, you have a master swordsman. He is awesome. No one can beat him even in twenty-to-one odds. Now, get him in a fight with a wizard where he loses his sword arm–chop that thing right off. He has to learn how to fight all over again. On top of that, he now has to weigh his battles carefully.
- Flaws in the backstory are meaningless unless they come into play in an actual scene. You want to “humanize” your MC with some trauma from their childhood? That’s an overused cliche in amateur writing as well, but that’s another post for later. That trauma is boring if it doesn’t come into play. For example, you have a young man who is sorcerer attempting to overthrow the evil king, but past abuse from his father causes him to freeze up. The evil king casts a spell to look just like his father, and the sorcerer is powerless, just stands there, and is captured, tortured, and sentenced to death.
- Make your character rely on others to achieve victory, and make that an endeavor as well. I’m not talking about him leading troops. I’m talking about he needs others to help him overcome a particular challenge. Bob from Accounting can’t see Sue the VP to convince her to fund Project Z; however, Jack, who … umm … works closely with Sue, can slide that proposal on her desk. But as life would play, Jack likes to play both teams and desires Bob too, so Bob has to figure out how to get Jack to agree to meet with Sue while not having to cave into Jack’s unbridled lust (and irritate his constant bickering wife).
- Bring the power level down. If you play Dungeons and Dragons or similar table-top role-playing games, you’ll know that your characters have a level assigned to them which measures their power and abilities. A 1st level wizard is no match for a 20th level wizard. In your story, you don’t want your character start right off as a 20th level wizard because if you do, your character won’t grow and achieve a pinnacle of power if you have a whole series of books planned out.
In summary, ensure your characters have flaws purposely created to give your story tension and drama. Your readers will appreciate your MC’s efforts to try to overcome or circumvent those obstacles.
6 thoughts on “Pitfalls to Avoid: Mary Sue Characters”
Interesting commentary and good advice. I’m currently reading a recently-released novel about young Superman and despite all of his obvious powers, the author thus far as done a good job of introducing some flaws and such into his character as well.
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A superman character can be quite relatable so long as the flaws come into play or his success is rewarded with unintended consequences which becomes a lot harder to contend with.
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Good points. I’m looking forward to seeing how the character develops as the story progresses.
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