Most of us are quite familiar with the term, but if you’ve heard it passed around without a proper definition, a Mary Sue is a (traditionally female) character who’s known for being flawless. She’s powerful, beautiful, intelligent, more skilled than her peers, gets herself out of every bad situation with ease, (usually wowing a crowd of bystanders in the process), and ever other character in her age range is either in love with her, wants to be her, or is raging with jealousy for everything she has.
This, ironically, also describes a large percentage of all popular male protagonists ever created. We could rip apart the inherent sexism in the fact that it’s the Mary Sues who are almost exclusively called out, (and not the numerous “Gary Stu”), but honestly I don’t have the lung power, nor the energy to roll my eyes at the mob of basement dwellers who will rise out of their holes to sob threateningly at such a discussion.
Why should we avoid writing Mary Sues? Here’s the catch – we shouldn’t alwaysavoid writing Mary Sues. (I’ll touch more on this later.) But a very good reason not to write flawless characters is that real human beings aren’t flawless. Real human beings fail. And so should your characters.
The immediate reaction of most writers trying to avoid writing Mary Sues is to go “well Mary Sues are strong, so the way to avoid writing them is to write weaker characters,” but the reason Mary Sues are often badly written characters is not because they generally fall into some timeless trope of power and prophecy and become the center of the world – it’s because they don’t have to fail in order to grow.
Mary Sues already have (or very quickly acquire) all the traits, skills, and knowledge they need to use their strengths in order overcome all the bad things the story throws at them.
Well written characters have flaws and misconceptions that lead them to fail, thereby personally creating the bad situation they now have to work their way out of. They mean to use their strengths to overcome the bad things, but instead they start out by making things worse, by being slowly crushed by their own flaws and losing the world’s (positive) attention, until finally they choose to grow as people so they can apply their awesome abilities in the right way and finally succeed.
All you have to do to kill your Mary Sue is to almost literally kill them:
Not in the slightest. Mary Sues have two amazing uses:
1. As protagonists in children’s and middle grade books. As adults and older teens, we have reached a point in our lives where we’ve all failed miserably at something, and we desperately need to be told that failure isn’t the end, that we can succeed despite the messes we’ve made. Children don’t usually need that yet. They just need to know that dragons can be beaten. That heroes exit. That we’re made of amazing and impossibly cool things.
Which isn’t to say that children’s and middle grade books shouldn’t have characters who grow and learn and fail at times, but the rising tension in children’s books is often created by the protagonists growing continually to meet bigger challenges, while rising tension in books for older readers is caused by the protagonists failures making the challenges increasingly harder and their own emotional state more and more tragic.
2. As the main character in those stories we write for ourselves for the sheer enjoyment of it. If you want to write Mary Sues in your escapist fan fiction, then write those damn Mary Sues. If you want to read about Mary Sues being boss and flawlessly conquering the world, then by all means, read what makes you happy!
Don’t ever feel bad because occasionally a Mary Sue story is more appealing then a story with a realistic protagonist. We all have a little bit of our childhood in us still, and sometimes we need to return to the times in our lives when perfect heroes were believable, even if it’s just for a little while.
Don’t forget to check out Bryn’s debut novel, Our Bloody Pearl!