- Characters can have “traditionally feminine traits” without being a Mary Sue.
- Characters can have dark pasts without being a Mary Sue.
- Characters can be genuinly nice, compassionate people without being a Mary Sue.
- Characters can be powerful without being a Mary Sue.
- Characters can be talented without being a Mary Sue.
Guest Article from Elizabeth: Switching Up a Too-Perfect Character
nothingcanbegained asked: I have a character I roleplay, but I feel lately like every time I roleplay him, that I find that he’s just too… perfect? I mean he’s gentle mannered, polite, shy, honest, helpful, eager to please without being overbearing, easily embarrassed, and quite honestly, I’m finding him boring. How do I make a character more exciting without changing who he is? Should I try and add personality faults that can be directly related to his traits?
As writers, it’s easy to let our characters fall into the dreaded Mary Sue trope. But you’ve already realized the problem with too-perfect characters: they’re boring. They offer little conflict, they’re unrealistic, and they tend to drive everyone a little crazy.
Faults and vices are one of the easiest ways to add depth to your character. They make your character seem more like a person, rather than the stock character or flat character we see lining the edges of fiction stories. Here are some steps you can take to round out your character:
- Look at other characters that fit your description: Peter Pettigrew from Harry Potter, Mary Bennet from Pride & Prejudice, Iris from The Holiday, C3PO from Star Wars, etc.. What makes these characters well-rounded? What makes them interesting? Look at the way their faults build on their more positive attributes.
- Like you already suggested, pick a couple flaws that fit in with his established character. Based on your description, try something like self-doubt, inability to trust, or jealousy. Put him into a situation where the flaw comes into play. Maybe he overhears someone talking about him, or he is faced with a task that’s too much for him to handle. Play with it, and see where he takes you. Regardless of the positive traits he has, test drive your character making the wrong decision—a decision outside of his normal response or even outside of his moral code—in order to create more conflict for him and broaden his development..
- Take one of his attributes and make it “too much.” If he’s honest, does that mean that he’ll always speak his mind to the point that he offends others? Does he say exactly what others don’t want to hear? Take “gentle mannered, polite, and shy” and turn it into ”easily manipulated.” ”Easily embarrassed” could become “ashamed.” There is always a negative slant on a positive characteristic. The possibilities are endless.
- What is he passionate about? Give him something to fight for—maybe it’s a romantic interest, a place, an ideal, or even an opinion. What happens when that thing is threatened?
- Because you’re part of an RP, you have a unique advantage. Talk to your RP partner/group. Have them challenge you by putting your character into situations that are uncomfortable for him. Have them ask tough questions. How does he react to confrontation?
- Characters, like people, should change and grow. There’s no reason why he has to stay the way he is now.
Here are some other resources you can check out:
- Write World: Choosing Virtues and Vices for Your Character
- Write World: Layering Virtues and Vices
- TVTropes: Character Flaw Index
- TVTropes: Avoid Writing A Mary Sue
- WritePop: Character Flaws
- Superhero Nation: How to Make a Boring Character Interesting
- Clay Held: The Trick to Writing Compelling Characters (and How to Avoid Boring Ones)
Writing Tips #81: So You Wanna Write/Play A Powerful Character That Probably Won't Be Perceived As A Mary Sue?
Many, many, many times I’ve seen people complain that they can’t play powerful characters without these characters being labeled as Mary Sues. I really have only one thing to say to this: it’s probably either because your characters are Mary Sues, or because you’re presenting your character the wrong way. Sure it’s not the former? Okay, then let’s get on to how you can present your character so people proably won’t grab the torches and pitchforks.
This article is largely intended for fan characters, particularly in superhero settings, though most of it applies to other character types as well.
Start by describing what makes your character tick, not what makes xir special.
When you begin your character profile/pitch, leave out your character’s appearances, superpowers, and canon connections as long as you possibly can. Instead, start off with your character’s personality, ambitions, dreams, career, and vulnerabilities. Basically, all the things that drive and motivate your character. In short, if you took away all of your character’s toys and goodies, who would xe be?
If you have a well-developed character, you should be able to describe xir without mentioning xir powers, abilities, or canon connections quite easily. Here’s an example based on one of my own OCs (who is the daughter of two canon characters) - she’s an intelligent, but socially-awkward young woman who works for her father’s company as an accountant. Her current pet project and hobby is a tabletop RPG she’s developing, which most people would probably find frustratingly fussy about.
Remove irrelevant specialness.
I’ve seen way too many “not-Sues” who have special/unique features for pretty much no other reason than the author found it appealing and decided to toss it in there. Something that’s common in far too many characters I’ve seen are strangely-colored eyes or the presence of cat ears and a tail that have pretty much no relevance to anything. At least one OC superhero I’ve seen had cat ears and a tail, the reason given that her abusive father experimented on her as a teenager. The character must have cat powers, right? Nope. Her powers have absolutely nothing to do with cats, and the story of how she acquired her kittybits has absolutely nothing to do with anything at all.
Compare with, for example, the Marvel-verse - if I see a character with an unusual appearance, I can usually trust that there’s a character-defining story attached to it somehow - EG, Doc Samson received his green hair in the incident that gave him the powers that changed the course of his life. Storm has white hair because she is a mutant, a fact which has essentially defined her life since a young teen.
Let your character earn respect.
How to Avoid Mary Sues
How to Avoid Mary Sues
Mary Sues are the bane of readers and writers alike. They’re perfect characters who are so annoying, they don’t even realize how annoying they are.
The Mary Sue
This is the most perfect of perfect characters. They’re annoying because they’re flawless and have absolutely nothing for the reader to relate to. These are some common traits of one:
- Clumsiness is her only “flaw”. Clumsiness isn’t a flaw. Being selfish is a flaw. Clumsiness is just one of those traits that beginning authors think is a flaw, but it totally isn’t.
- There are multiple boys fawning over her. Sues are very good at having characters fall in love with them. Sometimes, they don’t even notice that there are five dudes willing to take a bullet for her.
- Her name is ridiculous. In a world where everyone’s named Bill and John or Rachel and Liz, the sue has a name like Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way.
- She’s fantastic at everything she does. It doesn’t matter if she only picked up a sword for the first time five minutes ago, she’s a master and can take down even the most skilled swordsman without even trying.
- Her unnatural hair and eye colors are natural. Blue hair that reaches her ankles but never tangles and eyes that change color (but are normally purple) are sure signs that the character at least looks like a Sue.
- Being as awesome is such a burden. Sometimes, Sues realize how amazing and awesome they are and think it just sucks to be them. And then they complain about it. And it’s annoying.
The anti-sue is actually a different breed of Sue that has only come around recently. They’re basically the exact opposite of the traditional Mary Sue.
- She’s bad at everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s swordplay or walking, an Anti-Sue will screw up everything.
- She’s ugly. Or at least they think they are. (Note: having an ugly character is NOT a bad thing.) Whereas the Mary Sue was beautiful and perfect, the Anti-Sue is not.
- Everything hates her. Whether it’s people or animals or inanimate objects, everything in the entire universe seems to be out for blood when it comes to the Anti-Sue.
- No one will love her. She’s never had a boyfriend or been on a date, and she doesn’t expect to because no one in their right mind would go out with someone as ugly and poorly-coordinated as she is.
So Mary Sues and Anti-Sues are bad, and that’s only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to them. There are hundreds of traits that Sues commonly have, all I did was pull out the most heinous of the Mary Sue crimes.
How can you keep your character from becoming a Sue?
- Balance. Every character must have a balance of good and bad. Yes, she’s allowed to be an awesome swordswoman, but she’s also got to have a bad trait. Maybe your character isn’t pretty, maybe she’s greedy, maybe she’s a compulsive liar. Whatever you choose, they need to balance each other out.
- Understand the world you’re writing in. If your character is a high school student and your story takes place in a high school, know what average high school students are like. Give her a name and appearance that easily fits into the setting you’ve chosen.
- Make other characters react to her differently. All characters have a different personality, and some will like your character and others won’t. It shouldn’t be 100% love or hate.
- Not everything should come easily for her. Readers love watching characters try, and we love watching them work toward a goal and slowly but surely reach it. If the Holy Grail just falls into your character’s lap, there’s nothing keeping us interested.
Note to the social justice bloggers: I know I only referred to Mary Sues as being female. I know there are also Gary Stus who are just as bad. The reason I did this was for the sake of brevity. I am not trying to be sexist.
I Am Sue
I’m not going to define the term ‘Mary Sue’ for you, because that’s been done.
What I want to talk about is why we write characters like this- the psychology behind the Sue, as it were. A Sue is not made by her (I would say his, but for everloving reason, when was the last time you heard a character called out as a ‘Gary Stu’ or whatever watered down variant you want to call it) traits, (someone in our Disqus mentioned someone with naturally white hair with purple eyes and etc.- but I do believe that George RR Martin has a character with that coloring, and he did fine) but rather the feeling that the reader picks up from her. Don’t ever discount your instincts as a reader or your readers’ instincts, because they are what make or break a novel.
What are a ‘reader’s instincts’? It’s your normal instincts, applied to fiction. There are some people that you just don’t like and some characters that you have boundless faith that they are actually good under the baddie persona. In both cases, you are picking up on small signals that give you information about the person, and allowing you to make calls about them.
When the characters aren’t strong enough to hold a reader’s attention, however, they start to analyze the author in the same way, whether they are aware of it or not. Self-insertion, author opinion, etc, are usually frowned upon, simply because we came here to read fiction, dammit, not meet a new real person (if we wanted to do that, all we’d have lifted our head out of the book already).
Sometimes, though, readers don’t mind a strong narrative voice overlapping into that kind of territory (at FYCD, for example, you are all rather tolerant of when the other mods and I show a little personality), because they like the author.
I’ve heard that every disguise is a self portrait. That’s why every character is born from the author, in one way or another. Even the most autonomous character is created from the author looking inwards and then writing about it. Sues tend to not be autonomous. Which is why I normally prefer to just say ‘badly developed character’.
But why do we react so strongly to the portrait known as Sue? Because we all remember, and hate, the person that we were when we wrote Sues. The person that I typically imagine writing about Sue and her wild adventures is someone of roughly middle-school (that’s 11-14ish, ye that have not the hell known as middle school) who is immature, creative, and up to their eyeballs in the angst that is part and parcel of that age group. Think back *harp strumming sound* you’ve all been there.
- You desperately want to be ‘different’, to show your differences on your exterior, because otherwise you are lost to the lowing herd of stupid preteens. But your parents won’t let you or you may not be into the hassle of dying your hair purple and wearing color contacts- and besides, that wouldn’t show that you were born different, it wouldn’t show that you are inherently, genetically separate from these idiots.
- You are not special or particularly good at anything, or at least, you feel that way. From this root, we grow ‘Overly Average Sues,’ or on the other end of the spectrum ‘Massively Talented Sues’, because honestly, after an hour of Spanish class in which tu comprende nada, who wouldn’t want to just learn three languages instantly?
- Everyone else sucks. There are nice people at that age but a lot of people act bitchy. This is a true fact. So that’s why you’re desperate to show that you are ‘not like other girls/boys’ and you’d really rather just be besties with a great big wolf or some other kick ass animal that would follow you around and not judge.
- Your sense of what is ‘romantic’ is underdeveloped. That’s actually it on that point. Shudder.
- You feel powerless. This one more than anything else is what makes a Sue, because Sue is, at heart, a power trip. She’s everything about strength and power that you thought or were taught were important at that age that were most invariably wrong.
Seriously. Go reread a journal or something you have from that time, it’s sickening.
Which is why we react to Sues. They come from an old, visceral place. We can sense the writer’s hand very strongly, and that forms for us a portrait of the writer- a portrait that reminds us of ourselves at a time when we likely did not like ourselves, that still remains in certain ways. I know I used to be like that, in some ways more than others. I freely admit that I was a bit of a bitch in those years, and while my characters weren’t rainbow colored, they lacked maturity. While I have mostly outgrown it, as I hope you have by the time you’re my age, some elements remain, if only as memories of how not to act. I am Sue.
So, rather than rolling with your emotions and using the ready-made label next time you are out critiquing a story, think of where the author is coming from.
It’s not about shaming.
It’s about growing as a writer.
We’ve all been there, so sit back, look at who is probably writing this, and then put your emotions on hold and look at it as objectively as you can.
Try to imagine their writing with a fat helping of maturity, experience, and growth. Now, leave that parts that will be fixed by that alone, mention specifically the parts that are bad and why you feel that, and remember to think about what is good, and mention that as well.
That is all.
I hope that that was helpful or enlightening to you.
What's a Mary Sue?
Let me tell you a story, sport.
The very fabric of the universe will blend to accomodate Mary Sue. She’s young (the youngest this or that of the whole world), brilliant, strong, can play any sport, play any game, everyone trusts her because she just has something special, can beat anyone anytime at anything, and everyone likes her.
Basically, mate, they’re the author’s little special snowflakes- their pets. They’re usually an idealized version of the author (what they want to be or would like to be). This doesn’t only apply to female characters, characters of any type and gender can be Mary Sues (and there’s a male version, Gary Stu), as long as they’re so perfect and annoying they don’t even realize how annoying they are.