Something that I see often discussed on writing forums, particularly on r/writing is this concept of a Mary Sue. Mary Sue characters can literally force your readers to put the book down, completely; akin to Deus Ex Machina, they present your ideas in a way that ‘feels like’ a weakness as a writer.
WHAT IS A MARY SUE?
In short, a Mary Sue is a ‘perfect’ character. As we all know, there is no such thing as perfection. They feel like, but aren’t always, representations of the author themselves; you’ll see this concept appear most frequently within fan fiction but can, unfortunately extend to more mainstream fiction.
It boils down to a single character being ‘too perfect’. They always have the answer, are loved by everyone, are able to overcome huge obstacles and remain in favour of everyone they meet. They are beautiful, without ever a blemish, even in cases of a catastrophic storyline. They can win any conflict with their unbeatable storyline tools or character traits.
A very notable example of a Mary Sue is Bella Swan from the Twilight franchise. This character is a perfect example of an Author Surrogate. Where the character was written to represent the author.
All this being said, the definition of a Mary Sue is contentious. It often differs with who you ask. Some circles insist that they should feel like an Author Surrogate, others feel like a Mary Sue should be a God-Mode character (has unbeatable powers). Some restrict Mary Sues to Female Characters, some use the term to represent both genders. That being said, regardless of your definition, they are all badly written characters.
AVOIDING MARY SUES
Since the concept can have a fluid definition, I’m going to discuss some techniques that are not strictly for avoiding them, but rather for making your characters feel more real. Obviously, you don’t need to use all of these on every character to make this work, since that would be overkill, but fitting some of these in here and there will make your story far more well rounded.
GIVE HER FLAWS
Nobody is perfect. A general rule is that if you’re giving your character a positive trait, then also give them a negative one. It’s totally okay if your super-human hero is also a real bastard when it comes to retaining friendships. It’s fine if your sneaky thief is also unjustly paranoid. It’s even better if your perfect wife is having an emotional crisis, but is hiding it from her loved ones.
Look at all the best-known literary characters, and you’ll find they have negative and positive traits. When you think of Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, it’s easy to imagine this perfect man who all the women swoon over. However, the reality is that Pride and Prejudice is very well written, and as a result, you’ll find that even Mr Darcy has his vices. See the below quick character summary from Shmoop.
It’s these negative traits that make him memorable. They make his character real. A character without flaws is not memorable.
ALLOW HER TO MAKE BAD DECISIONS
Bad decisions present an easy way to add conflict, but also allows you to present your character in a well rounded way. In the first instance, it allows your readers to understand that your character isn’t perfect, after that, you can play with the consequences of this bad decision, to either add even more depth, or perhaps to add an additional conflict to your storyline.
In ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ by Scott Lynch, Locke, the protagonist, when he’s a child, manages to figure out a way to punish a bully. The bully and his friend as a result are slaughtered – strictly not the intended course of action. Lamora only wanted to see him reprimanded, but now has to come to terms with the fact that he was instrumental in the deaths of two ‘innocent’ lives. It’s this event that shapes his development, and his ability to overcome his faults are very much part of what makes him a lovable character.
OTHER PROTAGONISTS DISLIKE HER
Not everyone is likeable. Picture an FBI agent working with a local Police Department. Your two main characters have different ways of working and so, they frequently butt heads on methodologies. This relationship degrades and they begin to really dislike each other. They are on the same side, yet they dislike each other. This is okay, and actually a pretty good sign of great writing.
It’s a ridiculous notion that your character is loved by everyone. In a world where everyone’s personalities, methodologies and thought processes are different, it stands to reason that not everyone will look favourably on your character.
The important thing here is that disliking your character doesn’t mean that they are required to be an antagonist. They are able to share the aims and the main story arc may still be in pursuit of the main goal, but conflict is what makes these relationships real. Give them this type of conflict.
GIVE HER A DISCERNIBLE WEAKNESS
I’m not talking Kryptonite here, not the single thing that can bring her down. I mean something that the character cannot do. Your character is not superhuman, and even if they are superhuman, limiting them is what makes them relatable.
Having a character that can achieve anything, or do anything is going to be the opposite of what your story needs. Overcoming extreme obstacles is what makes your story interesting, don’t ruin it by giving your character all the abilities at the beginning. If she simply must have the ability; let her earn it.
A flaw, is concerned with their actual character traits, whereas a weakness is more of an ability impairment. Give your character an infirmity, or make them weak, or make them dim-witted. A character with weaknesses is relatable because we all have weaknesses and these weaknesses are what make us who we are.
Perfection is overrated, make your characters weak, abrasive, and condescending, one who makes bad decisions, who alienates those around them, but has to overcome these issues in order to complete your story arc. This makes your characters real.