[Discussion] Let's Talk About...Mary Sues

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Recolor-Evolution's avatar

Hello again, dear watchers!
ethanoI is back, this time with a somewhat more controversial topic on my mind.  Last time, I discussed what makes a good critique.  This time, I want to discuss an aspect on making a good character; specifically, what defines a Mary Sue character.  At the end are some related articles for you to browse...though I hope you'll read mine as well!

Defining "Mary Sue"

So...what exactly is a Mary Sue character?  How do we define the term in a way that's simple to understand?

Well, the definition itself is very difficult to explain, because it is (in all seriousness) pretty darn vague.  Generally, the short hand translation of the term is "a character that is perfect." However, I feel this is a little misleading.

For example, let's take a look at Superman.  The reason I choose Superman is because he is often misconstrued as a Mary Sue character, when in actuality he is not.  In many ways, Superman could be considered pretty much close to perfect...so why isn't he a Mary Sue?

The reason Superman is not a Mary Sue is that he is constantly challenged throughout the story.  While he is strong, his opponents are as strong as he is, or they have means of weakening Superman.  So, despite his godly powers, Superman is not entirely immune to conflict.

So from that, let's alter the meaning slightly.  Now the definition of a Mary Sue is "a character that is so perfect that they aren't challenged by the narrative at all."

There.  I like that explanation.  However, what separates a character who is perfect from a character who is too perfect?

Here, I'll use a different example.  Let's have a look at one of the most infamous Mary Sues; Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way from My Immortal.  She goes to Hogwarts school...and is a vampire who looks like Amy Lee.  Yeah, let's not get into that...and just focus on why she's a Mary Sue while Superman is not.

First of all, let me recap; the reason Superman is not a Mary Sue is that he is constantly challenged throughout the story.  He remains interesting because he constantly has to face up to adversaries who do challenge him, and who he has to overcome.

Now, let's take a look at Ebony in comparison.  Ebony faces almost no conflict in My Immortal, and those she does face she gets through almost instantly.  This is what essentially makes her a Mary Sue; she is not challenged by the narrative because she is too perfect.

Moving on, let's discuss why Mary Sues have such a negative stigma against them.

Why Mary Sues Are Bad

...okay, maybe that is a little too harsh.  What I mean is, Why People Don't Like Reading Stories Focusing On Characters Which Could Be Classified As Mary Sues.  Can you see why I didn't use this title?

Anyway, the main reason people don't like Mary Sues is that they're boring.  Watching a character who doesn't have to overcome any obstacles is not engaging, and prevents us from getting invested in their story arcs.  It also takes away the suspense, since we know the character is going to fly through the conflict with ease.

Another problem with Mary Sues is that often they end up being self-inserts, especially in erotic fan-fictions.  Self inserts tend to be boring as well, as the reader often feels they cannot relate to the character.  Along with often being mingled with superhuman traits, people often react poorly to these sorts of characters.

So...what can we do to prevent our characters from becoming Mary Sues?

How To Avoid Making A Mary Sue

There are three questions you need to ask yourself when trying to figure out whether or not your character is a Mary Sue in the story you are writing;

1) Is the character faced with a problem(s)?
2) Does the character have some difficulty overcoming their problem(s)?
3) After overcoming the problem(s), does the character learn anything?

If you find yourself answering NO to any of these problems, then your character might be a Mary Sue.  So, let's expand on these points and find out how to prevent this from happening.

1) The character is not faced with a problem to overcome
Then make one!

Stories are not interesting unless there is some sort of conflict to keep us invested.  It doesn't have to be something huge, like a fire-breathing dragon; the conflict could be as simple as the character struggling to make an important decision.  As long as the character has some goal, and some obstacle to stand in the way of said goal, your story should be engaging enough to the reader.

2) The character has little to no difficulty solving the problem
There is more than one way to look at this particular situation.

First of all, it could be that the problem is too easy.  If this is the case, I would suggest having more than one problem for the character to face, or potentially making the problem more difficult to overcome.

Secondly, it could be that the character is accomplishing the problem too easily.  In this case, you need to re-evaluate whether or not the way your character overcomes this problem is realistic.  Perhaps show them training to conquer said goal, or have them try multiple times.

3) The character didn't learn anything from solving the problem
Possibly, this could be a result of not thinking hard enough about what the character can learn, or alternatively the conflict could use a bit more of an explanation.

Say, for example, the character faces a dragon.  There are a number of things that could be learned here; they might learn that good conquers evil, or that perseverance always pays off.  These are fairly standard, but if you want to go out of the box you could have their friend be eaten by the dragon, teaching them the significance of life and death.

Also, sometimes it's not the character that learns a lesson but the reader.  Maybe the character overcomes a fear of spiders, and while they may not necessarily learn it this could show the value of never giving up.

This is a tricky section, however, and may require you to think about your story in a lot more depth.  I've always found that a second opinion is great for helping this process along, so perhaps ask a friend!  What do they think about your character's conflict, and the outcome of their struggle?

Finally, there's this point that has been pointed out to me post-writing...

4) The character never overcomes the problem at all
If used correctly, this sort of outcome can be just as satisfying as the character overcoming it.  However, a lot of people make the mistake of NOT using this particular outcome correctly.  When it is not done correctly, it leaves the reader with a sour taste in their mouth.

The reason this is not satisfying is that, more often than not, it builds up to a poor anticlimax that makes the reader feel like they've wasted their time.  Now, let me make this clear; not ALL anticlimaxes are bad.  An anticlimax that is done well can make the reader just as satisfied.

I know I'm contradicting myself a lot here, but this is a bit difficult to explain.

Okay, let's go back to having the character learn a lesson.  What lessons could be learned from not accomplishing their goal?  Because there are a few; some of these include not being foolish in your expectations, or that sometimes your dreams aren't as fabulous as they seem.  If a character learns a lesson from NOT overcoming the problem, then this is satisfying because the reader can see that they've grown as a result.

When it gets annoying is when the moral is confused, or there isn't a moral at all.  If the whole story is telling you to never give up, and at the very end the character gives up, it contradicts the whole moral.  This could work, however; for example, if the character tries a lot of times and then gives up.  That could show that while perseverance is good, there are times when you need to give up.

However, if there is no moral then the anticlimax will come off as dry, uninteresting and unsatisfying.  What was the point to this conflict?  Why did we need to become invested in this character?  This is something to avoid; always make sure, even if the character does not accomplish their goal, that a moral is being learned in the narrative.

In Conclusion...
This is not a complete guide.  This is just a basic summary of how I avoid typical Mary Sue traits, and what exactly makes a character a Mary Sue.  If you have any questions or feedback for me, feel free to ask in comments!  I will answer to the best of my ability.

Related Articles

Here are a few articles and videos on the topic of Mary Sue, all of which have slightly different viewpoints.  A number of people have suggested I do something like this in my articles, so for anyone interested here are a few other good resources for you to investigate.

The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test
Mary Sue - How To Tell - windfalcon
Help!  I Have a Mary Sue! - MissLunaRose
The Mary Sue: An Analysis - Tprinces
The Quintissential Mary Sue - MrGreyMan

Understanding Mary Sue - Tommy Oliver
What Makes a Mary Sue - XexusTheSilver
The Mary Sue - Writing With Jane
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segamarvel's avatar
This is just like that video I saw on youtube.