Mary-Sues: Things You Need to Know and What to Do If You See Them
Mary-sues, Martha-sues, Marty-stus, Larry-Stus and Gary-Stus, we will all come across them at one point. Most of us have heard of them, some have been violently accused of making them via flaming, and others are still naïve to the terms. While people who have been on writing sites for years absolutely loathe them, most are inconsistent with an all-around definition. A majority claim that Mary-Sues are characters that are absolutely perfect in every shape, form and personality, while others just say that they are characters that are just too powerful, unique, or are so clichéd from past characters, and a few say they are self-inserts no matter how well-developed they are. Some on fan fiction sites even say that all Original Characters or Fan Characters (OCs) who are paired with a canon character or just take the spotlight are Mary-Sues. On the other side of the creative spectrum, the minority of minorities say that “normal” characters are Mary-Sue as well. All of these definitions were always too vague and too limiting for me, so I’m going to give you my personal definition that will hopefully cover the basis.
I say that Mary-Sues are overly-underdeveloped characters that don’t give off any feeling of a three-dimensional depth or believability to the audience, in the fact that the character doesn‘t change in any way throughout the story, and somehow has a major influence over the other characters without doing much, or doing something that would be impossible for the character in the universe, time-period, or for his or her species. This underdevelopment can take place in the portrayal of the characters themselves, inconsistencies of the fictional universe, poor plot planning or a plot without any obstacles, and even in the writing style without a clear tone or simply not editing enough can affect your story in a Mary-Sueish way. For now, as a basic introduction to my version of Mary-Sues, let’s start with characters. More importantly, let’s start with the myths that surround “bad” characters.
I specifically didn’t use the words perfect, unique, clichéd, or self-insert in my definition because that would limit to what kind of characters I could create or put in a story, even if they could be the main contribution in the underdevelopment of the character.
Let’s start with perfection. Ultimately, there is no such thing as “perfect” even when you deliberately try to make your character that way. What you call shy could mean snob to another. What you call optimistic could be annoyingly-hyper. What you call logical could be way too smart, so any “positive” trait can be twisted to become a flaw, depending on who the reader is, which is how a character becomes likable or unlikable to the reader. The problem is, that no matter what his/her personality is, whether the character is likable or unlikable to the reader, the character can somehow make every other character flock to him or her even though some characters wouldn’t be able to stand the character’s kind of personality at all.
Why would anyone want to make their characters “perfect” anyway? As Stephen Manes nicely wrote,
You know what perfect is? Perfect is not eating or drinking or talking or moving a muscle or making even the teensiest mistake. Perfect is never doing anything wrong - which means never doing anything at all. Perfect is boring! So you're not perfect! Wonderful! Have fun! . . . . Perfect people never do any of those things. All they do is sit around and sip weak tea and think about how perfect they are. But they're really not one-hundred-percent perfect anyway. You should see them when they get the hiccups! Phooey! Who needs 'em? You can drink pickle juice and imitate gorillas and do silly dances and sing stupid songs and wear funny hats and be as imperfect as you please and still be a good person. Good people are hard to find nowadays. And they're a lot more fun than perfect people any day of the week.
So when you’re striving to make a character, don’t go to perfect, go to believable, even if it seems hard at first. It takes practice, so don’t be discouraged if people don’t find your character believable at first. There is no formula for calculating human beings, so there is no magic number to equating to precisely just how many hobbies a character must have, or what exact shade of eye color should have, , or anything, that will give you an insta-relatable human-like character. The best way is to practice, show off, receive feedback, and try again. Don’t let those mean people convince you to quit either. Despite what some people say, you’re not ruining fandoms, the canon characters within those fandoms, nor are you ruining literature. You are simply practicing to the very best of your ability.
People and relationships are tricky things. The word ‘normal’ in the real world is an impossibility because if you broke down each person into the components they're made up of, you'd find someone who is illogical, contradictory, good and evil. You'd find the makings of a hero and quite possibly the makings of a Mr. Hyde. When you're writing a character, you're exploring those illogical, contradictory, good and evil people and their relationships. You need those things to make a character three-dimensional (Karen Weisner).
While being unique is a good thing in reality, it is apparently a big no-no in fiction, which I don’t think is true at all. You can make your characters as different as you want them to be, as long as they follow the rules of whatever universe they are in, and it follows the rules of your character. To do this well, a character has to have a balance of three aspects: how they act and think, how they appear, and their background story. If she is incredibly shy, don’t make her wear a micro-skirt, a tank top that shows the midriff, gaudy make-up, and she is the most popular girl in her school even though she was traumatized when her step-father raped her. I know it’s a pain, but you have to think about more than just creating looks, personality, a sad childhood, and just stick them in a story. Some deep thought is a major requirement.
There are a wide range of personality types, so you can basically be as creative with this as you want, just as long as there are a few actual quirks. Do NOT list their personality traits at all like you mostly see in character sheets, which shouldn’t be in stories anyway unless it‘s treated as extra, optional, information. If you have to make a character sheet in a journal to keep your ideas in, I would write the character’s history, and how it affects the character, which is not the same as listing the personality. With history, you can get a deeper sense of why this character is this way, than just listing random quirks.
More often than not, some characters are one way on the outside, but are completely different in their minds. For example, someone who seems to be confident and always has a sarcastic retort, could think, “What the heck was I thinking when I said that? Am I really that stupid to come up with that lame insult?” Thus, making them seem a little insecure, and adding a little more depth in their character. Of course, at the end of every story, they have to change somehow, or else nothing is learned, and they haven’t developed. The change has to take place in both outer and inner personalities, and they can’t be subtle changes so your character is virtually the same as the beginning.
We have always experienced labels and stereotypes, and they all have a negative connotation to them. The Jocks have mush for brains, the Preps are mean whores, and the Emos cut. This itself is clichéd and has become the outline for characters that I find it to be underdeveloped. In the real world, athletes are actually intelligent, popular cliques are nice people, and people who wear black don’t cut! Cutting is real, I won’t deny that, but what I’m getting at is that not all people who cut are people who wear black. Some “Preps” with a lot of pressure to do well in life cut. What’s appalling is that some stories seem to glorify it, or that it isn’t destructive (cutting, not stereotypes). Stereotypes in general are destructive in stories, and have become tell-tale signs that the story and characters are underdeveloped. Stereotypes are not the same as personality types; they are labels that someone else calls people. Do not get them mixed up.
As much as we hate to admit it, but looks are important; however, it’s for a different reason than reality. Most Mary-Sues are referred to as incredibly beautiful characters. Despite what certain authors on writing sites say, Mary-Sue’s beauty is not limited to certain physical traits like being blonde and has blue eyes, is busty, or has an athletic build. They only become Mary-Sue traits when it’s without reason, like having big boobs when the character is only 13, or being ripped when he doesn’t exercise at all. Heck, you can make your character ugly if you wanted, but if they became popular instantly for no apparent reason, then it is an example of a Mary-Sue. In addition, it does depend on what universe the story takes place in, but there are still ways around it sometimes.
In a universe where everyone has a normal hair and eye color, everyone by birth should also have the normal hair and eye color, unless they were born with a genetic mutation or such. If a person has an off the wall hair color, and there are no colored contacts or hair dye, then there is definitely something wrong and that it’s the author’s fantasy overriding their common sense. If the story takes place in a more colorful universe (like say Naruto, or Star Trek depending on the species), then you can go all skittles with the hair, eye, and possibly even skin tone.
Even so, research in the specific universe is always a handy tool, especially with anatomy. I cannot tell you how many times I have read or even seen artwork where a thirteen to fifteen year old in 1800’s Asia has a DD chest. Sorry guys and gals, the earthly universe doesn’t work that way; try another galaxy perhaps a few million light-years away. Be reasonable with how your characters should look. A common cliché, and myth, that an obvious Mary-Sue character has, are eyes that change color, typically to their mood. It is a cliché, but Mary-Sue aren’t about clichés, they are about the underdevelopment throughout the story; however, it is always better to try to be original.
Clothes are an entirely different matter. They reflect the character’s mood, personality and upbringing; although if the character is rebellious, you can probably scratch out “upbringing.” Would a serious Catholic woman dress in a tight leather jumpsuit that showed more of her cleavage, midriff, and legs than it should, especially when she wants to get married before that special night in bed? If your character is in a dark spiritual occult that has to wear dark robes, would the character be accepted wearing bright colored T-shirts? Or if the school has a uniform, and the character doesn’t like it, would he or she be excused from it? Even without a valid reason besides not liking it? I didn’t think so either. Along with the changing times, whether seasonal or every decade, clothes change with society of the universe.
The last ingredient in making your unique character would be the background story. Even though it’s all in the past, it can still affect your character in the present, so it is important to your character development. A lot of people think that tragic pasts are overused, and an obvious trait in Mary-Sues, and especially in a thing called Anti-Sues (they are still considered Mary-Sue to me because they both represent underdevelopment), but you can put a twist on them to make them original. If done right, it can add another dimension to your character; however, if done wrong, it can break your character, so be careful. Of course your character can have a normal, happy, and cheerful childhood, and it could still be interesting, but I’m describing the tragic pasts because that’s what most people have problems with. Some of the common clichés or Mary-Sue traits are: amnesia, rape, physical or mental abuse, abandonment, being an orphan, or betrayal, and negative stereotypes. I got most of them at least, right?
Amnesia, either it is part of the plot for angst and suspense, or it’s used to hide that the author hadn’t thought of the entire story yet. Don’t worry; the latter isn’t as bad as it sounds. Just as long as the memory isn’t triggered excessively, or you feel that you have to show something from the past every chapter, then you’re fine, but it’s always good to add some sort of twist. You can have patterns to what the triggers are, or have the character never remember, but is being developed through present experiences. It is possible.
Rape, Physical and Mental Abuse
There are so many reasons why your character being raped, physically, or mentally abused, would make your audience automatically think “Mary-sue/Marty-Stu,” and push the back button. It’s not that the term “rape” or “abuse” is the Mary-Sue trait; it’s mainly what past authors have done with it. They basically used the most tragic event they could think of to gain the audience’s sympathy so either they’ll feel sorry for the character and “rate high,” or so the audience is hopefully distracted from looking at the often awful content of their work.
What made rape and abuse so annoying to look at in stories was that the authors didn’t know how their characters should have behaved after the fact. Yes, there are different paths a rape or abuse victim could walk down—seek other comforts by selling themselves, be an abuser, get into drugs and alcohol, not trust anyone at all, et cetera—there are many paths, but they most likely didn’t follow any of them, especially the first two. If they did follow the last path I listed, the ill-researched author didn’t follow it for long by having their character immediately trust the intended partner, and spill their guts out later in one go.
People who have experienced this kind of trauma are usually not willing to share anything due to shame, and blaming themselves, let alone tell every detail all at once. Even when the character is at a stage of acceptance, they still wouldn’t go into detail, because they would rather just let it be. It takes a lot of time to gain that kind of trust. Another trait that is most disgusting is when the character was raped, or being raped in the story, and they liked it in the end. No one likes getting suddenly raped! It’s just glorifying it, and acting like it’s no big deal when it is. It is disgusting.
Abandoned and Being an Orphan
Being abandoned can be a terrible thing, but authors either go too far with it, or take it too lightly. For example, the character was taken into a loving family, but he or she is too distraught with thoughts of why his or her real parents left; or when the character had been all on their own, they end up not caring at all about their parents, despite if they had good reason to leave. It’s similar to the orphan scenario. Being an orphan or in a foster home isn’t a great thing, but the character can still find plenty of opportunities to be happy. Usually, authors describe the orphanage or foster homes with abusive elders or other abusive children, which can happen, but you’d have to be extremely careful about writing it, and it is getting clichéd. Think of the random inspections, and the hopeful parents visiting, and seeing all the bruises or holes in the walls. Someone is bound to notice.
Everyone has been betrayed somehow in their lives, but authors seem to only choose a few scenarios because they had been done already. A cheating spouse, the character’s best friend spread a false rumor, double-crossing spy, et cetera. I take it back, there are quite a few scenarios, but they all seem to feel the same. Anger, hurt, murderous, and confused is the most basic emotional tone to this, but no one seems to think of the other emotions. Someone can be depressed, sad, scared for themselves or for the betrayer, or even apathetic if the “betrayal” was minimal.
Common Clichés That are Thought of as MS Traits
You may think that all clichés and self-inserts are part of being a Mary-Sue, but that isn’t true. I already gave a point about the changing eye-color and the tragic pasts, but there are more, and they can be found in the Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test. You’re probably thinking, “That can’t be right. It’s the universal test for all Mary-sues, so there should be nothing wrong with it.” On the contrary. Even though they were meant to be guidelines and that only a huge number of “symptoms” would make the character a Mary-Sue, I felt that on taking the test wasn’t as efficient as it should be. Even the creator admitted that it isn’t as efficient. It could have been better if they simply didn‘t think of characters as a list of traits, where not one trait didn‘t have a positive exception, but there isn’t a definite term yet.
I was going to explain each question in detail why or why not the question was relevant to the character being a Mary-Sue, but it would have taken way too long, and you all would be bored reading it. I already tried to—wasted four hours of the night—and didn’t even get half way down the first section. Plus, all I did was end up repeating what I had been saying.
Basically, all the questions relating to your character’s uniqueness, like name, and looks, can be negotiable, but you have to know what the limit is, which depends on the universe. In addition, don’t go into every single detail to make her so beautiful or so ugly that it would need repeating. Anything relating to what happens in the story to your character, like genetically modifying them, is OK as long as there is enough explanation to support it within the universal laws. It is also OK to have the character be a hybrid as long as it makes sense, so don’t go crazy. If they have more than one special skill, like being bilingual or just know more than one language, or playing numerous kinds of instruments, is fine as long as there is an explanation, and they have had plenty of practice for it to set in for it to be considered a mastered skill.
Details and explanations that support each other is the main key. Some deep thought and a lot of thorough research would be helpful in this area. A lot of the questions were related to plot, so they are extremely negotiable, but unfortunately, a “technically yes” is still a yes to the test.
Self-inserts, which was mentioned in the test, are usually a bad idea to begin with, but if done properly, and exceptionally well, I don’t see the harm in it. If you want to insert yourself in a story, go ahead, just make sure to do a lot of self-reflection, and I do mean a lot. Don’t give yourself exceptions that would be impossible for everyone else, and basically use the three aspects of a well-balanced character. A lot of people who put themselves in their stories usually make themselves seem better than what they actually are or should be.
If the universe is in something like a superhuman universe (Naruto, Dragonball Z, DC or Marvel), then it’s okay to give yourself chakra, telepathy and all that jazz, just make sure you give yourself flaws and weaknesses, which are two different things. For example, weakness would be that you can control your chakra well, but you just don’t have any skills in martial arts. A flaw in the character would be that you are very opinionated, but can’t hold a discussion because people are tired of listening to you rant without giving them the chance to talk.
Also, if you are self-inserting in a country other than your own based setting, it would probably be better to translate your name to that country. Just go to a translating site where they’ll translate your English (or other country) name to whichever setting the story takes place in. It’s based on the sounds your name makes, so it’s still your name, it would just sound acceptable. For example, in a Japanese based setting, Charlotte would be Shaarotto, and Brian would be Buraian.
(I don't completely agree with the above paragraph, and need to add on to it. Later.)
The biggest mistake and peeve that I can think of in a Mary-Sue, is if they have the same opinions as the author. In other words, if the character is not a self-insert, the character becomes a mouthpiece so you can rant during a story. It is unprofessional, and never a good idea. We usually write what we know, and it’s OK to have a couple of similar qualities, but going so far as from favorite foods to political views if they are not important to the story? No. It will never be acceptable and it can be easily seen.
I’m pretty sure that everyone who reads this agrees that Mary-Sue are bad in serious stories, and that they should be highly discouraged in writing, but don’t reach for the nearest flamethrower and go at it at the nearest Suethor. Let’s step back, and think why there are many MS on creative writing and drawing sites. From what I have seen, there are three types of Suethors: the Amateur-Hour-Writers, the Fantasizers, and the Don’t-Give-a-Damners. From the names alone, they should be easy to imagine what kind of writers they are.
I write this guide mainly in concern for the Amateur-Hour-Writers. They come here for the first time, see all these great (or not so great, but don’t know it) stories, and immediately want to create their own. Some realize the mistakes a “great” character can be, but most who have never heard of Mary-Sue before fall into the trap, and then fumble it out of control. They still don’t know that what they are writing is not as developed as it could be, and that with only a few little touch-ups, could make their story better to read.
Give the Amateur-Hour-Writer suethors a chance, since there is a good chance that they didn’t know what they were doing. They probably do want to improve as a writer too, so it’s best to state why their story is underdeveloped, give helpful suggestions, and a friendly push in the right direction. When critiquing, I would suggest hinting that the characters seem unbelievable, pointing out why at which parts, and only warning them about Mary-Sues at the very end. Don’t call their characters a Mary-Sue, especially if the story is a work in progress. Since Mary-Sues are all about the lack of progression and development, the story would have to be finished to accurately determine if the character is a Mary-Sue.
If the authors whine and say that there is nothing wrong with their character, but it’s obvious that they are a newbie, then there’s a good chance that they are the Fantasizers. They are more likely to put in self-inserts so they can get together with their favorite character, which there is nothing wrong with that; I do it all the time, I just prefer not to put self-inserted fantasy down on paper or on the internet. With them, you’ll probably have to give them hard evidence, and that means using plenty of quotations from their stories to confront them with it gently, giving a more detailed explanation on why their character is unbelievable. Then give them a few suggestions on how to mask it, improve it, and give them a nudge in that direction.
Unlike the Amateur-Hour-Writers or the Fantasizers, the Don’t-Give-a-Damners, just don’t give a damn. They write how they want. They write for their own pleasure, but publish them online to get praise only, and can‘t seem to take constructive criticism. They claim that these sites are just for fun, and that they write for themselves, and can write however they want, and while that’s true, just like it’s also true that online writing sites don’t disallow Mary-Sues, the sites are also for sharing constructive criticism to help improve, which can be fun in its own right because it means that you‘re being taken seriously. If they receive a respectable piece constructive criticism, they either ignore it completely, or they react terribly to it. Basically, they don’t really care about improving whether their stories are absolutely great, or just plain suck.
Personally, if they can’t take the constructive criticism that‘s supposed to help them learn, they aren’t mature enough to be here where other writers are here to read serious, and well-written stories, and to spread their own little tidbit of literary wisdom. With Don’t-Give-a-Damners, they are stuck at whatever skill level they are at as long as they keep their minds closed, so there isn’t much you can do to change it. Just leave your criticism and move on.
Despite the Mary-Sue Killers (MSK), and all the other stuff I have been told about Mary-Sues, I think they are a necessity to good writing. Before you go straight to the review button to prove me wrong, let me explain. While some beginners know about character development, but aren’t good at spelling or grammar, I, and apparently quite a few other people, started off messing up our characters and the plot. We all have our starter weak points that take over our stories the first few times. It’s a hurdle we need to realize quickly to improve. So if a newbie accidentally writes an underdeveloped character, don’t think of them as inferior writers, but an aspiring writer that needs to get over this hurdle. Think of it as their practice run for more enjoyable stories in the future, no matter how far off that day may come. Encourage them to improve. Because there are new writers everyday, and they are writing stories all the time, Mary-Sues will never fully disappear, so there really is no use flaming them, which will probably just cause them to write more Mary-Sues for spite.
In order to improve, we must first make a mistake. Sometimes we need a gentle pointing out and a push. We need advice and a proper review to understand where the reader is coming from. We want to create well written stories for you to enjoy, but we don’t know how at first, and with writing rules changing all the time, trial and error is all we have. We have to know that perfection isn’t an option we can reach, but excellence and proper development is certainly within our grasp if we can get encouragement to keep trying. Calling our characters and stories Mary-Sue and then running off is not helpful; neither is simply listing all of our “bad writing traits” without any explanation or example; it’s quite discouraging, not encouraging. If there is something you liked, point it out, just like if there were errors, or something you didn’t like, back it up, like how I backed up why I don’t like all of the generic definitions of Mary-Sue.