Writing characters is easy, but writing a great character is difficult. Inspiration must come from somewhere and what better inspiration than ourselves. Right?
This was how the ‘Mary Sue’ trope was born. It is an innocent parody of shameless self-insert characters fan-fiction writers use. This persisted beyond the self-insert character and has become the reason for millions of one star book reviews. A Mary Sue is effectively flawless, highly skilled, everyone likes her except the antagonist, and everything works in her favor.
Writers should avoid creating such characters because they are exceptionally boring. Often, writers create the Mary Sue unintentionally—a product of the writer’s tainted perception of the character—undermining the character’s impact on the narrative.
How might one avoid creating a Mary Sue? Here are two thoughts that you may want to employ to your own characters.
Is your character great at everything? Characters that are multi-talented or highly skilled are perfectly fine, but overdoing it can come off as unrealistic and unrelatable. A character with flaws feels far more relatable and grounded. Balancing strengths with weaknesses is an important tool to create a multifaceted character. Maybe your character does have a weakness, but ask yourself: How obvious is that to the reader?
Is your character loved by everyone? This is hard to believe. Conflict, drama, and confrontation can make character interactions memorable, meaningful, and more importantly, believable. A character can’t be loved by everyone; by default they must have proved themselves to be accepted and trusted. Often this is trivialized with quick demonstrations of competency which creates instant trust with other characters. This can be done well, but can also come off as a cheap way to make a character instantly liked. A hero can be loved by many, but they didn’t earn that title for just existing.
A likable character can have some, if not all, the excellent traits you want them to have, but writing a narrative around only those traits is what makes a character become a Mary Sue. If you find that your character is a Mary Sue, don’t panic! Consider making your character’s weaknesses, struggles, or imperfections more obvious. Ensure the narrative isn’t dependent on this character’s perfectness.
We are all guilty of falling for a character we write. The struggle is convincing the reader that the character is worthy of their time. Avoid the Mary Sue character trope.