On Mary Sues

Mary Sue: a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional. [x]

“Wow, what a Sue!” is thrown around a lot these days in literary criticism.  It’s always insulting.  It always implies that the author did something wrong.  And if it’s applied to an amateur or developing work, it generally means the author needs to do something to reduce the “Sueishness” of the character.

The problem arises when any character who’s exceptional is labeled a Sue.  But wait, don’t we like reading about extraordinary people?  Having a character who’s truly unique in her world can’t be the mark of incompetence, can it?

Recently, in a completely unrelated-to-writing forum, I received a nice message from someone who appreciated one of my articles online, and she added this at the end of the message:

Also, your webcomic rocks. Actual plotlines and character development? Yes please.

After I thanked her, she said a little more about it, mentioning one of my characters in particular:

Too many stories—especially webcomics—are filled with cheap action and universe-spanning prophecies, but the whole thing is ruined by the one-dimensional cardboard cutouts the author pushes around. I’m especially in awe of how you manage to handle Ivy—with all her unbelievably Mary-Sueish characteristics—in a way that makes her realistic and likable. Seriously… how do you manage it?? I try to work with characters that have half her Sueishness and every time they wind up devouring half the story like some sparkly black hole.

So, I thought about it. Hey, how do I manage it?

The character she’s talking about is indeed in the red as far as Mary Sues go. I’ve been well aware of that for a long time. To give you some idea:

  • Author self-insert: When I named the character, she got my nickname, and I didn’t realize it was going to stick to both of us. . . .
  • Exotic and attractive appearance: She’s biracial (half Chinese, half white American mutt) but somehow ended up with features you don’t often see come out of that combination: blonde hair, huge tilty green eyes. Annnnd is randomly missing the pinkies on her hands and feet and has pointy ears for no reason.
  • Has unusual powers that aren’t commonplace for the character’s race: She has an unexplained and unprecedented gigantic case of telekinesis. Why? Got me!

At this point in the webcomic story, my character was a two-year-old, so she’s too young to really do most of the Sueish things people in her situation are prone to doing (e.g., angsting, being sought after by people who are drawn in by curiosity or attraction or greed, making some kind of Epic Plot based around superpowers, etc.). But she’s still got a LOT of the warning signs of Suedom, and yet the compliment above suggests I’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls somehow. Well, what’s up with that?

Here is my somewhat rambly and surely incomplete guide to making your characters not suck, even if they are, by some definitions, Sues:

  1. First off, try not to worry about whether your character is too special. It is natural to want to write about the most interesting character in the room. Don’t you know a few people in real life who seem to have so much going for them that it’s almost like they were badly written characters? These things happen. Are you taking these dramatic names, unusual features, and special qualities away from your character because they actually make her unbelievable or annoying . . . or are you doing it just in the name of trying to make your story less Sueish? If the latter is the case, I recommend worrying less about what other people will say. Keep the attributes if you really want them; just handle them realistically.
  1. Include disadvantages and flaws, but not as an afterthought. You are not giving your character flaws to balance her like she’s a math equation. It makes her seem constructed. You are giving her flaws because the flaws grow automatically from her situations, and you will find them easily if you just think. You have not succeeded in balancing Bella your Sueish character if you just give her a negative trait like making her a worthless human being who constantly has to be saved as a plot point clumsiness. What really happens if your character has, as in my case, absurdly awesome superpowers?

    The character referenced above has telekinetic powers that have made it possible for her to physically interact with her world through only mental effort (and very little of it, incidentally). Obvious result: abysmal muscular development and terrible dexterity. Some writers have thought of this with characters like her; they can’t use their hands well, and it’s sort of considered cute. But really? It’s a lot worse than that, because this character can’t honestly wrap her mind around the concept of fine dexterity well enough to even properly fake it, and that can be very inconvenient. Despite being what people would call a “toddler,” she actually does not have the balance or physical coordination to walk, and . . . this is kind of gross here, actually . . . since walking usually assists children’s development of the same muscles they use for toilet training, she is prone to peeing on herself until she’s about eight frigging years old. (It probably would have gone faster if she’d had more consistent discipline in her life, but that was also missing.) I haven’t included her later life in the webcomic yet, but even by the time she’s an older teen she doesn’t have the balance or coordination to walk backwards or use stairs unassisted, and when she learned to actually run at age seventeen she was quite proud of herself. . . . The lack of muscle tone also ends up giving her a sort of sickly-skinny appearance, though that hasn’t manifested yet in the comic since she’s still a sorta cute chubby baby.

  1. If your character is a person whom everyone (or at least everyone good/important) wants to befriend or take to bed, make her actually likable. This is probably harder than it sounds, but just think about it while you write the character. If you met this person, would you actually want to hang out with her? If her superior attitude, off-the-charts awesomeness, or sullen brooding would make most people think “a-hole,” don’t push all the characters into loving the protagonist anyway. Have supporting characters call the Sue out on her crap. Realistic characters will do this. If you have a character who is beautiful and powerful and, worse yet, knows it, she may get a big head, but I guarantee you that people will express jealousy, lack of tolerance, and behind-the-back gossip if your character is a jerk.

    Again, my character: Look, she’s a baby who can get her way anytime she wants because she can throw you into the next county if you do not bring her applesauce. She sometimes demonstrates this, too, though she’s too young to understand what having power means yet. How do you discipline that? Well, the answer’s different for various, erm, caregivers, but the truth is, everyone’s at least a little afraid of her. And some people deal with that by abandoning her. She’s learning that. Some people actually can’t deal with it and refuse to. The person who’s been most successful at disciplining her so far in the story appears to be doing so through some strange mix of bravery and ignorance. Spanking a baby with superpowers is probably high on the list of bad ideas, but does it work? . . . Well, the person who’s done so has lived to tell the tale, so . . . the answer is “sometimes.” Point is, some people in the story have to be willing to take characters like this to task by not letting them get away with unacceptable behavior.

  1. Make your character’s thoughts accessible, and make sure the reader understands why she thinks the way she does.  A romantically attractive, mysterious, special, and/or kickass character will seem a lot more human and understandable if the reader can be let into her private world. She surely has feelings about a lot of experiences in her life, and it really helps if you can filter the mundane experiences as well as the experiences that directly relate to her specialness through the voice of the character into the reader’s mind.

    For instance, I mentioned above that my Sueish character has unusual eyes (since Asian eyes are rarely green) and pointed ears. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the other people in the comic. Various characters have their theories about what her nearly faerie-ish appearance might mean, but sometimes their curiosity manifests in ways that confuse or upset the main character. She’s puzzled and sometimes self-conscious about the attention she gets, and she’s learning to minimize the bad reactions unsuspecting strangers have sometimes (e.g., people who scream if they unexpectedly see a flying baby; putting her feet on the ground around strangers fixes that!). The point here is that she responds. She wonders. She reacts to being reacted to. Even if you’ve never felt the way she does, you understand why those experiences feel the way they do.

  1. Accept your character’s vulnerabilities. And I’m not talking about giving her a grafted-on superweakness, like aversion to iron or sunlight.  She should have vulnerabilities as any person does. If she’s truly so powerful or beautiful or speshullll that it bowls people over, isn’t it kind of uncomfortable if no one else is comfortable with her? And please don’t just give her a phobia or something to try to make her accessible. If she’s not vulnerable unless another character sticks Kryptonite in her pants, it’s not an accessible human weakness that anyone can relate to.

    My webcomic baby may have superpowers, but she’s a baby. She cries if she’s tired or if there’s a loud noise or if no one’s there to hug her at the right time. She’s always a person first. Having off-the-scale telekinetic abilities has drastically affected her life (obviously), but as she grows up this way, she isn’t immune to self-esteem problems, self-consciousness, anger, confusion . . . none of which is exclusively related to her “special” conditions. And keep in mind that even though we make fun of characters who angst too much, some angst is appropriate when you really are the only person like yourself in the world. Super-special characters are going to do this. Heck, regular people do this. Let them. Just don’t make it their whole lives.

  1. Don’t make all the supporting characters have the same reactions to your character, and make their feelings complicated.  I’m sure one of the big FAILS of Suedom is that everyone either wants to fight or f— your character, and it just gets tiresome. But everyone your character meets has an entire lifetime of experiences leading up to that meeting, influenced by culture, environment, upbringing, and personal preference. Your drop-dead sexy character should meet potential love interests who don’t love her, and your drop-dead sexy character should NOT always be able to seduce the object of her affection. Your super-powered character should meet people who don’t want her super-powered help without being therefore cast as an antagonist with a burning jealousy. Characters with difficult or alienating situations should still be able to meet people who can love them. Et cetera.

    And these supporting characters should sometimes have mixed feelings about your Sueish character. Maybe they are awed and impressed by the Sue’s abilities, but prefer not to show this aspect of themselves and end up treating the Sue gruffly or unfairly because of it. Maybe they are attracted to the beautiful Sue, but have too much self-respect to make a move on someone just because they’re pretty. And so on.

  1. Don’t make your character unrealistically good at things that don’t have anything to do with her specialness. Your character can be the best in the biz at her specialty without being the best at everything. We all know how pissed off we get if the hero learns to read in a week even though being a Chosen One had nothing to do with speed-reading/speed learning. If your character is the best at something, make peace with it and go with it, but let someone else win the damn spelling bee for cheese’s sake. Let her get beat up at school. Let her lose the talent competition (and be a bad loser). Everything coming easily to a Sue is part of what makes her utterly ridiculous and inaccessible. You don’t want to do it.
  1. Consider letting your character weird herself out occasionally. You can show her discovering new things about her special abilities or effects on others and seeming surprised, bewildered, impressed, intimidated, or alienated. It’s also a plus to actually show her having to practice or hone her talents instead of just suddenly appearing on the battlefield one day, made from a superior mold and destined to kill 193 soldiers kick ass without the necessary practice and training. Lots of stories show characters building their skills, but including some vulnerability and some being impressed at her own skills (especially if she learns them quickly) is really important. If it isn’t something traditional that she’s learning—especially if it’s something unique to her—other people’s shocked reactions should make her a little self-conscious, even after a long time.
  1. Include glimpses of your character’s life where she does NOT stand out. Feature her own jealousy, confusion, or incompetence, and make it clear there are aspects of her that are just like everyone else. It makes a character more tolerable—more likable—if she asks for help now and then, or needs a shoulder to cry on about relationship issues, or gets made fun of for something stupid she failed at. A Sueish character often isn’t used to feeling like this, so some sullen entitlement will sometimes come out, but we need to see it all—and we need to also see good-natured “aw, I suck at this . . . oh well!” reactions too, if they are appropriate.
  1. Give your character illogical thoughts and irrational feelings sometimes. Sometimes, if they’re realistic, vulnerable human beings (or some close approximation thereof), they have to learn their lessons the hard way more than once. In real life, people who date a bad boyfriend often end up with a similar bad boyfriend a couple more times before learning their lessons on what kind of people they should be dating. In real life, people get jealous when they have no real right to be, or say things they don’t mean, or royally screw up without some kind of noble reason for doing so.

    When my webcomic baby is older, in her teen years, she does sometimes go through phases of wishing she was “normal,” so to speak, and though the first time she tried to “pass” did NOT go well, there are also other times and other people to whom she pretends. This inevitably leads to her screwing up situations and losing friends. This is also a terribly hard lesson to learn and she doesn’t WANT to learn it—she doesn’t want to accept that there are things she can’t do and people who won’t accept her. If you don’t want to actually go through this again and again with your character, it’s still important that her soul bears the scars of irrational behavior and actions at times. Nobody’s perfect. Not even your Sue.

  1. Let your character have interests and preferences that aren’t necessarily predictable, as part of a larger personality conglomerate that shows she is a complete person. Sometimes writers try to do this to be cute, like when they make a prissy little princess type obsessed with combat and “boy” things, or when they have a big scary tough guy who melts when he plays with puppies or babies. I don’t really find this to be a step up from the one-dimensional type-casting. It’s just a recognition that stereotypes exist and a poor attempt to remove your character from criticism. (Obviously the above examples can still work; I’m just talking about how it DOESN’T work if all you do is throw in a manly man whose favorite color, inexplicably, is pink.)

    Take what you know about your character and think, “What is it about this character that makes her enjoy this pastime or that form of entertainment? What other things would be included in someone’s personality if these attributes were in her inventory?” What’s vital, however, is that you don’t have to justify these interests/preferences in your text. You just have to know why and how. You, the writer. If these bits of your character make a cohesive whole, they will naturally come out on the page representing a well-rounded person.

To wrap up (and hopefully not to sound too dippy or whatever), don’t be afraid to make your characters special, even to the point of Sueishness, if you can write the story to handle it. Make your character a little of everything, the way real people are. We want to read about special, attractive, interesting, amazing people . . . and we’ll willingly accept these traits if they’re framed within personalities that are naturally and accurately reflecting what it would be like to be special in the ways they are.

3 thoughts on “On Mary Sues

  1. In my perspective, the big problem with a Mary Sue isn’t the Sue, but everyone else. The other characters in the world all revolve around the Mary Sue, liking or hating her. The big reason Ivy isn’t a Mary Sue is that the people around her all have their own stories and their own characterization. The world you created doesn’t revolve around any one character.

    • That’s true too. I think it’s fine to criticize when an author just overdoes a character and dumps all their favorite wish-fulfillment fantasies into them, but yes, when your main character is the entire world’s main character and everyone is intensely interested in her and defines their lives by her, the Mary Sue thing comes out.

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