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: