Q&A: Mary Sues

Do you have any advice for writing female characters who fight without being accused of being Mary Sues? Miss Martian I’m Young Justice has been called a Mary Sue “because she is too powerful” even after an episode that revealed that she basically lied to her team and one where she has mind-wrecked/manipulated people. And yet several other characters are powerful are not seen as Mary Sues. It seems like male characters are allowed to be super gifted but not female characters, even flawed ones.

I can’t speak to the Young Justice example. I’ve never watched the show. If the idea is that she’s been psychically manipulating the team, that’s messed up. If they’re cool with it, then that might be Mary Sue-ish behavior. Identify a Sue can be as much about how other characters respond as what the character does. It’s not the kiss of death on its own, and there could be some valuable context I’m missing here.

Let’s unpack what a Mary Sue is, before we get into how to avoid it.

Depending on your preferences, the term Mary Sue isn’t gendered, or, at least the concept certainly isn’t. You can have a male character who’s just as much a Mary Sue. If you want to use the term Marty Stu for those, that’s your choice. Either way, it’s the same writing problem; changing the name does nothing. (I’m not going to be writing Mary Sue/Marty Stu for the rest of the post. Just remember, whenever I’m talking about a Mary Sue all of this still applies to male characters.)

A Mary Sue is a character who excels at everything, or at least everything put in front of them. These are often (though, not always) author insert characters. The desired result is for you to look at the character and think how awesome the author is. But, when the term applies, that failed somehow.

A couple things to keep in mind, as a kind of litmus test:

A Mary Sue is never really tested: Every challenge they face is well within their wheelhouse. Any serious adversity can be dispatched without serious effort.

A character can face every adversity successfully without being a Mary Sue. There are plenty of stories where the character triumphs over all. However, the real fine line on this is, “did the character have to work for their victories?” If the answer is yes, then that’s not (necessarily) a Mary Sue.

Characters who have to struggle, or have to learn and grow to face new challenges aren’t Mary Sues. In a real sense, the Mary Sue is a power fantasy for the author. So, a character who has to grow to face new threats doesn’t fit within that.

A Mary Sue gives up nothing: usually. This is a similar situation. The character does what they want, gets what they want, and it costs them nothing.

There is a special case here; sometimes the author’s goal is angst, and you’ll see comical amounts of misfortune heaped on their Sue to feed that.

Generally, if you have a character who does everything they want, without having to give up anything, that’s a Sue. A character who gives up friends, or suffers to achieve their goals is probably not a Mary Sue. (With the mentioned exception above.)

I’m reminded of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “you shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both.” Sues look at that and flip the bird.

A Mary Sue breaks the rules of their world: As tests go, this is a little more generic. There’s a lot of ways a character could potentially break the rules for their world, and in some cases, it’s entirely legitimate.

With a Mary Sue, it’s almost always about self-aggrandizement. Again, this is the, “look how awesome my character is,” played out against a setting where it doesn’t fit.

This often expands to how other character respond to and threat them. A character who doesn’t face consequences for their actions, without (a credible) explanation might be a Mary Sue.

A Mary Sue is always the center of attention: This goes back to the mindset that leads to the creation of a Sue. The author is writing a character to validate themselves. They’re inserting themselves into the story. The result is that character steals the attention from everyone else in the room.

It’s possible to have a character that is legitimately that charismatic. This is especially true in first person limited, where the narrating character really could be making everything about themselves. That’s fine, up to a point.

You can write a story about a character who’s an egomaniac and thinks everything has to do with them. I’ve read a few good books like that. But, you are setting a difficult bar to hit with this.

However, if a character starts pulling people into their orbit without effort or explanation, that’s something to keep an eye on.

A Mary Sue is not a powerful character: Power is a poor metric to judge a potential Sue. Their ability to affect the world in ways that are favorable to their goals? Sure. But, “this character is so powerful that they must be a Sue?” No.

Now, I said Sues aren’t gendered, and I stand behind that, but some people will use the term as a gendered shutdown against any competent female character. That’s sexism. That’s a double standard. They’re trying to use the term as an insult to disregard the character without actually looking at the character.

So, how do you avoid this?

First, know that misogynistic assholes are going to be misogynistic assholes. They have nothing of value to contribute to your work, and no power over the characters you create. They’re telling you that your character needs to sit down, be quiet, and smile, because they’re female. Ignore them.

Don’t get too invested in a single character: In theory, there’s nothing wrong with insert characters. The problem is when the author is overly invested in their insert and it becomes an Author’s Pet. It skews the work, and yes, your audience can tell.

Not every pet is a Sue, but there is a strong correlation.

Every character you create is a piece of you. You’ll carry them with you for the rest of your life. They’re reflections, moments, identities that you made. Just. Don’t. Play. Favorites.

Make sure your characters belong in their world: again, one of the biggest things you can do to make a Sue is have a character who doesn’t belong in their world. When you’re creating a character, figure out where they belong in that setting, and how that shapes their identity.

I’m not talking about characters who are literally from outside the setting, like wardrobe fantasy or fish out of water stories. That’s different. They belong in their world; they’re just not in it right now.

Remember opportunity cost is a thing: Opportunity cost is the idea that in order to do one thing, you’ve giving up the opportunity to do another.

If your character spent years training to fight, that would eaten into their social life. If they spent years training as a thief, same difference. These choices further shape who they are as a person.

Combat is a skill like any other. You can learn it, and it changes how you see the world. Your character can learn to fight. Your character can put in the time and become exceptional at it. But, that comes at a price. They have to give up other things to do that. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

The other side is, a character can develop a complex skillset over time. They can grow as a person, and that means that some of the things they used to do fall by the wayside as they go.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with creating hyper-competent characters, just remember to drag them out of their comfort zone.

Try to avoid, “the special” unless you need it: For everything, there are special exemptions. Special cases. Remember, you’re unique, just like everyone else. If your character is the last surviving member of their kind, a demi-god, the lost scion of a deposed royal lineage, or some other extraordinary, unique individual, that needs to be a central focus of their story. Note: “their story,” it’s possible they may end up split off in a different direction from the rest of your characters, to follow their story. Even if they’re trying to reject their legacy, others may not be so accommodating.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with characters that have something special about them, that’s fine. However, the more special they are, the more they’ll weigh on the story. Meter your plans accordingly.

Finally, this may sound a bit odd, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with a well written Mary Sue. The protagonists of 19th century lit are utterly saturated with characters that, to a modern audience, look a lot like Sues. The problem is when you have poorly written characters. That’s the issue here. Is the character well written? Do they feel like they belong in their world? Do they pay for their choices? It’s not a Sue.

Someone telling you that your character is too powerful because they’re female, and automatically a Mary Sue is applying a vicious double standard. Like I’ve said, while the name itself refers to a female character from a Star Trek fan fiction, the writing issues apply regardless of gender. Anyone saying, “no, your character is too powerful for a girl,” can fuck right off.

-Starke

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