Tag Archives: mary sue

How do I write a female character that doesn’t fall under the “Beautiful Badass” trope? I feel like she either ends up a Mary Sue or becomes a cold, heartless, pessimistic, combat-ready-yet-gorgeous queen of badassery. What’s the middle ground?

By making them characters.

With female characters, many writers feel there’s an underlying need for them to be “better than” when it comes to combat. They can’t just be. They end up written in comparison to male characters, and whether it’s a conscious or subconscious belief that they need to be the “best, best, best” and better than all the boys or they’re worthless.

Sexism is pervasive.

Whether you’re male or female, the vast majority of media consumed over the years will have taught you that objectification is the status quo. And yes, both those two characters you listed are treated in their narratives as objects. Struggling to hit the societal standards for what a woman “should be” in fantasy, beautiful, desirable, wanted, powerful, but also dependent. The fantasy society dangles in front of us. The issue with the fantasy is that the fantasy woman in question is always an object. A vessel to insert your desires into and not an individual, not a person with their own wants and needs. Being the desirable vessel is what women are told they should want to be. It’s a woman’s duty to exist for the pleasure of men.

Why are the badass and the Mary Sue always stunningly beautiful?

For women, our physical attributes are paramount, linked intrinsically to morality and goodness. You can’t be a good woman if you’re ugly. If you’re ugly, you’re most likely morally moribund. Our desirability is a necessity, it’s treated as the ultimate form of freedom but is, in fact, the cage. If you can transform a woman from a person and into a fantasy, she goes from challenging uncomfortable gender norms to being “safe”. The vast majority of female characters that we’re told are challenging gender norms are actually safely inside the narrow band. What is treated as “girl power” is often just a different version of the fantasy, as much for men as it is for the women it’s ostensibly appealing too.

A woman’s narrative importance is determined by her fuckability. Many of these characters are at once both the hero and the hero’s girlfriend. They are still the hero’s girlfriend, while masquerading as the hero, and thus must be worthy of their love interest. They aren’t actually any different, we’re just told that the hero’s girlfriend is the protagonist now. And the hero’s girlfriend is a moniker tied to the man, her existence about the man, and not herself.

She must be accessible, objectified, and always within reach. Better but lesser. Capable of nurturing the hero, taking care of others, and self-sacrificial. Her backstory is about the men in her life, and often she’s had to take on a masculine role due to circumstances outside her control. She doesn’t “choose to be”, she’s “talented enough to become”. She’d give it all up if she could. She’s dangerous but not too dangerous. Outstanding enough to defy the gender constraints, able to run with the boys and beat them, but still deeply insecure in herself and looking for someone to “tame” her or “take care of” her.

It is a woman’s role to be subservient.

When you are a fantasy, you are no longer dangerous or in defiance of the status quo. You are not a deciding actor, but an object moved around by the narrative’s will. There to be pretty, no matter how much ass you kick in the meanwhile, until you go away.

There is no way to stop writing these characters if you’re unwilling to unpack the gender norms and societal expectations which creates them in the first place. You also need to stop writing them in comparison to men, with men as the norm, and the gold standard that they must defeat in order to be worthy of a role in the story.

Why does the badass need to be beautiful? Why can’t she just be brutal? Why does it matter what she looks like when she fights?

These characters can be mediocre and struggling, and it’s better if they are. Badassery is not a state of being. It’s a title earned through the character’s actions in the narrative. It’s not a single standard, but a contextually changing one based on the challenge.

A woman who fights to escape an abusive environment without violence is a badass. The teenager who studies all night in order to pass an exam in their worst subject, overcoming deep seated insecurity and self-doubt is also a badass.

Greatness is not what we are, it’s what we fight to become.

Women are asked to sacrifice their own desires for the good of others. So, let these characters ask, “what about me?” Fill them up with wants, desires, and dreams. Let them travel the path from mediocre to excellent. Weak to strong. Figure out their feelings and their emotions and figure out what they want. What they could be or can be, dreams that are perhaps stolen from them in context of their narrative.

Writing well-rounded female characters requires breaking past the fantasy in which we perfectly fit into society by the standards demanded of us. That we can fit into the dimensions, force ourselves into shape, while simultaneously defeating them. To recognize, whether male or female, that not only are those standards unfair, they’re also unnecessary.

If you’re stuck between the Mary Sue and the stone-cold beautiful badass, it’s because, on some level, you still believe a woman needs to be more than human in order to succeed.


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On Mary Sue

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Mary Sue is every young writer’s worst fear. Writing advice from all corners hounds and hounds on and on about avoiding Mary Sue. They list categories and traits, they say it’s the worst kind of writing. The demon in the dark as it were. The female Mary Sue is mocked more often than her counterpart Marty Stu, but only because she stands out more. The advice tends to be that Mary is all together terrible and you should avoid any semblance of it, even though many of the traits one might ascribe to a Sue are not actually an issue in and of themselves.

What is Mary Sue?

She’s an outline. A cardboard cutout. A first stab.

The trouble with Mary Sues is that most characters actually begin their lives as one. Conceptually, many characters in a blanket swath will fit the bill. They sometimes come into our imaginations as these phenomenal and powerful individuals adored by the people around them. We really love them and because we love them, we begin to fret. We worry. We fear that maybe we’re doing something wrong. We run these characters through every internet test and (gasp) we turn out a positive. Sometimes a very high positive, but that doesn’t mean the character is automatically bad. There’s nothing wrong with your character being special.

Many of the complaints you’ll find about Sues around the internet are actually symptomatic. They don’t address the real issue at a Sue’s heart. You can have incredibly powerful characters with incredible eyes and hair colored in a way that doesn’t appear in nature, who are deeply kind, or nearly invincible without them being a Sue. Superman and Batman, for example, are both rather classic examples of characters who could (and sometimes do) count as Marty Stus. Yet, they manage to escape the trap, remaining both as compelling characters and cultural mainstays. Idolized rather than despised. Part of this is genre and expectation, but another real aspect is the realization that the traits aren’t what matter. The application is.

The trouble with actually identifying a Sue in your own writing comes with the understanding that every Sue is individual to their writer. Usually, Mary Sue is a character that we love and adore. She fulfills our deepest fantasies and desires. She exists without us having to worry about reality. She can do what we would do and say what we would say. This is why Mary Sue is not anything to be ashamed of. She is the purest of pure fantasy. She is want and desire, everything that we wish we could have been. It is fantasy without the intrusion of any reality, not even that beholden to the worlds they exist in.

Again, this is why Sues are not inherently bad. Let your imagination run free during the character creation process, no matter how weird, out there, or overpowered it might seem.

A Sue becomes a Sue by presentation and context. They face no true challenges. They do not struggle. Everyone wants them, everyone wants to be them. They are often supposedly kind, compassionate, and wonderful. Though these traits tend to be informed, rather than actually seen. The characters of the world that they exist in do not react to them in any kind of realistic fashion. They take actions that would be generally forbidden by their setting and receive no repercussions for any reason other than being either a protagonist or the protagonist. Often, they so flagrantly defy their own setting rules that they undermine the drama presented.

However, the real crux of what makes a Sue a Sue is how other characters react to them and how the narrative frames them. Other characters are not given a voice, they no longer act for themselves. Their entire existence becomes dependent on the wants, dreams, needs, and desires of the Sue, even when it makes no sense given the context the narrative has previously set up. More than that, the narrative often smooths their path for them. They are the best even when they screw up or do something that would get another person killed with no explanation other than “ProtagonistTM”.

What makes Mary Sue bad writing is actually the over focus on a single character. It’s not that she’s in defiance of some iron clad writing rules, which she isn’t, or breaking with gender norms (which… she usually isn’t either). It’s that everything else in the story must bend into a singular, selfish focus. Instead of building the characters around her up, Mary Sue makes her compatriots less and thus diminishes the story by extension. No one is more of a badass, regardless of whatever training they have or how the narrative presents them. No one else is cleverer or more skilled, unless it’s specifically pointed out that it is okay for X reason. No one else is capable of performing their own actions or living their own lives or pursuing their own goals unless the narrative authorizes them to do so. Anyone who breaks with the Sues opinions or disagrees with the Sue is evil, or soon will be down the line. They are painted as antagonists hurting her goal, even when their suggestions are reasonable.

There are no shades of gray, the world of the Sue is black and white.

As a result, the characters in question end up as puppets. They dance on the strings in accordance to where the plot points them. Their side narratives are rarely fulfilling and they rarely receive full character arcs. It’s often easy to feel the overhand of the author shuffling the pieces around to drive the plot forward, like the Wizard of Oz with neither the curtain nor the Oz.

This is why Sues are more obvious in fanfiction because the reader is already familiar with the pre-established world and they don’t feel like they belong. They are just as prevalent in regular fiction, but harder to spot due to having no prior experience with the setting.

Having one in your own work isn’t some shameful mark and fixing it is fairly easy, you just need to start thinking from the perspectives of other characters in the story. Begin humanizing them, begin having them react the way they’d react to any other character, and your Sue problem will go away in fairly short order.

No need to throw what could be the beginnings of an awesome character in the trash bin. It’s not unfixable, if you want to correct it. Besides that, there’s nothing wrong with a character being special.


Avoiding the Combat Sue/Stu

We often treat Mary Sue like she’s the greatest offense to the literary world. Down with Sue! Or, so the chant goes. Less commonly heard is; Down with the Stu! But, I digress. There’s no shame in writing a Mary or a Gary, we’ve all done it. Mary Sue is the embodiment of the power fantasy and I don’t mean that on a literary level, I mean it on a basic, reality level. Mary Sue is a personal fantasy, she’s the dream. She is the inspiration we find in stories and the first stepping stone on the path to creation.

Mary Sue and Gary Stu are most obvious in fanfiction because they don’t belong. We know they don’t because the characters don’t follow the behavioral paths we expect. Check out, this short story Fan Fiction by Shannon K. Garrity of Narbonic.com for the webcomic Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Folio as a great (non-chastizing) send up of Mary Sue.

Remember, if you want to write then you need to first give yourself permission to fantasize.

Let’s talk about some simple ways to take your Sue to the next level.

It’s not the skills your character possesses or how powerful they are that creates the uncanny valley–a term normally applied to video games but works in the context of almost human, but not quite right–of the Stu. It’s not whether or not their actions or abilities are realistic. Realism is created in setting by the rules and laws and our own societal expectations for gender are already unrealistic. No, a Sue comes from the removal of a single important element: there are no guarantees.

Combat is a risky business. This is a truth that is always in play, regardless of whether your character is a drunken wastrel stumbling out of a bar or the greatest swordsman in the land. Your super skilled combat professional can be murdered easily by a mook who catches them off guard, just as easily as they could be by the main villain in his tall tower. Combat is contextual. It relies on luck as much as it does skill. Every time your character leaps into a fight, they are endangering their life, their health, their mental well being, and the lives of their friends and family. This can be a difficult concept to grasp if the entire point of a character is to feel powerful, unstoppable, or invulnerable to harm. Sues and Stus invariably are about creating a sense of safety in the narrative. They’re so strong we don’t need to worry about them. This is a mistake if the author buys into their overconfidence because it cuts the character’s enemies and even their friends entirely out of the equation.

Spike: But you can kill a hundred, a thousand, a thousand thousand, and the armies of hell besides, and all we need is for one of us, just one, sooner or later to have the thing we’re all hoping for.
Buffy: And that would be what?
Spike: One… good… day.

Do any of your characters ask: why can’t that day be today?

Sports movies heavily favor the underdogs. They’re more interesting and more intriguing because it’s all about beating the odds and coming from behind to do the thing no one expects through hard work and dedication. These rules apply just as easily to your mooks as they do to your heroes. There is no such thing as: “I’m so good it doesn’t matter” except in a character’s own head. Being able to fight isn’t an automatic pass past physical realities and laws of chance. If your character is so powerful that people live in fear of them, hate them, reject them from society then there will be those characters that will move to destroy the thing they fear. They will attempt to eradicate it and eliminate it, or may simply throw rocks at it from the safety of a window. People do not like to be made afraid and they will often lash out against the perceived source of that fear. These may be innocent people on the street as easily as it can be the story’s villain.

The real trick to avoiding the Combat Sue is to force your character to deal with their setting, to be a coherent part of a world that doesn’t always function around them and can continue on if they aren’t present or choose not to play along. Stus and Sues need to be needed, if they aren’t there the world in the novel stops turning. They solve their problems, usually with asspulls and in the case of the Combat Sue always with violence. Except, violence isn’t the solution to every problem, violence can often make a situation worse. Every character your character kills is someone’s son, someone’s daughter, someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s mother, there’s nothing stopping their surviving family from swearing vengeance. This is before we get into complex political implications if your character murders or harms a character that is in a protected position of power such as a lord in a neighboring country. As Witty Hawke says during Sebastian’s second mission in Dragon Age 2 to take vengeance for his murdered family: “This is why the cycle of violence never ends.” Said in jest, but it is how the cycle continues.

Your character’s fight scenes can’t exist in a vacuum, everything they do will affect someone else. The choices they make and how they deal with those choices will affect the story. How other characters respond to their actions will also affect the story, give your side characters the freedom to make up their own minds.


How To Write a Sue-ish Character Without Sueism

How To Write a Sue-ish Character Without Sueism

We need more Mary Sues. We need more unapologetically powerful female characters, on a wish-fulfilment level of awesome. We need them to be gods and superheroes and billionaire playboy philanthropists and science experiments gone wrong and normal kids bitten by spiders who now save the world. Why should female characters have to be realistic, while male characters have all the fun? Why shouldn’t a female hero appear alongside Iron Man and Thor, in a way where she can truly hold her own?

We Need More Mary Sues (via matchgirl42)


(via writingweasels)

I’ve seen a lot of these posts around lately. There’s one talking about Batman as the ultimate Mary Sue but it’s OK because he’s a dude so he can’t be a Mary Sue. There’s another one talking about how men get all the wish fulfillment stories and women get laughed at or accused of Sueism if they do.

I just want to clear up some things that make me angry about this whole movement.

  1. Despite the name, Sueism is not a gender-specific term. Do not hesitate to call male characters out on their freaking Sueism for the love of R’hllor. Male characters can be and are Sues! If you think that male characters are not being called out as Sues, then go do it. If men think their little fantasies are immune to scorn, then let’s call them out on it. 
  2. “There aren’t enough female heroes!” Damn right there aren’t, especially on the big screen. I would love to see a hero as powerful as Thor smashing her way through her foes. I would also like to see her well-developed, much as I would like to see any protagonist well-developed. Muscley idiots spitting out pithy one-liners are just as dull as perfect women. 
  3. “We need more female gods/superheroes/billionaire playboy philanthropists.” Yes, we do. We need more women who aren’t sexy lamps, who aren’t sexy at all, whose characterization has nothing to do with them being attractive (if they are), who don’t spend ¾ of their plot wrapped up in a romantic subplot, and who aren’t sexualized. Now make me a well-rounded god/superhero/billionaire playboy philanthropist instead of stooping to the patriarchy’s levels to win. 
  4. Wish fulfillment characters are boring as hell. This quote discusses the Marvel superheroes. I’ve seen all the movies and liked most of them, but overall the movies were formulaic and predictable: there’s some jokes, stuff blowing up, and the ~evil villain~ but you know at the end of the day the guy will win and get the girl. B-O-R-I-N-G. I yawned so hard my wretched soul escaped out of my body.
  5. Bad does not wash out bad. Your Mary Sues are not going to wash out decades of Gary Sues. We should have all characters of all genders developed as fully-developed people. 
  6. “But empowerment!” Guess what? You can still have female characters who are powerful and well-rounded. You can have male characters who are powerful and not wish fulfillment. It’s not mutually exclusive!
  7. Mary Sues are literally the worst character

tl;dr I don’t care where your character is on the gender spectrum. Don’t write them as Sues.

(via clevergirlhelps)

I think there is a nasty habit going around in the writing community right now that’s equating Mary Sues with powerful characters. Your female characters don’t need to be Mary Sues in order for them to be powerful. You don’t need to create a Mary Sue in order to challenge gender stereotypes. The truth is: when you create a Sue, you aren’t challenging those stereotypes. Characters who are Sues are usually treated as the exception in the narrative, they leave no room for other characters (regardless of gender) to follow their example. When we write an Action Sues, they often become the only one of their gender to ever do the thing and that only serves to uphold the damaging idea that women don’t or can’t handle violence. It says that women can only be good at combat if they are better than the men, that men are the golden standard and the only ones who have ever fought ever.

It doesn’t normalize the behavior, it makes the character the exception to the rule and that hurts all women out there who can and do fight. It upholds the myth, instead of looking at the reality.

We have all written Mary Sues at some point, they are part of the writer learning experience. However, they are not the end all and be all. Don’t be ashamed of them, but learn how to make them real characters and part of engaging stories.