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.