Most writers have heard the term “Mary Sue.” It’s often used to describe those picture perfect characters who do and say all the right things. Mary Sue is smart, beautiful (but modest about it, of course), and people are drawn to her. Good grades come easy for her, but she’d never admit it. That would be bragging, and Mary Sue never brags. She’s kind, thoughtful, and lends an ear to anyone who needs to talk. She’s never irritable or has PMS, or thinks uncharitable thoughts about anyone. In fact, her biggest “flaw” is that she’s so kind, she can’t conceive of unkindness in others. She’s such a loyal friend, she can’t imagine that anyone could betray her even when the signs are so freaking obvious, you begin to wonder halfway through the book if Mary Sue is slightly stupid after all.
Recently, Mary Sue has become super sneaky. She wears many disguises, but the savvy reader isn’t fooled. Let’s have a look at the many faces of Mary Sue:
Amazing Transformation Mary Sue often begins as gangly, but suddenly grows into those long legs and becomes a raging beauty the guys drool over. Strangely, Mary Sue still doesn’t notice the guys seem to like her, and she drifts through life oblivious to her amazing looks. Amazing Transformation Mary Sue has been known to turn a lifeless ponytail into waist-long, golden tresses with the flick of her wrist. When she trades in her glasses for contacts, she suddenly becoming a stunning beauty right before our very eyes. Who needs character development, right?
Clumsy Mary Sue is clutzy, but not in an awkward sort of way. Her clumsiness is just adorable, like a newborn calf trying to stand up for the first time. In fact, all of Clumsy Mary Sue’s flaws are adorable. Really, they aren’t flaws at all, just endearing features that are supposed to help the reader identify with someone as cute and sweet and perfect as Clumsy Mary Sue. Plus all her super-cute weaknesses give the romantic hero an excuse to save her, which if you play your cards right, can be the WHOLE plot for your book.
Badass Mary Sue seems to be the opposite of our sweet and adorably Clumsy Mary Sue, but don’t be fooled. This Mary Sue always has the best martial arts skills, and even when she’s outnumbered, she still comes out on top. She always has time for a smart ass quip and wields sarcasm like a mighty sword. Badass Mary Sue takes everything in stride. She’s really tired from all her asskicking , but someone has got to do it, so it might as well be her. After all, no one does it better than Badass Mary Sue. Badass Mary Sue is usually too busy for character development, so she just karate chops and high kicks her way from one action scene to the next.
In defense of Mary Sue: Sometimes a Mary Sue character can be fun to mess with. After all, someone who has always had it easy often crumbles under the pressure when things get too tough. Character development can happen when that Mary Sue character receives a wakeup call that “Hey, bad luck is calling for you.” When she watches her whole life fall apart, reacts badly, perseveres, learns her lesson, grows up, and overcomes adversity—that’s character growth. And, this can be satisfying to watch.
But, beware! If you’re going to create a Mary Sue character for the sake of bringing her to her knees and building her back up, there needs to be REAL character development. A character who suddenly realizes she’s not hideously ugly because her new rich, cute, perfect boyfriend told her she’s not hideously ugly—this is NOT character growth. This is a girl who has no self-esteem or self-worth beyond her relationship with her new boyfriend. Character development is not getting highlights or learning to get blood stains out of clothing after your latest demon-slaying spree.
Basically, writing a Mary Sue is a sort of wish fulfillment for the author. If you’ve always been shy, you can either create an outgoing character who is everything you wish you could be, or you can write a shy character and grant her everything you were never able to achieve due to your own shyness. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Our neurosis can often inspire us to create unforgettable characters. Just be aware of Mary Sue and her many guises. Don’t let this sneaky gal sweet talk, manipulate, or (in the case of badass Mary Sue) dropkick her way into your manuscript.
How do you feel about Mary Sue characters? Have you ever written one? How do you avoid writing a Mary Sue?