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How do you stay out of the Mary Sue trap?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by wino, Jul 19, 2013.

  1. wino

    wino Dreamer

    My main character looks decent and is idealistic. He believes in honor and doing the right thing, yada, yada. How can I make him have believable flaws without it seeming forced or contrived? One fault is that he's very prideful.
  2. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    Simply create a character that can experience conflict and doesn't get his way all the time?
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    First decide if you want to stay away from it. At least, if you consider mary sue in the broad sense as a character with lots of strengths and inconsequential weaknesses. There are successful book series that play on that aspect of a character, and lots of readers who are happy to read it.

    Lee Child's series of Jack Reacher books, for example. Reacher doesn't really come close to losing. He's smarter, stronger, and better than his opponents. Weaknesses are inconsequential by and large. Very popular character. Just made a movie (with a horrible casting decision) out of one of his books last winter.

    Some might argue Kvothe from Name of the Wind is a mary sue. I don't agree, but whether he is or not, lots of people love the books.

    You're under no absolute obligation to avoid mary sue characters. If that's the character you want to write, then write it. The problem comes in when writers inadvertently write mary sues.
  4. Spider

    Spider Sage

    You should have your character make mistakes. His actions should have (negative) consequences. One thing about Mary Sues is that everything comes easily to them, and the best way to avoid that IMO is to have the character struggle. Let your character's pride be his downfall. Let others see his flaws. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that nothing goes as planned. His pride can get in the way of his goals or change them.
  5. Gecks

    Gecks Scribe

    I agree with Steerpike that it isn't necessarily a bad thing (and depends what you consider to be a 'mary sure' exactly). I used to do a lot of text-based role-play and then Mary-sue types needed to be avoided for obvious reasons. Not everyone can be a mary-sue! It would be ridiculous for the world to be full of them. By their nature, mary sues tend to be a bit of a centre point, and not every role-player can have their character be the centre. So to make it work.. well, no one could have them.

    But in a book where the character is, well, the main character, it's not always so bad, unless they're cringe-worthingly mary-sue-ish.

    But if you want a super basic answer, I went and typed 'mary sue test' into google and got this as my first result:
    The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test

    It looks fairly handy at least as far as pointing out the things that are considered to be characteristics of a mary sue character, even if you don't explicitly put your character through the test...
  6. TheokinsJ

    TheokinsJ Troubadour

    Create both emotional and physical flaws; for example, my own character in my WIP is the son of a great warrior, but he is mediocre at fighting with a sword. He also has asthma, and as a result he can't run long distances before he needs to let his breath catch up with him. Mary-Sue characters are typically good at everything, so make sure your character isn't! Everyone has a weakness, if your character is the best shot with a bow, the best swordsman, the best mage and the best horse rider in the land... you've got a problem. Maybe the character isn't good at talking to girls? Maybe he/she feels insecure about their abilities and talents, maybe their cousin is better at casting spells than they are?
    Just try to pick out one or two things that the character can't handle and highlight them to the reader, it will make the character feel more human.
    Scribble likes this.
  7. ndmellen

    ndmellen Minstrel

    Just my thoughts, but I was told that a mary sue also involved the writer injecting themselves into the MC, but with none of their own personal flaws (although I never read them, Bella from "Twilight" was the example that was used.) Personally, I think that every main character/ main supporting character we write about contains huge swathes of who we, as ourselves, are. Who we want to be, how we see ourselves, what ideals we (wished) we believed in, etc.

    I would say let each of your characters hold aspects of your personality, but let them have your flaws, too. Anger issues, insecurities, fear of enclosed places, butterflies, whatever...Personally, I think that these are the things that make them the most human and relatable.

    look at characters like Richard Rahl (The Sword of Truth) and Drizzt D'urden (Forgotten Realms): They're perfect in every sense of the word. Paradigms of virtue, completely unstoppable in a fight, loved by all...really cool until the third book, and then it just gets boring. Now, look at MC's like Logan Ninefingers (The First Law series) who is the main character and is utterly flawed. (One of my favorite lines in the series is when Logan, the "hero", looks at his own hands and says... "I don't feelevil"...)

    To my humble way of thinking, heroes have scars. They have drinking problems. In the case of my MC's, they have anger issues. Why? Because doing the "right thing" is often the "hard thing", and it has repercussions. I would say let your own insecurities leak into your characters. Chances are that most people have similar insecurities, and it will make the characters relatable.
  8. Ennokos

    Ennokos Dreamer

    What I consider a mary sue is a "Superman" character. The character that has no character other than saving everyone. Like ndmellen said before me, Richard Rahl was an unbelievable character since the first page. You just knew that whenever he was around there would be no trouble.

    My suggestion would be just to insert character traits and ride that. If taken far enough every character strength can be his undoing as well.
  9. Addison

    Addison Auror

    I've found that looking at, or creating, a back story can held add depth to the character which can help to find flaws and other parts of personality to change it from a character in a book to a real person in a reader's mind. From my experience in reading, every Mary Sue character is either putting on a smile to hide a morbid, gloomy life or to hide their evil, kniving personality. As your character is the hero, not the villain, then he/she has some sort of past experience they don't want to relive or think about in any way.
  10. Asura Levi

    Asura Levi Sage

    Jumping without reading the other answers.

    First, what his Honour is about? His faith, lord/liege, family? Honour by itself is inexistent. Then, put the object of honour doing something, that to the eyes of the audience is wrong but in your setting is acceptable.
    Let me give you an example, that is a samurai Film who make very clear the honour of the samurai.
    In this work, a given lord cruelly kill people as he sees fit. His samurais know it is wrong, but they are fated by their honour and they must obey their lord. (The Films is The 13 Assassins).

    You mentioned also that the is concerned about the right thing. But what is the right thing? Does it mean saving his beloved or a stranger? Who will he/she choose? Would he doom hundred to save thousands? He might become a well intentioned extremist if he does.
  11. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

    Make him unlucky. Maybe he's a decent guy, but pure chance keeps screwing him over.
  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Give your character challenges that really test them. Let them fail. Let them doubt and let them be wrong once in a while. If they're not failing and struggling with something then it's a sign that they're an unbelievable mary sue.
  13. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    1d4chan, while not normally a good source of writing advice, has an interesting list of questions related to potential Mary Sues. The page as a whole is NSFW for profanity, so I'll copy-paste the relevant part.

    Does their personal morality always perfectly match objective reality? To put it another way, would there be any difference between describing their opinion and simply narrating what was actually going on in a scene?

    Do they start the story at the pinnacle of achievement and have no way to grow or improve?

    Do they always make good decisions? And bad ones that are suddenly revealed to have been a good choice?

    Do you use absolutes like "always," "everybody," or "never" when describing their abilities?

    Do they feature an entirely contrived "weakness" that doesn't affect them any time it would harm them (such as being clumsy unless they are required to perform a great feat of athleticism) or isn't really a weakness (such as being too kind or righteous "for their own good") which was clearly added solely so the author could point to it when accused of writing a Sue?

    Do you find that, rather than figuring out how the characters can work together to solve a problem, your primary concern as a writer is usually explaining why this one character can't do it on their own?
  14. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    My advice:

    Don't focus at all on not making your character a Mary Sue. If you do, you'll perhaps solve one problem, but you'll create others.

    Instead, focus on getting inside the head of your character. Do your best to make the character real. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself.
    Ireth likes this.

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