Whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, a TV series or even a video game and everything in between, characters are extremely important. They are the windows into your world, they take your audience through the grand tour and introduce them to the universe’s rules, society and even nature’s mechanics. The protagonists, antagonists and supporting cast need to be properly developed, so that they may be relatable, likeable and many other ‘ables’.
But when writing characters, particularly protagonist and even more so in a speculative fiction setting, it’s not unusual for writers to want their heroes to be extremely powerful, to be their dreams of glory and high fantastic epic-ness made flesh. The problem lies in that pouring too many good qualities into a character can take them across the deadly Mary Sue line from where there is no return, for you or the audience.
The Mary Sue is an idealised character, one with exceptional qualities and negligible failings, if they have any. The Mary Sue is borderline perfect, capable of doing anything and facing every situation with confidence in their skills. They never fail, they rarely get hurt and everything they try tends to work out the first time. A Mary Sue overcomes challenges without much effort, and pain and weariness, physical or mental, are unusual for them.
A character needs flaws, they need weaknesses, shortcomings and challenges and issues that sometimes dominate their days, make life hard to live. For example, a dead end job giving them enough stress to make them pop antacids like tic-tacs and turning them into jerks to those they love, making them loners. If they’re in a fantasy setting and have powers, then those powers come with a caveat. Maybe they’re not in full control or maybe using one particular aspect of their skills kicks their butt every time. They spend more time picking themselves up from bruises than giving them to their enemies.
A Mary Sue is always in control and never needs to fear anything, unless the author wants it for a particular moment. Maybe it’s some personal drama or a side story they want to push. They’ll try to make the character react to the events in a way that is relatable or has some deep emotional impact but instead it feels artificial, forced. If I haven’t felt that you have flaws, or that there are situations you can’t overcome, then when you break down in a dramatic moment my reaction will be: “Meh.”
Some Mary Sues are easy to identify. Paul Atreides from Dune is the Mary Sue to rule them all. Now, I’m not saying that Dune is a bad novel, far from it, it deserves all the accolades it has and it is an amazing story…but the character is frankly perfect. Paul has no weaknesses and has more abilities and advantages than any other person has in that setting. He is indeed the Kwisatz Haderach, the supreme being, and because of this completely inhuman and someone you can’t relate to in any way. To be honest, this applies to most of the Atreides Family.
To use a recent example we have Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Her ‘origin’ in the film is solid. She has skills, but her life is crap, and she struggles every day to survive. She doesn’t feel great and in fact helps you understand how helpless life on her world is. But when the plot picks her up and takes her along for the ride, the characterisation shifts slightly and she veers dangerously close to Mary-Sue-ness. Without any training she flies the Millennium Falcon using complex and death-defying maneuvers, she mind controls someone without even breaking a sweat and then fights on equal terms against a Dark Jedi. Granted, the Dark Jedi in question was hurt and slower than usual, but she should not have held on as well as she did. Having said so, I’m on the fence with Rey.
A contrasting example in the same universe is Luke. If you watch the films you see how Luke earns everything he has, he starts with nothing but the technical and piloting skills and those two come from years of practice—remember, he dreamed of joining the Academy and leave Tatooine to become a pilot? During the first film he can do as much with The Force as we can, and the only skill he has in that regard is the voice of a creepy old dude popping into his head. The second film shows him training and improving and the third has him become a Jedi Knight.
There is an evolution to him, and he progresses naturally from unskilled to competent. Hell, the expanded universe kept that going and Luke spent years struggling with how to do things right and lost a lot because of his doubts and the fears of not living up to his mentors.
I could go on with the rest of the Star Wars cast, and if you tell me that in the comments I’ll come back to finish this comparison, but for now let’s move on.
One last example though and this one comes from an anime-adapted Light Novel series with a fantastic name: Densetsu Yuusha no Densetsu, the Legend of the Legendary Heroes. With a name like that you almost expect the characters to be Mary Sues, the lot of them, but they’re really not.
Take the protagonist. He has the ability to see the flow of magic and as a sorcerer, it makes him capable of mimicking and countering (almost) any magic used against him. Sounds great, right? But he runs the risk of going berserk every time, killing everyone around him and forcing his companion’s hand, sent along not just to help but also keep an eye on him and even put him down should the need arise. Every person he meets instantly fears and hates him, as his condition, which gives him his abilities, marks him as a monster to everyone around him. He’s a complete cynic and trusting is extremely hard for him. Worst of all is he accepts the hatred and fear as natural, as expected for someone like him. This last bit is something a character I wrote shares, and it leads to some very interesting dynamics.
These things balance the power out and keep the character grounded.
It’s easy to create a Mary Sue, and it’s very difficult to realise that you’re doing it. In your mind, you’re just creating this hero, this symbol of good and honour, with the skills necessary to back what he’s saying, but maybe he doesn’t need that one-hit-kill punch, not unless the point is to make jokes around that, which One Punch Man proved was a brilliant move.
And easy way to know if you’re in Mary Sue territory is to make a list for your character, focusing not on what they can do, but what they can’t. Grab a paper or your favourite spreadsheet and have two columns, “Can” and “Can’t,” and then list it all. If you like and I would recommend, split it around three major points: Physical, Mental and Emotional/Social, much like you would in a Role-playing Game. Maybe they can’t talk to women or have social anxiety, they can’t trust or love, having been burned harshly in the past. All of these add depth to the character and bring it back from the edge of Mary-Sue-ness.
A Mary Sue is an uninteresting character for which it is impossible to create any real tension for, but if you keep an eye on your characterisation and if you focus on what your character can’t do instead of what they can, grounding them, then you’ll probably be ok. They can be as powerful as they like but if they’re easily confused, dimwitted and in addition can’t relate to people around them, then you can create scenarios where those things bring the character down.
We all want our heroes to be epic, but it’s better if the characters earn it and get there over the course of hard journeys with tons of bad to match the good and not a character being that epic from the start.