By this point, there are a whole host of articles explaining what a Mary Sue is (the character archetype, not the kickass pop culture blog). Here, I am going to discuss exactly why Mary Sues are bad for your writing, and when it is and is not okay to dismiss claims that your characters are Mary Sues.
What is a Mary Sue Litmus Test?
These are neat internet questionnaires designed identify Mary Sues. They do this by tallying up certain red flags. While it is impossible to determine whether a character is gratingly perfect without reading the story, litmus tests spot characters who share a lot of common ground with traditional Mary Sues, or who have a large number of groan inducing characteristics that are likely to break willing suspension of disbelief. Becoming familiar with the questions on the litmus tests also aids in figuring out what to avoid down the line. My personal favorites can be found here, and here.
Mary Sues are a problem because they strangle the story. Let’s look at the different Mary Sue traits, why they’re bad, and how to fix them:
- The special snowflake: These are characterized by their excessive specialness and lack of flaws. They have unique powers, connections to all the important players, prophesies about their births, and probably waist-length hair with purple eyes to boot. Expect them to be described in poetic terms. They are so horrifically special that none of the other characters gets a chance to shine, because literally everything revolves around them.
- The fix: Tone it down. A good tip from this excellent article suggests removing any unnecessary specialness. If the prophesy isn’t necessary, nix it. If they don’t need waist-length hair, give it to a different character. If it isn’t plot relevant and it isn’t vital to their personality, ditch it.
- The walking tragedy: I mean tragedy in the Shakespearian sense of the word. Everyone they have ever known or loved has died, gone insane, or else been horribly dismembered. What’s more, this character blames themself. They are dark, broody, and riddled with guilt. They’re also impossible to relate to, since their entire life is a shameless appeal for sympathy (tragedy exists. The key here is its excess and blunt pity seeking). This wreck’s the reader’s ability to empathize with the character.
- The fix: like the specialness, tone it down. Think about how this tragedy impacts your character, and remove the excess. If the tragedy is purely backstory or window dressing, toss it. Then find realistic ways for your character’s grief to express itself, and make sure that it isn’t used to excuse their actions.
- The invincible: They cannot fail, ever, at anything. Should things go wrong, the author will step in and save them under the mistaken notion that the best way to have a badass hero is to make sure they always win. What this actually does is choke out any tension, because the reader realizes that the hero can’t possibly lose. This undercuts the sense of danger and, frankly, makes things rather dull.
- The fix: Let them lose, and not just once. Moreover let them lose and let it be their fault. If they go into a situation unprepared, don’t be afraid to let them fail spectacularly, and when they fail make sure it means something. Taking things away from your characters raises the stakes, and letting them lose increases the perceived toughness of the antagonists.
- The one who gets away with everything: A stronger form of the invincible Sue, getting away with everything means that whatever the character does, there are no consequences. They party but never get hung over. They screw up but no one ever blames them or stays mad. They pick fights but never get hurt. This type of character is not only ruins the sense of danger, but also gets in the way of continuity, since logical consequences do not follow from their actions.
- The fix: Every action has a logical reaction. Make sure that no one breaks character for the Mary Sue and that everything that they do is followed through in some way.
Three invalid reasons to dismiss criticism of a character’s Sue-ishness:
- It’s just the hegemonic patriarchy’s way of keeping down my strong female character. Sue-ishness is one of the reasons why so many attempts at Strong Female Characters are actually unbelievable, off-putting, and outright unrelatable. Rather than representing capable, interesting women, female Mary Sues tend to be impossibly perfect, incapable of failing, and unattainably beautiful.Their specialness also makes them a strong contender for being Not Like Other Girls, since Mary Sues tend to emphasize how different they are. If all of your female characters are Mary Sues, it’s an indication that the women in your stories aren’t being treated like real people.
- The Mary Sue is a side character, so it isn’t that important. Mary Sues are not always your main character. Having a Mary Sue on the sidelines often means that the there is a minor character who is sapping attention from the main story line. This is especially dangerous because there’s a serious risk of crowding out the protagonist.
- The critic simply doesn’t understand my character. While the which advice you take is at your discretion, Mary Sue litmus tests exist for a reason. So do beta readers. If multiple people give you the same piece of criticism, it generally warrants closer evaluation. They might absolutely be missing your point. But if every single reader misses your point, there may be a problem with the way that you’re saying things.
Two valid reasons to dismiss criticism of a character’s Sue-ishness:
- You have intentionally made the character a Mary Sue, either for the sake of parody/satire, to deconstruct the archetype later on, or to make some other firmly grounded rhetorical point.
- Your character failed a Mary Sue litmus test but you have run your story through multiple beta readers who are not related to you and who give trustworthy criticism, and all of them have agreed that in spite of the red flags your character remains a flawed, relatable individual.