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Help! I have a Mary Sue!

Journal Entry: Fri Nov 8, 2013, 8:30 AM
You know that you have a Mary Sue when she upsets the monochromatic color scheme of my Writer's Guides.


Mouse over blue text to see a note.

Internet communities often lash out at writers who create Mary Sues. Declaring the writing to be below their standards, they proceed to punish the creators. They mock the characters, verbally abuse the writers, and write hyperbolically about how much they wish the characters would die.

Bullying writers (who may be very young) is only going to make them afraid to write—and therefore improve—or share their work. Not only that, but it discourages other writers from speaking for fear of public mockery, and it may silence the voices that could someday become great.

If you've directly or indirectly suffered from the abuse of such individuals, let me first apologize on their behalf. I don't care if your story stinks so much that it can be smelled from fifty miles away; mocking you for it is cyberbullying. If you find people who try to hurt your self-esteem instead of offering constructive ideas, then I suggest you block them and forget about them. Unhelpful criticism is not worth your time.

Now let's take a moment to forget about cruel communities and whatever they think about your story—who cares about bullies' opinions, anyway?—and focus on what you think about it.

Mary Sue screams in horror.  She has brilliant blue hair that transitions to vibrant pink at the ends, one blue eye, and one pink eye. Her skin is ridiculously pale.

EEEEEE I think I have a Mary Sue!!!!!!



First of all, remain calm. Approaching your story in a frenzy is hardly the right thing to do, especially if you're going to reevaluate your characters and their position in your book. If you're feeling panicked, repeat these five things and take deep breaths.

1. The term Mary Sue is subjective.

2. People who tell you that your story stinks are jerks. No, I don't care if they were "trying to be helpful." They're still jerks.

3. Having an item or two on a list does not make your character a Mary Sue.
(And if it did, I would be in major trouble, and so would Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, my best friends, probably every other writer on the planet, and God)

4. Characters can be modified.

5. Having a Mary Sue is not the end of the world.

So don't worry; you have all the time in the world to mess with your character.*
*unless you have a deadline. Then you have some of the time in the world.

If you're uncertain about what a Mary Sue is, see this piece for elaboration.

A worried Mary Sue bites her lip.

Is My OC a Mary Sue?



Your character has pink hair? Well, I guess she's a Mary Sue. But don't worry, that also makes my brutish, duty-driven, amoral villain Bruk a Mary Sue. You see, he was genetically engineered by an alien who didn't really know what he was doing. Bruk hates his hair. I gave it to him because (a) I wanted to make a commentary on the cultural expectation of masculinity and the resulting social pressures, (b) my audience would enjoy it, and (c) I wanted to laugh at him. (Or maybe I just wanted to laugh at him. I don't really remember.)

I'm not going to give you a list of unacceptable hair colors or limits on numbers of talents a character may possess. My guess is that you've already heard plenty about that. Besides, do you really think my Bruk is a Mary Sue? (Hint: He's low on the suspect list.)

Things such as hair color and singing voice can certainly call attention when they start to pile on, but they are only symptoms of underlying behaviors that truly define a Mary Sue. Let's take a deeper look at these.
  • Do all the interesting things in my story happen to this one character, or is (s)he guaranteed to be involved in anything significant to the plot?
  • Do I give my character traits or a history to try to make him/her "special" or draw attention to him/her?
  • Is my character flawless or a perfect example?
  • Do I consider my character superior?


A police officer handcuffs a criminal while Mary Sue watches. The officer says ''Go home, Mary Sue. This doesn't involve you,'' and Mary Sue replies, ''Of course it does! I'm the protagonist!''

My character is involved in every interesting event.



If your character is the main character, it's natural for him/her to be present when important things are happening. The story is focused on your character, after all!

However, sometimes things can grow a little out of hand. Your character becomes present all the time (even when his/her presence isn't needed), and your character's business is the only business that matters. When the female supporting character gets a secret love letter from her crush, she spends a few lines wondering about it before the main character's issues become the main topic of conversation. Your character's mentors have no lives outside of helping your character. Your character shows up at council meetings discussing the fate of the universe, even if she is a fifteen-year-old girl whose only credentials are her interest and her stellar grades at school, and they don't escort her out of the building as soon as they see her or call her parents if she tries again. Do any of these situations sound vaguely familiar?

Neva, the token Latina, holds a pink piece of paper shaped like a heart. Excited, she exclaims, ''I think this is from Amy!'' Ignoring her, Mary Sue looks away and says, ''The hot guy is back!''

Take a moment to consider whether the plot serves your plans or your character. In fact, a moment might be too short. I'd recommend a week of rereading your story, scene by scene, and asking yourself these two key questions:

~Does other characters' business get much screen time, or does your character and his/her business constantly steal the show?

~Do important things constantly become your character's business (and no one thinks this is strange)?

Let me use a Venn diagram to elaborate.
A Venn diagram depicts two categories: important plot-related things (on the left) and your character's business (on the right). The diagram explains that either by accident or by choice, some important things are likely to happen without your character.
Note: definitions of important to the plot and not important to the plot will vary depending on your type of plot; the examples in your story's Venn diagram may be in different places.

If your character is one of the main characters, there's naturally going to be a lot of overlap between the "important things" and "things involving my character" categories. This will especially be true if your character is the narrator.

The danger is focusing solely on that intersection—to the point at which anything not directly involving your character is dismissed. When you push other characters' affairs to the side (for example, spending no time developing the relationship between the characters' two best friends), you end up with a flat storyline and cast. Each significant relationship is between your character and someone else, and any sense of community is lost. If the other characters no longer had your character to lean on, they would probably drift around aimlessly and the plot would fall apart.

Because anything not involving your character is dismissed, your character needs to be present at any event of significance, even if it wouldn't make sense. These events can sound contrived, like the author pulled as many ropes as possible to make sure that the favored character would be there. Readers will pick up on that.

The bottom line: if you're focusing too much on the intersection of the Venn diagram, you can relax! Keep in mind that your readers will want to like your supporting characters too. They might be excited to guess who sent Neva the love note and watch her try to gather the courage to talk to her crush. Find the qualities that you love and identify with in other characters, and try spending time developing those too. And don't worry—even if we have to follow your character's mentor or the noble police officer to the Bicentennial Mystic Gathering of Awesomeness, we'll still be paying attention when the huge fire demon appears.

Mary Sue, an unusual-looking girl, is surrounded by her relatively boring peers. Mary Sue's coloring defies the laws of genetics, and for some reason she isn't wearing the school uniform.

My character is extra unusual.



I'll close my eyes, take a moment to read your mind, and say that there is a very strong chance that your character is unusual. Why? Well, unusual characters are more likely to do things worth telling in a story. (And if you consider your character to be completely normal, you probably don't feel the need to read this, do you?)

Many stories follow unusual characters—often the character has something special about him/her that helps solve the problem of the story. That's pretty typical. However, if you make your character so unusual that everyone has to notice, he or she might be a victim of Princess Rose Syndrome.

Princess Rose Syndrome is a name I invented for a common Mary Sue trait. It's named after my little sister's character (a toy used when I babysit her). Princess Rose has many quirks: she sleepwalks, she occasionally forgets to brush her hair, she gets a lot of random nightmares, she heroically leaps into fights that she always loses, and before she was married, her boyfriends would constantly break up with her for no real reason.

But wait. Princess Rose is a Mary Sue? These traits seem completely random! Forgetting to brush her hair? That's not on any litmus tests. Is there some other secret list that was never available online?

The truth is that any trait can be considered a Mary Sue trait... if it's being used as a device to draw attention to the character. Princess Rose forgets to brush her hair because Katie wants another character to come brush it for her. When she has yet another bad dream and whisper-shouts "Mom! Dad!" or "Maddy! Maddy!", she wants someone to come running to comfort her and listen to her retell her dream four or five times. And when she battles the bandit to try (and always fail) to save Teddy Bear, someone must rescue her.

Most of Princess Rose's personality traits are designed to call attention to her (instead of to characterize her or move the plot). Princess Rose is something of an avatar to Katie: when Princess Rose's husband George rescues her from the river, kisses her hair, and picks out pretty clothes for her to wear, Katie feels that the attention is somehow transferred to her. Then Katie has all sorts of bad things happen to Princess Rose so that someone will come running to rescue and comfort her.

A lot of beginning writers will set up their special characters to gain attention without needing to ask for it. (That way, there's less risk of them seeming spoiled and egocentric.) When supporting characters constantly run to alleviate some pain or aid in some crisis related to the main character, the whole plot begins to twist into a black hole where everyone is drawn to the main character. This is what people usually dislike most about a Mary Sue.

I've received a lot of questions regarding certain stereotypical traits (especially unusual appearances) and if they're okay to use. There is no definite yes or no—pretty much any trait can appear in a well-written character. The main danger of these "litmus test favorites" is that they tend to attract attention to your character without adding anything useful to the story. Teen and adult readers can usually recognize this. This may make them wary of your character, since they know that "special snowflake syndrome" and author favoritism often go hand in hand. They may not be as willing to suspend their disbelief.

Here are some things that are often misused to pull attention to a character instead of to further the story's realism, plot, or theme:
  • Eye-catching/unusual appearance
  • Clumsiness
  • Depression/trauma/angst (resulting in comfort and worrying)
  • Revealing/sexy clothing (even if the character is supposedly shy)
  • Strange, gossip-inducing behavior
  • Cluelessness (that attracts a self-appointed mentor)
  • Charisma (resulting in special treatment; it may be informed)
  • Attractiveness
  • Shyness/Introversion, causing other characters to constantly push the character to interact and "have fun" more.
  • Unknown artistic talent (someone discovers your character is a piano virtuoso)

New Writer's Guide (Friday, Nov. 8th) by MissLunaRose

Do these sound familiar? They probably do—you see them all the time in litmus tests. Litmus tests try to detect trends in Mary Sues and gather them into a list.

The flaw of litmus tests is that they tend to focus on superficial aspects instead of the author's underlying motives. If a character cries all the time, it could be because the author likes to have other characters run to her and comfort her, or because the author wants to create a realistic depiction of the strain that mental illnesses can cause on a person's relationships and health. A litmus test won't differentiate. Only you, the writer, can understand your own motivations.

Characters with Princess Rose Syndrome represent a naive outlook on life: the idea that in order to get attention, you will need things to happen to you, and then everyone's ears will perk up and they'll focus on you. As Katie is slowly learning through Princess Rose, you don't need to have a bandit push you into a raging river for other people to notice you. If you're lonely, all you need to do is find someone who loves you, give them a hug, and ask if you can keep them company for a while.

And if you feel so lonely that you constantly need to live out fantasies of love and attention through your stories, then please, reach out to someone. Because you deserve to be close to good people in real life.

Mary Sue, smiling, writes on a chalkboard. The chalkboard says ''Flaws DNE.''

My character is flawless.



I'm sorry, but you can't get out of this one: If you consider your character to be perfect (or practically perfect), critics will label him/her a Mary Sue and a product of immature writing. Why? Well... come sit down on my fuzzy blue rug and I'll read you a story.

Of all the martial arts masters in America, Jodie was the finest. Quick and powerful, her skill was exceeded only by her kindness and intelligence. Nothing scared her, and she was known for beating ninja armies while other martial arts masters cowered in awe. Being a computer genius and a generous person, she angelically donated most of her income to starving orphans and bought a mansion with her spare change. She also babysat the mayor's precocious four-year-old daughter, who adored her and wanted to be Jodie when she grew up.

One day, Jodie heard that the child was kidnapped. (Please pause for a minute and predict how this story will end. Can Jodie save the girl?) She used her amazing computer skills to find the evil kidnappers. Then she soundlessly stalked to the kidnappers' hiding place, kicked their butts in 10 seconds flat, and returned the girl to her parents, who wept with joy at Jodie's kindness and awesomeness.


Remember when I asked you to predict the ending of the story? Did you doubt for a second that Jodie would fail?

I was getting pretty bored by the time she rescued the girl. It was clear that someone as awesome as Jodie couldn't possibly lose, so my eyes kind of glazed over near the end. I would have put the book down and made myself a turkey sandwich, but I had to finish writing it as an example.

If your character is the epitome of perfection, then the battle is already won. So who cares? Lunch (and all the chocolate you can have for dessert afterwards) is much more interesting. Why waste your time reading when the ending is obvious?

Now I'm going to tell another story. This time, I'll cast some doubt on Jodie's abilities. I could give her all sorts of flaws: wimpiness, recklessness, plain stupidity... For the sake of brevity, I'll only discuss one flaw.

As a child, Jodie was exploring a cave system with her parents when bats swooped down around her. Terrified, Jodie ran into the woods and was lost for hours until a search team found her. Now, whenever Jodie is in the dark, she has a gnawing feeling that bats will fly at her at any time, sometimes making her panic.

This leads to several embarrassing incidents during the course of the story, and the other martial arts masters laugh at her for being so terrified. She curses herself for her weakness and stupidity, yet whenever she is in the dark, she still can hear the sound of bat wings rushing above her. Her only consolation is in her martial arts practice and in babysitting the mayor's vivacious little daughter. When Jodie overhears that the girl is being held in a cave system but will be moved to a more secure location in an hour, she is terrified to go in, but she forces herself to enter.

Bats swoop above her, and fifty yards in, Jodie freezes in fear. Fighting her growing terror, she takes a deep breath and continues shakily forwards. Finally, she hears the kidnappers talking and sees them in the cave with the little girl. Thanks to many years of martial arts training, she kicks the kidnappers' butts. Jodie picks up the child and runs out of the cave, disturbing a bunch of bats. They fly right above her head. The little girl begins to cry, and as Jodie whispers soothingly about how the bats don't want to hurt her, she realizes that she has nothing to fear.


If that was a book, would you read it? Would you recommend it to a friend?

If you keep the reader wondering if your character can meet the challenge, then your reader is much more likely to stay glued to the book. Is Jodie capable of rescuing the sweet little girl? What if she dies? What if Jodie is too scared or weak to save her? Suddenly it's 3 pm and your reader, unable to put off eating any longer, brings the book to the table and distractedly makes a turkey sandwich, all while reading nonstop to see if Jodie can beat the bad guys.

When Jodie's weaknesses make a task challenging for her, her victory is all the more monumental. This was no everyday accomplishment for her; she faced a situation that was downright terrifying for her and she won the battle!

Furthermore, Jodie's imperfections make it easier for readers to relate to her. Most of your readers probably aren't afraid of the dark or of bats, but they all have their flaws that they are struggling to overcome. Maybe one of them is scared of the thunderstorms. Or a bully. I personally am terrified of that feeling when you look in the cabinet and see there is no chocolate left.

They can relate to Jodie's fear and struggle for self-improvement, because they face these things in their own lives. When Jodie succeeds, they can vicariously enjoy that success and pump their fists in the air. It may even inspire them to challenge themselves the way she challenged herself. For example, Jodie's tale could give me the strength I need to take ten bucks, steal my dad's car, drive to the grocery store, and buy some more chocolate! (Okay, bad example. Imagine the timid reader remembering how Jodie overcame her fears and telling that bully that his racist comments are unwanted and rude.)

Perfect characters are boring, because they never need to struggle to get what they want. So give us some suspense! Let us wonder if your characters are up to the challenge! I promise we can take it. We just might forget to put the turkey in our sandwiches.

Mary Sue brandishes an enormous contraption filled with spikes and ray guns. She has written Death and a pink heart on its side. She points it at a vampire, who mutters, ''I died just by looking at you.''

My character is superior.



I imagine that there will be some confusion here, so let me define what I mean by superior. We'll call your character "superior" if:

1. Given his/her age, education, or other limiting factors, the character is mind-blowingly talented. (A twelve-year-old girl can easily do magical spells that are too complex for most experienced adults.)

2. Your character's combined talents are much more than other characters' talents. (She can pilot a ship through the tightest squeezes, repair all sorts of broken machinery without opening a manual, beat up five men at once, and cook delicious food. One friend is more skilled with machines, but she has no other talents. Another friend is a great chef with some medical knowledge, but these are his only strengths.)

3. Nobody can do what your character does. (Your character is the best cello player in the whole world.)

Case 1:


I want you to stop and think for a moment. Talented people exist, and it's not a sin to make your character talented. But let's run through some numbers for a moment.

Could 10% of the people with the same limitation (age, education, whatever) do this? If so, your character is skilled and hopefully his/her parents or mentors coaxed him/her to develop these skills if your character was interested in them. I bet they were very proud.

Could 5% of those people do so? If so, your character is something. If the skill was intellectual, your character was probably the smartest person in his/her grade as a small child, and he/she probably didn't have to work very hard in school until they sorted out the "advanced" students into harder classes.

Now, could only 1% of those people do what your character does? If so, then your character is most likely some sort of genius. Geniuses do show up in real life—I heard of a twelve-year-old kid at my old high school who will be learning calculus next year—and while they often forget that everyone else is not nearly as skilled in a particular area as they are, they can still operate within the real world. They can also earn high salaries in their fields.

However, if only .00001% of the people with the same limitations can do what your character can do, you'd need to have one heck of an excuse for it. Many readers will have a hard time believing that a character like yours can do the things he/she does, which creates unnecessary tension in their minds. Here are your options.

1. Ignore me and blitz off into the sunset with your professional thirteen-year-old computer programmer.

2. Change your character's limitations. Suddenly your thirteen-year-old becomes an eighteen-year-old. People might still raise their eyebrows when he says that he can dismantle the foreigners' complex computerized bomb, but the reader will bet on him. A genius eighteen-year-old, after all, could probably do that, and nobody will think he secretly had his mom do it for him.

3. If you're working in a fantasy world, change the limitations. Maybe all preteen children in your universe are writing their own semi-sophisticated computer programs, while your character is smart enough to write very complex ones.

4. Make your character less skilled. Could a highly intelligent, dedicated thirteen-year-old boy create a computer program? Probably, especially if he had plenty of reference books and websites handy. And believe me, his parents will still be very proud.

Mary Sue stands on top of an enormous pedestal marked with a sigma. She smiles and waves down at Neva and the hot guy, who stand on much shorter pedestals. Neva, wide-eyed, slowly waves back at her.

Case 2:


It seems you have a jack-of-all-trades: a character who has many talents. That's not too surprising. In fact, I have many skills too! Let me share them with you.

My Interests: writing, drawing, playing piano, playing flute, speaking Spanish, playing recorder, acing tests, singing, babysitting, getting my teachers to like me

In fact, I'm even at a special advantage: watching TV and going to parties are not included. While my peers were watching Hannah Montana, I was drafting my first novel. When other teens went out to party, I stayed at home painting a pink light over Kirrah's face. Essentially, I had no social life.

So all this practice time must make me an incredibly amazing person, right? I should be just like that pilot/warrior/mechanic/chef.

Actually, the piano thing is just a hobby. I've been practicing less to make time for writing, drawing, and acing tests. I can't even play much Debussy yet. I'm a decent flutist, but I'm only in the top 75% at my school, and I've touched my recorder about 10 times in the past five years. I can get my teachers to like me, and my misanthropic art teacher sorta-semi liked me on her good days, but my English teacher still gave me Bs on half my essays.

As I've hopefully been able to illustrate, it's quite possible to have a lot of "talents," especially if your character loves to try new things. However, as your character gets older and more skilled, he or she will have to choose between skills and ultimately excel in one or two. (I practice writing and drawing the most. Things like piano are hobbies. Things like brown-nosing are life skills.)

Furthermore, your character's sum total of skills is probably not going to be overwhelmingly greater than other characters'. Why not? Take me for example again: I can write better fiction than my friend writes. However, when we discuss the media, she can give much more powerful and convincing arguments on the media's portrayal of females, while I say "What is this 'Steven Cole-bear' of which you speak?" Her Spanish vocabulary is also larger than mine, she has more friends right now than I'll have in my entire life, and she can give detailed analyses of TV shows that I have never seen. If not for my incredibly blinding awesomeness that exceeds mortal measures, I'd have to say that our skill levels across all fields are approximately equal.

Of course, no two people are exactly equal in skill: an intelligent woman who learns quickly and excels in time management is going to be more skilled overall than a high school dropout who watches sitcoms and smokes illegal substances all day while vaguely wondering what he'll do when his unemployment insurance ends. However, if you have several motivated characters, and yet one of them is constantly more prepared in many varied situations, you have to start wondering if this is even possible. Besides, there are only 24 hours in a day, and everyone needs downtime. While I may be blindingly awesome, I still spend time reading webcomics and chatting with my parents.

So if you're tempted to make your character a human Swiss army knife, pause for a moment. How did your character get such an advantage? Is it too much of an advantage? (A childhood full of rigorous practice and no playtime is likely to result in depression and burnout instead of superhuman awesomeness.) You can always hand off important skills to your character's friends, too, to spread them more evenly throughout the team. Maybe she can expertly pilot ships and kick butts, but she leaves the mechanics and cooking to her two best friends.

Besides, when the main character can't do everything, it's so much more deliciously frightening when things (s)he holds dear are at stake. (Remember Jodie?) Then we authors are capable of so much more eeevil.

Mary Sue rolls her eyes and exclaims, ''I can't HELP being the prettiest girl in the school!'' Neva watches Amy walk past and thinks ''Amy is the hottest girl I've ever seen...''

Case 3:


I hear that your character is the smartest person on planet Earth. Well, this might be difficult for you, but did you just see which character I placed on the planet? Yes, that woman there. Well, she is smarter than your character.

Oh, and that man I placed next to her? He's her husband. He's not quite as smart as she is, but believe me, he's still smarter than your character. Oh, and so is his younger sister, whom I placed over there. Now your character is the fourth-smartest person in the world.

So let me tell you about these new characters. The woman and her husband live in Taiwan right now. They study psychology and write helpful papers to improve school and business environments. In their spare time, they play ultimate chess together, which is like chess for supergeniuses. The younger sister earns mountains of money in the computer industry, and she made a little website where they could all play long-distance ultimate chess together.

Is this going to hurt your story?

Think about it. When your genius character realizes that the planet is in grave danger, the smartest person in the world is very busy working in Taiwan with her husband, while the third-smartest is playing long-distance ultimate chess. And if someone sends out emails to hire people for the Project of Unspeakable Importance, the programmer might be in the middle of a project for economic development in impoverished countries, while the smartest couple says, "Sorry, but that's outside our area of expertise." Believe me, that employer will still be overjoyed if your character can come.

Unless your story's theme strongly involves the idea of being the very very best, chances are your character doesn't need to be the best. If your character is incredibly talented, (s)he can still solve whatever task you need him/her to solve. There is no project so insanely difficult that only one person in the universe can solve it, and if there is, who the heck came up with it, anyway?

So if you want to edit your book and change "the absolute best" to "the famously skilled," I promise it won't hurt the plot. And your character will still be awesome.

Mary Sue changes into a more ordinary-looking girl with auburn hair and green eyes.

Fixes



Are you reading this with a specific character in mind? If so, I want you to pause here. Think back on what you just read. Take a minute to jot down some notes on a sheet of paper or in a .txt document. You do not want to forget the thoughts you've had about altering your character. (I'll wait for you. I promise.)

Did you write down your thoughts? (If not, GO BACK AND WRITE THEM, YOU CHEATER!) Now reread what you wrote and consider it. Have you been making your character "ideal," or are you trying primarily to focus on him/her instead of simply telling the story? In which ways are you dissatisfied with your character?

Now ponder these questions:
  • If my character is unusually skilled, how skilled does my character really need to be? Does (s)he need to be the best, one of the best, or simply awesomely talented?
  • If I have a walking, talking Swiss army knife, which skills could be given to another character or cut out altogether without destroying my plot? Could I strengthen the story by giving a crucial skill to a character's friend (or reluctant ally)?
  • Am I trying to teach readers how to be perfect by holding up one character as a guiding light? Could I impart the same lesson by making the character flawed and then having him/her learn that lesson?
  • Which strong/attention-attracting traits are essential to my character and/or the plot? How do they add to the story?
  • Which strong/attention-attracting traits are not essential?
  • Am I neglecting characters and their relationships in favor of focusing on my special character?
  • Am I using my character as a way to feel loved?


Now, unless you answered yes to the last question, here's what I suggest doing next. (If you did answer yes, you can still do this; I just want you do do something else first.) Take however long you need to let these questions roll around in your head. Again, I'll wait while you ponder these. Go for a walk if you need to. Then come back.

Have you decided upon some preliminary revisions?

Yes?

Have you done what I said?

Good.

This is your character's rebirth. You've pared away the attention-seeking and the superiority, the too-gorgeous curly hair and the clumsiness that was only meant to gain sympathy. Now you're left with a character who is not necessarily stronger, but more balanced. Your character feels more realistic, making it easier for readers to love and relate to him/her.

Take your new character and revise your book, cutting out traits of the old character and putting in traits of the new one. I know. I probably just asked you the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest in a thunderstorm while wearing a bikini. (At least, that's how I feel when editing my own book, although my amazing gorgeousness is less obvious then.)

Editing is a difficult task, but hey, remember the way Jodie felt when she entered the dark cave to save the little girl? She was terrified. She doubted she could handle it. Every step forward seemed to take an hour, and she was left floundering in the dark, knowing that any second bats might swoop around her and she would fail.

But little girl needed her, so she gritted her teeth and pressed onward. She kept walking deeper into the darkness and refused to go home. If your goal is worth it, then you too can find the strength to look the task in the eye and say, "I'll do it!" I know you can!


And now I'd like to take a moment for those who answered yes to that last question—the ones who use their characters to feel loved. Your battle is a tough one, because it's easy to be deeply attached to your character the way (s)he is. The fantasy of loving, attentive family members and friends is so alluring that it's difficult to discard. It may take a long time before you feel ready to make a change. Paring away your character's clumsiness or constant need of rescue will be difficult when those are such convenient ways to vicariously feel the love and support that others will give your character.

But look, imaginary love and support are poor substitutes for the real thing. And I think you already know that. You don't have to feel guilty for fantasies—everyone has them, including me. But if you find that they're the only way you find comfort, then please don't feel afraid to reach out. Find a kind person and share your fears or successes with him/her. Searching for caring people is not an easy or quick process, and I know that it's much easier said than done—but you deserve an ally in real life too.

It'll take time before you can shift your story's focus away from only love and comfort, and it'll take a huge conscious effort. Let that special character be independent for one time, or skip the extra recognition. Show on how your character gives love and attention to others too, or on how these other people relate to each other. Think about what makes your other characters special, and develop their love and relationships with each other too. In time, others' love of your character will become one aspect of a story full of caring, complex relationships. It may not be easy, but it is achievable, and yes, you can do it.

Neva and Amy kiss while pink hearts blossom around them. In the background, brown-haired Mary Sue smiles.

Parting Words


Identifying, troubleshooting, contemplating, and fixing a Mary Sue requires an emotional distance and discipline that cannot be achieved over a short time. You may have to focus your thoughts entirely on other characters or even let your story sit for a few months to work on something else. Moving beyond a Mary Sue is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can do, but with time and strength, you can become a champion.

Most writers struggle with Mary Sues at some point in their lives. Some of them move beyond them after a story or two. Others spend decades working with idealized or attention-seeking characters. Thanks to the notes you wrote (you did listen to me, didn't you?), you have an edge—i.e., an action plan.

I'm not going to keep you sitting here any longer. Go! Go write! Go edit! Mount Everest is as good as yours.

I stand on top of Mount Everest, grinning and wearing a pink bikini. The wind blows back my blond hair as freezing snow flies around me.


This is my first Writer's Guide with a journal skin (big text, yay!) and illustrations. :love: Many thanks go to ewm, who patiently sorted out a categorizing bug with me at the help desk so this would be possible!

As always, I have stamps for you. :)
Admit it by Kateppi Mary Sue Stamp by JeDoreStamps Mary Sue Safe Zone by MissLunaRose Mary-Sue Test is Epic Fail by ReikoChan Mary Sue Argument Stamp by guardianpinkneko

I take suggestions for additions to this resource or future Writer's Guides! While I don't always have enough knowledge or material to use them, hearing your suggestions is very interesting and thought-provoking, and who knows? Your idea may inspire a resource that helps a lot of people.

Mary Sue comics
Mary Sue Tutorial by Glittercandy is a parody describing how to make the "perfect character"


A DD!? My goodness! This is a surprise big enough to warrant multiple punctuation marks and an adorably creepy fangirl face!
:iconfangirlmomentplz:
Thank you so much, everyone!
There is no way I can give llamas to each person who favorites this. (If you want a llama, give one to me and I'll return it.) I have some essays to write this weekend, but I'll do my best to keep up with you all! :lol:
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Daily Deviation

Given 2013-11-15
[Stock & Resources] The suggester says: "I think that this is a wonderful and humerous guideline that both new and experienced writers can use to avoid creating the dreaded "Mary Sue." Help! I have a Mary Sue! by `Luna--Rose ( Suggested by Asvoria1 and Featured by CelticStrm-Stock )
:iconclock--heart:
This handy little guide is great for artists and writers who wish avoid the dreaded 'Mary Sue' conundrum.

The author of this piece remains in a thoughtful but neutral position while identifying and explaining the term 'Mary Sue'. Each section provides simple advice on how to avoid turning your character into the widely hated 'Mary Sue', breaking down the common traits and giving a small explanation at the end of the section. Along with each section are colourful and well-done visuals to help depict the traits of a 'Mary Sue', and it also brings some interest into this piece with the cute style and good humor!

Even though, I wanted a bit more history on 'Mary Sue' and where the term came from, this is a great read for those who want to create a character or edit a current one. I insist on taking the time to read through this!
What do you think?
The Artist thought this was FAIR
247 out of 250 deviants thought this was fair.

:icongeoavanti:
To be blunt, I really liked this guide, and while I haven't personally worried about writing a Mary Sue for many years, I heartily approve of any helpful, appropriate guide to writing better stories and characters.

I love the little pictures; they really lend an open and accessible look to the guide, and they are all delightful little vignettes emphasizing your point. Visually, they also help to frame your sections quite well, so I gladly applaud the artist choice! Well, maybe I also happen to *like* heterochromia iridum, but that's neither here nor there!

Your tone of writing really works for me, and your word-choice in addressing the reader made me laugh a few times. Like many people, I learned writing from the ground up, either on my own or with external criticism (much of which came via the internet in the form of RP forums), and I can sympathize with your opening paragraph well. I was lucky to have a small group I could count on to give me genuine feedback, and I am quite happy to see someone making an effort to reach out to struggling or scared authors and tell them to listen for those few, helpful voices.

Not only do you provide a clear objective in helping to correct the flaws of "Mary Sue" characters, but you provide a great deal of information in crafting quality characters in general. For that reason, I really hope more people take a look at this little guide, even if the word "Mary Sue' is something they don't expect to have to worry about; not all bad characters are Sues, but your solutions are definitely the framework for making good characters. I also hope you consider writing more guides like this.

My only real complaint is that you never really lay out the definition of a "Mary Sue". You do well to explain how to fix the most pressing issues behind what makes a Sue, but you never really explain what the term means or where it originated from, and I think that is one of the only real issues for the writers who need to take a look at this guide.
What do you think?
The Artist thought this was FAIR
92 out of 96 deviants thought this was fair.

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:icontotaldramafan1000:
TotalDramaFan1000 Featured By Owner Jun 16, 2016  Student General Artist
Does having pink clothes make her a Mary Sue?
Reply
:iconglowormy:
GloWormy Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2016  New Deviant Hobbyist General Artist
I wouldn't think so. But maybe if her clothes were extremely bright neon pink that didn't match the design, that could be considered a bit flashy I guess. 
Reply
:icontotaldramafan1000:
TotalDramaFan1000 Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2016  Student General Artist
What about a dark pink?
Reply
:iconglowormy:
GloWormy Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2016  New Deviant Hobbyist General Artist
No, it's fine. :3 Also, I took a look at your gallery. Your ocs are adorable! ^^
Another thing about ocs. As long as you like them, it shouldn't matter what others think. Even if it is a Mary Sue. 
Reply
:icontotaldramafan1000:
TotalDramaFan1000 Featured By Owner Jun 21, 2016  Student General Artist
Ok
Reply
:iconthewriterwuck:
TheWriterWuck Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2016  New Deviant Hobbyist General Artist
It do not read all but looks good.
Reply
:iconspicybat:
SpicyBat Featured By Owner May 17, 2016  Student General Artist
Very nice guide! I really love your example of a mary sue though, I like her hair a lot. Do you mind if I use the Hair color for an oc? It's not a mary sue, it's just gonna be an oc I'll keep to myself, she's probably not even gonna have a story, I just wanna draw a character for fun with the hair style with those colors
Reply
:iconmisslunarose:
MissLunaRose Featured By Owner May 30, 2016   General Artist
By no means do I own her hair color! I'm happy that my character has inspire you. Draw away. Happy Emote 
Reply
:iconspicybat:
SpicyBat Featured By Owner May 31, 2016  Student General Artist
Thank you so much!
Reply
:iconadorablevocaloids:
adorablevocaloids Featured By Owner Edited Apr 9, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
(be prepared for extremely long question asking)

I'm kind of worried I might have a Mary Sue (well he's male, so technically a Gary Stu) on my hands...but I'm not sure yet.

I'm wondering how to give him bad qualities such as illness weakness e.t.c without it turning the opposite way and becoming another mary-sue trait.

Oh well, I give up >__>

One question for y'all though - my character is really (as in, exceptionally) good at sword fighting, but does it really count if sword fighting is pretty much his job? I've been wondering 0w0

And even though I should probably shut up about him now, do these things count as Mary Sue traits? They're a little vague, sorry.

- His wife died at a ridiculously young age from disease, and he's never got over it - but he doesn't blame himself because I'm aware that that's a Mary Sue trait.

-He's blind in one eye but it's not obvious...wait, actually it's not visible at all. Weird, I know.

-He's extremely over-protective of his daughter because when she was a baby she got lost for about 2 months and he's afraid of losing her again

-Most the girls in his tiny village pretty much love him, but he ignores them because he's too busy getting over the death of his wife (which was around 10 years ago in the story -_-)



Yeah I should leave bye
Reply
:iconrandomevil-zid:
Be prepared for a long answer. :)

If sword fighting is his job it makes sense that he's good at it, 'cause if his livelihood depends on being a good swordsman it would behoove him to put a lot of time and effort into it. If he never practices and is really good on the other hand that would be Mary Sue-ish, ergo unrealistic.

Side thought: is he moderately good at anything else? Does he have hobbies? Is this shown? Mayhaps something he shares with his daughter?

Having a hard time getting over the fact that his wife (the love of his life, his best friend until death do them part, his soul mate, etc.) died at a young age leaving him with their only child is very understandable and can lead to interesting character development and interesting character interaction. How did he handle raising his daughter? Did he learn any specific skills because he had to raise his daughter without a wife? Does this affect how the rest of society sees him? (<-- What world do they live in?) Do they have any other family? (<-- grand parents, uncles, aunts, great uncles and aunts, cousins, friends that are practically family?) If they don't, what happened to them?

Him blaming himself could work too, but you'd have to explain why. You should probably have him face this somehow, have him realize it wasn't his fault or maybe it was his fault and he finally learns to forgive himself. The trick is to not have your characters stand still, they need to develop and grow. Even side characters, though less focus will be on them, this way the main character can learn lessons from the side characters journey and grow too.

It would be a lot stranger if he lost his baby daughter for two months and wasn't over-protective because of it. How did that even happen? Does he blame himself for this which adds to the over-protectiveness? Also, what age was the daughter? Because if she was able to move around on her own enough to get lost she'd be at least two years old and considered a toddler. In fact I think toddlers are ages one to three or possibly four... Something for you to research, which leads to the best tip I can give you: read at least twice as much as you write and branch out in what you read. It's more commonly known as research. :)

A man who strives to be a good father and protector would be very attractive to women in general, so it's not strange or unrealistic that he is very popular. But if every interaction between him and the village women has them fawning over him and him brooding you might want to tone it down a couple of notches. Ditto if what all the other women talk about when discussing him is how much they want in his pants. You probably already know this, but: use moderation and you'll most likely be fine.

So in summary:
∞ Explore your character (obligatory eyebrow wiggle); their personality, their hobbies, their likes and dislikes and their traits.
∞ Figure out your characters development and how it fits into your story.
∞ Research everything you are unfamiliar with, and the things you are familiar with. Research EVERYTHING.
∞ Finally, exercise moderation.

Also, try to figure out when you should show instead of tell. A lot of the time actions speak louder than words.

And when all else fails: rewrite. Nothing is set in stone.

(any more cliches I can use... no? okay I'm done)
Reply
:iconadorablevocaloids:
adorablevocaloids Featured By Owner Edited Jun 6, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
Wooah, yep thats a long answer -
Thanks for the advice! I kinda forgot about this comment lol but anyway...

And I didn't mean the daughter went missing as a toddler, I just couldn't find the word I was looking for (turns out I meant child what is wrong with me), the age she went missing at was 7 years old :'D
Reply
:iconrandomevil-zid:
RandomEvil-Zid Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2016
Aha. Well a lost seen year old child is still something that would affect a parent rather negatively, which makes for interesting character development later on when the child is trying to stand on their own two feet and the parent as a tough time letting go.

If you want more writing advice there's tonnes written here on DeviantArt by people who've actually written for a living, unlike me. You can probably find them by searching for ´Writing Help´or ´Guides for Writing´. I've really enjoyed OokamiKasumi's writing tips.
Reply
:iconeternaldragonqueen:
Eternaldragonqueen Featured By Owner Apr 6, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
I hate a lot of writing guides, because they're usually half-assed lists of what to put and what not to put in a story, based on the list writer's preference.
I like this because it actually explains how to recognize you're doing something wrong, rather than saying "Does she have two different-colored eyes? Mary Sue." Good job.
Reply
:iconmonstermaster13:
monstermaster13 Featured By Owner Mar 25, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
This is very useful.
Reply
:iconserverus-snope:
Serverus-Snope Featured By Owner Mar 17, 2016
Now this is a Mary-Sue guide worth reading!
Reply
:iconobelis:
Obelis Featured By Owner Feb 11, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
I had one Mary Sue-ish character who was the best in many areas ( in her later life story, she let herself down and became miserable, not liked by anyone and lost her skills and beauty). I think I've found out that I needed to tell more about how she got he good skills and that she was "famous for them", not "the best". I need to revise my other characters looking at this! This tutorial definitely deserves a DD. Thank you for creating it!
Reply
:iconskr7:
Skr7 Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2016
Thanks a lot! This really helped me fix up my Pokemon OC, Snivy Leaf. She looks more natural, and I did what you said. This really helped.


And now for some of my other characters....
Reply
:iconmitosuki-chan:
Mitosuki-Chan Featured By Owner Jan 24, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
Wow this is really good... You even have an example Mary-Sue! I needed to get back to one of my drawings but I wanted to keep reading xD (At certain parts for some reason I just thought "this is Barbie in a nutshell")
Reply
:iconkittywolves123:
KittyWolves123 Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2016
I remember seeing this before but I never knew YOU wrote it (I saw you on Wikihow) :D
Reply
:iconroyaladk:
RoyalADK Featured By Owner Dec 31, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Really, I thank you for this. I have spent quite a while thinking my main character Isaac was a Gary Stu, but mulling it over (mostly him failing) I'm glad to say, this helped me determine if he was.

However, about the hair thing.

It is possible for a character to have long hair(longer than back length) And not sound mary sueish.

The solution? Make then trip and fall, stumble over their hair, have it get caught!

Other wise, this is a very sound and great mary sue avoidance guide
Reply
:iconwhimberly:
Whimberly Featured By Owner Dec 17, 2015
Very helpful, and humorous as well. Your little guides are just lovely. 
Reply
:iconcilialove3:
Cilialove3 Featured By Owner Dec 14, 2015
Io ho degli OC con i capelli inesistenti per esmpio ne ho una chiamata Sky con i capelli verde acqua ma ha alcuni difetti
Reply
:iconmiss-gravillian1992:
Miss-Gravillian1992 Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This Guide is gold...
I worry if my ocs are mary sues sometimes
I'm guilty of giving some of them pink hair but all the traits are always different
especially appearance

I enjoyed learning new things to avoid it and junk
but what killed me with laughter was

The character has super revealing clothes but...they're shy

I know someone highly guilty of this
but you can't tell them anything without them taking it as bullying lol
Reply
:iconscoutzi:
Scoutzi Featured By Owner Oct 19, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
probably the only SERIOUS mary sue trait my Andy has is the love of wearing revealing clothing despite being so shy.
he has flaws, yo
Reply
:iconroberta3:
roberta3 Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Can you tell an opinion about my Oc? 
Details and stuff 
Her OC bio 
It's in working again. 
She's a punk-rock metal-rap asshole who kills people 'cause she wants to stay alive. Lives on the streets most of the time and yeah. 
Reply
:iconpierroteclipse:
PierrotEclipse Featured By Owner Aug 5, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
This is what we all need. Wonderful.
Reply
:iconoolimenoteoo:
OolimenoteoO Featured By Owner Jul 26, 2015  Student Digital Artist
is it wrong my real life friend name is 8 words?
Reply
:iconadamsdoodles:
AdamsDoodles Featured By Owner Jun 26, 2015  Student Digital Artist
SO WISE!! thanks so much!
Reply
:iconparalelsky:
Paralelsky Featured By Owner May 16, 2015
This is an excellent guide for any writer to have. Thank you for writing it! :)
Reply
:iconinsane-sunshine:
InSaNe-SuNsHine Featured By Owner Apr 27, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
A lil' question. Is imy OC a mary-sue if she dyed her hair it counts as a mary-sue?
Reply
:iconmarineroze:
MarineRoze Featured By Owner Jul 31, 2015  Student Writer
In my opinion, not at all. A few of my friends of dyed their hair. Natural or unnatural is fine. 
Reply
:iconshadhardblogger:
shadhardblogger Featured By Owner Apr 25, 2015  Student Writer
Thanks for the tip.
Reply
Hidden by Commenter
:icongoldleafgardenia:
HEY NOW, C'MON.

Don't beat yourself up over it. You're not the only one with the problem, and you're not stupid. You made your character back then, when you (most likely) didn't see the issue, but now you know. And if you're thinking of scrapping the character just because your mad at yourself, don't. Like :iconmisslunarose: said, you can make changes. Really, only scrap the character if you lose interest in them, you find them washed out, or you just want to start fresh with a different personality entirely. Oh, and for future reference, do NOT get scared by your character. Don't constantly worry if he/she is good enough, just review them once in a while. Keep in mind that even canon characters can have Mary Sue traits, but it works because it's most often balanced out with their flaws, and the Mary Sueness about them is only for one or two reasons. One or two traits aren't bad, unless they're REALLY big.

Really, this article is totally legit, in my opinion. I speak from experience when I say that changing your character is hard, but it's totally worth the pride you feel at what you've done in the end.

Something I do when I make a character is I create a makeshift "Wiki Page" on Word to keep track of the character and look on past ideas you had about them.
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Hidden by Commenter
:icongoldleafgardenia:
Well, how do you use this dark past trait? Is it just to make her sympathetic or is it to give her a bit of a story?
Reply
Hidden by Commenter
:icongoldleafgardenia:
GoldLeafGardenia Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2015
Well, that sounds totally fine to me. She has a fairly normal childhood, but the darkness comes from her flaws, such as being easily influenced and being kind of psycho. You used character flaws to form her dark past instead of just having stuff happen to her, and that's a great way to do it.

Tell you what? Would you like me to critique your character? You can send me the info in a note, if you want.

And don't worry, I'm not the type of person who lies. If there's something I think is odd, I'll tell you.

But no pressure, it's your choice~.
Reply
:iconarchwings99:
archwings99 Featured By Owner Mar 17, 2015  Student Digital Artist
Are these good character flaws for a protagonist:
Clumsy
OCD over cleaning (freaks out with a bit of dirt)
Snobby sometimes
Holds grudges easily
Diva
Stubborn
a bit selfish
sometimes may sleep til evening (maybe)
Over Emotional
Reply
:iconcutecat213:
CuteCat213 Featured By Owner Mar 18, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
And the sleeping until evening could have several things going for it depending. It also requires the character to lack someone in their life that would dowse them with a bucket of ice water to get them up in the morning. 

Are they just being a terrible student (or whatever) and staying up all night? Or do they suffer from a medical condition that causes the oversleeping? Are they losing strikes\points at their school\work for repeated tardies and absences?


And 'a bit selfish' is not a character 'flaw' as such, that's a character trait that all humans exibit to some extent (barring mother Theresa's of course) and should always be present in some extent to give your character a more human feel. 
It means more if they're willing to share their lunch with a friend who lost theirs in the rain if they struggle with the choice-- and then hoard the chocolate chip cookie, than if they're always being wonderfully giving and feel no loss at going hungry the rest of the day.
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:iconarchwings99:
archwings99 Featured By Owner Mar 19, 2015  Student Digital Artist
She's bad at science. And she is tardy in the first part of the manga. She may or may not be a bad student. She probably gets tired easily. All the time. She's also not comfortable with talking to guys and she can be clumsy.
Reply
:iconcutecat213:
CuteCat213 Featured By Owner Mar 18, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
It all depends on the way the character is treated. The flaws are only flaws if they're BAD. If the character is adorably clumsy and always falling into her hero's lap, then it's not a well-done flaw. If it causes her to often lose important things, gets her in trouble for accidentally tripping into other people who DON'T forgive her --better yet if she or the other actually end up HURT from it-- and happens at a bad time --making her late for class, causing her to drop her keys down a storm-drain-- then it's a good character flaw.

Same for the other things, as long as they're treated in a negative light by the others around the character, then they make good flaws.
For the OCD one, check out Soul Eater, where Death The Kid almost ends up killing him and his two partners due to his OCD, and DOES end up failing the mission because of it.

And BlackStar in that same anime\manga is a good source to look at for the 'Diva' attitude, too.
Reply
:iconarchwings99:
archwings99 Featured By Owner Mar 19, 2015  Student Digital Artist
I watched the anime. You can call her a Mary Sue but she isn't. She has negative personality traits and slaps people when they're mean to her. She flies at one point then forgets how later.
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:iconcutecat213:
CuteCat213 Featured By Owner Mar 19, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Defensive claws away, I was explaining the process, not accusing anyone of anything.
Reply
:iconarchwings99:
archwings99 Featured By Owner Mar 19, 2015  Student Digital Artist
Okay. Sorry. Thanks for the help. I love your profile picture.
Reply
:iconcutecat213:
CuteCat213 Featured By Owner Mar 20, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
No problem. I know what it's like to have issues with my own characters and just wanted to help.
Thanks~ It's from Rinmarugames.com's valentine's day character creator. My character, but made there.
Reply
:iconarchwings99:
archwings99 Featured By Owner Mar 22, 2015  Student Digital Artist
I love that site. And you're welcome.
Reply
:iconcutecat213:
CuteCat213 Featured By Owner Mar 15, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
This is the first work I've seen address Mary Sues that ACTUALLY HELPS. So many are vague or stick to one view of what a Sue is and just tell you 'don't do that', which doesn't help in the least. Yours is the first I've found that actually delves in to what makes a Sue from the writer's perspective, and suggestions on how to change the core behavior that results in them.

That part where you mentioned being amazing or X just to make a character more 'interesting' took my mind instantly to the character Ayla of the Earth's Children series, where EVERYONE notices just what a special snowflake she is-- and tells us about it constantly.

And I know I was guilty of that when I first started writing, too. (300,000 words wasted to Sue. Maybe I'll go back and try to climb that mountain...) I walked away from that for years to try fanfiction. I got responses back, which helped me get better, and reading more of what's good and what's *not*-good helped, too. But if would have been so much easier if I could have read this first.

I do have one question for you, though. Say a writer's entire life has been inspired by anime, and they love those rainbow colors. Is it sue-ish if ALL the characters have strange hair? What if the character with black hair is strange and exatically beautidful in this world? We get told time and again that Sue is a matter of comparison, so what are your thoughts on this?
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