I have to be 100% honest here…
I had NEVER once, in my entire life, heard the term ‘Mary Sue’ used in any writer’s discussion, ever…until “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was released in theaters a few years ago. Never. Not once. Since then it has become this weird ‘buzzword’ that a lot of people have weaponized to use as a criticism in a variety of stories, movies, and comic books, and while I don’t really use it myself I think it is an attempt to point out a certain flaw that authors may run into when creating their characters and building an engaging story around them.
I do wish that it hadn’t become such an insulting way of describing a character, but I suppose it all depends on who’s using it, and why. So this weekend, I’d love to take some of the venom out of the term, and have an open an honest discussion about the concept of a ‘Mary (or Gary) Sue’ character in our stories online.
To begin…what is a Mary/Gary Sue? What does that even mean? And how do you spot one in whatever story you happen to be reading or writing at that particular moment? Well…basically, a Mary/Gary Sue character is someone who is written to be absolutely flawless. Perfect beyond the suspension of disbelief. They’re always super strong, and super beautiful, and super smart…they almost never lose, they have everything going for them at all times, and they barely have to lift a finger to make any situation in their lives come up roses. Just…frustratingly free from any real challenges of any kind. In other words….’boring’.
Oh you can have an EXCELLENT story going on around them the whole time…with action and romance and intrigue and all the sprinkles and ice cream scoops that would make for a great reading experience…but a boring protagonist can drag that awesome story right down into the dirt with them if you’re not careful. Simply adding a few sentences to ‘tell’ your audience that this person is confused or conflicted or flawed in some way, only to go back to describing how perfect they are over the next ten pages, is NOT going to balance out in the long run. How can a character who never loses possibly enjoy winning? How does a character with no struggles and no obstacles to overcome possibly express any sense of joy or triumph? What is the value of an achievement that you didn’t earn? These are all questions that might arise when it comes to having a Mary/Gary Sue character in your story. And that’s something you might want to ultimately avoid.
I think that the idea is best displayed when you see a character that is SO well loved by the other characters in the story, and has SO little to worry about, that you actually stop caring whether or not they win in the end. It’s not that you’re cheering for the opposing team. You just don’t see a need to give your character any support when they obviously don’t need it. What is there to root for? The entire universe is conspiring in their favor at all times whether you agree with their choices or not. They’re perfect. EVERYBODY thinks they’re perfect! Hehehe!
One example of this idea, in my opinion, comes from the movie versions of the “Twilight” series. Now, I’ve never read the books, so they may be totally different from the films, but from what I saw in the movies…Bella is the pure definition of a Mary Sue character. She’s a dark and brooding teenager who moves to a new town and starts a new school…and by the end of the first day, she has a group of friends to hang out and eat lunch with, she has a boy asking her out to the dance, a 100 year old vampire immediately falls in love with her (After going from high school to high school for over a century, he’s NEVER been more in love? Really?), as well as a boy werewolf that can’t stop obsessing over her, and just…ugh! These are TEENAGERS we’re talking about here, right? Stereotypes aside, it’s been my experience that if you go sitting at the wrong table in the cafeteria on your very first day at a new school, you’re going to get a cold shoulder like you wouldn’t believe! But…as the series goes on, all eyes are on Bella. Everybody loves her, they go out of their way to make her a part of their inner circle, there are practically immortal beings literally fighting over her, even vampires that are much higher up on the food chain over OTHER vampires are completely fascinated with her…it reaches the point of just being ridiculous after a while. The entire world revolves around her and her wants and her needs, and since she’s so perfect and flawless in every imaginable way…there really isn’t much for her to do outside of bearing witness to whatever else is happening in the story. The plot unfolds, and she basically watches from the sidelines until it comes too close to affecting her as the poor victim…and then the rest of the world bends over backwards to protect her. She can’t lose. She’s not going to die! Be honest, that never crosses your mind, does it? When you have a character like this in your story, even if it’s a main character, they become more of an observer than a participant. And I think that takes your readers out of the story in terms of relating to them and being a part of the adventure. Like I said, that can drag a GREAT story down to a mediocre level…or worse. So it’s definitely something to look out for when you’re putting your story together.
“But Comsie…isn’t the story supposed to be concentrated around your main character at all times? Isn’t that the point?”
The answer is YES! It most certainly is. But there is a difference between a ‘protagonist’ and a ‘Mary/Gary Sue’. Even though a protagonist is made to be the center of attention in your story, that doesn’t mean that they have to be perfect or void of any unlikable flaws. I understand the idea behind reading a modern day fairy tale type of story where you can live vicariously through a character that can live the life that many of us always wish that we could have lived ourselves. I don’t want to claim that there isn’t something alluring about the escapism of it all. But, for me personally…I find myself looking for a little struggle every now and then. I think it only enhances the appeal of a protagonist to know that they have to deal with issues that we can all relate to. Even when they’re super powerful. Even when they’re outrageously gorgeous. Even when they’re extremely rich. Give me something ‘human’ to latch on to so that connection can be made between me and the characters that I read about. It’s a part of that reader/writer relationship that makes it so addictive. This is what makes it fun.
Some years ago, Hollywood decided to reboot the whole Superman franchise for a brand new generation with the movie, “Man Of Steel”. Now, I know some people sort of drag that movie through the mud for whatever reason, but I actually really liked “Man Of Steel”. I’ve always been a Superman fan, ever since I was a little boy. He was my very first superhero. And…I still love Superman to a certain degree…but I cannot IMAGINE actually having the task of writing for that character! No way! Superman, in a lot of ways, is the ultimate Gary Sue! You can’t hurt him, you can’t kill him, you can’t run from him, you can’t hide from him, you can’t corrupt his morals or good nature (Generally speaking. There have been some isolated stories that have played around with some of those ideas)…he’s invincible. Period. It makes me ask why there could ever be any crime, anywhere, on planet Earth. How is that possible? We have Superman. You see the comic book cover, and he’s fighting an army of space demons or whatever, and there’s a blurb asking, “Will Superman survive and save the day?” The answer? Of COURSE he will! He’s friggin’ Superman! Is this a trick question or what?
However…there was this one trailer (I think it was the second or third trailer that released before the movie came out) that completely SOLD me on the idea of the reboot!
While all of the trailers that came before this one, and after this one, were winding people up with how awesome and majestic and invulnerable Superman was…this trailer was different. It mostly focuses on the destruction surrounding him. The horrific decimation of whole cities. People running and screaming and fearing for their lives. And the goosebump raising quote, “For every human you save…we will kill a million more!” I remember thinking, YES!!! THAT is how you get to Superman! THIS is the kind of strategy that a war torn general would use to flush out and defeat a being that is basically God in a cape’!
Now there’s a challenge. Now there’s some tension. I’m not worried about some super villain punching Superman in the face. That’s not going to accomplish anything at all. But go after the people he loves and cares about? Take advantage of the fact that he can’t be in all places at once, and he can’t save everybody….THAT’S how you hurt a ‘perfect’ superhero. I honestly wish that movie had exploited that part of the equation a bit more, but…I was happy with what I got. Decent flick if you get a chance to check it out.
Here’s the trailer that I’m referring to…
Now, Superman is a highly exaggerated version of a Mary/Gary Sue character, but the same principles apply. If you have a character in your story that seems just a little too ‘special’ to ever create any doubt or conflict in the minds of your readers…you may just be sapping some of the strong potential that your story has because of it. As sadistic as it sounds, I actually like putting my characters through the ringer on occasion. Because when your main characters are perfect, it gives them no room to grow and nowhere to go. That’s not a protagonist. That’s an act of nature. They’re in the story, but they’re not really ‘driving’ the story. They’re just being put in one supposedly difficult situation after another, and waiting for their inevitable stroke of good luck to kick in and get them out of it…again. That can be mildly entertaining for some, but I definitely get more attached to the idea of ‘CAN they get out of this?’ over ‘How are they going to do it this time? Because they always do.’ I find the former much more interesting.
One thing that I usually do when creating characters of my own, is look for some sort of balancing factor that will humanize them. I build them up to be attractive, funny, sensitive, loyal, sympathetic…I want them to be the kind of person that you would truly cheer for if you knew them in real life. And then, almost immediately after that, whether it’s my protagonist or their love interest, I begin stripping them down. Like…ok, we’ve got the whole ‘too good to be true’ facade going…now let’s explain exactly why they’re too good to be true. What am I missing here? Sure, this character might be stunningly gorgeous…but he has feelings and insecurities just like anybody else, right? In fact, what if his beauty is more of a curse in his eyes than most people would believe? What if someone who’s super famous, on TV, and has crowds of cheering fans…secretly wishes he could give it all up for the genuine love of just ONE person? What if you’re blessed with a limitless reserve of special powers and unnatural abilities…but you were too scared of yourself and your past to really unleash them all at full power? It’s a Yin and Yang idea. You have all of these great attributes and advantages over many of your other characters, but there are still parts of you that are vulnerable. That can be exploited for leverage or increased for the sake of tension later on. To avoid the Mary/Gary Sue comparison, I think there has to be a weakness or a chink in the armor. No matter how small. Something as simple as a ‘secret’ between friends can end up adding a layer of depth and involvement for your readers. Because they know it won’t stay a secret forever, right? As long as it continues to loom over the story like a mini storm cloud…there’s a reason to keep reading. Mr. Perfect isn’t so perfect after all, is he?
From when I first started writing, I sort of learned to dig a little deeper into my character’s flaws. And I think I like them better that way. When I started, it was more like, “How can I get a super hot, totally perfect boy, to find another super hot, totally perfect boy, and get them naked together. Hehehe! And that can be entertaining, sure. But these characters aren’t super experienced when it comes to sex and relationships and love in general. They’re not free from temptation. They’re not immune to jealousy, or depression, or heartbreak. For me, the most interesting part of crafting a project from beginning to end is getting my characters to learn, and evolve, and ultimately earn their idea of a ‘happily ever after’. If they just happened to be born HOT, and found another hot boy who was gay, and then he got him on the first try without any angst or struggle…? Well, that would make for a forgettable story, in my opinion. It almost seems unfair in a lot of ways, you know? Nah, I’d rather engage my readers with something that was a bit more realistic in nature. Something to say, “No! You TOO can have this if you wanted it! This magical unicorn of a love interest is out there right now, and there’s a chance that you might find him tomorrow if you know where to look.” I can’t say enough how important it is to make your readers an active part of your project. Let them immerse themselves into something that feels real.
Everybody looks perfect from a distance. Bring your readers in closer for a more personal involvement.
To keep your characters from being a witness instead of a protagonist…give them choices to make. Plain and simple. And I’m not talking about wanting an ice cream sundae or a milkshake. Hehehe! Put dilemmas in their path, and force them to make decisions that will have rewards and consequences on both sides. Make them an active participant in your story. Behind curtain number one…you’ve got the love of your life wanting you to come out of the closet and be with him forever. And behind curtain number two…you’ve got a super religious, homophobic, family that might disown you and never speak to you again if you choose this lifestyle. Yikes! What do you do? THAT’S where the tension comes from. A Mary/Gary Sue might just tell his boyfriend, ‘I love you’, and his family decides, ‘well, as long as you’re happy, we’ll change our judgemental ways’.
Insert a little danger into your character’s plight. Drag them out of their comfort zone and let your readers know that they have problems just like the rest of us. Escapism only goes so far. It might be effective for short, one shot, stories, but if you’re looking to write something a bit longer and more in depth, allow your characters to take the training wheels off of their bike and get a little dirty from time to time. Not just for the sake of drama, but to accurately depict the shared experience of life itself. We have our hearts broken, we make mistakes, we jump to conclusions, we have bad days and say stupid things that we don’t mean, we have regrets, we get scared, and we sometimes get weak in the face of temptation. It happens. But I think readers appreciate seeing that in the characters that we create, and finding the strength to overcome the same problems that they’ve been through in the process.
To wrap this up…
The whole ‘Mary/Gary Sue’ label may be flung around as an insult more often than not these days, but it’s basically just a warning against making your stories too easy for your protagonist to navigate through from beginning to end. Place a few obstacles in your main character’s way. Give your outwardly perfect characters a few inner demons to face and tackle as the story goes on. And make sure that your protagonist remains relevant to the story by giving them some tough decisions to make on their own. And then show the benefits and hardships that came with making that decision. I truly think that this makes for a much more intriguing and immersive story, and it will keep your audience coming back for more.
None of us are perfect. And, while pretending to be perfect for short periods of time can be enjoyable for some…it doesn’t last. Reality is like gravity. We’ve all got to drop back down to Earth eventually. Keep your stories grounded. That’s where we spend most of our time.
I hope this helps, you guys! Take care! And I’ll seezya soon! ((Hugz))