by Hannah Herndon
Many writers are familiar with the terms, “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu” which generally refer to characters who are seemingly perfect in every way, and are only lacking in the way of flaws and depth.
As much as we try to avoid creating these kinds of characters, it can be hard to avoid when we sincerely want our characters to be likable. Many videos and articles addressing the Mary Sue issue recommend adding flaws to your character and challenges for them to face in their journey. These things can help add needed depth to characters and make them more believable and relatable.
However, I have recently noticed a flip-side to the Mary Sue dilemma, and I’m a little disappointed that it doesn’t seem to have a name. I’m talking about characters who are essentially the reverse of a typical Mary Sue, characters who have too many flaws, and not enough good in them.
I would argue that this is still a Mary Sue.
First, let’s look at what makes a Mary Sue bad:
Mary Sues are good characters taken to an extreme level of goodness. As much as we want a hero to be good, we don’t want them to be gods. One of the beauties of stories is being able to see yourself in them, and a character who is perfect in every way will make a story hard to read without rolling your eyes, and steal a lot of the joy of the story from the reader.
On the other hand, a character can be given so many flaws and shortcomings that they become a glorified villain. If a character is all bad, they can be every bit as annoying and unrelatable as a typical Mary Sue.
This “Dark Side Mary Sue” is not to be confused with an Anti Hero, though Anti Heroes seem to be particularly at risk of becoming this type of Mary Sue.
Anti heroes are basically characters who lack particularly heroic characteristics. This may mean that the character is heroic for selfish reasons, or that they aren’t especially willing to be heroic, or something similarly not associated with a run-of-the-mill hero.
These can make for really interesting characters, but like anything else they can be taken too far. What may have started out as a deep and beautifully imperfect character can all too quickly become a dehumanized monster who is hated by readers.
This is not to say that a character like this cannot be used. In fact, monster-like "heroes" can be quite well done if they are somehow redeemed as their character grows through the course of their journey.
But if they show no growth, and are always monstrous, you can’t really expect people to like them much.
Basically, I’m saying that there are many ways the Mary Sue can hide in characters. Sometimes it’s the blatant, in-your-face, pink, fluffy, meaningless character, and other times it’s in a more subtle way.
The best way to avoid creating one of these characters is to keep them well-rounded: let them have flaws, but don’t make them heartless. Let them be selfish and stupid at times, but don’t let that be all they are. Let your characters be humans.
It’s hard to find the balance between too perfect and too flawed, but it is possible, and there are plenty more articles and videos out there on this sort of thing.
Here are some links to the ones that have helped me the most:
For a video by youtuber Tyandaga about how not to make a Mary Sue, click here.
**Ignore the ponies, the advice is useful even for non MLP fans**
For an article by author Gail Carson Levine giving her prospective on the Mary Sue, click here.