I recently discovered that my main character—my first official main character, who grew from a role play, was a Mary Sue.
This is an issue. Being a Mary Sue means that the character is too perfect. And more often than not, your readers have a hard time connecting with them. Characters need flaws. It’s what makes them relatable characters, because you’re not perfect, and they’re not perfect. It seems like it could be a match made in heaven.
This is about the time I started to question her and wonder about her life. Naturally, her life won’t be flawlessly easy. Imperfect lives create conflict, which is an absolute story necessity. But when she fights off monsters and bad guys with ease and isn’t even breaking a sweat, this is where me and my writing buddy realize that we needed to remove some of the qualities that make her wonderful, and replace them with qualities that make her flawed.
Being a writer, I feel as if this character is my child, best friend, sister, and guardian angel. I have spent endless days with her by my side, and I want her to be strong enough to protect me from my nightmares from the very start. I want her to be able to look over her shoulder, give the most perfect and terrifying glare and then walk coolly away as the opposition cowers.
But that isn’t relatable. Nobody is superb without a blemish. The reason any of us connect with people in stories is because they have similar struggles. The only difference is that a lot of the conflict for the people in stories comes from the villain or other anti-hero source. In real life, conflict comes to us from bad decisions we or other people make, and the consequences come naturally.
I would like to share a couple of questions I’ve been using to help me and my character find her flaws. These kind of ride away from the typical positive questions asking you to state what your character likes. We’re gonna throw ourselves in deep, because deep conflict is what our Mary Sues need (but don’t misunderstand—while the more positive questions are important, I feel as though they’re focused on a little too much. And they’re easier to answer, and therefore are often the first to be paid attention to).
What is their past like?
Pasts are important aspects of their story. Their past specifically helped shape who they are now. How’s their family? Is it whole or broken? Or is it twisted? What about their home? Was it safe? Or was the world more threatening than their “safe place”? Did they have friends? Did they lose any friends? How? (You can expand on all of these—not only is it fun and easy to get lost doing, answering questions gives your character depth.)
What habits have they developed that don’t help them in any way?
I’m not talking about nose picking, spitting or other gross habits that would otherwise immediately come to mind. I’m talking about knee-jerk reactions or not thinking before speaking. What situations do they find themselves only digging themselves deeper into trouble? Do they fight it or not?
A yes or no response is good. Yes is good because it’s a moment where sweat breaks out and your character realizes that reacting instinctively might not be the smartest thing. No is good because it creates embarrassment and bad first impressions (or second or third impressions).
What do they hate about themselves?
Is their inability to put their thoughts into verbal conversation? Is it blushing to the max after a certain something happens or a certain someone else walks by? What thing about themselves drives them insane, that they would trade for absolutely anything?
And most importantly: What can’t they do, no matter what?
Yes, this is different from the question right before this one. For this particular question, big is excellent, and small is good.
Small: No matter what I do, I can’t seem to balance on anything higher than two feet in the air.
Big: no matter what, I find it really difficult just being around people.
Note: your character’s weaknesses, and difficulty thereof, can also depend on the story and its circumstances. For instance, if your character, for one reason or another, finds it difficult to crawl, maybe include a scene where they have to crawl. Medical handicaps can also be useful throughout the story, but remember: there has to be a balance, at least by the end of your story, between what they can do well, and what they struggle with. Also, the severity of your characters’ struggles can depend on pressure of their surroundings.
What’s even more important than the question of what can’t they do is this one:
How does your character fight through their greatest weakness and fears?
This is where the most important development happens.
So whatever you do, don’t just focus on the good stuff. Dive in and find a balance that works for you and your writing. And remember that your writing style will change a couple of times as you figure out how everything fits.
See you all at the conference!
I’m Riah! I’m enthusiastic about reading and writing, but am also as enthusiastic towards music and art. I’ve recently been into makeup which includes the use of prosthetics, latex, silicone, and body paint–you know, your basic movie makeup. I’m constantly reading fan fiction, when I’m not eating or putting my time into my other interests. Like trying to figure out how I got so jumpy.