Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’ve written before about making sure your protagonist is interesting enough – that they have goals, a personality, and compelling flaws. They’re all essential steps to putting your reader in the company of someone they want to spend time with. Unfortunately, writing a great protagonist is one of the hardest tightrope walks of writing, and it’s incredibly easy to take all this too far. If you do, that’s when you’re at risk of writing a Mary Sue protagonist.
In this article, I’ll be taking a look at what exactly a Mary Sue protagonist is, when they occur, and how they can be avoided in your writing. As with any example of what to avoid, I’ll also be including some tips that won’t just keep your story out of trouble, but help to enhance it.
What is a Mary Sue protagonist?
Any term intended as a criticism loses clarity of meaning over time, and like ‘macguffin’ before it, the parameters of a ‘Mary Sue’ protagonist are hotly debated. What can be agreed is that it started its life in fan fiction circles, where it was used to suggest that a protagonist was a thinly veiled version of the author, allowing them to insert an idealized self into the story. In her essay, ‘“Too Good To Be True”: 150 Years Of Mary Sue’, Pat Pflieger begins an exploration of a surprisingly old phenomenon by describing its original definition.
She’s amazingly intelligent, outrageously beautiful, adored by all around her – and absolutely detested by most reading her adventures. She’s Mary Sue, the most reviled character type in media fan fiction. Basically, she’s a character representing the author of the story, an avatar, the writer’s projection into an interesting world full of interesting people whom she watches weekly and thinks about daily. Sometimes the projections get processed into interesting characters, themselves. Usually, though, they don’t… Most often, Mary Sue is an original character created by the author of the story, but media characters also can become Mary Sues.
– Pat Pflieger, ‘“Too Good To Be True”: 150 Years Of Mary Sue’
Of course, even this definition leaves a lot of room for subjective judgements – many would argue that all believable characters derive in some way from the author’s own truth of self, so where’s the line in terms of what makes a Mary Sue?
The answer isn’t clear, and it’s because of this that the definition has claimed more ground. As Pflieger states, ‘Mary Sue’ is no longer the sole province of fan fiction, and is now used as a more general term for a protagonist in any fiction who is needlessly perfect, generally to the point that it irritates the reader. They’re stocked with a seemingly never-ending set of skills and knowledge, they’re beloved by all the characters around them, and only they can solve the central problem of the story (sometimes with token aid from other characters).Mary Sue protagonists are without flaw (and that’s why readers hate them).Click To Tweet
The character of Rey from Star Wars : The Force Awakens is often touted as a contemporary example, with some arguing that her skills in piloting spacecraft, wielding a lightsaber, and using the force without any training mark her out as a Mary Sue protagonist. It’s an example that illustrates as many of the problems with the definition as it exemplifies, but we’ll get to the drawbacks later.
How to avoid writing a Mary Sue protagonist
One of the most important things that knowing the history of the term does is reveal why authors might end up writing a Mary Sue. Looking past the author’s urge to exist in a fictional world, we can also see that Mary Sue characters often exist to ‘solve’ the story.
A great story makes the reader care about the goals of the protagonists – they find their set-backs frustrating and their barriers intolerable. This is all part of the narrative experience, but once you’re in charge of a fictional world, it can be tempting to brush all those barriers aside. After all, why would you want to frustrate the reader?
This logic is parodied by Sam Logan in his webcomic Skull Panda Loves Everything. In a series of comics criticizing the expansion of the Hobbit movies into a trilogy, Logan imagines the reasoning behind stretching the source material.
Delgo is a fantastic parody of a Mary Sue character – not only is he more able than any of the other characters, but he has pre-existing relationships with them that dwarf their bonds with each other. Logan goes on to explain how ‘Delgo got his facial scar saving Gandalf from a troll when they were both children. Ever since, Gandalf has owed Delgo a “life debt”.’ You can imagine the other characters using their free time to sit around discussing how great Delgo is and, in a story afflicted with such a Mary Sue protagonist, that scene would probably be included.
On top of this, Delgo shows how a reader’s instincts can make them a poorer writer. Where a reader thinks ‘if only there was a character who could handle the ring’, that frustrated wish is a sign of a compelling story, not an actual way to improve it.
Fan fiction makes this problem clear, but it can be harder to spot in original works. When a writer sets their hero the task of defeating a villain, it can be tempting to clear all unnecessary obstacles out of the way. Yes, the villain may cause trouble, but the protagonist exists as an incredibly able, well-informed, morally flawless character who makes the right decision every time. They’ll only encounter trouble where it’s created for them. If their friends turn on them, it’s because they’ve been lied to or hypnotized; if their plan doesn’t work, it’s because it was sabotaged from within; and if their love life falls apart, it’s because their partner was inherently flawed, bordering on evil.The fanfic origins of the Mary Sue reveal why authors fall into the trap.Click To Tweet
As I wrote in Avoid A Boring Thriller With This One Simple Trick, the journey towards a goal is more compelling when you put your character under pressure, but this pressure shouldn’t always come from external sources. If your protagonist isn’t causing some of their own issues, whether from flaws in their personality, poor judgement, or not being up to a task, they’re in risk of becoming a Mary Sue.
Many, many writers craft morally upstanding heroes and then set the world against them. Why, after all, twist a character you want the reader to like and support? The answer is that perfect characters are dull, and readers will actually empathize with and care more about a flawed character. In fact, if you can tie their issues into their flaws, you’ll be writing a much more compelling protagonist.
Look at your character’s backstory, their personality, and their relationships with other characters, and find some definable flaws in your character. If they’re not there, invent some, and ground them in who the character is. Once you have some flaws, use them to create problems or make those problems worse.
It’s interesting to look at how this process works in serial fiction, where multiple authors explore the same characters. In Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil, for example, the writer not only had to write an existing character, but also render his own portrait of a compelling vigilante. Waid chose to focus on how a man who has had to live a double life might grow too dependent on holding back information, even from those close to him, and how this means that – even when someone else is causing the problems – he’s prone to pushing away aid and understanding that would make his life easier.Your heroes’ flaws need to be more than cosmetic – they should impact the story.Click To Tweet
If you can’t name something that’s genuinely undesirable about your character – be it jealousy, recklessness, infidelity, etc. – then you’re in danger of writing a Mary Sue. More than that, it’s important that your character’s flaws are real, rather than just cosmetic. A character isn’t functionally naïve if they grasp every situation immediately, and they’re not ‘overly’ trusting if that trust is always rewarded. This is something parodied in the art of illustrator and author Adam Ellis, who specifically focused on the tendency of YA authors to pay lip service to relatable flaws without actually allowing them to affect the story.
Finally, if you found that you’ve created a Mary Sue protagonist, that might be an indication that you’re asking too much of your main character. Consider involving more characters and allowing them to be experts in a specific area rather than having one character who knows, and can handle, everything.
Those are the techniques that can help you avoid writing a Mary Sue, but they’re only half the story. After all, is a Mary Sue really always a bad thing?
The benefits of a Mary Sue protagonist
While a Mary Sue protagonist is something to be conscious of when writing, it’s not necessarily going to ruin your story. In its truest form, it’s really a power fantasy – a character who’s the best at everything, beloved by everyone, and always gets the job done.
Most stories benefit from more nuance, but if you’re writing something with more of a pulp sensibility, or deliberately skewing towards a young audience, a power-fantasy hero might not be an issue. Most YA stories have been accused of featuring a Mary Sue, and even titanic properties like Batman have a peerless, hyper-competent master of martial arts as their foundation.A Mary Sue character CAN work for your story, as long as it’s a conscious decision.Click To Tweet
A Mary Sue doesn’t mean you’re telling a bad story, or that it won’t do well, but it’s something you should be doing consciously. A flawless character is often a bland character, which means you’ll have to pay particular attention to punching them up or surrounding them with other characters who can surprise the reader, keep the storytelling exciting, and even act as a liability – there’s a reason Batman needs Robin.
It’s also worth acknowledging that there’s a lot of historical sexism bound up in ‘spotting’ Mary Sues. YA novels, for example, attract more criticism than is reasonable for depicting deliberate, considered power fantasies aimed at young, female readers. The vital thing to note is that this criticism often doesn’t come from the intended readership, and should be taken with a pinch of salt when crafting your own YA stories.
There’s something about Mary (Sue)
Like so much writing advice, the Mary Sue is best understood as a new way to consider your craft. There are ways to do it right, a lot of ways to do it wrong, but what’s most important is that it’s part of your decision-making. Does your protagonist have real flaws that alter the course of events? Is their knowledge or skillset too broad to be realistic? Does your reader have a way to see themselves in the hero, warts and all? The answers will benefit your writing and, even if you decide a Mary Sue will help your story, you’ll be more aware of the demands that places on other elements of the plot.
What stories are marred by Mary Sues, and where have you seen them work well? Let me know in the comments. For more on writing compelling characters, check out How To Give Your Hero Some Personality and The Dos and Don’ts Of Writing Smart Characters, and for a genre that often uses the Mary Sue to great effect, try The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Young Adult Novel.