Wednesday, September 30, 2020

5 Ways to Fix Too-Perfect Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

We all dream about that “perfect person,” but in fiction, perfect people make for bad novels.

Writing has a certain level of wish-fulfillment to it. We envision characters with traits we admire, develop relationships we dream we could experience, and brutally dispose of people who picked on us in high school (maybe that’s me?). 

But sometimes in our strive for perfection, we go a tad overboard and create characters we’d probably hate if we met them in real life. 


Because they’re perfect. They have it all—looks, talent, life fulfillment, their friends all love them and they never have to struggle to get through the day. Even if that day requires facing off against a serial killer, a boardroom of CEOs, or a dark wizard with some serious family issues.

Since stories are about flawed people trying to fill a need while struggling to overcome obstacles, you can see where perfection would be a problem.

Allow me to introduce Mary and Gary. You’ll hate them.

Mary Sue and Gary Stu (as they’re commonly called) are perfect people do everything right, have all they could possibly want, and never have to struggle with obstacles to get what they need. Everything always works out for them, so they lead boring lives and create boring stories.

Mary and Gary often appear when we’re trying to create the idealized version of ourselves, or the person we wish we could be (or meet). We live vicariously through them on our pages, so we don’t want bad things to happen to them. When they encounter a problem, they know exactly what to do to fix it, or worse—the stars align and lucky coincidences fix it for them, because that’s how we wish our lives would go. 

Problem is, without a protagonist struggling to overcome obstacles, there story has no conflict. 

Perfect people + no conflict = no story. 

And there’s no point in writing an entire novel without a story.

How You Can Avoid (Or Fix ) the “All-to-Perfect” Mary Sue or Gary Stu Character

All is not lost, however. One good thing about perfection is that it doesn’t take much to mar that shiny surface. A ding here, a scratch there, and that too-perfect character starts looking a lot more human—and more likable. 

Let’s look at five ways you can turn characters who are perfect and boring into ones that are scuffed and interesting: 

1. Mess with their heads and personalities.

Give your perfect characters flaws that affect their actions and beliefs. Real flaws, not unimportant ones such as, they’re just messy, or they’re always running late. Those are personality quirks, and while they’re good to have, they won’t fix a Mary Sue/Gary Stu. 
Character-worthy flaws stem from deeply rooted issues someone carries around with them that cause them to make bad decisions. Flaws cause doubt and embarrassment, and affect a character’s behavior in the story.

Flaws make characters relatable, and relatable characters make readers care about them.

(Here’s more on Do Your Characters Have the Right Flaws?)

2. Make them work for those wins. 

Remember—no conflict, no story, and both Mary Sue and Gary Stu tend to have everything work out in their favor. They’re always in the right place to overhear a critical conversation, luck always breaks their way, and whatever they attempt, they succeed in. 

If overcoming the obstacle doesn’t change anything in the story, and the plot continues as if the obstacle never happened—that’s a big red flag that it’s too easy and the protagonist’s actions don’t impact the plot at all. Throw obstacles in their way and make them work to overcome them. Make the challenges they face hard. 

Characters need to earn their victories, not simply have things work out in their favor.

(Here’s more on What a Coincidence! Creating Plots That Don’t Feel Like Accidents)

3. Play dirty. Undermine their confidence.

Characters should fail more than they succeed, because dealing with those failures drives the plot and helps teach those Marys and Garys the lessons they need to grow. Nobody gets it right the first time every time. Everyone has doubts they’re doing the right thing or following the best course of action.

However…it’s also boring if the failures are of the “too big to overcome” variety and not from mistakes made by the character. If Gary Stu fails at something no one would ever be able to accomplish anyway, it’s not a real loss. Aim for mistakes that come from a real (and flawed) place. 

Mistakes and failures encourage character growth and keep reader tensions high.

4. Hold back on what they need.

Instead of handing Mary Sue all the information she needs when she needs it, hide important details from her. Let her make wrong assumptions that lead to mistakes. People make mistakes, they read situations the wrong way, they believe the wrong information and act on those misconceptions. Belief (and the staunch support of that belief) can affect behavior and the all-important decision-making process.

Characters can only act based on the information they have. You as the author might know what the truth is, or what every detail in the scene is, but the character’s usually do not. Don’t supply Mary or Gary with information they’d never have. Let them get the wrong impression once in a while. 

If all the answers are handed over without a fight, readers have no reason not to just turn to the end and see what happened.

(Here’s more 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions)

5. Stomp on their last nerve.

People have bad days. They snap, ignore help, treat loved ones like crap, and then they pay for it. Characters should do the same thing. Let the pressures build up until they do something rash or stupid or just plain mean and then regret it. Have them be jerks once in a while, and give those bad behaviors consequences.

Stories are supposed to put characters through an emotional grinder, and what doesn’t kill them makes them more interesting. Explore how far you can push your characters until they break. 

A character struggling to hold it together is one readers are going to watch very careful, and be hooked in the story while they do it.

(Here’s more on How to Find Your Character’s Breaking Point)

We all strive for perfection, but it’s the striving that’s compelling, not the display of prowess. Even a character who seems like they do everything right still gets it wrong sometimes (looking at you, James Bond). 

Balance your character’s skills in one area with weaknesses and flaws in another, and you’ll craft more well-rounded and interesting people for your readers.

Have you ever written a too-perfect character?  

*Originally published November 2015. Last update September 2020.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Well said! Often, whatever can go wrong, should go wrong. At least until the character gains enough experience to see where things are going and try to change course himself.

  2. Oh, my. This is such a great post. I think I need to read it every day. Thanks for this. I will be posting the link on my blog.

    1. LOL glad it resonated so well with you :)

  3. Great post!

    Normally I don't have trouble with throwing obstacles at my character as watching my protag struggle and be in some sort of pain usually puts a smile on my face...for some strange reason. What can I say, writing is fun!

    However, for my current NaNo novel, I worry about making my character too sweet and flawless. So far I'm two chapters in and my character is starting to look like an innocent angel who is taunted and targeted by other characters. I love it, but I'm afraid that no problems will arise from my protag's actions and only from those around him.


    1. I'm with you--I love doing terrible things to my characters.

      It's good that you recognize a potential problem right away though, because you can start looking for/thinking about ways to give him some plot-driving flaws and traits :)

  4. Very helpful advice, thanks!

  5. It's worth remembering that a virtue taken to an extreme can be a vice. Virtues like kindness, confidence, determination, and being sensitive too the needs of others are good, but being too kind, too confident, too determined, or too sensitive can all cause problems under the appropriate conditions. With these kind of flaws, the challenges the character faces teach them that sometimes being unkind, cautious, apathetic, or thick-skinned can be a good thing; those are often deeply painful lessons.

    It's easy, I think, to do terrible things to a character. But you can also give the character an opportunity to do a good thing, let them choose to do it, and have the consequences be a road to hell paved by their good intentions.

    Frankly, I'm resistant to the now-popular trope of doing ever-more terrible things to characters as the story "progresses." That's just not realistic, to me: life is full of ups and down. And the trope gives too little stock to the idea that the more joy we see the character achieve by their struggles, the higher we'll consider the stakes: after we watch a character struggle to find love and have a child, we'll be much more concerned when that child is at risk.

    I like reading and writing stories where most people are basically good, things get better over time but can still get even better, and love conquers almost all. Those are the kinds of worlds I want to escape to.

    But that said, writing my villain sure is fun. She is definitely the hero of her story, in the subculture she comes from. It's not a very nice subculture. And HER character flaw is believing that love is just a scam (even though she is deeply, mutually, in love).

    1. Absolutely. I have a post about that somewhere (grin). It's a great way to add flaws to characters and still have them be good people.

      Oh, I love good intensions that go wrong. The conflicts are a lot more fun there, and more gut-wrenching for readers.

      Again, I agree (and have a post on that in the works as well--really! I just outlined it this morning) The "worst" isn't always very effective and doesn't move the story well. The worst that can happen is also a matter of degrees--the worst for everyone or the worst for one character in a particular situation? The particulars are usually so much more satisfyingly that just "terrible things."

      My reading tastes vary by my mood, and what's going on in my life. Some weeks I want to fun, happy romance, other weeks I want to dark dystopian. But I dislike any story that's all about the suffering. I need hope in my stories.

      I love villains :) And when an author writes them like a real person, they're even better. Yours sounds like my mind of villain.

  6. I'm guilty as sin of creating Mary Sues and her male counterpart. But the hard part is giving them flaws that are not over the top, or so ordinary they are ignored as flaws. In "Blue Cottage" the male MC struggles with a bad temper and being let go from his place of employment, while female MC has to deal with reality invading her fantasy life. She's about to get "loaned-out" to another place of employment but I don't want to go over the top.

    1. A lot of writers have that same problem. It's easy to equate flaws with bad, and that's not always the case. Here's a post I did that might help you there:

      Sometimes flaws are positive traits that cause hardship for the character. The above commenter talks about some of them as well.

  7. I'd be bored stupid writing perfect characters with perfect lives. I think I have the opposite problem - most of my characters are unpleasant in some way!

    1. Not necessarily bad :) I suggest these posts to help there:

  8. I am beyond stressed writing my story, im almost in tears. Your articles are helping, and i think will make my story betters. Thank you!

    1. You are most welcome. I'm so sorry to hear it's stressing you out, but glad that I could help.

      Hang in there. When I'm struggling with a story, it helps to just walk away and do something mindless for a while. Not focusing on it lets it simmer in my brain and I can usually figure out what to do after that.