We all dream about that “perfect person,” but in fiction, perfect people make for bad novels. Everything always works out for them, so they lead boring lives and create boring stories.
Meet Mary Sue and Gary Stu (as they’re commonly called in fiction). These perfect people do everything right, have all they could possibly want, and never have to struggle with obstacles.
Since stories are about flawed people trying to fill a need while struggling with obstacles, you can see where this would be a problem.
Mary Sue characters 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 that struggle to overcome obstacles, there’s no conflict. No conflict = no story.
How You Can Avoid Mary Sue Characters
1. Give them flaws
Real flaws, not unimportant ones such as, they’re messy, or they’re always running late. Those are personality quirks (and good to have, but it won’t fix a Mary Sue). Flaws are the deeply rooted issues we all carry around with us that cause us to make bad decisions. They’re the stuff we’re embarrassed about, or the things we don’t want anyone to figure out about us.
Flaws are also the things the character is trying to fix over the course of the novel. It’s what’s driving the character arc and character’s growth. They’re often the reasons readers will love and relate to these characters—because they’re not perfect.
(Here’s more on characters and their flaws)
2. Make things hard on them
Throw obstacles in their way and make them work to overcome them. Characters need to earn their victories, not simply have things work out in their favor.
If overcoming the obstacle doesn’t trigger or cause anything else to happen, and the plot continues as if the obstacle never happened—that’s a big red flag that it’s too easy and doesn’t impact the plot at all.
(Here’s more on crafting plots that don’t feel like a coincidence)
3. Let them fail. A lot.
Characters should fail more than they succeed, because dealing with those failures drives the plot and helps teach the characters the lessons they need to grow. Nobody gets it right the first time every time.
But it’s also boring if the failures are more 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.
(Here’s more on characters making tough choices)
4. Let them be wrong.
Not the same failing, but in the same vein. 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. 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 Gary Stu with information he’d never have. Let him get the wrong impression once in a while.
(Here’s more on characters can screw up their decisions)
5. Have them be jerks once in a while.
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.
Stories frequently 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.
(Here’s more on finding 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 the 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?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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