This post contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links
So, you just finished the first draft of your WIP and you’ve created the perfect protagonist. I mean, really perfect. Your hero can handle any plot twist with ease, and no villain is a match for his cunning. His friends love them, his family adores him…
and your readers probably hate him!
Because perfect characters are boring, and honestly kind of sickening. These flawless heroes are so loathsome that writers have coined a term for them.
They are the dreaded Mary Sues and Gary Stus, characters who have everything and lose almost nothing in the pages of your story.
It’s time to rough up that hero of yours. To fray their edges and make them a little less than perfect. You know, a little more human.
Today, we’ll discuss the signs that your protagonist is a Gary Stu or Mary Sue, and how to make those characters more believable. But first, let’s answer an important question.
What is a Mary Sue?
Mary Sues and Gary Stus are idolized protagonists, too perfect for any reader to identify with. And because they are so perfect they suck all the conflict from your story and ruin all the fun of reading it.
In her article, What Exactly is Wrong a “Mary Sue” Character, over at TheMarySue.com writer Princess Weekes uses a more accurate term- “self-insert.” Mary Sues originated in the pages of fanfiction. Writers would insert themselves as characters in their favorite fictional worlds.
Weekes term, self-insert, refers to writers who shoehorn themselves into a story. Usually as the protagonist- an idolized version of themselves. The term Mary Sue has evolved over the decades. But, the problem remains the same- writers who are a little too close to their characters, and unwilling to make those characters suffer.
With fanfiction that’s ok. The stakes are low, and authors are usually writing to please small audiences. It’s fine to write a story for your amusement alone, but that doesn’t work when you’re trying to sell fiction.
What is Wrong with Mary Sue & Gary Stu Characters
Good fiction relies on conflict. You can’t have a story without it. By writing a perfect character you rob your story of that one essential element. Now, can you have a perfect character who faces incredible odds in the face of overwhelming external conflict?
But, external conflict without any internal conflict can make for a shallow story. Readers like to read about people who overcome their weaknesses, so they can experience that character growth vicariously.
We want to identify with your characters, and we can’t identify with someone who’s perfect. Because we’re not perfect, damn it!
Flawed characters resonate with readers because we’re all flawed. There are no Gary Stus or Mary Sues running around in the real world. Characters who conquer their personal flaws to overcome a conflict give your readers hope. Because everyone wants to believe that change is possible.
But, Gary Stus don’t need to change. So, let’s get rid of them altogether.
How to fix your Mary Sue or Gary Stu
Take yourself out of the story
Create some space between you and your character. You two aren’t the same person and it’s better that way. That’s because fictional characters are forced to go through some pretty rough stuff. At least, in good stories they are.
Sure, you and your protagonist can have a few things in common but don’t go crazy. Let your characters breath, live their own lives, and do things you would never dream of doing. Or, experience trauma you hope to avoid. That’s the fun of reading and writing. You can experience life-threatening events without risking your life.
So, you and that hero of yours- you’re two different people. Remember that, but if you want to give your hero a part of yourself, make it one of your flaws.
Brainstorm character flaws
Mary Sues and Gary Stus are annoyingly perfect, but this is an easy fix- give them flaws.
Make them arrogant, or indecisive, or cowardly, or all of the above. You may not believe this, but readers are much more attracted to flawed characters than idolized ones. But I’ve already said that, haven’t I?
Look around and ask yourself- what annoys you about people? What are your big bugaboos? Or what annoys you about yourself?
If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about yourself what would it be? Give your protagonist that same flaw. Or, hell, give them all your flaws. Ever read A Confederacy of Dunces?
Check it out if you want to read one of the most flawed and annoying protagonists in literature.
Every decision should come with a consequence
A tell-tale sign that you’re writing a Mary Sue is that nothing bad happens to her. She may run into some challenges, a bit of danger, but she always escapes no worse for wear. And this is counterintuitive if you aim to write a decent story.
A story is not just a series of exciting events happening to a character. It’s a series of consequences that ratchets up the tension on your main character with every decision they make. Each plot point should drive your character closer to a point of no return. A do-or-die moment.
You can do this by creating consequences for all of your character’s actions. Even when your hero is making the right choice they should face blowback. No good deed should ever go unpunished.
For an excellent example of this take a look at George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Specifically, let’s look at the character of Rob Stark.
Rob makes what a reader might consider a good and noble choice. He decides to marry a woman he loves over a marriage of political convenience. The consequence of that decision is the infamous Red Wedding. By making the “right” decision Rob gets himself and his entire family killed.
Now, should all the consequences be that dramatic in your story?
They should be.
Show your villain some love
Villains, as I’ve said before, are people too. Villains can be some of the most enjoyable characters to read and to write. Not only that, they’re often the most charismatic characters in a story. Villains need to be seductive to pull your reader in. On some level, your reader needs to empathize with the antagonist. We don’t have to agree with them, but we do need to understand them and their motivation.
So, spread the love. Take some of those great characteristics you’ve bestowed on your protagonist and transfer them over to your villain.
Your villain’s strengths can dovetail with your hero’s weaknesses. Where your villain is charming and easy-going your hero can be uptight and a bummer at parties. This will heighten the tension as your hero will have to work that much harder to overcome their antagonist.
Focus on plot over character
I don’t mean focus on plot exclusively. But, if you find that your characters are a little too perfect, your story is a bit boring then start throwing some obstacles in your hero’s way. I mean really serious obstacles.
If your character is that perfect then use that against them in your plot. Highly-effective people can become arrogant. People who have only ever experienced success aren’t well equipped to handle a failure.
Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to this character in this moment of their life? Obviously, you don’t want to kill them, but you do want them to face some life or death situation.
Remember, death doesn’t always have to mean physical death. In his book, Write Your Novel from the Middle author James Scott Bell discusses the different types of deaths a character can experience. These include emotional and spiritual deaths as well as the death of your hero’s career.
What’s important is that at some point you put your character under serious threat. A threat that they’re not equipped to deal with. A great place to start is your inciting event. This is the point in the story when you take your character’s perfect world and you shatter it to pieces.
Study Character Creation
An obvious tip for anyone who wants to write great fiction is to study the craft. That means a lot of writing, but also you need to read about writing. There are tons of great writing manuals out there. I read- listen really, thanks to Audible!- to a new writing manual about once a month. When I find a good one I always want to pass it on to my readers.
So, here’s a great book that I recommend if you’re looking to create better, more realistic, and dynamic characters!
Character and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card
I’ve recommended this book before and that’s because it’s good. I used it as a reference for this article and many others.
And, I’ve got a free copy for the first person who comments on this article and shares it on their social media. So, please share! I’m basically bribing you. I could go to jail for this!
What? Didn’t get that first comment? No problem!
Get TWO FREE audiobooks when you sign up for a 30-day trial of Audible!
Readers! Check out these great deals from Amazon: