Even if you’re not currently an author, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue”. It’s a name given to flat, one-dimensional female characters who are so well-rounded and flawless that they just don’t appear human. Sometimes these characters fall into certain cliches or tropes that make the audience collectively groan. You may also have heard the male iteration of this, “Gary Stu”.
The fact is, whilst we all have a secret dream of being the Mary Sue at some point in our lives, writing one into your novel is hands down going to make your novel terrible.
Here is a great example of what a typical Mary Sue character might be like.
She is eighteen years old.
Long brown (or black) hair that seems to frizz and do whatever it wants, she has an unremarkable body boys never look at. She has, against all genetic reasoning, stormy grey eyes.
She is clumsy, goofy; always tripping over her own feet, walking into door frames. She mumbles when she speaks, bites her lip nervously. She is as awkward as awkward gets.
Yet upon first eye contact, the hunkiest guy in the room is instantly, almost obsessively, in love with her.
She also discovers she is the chosen one. She survives when nobody else did, for no reason whatsoever.
In a room full of diverse, interesting people, only the boring nobody without friends, hopes or the ability to walk in a straight line, can save the world.
In books that contain a Mary Sue, the Gary Stu is often her love interest.
He is a vampire, werewolf, warlock, wizard or something else with the potential to be immortal. For reasons unknown he is still pretending to be 18, going to high school and hanging out with people who are 18 or under.
If he is a mortal, he’s usually impossibly rich, or owns a huge company at an impossibly young age.
He is tall with a body to die for; hair in just the right places (or not at all) and abs you could probably dry your washing on. He, too, has some bizarre eye colour that only he could have.
He is brooding, quiet, always an unreadable expression on his face. He is mean to Mary Sue; he ignores her, bullies her, teases her. But he’s so madly in love with her he can’t sleep at night.
Why is the Mary/Gary a bad character?
Because they are the kind of fantasy that often lives in your head as a child. They are the superhero or flawless being you wish you could be in your wildest dreams. They are caricatures of real people and, as a result, they make absolutely horrendous novel characters – even if you’re writing for a YA audience.
If you’re struggling to make wholesome, realistic characters, use yourself as a study.
You don’t have to share it with anyone, but download a character creation sheet, much like this one, and fill it out with your attributes. Try not to lie about anything (this is private, remember!), and realise all the contradictions, quirks, weird aspects and likable and unlikable things that might exist about yourself.
When it comes to making your characters, it is vital to understand that giving them a limp, a stutter, or making them sad because their mom died is not developing them fully. Nor is deciding on their favourite band, their favourite colour or what kind of take out they like. None of these things make for an interesting character by themselves.
You need to dig deeper than is probably comfortable. This is, for me, what makes being a writer so emotionally exhilarating. Whilst I am by no means without mistake in my work, some of my characters – even the “heroes” – have some rather unlikable traits about them. That being said, they are not inherently unlikable people for the most part.
Whether we admit it or not, we all have such traits, and it’s important to let those traits show in your characters.
Do they get mood swings? If so, what is the story behind that? Have they ever considered violence, perhaps planned it? What makes them cry? If they don’t cry, what has hammered their emotions so deep that they are unable to get back out?
If your answer to any question about your character is “I don’t know”, then you’ll probably find they are not yet developed enough.