Writers are often faced with an issue when creating characters – believability. We have to balance the task of creating real, fleshed out characters with what we need to tell the story in the space allotted. Some are better at it than others. Those who have failed have led to some interesting character tropes. In particular is the character labeled Mary Sue.
Before I get into what makes a Mary Sue, I should first cover the goals and desired character tropes that it is sometimes confused with. Hopefully if you are reading this, you are familiar with the term ‘trope’, but just in case, a troupe is a convention or device a writers uses that will be immediately familiar to their audience. Some of the notable character tropes are the hero, the old mentor, the damsel in distress. Writers use them to best effect when they use a trope as a skeleton to build a fully fleshed character on. One of the desirable tropes is the Everyman trope. The Everyman is a normal person, someone the audience can relate to. They are used to great effect in many ways in a story, but have come to prominence as the protagonist. A proper Everyman is well rounded, fallible, not particularly heroic, but someone who can make it through adversity. They key to good fiction is to take a character trope and produce a realistic, well rounded character.
And then you have a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a miss of the Everyman trope. A Mary Sue masquerades as an Everyman, but where an Everyman has flaws and seems real, a Mary Sue is almost too perfect and too successful. Thing come too easy for a Mary Sue. If you have every played role-playing games, a Mary Sue plays with loaded dice. This trope was really born in fan fiction, but you can find them almost anywhere. Everything seems to go their way and yet they pass themselves off as completely normal. Readers wait for them to crash and they never do. I really shouldn’t just limit this to written fiction as it applies equally well to moving pictures, but even they have a script written by someone. Whether it is a reader taking the words and building a character in their mind or an actor performing the part, you still have a writer behind it.
I would pin the difference between an Everyman and a Mary Sue as failure. You expect and get failure from the Everyman. From a Mary Sue you will never get real failure. What does it mean to fail? Well, in the extreme it means death. But it also means you lose the love, you can’t save someone important, you can’t succeed at every step and have to try again. Failure builds character. It also lets readers connect with the character. What it boils down to is that with the Everyman, success is not guaranteed and usually not fully achieved. With a Mary Sue, they are going to succeed and get just about everything they want. For an Everyman, success comes with a price or is incomplete. For a Mary Sue, there is little price and it is complete (unless the writer saved something for a sequel).
The Mary Sue is like this because the trope comes from wish fulfillment. The writer wants what they character gets. It is a fantasy where everything goes the right way. In good fiction, as with life, few things come that easy. The Mary Sue character has everything come easy and the story just lacks something. It may be action packed, and a thrill ride, but there is no real danger, not sense that failure is imminent. By creating this sort of character, the writer has diminished their work. That said, parody and comedy have different rules. I don’t write that way, but the only time a Mary Sue can work to good effect is when the purpose of the story is different. For normal dramatic fiction, a Mary Sue is a bad thing.
The Mary Sue trope is not always a deliberate thing. Usually it is done on accident by someone who has yet to acquire their full set of writing skills. We can forgive a budding writer for falling for this trap. It is an easy fix. But when you have someone who eschews the fix and keeps doing it, you just have a bad writer. A writer needs to have a reason for everything. If you want to put in an Everyman, they need to have flaws and failure. If you have a comic purpose, you might have need of a Mary Sue. A writer needs to know their craft and use the tools and tropes that are called for to best meet the expectations of the reader. A reader of serious fiction will read a Mary Sue story and hate it or be totally bored.
Eliminating Mary Sue characters (except for those rare instances when they serve a purpose) is one of the first things a new writer needs eradicate. It is one of those things that separates the amateurs from the professionals. Few other character tropes are so fully tied to bad writing as the Mary Sue is. Part of that is the trope’s birth in fan fiction and the wish fulfillment of the fledgling writer. I did it. It is the hallmark of a writer who has yet to learn that to make fiction interesting, you have to put your characters through hell. You also don’t want to just insert problems for problem’s sake, but that is a post for another time.