Don’t Name Your Character Mary Sue
Are your lead characters a menagerie of Mary Sues? A Mary Sue is a walking cliché, unrealistically flawless and therefore flat and boring — a hero in your story, but a villain in your efforts to create well-rounded characters.
The label for this trope is from a character in a fan-fiction Star Trek parody featuring a winsome but tiresome teenage hero by that name. The story poked fun at the adolescent (or adolescent-minded) authors of fan fiction who create characters — often idealized self-representations — notably lacking in personality flaws and seemingly incapable of making mistakes. The result, invariably, is a dull Dudley (or Dolly) Do-Right.
But wait, you protest — some of the most memorable characters in storytelling traditions have been Mary Sues! What about all the heroes of folk tales and fairytales? What about the central figures in Horatio Alger Hiss rags-to-riches stories and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries? What about icons of the small and big screens like Captain Kirk and Luke Skywalker?
There’s no law against coaxing a Mary Sue to life in any creative medium. But recognize that the presence of a gosh-and-golly go-getter is an element that marks the framing narrative as pulp fiction. If you want to produce pulp, have at it; the demand for it is insatiable. But if you wish to be taken seriously as a writer, understand that realistic characters — those with hopes and dreams and desires, yes, but also with doubts and faults and weaknesses — are full of depth and dimension. Characters who always know what to do and what to say, who always do the right thing, are less appealing, because we are less likely to see our own imperfect selves reflected in them.
A faultless character is, like a story free of conflict, a flimsy basis for a good story. Tales appeal to us because we empathize with people who fail but then get up, dust themselves off, and try again, because that’s what we do every day, and that’s what builds our character. If your name is Mary Sue, you never fall — and you (and the story that surrounds you) can therefore never truly be admired.
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