The protagonist of the first novel length story that I wrote was an annoying brat. In fact, I realised she was a brat, so I abandoned the story very quickly and started work on my second novel. That is where everything went started to fall apart.
You see, I didn't want her to be a doormat, so I decided to add a little bit of what you might call Mary-Sue characteristics, to spice her up. The problem was, I had no idea when to stop. I have written several novel length stories since then, but none of it has ever surpassed this particular protagonist in sheer Mary-Sue-ness.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think that a Mary Sue is something to be avoided at all costs. You can have a protagonist, an antagonist, or even a supporting character who fits the description, and the story can be good.
So, what went wrong?
I will try to explain this using two of my protagonists, A, the one I mentioned, and B, a protagonist in a novel I'm working on now, who has distinct Mary Sue traits, but one who I believe is much more tolerable. Let's start with a description of the two of them.
A - 11 years old (at the start), female. She's a student moving to a secondary school, one of the best in the country, which means she has to relocate. She is also a princess who was raised by a clueless single father. She thinks her mother is dead (but she isn't). She has a lot of unresolved angst towards pretty much everyone and everything. Very good at her studies - as in, constantly leaves her classmates in the dust. She's also good at fencing, has very good reflexes, and is a star member of the school's sports team, up to and including joining the school team as a first year student. She also has a definite contempt for authority.
B - 14 years old (at the start), male. Is a student at one of the best secondary schools in the country. He was raised mostly by a clueless father, his mother is actually dead, and the rest of his family is a mess. He is good at his studies, but is near constantly defeated by another student. He's a fairly good fencer, but isn't outstanding at any other sport. He definitely has a problem with authority. He's a social recluse and spends most of his free time in the lab.
See the difference? It should be obvious at a glance. The strange thing was, I had no idea that A was a complete and utter Mary Sue (and not the potentially likable kind) when I wrote her. I thought she was a good, rounded character. I mean, there are kids who are good at both studies and sports, right? I thought I was one, in fact (it took a while for my massive ego to realise that I am terrible at most sports and mediocre at others). Still, A was leagues above anyone I knew of, really.
Then there is her backstory. The sad part is, it added nothing to her character. Yes, it made her more likely to be angsty, but somehow it didn't affect her relationships with people. She got along quite well with her cousins and most of her classmates. As a matter of fact, those who didn't get along with her were in the wrong, motivated by something like jealousy, or an ancient disagreement between their peoples, or it was on racial grounds - you get the idea.
B, on the other hand, isn't the best liked person in school. Most other students either don't know of him or know of him as the quiet weirdo who's always in the lab. As a matter of fact, not even the other protagonists like him as the story progresses - he's not a very likable person after all.
Also, one more thing - A is always right. What she says will happen always happens. Other characters ignore her advice at their peril. This applies even to adults in the story. In contrast, while B is right most of the time, he has his limits. His plans are usually affected by things he has no control over (unlike A).
Enough of that, you get the idea. Now, to get to the point, how do you know you're writing a Mary Sue? There are several litmus tests available online (just search it, you should come with about half a dozen). Still, it's a labourious thing to do, putting all of your characters through the test (A failed it, B was in the dangerous range). What I'm going to do is to give you a few pointers to pick out a potential offender amongst your characters.
A word of caution - be honest. Not being honest cost me a lot of time and effort on character A. I hope you don't make the same mistake.
1) Is your character always right?
This is a big red flag. It is extremely difficult for someone to be right, instantaneously, on their first guess, with limited information. If your character does that, they're either a psychic, or has a direct line to the writer's head. There are those who can pull it off, but you should be careful. The expertise being limited to one field, especially if they have a lot of background information on it, is a lot more believable.
2) Does everyone love your character?
This is especially dangerous if used in combination with 1. No one likes someone who is right all the time. They may be an asset, but them being right all the time about everything can rub a lot of people the wrong way. Even if they weren't right all the time, they shouldn't be able to please everyone. Certainly not everyone would love the character enough to give their life for them.
3) Related to 2), is everyone who hates your character misguided / jealous / has an ulterior motive?
Sometimes, people hate people because they can. That's just the way it is. Maybe their characters aren't compatible. Maybe they find the other person's taste in music appalling, especially if they play it for hours on end. Maybe they think the other person's perfume smells horrible. Maybe they hate the sound of their shoes. Maybe your character hurts people without realising it. Maybe they hurt people intentionally, but don't think it's very important, while the other person is extremely hurt by it. Maybe your character's methods of communication can be off-putting to most people.
These things happen, so your character doesn't have to be actively evil to have people hating them for trivial reasons.
4) Does your character have multiple areas of expertise?
This isn't a sure sign that your character is a Mary Sue, but it can be a good indicator. People can be good at more than one thing, but if your character speaks five language fluently while being very good at sports, a brilliant painter, singer, and musician, while also being extremely good at maths, and the sciences, while simultaneously having a good business sense, we have a problem.
5) Are you too emotionally involved with the character?
This is a little harder to define. Some level of emotional involvement with your characters is inevitable in my experience. However, if you use your name / nickname / username for your character's name, and start feeling like they're a stand in for you, maybe it's time to step back and take another look at the character.
Don't get me wrong - relating to a character on a personal level is not a bad thing. It can add more to a character and help you round them out. However, taking the involvement too far can make you unable to hurt them.
Being jealous of your character can also be a warning sign that your character is, indeed, a Mary Sue. Being too proud of your character's achievements is much more likely to be an indicator that something is wrong. After all, in the end, characters are tools. Pride in what they achieved within the story isn't a rational emotion to have, at least for me.
The list is by no means limited to these points. However, these should give you an indication that something is wrong, which would allow you to explore the problem further.
One more point I'd like to reiterate before signing off - Mary Sues are not universally terrible. You can have a Mary Sue protagonist and still have a successful story (I will not give any examples, but I bet you can think of a few), but it takes a lot of skill and luck. My advise is, if you can avoid it, please do.
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Until next time!