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Posts Tagged ‘believable characters’

Avoiding “Mary Sues” and “Gary Stus” in Your Stories

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a lively discussion in the forums regarding “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu” characters in your writing.

First, my (unofficial) definition of a Mary Sue character:

A Mary Sue or Gary Stu is a character who is overly favored by the author, often encountering so many improbable events as to break the believability of the story, or having skills so powerful that the character has no need to grow or change throughout the story.  There is often little reason given for the character’s abilities, other than calling the character a “Chosen One” or something similar.

You can read the Wikipedia definition for more.

I’d also like to point out that Mary Sues often occur in first drafts, and they’re not really a problem at that point–you can always fix it in a future draft.  Creating overly simple characters comes with the writing territory–and you can work through the problem.  All it takes is a little time and critical thinking about your story.

There are many characters in popular stories who can be described as Mary Sues (we’ve discussed several in the forum discussion), but simply labeling a character as a Mary Sue is not useful to a writer.  Instead, I’ve compiled a list of questions to help you identify Mary Sues or Gary Stus in your stories:

  • Are the actions of each character believable within the rules of the world and events?
  • What are your character’s weaknesses?  (Hint: If there aren’t any, then you’re at risk of creating a Mary Sue).
    • Do other characters exploit these weaknesses?  How do we know these are real?
  • Does every moment of the story center around what happens to a single character?  In real life, we’re aware that other people in our lives spend time away from us–even in a first person story, other events should be happening to the other characters in the story.  Share some of these moments with your readers.
  • What is hard for your character?  Make sure there’s something the character struggles with.
    • Do they have a hard time talking to people?
    • Are they shy around members of the opposite sex?
    • Do they have superior fighting abilities, but then must use those skills against someone they care about?
  • Does your character solve every problem?  Is there a way another character can help?
  • Does your character get the girl or guy right away?  In real life, there’s usually a courting period.  If your characters fall in love immediately, you might be at risk of hampering believability.  Real relationships go through struggles–your character’s relationships should as well.
  • Is life too easy for your character?

If your characters exhibit some of the traits above, don’t fear–all is not lost.  Think about the story.  What real life events could you toss at your character to help them struggle?

Writing is an art of taking time to find problems and remove them.  Use the questions above to think critically about your story and determine whether there are real problems.  Adding some material to address the issues will help make your story deeper, and may even provide you with better solution to the challenges your characters face in the story.

Reader’s response: What are your thoughts on Mary Sues and Gary Stus?  Share them in the comments!

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