(Have a seat. Play with me. Please don’t mind the shackles I’ve just put on you. They’re to prevent you from stealing my photos, you see.)
For those of you who don’t know what a Mary-Sue is, here’s a brief idea of one: Imagine a female main character who is flawless. She is self-sacrificing, all animals love her, and she probably has angel wings of some kind. No matter how awful she is, it’s explained away by how she’s been through so much. Her life has been so hard, you guys, but she just keeps on going anyway. What a tragic hero, y’all. She’s probably been orphaned or something. She may have been raped or mugged in a dark alley. But no matter what, she perseveres because she is so dadgum special. She could kick a puppy, and no one will have issue with it.
Please, please note the sarcasm above. If that kind of character sounds good to you, then you really need to review your idea of what a good character is. Let’s look at Harry Potter. He was orphaned. And he perseveres no matter what. He’s really skilled on a broomstick right away and is put onto the Quidditch team as a first-year student. Holy crap. Is he starting to sound like a Mary-Sue? Well, he’s also just a kid. And he still acts like one. He hates homework and tries to bribe Hermione into doing it for him. He complains to teachers about homework because he has Quidditch practice. He gets sent to detention how many times? He gets arrogant once he knows he’s the Chosen One. He only studies when it has a benefit that has nothing to do with class. He judges people far too quickly, and it takes several books before he realizes he should look beyond the surface of people. How many times have he and Ron made Hermione cry? But honestly? What makes him a great character is not only that he has these flaws but that he is loyal and tries his best to do the right thing. He’s genuinely appreciative of what’s given to him because he’s been through so much crap all of his life.
A Mary-Sue would never dare to talk back to a teacher, and if she does, then the teacher sees the error of his or her ways and forgives her soon after.
The important thing is to have consequences. What’s more realistic? A kid who doesn’t like to study and is good at sports or a kid who is good at everything and never does anything wrong? Harry doesn’t always do well in his classes. That’s a consequence of not wanting to study. If he studies? He sometimes does pretty well. In the world of Harry Potter, there are differences between the results of doing and not doing.
If your character is treated the same way after killing someone in cold blood as she would after doing well on a test, then something is probably wrong in your story’s universe. (The exception, of course, is if you’re using the result to make a point about society or something like that.)
Mary-Sues are often self-inserts, but let’s tackle that idea in another blog post, shall we?
Your assignment: Write for at least 10 minutes–write a scene or two in which bad things happen to your main character because of a bad choice he or she made? Have at it!