(Author’s note: I have pretty much no idea what I’m saying in this article. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.)
The novice writer’s fear of a Mary Sue is a very real phenomenon indeed. But that’s not to say Mary Sues are not a real phenomenon in themselves.
If you look at the Mary Sue types, you’ll notice something rather quickly—not one of them has any real character flaw. If they do, it’s never seen as bad or unhealthy. Case in point: Edward is moody and possibly insane but he’s still idolized by a bunch of teenage girls, in the Twilight ‘verse and ours.
The problem with Mary Sues is that they don’t change with the story’s events: they start out basically perfect, and by the end of the story they’re still perfect. Ed is still moody and still possibly insane by the end of the series. This is not a good thing, and, more importantly, it’s really damn boring.
But just adding flaws willy-nilly in attempt to de-Sueify a character won’t quite work. One must put in flaws that are specific to someone’s personality: an extrovert would be a witty, outgoing person, but she might be kind of intrusive and overstep her bounds. An introvert might be a good friend, but she could be too shy to make very many friends at all. Flaws also generally have a source, but not a pointlessly obvious one—people are very complicated animals.
Since you will probably learn better through watching the process, I’ll walk you through an example step-by-step. Methinks I’ll use the second example above, the introvert!
Begin with a basic profile. It doesn’t have to be very complicated, just something to start with and expand on or change around later. Age, career, and family are a good start.
Let’s say Miss A is a lady who is about 20 years old. She comes from a middle-class upbringing, has no brothers or sisters, and her parents separated when she graduated high school. She goes to a small town community college and works as a florist.
Who are you? (We are curious)
She is friendly, but rather shy and needs to be put at ease before meeting new people. Now we need a reason why. Sometimes people are shy because they are perfectionists—they’re afraid of messing up, so rather than practice talking to people, they choose to wait until someone approaches them. Even then, they have trouble with social interaction. Some shy people like this are able to ease up when they don’t feel like they’re being scrutinized.
Perfectionists tend to be the artistic types; notice how back in the basic profile I said she was a florist. She probably spends most of the day arranging bouquets and trying to make them look their best. Perhaps when she’s not working with flowers, she likes to paint or draw. What would someone the complete opposite of Miss A—extroverted and confident—like to do?
She is very trustworthy and has a lot of empathy for other people’s problems. She tends to try sympathizing with her friends’ plights and offering support when they’re having trouble. Even though she’s a good friend, she comes across as scatterbrained and a bit of a ditz. This could be that she is so focused on not looking stupid, something as simple as giving a presentation in class ends up being a terrifying ordeal. She would probably slip up a lot when she talks (especially in front of an audience).
Why would she be so anxious? Perhaps her parents were a little distant and expected no less than perfection from her, so now she feels she has to do everything the absolute right way the first time. Since she’s only a couple years past being a teenager, she probably hasn’t gotten over that typically adolescent insecurity. The age of a character is important—teenagers usually have ‘insecurity’ in common with each other. If it continues well into adulthood, it’s considered unhealthy and a sign of possible psychological scars. Let’s pretend she had a rather mundane childhood and will get over it on her own. At the beginning of the story, she’s sort of halfway out of the everything-must-be-perfect stage and halfway into the just-going-with-the-flow stage. The start of her learning to relax would probably have come from her leaving her parents’ house and living on her own. Without the pressure from her parents to be the greatest daughter the world has ever known, she would learn to take it easy.
And now let’s say, since all that worrying probably took a toll on her, she has trouble keeping appointments and is late often. Maybe she has a poor short-term memory. She would probably be the type to get overwhelmed easily. She dislikes conflict, since that would just add to her anxiety.
If this is the main character (or even a side character), she’ll have to get over this somehow, coming out as a better person by the end of the story’s conflict, which could be a fantastic journey across time and space. Since she doesn’t like any conflict or danger, she would probably resist a lot in the beginning, because that’s who she is. In an unfamiliar situation she wouldn’t be able to run away from, she would fight it tooth and nail. She would also maybe panic a bit, but she’d eventually come to terms with her situation and learn to live with it. Somebody like Miss A would probably learn how to be more confident with herself because she had to save her companions from some horrible situation. She’d also realize that she can learn from her mistakes rather than attempt to do everything right the first time, every time, and then getting frustrated when it doesn’t go the right way. And most of all, she’d learn to relax.
Since you can’t fix everything with a fantastic journey across time and space she would probably still have issues with being late a lot and still on the shy side, but no doubt she would come out just a bit more brave than the start of the story.
- Quick story of her life. Change it as you see fit; it doesn’t have to be set in stone.
- Positives and negatives. For every good thing about a person, there is a bad thing. Sometimes you know people who have two good things for every bad thing, or maybe you know a couple douchebags who have one good thing for every two bad things. The point here is balance—a character with too many good things and not enough bad things is just a boring Mary Sue, a character with too many bad things and not enough good things is just a boring antagonist.
- Character development. Some flaws can be fixed. Some can’t. By the end of the story, you’ll want to have fixed one or two, the most important thing is that she learned something from her fantastic journey across time and space.
Now I have to use her in my story. :(
Anyway, once again, take this with a grain of salt. If there’s anything I missed, write your own.