Mary Sue: a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional. [x]
"Wow, what a Sue!" is thrown around a lot these days in literary criticism. It's always insulting. It always implies that the author did something wrong. And if it's applied to an amateur or developing work, it generally means the author needs to do something to reduce the "Sueishness" of the character.
The problem I have here is that sometimes, any character who's exceptional is labeled a Sue. But wait, don't we like reading about extraordinary people? Having a character who's truly unique in her world can't be the mark of incompetence, can it?
A while back, in a completely unrelated-to-writing forum, I received a nice message from someone who appreciated one of my articles online, and she added this at the end of the message:
Also, your webcomic rocks. Actual plotlines and character development? Yes please.
After I thanked her, she said a little more about it, mentioning one of my Negative One characters in particular:
Too many stories—especially webcomics—are filled with cheap action and universe-spanning prophecies, but the whole thing is ruined by the one-dimensional cardboard cutouts the author pushes around. I'm especially in awe of how you manage to handle Ivy—with all her unbelievably Mary-Sueish characteristics—in a way that makes her realistic and likable. Seriously... how do you manage it?? I try to work with characters that have half her Sueishness and every time they wind up devouring half the story like some sparkly black hole.
So, I thought about it. Hey, how do I manage it? The character she's talking about is indeed in the red as far as Mary Sues go. I've been well aware of that for a long time. To give you some idea:
- Author self-insert: When I named the character, she got my nickname, and I didn't realize it was going to stick to both of us. . . .
- Exotic and attractive appearance: She's biracial (half Chinese, half white American mutt) but somehow ended up with features you don't often see come out of that combination: blonde hair, really big green eyes. Annnnd she is randomly missing the pinkies on her hands and feet and has pointy ears for no reason.
- Has unusual powers that aren't commonplace for the character's race: She has an unexplained and unprecedented gigantic case of telekinesis. Why? Got me!
Here is my somewhat rambly and surely incomplete guide to making your characters not suck, even if they possess qualities that make them prone to being mistaken for Sues:
- First off, try not to worry about whether your character is too special. It is natural to want to write about the most interesting character in the room.
- Include disadvantages and flaws, but not as an afterthought.
The character referenced above has telekinetic powers that have made it possible for her to physically interact with her world through only mental effort (and very little of it, incidentally). Obvious result: abysmal muscular development and terrible dexterity. Some writers have thought of this with characters like her; they can't use their hands well, and it's sort of considered cute. But really? It's a lot worse than that, because this character can't honestly wrap her mind around the concept of fine dexterity well enough to even properly fake it, and that can be very inconvenient. Despite being what people would call a "toddler," she actually does not have the balance or physical coordination to walk, and . . . this is kind of gross here, actually . . . since walking usually assists children's development of the same muscles they use for toilet training, she is prone to peeing on herself until she's about eight frigging years old. (It probably would have gone faster if she'd had more consistent discipline in her life, but that was also missing.) I haven't included her later life in the webcomic yet, but even by the time she's an older teen she doesn't have the balance or coordination to walk backwards or use stairs unassisted, and when she learned to actually run at age seventeen she was quite proud of herself. . . . The lack of muscle tone also ends up giving her a sort of sickly-skinny appearance, though that hasn't entirely manifested yet in the comic since she's still a sorta cute chubby baby.
- If your character is a person whom everyone (or at least everyone good/important) wants to befriend or take to bed, make her actually likable.
- Make your character's thoughts accessible, and make sure the reader understands why she thinks the way she does.
For instance, I mentioned above that my Sueish character has unusual eyes (since people with Chinese ancestry don't usually tend to have green eyes), and she has pointed ears and is missing fingers. This hasn't gone unnoticed by the other people in the comic. Various characters have their theories about what her nearly faerie-ish appearance might mean, but sometimes their curiosity manifests in ways that confuse or upset the main character. She's puzzled and sometimes self-conscious about the attention she gets, and she's learning to minimize the bad reactions unsuspecting strangers have sometimes (e.g., people who scream if they unexpectedly see a flying baby; putting her feet on the ground around strangers fixes that!). The point here is that she responds. She wonders. She reacts to being reacted to. Even if you've never felt the way she does, you understand why those experiences feel the way they do.
- Accept your character's vulnerabilities. And I'm not talking about giving her a grafted-on superweakness, like aversion to iron or sunlight.
My webcomic baby may have superpowers, but she's a baby. She cries if she's tired or if there's a loud noise or if no one's there to hug her at the right time. She's always a person first. Having off-the-scale telekinetic abilities has drastically affected her life (obviously), but she isn't immune to self-esteem problems, self-consciousness, anger, confusion . . . none of which is exclusively related to her "special" conditions. And keep in mind that even though we make fun of characters who angst too much, some angst is appropriate when you really are the only person like yourself in the world. Super-special characters are going to do this. Heck, regular people do this. Let them. Just don't make it their whole lives.
- Don't make all the supporting characters have the same reactions to your character, and make their feelings complicated.
And these supporting characters should sometimes have mixed feelings about your Sueish character. Maybe they are awed and impressed by the Sue's abilities, but prefer not to show this aspect of themselves and end up treating the Sue gruffly or unfairly because of it. Maybe they are attracted to the beautiful Sue, but have too much self-respect to make a move on someone just because they're pretty. And so on.
- Don't make your character unrealistically good at things that don't have anything to do with her specialness.
- Consider letting your character weird herself out occasionally.
- Include glimpses of your character's life where she does NOT stand out.
- Give your character illogical thoughts and irrational feelings sometimes.
When my webcomic baby is older, in her teen years, she does sometimes go through phases of wishing she was "normal," so to speak, and though the first time she tried to "pass" did NOT go well, there are also other times and other people to whom she pretends. This inevitably leads to her screwing up situations and losing friends. This is also a terribly hard lesson to learn and she doesn't WANT to learn it—she doesn't want to accept that there are things she can't do and people who won't accept her. If you don't want to actually go through this again and again with your character, it's still important that her soul bears the scars of irrational behavior and actions at times. Nobody's perfect. Not even your Sue.
- Let your character have interests and preferences that aren't necessarily predictable, as part of a larger personality conglomerate that shows she is a complete person.
Take what you know about your character and think, "What is it about this character that makes her enjoy this pastime or that form of entertainment? What other things would be included in someone's personality if these attributes were in her inventory?" What's vital, however, is that you don't have to justify these interests/preferences in your text. You just have to know why and how. You, the writer. If these bits of your character make a cohesive whole, they will naturally come out on the page representing a well-rounded person.