OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers


Mary Sue or not Mary Sue

Mary sue characters discussing their eyes change colorMary Sue; the name is immortalized in a song and in literature, but they aren’t the same person. So, my friend, you want to write a book, short story, or merely participate in a play by E-mail online roleplaying game and need a character. This article is going to tell you how to avoid a trap even the best authors can fall into called Mary Sue.

It can be seen by some as a wish fulfilment of the author to live vicariously through the character while having no noticeable flaws or having flaws that don’t make sense, either physically or mentally. Sometimes there can be flaws or outrageously disastrous events that happened to the person. It’s a character that is highly unrealistic in age, experiences abilities and interactions with the relative characters around him or her. Such as being far too young to have amassed the experience for the job, like a 15 year old bridge officer, or Jedi Master for example. Mainly the age has to make logical sense for the job, and experience. The character usually has unusual hair or eye color not found in nature, and it is described in far too much detail than what the story needs, almost as if those attributes were characters themselves, (bearing in mind aliens do have odd eye and hair colors that don’t fit the Terran norm).

SEE ALSO: Does your character have to be likeable?

The name Mary Sue originated in 1973 by a Star Trek fan fiction author whose character was named Mary Sue. Her character was very young, smart, was a bridge officer at the tender age of fifteen, and for some reason all the main Trek characters such as Kirk, McCoy or Spock, or even all three were attracted to the character in an impossibly short time. Mary Sue isn’t always a female but a male known as Gary Stu. He has similar traits the female counter part does. The incredible knowledge of anything at a very young age, or is every girl’s dream guy. He is sometimes protested as having many girls chasing him around and is an expert with every
weapon he finds.

Mary Sue and Captain KirkMary (and Gary) Sues can occur in many bits of literature, movies, or television shows. For example, Jonathan in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clark Kent’s potential main squeeze Lana Lang in “Smallville “, and even “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had Wesley Crusher who seemed to save the day. In literature we have Daylan out of “Clan of the Cave Bear”, Mara Jade in the Star Wars books, Buck Williams in the “Left Behind” series, and possibly every female lead in the V.C. Andrews books. Is it also possible that the doctor on Doogie Houser M.D. is a Gary Stu? A child who graduates medical school as a teen, interning before twenty, a “dream boat”, seems to get away with things others can’t and seems to save the day at the end of the show. Logic thrown to the solar winds on that, a serious suspension of belief. As amazing as he is, if Dr. Houser were real, he wouldn’t be practicing medicine until he was past eighteen, or older no matter how brilliant he was. Most certainly he would be under extremely tight restrictions and close observation by a handler until he was older. He seems to fit the mold for a Gary Stu.

Now some authors will make one of these for fun, as a “writing drabble”, not intending a real character a sort of authorial “junk food”. Or a spoof off something. Mary (and Gary) Sues can be cathartic, if done under the right circumstances.

So now that you know what a Mary Sue is, the question is, how do you avoid it? There are a few tips that you can follow to help avoid the pitfalls of a Mary Sue. And even if you’re not in danger of being a Mary Sue, following some of these tips can make your character even better.

Flaws – The first, and most important step to avoid becoming a Mary Sue is to give your character a flaw. It doesn’t have to be a gaping or crippling flaw, but it should be something that challenges them. Maybe they’re a great scientist, but lack in social skills. Maybe they’re a great security officer, but couldn’t tell a plasma manifold from a waffle iron. Or maybe they have some sort of fear that they have trouble with, like insects or claustrophobia, which can be a good opportunity to grow as a character. Everyone has a flaw, and your character should be the same. Exploring, or even overcoming that flaw can be just as satisfying to write as saving the ship.

Teamwork – Every problem you face as a crew will have multiple solutions and everyone working on a problem has something to contribute. When you work together as a team, you get a better experience for everyone. While it can be tempting to be the solution to every problem, it takes the fun away from everyone around you and no one wants to work with the person who knows everything.

Evolution – For characters to be believable and compelling, they must be able to evolve and to change with their experiences. Throughout their career, an officer will go through events and experiences. These experiences, such as overcoming a character flaw, or creating new flaws for them to overcome, can make them a better person. Good characters, the ones that will last for many years, can’t be static.

Failure – There is one thing that a Mary Sue never does, and that is fail. Whether through an abundance of skill, or preposterous luck, things always seem to go in favour of the Mary Sue. But if there’s no risk of failure, then there’s nothing to gain from the experience. And no risk means no reward. One of the best learning experiences a person, and a character, can go through is failure, and learning how to deal with it. Don’t be afraid to let your character fail at something. You might be surprised to see what he or she learns from it. Here is a link to a questionnaire you can use to see if your character is or isn’t a Mary Sue.

If you want more in-depth information on Mary Sue, go to this link:

Written by Commander Liam Frost & Lieutenant JG T’Mihn Ah’mygahn from UFOP: Starbase 118, a Star Trek RPG

You can see other articles written about Mary Sue characters here.