So you have some Mary-Sues in your story and you want to fix them? Good idea! Mary-Sues can kill any great story if you’re not careful. They make the story seem fake and unrealistic by taking us out of the real world. No one in the real world is this bland and perfect, and who the hell would want to read about a perfect person, anyway? So it’s important that you know how to arm yourself against them and make your main character (MC) a good, interesting character.
I don’t care what excuse you have. Mary-Sues are just not interesting to read or talk about, frankly. They make you look like a bad writer who can’t give a character flaws or make them cool in their own way, so they just have to be good at everything they touch. Or maybe you’ll look like a little kid playing at being a writer. I don’t care if you’re 13 years old. You can write a mature story! But not if you fill it with Mary-Sues!
So how do you get rid of them? Well, there are many things that you’re going to need to do, starting with admitting a few truths to yourself. It will take some hard work, but if you’re willing to put the time and effort in, you’re going to make a story that’s much amazing, fun, and enjoyable to read.
What Is a Mary-Sue?
You have to know what a Mary-Sue is to fix it, right? So they’re usually a self-insert character who is made to be a perfect version of the author, or what the author wants to be. She might have some crazy cool powers or abilities that no one else in the whole story will have to make her stand out. She has to be pretty and strong and moral. And flawless. She can’t have a single flaw.
Or maybe she will have a flaw, but it won’t be a real flaw. It’s going to be something like “she cares too much”. So basically a good quality pretending to be a flaw. And it’s not going to set her back for long. In fact, nothing will really set her back! She might struggle for a little bit, but she’s better than every other character at everything, so she won’t have to try too hard.
She might think she’s plain even though she’s so pretty, and she has at least two people in love with her at the same time, even though she hasn’t got much of a personality to lure them in. Of course, she thinks she’s plain and the chances are that she’s not going to realise that they like her back, because that’s where the “drama” comes from. But she’s going to solve her problems pretty easily. Oh, did I mention that none of the other characters will call her out for the things she does wrong? And if they do, they’re going to be treated like the bad guy.
Heck, your Mary-Sue might not have all of those qualities, but the bottom line is that they’re just too good at too many things. Watch this video for a better idea.
Why Are They Bad?
Mary-Sues are boring. So, so boring! They aren’t realistic and they take the tension away from what could be a very good story. Who wants to watch a perfect person going around being perfect all day long? Not a lot of people, I can tell you that now! It’s annoying when someone’s pretty and nice and kind and good at everything they touch! You want to hate them, but they’re too nice, which makes you resent them even more. Why would you want to make your readers follow around a character who will make them feel like that?
Your Mary-Sues can mess up your plot. Yes, sure! I know you’re going to say that the plot depends on them, but if it does, a lot needs to change. You see, when you make a character too good at everything, you make them meet their goals too easily! She can fight the villain with ease because she’s better than him. So how do you raise the stakes? Either you don’t and the story is bland, or you make a problem so big that it’s impossible for anyone to fix, even Mary-Sue. Then you’re going to need to make a plot point that helps explain why she can actually win. Maybe you’ll use a Deus Ex Machina to solve the issues. That’s never a good idea! Or maybe you’ll have her find a special object that makes her even stronger and more ridiculous than before.
Either way, you’re going to have to make the story stupid and contrived. That doesn’t make a good plot, to be honest! You should never rely on a Mary-Sue to make your plot good!
But how do you fix a Mary-Sue? Well, it’s going to take time and work, but here we go.
Realise That You Made Your Mary-Sue for Yourself
The first step is admitting you have a problem. That’s going to sound harsh, but it’s true! In order to fix your Mary-Sues, you need to know why they’re there in the first place. Time for a bout of honesty: writing a Mary-Sue character isn’t for the good of your story or the sake of your readers. It’s for your enjoyment.
I like to compare it to playing superhero games when I was a kid. My friends and I would choose powers and run around the park pretending to save the world. But there was always one person who ruined the fun by saying “well, I’ve got every power in the world”. They made it all about them and how cool they are, and suddenly the game isn’t so fun anymore. How do you play a fair game with someone who is good at everything? And why would they want to be better than all of us, anyway? What’s the point of making the game all about them? Forget this game. Let’s just go and play on the swings.
You need to be honest to yourself, here. Unless your Mary-Sue is in a comedy where you’re going to be commenting on how stupid they are as characters, the chances are that you just really wanted her to be good at everything. That you just wanted to make her have 3 love interests and make a prophecy that says she’s the only one who can save the world. If you did think about the story in detail, you’ll notice that you didn’t really raise any stakes because you just can’t with a character who’s perfect. They’re not good for the plot. Most Mary-Sues are idealised versions of the writer. Of course, it’s going to be for you. Admit it!
Come to Terms With it
So you wrote a Mary-Sue character for yourself. It’s okay! I’m going to let you in on a little secret: when I started writing Harry Potter fanfiction, I made a character who was pretty much a Mary-Sue. She wasn’t a self-insert. I’m neither pale with porcelain skin, nor am I shy and quiet. I’m not friends with Tom Riddle, either, and I’m definitely not his lover! Eep! But she was a hat-stall for all four houses at Hogwarts (oops). I couldn’t make her as good or strong as Riddle, but I wanted her to be close to his equal. She became more and more like a Mary-Sue as time went on. In the end, I grew bored with the story and left it. It’s not like it had many readers, anyway!
Now it’s your turn to admit that you might have a little bit of a Mary-Sue character in your story and forgive yourself for it. I’m not going to tell you off. It’s an easy mistake to make! We all want to live out our fantasies through our characters at some point, so don’t kick yourself. Just take a deep breath and move on from it. You’re not going to be able to if you don’t admit it and come to terms with it.
Make a List
Make a list of reasons why your character is a Mary-Sue so that you know what to fix later on. It’s a good idea to do! Of course, not all of the things that turn your character into a Mary-Sue are going to be bad on their own. In fact, most of them work if your character has flaws and avoids most of the other Mary-Sue traits. So you’re not going to have to fix every single thing. However, it’s a good starting point to find out how bad your Mary-Sue problem is.
Having trouble coming up with a list? Well, don’t worry! I’ve already made a handy list for you to have a look through.
Don’t Make the Whole World Revolve Around Them
Ok, you’ve admitted that you were using your Mary-Sue character to play out a little fantasy. Great! Now it’s time to make the world a little more realistic. There is a lot more to it, though. In order to fix your Mary-Sues, you’re going to need to bring your other characters up to scratch. That means thinking about their roles in the story and making them have a life separate from the Mary-Sue. One of the big issues can be how much you rely on the Mary-Sue to give the other characters purpose. Sure, she might be the main character and the story might be told from her point of view, but that doesn’t mean that the other characters don’t have goals and lives of their own.
You might say “well, how is the Mary-Sue supposed to see what’s up in their life”, but writing takes a lot of care. You can hint that there’s other stuff going on through the way they talk to your Mary-Sue character. Let’s take a waiter as an example. In a story where they exist only to serve the Mary-Sue, they’d have no personality. Or maybe they’d be rude to her, but you only think about the effect this has on her. You don’t take time to think of a backstory for them that explains the way that they’re acting. In fact, for most events in the story, you’ll think about how these matter to her and forget to think about how other people might feel or why they act the way they do. That’s a bad move.
Give them motivations and reasons for the way they act, too! Think about how and why things happen. If you do, she might not seem like such a Mary-Sue anymore.
Don’t Make the Mary-Sue Solve Every Problem
One of the worst symptoms of a Mary-Sue is that the fate of the whole world rests on their shoulders. Theirs alone. No one else’s. There might be a prophecy that tells them that they need to save the world. Sure! That’s fine! That isn’t just a thing with Mary-Sues! Loads of great characters need to save the world. Think Harry Potter or Frodo. But one of the main differences is that they don’t do everything alone. Sure, Harry might need to go and face Voldemort without his friends (although he has his family his side), but up until that moment, his friends are there helping him every step of the way.
A good character might need to take the last step on their own, but no good character will ever have to make the whole journey on their own. They’ll have help and support from their friends and family.
And a lot of people with Mary-Sues will try to catch me out here. They’ll say “aha! My character has friends who help her! So she’s no Mary-Sue!” But think about one thing: who solves most of the problems? Even if Mary-Sue gets a little help, is she usually the one who has the solution and saves the day? If you don’t give other people the chance throughout the story, it really shows. Let other people be the heroes along the journey, too! Even if the last big act is all on her.
Don’t Make Her the Best From the Start
Good characters grow. Mary-Sues act like they’re growing, but don’t really. Your MC doesn’t need to be awesome from the very beginning. Sure, they can have some great traits that help them get where they are, but it’s much more interesting to see a character learn new skills and get tough in the story. This is a good arc! Don’t starve your Mary-Sue of that! If you have a Mary-Sue, the chances are that she’s naturally good at a lot of things. Maybe she’s even better than most people who have trained for much longer! That’s an issue! Fixing Mary-Sues is all about letting the reader see them grow in the story, not just tell them that they’re already good. Let them build up skill.
And don’t let her be good too fast, either! Let her grow a little! We want to see her grow slowly over time. I mean, sure we might all have a skill or two that we take to really well, but the chances are that we still need practice and dedication to get as good as someone who’s been working at it for years. So having your Mary-Sue just come along and be better than everyone else looks really fake and silly. Give her one or two talents from the start and make her work on the rest. It gives readers a much more interesting journey and lets us relate to her much more.
Let Your Mary-Sue Fail
This is so important. You need to let your Mary-Sue fail! Please. We want to see her get things wrong and mess up. We want to see it matter in the story, too! And I don’t just say this because I hate her. Of course not! It’s just that failure is an important part of being human. It’s one of the best ways to grow and learn things. Don’t deprive your Mary-Sue of the chance to learn a thing or two. You’re not going to be doing her any favours in the long run. If she doesn’t fail in the story, I can promise you that she’s going to fail as an MC. Don’t let that happen.
It’s very easy to have her fail just a little bit and then get over that really quickly. Nope! Since she’s so important to the story and probably ends up saving the world, her failures should be as huge as her successes. She needs to experience feelings like guilt and regret over her actions. They’re not nice in the moment, but they mean a lot more and make a better story. If the person who’s meant to save the world fails, it should mean something big for your story. If not, that’s a sign of a bad MC.
Use these failures to raise the stakes. You see, if she’s perfect, it’s no real surprise that she wins in the end. If she does fail from the start, people are going to be rooting for her. They want to see her win in the end because it’s relevant to them! We all fail and we all want to believe we’ll win in the end. It makes her seem much more human and likeable for her to have real stakes that the readers can believe.
Give Her Flaws
Ah, this is the main issue with Mary-Sues. They rarely ever have flaws. And don’t give me that nonsense about “she’s too kind” or “she cares too much”. Good qualities pretending to
Her flaws should stop her from doing something important at some point in the plot. She needs to have a real issue with her flaws along the way! It could be that she’s a coward and that stops her from acting when she needs to. It could be that she’s hot-headed and gets angry easily, which means she fails to be calm when she’s in a bad situation. Or maybe she’s naive and that makes her trust people she shouldn’t, which gets her in trouble. No matter what flaws you choose, we need to see them mean something in the story.
The good thing is that with a lot of these fake flaws, you can change them and turn them into real ones pretty easily. The only one I’ve struggled with in the past is “she’s too pretty”. Other than that, most are flexible. Let’s take “she’s too kind”. If you say it like that, it makes it seem like you’re humble-bragging about your character. However, all you need to do is think about what the real issue is to solve this. So because she’s “too kind”, she lets people in who hurt her. Sounds naive to me! As soon as you think of it like that, you can fix the Mary-Sue problem. But add some other flaws too, of course!
Give Mary-Sues Internal Problems
The problem with a Mary-Sue with no flaws is that they can’t fail for any fault of their own. It has to be that people are being mean or trying to get her down. And they must be jealous or hate her for some reason she doesn’t understand. Because she can’t possibly do anything on her own. This means that the villain has to be way too powerful to deal with — if you want them to last longer than 5 minutes against her. If that’s the case, you’re stuck. If the villain is too hard to deal with, how is she going to win in the end? Well, random Deus Ex Machina, of course! Bring in some necklace to boost her power or make her win him over with lust? It all sounds ridiculous.
If you make her have internal issues, it will explain why she fails to beat the bad guy and they can be much more equal. That’s a lot more fun to watch! Let her hesitate because she doesn’t know whether she’s going the right thing. Let her be too afraid to face him. Make her doubt her strength. Make her turn away from her goal because it’s too hard. Just let her do something wrong for a change and let it be something she needs to get over in the story on her own. There’s no fix for internal problems except overcoming them on your own — and she’ll become a much better character in the long run! After all, who doesn’t like a character who works through their own issues?
Make Her Self-Aware
Your MC needs to be able to reflect on the problems she’s caused in the story. If she doesn’t cause any, you straight-up have a Mary-Sue. No one’s actions are all good all of the time. That’s just not the way the world works! In fact, most of the time, a good action for you might be a bad action for your friend or the person down the street. There’s rarely a 100% good action. Show that in your story!
Let the MC take some time to think about the choices she’s made in the past and question if she’s made the right ones. Show that she’s aware of the trouble she’s caused and make her wonder if she could have done things better. And don’t just give her an answer to those questions! Most of the time there isn’t one. It’s ok to have her wonder these things and not get an answer. In fact, it makes a lot of sense!
The most important thing is that she’s asking these questions. It shows that she’s self-aware and knows that there are good and bad consequences to her actions. That’s a trait of a great character who is going to stand out and hit home with the readers in a way a Mary-Sue really can’t.
Let People Call Her Out
It’s hard to be told you’re wrong, but it is part of life. Mary-Sues need to be told that they’re wrong from time to time. It’s an important thing that will help them grow as characters. They need to hear that they’re wrong. Because Mary-Sues often do bad things! They just never get called out by the other characters. In fact, even the narrator will act like it’s 100% ok that they did what they did. The writer will, too!
What happens then is that the people who challenge or call out the Mary-Sue end up in a bad state by the end. Everyone hates them. They die. They end up in prison. Something bad happens. Or they realise they’re wrong and apologise. But because the Mary-Sue can’t possibly be in the wrong, they’re the one who needs to be. It can’t be that they disagree and keep liking each other, or that they argue but they’re both good guys. To fix your Mary-Sues, you need to stop acting like they’re right all the time. Let some people call them out without looking like demons!
If you follow these steps, you’ll be well on your way to making your Mary-Sue a much better character. Want more info? Check out my post on making likeable characters. Do yourself a favour and ditch the Mary-Sues today!