Mary-Sue: Why Flaws Might Not Fix The Problem
If you are aware of Mary-Sues, you’ll probably want to make sure that none of your characters are that annoyingly, story-breakingly perfect. So, you turn to the internet for help. But when you search “how to fix my Mary-Sues”, you probably get told to “give them flaws”. I’m here to tell you that you’ve only found half the story.
It has been a while since I made my Mary-Sue quiz. In that time, it has blown up! It now has the most views of any page on my whole entire website, and I have plans to improve it in the near future! But when I wrote the follow-up blog post, I fell into the same trap: I told you to just give them flaws. That’s it. No more info. Yikes!
So, I ended up with a bunch of people who insisted that their character did have flaws, but people still called them Mary-Sues! After a while of talking and thinking, I realised that I needed to go into a little more detail. Lots of writers fix their Mary-Sues in their head, but do little to help them on paper! That’s where they get it wrong!
So, here’s why your flaws might not be enough, and what you can do about it to fix your Mary-Sues.
If Your Reader Can’t See the Flaws, She’s Still a Mary-Sue
Fixing your Mary-Sue in your head, your plan or your character profile is a good start. It means that you committed to giving that pesky Mary-Sue some flaws and making them a more rounded individual. Awesome! But it is only a start.
How does your reader know that you’ve improved your character? Do they need to talk to you directly for you to tell them how flawed your character is? Well, that’s not always possible, is it? I mean, I can’t exactly go to Charles Dickens and ask him what flaws Oliver Twist has, can I?
While social media is a great way to keep in touch with your readers, you’re not always going to be around to answer their questions. That could be for many reasons! For one, we don’t live forever. But also, you could just have too many messages, need to take a break or not have access to the internet, just to name a few. So, they need to find all of the information in the story itself.
More importantly, though, if your writing doesn’t tell the reader everything they need to enjoy it and suspend their disbelief, then it’s not exactly a good story. The whole point of your story is that it should be self-contained and give your reader all the information that they need. I said as much in my post about the Death of the Author!
Sites like Pottermore should only ever be used to give the reader fun facts and extra information. They should never make up for the fact that the story is no good on its own. After all, you can’t polish a turd!
So, make sure that those flaws show up in the actual story! If they don’t, your character is still a Mary-Sue.
Mary-Sue’s Flaws Mean Nothing If They Don’t Impact the Story
The next big mistake that writers tend to make is that they don’t give their Mary-Sue’s flaws enough weight. What do I mean by that? Well, the whole point of flaws is that they should hold our characters back in some way! If they don’t, it’s the same as them not being there at all!
You need to find a way to work your character’s flaws into the plot of your story. That is essential. Find a way to make their flaws hold them back in some way. See if you can show them working through their faults and coming out the other end a stronger person. This growth will add depth to your character and ensure that they aren’t a Mary-Sue anymore!
Plus, this kind of growth and development is a great way to endear your character to the reader. We all need to work through our own personal issues at some point or another! The people who ignore their faults or pretend they don’t exist tend to be the most annoying or infuriating.
On the other hand, seeing a person acknowledge their flaws and try their best to work past them makes them more likeable in our eyes. The same is true of our characters, too! The reader will pick up on how much they have grown and changed. Then, the chances are that they will grow to like and respect your characters.
So, how do you make your character’s flaws matter? Well, make Mary-Sue fail! Make them really screw up in the story. Let that screw-up have a huge impact on the plot. And make their flaws the reason for that failure! Then, you’re close to saying bye to your Mary-Sue!
If the Conflict is Resolved Too Quickly, She’s Still a Mary-Sue
So, you’ve spent the time giving your Mary-Sue flaws. You’ve found a way to work them into the plot. The reader can see the flaws and they can see that they’re actually an issue, and not just a token gesture designed to shut up criticism. Great! But you’re not there yet.
There are way too many writers who get to this point and freak out. They want their characters to be likeable! Or, they can’t stand the fact that Mary-Sue did something wrong. I dunno. All I know is that they do their best to reverse Mary-Sue’s flaws as soon as they can! Pronto!
At best, this undermines the flaws that you (should) have spent a long time thinking about. At worst, it also introduces a whopper of a Deus Ex Machina into your story, just to mess things up just that little bit more.
If you reverse Mary-Sue’s flaws too quickly, you’re making her super unrealistic, too! While the rest of us in the real world have to work through our problems slowly and painfully, she can coast through life, knowing that someone will come to fix her messes whenever she makes them. That’s not realistic. It’s textbook Mary-Sue.
Let her sit and stew in her failures a little bit. Make her have to think through the things she did wrong and work on them. Have her doubt herself without other characters swooping in and fixing the problem for her.
They Need to be Presented as Flaws in the Narrative
This is one of the things I see writers struggle with the most. They get that flaws have the potential to solve a Mary-Sue issue, but they fail to actually show the flaws as flaws.
What do I mean by that? Well, one good example is when they make their character “too trusting”. On the one hand, this can be a great negative trait. It can show that your character is naive. You could say that they need to be selective with their trust, learning who deserves it and who doesn’t.
However, on the other hand, this is rarely how it’s shown in the narrative. Instead, writers tend to spend a whole lot of time demonising the bad people for betraying Mary-Sue’s trust. It’s not her fault. It’s good that she trusts people. Undeserving people just exploit her.
Well, it’s not really a flaw, in that case. The other people are the ones with the problem, not her. While those writers probably mean well with the way they portray this flaw, the words they chose to use strip it of its impact. If the narrator isn’t portraying the trait as a bad thing that holds the Mary-Sue back, the reader won’t be able to see it as a flaw.
And I get that this might seem like me victim-blaming. After all, trust is a good thing! But you can absolutely show that the characters who exploit your protagonist are bad without stripping her of any responsibility. Sure, her trust is a good thing. But if she’s naive and doesn’t learn from her mistakes? That’s not so good. That’s what we’d call a flaw.
You Need to Choose Well
A lot of writers just tack on Mary-Sue’s bad traits without much thought or care. They’re told that she needs to be flawed, so they think up some bad qualities on the spot that don’t really make much sense with her character. This is a bad thing. You need to think about ways that your Mary-Sue’s existing personality traits (positive and neutral) could lead to flaws.
There are many bad results that can be caused by you not choosing your character’s flaws well. For one, it could lead to you forgetting to actually write the flaws into your story. Or, you could pack your character with so many different traits that they don’t feel real. Or, very commonly, Mary-Sue’s flaws could be so out of the park that it feels like you’re writing about a completely different character every time you give her negative traits some time to shine!
When I did my research for my magic systems blog post, I came across the fantastic Mythcreants website. They talk a lot about how extrapolation is important for making a good magic system! Instead of packing the system with power after power, build on what you have first. Explore all of the things that each ability can do before you add more.
Well, the same is true for your character’s personality, too! Lots of good traits out there can have negative implications – if you look hard enough. You just need to find the flip side of the coin. A brave character could be reckless. A logical character could accidentally hurt others with their bluntness. This kind of depth and complexity will go a long way to getting rid of the Mary-Sue in your story!
Flaws Need Consistency!
I kinda touched on this a little already, but your Mary-Sue’s flaws need consistency. If Mary-Sue acts like a different person when you explore her flaws when compared to the rest of the story, that’s no good. If her flaws don’t always show up when they should, it’s going to feel artificial.
At all times, the reader should get why your character acted the way she did, given what we know about her personality. So, if your protagonist is socially awkward, it would make no sense for this to only affect them sometimes. If they occasionally have a bout of charisma where they can suddenly socialise better than anyone, you better have a damn good reason why. You better write that reason into the story. Otherwise, she basically turns into a Mary-Sue from time to time. Like some warped werewolf.
Plus, flaws should never just go away. They’re something to work past, not something to forget about altogether! A character who succeeds despite the things holding them back is going to be way more powerful and likeable than a character with a perfect personality. Full stop.
So, once you’ve chosen Mary-Sue’s flaws, be consistent with them. You’re going to have to always have them in the back of your mind. When you write a scene, you’ve got to think about how your character would react to it, for better and for worse. If you don’t, you will never be rid of the Mary-Sue.
If you can’t write your story if Mary-Sue acts on her flaws consistently, there are two options. Either you need to choose better flaws, or you need to spend a little more time working on your writing skills.
You Can Go The Other Way and Make Your Character Unlikeable
In my Mary-Sue quiz, I also check whether you’ve gone the other way and made her completely unlikeable. Why? Well, it is very easy to go from one extreme to another. Lots of people get told that their character has too many Mary-Sue traits and overcompensate with the flaws.
I get the urge to do this. “Your character is a Mary-Sue” isn’t exactly a great thing to hear, is it? It makes you feel pretty bad, right? So, it is fair to want to distance yourself from it. But you can definitely go too far with it.
I’ve seen way too many writers pack their character with flaw after flaw without taking the time to extrapolate. Then, their character is pathetic or crippled under the weight of all of those negative traits!
It is important for the reader to be able to relate to both good and bad qualities in your character. That’s why Mary-Sue’s don’t work! You can’t relate to the bad! Turning that on its head just gives you a bad character in the opposite direction.
When writers overdo it on either the good or bad traits, the whole story can fall to pieces. For the bad, they might not have the tools they need to solve the plot conflicts in a realistic way. Then, they’ll either need a Deus Ex Machina or other characters to solve stuff for them. That strips them of their agency!
So, How Can You Use Flaws to Fix Your Mary-Sue?
Flaws take thought and care. You can’t just tack them onto your characters and expect it to work. It’s just every other part of your story! The more thought you put in what you write, the more likely it is that you’ll get a good result.
So, don’t let flaws be an afterthought. Read up on good ones! Think about what makes the people you love in your own life flawed individuals. What are your flaws? How do your good and bad qualities relate to one another? And what do you need to do to overcome your own character faults?
There is no exact art to getting rid of the Mary-Sues in your story. You’ve just got to give them the depth and complexity that they deserve. Make them learn. Let them grow. Allow them to be wrong and make mistakes. Plus, don’t sweep the consequences of their actions under a rug.
I have faith that you have the ability to get past your whole Mary-Sue problem. After all, you’re here! Learning how is a great way to start. Just keep writing, be critical of your own work and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Love this! It’s definitely helpful, thank you!
[…] that just adding flaws isn’t enough. I made a blog post a while ago where I said that you need to pick these flaws well. What I didn’t do, though, is explain what makes a bad Mary-Sue flaw so terrible. Here I […]