Lots of stories on the internet share the same problem: the Mary-Sue. I’ve spoken about this issue lots of times before! I made a popular quiz to help you find out if your main character is one. I have a blog post on how to fix them. It’s something I’m very passionate about. One of the biggest things I talk about is the fact that your Mary-Sue needs real flaws that have a big impact on the story. I speak a lot about how they need to be good and make your character feel real.
However, it is also important to understand 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 am again – almost a whole year later – to clear that up and hopefully help you with choosing the flaws that work best in the story.
If you think that your character might be a Mary-Sue or you’ve done my quiz and you feel put out by the result, don’t feel put out! You’re not the only one out there who struggles with making a realistic character. In fact, there are people out there who are paid to write scripts for Netflix who can’t escape the Mary-Sue curse. Look at The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina! Just follow as much of my advice as you can and together we will find the cure to the curse. Trust me when I say that your stories will be better for it!
Here are some of the things that make your Mary-Sue’s flaws bad for your story.
The Flaws are Selfish
I’ve seen loads of new writers try to fix their characters. They find out that you need to give your Mary-Sue flaws and I see the lightbulb ping above their heads. Ah! So all I have to do is give them some negative traits, huh? Well, they doubt themselves too much. They’re too nice. They let other people’s words get to them too much. Done, right? Well, not quite.
You see, one of the things that makes Mary-Sues suck is the fact that writers focus too much on them and how the flaws affect them. It’s so self-absorbed and really just adds to the whole Mary-Sue trope!
A good flaw is going to affect the people around someone, too. Sure, your main character might struggle with self-doubt and it might hurt them personally. However, if it’s not doing anything to affect the people and the plot around them, it’s not really a flaw. It’s more like a voice in their head that’s telling them they aren’t good enough. They fight the voice and their actions are just fine.
Self-doubt isn’t a flaw if it doesn’t hurt other people or stop the Mary-Sues from doing the right thing. The same goes for being too nice. You need to show how these traits hurt other people. Maybe Mary-Sue struggles to say no to anyone and that ends up dragging her friends down with her? Whatever it is, make sure that you find a way for the flaw to hurt the external world, too.
Mary-Sues might not seem like selfish people. However, the way you think about them and write them makes it seem like the whole world revolves around them. As a writer, you’re the one making everything about them! You’re letting the story suffer!
The Flaws Don’t Make Sense with the Rest of the Characterisation
I can always tell when someone has just tacked on some flaws to fix their Mary-Sue later on in the writing process. It is always super obvious to me! Why? Well, because the flaws just don’t make sense with the rest of the character!
There are so many people out there who remember to add a flaw very late into their character planning. Then, they tack something on that they hope will work and call it a day. Mary-Sue fixed, right? Wrong.
Here in the real world, our flaws are intrinsic to our character. They are part of who we are. They show up because of our other character traits. Yes, even the good traits can cause flaws.
Think of it this way. If you’re both intelligent and beautiful, that might give you a big head. You might become overly confident with your actions because you’ve never had anyone challenge you in both brains and looks. You might be the best in your class, so you just expect to be the best everywhere else. That will make it easy to confuse or upset you when someone beats you or gets the guy!
That flaw came from your good qualities. Why? Because you grew up and learnt more about yourself – the good and the bad. Your good qualities shape your bad ones, and vice versa. They weave together to make you who you are.
When you tack on a flaw late into the characterisation with no thought, it just doesn’t make sense with the rest of the character traits. Then, they don’t feel real!
If you need some help to find good flaws for a character, I highly recommend this great post with 123 ideas! There is bound to be one what will work for your story.
It’s Hard to Tell What They Are
When you’re writing a story, you don’t have a lot of time to communicate flaws to the reader. Most of your time should be spent on the plot. After all, your reader is there to find out what happened next! So, you need to move the plot forward as much as you can.
If you don’t have clear flaws that can be communicated easily, they will get lost in translation. Your focus is on the events in the plot, which can mean you drop the ball when it comes to the flaw department. That’s why it is better to stay away from flaws that take too long to explain.
Mary-Sue flaws should be clear. That doesn’t mean simplistic! You just need to show us how the flaws impact the plot so that we can understand it. We need to be able to say “Ah! She failed because she’s bad at this”. If not, you’re failing to communicate the flaw.
Let’s say that your Mary-Sue’s flaw is that they are too self-confident. You need to include at least 3 times in the plot where the reader can make the link between that flaw and the action of the story. The first time, she might be shocked because she lost a game she was sure she had. Then, maybe the villain of the story uses that confidence to set a trap for her. Finally, the third time, she realises that she is too confident and tries to change her ways.
This links set-up and pay-off to your character’s flaws and makes it feel like she’s earned her growth. Also, It gives your reader three clear times when the flaw impacted the plot in a meaningful way. They might miss it once or twice, but by the third time, everyone is on board!
Mary-Sue Never Sees Consequences for Her Flaws
All good flaws should cause bad actions. All actions should have consequences. It’s as simple as that.
If you want your character to have a true flaw that stops them from being a Mary-Sue, you need to make sure that they see consequences for their actions. If they don’t, they will always be a Mary-Sue because they will always be perfect in the eyes of the plot.
You might not think they’re perfect. The readers might not think they’re perfect. That doesn’t stop you from treating them like they are in the story, though!
The problem with loads of Mary-Sues is that their flaws just don’t cause any sort of negative action in the story. Since there are no negative actions, they don’t see any consequences for their flaws and so they just don’t have the reason to grow and overcome them. Then, if they do get over them, it feels fake and unearned.
Or it could be even worse. Their flaws could cause bad thing to happen, but they could never see the consequences. The people around them pay for their bad decisions and terrible behaviour, but they don’t. That’s when you’ve made a Mary-Sue so bad that your readers will hate them. Oh, hello, Sabrina from The Chilling Adventures!
When a character has real, proper flaws, they will see consequences for their actions. They will get hurt. They could get captured. The people that they love might ditch them. They will want to get over their flaws because it hurts their lives! That gives them the motivation to change – the motivation that lots of Mary-Sues either don’t have or don’t pay attention to.
Look back at your character. Do bad things happen because of their flaws? Do they learn from it? If not, they might be a Mary-Sue!
They Are Easy to Get Over
Even if you make sure there are consequences for her flaws, you could still have a Mary-Sue! Why? Well, because their flaws could be way too easy to get over! Someone points the flaw out to them and they just drop it like a hot potato. Then, for the rest of the story, they don’t have to worry about it anymore!
That is just not now people work in real life. I know that this is a story, not the real world. However, a good writer makes the characters feel real. That makes the story feel real for the reader, which will hook them in!
A flaw is something that your Mary-Sue should battle with throughout the story. Good flaws can make a great story, so pick well. Make sure that they’re easy to understand and communicate to your reader.
Remember that the bigger the flaw, the harder it should be to get over. When a big flaw gets dropped as soon as it’s brought up, it makes the whole story suck. The character growth won’t feel earned. That will make her seem even more like a Mary-Sue because it takes real people lots of time to get over their bad traits!
I recommend following my 5-step Plan to Mary-Sue Flaw Recovery. With this plan under your belt, your story should feel so, so much better!
Here’s my great plan!
The 5-Step Plan to Mary-Sue Flaw Recovery
- Set up the flaw by making Mary-Sue fail! At this stage, Mary-Sue shouldn’t realise that she has the flaw. Either she doesn’t see the flaw at all or she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with it. She should fail because of the flaw, but she shouldn’t recognise why she failed.
- Make other people notice the flaw. Now that she’s failed the first time, let other characters pick up on her flaw. Make her friends point it out. Make the villain use it to their advantage. However, the Mary-Sue still isn’t changing! Either she is in denial or she doesn’t know how to.
- Now, the Mary-Sue should recognise her flaws. This is the time when she understands what her flaw is and tries her best to change it. However, even though she knows what’s wrong, she can’t fix her flaw! After all, no one gets it right the first time! That makes her frustrated with herself. She can go back to the drawing board straight away or she might give up for a little bit. Either way, she feels bad.
- The journey of self-discovery. Now, Mary-Sue gets what the problem is and is trying to change. She needs to actively seek out ways to improve herself. Let her speak to other people. Let her train. Make her learn and grow.
- Overcoming the flaw. Finally, after she has finished with her self-discovery, Mary-Sue should overcome the flaw. That doesn’t mean that she just gets over it completely! It just means that she recognises it and does her best to compensate for it. If she knows she’s too confident, maybe she has to take a step back to think about her actions. Her flaw is still there, but she takes steps to stop it from blowing up again.
With this plan, you’re unstoppable!
They Pin the Blame on Other People
When it comes to flaws like “she’s too nice” or “she lets people walk all over her”, your Mary-Sue isn’t really the one who’s responsible. No! Really, you’re making it seem like the person who walks all over her is the one to blame.
A good flaw needs to be something that your character is responsible for. Sure, other characters can use the flaws against them, but it shouldn’t make them look like they’re automatically the ones who are morally in the wrong! That will make your Mary-Sue look like a saint who does no wrong and is just being bullied by the rest of the world. That’s not a flaw. It’s a victim complex.
A good flaw is something that your Mary-Sue can mess up even if other people aren’t there to hurt them. Make them responsible for their own actions. Then, when someone does use the flaw against them, it gives Mary-Sue more of a motivation to change for themselves. They can’t just get away with complaining about how mean the other characters are for using their niceness against them.
This is usually a problem when you use a flaw that is just too much of a good quality. Too nice, too forgiving, too kind, too selfless. That’s because they’re not really flaws unless someone else comes along and turns them into flaws. That’s not a good look, because it strips your character of their agency and their ability to act (and mess up) all on their own.
So, think about your character’s flaws. Make sure they are responsible for those flaws all by themselves. Then, you could have a good character on your hands.