How To Avoid The Mary Sue/Gary Stu Trap

Mary Sue is a character that came to life in the 1970s, as a parody of the Star Trek series. Since then, the term has become a cliche, describing a fictional hero so powerful that it grows annoyingly boring after the first two pages. The male version of Mary Sue is Gary Stu, and many average fantasy writers fall into the Sue/ Stu writing trap.

In a nutshell, Mary Sues are know-it-alls. These characters are so unrealistically awesome that no one — literally, no one — is buying them. Even in fantasy. They are strong, smart, righteous, loved by everyone (EVERYONE!), and can predict things before they even happen. All in all, Mary Sues are magic unicorns that seem to be pooping rainbows. But, they quickly grow sharp claws when needed. If for example, the author has a Mary Sue in a fantasy novel, it’s really unclear why s/he needs any other characters — this perfect hero can easily win the war between good and evil all by oneself.

Of course, if the writer is not working on parody, Mary Sues are not created on purpose. But, their variations are fairly consistent in modern fiction. Marvel’s Captain America, for example, checks a lot of points on the Gary Stu list — with a huge, bold check on the righteousness part. So, if you don’t want to bore your readers to death, let’s take a closer look at other Mary Sue facets, and list quick tips on how to avoid this writing trap.

Imperfections create a believable character

It seems like the surest way out of the Mary Sue/Gary Stu trap is to create a flawed character. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. A righteous character with a couple of evil flaws is even less real than noble Captain America. Imperfections, on the other hand, is what makes us human. Think about it — we all have our strong and weak sides, as well as some weird, strictly personal issues. Those are our imperfections — and, just like rough patches on wood, they make us all unique.

Study people and the world around you

Another way to create a believable, realistic character is to actually study the world and the people around you. Observe and learn! You can even base some of your fictional characters on real people — friends, family, random acquaintances, even historical figures if your immediate environment fails to inspire.

Background story is a must

Another essential element in any storyline is the actual story behind the character. Most Mary Sues have zero background information — how on Earth did they become so extraordinary? What affected them? Motivated them? Impressed them? Back to the original Mary Sue — what could possibly happen to a girl that, in her sweet fifteen, she is already a martial arts pro, a secret agent, a Harvard graduate, and an Einstein-Level scientist? With hot, grown-woman curves on top of that…

Focus on a storyline

Even though a strong, intriguing character is a must in any quality fiction, you should never neglect the storyline. Most readers like books where things actually happen, and few of them will be interested in the protagonist’s struggles — no matter how extraordinary they may be. Plus, you should never forget about other characters — they are often called supportive because they SUPPORT your storyline. It is clear that a single person cannot know it all — and that is exactly where other people come in. And, of course, avoid the canon-character trap. If you are introducing a new figure to the story line, do not just say ‘s/he is Mary Sue’s old friend.’ Tell a story — it can be a short one, but it has to be complete.

Make no excuses!

Finally, learn to be your own critic. Take a good long look at any one of your characters. If one of them checks more than three points on a Mary Sue/Gary Stu list, rewrite — without any excuses.