Almost anyone who has read or written fan fiction knows the name, “Mary Sue.” In fact, the name probably leaves a nasty taste in their mouths, reminding them of those pieces of writing they may have wished they could forget.
Originating from a piece of fan fiction titled “A Trekkie’s Tale,” the name refers to main characters who are seemingly flawless. They are the smartest and strongest around, easily defeat their enemies and never seem to face a task too daunting to handle. Such characters often make the plot seem shallow and boring, especially since there is truly no conflict to speak of.
Mary Sues are not just a problem in fan fiction, however. Too many writers in all genres try and resolve any conflicts their characters face with a wave of their metaphorical wand, in turn making main characters that are too powerful and causing the plot to collapse. In fact, in those stories it can almost seem as if there is no real plot at all.
Almost no one can write a book about a Utopian society and find an interesting plot to go with it— and I only say almost because I’m sure there are one or two exceptions in the published sphere that I will have overlooked if I say no one. The same goes for Mary Sue characters. I once heard a published author say, “You have to make your characters suffer.” Without that suffering, there is no true plot and readers will lose interest fast.
So, my challenge to you this week is to look at characters you have written in past or current projects. Think about their physical attributes, mental or emotional obstacles, or any weaknesses they may have. Decide whether your character is too powerful for the plot he or she is part of, and if so, try to find some weakness or something to grapple with in the story. After all, perfection doesn’t exist in real life — why should it exist in your characters?
“‘Nicole!’ Colby barked across the arena. ‘Check your diagonal.’ Glancing down, my face grew warm as I fixed my timing against the movement of Legs’ shoulders. Up, down, up, down, up, down, I began repeating, pulling my eyes up from watching my horse’s legs. I fixed my eyes on the gravel path once more, adjusting my feet in the stirrups and straightening my posture.
“The class continued on for a few laps, moving at a steady pace to the rhythm of hoofbeats hitting the solid earth. I glanced up at Colby every half a lap or so, watching her look of approval as she paced around the arena alongside the horses. Turning my focus back to Legs, I tried mimicking the perfect dressage rider. My back straight, my hands positioned perfectly, I did exactly as Colby had taught me.”
By Nicole Schroeder