There are a number of things that can drive readers away from your book, and badly developed characters are definitely close to the top of that list.
It’s not always done intentionally but it’s something that can ruin a good story. So take the time to learn how not to write a Mary Sue-type character.
So, what is a Mary Sue?
The term Mary Sue is used as a form of criticism in literature and refers to an idealised and somewhat “perfect” character.
One that appears to have no flaws or if they do they are so limited that all the “perfect” characteristics overwhelm them. This usually makes the character “flat” and unrelatable. Not a great combination.
Mary Sue often refers to a young female protagonist and the male versions of this are called “Larry Stu” or is that “Marty Stu”?? Either way, they mean the same thing, a boring character with few redeeming features.
From my experience, most Mary Sues are written in non-published works usually by young writers and feature especially in fan-fiction.
However, there are a few Mary Sue writers who are actually published. Personally, I think it shows a deep lack of development when people create perfect characters unless it’s done for satirical purposes.
So why should you avoid writing Mary Sues?
Simple, perfect is boring!
We don’t like perfect, we don’t want perfect! Ask anyone in a relationship to list the positives traits, charms and idiosyncrasies of their partner and I guarantee at least one will be something that is weird, annoying, bizarre etc.
Whether it’s a crooked smile, the gurgling laugh, the snoring, the clumsiness etc, there will be something in the list that has been seen as a charming quirk or trait that others may see as a negative characteristic.
Next, nobody IS perfect
No-one is an expert at everything. There are no Wonder People who are smart, funny, sexy, charismatic, nuclear physicists who speak 18 languages 4 of them dead. Who can also read minds, hot-wire a car, hack a computer, fly every type of aviation vehicle ever made, all while playing Beethoven’s 5th blindfolded with spoons!
And even if they were, that would get tiresome fast. We don’t want to meet people like this. Anything interesting about them would eventually become annoying.
This is not the matrix
So, when a character is written like this, it is crap. It reads like crap! So why do people write them? If you can’t give a reasonable explanation for making your character do everything and be perfect in every way, then stop.
I am sure there are 100s of reasons, one that I have seen, is that the writer has an esteem issue and would love to be able to do all those things, so throws them into one or two characters. Result – snoozefest.
In fact, most artistic types have self-esteem issues. We are a weird bunch. We don’t always have great confidence.
Most artistic types, especially writers are introverts, we hide away and write stories in private… and if you’re lucky, we let those stories out into the world.
Young writers will often have self-esteem issues that are still being worked on. The older you get the more likely you are to be able to deal with them a little more. (though speaking as a writer with social anxiety and extreme introvertedness, it can still be hard).
Living as the Character
Maybe we do all want to be hot-shot fighter pilots with doctorates in nuclear fission… but that is another matter and should not dictate your character (to extreme extents).
By giving a character all these great skills and charms and talents they become under-developed.
After all, people evolve, grow, change and adapt, if you make a character perfect there is nowhere for them to go. (Except maybe down but then that is all they can go).
So how do you stop from writing this?
Don’t make your characters embodiments of yourself. I’m sorry to say, but most people don’t want to read about you, even the hyped up version of you.
They want characters that are multi-dimension, interesting, with virtues and vices, intriguing features and relatable flaws.
Develop your skill by not putting too much of yourself into characters – they are not you. They may be extensions of yourself, exaggerations of a part of your psyche but they should not be you.
Plan your character in pieces. The pieces can be broken down into Physical, Emotional, Mental, Skill/Talent, Knowledge and Culture.
Take each one of these pieces and decide about the character. Think about them now and what they will develop into. If you write a character over several books or over a long story, they will need to develop and change.
If your character is young such as child or teenager you could write their physical looks realistically. After all, children are often awkward in their bodies, as they grow their limbs can look almost gangly, there can be what is referred to as “puppy fat”, they can get spots, growth spurts etc.
Their faces and bodies will show a little of what they will be but their features will change as they age. Rarely do you get youngsters who never show any of these and are crowning beauties right from infant to adulthood. So don’t write that!
Need some inspiration, look at your own baby pictures and those of your siblings or friends – see the changes they went through.
Emotional & Mental
Emotional and mental are two pieces that change with both age and experience. Characters can become embittered or enlightened.
They can be abused and so end up with trust issues and emotional scars. They can experience acts of mercy and redemption that may turn a darkening belief in the world into something positive.
The gender of the characters also needs to be considered when dealing with these two pieces (though be aware you don’t automatically stereotype your characters emotional and mental reactions).
Emotional and mental stability change depending on how we are raised. Personal philosophies, dogma and behaviours taught in the home will affect how the character reacts as they get older and with the people they met.
Skill, Talent and Knowledge
With skill and talent whether it’s re-building a computer from scratch or flying a helicopter – give your characters the skills and talents, they require as well as the method for how they gained that.
Example: if your character is a fighter pilot then being able to fly is obviously necessary, you can even have them as the best fighter pilot but think about developing that.
Maybe they are arrogant because of their ability, which isolates them from other characters. Maybe they try and hide their abilities because they are worried they WILL be isolated etc. This allows you to link skills to emotional/mentality.
Make sure your character’s age matches the requirement. If you are setting it in the current time, then having an ace helicopter pilot age 14 is not going to work.
Also, give your character scope to develop. Their skills, talents and knowledge should change – whether this is to increase or decrease. Don’t get into the expected mindset that states all these need to increase.
Example: Imagine a sharpshooter character – excellent ability, what happens in her life? Maybe she loses her daughter, turns to drink or drugs or maybe just can’t stop seeing images of the girl wherever she is.
Now she’s losing her ability, unable to focus – this is a change, a development to the character. If a character has great skill, you could take it off them or dull it down.
How about giving your character a vice (please note this should not be your ONLY negative trait for a character, one single vice amid a lot of super-great abilities/looks will still read bad! But a vice or two can be developed and will help you find new conflicts to overcome etc)
There are many vices and some things may not seem to be vices such as pride, trust – these in extremes can be considered vices and affect a character.
By thinking about your characters, their histories, experiences, mentalities and plots can help you develop them into something more than a perfect yet one-dimensional character that people will find dull to read.
You are aiming to make believable characters – yup, even if you are writing about cloud wizards or zombie lion tamers, for example, there should be elements of realism that allows your readers to connect, to empathise or even to hate them (we don’t always have to love characters, even main characters).
Readers like characters they can relate to and that come from making them believable.
If you want deeper ideas on writing characters, check out my How to Make Realistic Memorable Characters.
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