Writing Is Hard Work

Musings of a Hard Working Writer...

  • Roger Colby

4 Ways to Prevent Your Main Character from Becoming a Mary (or Marty) Sue

Remember when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out? Man, I do. I remember going to see the movie as a hardcore Star Wars fan and being blown away by it.

Not everyone was, though. After seeing the movie, I popped online to see the vitriol being thrown at J.J. Abrams regarding the character of Rey (Daisy Ripley). They said she was something called a "Mary Sue".

A "Mary Sue" (and I find the term kind of sexist, anyway) is a female character who is devoid of any flaws and seems to be able to do anything she sets out to do without much trouble. I would argue that there are also "Marty Sues", who are males who do the same thing. The trope comes from overzealous writers who try to make their female characters over-capable in order to assuage the "women are weaker than men" fallacy. It goes against equity, and thereby causes that female character (and I would argue any gender character) to quickly become unrealistic.

Here are five ways to prevent your character from becoming an "[insert gender here] Sue".

  1. Skills Come With Practice - We all like to see Indiana Jones throw that whip, catch the tiny outcropping on the side of the opposite wall, and then swing in to his father's window. We also like to see him get clobbered by his father with what turns out to be a fake Ming dynasty vase ("Whew", says Dr. Henry Jones). The reason Indy can swing across that chasm is not because he has an innate ability to do that, but because he's probably practiced it numerous times. Your reader should never wonder how your main character gained a skill. The skills your main character exhibits should always make sense based on their background and training. To use another character from that series, we all laugh when Indy tells the Nazi goons that Marcus Brody is a world traveller, knows a dozen languages and will "blend in" and that they will never find him or the missing Grail diary page because we see him in the next scene trying to find his way out of a crowded market, utterly lost.

  2. Design a Backstory - All great characters are heavily designed or are based on real people. I spend a lot of time crafting my character's back story, most of which will never be referenced in the work. Jordan over on the "Novel" blog has a great 7 step process for writing a killer backstory for characters. It is highly important that your main character have a believable backstory.

  3. Logic - Let's use Indiana Jones for this exercise. If you are a globe-trotting archaeologist in the 1930's, it would only make sense that you probably know how to fight. It would also make sense that you'd know how to fight since your dad was all the time chasing the Holy Grail and not really much of a father. You'd develop a love of archaeology because you are always trying to impress your father who is always studying it. Since you are old enough to be 18 when WWI happened, you probably fought in the war and probably gained skills shooting, surviving and dealing with death. You went to college and gained your doctorate in archaeology to impress your dad as well. Your character's backstory has to make logical jumps from one life-choice to the other.

  4. Flaws - Every great main character has them. Every character has them. These flaws are what make your character more realistic. Does Rey have any flaws? Some would argue not, but I think her main flaw is that she doubts herself. Sure, she should have more to make her more interesting, but self-doubt is a big one. She probably would have stayed on Jakku rummaging through junk if destiny hadn't sought her out. She probably would have starved to death, actually. The fact that she was able to fly the Millennium Falcon is kind of a stretch, given that all we saw of her piloting abilities was her driving that repulser engine (probably left over from a pod racer). Indy, on the other hand, has a ton of flaws: is kind of sexist, underestimates enemies, is in need of a father figure, self-doubt, and is easily angered. I've used "The Dude" as an example before, and his flaws are too numerous to count, but he's a great main character. All of us should aspire to make characters like that.

I hope these tips helped you with your character building. I discussed characters with author Jason Meuschke, who wrote Nine Mile Bridge and his newest novel A Novel Idea on the "Writing Is Hard Work" podcast this week. If you have any other ideas for writing lively characters, leave some suggestions below.

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