How to Not Write a Mary Sue

I’ve recently started Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. The protagonist has a mysterious past and was raised by a foster family of chimaera. Her foster father sells wishes, which means that her equivalent of an allowance lets her learn languages instantly, painlessly get rid of any tattoo she regrets and make her hair naturally grow peacock blue. She is exceedingly beautiful, and studies art in Prague. Oh, and her name is Karou.

And no, she’s not a Mary Sue. At least, as of halfway through the book, she does not have a remotely Sueish vibe. In fact, I quite like and identify with her.

For those unfamiliar with the term, it is a somewhat layered word. In simplest terms, it means a particular kind of flat character who feels like they exist, not as a real human, but a puppet that allows the author to live out escapist fantasies. There are a number of traits commonly associated with these characters, but authors who avoid these traits have not necessarily escaped the Mary Sue. The real hallmarks are characters who consistently dodge real world consequences of both their strengths and their weaknesses. They are wish-fulfillments, after all, and who wants to deal with the consequences of a wish? As a result, they don’t feel like real people.

Karou isn’t a Mary Sue because her Sueish traits all spring naturally from a few rules dictated by the story. She isn’t exempt from realistic consequences of these rules. In fact, she deals with more consequences than many, less overtly Sueish characters I’ve read. The book isn’t afraid to poke fun at her faults as well, including the vanity that lead her to wish her hair blue.

All of this made perfect sense when I saw the picture of the author on the book jacket.

Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor. Look at that gorgeous pink hair.

Unique hair and eye colors are associated with Mary Sues for a reason. The fanfiction that produces so many of them is often written by teenagers who would love to dye their hair, or make other exotic changes to their bodies, but they are scared. What if it doesn’t look good? What if people tease me? What if somebody from alternative group X decides that I’m a poser? Mary Sues are wish fulfillment characters, but they are safe and sanitized. They keep the authors safe from the real world consequences of what they want.

And you know, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Sometimes that desire to indulge in escapism is what gets you started, and holds your interest long enough to really get hooked on the craft. Or maybe it’s just a fun thing you do for yourself. Maybe its the self-expression that keeps you sane. If your writing does any of those things, that’s reason enough to write, even if what you produce is flat, soppy drivel.

But when you enjoy doing something, the desire to find ways to do it better can quickly take over. People who find themselves writing Mary Sues find themselves looking for ways to break that habit.

Most advice on avoiding Mary Sues are top down solutions. Give your character flaws. Let them get into situations they can’t get out of without help. Make them work for their skills. Don’t give them special breaks just because they are your protagonist. I think these are great, but I think there’s another approach. See, I wrote a lot of Mary Sues, and even when I was aware of the problem I couldn’t really stop until I found a bottom up approach. The first thing I needed to do was start doing the things I wanted to do, but was afraid to.

When I did this, several things happened. I learned what the consequences of my fantasies would be, so I could write them into my stories realistically. I got better at separating the things I wanted to fantasize from the things I really, truly wanted to do. Most importantly, I lost my fear of the things I wanted to do, so my stories could be less about satisfying my unfulfilled desires and more about indulging my love of this challenging, frustrating, addictively marvellous art form.

You’re never going to get to do everything you want to do, and of the things you will do, not all of them will turn out the way you imagined. But if you take a chance, and give at least some of your daydreams a chance. Your life and your writing will both improve for it.

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