Thursday, April 18, 2013

Avoiding the Mary Sue

One of the biggest problems beginning writers have is the Mary Sue. The problem is to create a balanced character that the reader can identify with, while at the same time creating a character that is powerful enough to take on just about any challenge that you can throw at them. It’s a lot easier than you would think, but you need to make a lot of decisions. Oh, and just for the sake of not being sexist: The male version is called a “Gary Stu”, but this article should take care of both problems.

The character needs to have a limited skill set. A Mary Sue has a ridiculously huge skillset; this allows her to deal with almost any problem, and remove the challenge from any encounter. Although there are some characters where it works well, that’s because they are also dealing with equal adversaries where that huge skillset works. Normally, however, having a huge skillset is a bad thing and removes the challenge. You need to limit the skillset to a double handful of skills, with a further limit that if the character is highly skilled, skills should be eliminated from the pool. In other words, if the character is the best shot in the world, the character should only have a few skills. This can represent focused and/or limited training, but the limited skillset gives you more options.

The same especially applies to power level. The character can be really powerful, but only under certain situations. And those situations need to be rare situations; the more powerful the character the less often that the situation should come up. Do not power game this; “only during a syzygy of six planets” should not come up every other day. If the character can depend on the power enough that it is a practically standard issue, then you have not limited the power enough. If everyone is powerful, then you can take off the limits, but keep in mind that you want all of your characters to be on the same level, roughly, as one character with overwhelming power just won’t be as much fun as you think.

Popularity is another issue. Keep in mind that the if the character is an outcast, that character should not also be the most popular person; the two sort of cancel each other. Also keep in mind that popularity takes some effort to maintain; you cannot be friends with everyone without owing everyone favors and that you need to play politics in order to remain popular. In other words, if the character is a rebel and avoids politics, the character should not be popular, regardless of how important she is. On the other hand, if the character is popular then the character is going to be spending a lot of time dealing with others. Just a consideration…

Last is that the character needs to be reasonable stable emotionally. A character that bounces from one emotional state is going to drive readers crazy, and drive them away. This is not to say that the character is only allowed one emotional state, but that the emotion has to apply to the situation. Even Batman has a range of emotions, and that he is capable of expressing joy, hate, and anger, usually applicable to the situation. He does not, however, bounce from wall to wall when he is happy, and even when he is angry he maintains just enough control to make the situation fun to watch in a “will he, won’t he, he just might, he’d never” way. Just maintain some stability, and you should be okay.

So…Limit the skills to a particular skillset. Limit displays of overwhelming power. Debate popularity. Generally keep emotions in check. Do that, and you should have limited problems with Mary Sues. I hope…

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