How To Fix A Mary-Sue (Part I)

In recent years, there have been a glut of female, Mary-Sue characters, such as Captain Marvel, Rey from Disney’s Star Wars Trilogy, and Arya Stark from the latter seasons of Game of Thrones. This blog post will first address the problem with such characters, and then how to fix a Mary-Sue.

(Oh, and by the way, there are plenty of spoilers in this blog piece.)

The Problem With A Mary-Sue

Rey (Daisy Ridley) is an example of how not to create a leading female character, as she is just too good at everything she does.

A Mary-Sue is a character that is ostensibly without any form of weakness. Moreover, she is outstanding at everything she does and everything comes naturally to her. She can defeat anyone or anything with minimal effort.

This is neither realistic nor relatable. Nobody can just snap their fingers and become a champion at what they desire, whether that is being a gymnast, a football player, a music composer, a writer, or a YouTuber. You have to dedicate yourself to the objective and sweat for it while you do your ten thousand hours (minimum).

But as a Mary-Sue is just brilliant at everything she does at once (plus often invincible), she comes across as hollow, disingenuous and risible. Simply, this is because what she does is impossible. (Also, if the audience wants to read a Mary-Sue on a higher meta-level, you could argue that the Mary-Sue is an idealised form of how the author sees herself. That is never a good thing for your audience to realise.)

Lastly, from a narrative perspective, a Mary-Sue can leave the audience feeling underwhelmed and even angry. This is the worst bit vis-à-vis the story, as our examples demonstrate.

Example 1 – Arya Stark Kills The Night King

One of the (many) major criticisms of the final season of Game of Thrones was that Arya Stark came out of nowhere to kill the Night King. Arya had been trained (if you can call it that) to be a covert assassin. Not a ninja.

The role of killing the Night King should have gone to Jon Snow. He was the one the show had built up over the previous seven-to-eight seasons to have an epic showdown with this adversary. That it was taken from him, and given to Arya (to surprise the audience), was one of the biggest disappointments of season 8. And the audience, by and large, hated it.

Example 2 – Captain Marvel in Avengers: Endgame

While not on the same level, many Marvel comic-book fans were left unimpressed that Captain Marvel made her first significant appearance in the franchise in Endgame. In the film, she crowed about how great she was and then went on to play a key role in defeating Thanos.

Audiences felt that Captain Marvel’s starring role was undeserved. What she did should have been given to another character, who had struggled throughout the franchise, like Black Widow or Scarlet Witch.

How To Fix A Mary-Sue?

Thus, we have discussed the problems with a Mary-Sue. Now, we shall see how writers can avoid falling into this trap. Here are four ways on how to fix a Mary-Sue.

1 – Give The Mary-Sue A Flaw

A flaw is part of makes a character three-dimensional, human and relatable. Also, a flaw automatically removes the Mary-Sue dimension from the protagonist. The only thing that writers must make sure of when giving their main character a flaw is that the flaw is linked to the plot.

Example 1 – Nina From Black Swan

how to fix a mary-sue - give her a flaw, like in Black Swan
Nina (Natalie Portman) looking at herself in the mirror. All the fragments reflect her flaws.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a captivating protagonist in Darren Aranofsky’s psychological thriller, Black Swan. In part, this is because she is a deeply flawed individual. Nina is hell-bent on being both the White Swan and the Black Swan in the upcoming ballet, Swan Lake.

However, she is mentally unstable and utterly paranoid. She thinks that Lily (Mila Kunis) is trying to steal her role.

Nina’s (admirable) determination, combined with her deteriorating mental state, causes her to succeed in her objective. Yet, it also contributes to her having a complete psychotic breakdown and with her accidentally committing suicide at the end.

Example 2 – Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a prominent CIA official who lives, eats and breathes finding Osama Bin Laden. Literally, that’s all she has in her life. She doesn’t have a family, a lover, friends, or even a dog.

Maya puts all her energy into finding him, and then she gives the green light for the armed forces to take him out. But after she achieves her ambition, she does not rejoice. Rather, she breaks down and weeps, as she has nothing else going for her.

2 – Give The Mary-Sue An Internal Conflict

As we saw in the blog posts (and the video) about how to create the ultimate main character, an internal conflict tears the central protagonist apart. When considering how to fix a Mary-Sue, giving the main character an internal conflict would certainly do the trick. You just have to make sure that the internal conflict impacts her decision-making process (and the plot vicariously). Back then, we looked at the example of Theon Greyjoy. (For sure, no-one would consider him of being the male equivalent of a Mary-Sue, a Gary-Stu.)

I have yet to find an internally conflicted female main character whose internal conflict results in similarly disastrous consequences for her. Nevertheless, here are two examples of female main characters wherein their internal conflicts result in dramatic consequences.

Example 1 – Essie Davis in The Babadook (2014)

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is an excellent horror film. It is one for those who enjoy the supernatural mixed with real emotions and a three-dimensional woman at the heart of the story.

The movie centres around Amelia (Essie Davis), who has to bring up her challenging young son, Samuel, on her own. We learn early on that Amelia’s husband, Oscar, was killed in a car crash while they were on the way to the hospital for Amelia to give birth. As a result, Amelia finds it hard to love her son without grieving for her late husband.

The grief, combined with Samuel’s disturbing behaviour and the demonic possession of their house by the Babadook, changes Amelia and not for the better. Who or what the Babadook is, precisely, is open to interpretation. But I see it as an inflection of both how Samuel and Amelia see one another. And as Amelia’s grief and internal pain worsens, she seriously contemplates killing her son.

how to fix a mary-sue - essie davis in the babadook
Amelia (Essie Davis) looking exhausted and haunted, as she deals with the monster in her house and her own internal strife.

Example 2 – Charlize Theron in Tully

The third act of 2018’s Tully may not work in my opinion, but that does not obviate the fact that it has a complex central protagonist pushing the movie forward. Marlo (Charlize Theron) is a mother of two, with a third (unplanned) child on the way, and an emotionally immature husband. (He likes to come home every night and play video games, rather than do chores, help with kids, or even spend time with his wife.)

In addition, Marlo is internally conflicted. She cannot seem to balance her desire to be a fun, youthful free-spirit on the one hand, with being a boring, suburban (and ambitionless) mother on the other. It doesn’t help that Marlo is exhausted, suffered some sort of post-natal depression after her last birth, and has a challenging son too.

As her issues pile up, a night nanny called Tully enters her life. Ostensibly, things seem to get better for Marlo. But reality soon catches up, and one night everything in Marlo’s life combines with near fatal consequences.

To Be Continued

We shall look at the remaining two tips on how to fix a Mary-Sue next time around. I hope you have enjoyed this blog post, and that it helps create a more interesting female lead character.

Paul

PS: If you enjoyed this blog post, and would like to be the first to receive Part II on this subject, then fill in this short form below:

Also, check out my debut fantasy novella – The Sultan’s Daughter – and my YouTube channel:

4 comments

  1. Fantastic advice! I’m all for strong female characters, but not if they’re perfect. That’s not a real character, that’s a Mary Sue! Looking forward to Part 2 🙂

  2. I agree, a perfect character is hollow. I think where the appeal comes in, LOL, is with male viewers–probably it was a man who wrote that part. They want to see women like this on movies etc. But they don’t want it in their real lives.

    I was once on a dating site. Most of the male profiles said, “I want a strong woman who is self-employed, making her own way.” Well, I am self-confident and self-employed. And it scared the popcorn out of all but one of my dates. That’s the one I married.

    1. First, thank you for the lovely comment and I am glad we are on the same page vis-a-vis Mary-Sues. Second, it saddens me that so many men shied away from you because of your incredible qualities (qualities that I, personally think, are extremely attractive, if I am allowed to say).

      I am sorry that you met so many men who could not handle you. But, all the same, your husband is one lucky man! He chose well, and I pray that the two of you stay happily together forever.

      Paul

      PS: Back to the Mary-Sues, Part II is out if you are interested?

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