1. punkyeleven

    punkyeleven Member

    May 28, 2019
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    How to avoid Mary Sue in YA?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by punkyeleven, Apr 3, 2020.

    I've been writing YA novel, but I'm scared of making my character too Mary Sue.
    The story is about a princess that is sent to the enemy country to assasinate the prince. Her country is a ruthless and she has spent her childhood in the army.
    She is not good looking. She lacks empathy because of what she was taught in the army. Of course, it changes in the palace where she meets the prince and make some friends.
    She's good at fighting, but not that good at court plots and generally speaking society stuff. But I still feel like she's too perfect.
    The thing is she has blue eyes that are in contrast with her black skin. It's important because they are not mutation, as she thought, but she has them because of special powers. But here we go: she's good at fighting and has magic powers. I think like it's a little bit too much.
    I will admit that the powers are not perfect and she has them because of the curse. They will mostly be a problem, not help and she won't be able to control it as well. Still, I think it might make her too powerful.
    What do you think? What other flaw can I give her? Or should I delete something else that makes her "special"?
  2. Xoic

    Xoic Senior Member

    Dec 24, 2019
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    edge of the spacetime continuum
    The very fact that you're concerned about it is a good sign. Generally the kind of people who write Mary Sue characters lack self awareness and humility and can't see (and don't care) that they're doing it. You should do a search, these threads come up pretty regularly and you can gather lots of info from reading older ones.

    Well, lacking empathy of course is a big one, but you seem to be aware that it's a potential problem, which is good. And it sounds like a major component of the story is that she does learn empathy, basically learns that she's been programmed to hate and dehumanize (which is how the Mary Sue characters and writers are created) through propaganda. Have her realize that when she gets out into the bigger world, and develop empathy and you should be good. In fact it would be a sort of anti Mary Sue story, where she starts out dangerously close to being one but exposure to the larger world outside of her former closed cell of ideology causes her to grow and blossom.

    How did she learn to use her powers? Well, that might be entirely outside of the story itself, but a Mary Sue is someone who gets everything handed to them on a silver platter and never had to work hard or suffer or develop humility.

    I mean if you think about it, take out the word magic and you just described every superhero that ever existed. They're mostly not Mary Sues.

    I wouldn't think so much in terms of flaws and powers, it's more about the story itself. You can't really think of a character as a separate entity that stands alone, each character is part of the conflict that drives the story. There's the protagonist and the antagonist, who are directly opposed across the center of whatever their conflict is, and that's the centerpiece of the story. Other characters are part of the Character Web, they mostly demonstrate other attitudes toward the central conflict.

    Instead think about how they relate to other characters and to the big story issues. Do they have a snarky, entitled attitude? Do they suffer for their mistakes or sometimes for seemingly no fault of their own (as we all do)? Do they learn from their mistakes and have empathy for other people? Are they capable of seeing both sides of an issue, or are they totally stuck in one ideological viewpoint and see 'the enemy' as totally inhuman and deserving of death and torture? Essentially a Mary Sue is a totally immature person who has been brainwashed by hateful ideology and can't see reality clearly, and lacks all empathy for whoever they've been taught is to blame for their problems. That's projection writ large—a person who does that also refuses to see any faults in themselves. It's the Scapegoat syndrome—project your own faults out onto others and sacrifice them and for a little while you can feel cleansed and refreshed, but of course you didn't really accomplish anything positive, so soon you'll need to do it again, and again...
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2020
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  3. punkyeleven

    punkyeleven Member

    May 28, 2019
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    Thank you, it does help a little!
  4. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Mar 7, 2013
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    I think what makes a Mary Sue is actually quite simple. Everything comes too easy for a Mary Sue. There are no problems they can't easily overcome. (And with a single bound, Jack was free....)

    Your character can be pretty, and exceptionally talented, and well-loved, and a very worthy person, and all the other characteristics that many Mary Sues exhibit—but the real issue comes when stuff is too easy for them. A problem comes up. They solve it. Another problem arises, and they solve that as well...rinse, repeat. (Patrick Rothfuss's Kingsolver Chronicles are an egregious example of this kind of plotting ...which is a shame, because Rothfuss's descriptive writing and scene-setting/worldbuilding in that series is excellent otherwise. I wanted to like the series, but I just couldn't.)

    This is a plot problem rather than a character issue, really.

    Whatever problems you give your character, make it VERY hard for them to win through. Winning has to be in doubt throughout the story, for it to work well.

    As soon as magic (or 'powers') enters a plot, I kinda slink for the exit—because magic itself can encourage Mary Sue-ism. Unless powers have limits, or very effective opposition, they can make things too easy for your character. You can make your main character ugly, unpleasant, unloved, angsty, or mean to people, but if everything is a snap for them because, you know, 'powers' ...you've got a Mary Sue.

    So ensure that your character's powers are strictly limited (whatever their eye colour or personality or talent.) Ensure that magical 'powers' can't solve your story's problems, and your character's own personality will need to develop and come into play to win through—after a very hard, complex struggle. Hopefully one which leaves them forever scarred or changed in some way.

    Just waving a wand to make it all go away—or all come out right—isn't a gripping solution.
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2020
  5. A.M.P.

    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Contributor

    Sep 30, 2013
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    A Place with no History
    A decent trick can be to lay out all the obstacles your character goes through as simply as possible (ie: the princess must escape the palace without being detected)
    Next, under it, write down how she solves it in the same simple manner.

    This lets you quickly, in a snapshot manner, see all the resolutions to each conflict and categorize them.
    Now that you can see your categories, what are they?

    For example:
    1. Princess escapes palace because she is super stealthy and talented
    2. Princess gets almost hurt but overcomes the bad guy
    3. Princess is known to be the best at everything and super talented
    4. Princess solves the mystery herself and unveils the evil chancellors plot because she is so smart

    and so on... Kinda, like: "Yay, girl, you got it all under control"
    She's so great that she overcomes obstacles with ease, she gets through the story because every solution is straightforward for her.

    That doesn't mean she has to fail or necessarily have consequences to her actions.
    But it means the solutions to the problems must be interesting and can't be always at the tip of her fingers.
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  6. Not the Territory

    Not the Territory Active Member

    Nov 8, 2019
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    It's not strictly the character herself.

    One thing to keep in mind is how everyone reacts to her. If everyone is upfront impressed, doting, respectful, easily intimidated, you've got a sue.

    Another important sue factor is the relative competence of the people she encounters. Lazy writers try to make a character look able or smart by surrounding them with complete oafs. It certainly does not have the intended effect, and usually just insults the reader.

    Finally, no imperfection will guarantee depth. "Too perfect" It's an easy fruit to pick during criticism, and often misinterpreted as "needs flaws bolted on." They have to really have consequences and mean something.

    Lack of empathy is definitely a good start. Just make sure it's actually causing her problems. Perhaps it's making her lonely and or frustrated. Could be ostrasizing her from peers she adores.
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  7. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

    May 20, 2012
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    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    I find that like others have said - Mary Sues seem to be all about details but really it's more about the execution of those details that makes them Mary Sues - than the details themselves. It's about how do they react, what's their obstacles and do they overcome them too quickly, is there pushback on their opinions (and not just by creeps) are they the only one that can save the day, are they team players, would this world exist without them in it (it should be better if they're in it but it shouldn't fall absolutely apart and have no reason for existing if they weren't there.)
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  8. Fervidor

    Fervidor Active Member

    Feb 23, 2020
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    Perfection isn't relevant. For the record, flawless characters aren't in and of themselves bad writing, they just make it difficult to write good stories since they generate less conflict. Writing them is hard, not wrong.

    You're making the classic mistake of looking that the symptoms rather than trying to understand the disease. Mary Sue is a wish-fulfillment vehicle for self-gratifying escapist fantasies. Specifically the author's escapist fantasies.

    Basically, the problem with the Mary Sue is that she isn't written to tell a good story, rather she's written so the author can boost their ego by vicariously pretending to be powerful, beloved, respected and justified in their beliefs. When readers come across such a story, they can usually tell that it isn't written to entertain them, if only on a subconscious level. It creates a dissonance between the intentions of the author and the expectations of the reader, which is why the Mary Sue is so annoying.

    So, like, just don't do that, and you'll probably be fine. Just consider your character a storytelling tool and remember that it's the story that matters. Get that right and it doesn't really matter how pretty or strong or special she is.

    Whatever you do, don't consider any given character trait to be arbitrarily bad, because there's no such thing. You need to make a habit out of thinking about why a given form a characterization may be inadvisable, in regards to the actual function it's supposed to serve.

    That describes pretty much every single major character in my current project. And my previous one, actually. Come to think of it, stories about warriors with magical abilities is sort of my whole thing.

    Look, asskicking characters isn't a bad thing. Like, obviously. We wouldn't have the entire action genre or stuff like superhero stories if a lot of people didn't like power fantasies about characters kicking ass.

    What you actually need to consider is the power balance between your protagonist and antagonist. Specifically, no matter how impressive and capable your heroes are, your villains should be able to threaten and challenge them in some significant way, and generally speaking the more formidable the antagonists are, the better.*

    A caveat here: It is possible to write good stories where the hero outclasses the villains, but then the conflict needs to be derived from some other condition and you'll want to make that very clear. This is sort of tricky to pull off and you should only try it if you really know what you're doing.

    Bottom line, your girl being a skilled fighter with magic powers isn't going to be a problem as long as her opponents are still suitably dangerous, and/or you provide her with problems that can't easily be solved simply through violence or magic.

    *Within reason, of course. The story still has to make sense, after all.
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2020
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  9. AbyssalJoey

    AbyssalJoey Member

    Sep 11, 2018
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    Behind you
    That does read like a Mary Sue in the making but I think @jannert and @Fervidor have a good definition of what a Mary Sue is and how to avoid it.

    That being said, I think there are a few questions that can help you decipher how to avoid your character becoming a Mary Sue, questions like "why", why is your character this or that way, why is your character here, or more specifically "why is your character the assassin??? why is it that the princess was selected to do this???".

    According to you, she can't control her magic powers so let's not worry about them; that leaves us with "good at fighting" and "not good with social stuff", again, why is she the assassin??? why is it that her country selected a fighter to do the job??? Don't know about you but I would prefer someone with either good infiltration skills or social skills, hell preferably both.

    Does this means that you should rethink the story, not really, you have the major source of conflict right there, she's a fighter, she shouldn't be here, even though she is really close to him she can't find how to kill him, he always has at least one heavily armored escort so she can't just go in and punch him to death, there is a dedicated poison tester (I think this has an actual name) so that he doesn't get poisoned, stuff like that, don't let her fight, use her weaknesses against her.

    Of course, this is all assuming that she got trained as a soldier instead of an assassin, I assume she's a samurai instead of a ninja, a machine-gunner instead of a sniper. If this is not the case, you'll need to come up with really good reasons as to why she got to spend enough time with her target for her to develop empathy.
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  10. Azuresun

    Azuresun Senior Member

    Mar 25, 2017
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    My recommendation is very simple: Have her be uncool.

    Because you've listed a bunch of stuff here that might be interesting or might be annoying, depending on the execution. But I think the common trait of characters that get the MS label is that they never look uncool. Even when they suffer or get put down, they nobly endure it or heroically fight back in a way that makes them look cool. And it feels fake because the hand of the author becomes visible to the reader, and we can hear them telling us "You must love this character because she's so cool / because she's pretty / because she's had a hard life."

    A bad way to write this character would be that her "flaws" just make her cooler in the actual story. Her lack of social graces never needlessly hurts anyone or makes her avoidable enemies, but make her come across as being a bold, cool rebel who speaks her mind fearlessly. She's supposedly unattractive, but the good characters around her immediately see through that to the inner beauty, and it doesn't prevent 1-3 ideal boyfriends from drooling over her. She lacks empathy, but nobody ever gets put off trying to get to know her, because they can see the sensitive soul hiding under a layer of distrust. And so on. :)

    Make those flaws into things that legitimately make it hard for other characters in the story (and even the reader, to a more limited extent) to like her unreservedly.
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  11. S A Lee

    S A Lee Contributor Contributor

    Feb 4, 2017
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    Greater London, England
    The thing that makes a Mary Sue is that the plot bends around the character rather than creates a series of road bumps for the character.

    Power alone doesn't a Mary Sue make. Saitama from One Punch Man and Ainz Oohl Gown (the last word rhyming with 'own') from Overlord are examples of characters who are blatantly overpowered but the real plot is the conflict born from other areas. Ainz makes a passing comment that his subordinates take too literally and thus they start making plans so that he can take over the world. Saitama is bored out of his mind because he can't find someone who can take more than a single punch.

    The thing about Mary Sues is that they don't have a real sense of struggle, whether it is coming from the outside or on the inside. The plot goes out of its way to make them shine rather than consistency within the plot causing varying sizes of roadblocks to them.

    Your character isn't good looking, so perhaps the court she finds herself in looks down at her for that, thinking the prince would have better heirs if he were paired with a courtier's daughter who is much better looking and knows how to act in court.

    Show us examples of her lack of empathy.

    Make her homesick now and then despite the fact that it was horrible in retrospect.
    DK3654 likes this.
  12. cosmic lights

    cosmic lights Contributor Contributor

    Aug 30, 2018
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    Norwich, UK
    Make a list of mary sue qualities and avoid them. Read some mary sue characters and look at what the author did wrong and avoid those things.

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