Are Mary Sue always bad characters?
Short Answer- Yes.
Long Answer- Not really.
How can something be always bad, but then again not really? My thinking is if you’re looking for the short answer then the likelihood of you being able to balance powerful characters is low. If you’re willing to stick around for the long haul however, chances are you’ve got the patience and creative gusto to make any character well rounded. Patience is really the prime attribute needed for well rounded characters. There is one specific character of mine who I flatly refused to give up on even though she came to be in the prime of my teenage self importance, and her earliest versions show that. Boy are they the embarrassing show of my teenage years, but she is still important to me so I took the years needed to change her from a terrible visage of teenage angst, to a character. It will take an incredible amount of time and constant breaking and restructuring.
So what is a Mary Sue/Gary Stu character and how can one be good? In the very most basic terms, a Mary Sue/Gary Stu is a character who has endless positive aspects, and any negative aspects are put in a positive light. Often they just have what is needed to overcome what happened, or suddenly some negative aspect is positive in a certain scenario. The reason they’re so hated is no one is interested in a character who is never in danger, or struggles. While an abundance of powers and the sort can easily swing a character into the Mary Sue standard, it is actually the personality that cement any character either direction.
I have a lot of powerful characters, after all half my characters are one step below Gods. I have always and will always have this fear of them being boring because of it, but over the years I have come to accept that a character does not have to be a balance of strengths and weaknesses to still be good. Superman is a good example of this, though to be honest I still don’t like Superman. Superman has tons of positive abilities; flight, strength, sight, laser beams, good guy, that hair curl… and is weak to only Kryptonite, a rare mineral that SOMEHOW everyone can still find. By all accounts he should be a terrible character, but it is his personality that keeps him a loved character all these years.
So personality is kinda vague… how should one go about building a personality. Well I’ve figured out three good stepping stones to a good personality; fears, skills, and quirks. Why not strengths and weaknesses? I find weaknesses to be a bit of a dull driving motivation where fear is more primal. It is something instinctual, it’s hard to overcome. Weaknesses on the other hand could just be something that doesn’t come natural to the character, like poor eyesight or low physical strength. Same with strengths, it’s just kinda vague. Skills on the other hand mean what a character has strived to excel at. Something they pumped time into to become great. Quirks is the last one and be careful with this one because it can easily be overdone, but it’s just little things about the character that make them unique. It doesn’t have to be anything big. It could be as simple as someone flipping their hair when nervous, or saying “Nothing.” Any time they laugh without public reason. Maybe they’re really dynamic when they talk and change inflection on exciting sentences. Maybe they don’t like peas. Quirks are not something that may come to light overtly in any media the character is in, but it helps you understand who they are and why they do that. If you start thinking that maybe your character laughs often without reason, then you start thinking why? Is the character nervous? Are they jovial? Do they have to make sure a joke works in their head before saying it? Do they think funny things but are too nervous to say it? How do other characters react to this? Well rounded characters start off small, and over time they get larger. They’re kinda like a katamari of interactions.
Okay, so what does this have to do with Mary Sues? Sounds like just good solid character advise. Well yes, that is what I’m doing but my point is any character, even bad ones, has the basework to be good. Powerful characters, weak characters, plain jane characters, all have equal basework to be good, the little katamari ball if you will, they just need to collect character interactions. These interactions need to stick, not bounce off and to keep with my metaphor, these interactions collect to the katamari not the character themselves. These interactions don’t always have to do with the character themselves, but it is something the character collects. It could be something they heard that made them think or scared. Maybe it was friends getting into a fight or maybe the character is crushing on someone who doesn’t feel the same way. These interactions all effect the character and should change them. Positively or negatively all interactions should effect a character in some manner and as this Katamari of Interactions grows, the character should be less about themselves, and more about the glorious planet of experiences they collected.
So if you’re worried your character might be a Mary Sue, calm down, you don’t have to trash them. Just take a step away from the character and work on development. Write a passage about something important in their life. Make up little everyday interactions between the character and their friends. Find people to role play with and see what kind of response you get from other people’s characters. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll write things you look at years from now and cringe. You may decide the character is unsalvageable, but just remember experience and growth are just as much a foundation for you as they are for making a good character, even out of a bad one.
(BTW I love helping people with characters so always feel free to send me a note if you want help.)