YA KNOWHOW Avoiding Mary Sue

In the second of a four-part series of YA KnowHow, Kim Hutson looks at  how to write real, rounded, and flawed characters.

For those of you who don’t know, a ‘Mary Sue’ (also known as a Marty Stu) is an idealised character. They are, by definition, flat characters: presented as gifted, kind, and beautiful (with perhaps a suitable tragic ending). They are NOT interesting*.

But we’re here today to talk about how to avoid Mary Sue characters OR how to write flawed, interesting, and relatable characters. 

To do this, I’m going to give you my top three tips, followed by an exercise that will hopefully add the depth and interest you’re striving for.

1 – Giving your character flaws is not enough
What are their flaws? Are they overused, clichéd, or stereotypical ? If so, try to give them unexpected and interesting flaws instead (e.g. if the father is abusive and strict, while the mother is caring and supportive, why not switch them around?). Always try to subvert stereotypes.

2 – Make their actions reflect their decisions and personality flaws
What mistakes have they made and why did they seem like a good idea to them? It’s important for your character to be contradictory – the interesting part comes from figuring out why.

3 – Study real-life people
Observe people ‘in the wild’. Pay attention to their conversations. How do they act when they are alone? Does this change when they are with people? Do their actions contradict their traits (your characters’ should!).


Take two random images of very different characters (these are just examples – find some as wildly different as you can!).
A Bacchante - Julia Margaret Cameron, Getty Museum Open Archive

A Bench in the Bronx on Sunday - Walker Evans, Getty Museum Open Content
·         Answer the following questions for each of the people pictured:
What is their favourite animal?
What is their worst habit?
What is their philosophy for life?
What do they smell like?
Who is their best friend?
What’s their most prized possession and how did they get it?

·         When you have answered these questions for both pictures, take the answers and switch them.
Sometimes it can be hard to get past the obvious answers, which are usually the stereotypes. This exercise should get you thinking differently.

·         Once you have a character, ask yourself what the cause and effect is for their story. What is the biggest mistake that they have made (there may be more than one) and what motivated them to make that mistake? Ask yourself why they thought it was a good idea at the time.

*There is an interesting and Star Trek-related history to the ‘Mary Sue’ trope that you can read more about on Wikipedia. 


Based in Manchester, Kim Hutson won the Margaret Carey Scholarship 2014. She is currently writing YA whilst working as associate lecturer in Creative Writing at MMU and supervising a museum.


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