Jan 26 2011

How to Save Mary Sues (Insufficiently Challenged Heroes)

Some tips for fixing a Mary Sue, a protagonist that is insufficiently challenged by his or her story.

1. Give the character flaws, ideally one he’s accountable for. Most unchallenged characters have a bevy of strengths but few well-developed flaws.  One approach is to play up the character’s strengths so much they sometimes become liabilities.  For example, in Point of Impact, Nick Memphis is unfailingly loyal, even though it ruins his career.  Virtually any strength taken to an extreme could create obstacles for the character.  For example…

  • Being too smart could create social obstacles for the character (see Flowers for Algernon or House), impatience with less intelligent people, overconfidence, a willingness to jump to erroneous conclusions on too little information, etc.
  • Being too nice could lead to gullibility/naivete, a reluctance to confront someone even when a confrontation is necessary, or a handicap against tougher (and maybe more brutal) foes.
  • Being too honorable could result in situations where the character loses because he/she refuses to take the most effective course of action available.  At its most cliche, perhaps a superhero stops chasing a gang of villains so that he can defuse a bomb or free a hostage from a deathtrap.  But that only affects a scene.  More significantly, a villain can manipulate a hero’s sense of honor so that he/she does something that shapes the plot.  For example, Cassius draws Brutus into the assassination plot in Julius Caesar by exploiting Brutus’ honor.
  • Being too brave could result in reckless mistakes.  The character’s overconfidence might get him hurt, and possibly bystanders as well.  For example, if a superhero tries to rush a hostage-taker without any sort of plan, hostages will probably get shot.
  • Being too committed to one’s goals (even honorable goals) could result in obsession and/or a willingness to sacrifice friends, morals, bystanders, and anything else to achieve the goals.

2.  Have the character make some decisions the audience won’t approve of. If the character is so purely heroic that readers will probably approve of every decision he makes, he probably doesn’t have much moral complexity.  Usually, that’s not as believable or interesting as giving the characters some human edges.

3.  Have the character make difficult decisions. Difficult decisions distinguish the character.  If the character is just making banal decisions that 90%+ of the genre’s protagonists would make in the same situation, the plot probably isn’t giving the hero enough room to distinguish himself.  Let your hero show how different he/she is with some decisions that most other heroes wouldn’t make.  For example, the protagonist in Point of Impact, Bob Swagger, is on the run after he’s been framed for an assassination attempt on the President.  The people framing him planted incriminating evidence in his house, but they had to kill his dog to sneak inside. Almost every action protagonist in this situation would probably have started by trying to take down the conspiracy.  Swagger starts by breaking into the FBI-occupied morgue where the dog’s body is being held as evidence so that he can properly bury it.  It really helps develop his character: the dog is the closest thing he had to a friend and he feels honor-bound to return its loyalty.  It also gives the villains reason to panic and ratchets up the tension.  If this guy is suicidal enough that he’d risk a high-speed chase with the FBI over his dog, his dead dog at that, what’s he gonna do to them?

4. Challenge the character! Raise obstacles high enough that it will be interesting for the character to overcome them.  For example, if your character is the most powerful superbeing in your story, the potential for interesting straight-up action is probably pretty low because he’s more powerful than his opponents.  For example, The Watchmen couldn’t have done much with a straight-up duel between invulnerable hero Dr. Manhattan and semi-powered villain Ozymandias.  Instead, Ozymandias challenged the heroes with his stealth and subterfuge, buying time so that he could make his survival so valuable to the heroes that they wouldn’t dare to kill him.   Another approach would be to try challenging the character in a sphere where his superpowers aren’t very useful.  For example, in a superhero romance, a guy that’s used to solving his problems with violence would have to try a very different tack to wooing the girl of his dreams.

5. Have the character face some morally gray obstacles. I would really recommend against making everyone that opposes the hero a straight-up bad person. For example, maybe the character’s friends aren’t 100% supportive of everything he does, maybe his coworkers/bosses have reasonable disputes with the character, or maybe there’s an antagonist whose intentions are pretty pure, etc.  If there’s no approach for a character to disagree with the hero without coming off as a bad person, the hero is probably not morally complex enough to feel fully believable.  (Hey, even Gandhi and MLK took some flack over their pragmatism).

59 responses so far

59 Responses to “How to Save Mary Sues (Insufficiently Challenged Heroes)”

  1. B. Macon 14 Jan 2011 at 3:09 pm

    This does not address all of the Mary Sue symptoms identified by Mary Sue quizzes (like the one I made), but I think it covers the key points.

    Most Mary Sue quizzes test for a bevy of stylistic traits like, say, whether the character wears badass but totally impractical clothes, has unbelievable good looks, and how many paragraphs the story spends on how awesome the character’s eyes and hair look. If a character’s only Mary Sue traits are stylistic and the story is otherwise publishable, I could maybe sort of see an editor plausibly giving it a go because stylistic traits are easy enough to fix. (For example, rework the paragraphs describing the character’s wardrobe, dramatically shorten the paragraphs of eye/hair description, etc).

    In contrast, converting an insufficiently-challenged and completely morally pure hero into an interesting character will probably take a hell of a lot of labor. It probably wouldn’t even work. If an author turned out one horribly-developed character, I wouldn’t expect the next one to be vastly better. If the main character is poorly developed and poorly challenged, it’d be much safer to reject the story rather than count on the author to jury-rig it into something vastly more interesting.

  2. Nicholas Case (Anonymous)on 14 Jan 2011 at 3:28 pm

    I like this! Very well done, B.Mac!

  3. B. Macon 14 Jan 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Thanks, I appreciate it.

  4. NicKennyon 14 Jan 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Just one question. If you’re main character has wings how would he disguise it. Would wearing a baggy hoody be sufficient. Is it feasible that he could retract them to fit close to his spine, like in the Maximum Ride series?

  5. B. Macon 14 Jan 2011 at 4:31 pm

    If you were inclined to let him retract his wings, I think that’d be entirely believable, wholly covered by an explanation like “A Mutagen Did It” or “A Plot Device Did It” or “My Species Does It.”

    If you’re looking for potential challenges, I can think of a few:
    –On a really hot day, I think a jacket or overcoat would look out of place. The character might look like a thief, particularly if he’s young.
    –You could make him ditch the jacket every time he wants to fly, making it harder for him to go incognito as soon as he’s done flying. (Or maybe he holds the jacket in his hands while flying, which keeps him from using both hands for other things).
    –If there were an enemy that knew what to look for, I don’t think it’d be too hard to pick the character out of a crowd.

  6. Nicholas Caseon 14 Jan 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Oh um I know this is jumping the barrel but I’ve searched this site B.Mac and I’ve found different types of super powers, but how could one DESCRIBE them? I know one must show rather than tell but that’s kind of vague. I have some idea but I’m not entirely sure how to describe it.

  7. Contra Gloveon 14 Jan 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I really like these, B. Mac. I can guarantee you that Sueishness hasn’t been a problem in the novel I’m writing; I took a cue from #1, by making my heroine’s proactive go-getter attitude actually end up helping the villains get something valuable that they want, thus increasing their power and influence. Also my heroine, while nowhere near evil or hateful, is genuinely mean to someone that didn’t deserve it — and once again, this comes back to bite her when the villains make their masterstroke.

    Good job.

  8. B. Macon 14 Jan 2011 at 11:03 pm

    “I took a cue from #1, by making my heroine’s proactive go-getter attitude actually end up helping the villains get something valuable that they want, thus increasing their power and influence.” I like that; It sounds like a dramatic way to draw the heroine into the plot without giving her all of the crucial information to understand what’s going on. (Also, there’s a revenge angle to keep her fighting after she learns more about the plot).

    A less promising plot I see somewhat frequently is when a character (often a fantasy teen) is drawn into a plot by a cryptic mentor that doesn’t say much about what’s going on for no apparent reason besides that the author doesn’t want the character to know what’s going on. A villainous manipulator has a much better reason to hide some crucial information from the hero.

    PS: I’m also looking forward to the hero paying some price for a social blunder to an undeserving target. It sounds like an interesting way to hold the heroine accountable for her decisions.

  9. B. Macon 15 Jan 2011 at 1:32 am

    “I’ve searched this site B.Mac and I’ve found different types of super powers, but how could one DESCRIBE them? I know one must show rather than tell but that’s kind of vague. I have some idea but I’m not entirely sure how to describe it.”

    Hmm… could you walk me through the scene? What sort of powers are involved? Who’s trying to accomplish what?



    I don’t think I have much advice on how to write scenes with superpowers so far. I’ll write an article about it later this week. Until then, I would recommend looking at How to Write Gripping Scenes and point #3 of How to Keep Your Story’s Superpowers Extraordinary (which I think you’ve already read).

  10. Nicholas Caseon 15 Jan 2011 at 7:37 am

    Well the scene is were Haden beats the crap out of Dunimas, like DBZ but slower (ie. the punches and kicks aren’t blinding fast) Just one guy beating the crap outta a kid in an arena with Arre watching.

  11. Forgeryon 15 Jan 2011 at 8:22 pm

    B. Mac, I have an idea for my hero, but I’m not sure if the twist is playing off the powers too much. See, the hero has super strength only when whatever he is using it against is wet, or if his fists are wet. The twist is, the villain is made of water, so although the hero has abundance of power, he cannot use it on something that will phase through every punch.

    I’m not sure if the idea is lame or not.

  12. Nicholas Caseon 15 Jan 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Well that generally makes the power pointless. That’s like being able to be able to run/fly at the speed of light, but without the power to slow down and stop. It’s a cancel out effect.
    Positive: The opponent is water so he technically is wet and his powers are usable.
    Negative: Every attack phases through so he can’t hit him.

    They cancel each other out. It would be too difficult for him to defeat him unless he made him evaporate somehow, bursting a gas line maybe? Besides, superpowers are generally useless if they can’t use them to their advantage.

  13. Nicholas Caseon 15 Jan 2011 at 8:49 pm

    In other words, the opponent would have the upper hand either way, unless he uses a weapon of some sort he can’t beat him in a fist fight. He might as well not have the powers at all if they’re just gonna duke it out without any things that could make him evaporate.

  14. B. Macon 15 Jan 2011 at 11:15 pm

    “B. Mac, I have an idea for my hero, but I’m not sure if the twist is playing off the powers too much. See, the hero has super strength only when whatever he is using it against is wet, or if his fists are wet. The twist is, the villain is made of water, so although the hero has abundance of power, he cannot use it on something that will phase through every punch.”

    I think that would be a challenge for the hero to overcome. I agree with Nicholas that the villain would appear to have the upper hand. I’d be interested to see how the hero would overcome that.* (More generally, it might be interesting to see how a superstrong character beats a character that is about as punchable as the Atlantic).

    *For example, perhaps the hero lures the villain into a room so cold that the villain’s water molecules begin to freeze together. Drying up the villain (perhaps with intense heat) or trapping him in an indestructible tank would also be an option. If you’re into science!, electrolysis (cutting water with an electric current) can convert water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. And that’s not the only amazing thing you can do with science!

  15. NicKennyon 16 Jan 2011 at 1:27 pm

    That is an amazing pic.

  16. Heroon 25 Jan 2011 at 8:05 pm

    I have a Mary Sue and I need help! Basically the character is a mimic, sort of like in an x men scenario, with mutants, so the character pretty much has EVERy power, and plus not only do they have every power they are the SOURCE of all powers in the universe, so there pretty much unstoppable.

    My Solution was to dampen the connection to the source, but the character is still virtualy unstoppable.

  17. Nicholas Caseon 25 Jan 2011 at 8:23 pm

    Every power? That’s an antagonist’s job. The antagonist should always have an upper hand on the protagonist from the start. Now if those mutants were antagonists, then the story would be VERY interesting! Don’t make the antagonist unstoppable, just make him SEEM unstoppable. Wait, something just came up-brb.

  18. Nicholas Caseon 25 Jan 2011 at 8:32 pm

    K, I’m back. I know I was pushing my luck with an antagonist like Erra but UNSTOPPABLE, that’s WAY too much. What’s the point of a story when the main character can just blow up the world, the end. Every power, no need for oxygen, wtf man?! At the least make him only able to use his powers only if they have a rare mineral, object, ect.

  19. B. Macon 25 Jan 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Hello, Hero. One possibility might be restricting how many powers his body can hold at once. (Like a computer runs out of space if it takes on too many programs?)

    Alternately, maybe you could increase the costs of his superpowers. (See #2 here). For example, maybe the more powers he tries to take on or uses, the more Something Bad happens (like he gradually loses his sanity or exhausts himself more quickly or whatever).

    If the character is a protagonist, another challenge that might work is an antagonist that cancels powers. Alternately, perhaps the character’s powers are inaccessible at certain points. (For example, in Heroes, the characters’ powers don’t work during eclipses).

  20. Heroon 26 Jan 2011 at 4:33 pm

    The Character is suppose to be more of a Dr. Manhattan character, a charaacter who struggles with his great power in comparison to the majority of the other characters, and tries not to overstep his boundaries as he fears being consumed with his power. Anyway some of the mutants are antagonists, but it’s not always a straight out battle between good and evil.

    And what I meant by every power is merely he has a MASSIVE arsenal in comparison to the rest of the characters is all. I’ve been able to think of challanges for him before, but right now I’m stuck.

    As for making abilities inaccessible, I’ve done that before, and said character already picked up a power cancellation power.

  21. Nicholas Caseon 26 Jan 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Simple solution, make him an antagonist. When I started writing Portentous, Haden was gonna be a protagonist who’s a bad guy and destroys Europe and Asia but I found it was a Mary Sue. I just made him an antagonist and a boy named Dunimas has to kill Haden. BTW he’s WAY stronger than Dunimas. Make a new, weaker protagonist.

  22. B. Macon 27 Jan 2011 at 11:58 am

    Turning an underchallenged protagonist into an antagonist might work, but I’m not sure I would characterize it as simple (especially if you’ve written many chapters already). For one thing, you’d probably have to rewrite pretty much everything.

    Rewriting the protagonist as the villain may have been a bit easier in your case because your protagonist was already a mass-murdering psychopath, so he probably fit into the antagonist role better anyway.

  23. NicKennyon 27 Jan 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Give him a weakness, like the super cliché, a girlfriend or elderly parent. Or maybe get a group of villians who, although not nearly as powerful as him, when together can match him. Or, for example, my main character will eventually become overpowered, but I’m making the villian a mind-controller, who slowly poisons his mind, shaping his thoughts slightly.

  24. Wingson 29 Jan 2011 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you a thousand times over for giving me proof that a good trait taken too far can be just as harmful as a bad trait.

    I have one character, Meg, whose is protectiveness of others (Mainly her brother, although Ian is also a frequent victim) but has a tendency to overdo it, to the point where she’s either smothering the person in question or refuses to let anyone else do anything for fear of something bad happening to them. Granted, Connor appreciated Meg looking out for him when he was younger, but DAMMIT MEG HE’S SIXTEEN NOW GIVE THE POOR BOY SOME SPACE.

    In the same story, we have the naively nice Ian. His motivations tend to be to improve his own life, and he’s rather shallow even then (His main goal for the majority of the book is to become popular, so that Heather will date him and everyone will think he’s cool). In short, he’s kinda self absorbed, and it’s going to take a heavy dose of reality to snap him out of this.

    To move to another book, Hikari is so trapped in her good-or-evil mentality that she’s unable to consider that certain characters could be morally gray (read: Darken). She’s also a lot more vengeful than she herself thinks, bordering on an obsession.

    Darken is actually a lot less mature than he considers himself to be- his moral compass runs based on whoever’s paying him more, his main motivation is effectively getting revenge against the entire world, he’s so focused on doing things on his own that he doesn’t trust anyone, least of all himself…

    The third protagonist, Masochist, suffers from a great deal of self-loathing. He’s had a lot of issues with getting close to people, and is quick to hide his true feelings if there’s even the slightest chance that someone might be hurt by them (see the trope Stepford Smiler). While he is the only one of the three main protagonist who is genuinely “good”, he’s got a long way to go and a lot of issues to work out.

    …Writing this just made me miss these guys. Yes, I should be writing more, but I’m trying to polish my NaNoWriMo novel and write Jedi Penguin’s birthday gift at the same time.

    – Wings

  25. HarleyQon 11 Mar 2011 at 9:18 pm

    I have an un-adressed question!

    Is it possible for villains to be Mary Sues? Probably a not-too-smart question, but I kinda want to know.

  26. B. Macon 11 Mar 2011 at 10:50 pm

    Can a villain be a Mary Sue? According to some commentators, yes, but personally I don’t think it’s a major problem. Here are some major aspects that crop up in different versions of Mary Sue characters:

    1) Insufficiently challenged. It’s almost unheard-of for a villain to be insufficiently challenged. The hero almost always wins and, even when the villain somehow does win, it’s usually after grinding his way through the heroes.

    2) Unflawed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an unflawed antagonist, particularly in a published work. If the villain were unflawed, one potential concern would be whether the audience would actually root for the protagonist to win. Or if readers would even care if the protagonist wins. (The stakes of losing to an unflawed antagonist are probably rather low).

    3) Destined/lucky. I don’t think it’s a problem if the villain benefits from destiny or fortune beyond his control. A lot of drama comes from a protagonist overcoming substantial obstacles, and the villain is usually the most substantial of all. It’s much more of a problem when the hero is destined/lucky, I think–making the protagonist lucky reduces the obstacles and robs readers of a genuine solution to the problems/obstacles you’ve laid out for the character.

  27. HarleyQon 11 Mar 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Alright, cool! I was working on my bad dude earlier, and I was thinking about that.

    (BTW, Yes, I am stalking this page. X3)

  28. B. Macon 12 Mar 2011 at 4:14 am

    “(BTW, Yes, I am stalking this page. X3)” Haha!

  29. Rogon 04 Dec 2011 at 8:37 pm

    would their be anyway to give a character an inherit power without envoking chosen one syndrome.

  30. B. McKenzieon 04 Dec 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Maybe the gift is a really mixed blessing or a curse. Then it’d be sort of interesting seeing how he overcomes the challenges created by the negative aspects. And/or maybe the character is born with a gift but many other characters are born with a better gift. Then it’d be interesting to see how he can succeed even though he’s been given a weaker hand.

  31. CCOlsonon 05 Dec 2011 at 4:04 pm

    I’ve been considering this same issue a lot because my protagonist has a power set that, when fully mastered, will put her in the very top tier of superhumans on her Earth. Superhumans (or Talents) are relatively common in her world, expressing around the world at a rate of roughly 1 in 400, with a possible 1 in 100 believed to possess the necessary genetic traits. However, superhumans who can topple major governments and arrange for devastating orbital impacts are not at all common.

    I think that level of power works as long as it relates to the theme. At the top of her game, one of the main themes my protagonist will have to deal with is “Choosing not to be God”. For most people, punishing the power brokers who start wars for profit is not an option, so it’s not a theme that is easy to explore. But for a character who can get anywhere in the world in minutes and tear apart (almost) any opposition, punishing to people who start wars IS an option. Overthrowing wicked regimes at will IS an option. Slaughtering everyone who ever tries to tread on the weak IS an option. But does that make it right? Does that make it her place to do it? Would doing it actually solve the problem? Can the evil of mankind be solved by killing all the observably evil men? If the character does choose to obey moral limits, how does she get the most good done without breaking them?

    For a wonderful theme-rich example of a character with world-shaking power, watch the anime Death Note. Here the main character has the power to kill ANYONE whom he knows the name and face of by writing their name in a magical notebook. He chooses to use this power to kill all the evil people in the world, starting with murderers and such. The anime explores the implications of this on the people around the world who see this happening and on Light himself. Of course, he does have weaknesses and faces some very capable opposition. That’s one of the joys of the series.

  32. Rogon 05 Dec 2011 at 5:41 pm

    well my character is sort of suppose to be a prophet, and basically has the ability to communicate with all of life, which was suppose to help him unite the tribes against a forcoming threat of invasion. I was planning to have the ruler of the invading civilization reilize this and desire to use his life-essence to gain god-like power from a demon

  33. CCOlsonon 05 Dec 2011 at 6:10 pm

    I would imagine that “the ability to communicate with all of life” could have some serious drawbacks. For starters, “all of life” should include any number of selfish, ambivalent, or downright evil influences.

    One possible twist could be that the idea to use the prophet to gain the power of the demon is the demon’s idea and not the general’s. The demon tempts the general to attack these tribes and hold them hostage so that he can be freed to wreak havoc on the world.

    Or perhaps the demon tempts the prophet to set the demon free in order to protect his tribes from the general’s armies.

    Wherever you have strong spiritual, and especially demonic, elements you have rich territory for exploring moral and psychological conflict.

  34. Rogon 05 Dec 2011 at 6:33 pm

    the tempting the prophrt thing seems pretty cool, since my theme is suppose to circulate around faith;thanks.
    also, does this seem like a good theme to use, because it seems a bit hard to be diverse with.

  35. CCOlsonon 05 Dec 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Howso? It depends in large part on what you as the writer believe faith is and how it functions. If you have a personal faith that will definitely affect your thoughts on this. I think the best thing with a theme is to make sure your thoughts on the theme are clear before you start. Unless your novel is exploratory. The first novel I actually finished started during my conversion to Christianity and ended up as an exploration of faith, love and sacrifice that clarified my ideas AS I wrote it.

    To say this another way, faith is a broad topic that comprises one of the central elements of human existence. Your theme should be something more specific about faith, such as a question about faith, a conflict between views on faith, or a specific statement on faith.

    Again I recommend Death Note. If you read the wikipedia article on it, the author states that he had a very clear theme in mind for the story.

  36. Rogon 05 Dec 2011 at 7:05 pm

    cool, thanks.

  37. Nicholas Caseon 05 Dec 2011 at 7:33 pm

    CC, about your Protagonist, remember-not all protagonists have to be the “good-guy”. Myst people think the protagonist is the good guy and vice-versa for the bad guy, but really, an antagonist is anyone who opposes the main character. I think a story would be interesting if you had a main character turn evil or start out evil. In fact, It’d be impressive if you manage to keep the reader’s on the protagonists side> and even with Death Note, the protagonist ended up becoming insane and losing the notebook anyway, so the main character doesn’t have to be good and dosen’t have to succeed. But does at least ONE goal in the book get accomplished? That’s the determining factor…….

  38. CCOlsonon 05 Dec 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Carol can’t be a villain, but never fear. I believe in the doctrine of Total Depravity, also known as the All Humans Suck principle. I hope to have characters who screw up and do mediocre evil on a regular basis. This includes Carol.

  39. Nicholas Caseon 06 Dec 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Lol um ok CC. 😀

  40. Neilon 04 Jun 2012 at 10:28 am

    Hello everyone. First off, I would like to thank you for posting this article. It’s been very helpful. That said, I am having issues with the protagonist in my story. Specifically, I feel like the problems may concern two things. The first of which is characterization. I feel while somewhat fleshed out, he needs to be. That said, by using character questionnaires, I’m trying to rectify that. Alas, that isn’t the main issue.

    My second problem is of course challenging him. My worry is that down the road, he might not be sufficiently challenged enough. That said, I have a couple of solutions that might work, however, I would request a second opinion on them.

    However, before I go into detail, I should give a synopsis as to the plot of the story and the main character’s roll.

    ” The date s 560 BBK. Across the corners of the planet Zavira, a terrible war reigns. Fueled by two powerful kingdoms, the brutality is immense, as , millions of lives have perished during its fifteen year period.

    While living in seclusion from the fighting, Kai wasn’t one to stand idly by. Training to the maximum, the sixteen year old dedicated his being to one cause. The task was to end the war and create a better tomorrow. Even with the mounting skepticism against him, fate would have other things in store.

    From the relics of a long, forgotten civilization, an ancient power is bestowed on the teen. Along with several other incidences, the Kai is thrust into the war, torn world, having a chance to enact his goal. However, this won’t be easy. From other super-powered entities to hidden enemies, the task will push Kai harder than anything imaginable.

    Coupled with the revelations as to why the war started, can he survive? Or will he loose something in the process?”

    I apologize if it the summary was long, but I had wanted to make sure everyone understood. Being that this was a war inspired story, one of Kai’s possible challenges could be he is prideful.

    Setting out to end the war and accumulating multiple successes, the teen could overestimate himself and his abilities. I imagine this reaching to a point, where he’s so sure of himself and victory that he disobeys one of the commanding soldiers and takes a garrison of troops, only to come back severely wounded and little less than half of the force surviving.

    In regards to second challenge, as emphasized above, he could have to face scenarios, where decisions he could make could have more lasting implications. I could envision a scene where he’s with a recon squadron and such is surrounded by enemy forces. Sure, while Kai maybe able to escape, his comrades wouldn’t be so lucky.

    And perhaps the final problem could be an interior one. Despite being on the so-called “good” side, I could see either a politician or general who isn’t so accepting of Kai’s presence. This is to the point, where they might try to demonize or worse, attempt to co-opt him.

    So what does everyone think of those ideas? They might not be anything extraordinary, but hopefully they should suffice. I’m also very keen as to keep other factors in check. All in all, I thank everyone for reading this message.

  41. B. McKenzieon 05 Jun 2012 at 3:23 am

    “While living in seclusion from the fighting, Kai wasn’t one to stand idly by. Training to the maximum, the sixteen year old dedicated his being to one cause. The task was to end the war and create a better tomorrow. Even with the mounting skepticism against him, fate would have other things in store.” Mounting skepticism? People are aware of his effort? (When you’re submitting to publishers, I’d recommend explaining this more clearly—for example, if he’s been chosen by a military/government for this purpose, then we’d understand why people might be skeptical, but if he were just training in seclusion, I don’t understand how enough people know of his efforts that there could be mounting skepticism).

    My main concern about the story is that the main character doesn’t appear to have much of a personality so far. What are some things he would do or say that most other protagonists in his genre (let’s say YA and/or military action) wouldn’t do in the same situations? What are some unusual decisions he makes?

    “From the relics of a long, forgotten civilization, an ancient power is bestowed on the teen.” This makes him sound like a Chosen One (a protagonist passively chosen for greatness and/or is chosen mainly because he’s the protagonist rather than any reason that would make a lot of sense to other characters)—this is usually not as interesting as someone who plays a more active role in his call to adventure. It might help if he was chosen because of something he did (e.g. something memorable that made him stand out)—for example, Steve Rogers beat several other candidates for the Captain America program. The competition helped raise the stakes and contributed to character development. Alternately, the protagonist of Ender’s Game is “Chosen” for a small role (he is sent to an elite military academy), but he earns his much larger role in the impending war by doing some outlandish things at the academy and generally distinguishing himself.

    “Coupled with the revelations as to why the war started, can he survive?” This would be more interesting if he had enough development that readers would care about him. “Or will he lose something in the process?” This strikes me as significantly more promising. However, if this is a major plot thread, I’d recommend covering the groundwork when you’re submitting to publishers (e.g. what he’s at risk of losing—we don’t know much about him or how the war might change him).

    One potential challenge would be that, even if he were a tremendously powerful soldier (by virtue of superpowers beyond his control), he’s not actually ready to lead and his leadership does not inspire confidence from his men (especially if he’s significantly younger and less experienced than most of the men under his command). Case in point: being an excellent marksman would not by itself make someone a good lieutenant, let alone a good captain. Superpowers or not, it’d probably take him time to develop tactical and leadership skills (and it would probably be more interesting if he struggles with either or both).

    I like the idea of him being so sure of victory that he disobeys a direct order. I think it’s an unusual choice which would help give him a personality*. What are the consequences of that failure?
    *If at all possible, I’d like him to have a notable personality from page 1.

    “I could envision a scene where he’s with a recon squadron and such is surrounded by enemy forces. Sure, while Kai may be able to escape, his comrades wouldn’t be so lucky.” If he had a reputation for being willing to throw away his men to survive, it’d be very hard for his men (perhaps his next squad, if he gets one) to trust him. Depending on the severity of the situation, he might even prompt one or more of his men to attempt to desert, mutiny, and/or murder him to save their own lives. If Kai is well-known to the enemy and the enemy knows that his men are wavering under his command, the enemy commander might be able to damage Kai’s unit by announcing to the trapped soldiers that they’re only interested in Kai and that anybody else interested in surrendering would not be harmed.

    “I could see either a politician or general who isn’t so accepting of Kai’s presence.” I think this could be helpful. For example, if Kai has made a major blunder (like disobeying a direct order and getting half of his unit captured or killed), he might have to make some sort of proverbial deal with the devil (e.g. a general or politician) to save his position and/or delay a court-martial long enough that he can save his captured men. I’d be intrigued to see what a nefarious general or politician would demand in return for his support. (An assassination? Support for a coup?)

  42. Neilon 05 Jun 2012 at 5:37 am

    @B. Mckenzie

    First off, thank you very much for responding to my post. The feedback you have given has been quite helpful and I am very grateful for it. On your point of lacking personality, I am not one to deny this.

    My biggest weakness as a writer would probably be envisioning character personalities. Even if I am good at description and fight scenes, it doesn’t matter,because my work will still be less of an “Avengers” and will seem more like “Transformers”.

    That in mind, I’ve decided to put the piece on hiatus and do a mock interview of my character. By asking questions similar to what a reporter asked, I was trying flesh out his character and make him as real as possible.

    This was done in the character’s voice and style, so as I could get into his mind. With that said, the first question I asked was if there were four words Kai could describe himself with, what would they be?

    Just writing based on spur of thought, I came with the following: Collected, distant, resilient and loyal.

    From what I envision, Kai is a collected figure. He’s a man of few words and would rather have his actions speak for him. Maybe again, as you have suggested, this could be a point of contention, as many soldiers won’t liken up to Kai at first, given his apparent lack of leadership capabilities.

    That said, he was distant for most of his life, isolating himself from others. This wasn’t because he hated them or disliked them; rather he believed attachments would not help him and that he couldn’t trust himself to make friends with others, considering his past.

    With that said, I do remember writing a scene, where he expressed regret for doing so. Again, maybe it furthers the point you made about distrust amongst the ranks. But despite his closed in tendencies, from what I get, it seems Kai is a resilient figure. He’s not one to give up easily and will always push himself.

    I do see this being a positive trait, for again it may show the distrustful soldiers that while not straightforward or charismatic, he’s not one to whimper so easily. Having that in perspective, an opposite to this could be that Kai’s prideful. Having been bestowed incredible gifts, Kai wants to place the burden mostly on his shoulders.

    This could result in him making reckless decisions and such having profound consequences, as having most of his unit captured or himself being severely wounded or caught.

    The final aspect loyalty was something that was complicated. Sure, he could have been loyal for the sake not wanting to let his friends down. But I feel there needs to be a better explanation.

    And I do believe I have a tentative one. War is brutal. Kai knows this. Having seen countless people die, he’s not blind to the reality that death may encompass those close to him. Thus, he has a greater understanding of the meaning of life. Considering that his abilities are based on life energy, this works in the long-run, as a visual representation.

    So in essence, to use your example again, I do see the soldiers who are about to turn on him, stopped, when Kai does surrender, but requests that the rest go free so as they can live on.

    Hopefully my character is better fleshed out now, but I am open for suggestions. Again, I do thank you for your insight.

  43. Neilon 18 Aug 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Hello, everyone. It’s been a while. Having said that, I would like to thank the author for posting this article. The character, Kai, upon looking deeper was in fact a Mary Sue. This is not surprising. Given the fact, the story was started during Nanowrmo, the notion of refinement was NOT on my mind at the time.

    That said, upon reading more articles on this site, and realizing the mistakes, I was tempted to abandon this project in favor of another one I was working on. That said, I am asking whether or not I should CONTINUE the story, involving Kai.

    Given he’s a so-called “Chosen” one, it may seem like a lost cause. Part of me wants to continue, because I wish to see whether or not. Also, I’ve written sixteen chapters, which was quite a lot.

    The second alternative story is as follows: “After proving himself in a supposed life or death trial, Derek Masters has joined the Adjudicators, an inter-dimensional policing organization who’s goals is the protection of the infinite realms. Derek must utilize his powers to stop a group from destroying Earth”

    I apologize if the summary was too long, but I wanted to get across the story. Basically, if there were four words to describe him they would be as follows: Jovial, Carefree, Absent-minded and Impulsive.

    Derek’s a carefree guy. He’s not the type who constantly worries or is out to prove himself. He’s very content. Given the severity of his backstory, he realizes that the world is a screwed up place. But instead of complaining, he accepts things they way they are and appreciates what he has.

    This translates to his good-humored atitude. He’s not the kind of guy who shys away from life. Instead, he’s the type of person who appreciates what it can hold, and his cheerful about it.

    This can be summed up in his statement “Livin’ in the moment” where he doesn’t allow the harshness of those around him affect him. This also can translate into what he values in people, which is being content with themselves.

    That said, his idea of taking in everything does lead him to be too engrossed with his surroundings. This leads to his flaw in absent-mindedness. Derek can get easily distracted and will gaze at his surroundings.

    This results in him being completely negligent of people and what they say and such has gotten him into major trouble (For example, listening to his best friend, Liam, about a certain criminal, only to not remember a thing). This made even more apparent, given his power Sound manipulation to which his enhanced hearing further distracts him.

    This leads into his impulsive behavior. Despite reveling in everything, Derek’s not very patient. Much of this can go back to his childhood to which after the tragedy he’d faced. His need to be rash comes from how he hates to loose the things he has. That said, he doesn’t want to heistate and would rather rush to get things done; rather than wait and loose them.

    This of course leads him into some reckless actions to which have led to some profound consequences( such as firing off a sonic attack which nearly left one of his friends deaf).

    All in all, how’s that. I understand this character may need work. Do you think I should stick with him or go back to my original work?

  44. Squatchyon 08 Feb 2014 at 7:29 pm

    My hero is too committed to his goals. I think it would be cool to showcase this by having a criminal take a hostage and having the hero not care and shoot right through the hostage. The hero is a bit of a pshyco. I was wondering if this would go too far.

  45. B. McKenzieon 08 Feb 2014 at 9:49 pm

    “I think it would be cool to showcase this by having a criminal take a hostage and having the hero not care and shoot right through the hostage. The hero is a bit of a psycho. I was wondering if this would go too far.” My concern here is that this would probably make the hero a lot less likable (unless perhaps we have some reason to not mind the hostage getting killed). What sort of redeeming traits does the character have?

  46. Squatchyon 09 Feb 2014 at 3:30 pm

    The setting for the story is a place where the day you turn 21, the government is on the hunt to kill you, for they rebelled against the adults at a previous date. Coof is the main character, and he and his brother escape this by running into rebels that have a “cure” (superpowers). The “cure” is killing him and his brother. His brother gets to manipulate his age, and Coof goes into another persons body. Coof feels terrible for killing someone, and wants to change the govt. and find his brother. His brother ends up high in the govt. and is trying to lower the age. Coof and his brother(Russell) hate each other without knowing that the person they hate is the person they are looking for. Coof can grant powers to whom he wishes, and his team is bought out by the govt. and therefor makes his villains. After this he loses trust, and cares little about anyone, but he does make a new team. The main point I want to make in this story is: Would you rather be a nice guy fighting for bad, or a murderer fighting for a greater cause?. I am not sure what redeeming traits would fit him. Can you help me here?

    P.S. All of the powers take a lot of concentration and makes using the power draining or even deadly if it is used to much in a single period.

  47. Squatchyon 10 Feb 2014 at 3:38 pm

    I took the quiz, and it says that my character is a Mary Sue! I need help with defining traits, as well as making my character more interesting. Anything would be a great deal of help. Thank you in advance.

  48. Anonymouson 17 Apr 2014 at 6:09 pm

    What if your mary sue is a verifiable swiss army knife of powers ? some of those points might not work for say green lantern

  49. B. McKenzieon 19 Apr 2014 at 10:28 am

    “What if your mary sue is a verifiable swiss army knife of powers ? some of those points might not work for say green lantern.”

    If the superpowers you’ve selected make it very hard to challenge the character or give him difficult decisions, I’d strongly recommend selecting different superpowers or limiting his capabilities in some other way.

  50. Yuuki991on 03 Jul 2014 at 3:49 pm

    Greetings once again. I am in the process of refining my rough draft for my work, White Noise. With that said, I am in the process of revising the story. With that said, I have performed some Gary Stu tests in regards to my main character, Derek Masters.

    Aside from stylistic aspects, the tests came back as him as not being a Mary sue. However, with that said, I am uncertain if he is in fact a good character. As such, I could use a critical eye in determining whether or not he’s bad.

    In terms of Derek’s flaws, when writing the story there were two that I noticed. the first one was his stubbornness. While easy going, Derek is quite sure of himself. This stems into believing his method( of taking it easy, having the right to choose, and not being so uptight) is the right method. This, coupled with his recklessness, has caused Derek to make horrible decisions.

    For example, when one of his friend’s was taken hostage, Derek rushed in, without thinking things through(and believing his abilities would be more than enough). The result was that his friend was shot critically, and she was put into a coma.

    The other noteworthy negative trait that was present in Derek was his cockiness. Although resolving to be more careful, Derek(given he had gotten everything under control) got a little smug. Specifically, while there was the threat that earth was going to be destroyed, Derek cockily thought he could have handled it.

    This caused him to underestimate one of the main leaders of the evil organization and nearly die, before escaping. This was to showcase Derek is not perfect, that he could allow his hubris to get the better of him, and in turn cause him to mess up.

    The final aspect with the story I handled was with the villain. Without giving spoilers, my villain motivations are altruistic. As you have stated, I like these kind of villains. They aren’t so hard to write off, and puts some thought provoking questions.

    As for Derek, the lead villianess asks him to join. Derek agrees(though of course he is against her actions), but the decision is unique in that 99% of other heroes put into that similar situation would have refused.

    Among other unorthodox decisions was when Derek was selected by the Adjudicators( the inter-dimensional organization for justice) to take the trail to join them, Derek initially refused, because he couldn’t see himself into the role. After being goaded (hitting his competitive streak), Derek decided to take the trial.

    But after realizing that his decision to take the trail was quite selfish, and sacrificing himself to save a contestant from being eliminated was he chosen. All in all, how is he as a character? Does he need to be further revised?

    I look forward to all the feedback.

  51. Scarecrowon 05 Jul 2014 at 5:50 am

    Hey @Yuuki991! I think Derek could be an interesting character, but what I would be concerned with, more than his actual character, would be how you would be able to develop him throughout the story, given what you’ve stated here.

    The fact that Derek twice overestimates his own abilities, once resulting in his friend getting shot, and the other time almost dying himself, shows that he’s not learning from his mistakes – which could be played up really well, if that’s the kind of hero you’re trying to present! But if not, you should probably cut one of the two, and he could learn and become a better hero as a result.

    I’d also be a bit worried about the scope of the story – Derek goes from failing to save his friend, to believing that he can save the world from destruction. That seems to be a real ramp up in story, but if Derek couldn’t save his friend, why would he be able to save the world?

    It’d help if I knew what his powers were, and how you intend on using them to face the challenges that you’ve mentioned, in order to give a more detailed review. Overall, though, I see nothing evidently wrong with anything there, if you do it right. 🙂

  52. B. McKenzieon 05 Jul 2014 at 8:26 am

    “I’d also be a bit worried about the scope of the story – Derek goes from failing to save his friend, to believing that he can save the world from destruction. That seems to be a real ramp up in story, but if Derek couldn’t save his friend, why would he be able to save the world?” My analogy here may be flawed, but I think this could work with the right execution. For example, early on, the Avengers are somewhat low on the competence scale (e.g. they can’t save Coulsen from a villain that is not a remarkably good fighter), but they ramp up pretty quickly to saving the world.

  53. Yuuki991on 06 Jul 2014 at 7:10 pm

    @Scarecrow

    First off, thank you very much for the feedback. I very much appreciate it. To that, considering you want more details about Derek’s powers and the challenges he’s going to face, I’ll provide them. Derek’s powers revolve around Sound. He can create a sonic scream, and exert sonic vibrations, giving him a type of super speed and enhanced leaping(using sound waves to propel him, like a spring). Derek also has enhanced hearing.

    As for the hostage situation with his friend, Derek had considered trying to use his sound powers to protect a concentrated sound wave that would have shattered the villain’s gun. The issue was that he wasn’t confident, and in turn given the enemy was about to get away, Derek decided to risk rushing him. This was disastrous of course, as the consequence was that his friend was shot.

    For underestimating one of main villains, there were two reasons for this. The first deals with what B.Mac stated on his site. The villains have every right to be as strong as they do. The purpose is to challenge the hero. If a protagonist isn’t challenged sufficiently, then the story suffers, as the audience won’t be as connected with the protagonist. The second reason was due to Derek’s character.

    Prior to Derek’s fight against the foe (His name is Sekeru), Derek had to tackle a powerful droid. The robotic enemy proved to be quite dangerous, but due to some quick thinking, Derek managed to defeat the robotic. Along with his notoriety as a hero and having defeated a few other powerful foes, Derek became comfortable, confident that he could take on Sekeru and the organization he worked for, Black Thorne Legion.

    I wished to showcase that Derek’s laid back attitude does have a consequence, that his inability to recognize threats, coupled with overestimating his skills would be his downfall. So to answer your question, yes this is the type of hero I want Derek to portray: someone who has his heart in the right place, but certain aspects hold him back.

    As B. Mac stated a character’s flaws are often more important then their positives, as they serve as helping develop the character. Does the character change and do these flaws lessen? Or does the character ignore them and in turn risk being destroyed by them? All in all, hopefully this helps you more and such I look forward to your feedback.

  54. Byakuya21on 28 Jul 2014 at 10:19 am

    Greetings. I am currently going over a story that I wrote in High school. To be blunt, it was bad, but again I wrote this when I was a teenager. That said, I am hoping to salvage my main character Kai, who I felt was a Gary Stu and really overpowered/bland. Alas, I digress.

    Some of of things I did was tighten up Kai’s traits. These include him being rugged(trait I emphasize the most for now), driven and collected. His flaws being prideful, abrasive (especially to those who he doesn’t know). For being rugged, given Kai lost his parents and his eventual friend, Darren(the story is about him trying to stop a war, and his friend dies on the battle.), Kai’s been through an emotional gambit.

    That said, this feature could have come as a way for Kai to mentally discipline himself, and cope with the losses he dealt with. This leads to his collected behavior. Kai motto is that actions speak louder than words. This was something he got from his mother, who was a soldier. He believes the best way to get something done is to do it, rather than talk. Hence, this leads to his abrasive behavior as he has little patience with those who exemplify this(aka politicians).

    For pride, Kai values himself to quite a high level. This proves to be his detriment, as his ego can get the better of him,which places himself and others in danger. For example, he charged after a group of soldiers, believing they could take them out, against orders. This resulted his unit being surrounded and in turn getting them all killed, while surviving.

    I apologize if this post is too long. I’ll be brief. For Kai’s abilities here’s a summary:” By possessing the Tonfas of Zelsis, Kai gains access to Celestial Pulse: A chi like energy that exists in all life. With it, he can enhance his physiology(strength, speed etc.), and can generate/ manipulate wind”. In many ways, Kai’s powers resemble a mix between Thor and Iron Fist. That said, aside from energy exhaustion, I like the idea of worthiness being apart of the weakness.

    The weapons are sentiment and enchanted. Therefore, Kai can only wield them. However, if he does something that betrays the noble intensions, such as killing, letting his pride get the better of him(the above example). The weapons will cease to function, seeing Kai no longer worthy. Kai will need once more earn the weapon’s trust. I can see this as a bit of character development, where Kai becomes more humbled and realizes that his goal of ending the war is one out of noble sentiment. Not as a means to vent out his frustrations.

    All in all, hopefully that is enough to further flesh out his character. I look forward to any feedback, positive or negative.

  55. Jade D.on 26 Jul 2015 at 10:17 pm

    I have been told by a few tests that my character is a Mary Sue. However, I don’t believe them. But just to be sure, I would like some help from actual people who understand the context of the story and its universe. Tell me if you think I just love this character to much or if she needs saving.

    Alex Rosa, a semi-upper-class Hispanic American in her mid-teens who lives in the Arizona Foothills. Her parents are often not home because they do business abroad, but she has a caretaker who is a family friend and resembles a loving aunt. Alex is obsessed with crime journalism, she has a collection of crime-related news articles and ritually watches nightly crime reports. She even landed an internship and get information for a local news blog. Rather than just sit at home a research crimes, however, Alex decides the best way to get information is in the field itself. She often tracts police radio calls and shows up a suspected crime scenes, most often resulting in her missing school. She even convinced her friends to help her with her field work, but soon she starts take more and bigger risks when the story of the century appears to be on er doorstep. Soon her friends cannot stand by and watch her hurt herself, let alone encourage it. Alex is outraged by her friend’s rightful warnings about danger, so she proceeds alone out of spite.

    Here is the part I think raises a red flag for Mary Sue potential
    After following the clues and relentlessly searching, she is caught by the antagonists. Alex is then about to be killed when it is discovered that the device the antagonists where trying to use works only after it fuses to Alex’s skin. This device then lets out a burst of energy and knocks everyone, including Alex, unconscious, along with allowing the police to find her. However, Alex is known to be somewhat of a delinquent (for reasons like skipping school, showing up on crime scenes, acquiring confidential information about police case, ect.) so they hold her for questioning.

    A little more about the device: The device is known as a Power Stone, one of many alien artifacts that contain AI that use creatures with compatible DNA patterns as a host.(people share alien DNA in this universe)These AI give the host temporary great power as it feeds essentially on it’s life force. The most it is used the more powerful the AI gets and the weaker the host becomes.

    Knowing all of this, am I crazy for thinking Alex is not a Mary Sue? I would like a reply so I can get a view not tainted by authorial bias.

  56. Jade D.on 26 Jul 2015 at 10:36 pm

    I may have forgotten to mention in the second book, Alex is one of the four “chosen ones” is the “prophecy” in-universe known as Cold Night/Fire Light. She and her best friend (and there two love intrests) are fused with the four types of Power Stones and must got to a temple to “save the world”

    SPOILER WARNING:
    It was really just some time travelers from the future who got stuck in the past and use there foresight to convince them to build a space bridge to get to the present and then leap to the future in their freshly charge time machine

  57. Jade D.on 26 Jul 2015 at 10:38 pm

    (Sorry, the above comment was suppose to be after these next two)
    I have been told by a few tests that my character is a Mary Sue. However, I don’t believe them. But just to be sure, I would like some help from actual people who understand the context of the story and its universe. Tell me if you think I just love this character to much or if she needs saving.
    Alex Rosa, a semi-upper-class Hispanic American in her mid-teens who lives in the Arizona Foothills. Her parents are often not home because they do business abroad, but she has a caretaker who is a family friend and resembles a loving aunt. Alex is obsessed with crime journalism, she has a collection of crime-related news articles and ritually watches nightly crime reports. She even landed an internship and get information for a local news blog. Rather than just sit at home a research crimes, however, Alex decides the best way to get information is in the field itself. She often tracts police radio calls and shows up a suspected crime scenes, most often resulting in her missing school. She even convinced her friends to help her with her field work, but soon she starts take more and bigger risks when the story of the century appears to be on er doorstep. Soon her friends cannot stand by and watch her hurt herself, let alone encourage it. Alex is outraged by her friend’s rightful warnings about danger, so she proceeds alone out of spite.

  58. Jade D.on 26 Jul 2015 at 10:39 pm

    …Here is the part I think raises a red flag for Mary Sue potential
    After following the clues and relentlessly searching, she is caught by the antagonists. Alex is then about to be killed when it is discovered that the device the antagonists where trying to use works only after it fuses to Alex’s skin. This device then lets out a burst of energy and knocks everyone, including Alex, unconscious, along with allowing the police to find her. However, Alex is known to be somewhat of a delinquent (for reasons like skipping school, showing up on crime scenes, acquiring confidential information about police case, ect.) so they hold her for questioning.
    A little more about the device: The device is known as a Power Stone, one of many alien artifacts that contain AI that use creatures with compatible DNA patterns as a host.(people share alien DNA in this universe)These AI give the host temporary great power as it feeds essentially on it’s life force. The most it is used the more powerful the AI gets and the weaker the host becomes.
    Knowing all of this, am I crazy for thinking Alex is not a Mary Sue? I would like a reply so I can get a view not tainted by authorial bias.

  59. X Personon 08 Feb 2016 at 6:09 pm

    I honestly don’t see how ANY of that makes her a Mary Sue, but I do have a question myself. My main character, Squishy (I know the name sounds corny but there is a story to it) actually has a gooey thingamajig he puts on that 1) gives him his powers and 2) Makes anyone who put’s it on that pretty much turns him/her into a person 65% better in almost every way. Mary Sue?

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