Is he a Mary Sue?

I've been thinking about one of my older characters lately, and I can't help but wonder if I accidentally created a Mary Sue. It's too late to do anything about it since the book's already out, but maybe I can improve things for the sequel (which I'm writing now) And I'm not sure if I, as the author, can really be objective about it. So, based on just his basic characteristics, what do you guys think?

He's a 19 year old genius, working on an invention that even the world's greatest inventor (who he's studying under) is impressed by. I tried to use his intelligence all through the story, like when he learns to fight he views the battle as a puzzle where using the right moves and attacks and predicting what his enemy would do would "solve" the puzzle and he'd win. He only trains for about a month, but because of his creativity and the powers he acquires, he's able to take on whole crowds of people and, while not win, he can at least hold them off until he can escape. Though, in his defense, he was also trained by someone with superstrength, so he either had to learn fast or get walloped repeatedly. He also figures things out that other people can't, and in the end is the one who solves the mystery. Again though, in his defense he's not all powerful. He needs superpowered partner/mentor because even though he's a genius and a skilled fighter, there are still somethings that are completely out of his league.

What do you think?

Is he boring?

Because you brought up a lot of points that say to me, "This character sounds very much like a Mary Sue," and utterly none for, "This is a bad thing."

Tony Stark's a Mary Sue. Batman is a darker Mary Sue. Hell, Starlord and Luke Skywalker and Hermione Granger and Sarah Kerrigan and Iildan and every single character you play in a FPS or some RP is a Mary Sue. They always ultimately win, they stack the odds so heavily in their favour for every scenario by being either inexplicably prepared or inexplicably talented, they end up getting whatever they want OR ever-so-conveniently changing what they wanted in the first place so it looks like they never suffered a defeat (Of course we weren't going to hook up! She's my sister (now)! That'd be gross!), and they're always the only one able to be trusted with a certain power or responsibility even when at times it looks like they really shouldn't be (but hey, it just so turns out that the impulsive, alcoholic billionaire really IS the safest choice for these robot death-suits).

So if you're asking, you're nervous that someone's going to call you out for the guy being a Mary Sue, and you're only nervous because you don't trust yourself to say, "So what?" So - is it 'cause your guy's boring? Is he breaking the rules so much that it's breaking your plot? Is being a Mary Sue at all detrimental to the entertainment of your story? Because if it's not, then even if your character IS a Mary Sue, why would you change what's working?

And if it's not working, then you need to change it anyway, Mary Sue-ness be damned.

The last time Mary Sue was brought up in this forum someone (and I don't remember who, I wish I did so I could provide proper attribution) made the point that Mary Sues aren't Mary Sues because they're always awesome - it's because their victories don't feel earned.

Tony Stark isn't a Mary Sue because he's a colossal screwup - we love how he screws up because he's so entertaining when he does it, but he makes lots of bad decisions that he has to work through. Rey (from The Force Awakens) was accused of being a Mary Sue on the grounds that she could apparently do everything - use the force, shoot, fix and fly the Millennium Falcon - but knowing all that stuff didn't make life easy for her, it just gave her the tools she needed to handle the situations she was in. I was a little aggravated by the breadth of her competence from time to time, but I never felt she was phoning in her attempts to survive.

So my suggestion, for what it's worth, is to look at it in terms of how much effort the protagonist has to put into winning overall. If he wins spectacularly all the time but he has to put his back into it then if there's a problem, I don't think it's Mary Sue.

'Is he a Mary Sue' is not a useful question. "Face or Heel" is what it is getting at. Will the audience root for, or against him? The audience wants Picard to succeed, Wesley Crusher to fail.

Readers are twitchy, bucking, halting creatures. They want to root for underdogs, and if your MC is so powerful/skillful/graceful/whatever that the enemy are the underdogs then you'll have this problem.

Mary Sues are also subjective. Tony Stark's victories by and large don't feel earned to me, but one person's Mary Sue is another's totally normal character. It's not a hard and fast line. And like I said, it doesn't necessarily mean they're bad.

I know the specific term 'Mary Sue' is for poorly executed world-bends-around-me characters, but there are good examples of those exact traits and backstories and unearned victories that have a great execution within their story - because they serve it in some other, positive way.

So again, I don't think it should come down to yes-or-no Mary Sue-ness. Does this character work for your story? Do they encourage readers to keep reading? Do they support the overall entertainment or message? If they don't, change THAT. That's a core problem. Just tweaking a few things to be able to say, "Okay, he trained for two years instead of a month, he doesn't count as a Mary Sue anymore" might not change the inordinate amount of time spent on this character or the plot inconsistencies they create or the pacing problems they put in. Those are the bigger issues. The actual Mary Sue-ness is all cosmetic.

What are his flaws?

First off, Walter, many of us wanted Crusher to succeed. He paid his dues, he earned his lumps, and his only sin was to be right as a child around adults who couldnt stand to be wrong. (Also, i may be wrong, but your view of Wesley tells me that you are either younger than 30 or older than 40. yes no?)

Ahem. sorry.

Adam, you're pointing out a lot of points where the character failed, learned, and grew. that right there generally invalidates a mary sue. mary sues spontaneously exhibit new powers and abilities as needed to get the job done without earning them. Youre good.

I'm going to agree with the others. The term Mary Sue originally referred to self-indulgent wish-fulfillment characters. Huge swathes of fiction is about wish fulfillment, and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. The problem is, some authors make their characters all into avatars through which they can live out their dreams without thinking enough about whether this is interesting for the reader. I think that's the important thing.

This is an area I've thought about from time to time, and there are certainly some great points made here. I will note that the term Mary Sue has been perhaps overused, since I can take a Mary Sue test about a real life character and have them declared a Mary Sue. Abraham Lincoln was totally the chosen one.

If I could add anything useful, it's to expand on what Dary has said as well. Include the flaws. There's got to be a downside. Great athletes suffer all kinds of injuries that sideline them, require attention to diet, and wear down quickly. There tend to be social problems, even disorders, associated with people of extremely high intelligence. In my case, a crazy awesome omnicidal maniac doesn't often evoke a lot of trust from people, even if he was doing the right thing this time.

One of my favorite game series is Tropico. For awhile, they had traits and flaws. You had to take as many flaws as you did traits, then they went and combined the system so that traits have a downside in addition to the benefit. If you were installed in a democratic revolution, citizens will have much higher democratic expectations and you'll lose more respect for not fulfilling a campaign promise. Your background as a Farmer might cause problems with the Intellectuals respecting you. Your president has Tourette's Syndrome? You lose respect from a random faction every year, but you get a little extra money from PPV buys of your speeches. Gambler? You can randomly lose or make money every year, but you lose the respect of the religious faction.

So that's something to think about.

What I'm noticing about all those "flaws", though, is that they're external repercussions of a positive trait, so, really, they're more like disadvantages.

A flaw would be something internal, a negative personality trait or personal belief. In this example: he's a teen prodigy, so maybe he has issues with pride? He's not all powerful so needs help - then what if his arrogance prevents him from asking for it? And what if the price for becoming a genius had seem him neglect his emotional intelligence? Maybe he can't read others, or expects them to act like the predictable formulae he works with?

If the only downsides are on other people's shoulders, then yes, you're pushing into idealised avatar territory.

As mentioned the term Mary-Sue is subjective and I really do hate the term because of that. So from this point on, I'm not even going to mention it in this post.

To me, your character sounds as if they can do too much. I've not read the story so my opinion is limited to the information you provided me so everything following this statement is generalized. The thing with overpowered character, you can suspend your disbelief only so much. When that happens, the character starts to be unrelatable because they never have meaningful struggle. And what few times they do, it doesn't seem to matter. Having your character needed to depend on someone else doesn't really offset this unless you made it matter and has some impact. If this sounds like your character, then you have an issue.

And I will state, there is nothing bad about being a skilled character. You don't need to strip them down of everything. You just want something that holding them back that has signifigance. One way to do that is giving a character a character flaw. And to be honest, it doesn't have to be grand and it doesn't have to be multiple flaws. A single good character flaw can go a long way.

However, since this is an established character and story, you don't want to shoehorn anything in that wasn't present before, then look at the conflict you are writing. With a character like this, provide them a conflict that tests their skills or their skills aren't effective. However, you don't want to do it in the way of they need to gain more power without consequence and no impact.

Now if all of that really doesn't help you, then you can own it and have fun with it.

Another way to put this are writing a web serial.

You don't get paid. It doesn't matter if people stop reading.

Write what you want, if the character is almighty in your mind then go with that.

Thanks for the feedback, guys! To those of you who are asking what his flaws are... that's a little hard to answer. I have a hard time giving my characters flaws without them feeling forced. Mostly, I plan out the plot, what the characters need to do in it, where they fit into the world, and then go from there. Sure, I could say, "He has an irrational fear of clowns," but I'd have a hard time working it into the plot without it feeling forced. I tend to let the plot itself shape the characters. Such as, he starts out weak, shy, uncoordinated, and doesn't give a crap about the mission his partner wants him to go on. Over the course of the story, he grows as a character and leaves all that behind. Could those be called character flaws, or are they just run of the mill character development?

In my new story (which I'll be releasing as soon as my artist finishes the cover *grumble grumble*) the MC's flaws are a bit easier to define. He's an outlaw, a bad person, and he knows it. He intentionally antagonizes people who praise him because it conflicts with his "I'm a monster" mentality. Even when his wife tells him she still loves him, he ties her to a chair and abandons her because he feels like he has to punish himself for what he's done, and he doesn't deserve her.

But the MC in the story I'm working on now is a little harder. He's a good guy, never hurt anybody in his life, and there just aren't many places I could give him an obvious flaw without it being glaringly, obviously forced. You know what I mean?

I guess I don't understand why an athlete being more prone to injury doesn't count. It's what happens as a natural consequence of their lifestyle. The thing they do that makes them better than other people also includes drawbacks that can cripple them at a later stage of their life. The NFL's problems with chronic traumatic encephalopathy are now infamous. The social disorder thing with some people is often not an external thing. I'm talking Asperger's and other disorders, actual things people get diagnosed with. Or OCD, especially if you like the show Scrubs and Dr. Casy, the doc with OCD who makes everyone mad by being so much better than them, but is stuck washing his hands two hours after his last surgery.

And there's a deep stigma attached to mental disorders even when the person isn't a homicidal maniac. It follows people throughout their lives, and they are more likely to be victims of violent crime for one reason or another. I can imagine that if someone's word is suspect, someone's more likely to do things to them due to a perceived lack of repercussions. Who are you going to believe, them or the person who had to be committed? If not committed, then someone who has to take medicine because something's off with their brain. And if not medicated, then someone who has something wrong with them but isn't even taking anything for it.

And humans are social animals. We live in a user-friendly civilization now, but social repercussions are still quite horrible and can be a death sentence. Literally, in the case of Leon Trotsky. Manipulating people is a powerful ability, and it too has inherent flaws based on what kind of a person is willing to to use people.

I'm not sure what being "a good guy" has to do with "not having any flaws". Everyone has flaws. They don't make you a bad person, they make you human.

I think you might need a little more understanding of what a character flaw is. Having a fear of clowns isn't a character flaw. It's a phobia and society might deem it as a flaw, but that's not a character flaw. They are flaws in a persons characters that hinders them in achieving their goals in the story.

A nice guy can has his flaws. My character Soletus is straight up nice guy. I feel no shame in making him like that.

However, when I completed my rough draft, he was a bit flat in that his only flaw was he was entirely too submissive which wasn't what I wanted at all. I needed someone a bit stronger of mind for the other main character. During the revisions, I had to approach him in a way where I wasn't so much picking out a flaw and assigning it to him, then shoehorning it in. I just made him more "human" and that meant he couldn't do all the right things.

The one thing that bites him in his butt is his independence. He's not easily swayed from the decisions that he makes. And it isn't that he things he's better than anyone, it's just that he thinks he's the best person to decide what he should do is himself. One could say he's stubborn. It doesn't help that the more upset he get, the less reasonable he becomes. He makes some poorly decisions which leads to bad things to happen, mostly to him. And this isn't something I dropped in the follow-up stories and the actually next novel. He learns to listen but, he's a classic case of not a follower. He'll follow rules as long as the person who is giving them isn't a weak idiot.

I had a brief discussion with the guys doing the 'We've got Worm' podcast about the whole Mary Sue thing, mostly in light of the recent Star Wars movie.

There's really two sides of this - one sort of runs on my personal definition of Mary Sue. That is - the character is written in such a way that they distort the work around them. They take the setting's established expectations or rules (including the rules of, say, basic physics, genetics, science, sociology that it says yeah, sure, we're using those basic expectations) and they bend or break them. They take the established or expected characterization and bend or break them - people don't act as they should when the Sue is in the room. They take the narrative flow and, again, bend or break it. They take the system conceits (boys can't be witches, girls can't be sorcerers) and break it (he's both!), muddying the waters and making the underlying structure of the story that much less defined.

All the way down the line. You can have Sues that are sues by virtue of how they impact worldbuilding, tone, verisimilitude, prose style, meta conceits, and so on.

Taken like this, I just really feel like you can peg a lot of the Sue-ish stuff that flies under the radar and it doesn't set too high a bar to pass - the question you're really asking is... does the character have an abusive relationship to the work?

Not all sues are overpowered or super pretty/handsome. Not all sues are self-inserts, or found in fanfiction. These elements are common in Sues though, because they're unhealthy.

Expanding on that thought - you can have a Sue that's Sue-ish because of how miserably they're treated if that treatment is such that it over-emphasizes the character or if it breaks narrative & expected characterization to happen for the sake of miserable character's character (if literally nobody, even characters we expect should have some sympathy, is capable of being nice to said character), if the story is about 'everyone hates me', and is solely an excuse for the character to angst until everyone finally grinds them into the dirt, break them & they get killed soooo tragically, the end.

I said there were two parts to this. I think there's a separate question to be asked, but it does play into the Sue designation in a passive way, and it's a good thing to focus on regardless - recent posts in the thread seem to touch on it: "A heroic character is defined by their flaws, a villainous character is defined by their strengths."

It's a writing convention that exists because we know the hero is going to win. We have an awful, awful lot of experience with media where the good guy comes out ahead in the end. So the trick for the author is to paint things in a way so there's tension regardless. That gives us one good reason to establish the negative qualities of the hero in a way that matter. We know the villain is probably going to lose, and taking the saturday morning cartoon route and having negative forces be burdened with negative qualities is like painting with black on black - you're going to struggle to create a picture that's anything beyond two dimensional.

Instead of painting with black on black for the villains and white on white for the heroes, we do white on black and black on white. Shades of grey are good too. People will be using these things to figure out your characters and they'll quickly realize if you're adding a flaw that has no substance to it - if it doesn't impact the narrative or really challenge the character. If your character is really bad with kids but never deals with kids, it doesn't matter. No, you throw them into a plot with a kindergarten fight club and force them to unite the kids against the academic establishment.

A white-on-white, perks-piled-on-hero protagonist that's been afforded all of the advantages can be indicative of a Sue. White on white is glaring and readers are going to see that glare, and they're going to look for the contrast and the things that bring the end of the story into question. If they don't find those things, then it starts to bend & break rules & expectations - the natural arc of a story, their characterization, the rules & bounds of the setting, verisimilitude, etc. The things that motivate someone that's writing a hero without meaningful flaws often lead to other issues on other fronts, too.

(And I gotta say, a lot of this feeds into my personal issues of taste & lack of depth that I see in a lot of light novels, but that's a topic for another time)

To answer your question, AdamBo - when you describe your character, you struggle to assign flaws. You're protective of the overarching character. Based on what you're saying, it's very possible they could be perceived as a Sue, or at least as a flawed bit of writing.

Your character came from somewhere. They had good days and bad, and not every problem they faced in the past (whether they were three, five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years old) was 100% resolved, so they carried some stuff forward. We never have perfect coping mechanisms, we have hot buttons, and if you wrote up a character sheet for anyone there would be pluses here and minuses there. So they arrive at the start of a story with some issues & weak points. Figure out the direction you're going as you define the character and then figure out where their worst days & weak points were rooted, and work from there, carry it forward, in hints and threads and ultimately by having scenes that challenge these weak points - scenes the character doesn't come out ahead in. Hammer at the weak points, let them expand or develop, show who the character is in how they deal with the bad days & the added strains.

Often the flaws align with story in a subtle way that comes to a head at the climax, so you could start from there, figure out what the main confrontation & challenge in the story is, and then use that to go back to your character & figure out where their weaknesses are.

But if you try painting with white on a white canvas, you're going to struggle to show depth, you're going to struggle to convey a challenge/crisis that makes the reader think that hey, this time the good guys might not come out ahead, and your character may end up testing credulity & convention to the point that it comes across as abusive to the overall work.

I'm coming to this a little late, but feel like I have a couple things to say that aren't rehashes...

First, to echo Wildbow on distorting what's around them. It's not always about a character being "all powerful", it's about how others react to (or around) him/her. If they're falling in love with him, or coming to this person for help before even trying to apply their own skills, or the person is providing the cast with advice outside the norm (like suddenly this guy is an expert in cooking simply because math), that's a problem. Largely because many people don't like a show off (and sometimes dislike someone who shows off humbly without meaning to even more), and would be more likely avoid him (or approach him reluctantly) for that reason.

Second, I've got a guy in my story who is (perhaps even worse) a 16 year old genius, managing to interpret technology that's 20 years from the future. He also tends to go on all the most dangerous missions, and is the problem solver, and the one we expect to help out at the climax. (He's not a skilled fighter, but no one in the story really is, that's not my forte.) So I did two things that (I hope) make him more human. One is making him socially awkward (a bit of a cliche, but he's pushed into mediating disputes a couple times, and he flounders), and second is to have secondary plots. While he's dealing with the primary issue, others in the cast can be handling the bomb in the basement sort of deal. Because yeah, he can't be everywhere, or as you put it - some things are still "completely out of his league". (It helps that my narrative is 3rd person and follows ten different people. Also, he's not meant to be the main protagonist.) Not sure if that's helpful for perspective.

Finally, sometimes clever writing (and larger casts) can disguise overpowered characters. You know who's the worst "Mary Sue" style character on mainstream TV? "Mon-El" from "Supergirl". I was so busy squee-ing over Alex in that show that I never gave much thought to the Supergirl/Mon-El romance, until it was pointed out to me by someone else. Mon-El has hooked up with the main protagonist, having strength much like hers, he cooks and cleans and tends bar, gets along with the family, tries hard to understand Earth, he's the only guy who perceives certain dangers (like Kara's father, even the telepath missed that one, but oh no, not Mon-El)... but wait, he has a flaw, he LIED about being normal when he's *FRIGGIN ROYALTY*. (Yeah, not really a flaw. His parents, also not really an internal flaw.) God damn. There's a lot of other stuff on that show though, so he gets away with it. (My opinion. Also, nothing against the actor.) Still, that's my current benchmark - 'Is this character at least more flawed than Mon-El'.

So what do you guys think of the flaws (or not flaws) that I mentioned? As in, him being physically weak, reclusive, and doesn't care about saving the world? In the beginning he only accepts the powers because he thinks they'd be cool to have, not because he actually cares about what his future partner/mentor wants him to do with them. He's more than a bit of a whiner, and during the early stages of his training he had a tendency to throw his weapons on the ground and throw a fit because it's too hard (though in his defense, he's getting clobbered by a girl ten times as strong as a normal human). As the story progresses, he gets stronger, gets better at fighting, grows more confident, starts to take his mission seriously, and even grows to respect (love, maybe?) his partner. Would you call those character flaws, or is that just normal plot progression?

I do intend to introduce some things in the following books that will make him more obviously flawed. Like, because of his actions in the first book a cult springs up with him as their deity figure. He has absolutely no desire to be their god, but eventually (despite everyone warning him not to) he goes to them, playing along and fully intending to just dump them somewhere once he's done, and essentially turns them into his own personal army to help him fight the bad guys.

Something to consider as everybody else has defined a Mary Sue pretty thoroughly, but let's say you DO have Mary Sue? What then?

Your character sounds a LOT like Sherlock Holmes without the cocaine addiction. Sherlock Holmes is one of my all time favorite characters, I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories voraciously when I was young, but the character can feel like an omniscient Mary Sue from time to time. Many of his solutions to solve the mysteries and puzzles ahead of him were often a Dues Ex Machina and it was rare that the reader ever got the sense that he could fail. Yet no one minds. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was able to keep his stories compelling because it was told through the eyes of Dr. Watson.

Watson was flawed, almost painfully normal compared to Sherlock (though not nearly the dimwit some media has since portrayed him), and about as average as a medical doctor could be. The trick here is that the story is told through his eyes and voiced with the admiration of a friend. Sure, the reader knows Sherlock Holmes will be victorious, and SHERLOCK certainly knows that he will be victorious, but Watson doesn't, and there is natural tension there. Watson doesn't have all of the facts, he isn't often aware of his friend's master plan, and he is sometimes left in the dark because he is a piece to that plan. Sir Doyle was able to build tension and drama from a character VERY sue like because he wrote it through the perspective of someone who was not. Thus the moments that were easy for a character that never had doubt and who had nearly god like deductive skills actually feels earned when they become revealed to Watson.

Consider changing the style of narration in your next book. Maybe your character is older, has seen more and has since gained an apprentice (maybe from the cult you mentioned?). Your apprentice character does not need to see everything your "Mary Sue" does, but they can speculate and worry about them. Tension will build from that, and if done right, your audience will grow to admire your "Mary sue" as much as your "apprentice" character does.

Hope this helps!