Writing is all about reader engagement.
Case in point, as I get older, I find my time is more and more valuable… I remember back in the day I would NEVER walk out of a movie, or turn off a movie at home before it ended. I sat through some of the biggest stinkers ever made…
These days, you can find me doing two specific things, 1) turning off a movie as soon as I’m bored… and 2) skipping to key structural points (usually the 15 minute mark inciting incident and 45 min midpoint turn) to sneak peak ahead and see if the writer knows what he’s doing and the story seems interesting.
Anyway, point is, if I’m not engaged, these days, I just leave.
As a writer you must understand if you can’t keep the reader reading, no matter what you do in your narrative, you’ve lost.
One of the biggest ways to disengage a reader or audience is by presenting Mary Sue or Marty Stu characters… especially these days, in 2022, folks particularly hate these types of characters… double especially in fandom.
So before we proceed, what exactly is a Mary Sue character (or the male equivalent, Marty Stu; I’ll just reference the female version from this point forward, but it’s the same for either gender)?
A Mary Sue character doesn’t earn their successes. They encounter obstacles that present no real challenge, never actually failing… or never suffering significant consequences from the moments they do fail.
The essence of the Mary Sue goes beyond the context or environment of the narrative and into the underlying struggles all humans face. Failure, fear, regret, mistakes, etc. The Mary Sue is immune to all of these.
As we humans always fuck things up; in short, a Mary Sue lies outside any sense of realism (and relatability) to the human condition.
An immediate example that comes to mind is the Hulu Predator prequel, “Prey.” (A movie with such horrible writing I couldn’t make it half-way through.)
Before the MC actually challenges the Wendigo Predator, she decides to attach a rope to her tomahawk, with the intent of making something like a Japanese kyoketsu-shoge. (Of course, you can’t actually attach a rope to the back of a weapon that spins over on itself, but let’s ignore that huge logical blunder and focus on what throws the attempt into distinct Mary Sue territory.)
So the MC ties a rope to hatchet, throws it a few times at a tree, then becoming expertly proficient in it, enough to challenge Wendigo Predator; and I assume land a narratively important blow with the weapon, otherwise, they wouldn’t have introduced it in the first place–again, I didn’t watch most of the movie so I don’t know for sure.
Anyway, the point here is that the minuscule training showcase doesn’t earn the character her proficiency. It would be like, if I went and literally shot some cans of beans with a rifle, then hopped on a plane to Ukraine to become the number one sniper in that war.
It’s just an epic level of bullshit.
The writer of the movie, instinctively tried to address this, at one point (spoiler alert), by having her get caught in quicksand. She struggled to use her new weapon, not as a weapon, but as a tool to free herself.
It did take her a few throws of the weapon, to land it in a proper manner in order to save herself, but she DID saved herself… and what happened as a consequence of her getting stuck in the quicksand and having to pull herself out with her new weapon… you guessed it…
It was an obstacle that had stakes, but posed no real challenge… and ultimately had absolutely NO significant consequences.
In my article “Character Dynamics” I talk about the importance of reaching “Harmony” in a narrative and how unearned harmony is the antithesis of good story.
In most narratives, Harmony is typically achieved at the end of a character’s arc.
Through significant obstacles, through suffering through significant consequences, through self realization of the Master Theme, the character EARNS the harmony they achieve.
Mary Sue characters bypass all of this.
To avoid creating a Mary Sue character, the approach is simple; make sure the character earns everything they achieve.
There are two primary ways to earn something:
1) By doing the work, putting in the time and effort.
This is difficult to capture in a narrative that has limited time constraints.
Off the top of my head I think of the little girl from Game of Thrones. I forget her name, but over the course of the entire series she basically takes up the sword and trains with various people becoming a bad-ass assassin.
She puts in the time and effort over the entire series showcasing a massive transformation and developing a deep, engaging character.
But in a single story, especially a comic or screenplay, it’s much more difficult to capture a character’s great effort.
Which leads to the second way a character can earn something,
2) Through sacrifice.
A sacrifice, by its nature, is giving up something of value for something else. Usually the thing you sacrifice for is more important, but not necessarily more valuable. A sacrifice is never comfortable, it always has a cost to bear.
Sacrifice has consequences baked into the cake.
Readers don’t generally need long exposition or justification to understand the gravity of sacrifice. For this reason, it works well in shorter narratives to establish harmony.
Let’s go back to Prey.
Didn’t the girl want to be designated a warrior in the tribe? Wasn’t that her goal?
So let’s say, the tribe’s warriors were going on an important hunt that was to act as the initiation into the trials of becoming a warrior. So NOT going on the hunt would make it near impossible for someone to be come a warrior in the tribe.
If our MC was invited to go, but refused in order to train with her new weapon. We wouldn’t need to see a long training montage. It’s a moment of clear sacrifice. She’s giving up the traditional approach to achieve the warrior title, to pursue her own path of becoming a warrior with her new weapon.
The reader understands her commitment. She’s not playing around. She’s completely dedicating herself, willing to put in the time and effort.
Why John Wick ain’t a Marty Stu.
A host of characters, often male action heroes, check off a lot of the boxes for a Mary Sue, yet, never really come across as so… and certainly never get labeled as such.
So how do characters like John Wick get a Marty Stu pass?
- In the original John Wick, he doesn’t really earn his successes. That is to say, he just starts off super bad-ass, smokin’ everybody he encounters.
- The obstacles he faces throughout the movie, just like Prey girl’s quicksand, have stakes, but they pose no real challenge. He works his way through scores of bad guys like a hot knife through butter.
- I only remember two distinct consequences, when he gets caught and almost killed with the plastic bag over his head, and when Willem Dafoe gets killed. Though both of these are pretty loose as far as John’s consequences go.
By looking at this, we can say John Wick certainly seem like a Mary Sue… and here’s why he (and many other similar characters) aren’t…
John Wick is a fairly classic narrative without a character arc.
If you’ve read up on my articles on this, you know, that an arcless narrative, almost always means the narrative follows a character that’s ALREADY completed their arc. A character that begins a story with an extensive history.
Indiana Jones and James Bond are the classic character examples of this.
All of these characters live in stories that open up and straight up say from the beginning, “This character you’re about to see is the best of what they do. They’ve spent a life time mastering their skills.”
They put the time and effort in before this story your about to read.
And this is why Prey girl suffers from being a Mary Sue… because she didn’t start the movie with a history of being a total bad ass. In fact, she’s arguable the opposite; naive and inexperienced at the story outset.
Food for thought:
If Prey had opened up showing us Prey girl’s original tribe under attacked by a rival war party and at the age of only 16, Prey girl single-handedly kills all of them. A history like that instantly would have told the audience, this girl’s in a crazy bad-ass league all of her own, thrusting her into the realm of John Wick, James Bond, and Indiana Jones.
No character arc needed, let’s just watch her beat down a Windigo Predator!
When you’re showcasing a character of high skill and capability, make sure they earn it… OR foreshadow a long history that they already did.
Keep that in mind and you’ll eliminate the Mary Sues from your narratives and keep your readers doing what you want them to do most… keep reading!
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.