How To: Avoid a Mary Sue

So. Your main character is special, no? Of course ze is. Ze's the protagonist of hir own novel, after all!

You've given hir power. You've given hir ability. But where do you stop? Where's the line between “special” and “Sue?”

Since we all know that the only thing Bruce and I do is make lists, here we go.


  1. Don't make anything about hir perfect.
    Seriously. Some people may tell you to just make sure your MC's perfect traits are in balance with flaws, but making her flawless at anything smacks of self-insertion. No one is perfect at anything all the time. You can make hir incredibly talented, one who rarely makes mistakes, anything – as long as there's room for flaws even in hir best area.
    Side note: look out for her appearance. This is the first thing that can get too perfect and tick readers off. But beware: the more a hero/ine hates the way they look (for no good reason/without a plot purpose), the more annoying they get. Do you hate everything about yourself? If the answer is yes, seek counseling; if no, then think about what the ratio is and apply it to your MC. I know I have a great figure, for instance, but my arms could really use some work.
  2. Make sure ze's learning.
    In my opinion, the most frustrating thing about a too-perfect character is their inexplicable ability to gain new skills through sheer willpower – no training necessary. Look, my protagonist is skilled. She can do backflips, dance ballet, shoot a handgun – and she went through eighteen years of rigorous physical, mental, and combat training. When she's tossed into a position requiring skills she hasn't accessed in nearly ten years, she balks. Messes up. Gets people killed, and is not excused for her actions. Sure, your protagonist can be a quick learner, but make sure ze actually has to learn these things.
  3. Love at first sight? I don't think so.
    Almost nobody falls in love with another person just from looking at them. Lust, sure – physical attractiveness contributes to sexual attractiveness. But it feels forced and unrealistic if the love interest really falls for your character after a few meaningful glances and a short conversation. Give them a relationship. Something that moves past physical attraction and into a real interaction with all its flaws.
  4. Nobody's completely selfless...
    … so your progtagonist shouldn't be either. Even if ze is super heroic and loves to act in others' best interests, hir inner monologue is going to show at least some selfish motivation. I'm selfish. You're selfish. Everyone's selfish. End of story.
  5. Nobody gets along with everyone.
    If the only people who dislike your MC are the Draco Malfoys of the story, you've got a problem. Everyone's flawed, and everyone has some parts of their personality that give other people valid reasons to dislike them. Put a side character in – a good side character, mind you, one who has a lot of great qualities – who doesn't really take to your MC very well. Make hir really have to work for that person's approval. Make that supporting character point out some really valid flaws in your MC and most importantly, make other people take them seriously.
  6. Don't make hir complain to everyone.
    You know what? Maybe your protagonist's backstory sucks, big time. Maybe ze was poor, raised in a barn by hens, both parents having died in a tragic fire. But nobody wears that information on their chest just waiting to spill it out to the nearest listening ear. Some people are angsty all the time, yes, but no one likes those people. It's hard to root for someone who is constantly complaining, especially if their problems seem seriously plot-contrived.

And last, but certainly not least:
  1. Prophecies? Been there, done that, got the wand, the CHB t-shirt, the sapphire-hued dragon...

    Prophecies are last year's dystopians, and here's a hint: people are just about as sick of both. It's been done. It smacks of rewritten fan fiction. Move on, do something far more original. Make your character special by their own merits, not fate. It feels more real that way.
    Disclaimer: prophecies can be done well, but it's hard. It's easy to slip into an old pattern, and that's a one-way ticket to Sue-dom. 

Well, that's about it. Leave any other strategies you have in the comments!

– Natasha


  1. I have a novel which includes a prophecy heroine, but it's done differently.
    seeing how the prophecy was quack.
    and instead of defeating the person she was prophesied to defeat, she falls for him.
    making all the old wise men back home wring their hands and cry ay yi yi yi yiiii.

    1. Actually, prophecy subversion is a neat idea... I should have mentioned that! :D I was thinking more along the lines of "the chosen one"

  2. Making lists is GOOD. We are Superhero List Makers (we should totally get, like, a Fury award or something)... ;) So naturally I loved your list. Complaining is a big drag in books. It feels soooo whiny. The learning one is a biggie for me. Cause and effect, what comes up must come down...SCIENCE.

    - Hulk

  3. Great post. I never even thought about their thoughts could be a problem. (I know Winter is DEFINITELY not a Gary Stu. He's too cold--almost sociopathic. And people don't like him much because of that.)