Dear Miss Luna Rose,
I’m worried that my character is a Mary Sue. She has dyed purple hair and pretty blue eyes. She witnessed her dad’s murder at age 7 and it left her with some issues. She’s also bad at dancing and sometimes her anger flares up and she does things she regrets. Is she a Mary Sue?Concerned writer #472
I get questions like this all the time. And I never can tell them a “yes” or “no.”
Why not? Because
- I can’t possibly tell from a short description, and
- this misunderstands what it means to be a Mary Sue.
Honestly, I blame litmus tests.
What’s wrong with litmus tests?
Mary Sue litmus tests were popular back in earlier decades, full of questions like:
- Does your character have different-colored eyes?
- Was your character abused as a child?
- Is your character an orphan?
The problem here is that none of these necessarily mean that you have a bad character. In fact, these are all things that can be true of people in real life.
A character who is unique but well-written could score high on these tests. Heck, as an autistic person who survived a life-threatening illness, I could score myself high on a few of those tests.
(How to pass a litmus test? Just write a really boring character.)
Being a Mary Sue isn’t about a character’s eye color, personality, or life experiences. It’s all about the way they are treated in the story.
But that’s a nebulous statement. And people really love litmus tests. So here you go: I’ve made you a litmus test that actually makes sense.
And I’ve even included advice for if it comes back positive.
Luna’s litmus test
Give yourself one point for each statement that is true. Go slowly and think carefully if you want the test to be accurate.
Hate math? Try taking the quiz on my writing site and it’ll automatically total it up for you.
A. Readers and your character
- First-time readers can probably tell who my favorite character is.
- I really hope that all readers will get the same impression of my character.
- If someone criticized my character’s personality or behavior, I would feel hurt.
Score: _ / 3
B. Character traits and habits
- My character has an unusual appearance because I want to show that they’re special.
- My character is way more skilled than others, to the point that most of their peers could never hope to match them. It’s beyond impressive.
- Compare them to both people in their peer group (e.g. “fellow recent MIT graduates”) and to major characters in the story (e.g. “fellow engineers at the company”).
- My character has an above-average amount of health problems or episodes (like fainting) because I want to turn up the drama or elicit sympathy.
- My character has a tragic backstory/mental illness/(un)diagnosed disability because I think it makes them interesting, sympathetic, or not responsible for their past behavior.
Pay attention to the “because” part, here. There’s a difference between wanting to help your readers understand a condition and using it as a way to get your character attention.
Score: _ / 4
C. The plot
- If someone disagrees with my character, they’re either evil or temporarily misguided.
- Friends or enemies are drawn to my character without a clear logical/emotional reason.
- My character gets to get away with hurting feelings or breaking rules without any real consequences.
Score: _ /3
If you scored 0 or 1, it’s unlikely that you have a Mary Sue.
If you scored 2 or 3, it’s likely that you have a Mary Sue.
If you scored 4 or more, it’s almost guaranteed that you have a Mary Sue.
While there’s nothing wrong with inventing a Mary Sue for fun, this can be a problem if you’re trying to share your work professionally and/or get a following. Readers dislike characters who get unfair advantages, so your favoritism towards your character may turn them away from your story.
Don’t want that? I have a few ideas for you.
Visit the section(s) where you got points.
A. Readers and the character: emotional investment
You’re likely to have responded “yes” to one or more of these questions if you’re highly invested in the character.
Your character is extraordinarily special to you and you may identify with them strongly. When your character feels love, you feel loved. If/when your character is criticized by people in real life, you feel criticized.
This level of investment is fine for a personal story (hey, we all gotta vent somehow), but it could lead to problems if you want to share your story with the outside world.
- Remember to put pieces of yourself into all major characters, not just one.
- Make time for the likable parts of other characters.
- Remember that it’s okay for your character to make mistakes. It’s humanizing, because it’s human.
- Decide to keep your story private, away from judgmental eyes, so you can do whatever you want without worrying. It’s yours, after all!
Decide what makes sense for you and your story.
B. Character traits and habits: what is “special,” really?
If you said “yes” to one or more of these, you either misinterpreted the questions or you are trying to make your character special in the wrong ways.
So let’s talk about what makes people special.
- Unique-colored hair (blonde and pink)
- Diagnoses of autism, asthma, generalized anxiety, social anxiety (misdiagnosis tbh), depression, and more
- Unusual contortion abilities probably caused by Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
- An on-again-off-again bruise collection due to clumsiness (table corners are my nemesis)
- A tragic backstory of almost dying from illness
- Problems with sleeping and eating
- Sensitivity to heat that makes me feel faint
Does that make me super special? Does that mean people should treat me better and come running anytime I say I’m dizzy/anxious/sad and give me lots of hugs and fanart of my characters? Do I deserve a ton of sympathy and pity?
No, of course not. I don’t like being pitied. I occasionally get special treatment, usually from people who think I’m a toddler in an adult body, and I pretend it’s nice instead of awkward. I deserve basic disability accommodations, understanding, and acceptance. Not special treatment. (But I’ll still accept lots of fanart of my characters.)
So those don’t make me special. But am I special anyway?
Mom was busy, so I asked if one of my followers could tell me whether I was special.
Certainly! You write in a nuanced, respectful and compassionate way about autism, your art is pleasant to look at, and you do good infographics. You handle even dated and overly simplified concepts like functioning labels with more humanity and respect to the people depicted.The lovely artist Lamees Tayyib
She’s not talking about my unique appearance or my list of disabilities and health conditions. Nor is my backstory in here.
It’s not about who I am. It’s about what I do.
Your character can be an ordinary-looking person with an ordinary past and no attention-grabbing quirks or diagnosable conditions, and yet they could choose to do extraordinary things that make them incredibly special.
You don’t need a gimmick to make your character unique.
Now, take away any traits that you gave your character just because you thought they would be special. And make your character actually special by having them do special things.
From what Lamees Tayyib said above, we can conclude that:
- Being kind is special
- Helping others is special
- Having awesome skills (and using them positively) is special
If your character does these things, then they should be pretty special!
(This doesn’t mean that you should only write neurotypical plain-looking characters with zero disabilities and boring pasts. Just that you should write these for their own sake instead of for the special factor.)
And maybe you want to also call attention to your character or create drama. You can do that too:
- Your character can ask for help. They can say things like “I’m sad” or “I think I’m having a panic attack.” And when other people come to help, your readers will feel that a kind and helpful person like your character certainly deserves help with their own problems.
- Raise stakes instead of making your characters overreact.* Add an external or internal conflict to make it harder on your characters. Make them unsure what the right thing to do is. Make them face their demons. Make them afraid they’ll lose something important. That’s real drama!
*Unless you want “they overreact sometimes” to be a character trait of theirs, and hey, that’s valid.
C. The plot: character-centric stories
If you said “yes” to one or more of these questions, then you’re centering the plot around your character instead of around a story.
If my character does it, they must be in the right. If someone dislikes goodness, they must dislike my character. All important things revolve around my character.a writer who needs to grow
It’s a very childish viewpoint, and it was certainly there in many of the things I wrote as a teenager. And while it’s normal for a child to think that way, it’s less appealing in a work of fiction.
So tell yourself:
- My character can make mistakes and deal with the consequences.
- Other characters have interesting aspects worth exploring.
- Sometimes the focus needs to be on another character, and the story can still be engaging that way.
- Characters can be interested in my character. They just need to have a reason for it that makes logical or emotional sense.
I know it might be unclear what it means to have logical or emotional reasons for a character to be interested in another character, so let me provide examples from my own writing.
- In Thousand Dollar Friend, Aurora’s friend group welcomes Tara because (a) Tara is kind to Aurora, (b) Tara is friendly and pleasant to talk to, and (c) they’re friendly people.
- In Thousand Dollar Friend, Beverly bullies Tara because she perceives Tara to be a threat and she needs an outlet for her anger.
- In Silent Voice, Glitter (a little girl) latches onto Claire because Glitter is a lonely kid in need of a big sister figure, and Claire seems confident and friendly.
- In Silent Voice, a villain takes particular interest in Claire because… sorry, no spoilers. You’ll have to read it to find out.
It’s not “because Tara and Claire are special” (though they’re special in my heart). It’s because all characters are their own people with their own thoughts and reasoning.
The plot comes before any one character. The story serves the plot, not the main character.
- Let your character make mistakes sometimes. Then they can realize that they were wrong, do their best to make it right, and grow from the experience. Speaking as a reader, I like seeing that.
- Let there be disagreements in which both sides have a valid point.
- Make sure that your character has at least one important flaw, a flaw that comes from priorities (like “she doesn’t manage her temper” or “he’s rude”) instead of lack of skill (like “she’s clumsy” or “he can’t dance”).
- Make sure that side characters are properly motivated and not just being magnetically drawn to your character.
Improving your character
So maybe you know your character is a Mary Sue, maybe you aren’t sure, or maybe you just think it wouldn’t hurt to make them a little better.
All this stuff is subjective, so apply your own perspective and common sense to what you read here. You know your story better than I do. You need to form your own opinions and make your own choices.
And if you’re unsure, take your time. Reread what you’ve written, imagine the story from each character’s point of view, and think about the depth of what’s happening.
I also have a few more resources that may help:
- What Counts as a Character Flaw?
- Why Readers Like Glitter
- Why Readers Hate Angel Rainnen
- Writers’ Guides on deviantART
Shaping a story takes a long time. Read, learn, write, reflect, repeat.