Tips for Young Authors #2: Mary Who?


Kahlin Lindholm

The second set of Tips for Young Authors!

If you’ve read any fantasy stories, chances are that you’ve come across a line that goes something like this:

Only the chosen one, the master of destiny, will be able to save the world.”

Prophecies and fate are a good way to get the hero/heroine out of the house and onto their adventure, so this concept is usually fine. It can even foreshadow bits and pieces of the story, if done properly (in fact, the Percy Jackson series uses a prophecy at the start of each of the books to help drive the plot and keep the reader engaged).

What isn’t okay, and my focus this time around, is the concept of the hero being destined for greatness, regardless of whether they’ve earned that greatness.

This leads to that most dreaded of character archetypes: the ‘Mary Sue.’


Characters are wonderful. The ability to create a person from the ground up, allowing the events throughout their lives to tie into their soul, to shape who they become, and ultimately motivate them to be what they are is fascinating to me.

So much freedom comes with the ability to create complex and deep characters, allowing the reader to feel like they aren’t reading a made-up person’s life off of the words on a page: they’re listening to that person’s tale, experiencing everything as they do. Their motivations, their emotions, their attitudes are our own, and by the end of the story, you feel satisfied because you didn’t just witness the culmination of someone’s life, you lived it.

Which is why when one dimensional, do-it-all heroes come along, it ruins everything.

Examples of this are painfully prevalent, especially in the ‘cookie cutter’ stories that I mentioned in my previous article. Characters who are naturally able to do whatever it is they need to do, with little to no training or reasoning attached to it, purely because the plot demands it.

A particularly annoying example of this can be found in the recent additions to the Star Wars franchise of movies – specifically, The Force Awakens,  in which the protagonist Rey is able to wield a lightsaber (sword fight), harness the Force (do magic), pilot massive spaceships, and fix basically any problem she encounters within a moment of encountering it.

Even this isn’t inherently bad. Having a character who is talented can actually lead to some pretty great moments – but not when they’re the protagonist. The whole point of a lead character is for them to grow and develop over the course of the story, be it for the best or the worst. Supporting characters are allowed to be one-dimensional and not have an arc (though they should have one anyway, to give the world more depth) because they aren’t the focus of the story.

Using the previously mentioned movie, the robot BB-8 in The Force Awakens doesn’t have to have his hacking or other robot-related skills explained or developed – he’s a robot, a sidekick to the heroes. His purpose is to be there for comedic relief and to get the good guys out of trouble.

Rey, on the other hand, is not allowed to be this way, particularly when her path to becoming a Jedi, to becoming a hero, is the whole purpose of the movie. Why have that be the goal at all when she seems perfectly capable of being one with no training whatsoever?

Someone once said, “Characters are like geodes. In order to know what they’re made of, you must break them.” There is no better way for you to show off what your character means, what makes them tick, than to put them through hardship and have them overcome it in a creative way that only they could accomplish. But, creating scenarios where the heroes will face “hardship” and overcome it with ease doesn’t help to convey a well thought out, deserving character. It makes your hero into Superman.

And no one wants to write for Superman.

So, in conclusion, the tip I’d like to leave young authors with this time is quite simple: take the time to consider whether your characters might be falling into the trap of the ‘Mary Sue’ archetype. Having overpowered characters is okay, but when it ruins the pacing and tension of an otherwise well thought out story, you can take something rivaling the greats and drag it down into forgetful mediocrity.