"Does My Character Work Okay?" - How To Tell For Yourself!


The matter of whether our characters are believable and likeable is possibly one of the biggest anxieties we have as writers. After all, so much hinges on the audience finding them interesting enough to want to know what happens to them next. What we can and should do to ensure that our characters work as intended isn't always clear to us. This article is intended to help you figure it out for yourself with nine simple questions.

This article is also intended to serve as a replacement for the Universal Mary Sue Test. Although the test will stay up in case you want to view it for any reason, it is now considered a finished (if imperfect) product and a relic of the past. Although many writers have found such tests to be useful, they have always been fraught with problems - as is the very term "Mary Sue" itself.

So why is the concept of a Mary Sue so unhelpful? What can you do instead? Read on and find out!

Table of Contents



Why we should move on from using the term "Mary Sue."

Many new writers don't realize that what's fun for them to write isn't always fun for someone else to read. This often results in stories featuring over-idealized protagonists who fall into the center of things and get everything they want way too easily. Back in the early days of the Star Trek fandom, these stories were so numerous that a writer named Paula Smith wrote a single-page story titled A Trekkie's Tale to poke fun at them. The protagonist's name was Mary Sue, and her name became a label for any character perceived as being like this.

In the 90s and 2000s, writers began making Mary Sue tests to help writers (mainly fanfiction writers) gauge whether their characters were Mary Sues. These test were (at least usually) made in good faith to help new writers improve the quality of their work, but they weren't perfect. The message that many writers took from them is that certain character traits and plot elements are always bad no matter what, when the reality is that whether something is "bad" or not depends heavily on context and framing. Additionally, the term "Mary Sue" became a snarl word to describe almost any character, especially female, that somebody just didn't like for some reason. Both of these are still major problems today.

So what we need to do is stop thinking in terms of whether a character is a "Mary Sue" or not. Instead, we should ask ourselves whether the character is someone we're actually interested in, whether everything about and around the character makes sense in context, and whether it's all done in a tasteful and entertaining way. This article will help you do that.


1. Is this what resonates with your target audience right now? Are they interested in this kind of character?

People's tastes and preferences shift over time, so it's important to take a look at what they are and aren't into right now. For example, traits that might have made for an iconic "strong female character" fifteen years ago might be so normalized by now that you'll be seen as positively regressive if that's all you go with. Or people might prefer a different kind of strong these days. People might have also realized that there are certain flaws with one particular model of a "strong" female character - perhaps it's over-idealized or ignores a few important realities in some way.

A character who was seen as a heartthrob in the 2000s might be seen as laughably pathetic now, while someone who was seen as laughably pathetic back then might be considered very attractive today. A character considered admirable or sympathetic in the 1990's might be seen as obnoxious, boorish, or even entitled now. On the other hand, a trait seen as ridiculous or obnoxious a few years might be seen as relatable and sympathetic. So, you've got to regularly read your target audience and to keep in mind that a character formula or style that worked out for you before is not going to work out for you forever.

So how can you read your target audience? It's simple. Pay attention to them, whether their members are on Twitter, in Discord servers you visit, message boards you frequent, etc. Notice what they ask for, whether they say they wish there were more characters who had certain traits or that it would be awesome if a well-known character had certain traits. Take a look at who they're drawing or praising. Pay attention to which characters they say they relate to. Take down notes. Likewise, take note of which traits and characteristics they don't like, both in fictional and real people. For example, if you see people say that they hate it when their dates do certain things, you can assume they probably won't enjoy a story where these behaviors are framed as ideal traits in a love interest.

Obviously, you don't want to outright copy or clone the specific characters they like. Instead, take note of the various personality traits, backstory elements, life situations, etc. that resonate with them right now, and draw from them to build up your own original protagonists with while adding your own personal touch. As for the traits they find obnoxious and bothersome, you can potentially use them as character flaws for your protagonists, or even core traits for your antagonists.


2. Does everything about your character feel organic and natural within the context of the setting?

All of your character's traits and personal details should make sense in the context of your story's setting. If something comes off as forced, contrived, or outright impossible, people won't like it. This is why naming a Medieval English princess "Sakura Ravynne" is a problem - no human being would have been given a name like that in the Middle Ages. This is also the problem with characters who have more skills than their personal schedules would give them time to exercise and develop - it's just not possible. And of course, you a similar problem with characters whose tastes and hobbies are based solely on what the writer finds personally appealing, rather than on what would most likely be available and interesting to the characters.

Some authors come up with convoluted or unlikely explanations to justify their characters' impossible traits. For example, the writer who really wants to name a character Sakura Ravynne might claim, "Well, her parents met some wandering traveler named Sakura and they decided to name their baby after her." Thing is, this doesn't make it any better because the explanation itself is just as flawed. No Medieval parent would name a child Sakura Ravynne for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Medieval England was extremely xenophobic.

This overall problem is also why so many fandom OCs fall flat. Something about them doesn't really mesh with the way the settings are established to work, or the explanations feel overly contrived, or they rely on additional worldbuilding that creates massive plotholes or doesn't really jive with work's established tone.

And on the topic of fandom OCs, one other reason they often feel contrived is that they are too similar to a canon character. Real people are always substantially different from each other in several ways, even when they're closely related. What's more, children (especially adolescents) perceived as being "just like" a parent or a sibling will usually resent this, and will often deliberately do something to try to set themselves apart from their relatives, such as adopting different hobbies, fashion styles, or even career choices. And sometimes, certain traits or backstory elements are set up as so rare or unlikely that it doesn't feel natural for someone else to just drop by with them.

So you need to ask yourself, how do things work here? If you're designing your own universe, you can decide most of it for yourself, but you do need to stay consistent with whatever you decide. If the character is made for a real world setting or for someone else's world, then you need to know how that works and make sure your character fits into it. Any additional worldbuilding you do in order to justify your character also needs to make sense in the context of the setting. You also need to ask yourself, how do people really work? You need to take into account how people in these environments, age groups, etc. really behave or behaved in these circumstances.


3. Do you avoid using your character's traits in an ostentatious or shallow way?

Even if a trait technically makes sense in context, it can still rub people the wrong way if it comes off as ostentatious or shallow. An example of this would be a character whose color-changing eyes are framed as a reason to find the character prettier and more interesting, rather than mildly interesting, but ultimately superficial. A character's skills can also be used as a shallow and ostentatious way when they are framed as a reason to like and admire the character as a person. Another example is giving a character a horrifically brutal backstory that only ends up being used for nothing more than to elicit pity or admiration, rather than to set up a plot or provide necessary insight and context to help us understand the character better. A brutal backstory can also be used in a shallow way by framing it as a reason the character shouldn't be held accountable for acting like a bully in the present, thus dismissing the fact that real harm and suffering are being inflicted on those being bullied.

So sure you're not using any of your character's traits in a way that feels ostentatious or shallow, and avoid adding any traits with shallow or superficial purposes in mind. This isn't to say you can't have characters with rainbow hair, but rather that you need to remember that rainbow hair is actually a neutral trait and not a reason to admire or be interested in this character as a person. (The traits you should actually use to encourage people like your character as a person are your character's personality, ideals, and sympathetic or relatable qualities.)


4. Is your character given a balanced set of skills and weaknesses? Is your character be genuinely challenged and thrown for a loop by the problems that arise in the story, while still able to do something to move the plot forward?

Characters who can pretty much always solve problems and win fights with little to no effort make for boring stories because everybody can easily figure out exactly what's going to happen. On the other hand, uncertainty piques people's curiosity - if they don't know what's going to happen but want to find out, they'll stick around to see what happens next. Additionally, reading or watching stories with overpowered/overskilled protagonists often feels like you're watching the authors stroke their own egos, and that's just nasty.

So it's important to give the character a set of skills that could plausibly exist within the story's setting, and don't allow the character to effortlessly overcome every challenge. It's also important that the character has reasonable limitations. No single person can be good at everything because there are only so many hours in a day to learn and practice, plus our own mental and physical limitations will get in the way somewhere. Basically, a balanced character will be able to do something that moves the plot forward, but won't be able to do everything all the time and will find genuine challenge in whatever conflict is going on, and will be subject to a reasonable number of personal limitations (which is usually enough to make the character feel real and/or relatable).

It's also important to make sure that you don't have a character who is too limited to do anything that moves the story forward. If you intend to make your main character a squishy mortal among a gang of powerful supernaturals, you need to figure out what the squishy mortal is going to contribute besides getting into danger all the time. You don't necessarily need to make your mortal a Batman-level badass, but the character needs to have something going on. (One example of this is Stu from What We Do In The Shadows. He introduces the vampires to the Internet, and hilarity ensues.)


5. Does your character gain or accomplish things in a way that makes sense and feels natural in context?

Whatever your character obtains or does, it needs to happen in a way that makes sense within the story's context. A common way authors fail in this is having characters gain and keep friends in ways that feel nonsensical and forced. For example, the main character acts like an entitled, self-centered brat all the time, but everybody who's supposed to be a good guy in the narrative stays loyal and sympathetic anyway. Another way writers often fail is to have their protagonists get into a romantic relationship that feels very forced and contrived in some way: perhaps the main character's love interest is ready and willing to give up any number of previously-existing ambitions and dreams for the sake of the relationship, or the pair is pledging eternal love to each other within a week, or something equally unlikely in real life.

Sometimes characters are granted success or victory way too easily. Other characters might be portrayed as far less competent than they should be, or the main character might be extremely competent despite a lack of education, practice, and experience. The author might try to justify the character's competence by claiming that the character is some sort of prodigy, even though that's not how it really works. Sometimes characters will be granted far more trust than anyone would reasonably give them under the circumstances, or give them rare or expensive items when doing so would be a bad idea (EG, they'd stand a serious financial loss, or haven't known the character long or intimately enough to feel okay about gifting items like that). Sometimes characters are given jobs despite being ludicrously unqualified for them (EG, doesn't have the actual necessary skills, is more of a liability than an asset, doesn't meet certain legal requirements etc.) in a context where someone should care enough to make sure that doesn't happen.

This is why it's important to frequently put yourself into other characters' shoes and look at everything through their perspectives. Consider everything they've had to deal with in the past and what they'd have learned from those experiences, and consider everything they have to deal with right now and where they might want to be cautious. Consider what their own goals and concerns are, and whether giving something to your character actually dovetails with that.

It's also vital to understand how much study and practice goes into becoming good at something, let alone mastering it. A genius who's always slacking off is going to fall behind an average person who actually puts in regular effort.

If you're writing a fanfiction, it's also important to remember that most people will be using what they observed in the original story as a yardstick to gauge how hard/easy, common/rare, etc. something is. If the story frames what the canon characters did or got as a big deal and they only see it happen once, they'll usually assume it's difficult or rare. If it's not framed as a big deal, or if they see it happen more than once, they'll be more likely to assume it's relatively easy or common. Thus, having your own character imitate a canon character in something perceived as difficult or rare can come off as contrived if you're not careful, which is why it's usually advisable to go with something different for your character.


6. Are other characters allowed to have wants, needs, and opinions that matter, even when they conflict with what this character wants, needs, and thinks?

Your character shouldn't always be the most important, deserving, or justified person in the room unless everybody else is legitimately awful for believable reasons. Protagonists who are always framed this way often end up resented and even hated by audiences, especially if they feel like other characters are given less consideration and sympathy than they deserve.

To avoid this, make sure that everyone else (or at least, everyone who isn't supposed to be irredeemably evil) is sympathetic and deserving in some way. Make their dreams and ambitions matter. Give them all valid viewpoints, even if they contradict and conflict with each other. Take some time to put yourself into their shoes, look at the world through their perspectives, and immerse yourself in their thoughts and feelings. In the story, let their ideas and desires sometimes take precedence over your character's own without it being framed as a bad thing. Let your character have to make compromises sometimes, and don't frame your character as a selfless martyr or shining exemplar for it. Additionally, if your character is genuinely at fault for harming someone, then it should be framed that way.

Something else you can do is ask yourself how you would feel if some random person treated you or real people that you care about the way your protagonist treats others. If you would be upset, then the characters in your story are fully justified in getting upset, and it's quite possible that your character is a lot less sympathetic than you intended.


7. Are others allowed to dislike and disagree with your character without being framed as ignorant, incompetent, or villainous?

If every supposedly good, competent, and smart character likes and agrees with your character while the only ones who don't are always presented as ignorant, inept, or villainous, you have a problem. Real life is never this black and white; people disagree and dislike each other all the time without either one of them necessarily being wrong or foolish. Additionally, real life people who always see those who disagree with them this way are incredibly arrogant and usually pretty evil themselves, so seeing this kind of attitude coming out of the narrative can leave a very bad impression.

What you can do is spend some time thinking of some legitimate reasons for your protagonists to dislike and disagree with each other. It could be as heavy and complicated as their views fundamental philosophies on life, or it could be as simple and trivial as their tastes in music or movies. Let their disagreements come out in the story without it reflecting badly on the other characters. Even better, your character could even turn out to be in the wrong now and then, whether because your character's opinion is objectively incorrect or because your character was kind of a jackass over the whole thing.

This isn't to say that your character can't ever be right in conflicts and disagreements, of course. Your character totally can. It just shouldn't always be the case, and the simple act of disliking or disagreeing with your character should not be used to frame someone as morally, professionally, or intellectually deficient in some way.


8. Do you avoid pitting your character against antagonists who are contrived in some way?

You need to make sure that your antagonists make just as much sense as your protagonists. They need to have coherent motives that you can actually find in real people, and their traits, actions, and accomplishments all need to make sense in context. All of the stuff in the second and fifth sections applies to antagonists just as much as protagonists.

Antagonists tend to be contrived in different ways from protagonists. They might be successful leaders of powerful organizations despite displaying no actual skill at leadership or strategy whatsoever (yelling or beating people into submission doesn't count - those can only take somebody so far). They might have gone from being relatively good people to full-blown villains over being humiliated or let down once. Or they might antagonize or obsess over the protagonists when they should really have other priorities. Or they might be given endless resources that the writer may or may not try to justify with laughably inadequate explanations.

Many antagonists also suffer from method-motive mismatches. What this means is that they actions they decide to take bear no resemblance to anything that an actual person standing in their shoes would have actually come up with when trying to think of a way to get this done. This happens when people write antagonists solely from the vantage point of what would cause problems for their protagonists and fail to look at the situation through the eyes of their antagonists and ask themselves what the most effective way to get what they want is. Again, the writer may or may not try to justify this with a flimsy explanation. (A very common bad explanation is that these antagonists are simply mentally ill or "insane," even though mental illness doesn't make people behave in these ways.)

Sometimes fanfiction writers will project antagonistic behaviors onto canon characters they personally don't like, whether or not these behaviors are consistent with established characterization. Sometimes they'll fixate on character traits they perceive as evil and exaggerate them so much that their versions of these characters will bear little, if any resemblance to the originals. It's important to remember that even if you don't like a character, you still need to stay true to the character's original personality. You can reframe the character's behaviors or attitudes if you like, but it's still important that you don't erase the complexity and nuance of the character's actual personality.


9. Do you avoid trying to prove your character's skill or value through competition or comparison against others?

Some authors try to make their characters look better by comparing them against somebody else, whether a real person or another character. This can take the form of having somebody say "she's even smarter than Albert Einstein!" or by having the character easily beat somebody else who's been established as smart, strong, or skilled. The thing is, people who think they can't prove themselves without putting themselves above someone else are usually very unpleasant people, and are often very toxic. Because of this, it's only natural to feel put off when we see this kind of attitude seeping out of the story.

There are plenty of other ways to establish that your character is good at things. You can just show your character accomplishing something noteworthy and simply let the action speak for itself. If you really want to have your character beat someone else, don't frame it as a reason that people should like or admire your character as a person or as a reason to think less of the character who got beaten. And don't have your character act patronizing or smug over it unless you're trying to show that your character is arrogant or a "sore winner," IE, someone who can't win gracefully and has to gloat and rub it in everyone's faces. (About the only time it's really appropriate to get smug over a victory is when you've beaten someone who has genuinely been an awful person, EG, an actual bully. And even then, there's such a thing as going too far.)


10. Do you have healthy and appropriate emotional boundaries between yourself and your character?

Getting too emotionally entangled with your character is unhealthy for you and bad for your story. Inappropriate emotional entanglement happens when we idealize or identify ourselves with our characters too much. We take it personally when people don't like them, and we often start writing the narrative to revolve around them. This is why it's recommended that you don't name your character after yourself (or vice versa), or put too much of your character into yourself, and so on. Avoiding these things helps you maintain these important boundaries.

Although many people insist that you should never, ever write a self-insert, in reality it can be done in a way that doesn't harm the story. But it requires a lot of skill that new writers often don't have. Self-inserts need to be written from a place of humility and self-awareness, and plenty of empathy toward the other characters. Nobody should even think about seriously writing a self-insert until they've developed the ability to put themselves into everyone else's shoes, and are able to appreciate and value their needs and perspectives. Nor should anyone consider writing a self-insert if they are easily distressed by personal criticism.

It's important to always remember that the primary purpose of your character is to be part of a story meant to entertain and/or convey a message to others, and should not be idealized or favored to the point your story can no longer do this effectively. You should examine how you feel about your character and determine if you've developed feelings that might create a conflict of interest, so to speak, that might inappropriately influence how you write the character and the story. Remember, not only is this necessary for being able to write a good story, but it's also necessary for maintaining your own emotional health.


What to do if you're still stuck.

Sometimes it's not always clear on what you should do to fix any potential issues you might have - let alone what might be an issue you need to fix. Here's what you can do:

Think. Ask yourself questions like, "Is this how things really work? Do I know of anyone who ever acted like this, and if so, under what conditions and in which contexts?" (For an example of how context is important, the way teenagers will usually approach and handle relationships isn't the same as how thirty-somethings will usually approach and handle relationship.) You probably have a lot more information stored in your mind than you realize, so go through it and see what you can find in there.

Observe. Pay more attention to people and events, whether online or offline. Notice how different people behave and under which exact circumstances they behave this way. Notice how certain environmental factors, hardships (or lack of hardships) cultural anxieties, etc. tend to impact what people do and how they think. Notice how different types of people will usually respond in different ways.

Study. Find materials that cover the real life counterparts of the people and scenarios you're trying to write. (Try to find sources that remain fairly neutral on them, rather than try to outright romanticize or demonize them. If you can't, remain conscious of the fact that someone is framing it a certain way to try and shape your perceptions.) Additionally, many questions that you may have are probably covered in one or more articles on this site, and the link section below will direct you to some that address a few common issues.

Practice. The ability to empathize and put yourself into other people's shoes is something you can develop with practice, even if you're bad at it right now. You can read How To Exercise & Strengthen Your Empathy for more information. Likewise, you can learn how to exercise and strengthen your self-awareness over at How To Increase Your Self-Awareness & Grow As A Person.


In summary!


Also take a look at:

How To Avoid Making Your Story And Characters Feel Contrived
How Good Story & Character Ideas Can Go Bad
Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This
Telling Story Canon From Personal Bias, Erroneous Memories, & Fanwank
Canon Character Analysis Questions
Framing: What It Is And How To Use It

Character Infatuation & Over-Identification - Do You Have These Problems?
"Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself!
"Help! I Need Ideas For My Story/Setting/Character!" - How To Get Ideas For Yourself!
Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You
How To Write & Roleplay Characters Who Are Different From You (Or, How To Stop Writing Self-Inserts!)
The Problem With Making The Universe Revolve Around The Main Characters
Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It
How To Build Up A Believable Romance

Things About Skills, Talents, & Knowledge Writers Need To Know
On Writing & Roleplaying Older Characters
On Writing & Roleplaying Smart Characters
A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Maturity & Mental Development
On Giving Your Characters Flaws & Weaknesses

Villain Motives Made Easy
How To Create And Write An Arch-Nemesis
What Writers Need To Know About Predatory People



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