With the term “Mary Sue” becoming more and more common amongst writers, one question I get asked more and more is how to give characters flaws. After all, one of the major reasons Mary Sues are so annoying are that they’re perfect, and perfect characters are boring at best, unbearable at worst.
The problem with thinking of weaknesses as something you have to throw in to balance out strengths, however, is that it is entirely missing the point. Giving a character weaknesses isn’t about balancing some cosmic Mary Sue scale (Good singer +3 Sue, Clumsy -1) it’s about making your character seem real.
And so, if your character seems annoying perfect, throwing in a few “weaknesses” isn’t going to help all that much. A saintly character who is sweet, and smart, and entirely angelic is not going to become any more interesting because sometimes she’s a little absentminded or naive.
When trying to flesh out characters, don’t worry about the strengths and weaknesses lists, worry about building a believable character. While a lack of weaknesses is a warning sign for Mary Sues, the bigger problem is they simply aren’t believable. They’re perfect and special and the world around them changes to accommodate them because they are so perfect and special. Any amount of random weaknesses isn’t going to change that.
So, how do you build a believable character:
1. Separate yourself from your character.
Every author puts a little bit of themselves into their characters. One character might like the music you like. Another might have your sarcasm. That isn’t a problem. What you don’t want to do is make a character your wish-fulfillment. A character that is you as you wish you could be isn’t going to be realistic. Even a character you just really, really care about might not be. Caring about your characters is fine, just don’t let your love for them cloud your judgment when it comes to building their personalities.
2. Think of personality as more than just a pro/con list.
As stated above, it isn’t possible to balance out a Mary Sue by countering their +3 awesomeness with -2 clumsiness. Instead of coming up with a list of all that is good about your character and then trying to think of an equal number of weaknesses, come up with traits. People are a balance of good and bad traits in real life, but many times what is positive and what is negative come from the same trait. Being outgoing, for example, is generally a good thing. It can become negative, however, if the character doesn’t know when to keep quiet or can’t keep secrets simply because they love to talk to people. Again, being a straight-A student would likely go on the “strength” side of the list, but what comes with that as far as weaknesses go? Perhaps they’re stressed, feeling they need to be perfect. Maybe they’re overly competitive or think school is the only thing that’s important. Consider each trait and what it means for your character’s personality, not just if it goes in the strengths or weaknesses category.
3. Change your character based on your world, don’t change your world for your character.
Everyone has a past. Whether you drop in when your character is 5, 15, or 50, it doesn’t matter. They have things that have happened that have shaped who they are. While the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know everyone’s back story, it’s important for the author to, and to think about how growing up as the character did affected them. Someone who grows up dirt poor in rural New Mexico. is going to be a different person than someone who grew up being groomed for the galactic senate. Don’t change the world you have built to suit your character (the real world doesn’t change to suit us), figure out how your character fits into the world you have built.
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