Write Drunk, Edit Sober
Creating well-rounded, compelling characters is one of the most difficult parts of writing fiction. Luckily (or unluckily) for us, it is also one of the most important. Without good characters that a reader can root for, a book is simply a sequence of events: a plot. Complex and fleshed out characters are what turn plot into a story. Unfortunately, writing great characters is something that needs to be learned the hard way, namely by writing a bunch of shitty characters first. When you’re crafting a manuscript for publication, it’s important to make sure you’ve gotten all the garbage out of your system (trust me, we all have it). If you don’t, you can end up with flat, one-dimensional characters. Or, even worse, a Mary Sue.
A Mary Sue is a one-dimensional character who is given uniformly favorable characteristics. They’re the prettiest, smartest, toughest guy or girl, and everyone wants to be with them sexually or platonically. Conversely, another type of Mary Sue is one who is snarky and rough around the edges, maybe even violent or perverted, but never seems to endure any consequences for it. Either way, they’re flat, weak, and totally unbelievable.
When we write characters who directly coincide with our own inner desires and fantasies, they’re known as wish fulfillment characters. Coincidentally, Mary Sues (and their male counterparts, Gary Stus) tend to resemble the author in a few ways, physically or otherwise.
We all want to be the smartest, prettiest, most sexually desired person in our environment, so it’s easy to slip into that role when writing a character. However, wish fulfillment characters are telltale signs of lazy writing, and will cause agents, editors, and readers to put down your book in frustration and disappointment. Nobody wants to read about someone who is perfect. If we did, we’d read a lot of bad fanfiction.
That being said, inexperienced writers don’t generally write Mary Sues on purpose. In fact, usually they write them by accident. So how do you know if your character reeks of wish fulfillment? Because the Internet is a wonderful place, there’s actually a test you can now take to determine how Mary Sue-ish your characters are. The grading system is a little harsh, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you do happen to have a Mary Sue on your hands, or seven, dig deep into why you are writing characters the way you are. Create worksheets and surveys for every character, and answer them until each person has unique desires and characteristics, including things that make them potentially unlikeable (read: human). As the author, it is your job to make sure your cast is nuanced and realistic, not the readers’. Put in the work and you’ll end up with a much better story.