Mary Sue and Marty Stu, meet Ken and Barbie

Mary Sue and her male counterpart Marty Stu are the terms assigned to characters who are so perfect and act so predictably that they lack dimension. Readers can’t get fully engaged with these characters because they don’t exhibit real characteristics. They’re above it all to the point of being a cliche. It’s fine for comic books, fanfic, and even some romance, but these characters aren’t a welcome addition to mainstream writing. We want to see characters who are real, three-dimensional, and plausible. They have to be like us.

Mary Sue and Marty Stu remind me of a couple who lived up the street from us years ago. Everyone in the neighborhood called them Ken and Barbie because they were so perfect. Every hair was in place, their teeth were perfect and brilliantly white, their designer clothes fit them beautifully over their perfect bodies. They had the perfect jobs and the latest groovy cars. Their kids were equally perfect. Hell, even their dog never pooped on anyone else’s lawn, never barked, and sat on command – ideals the beagle finds ridiculously entertaining. They were always nice and friendly; but never too much. In short no one really knew them.

And that made them boring, Stepford-like.

The same goes for our characters. If Mary and Marty aren’t human, then how can we make an emotional investment in them? We pretty much already know how the story will end because the characters are predictable. I mean, no one kills Mr. and Mrs. Perfect unless that perfectness is all part of the plot. With unintentional predictability comes indifference and apathy – no matter how intriguing your plot.

It’s one thing to have that political thriller where the reader wonders if reformed drinker and CIA agent Zack Dambo will fall off the wagon and go on a weekend bender just as terrorists take over the White House, or Mr. Perfect CIA Agent who calls his mother every other day, flosses, never drinks, never farts, and helps old ladies across the street. One has character, and the other is a cardboard cliche.

The characters propel the plot and create the tension because they are the ones facing the conflict.

Remember our buddy, Mr. Plot?

  • Who’s your main character?
  • What’s their conflict?
  • What choices do they face?

If you have Mary or Marty starring in your book, you’ve removed the main elements to your plot because Mr. or Ms. Perfect don’t have any conflict they can’t overcome. Yawn. Instant form rejection.

Face it; no one is:
That clever
That cute
That smart
That witty
That chiseled
That sexy
That compassionate
That understanding
That even tempered…

…all the time. Everyone farts once in a while. It’s a tough writing world out there. Keep ’em real.

I not talking about the cliche things like eating too much chocolate during times of stress or screaming at the sight of a spider. Those are character traits, surface stuff, and very different from Mary and Marty.

I’m talking ab out making them human. As writers, we are [or should be] very good at observation. If you’re stuck on how to humanize your too-perfect character, look at your friends, family, resident beagle [or is that just me?] and write down the elements of who they are, what defines them.

Do they fear success?
Have they always regretted not get that college degree?
Does fear motivate their need to over-achieve?
Is their significant other so overbearing that they’ve become a shadow of their former self?
Do they drink too much and make out with all the men/ladies at the party/bar?

These are characteristics that go to defining who they are and they actually become part of the plot. Because of their particular foible, it is responsible for creating the tension in the plot. Sure, they could eat that Hershey bar when things get hinkey, but readers will be far more concerned that the recovering alcoholic will drink themselves into a coma when things get hinkey.

6 Responses to Mary Sue and Marty Stu, meet Ken and Barbie

  1. Pelotard says:

    Recommended reading for this course: Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, by Harry Harrison. It’s a science fiction parody, but will entertain you even if you’re unfamiliar with some of the tropes being made fun of.

  2. Craven says:

    My teeth glisten and I’ve been asked not to smile on sunny days for fear of blinding pilots, but I’m plenty interesting. Just ask my 2.5 children, and purebred golden lab.

    Great post, and great advice as usual.

  3. As a matter of fact, Craven, the beagle and your lab went out for beers the other night, and we hear a whole different story…

  4. Marian says:

    When you were describing the perfect couple, Lynn, I kept expecting to read that they shot themselves in the end. You know, like Richard Cory. Sometimes the glory and perfection is only surface deep, and the most brilliantly beautiful people don’t really believe that they’re everything the world thinks they are.

    That makes them more interesting, too.

  5. Yes, Marian, good point. It’s like I said somewhere upstream; if the character’s perfection is done by design, then it’s effective. I’m talking about the stories where the plot becomes as predictable as the characters because it’s all too Barbie and Ken-like – nothing happens. It’s a new writer mistake.

  6. […] characters anything but flat.  To keep our readers invested, we need characters they care about.  Lynn Price tells how. […]

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