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Could I get some pointer as how to NOT write a Self-Insert/Mary Sue?

What I mean: according to Urban Dictionary a Self-Insert is "A story in which the reader inserts himself or herself; this usually occurs within a fanfiction"

Self-Inserted Characters commonly have almost NO personality (In order to asist the reader in inserting their personality onto the Self-Insert character, an example of Self-Inserts include: JRPG Protagonists that don't speak, Kirito,Red from Pokemon, etc.)

My Question: What are some general pointers that I could use in order to help prevent myself from writing a Self-Insert/Mary Sue?

P.S. Yes, it IS possible to unintentionally write Self-Inserts/Mary Sue's.

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I share your fear... I used to be a full blown "Suethor" in my teenage years, and I'll admit, I'm guilty of creating Mary Sues and Self-Inserts to this day. However, the more I practiced, the more I came to realize something:

All characters, especially main characters, are born with some degree of self-insertion.

It's like original sin: We naturally write about people who are similar to us (and who may even be our avatars in our stories) because it's what we know. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

What is wrong, however, is when the author treats their Self-Insert like a spoiled child. You must give your characters fatal flaws, since it humanizes them, and it makes them less prone to the cringe-worthy perfection we all know as the Mary Sue. You must let your character make mistakes, say and do incorrect things, act contrary to what is best for him/her, and let him/her get into trouble for their actions.

This leads me to the other crucial step to avoiding Sues, in my opinion: You have to let the world you created continue to spin, regardless of what your character does. Even Chosen Ones and Saviours of the World can't defy certain "rules" of their universe, and if they do, they should be punished accordingly. It's all about striking a balance between the main character and his/her interactions with the world.

So, to sum it up, self-inserts are okay. Just make sure that the character is as realistic as you can make him/her, and don't let them get away with breaking The Rules without serious (or fair) repercussions.

Oh, there's also the issue of being obvious... I'm sure you know all this, but if you name a character after yourself, give him/her an appearance that is identical to yours, etc., you will have a blinking neon sign over your character that says "I AM A BLATANT SELF INSERT AND I AM NOT EVEN GOING TO TRY TO HIDE IT!"

Good luck, and happy writing!

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  • 2
    I once did a self-insert and then worked hard on un-'Mary Sue' it. It really opened my eyes to all the little things that turn characters into Mary Sues. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Feb 16 '17 at 15:37
  • @SaraCosta Sounds like a great learning opportunity! It can be hard to un-Sue a character, but I'm certain that exercise served your writing well :) – Brittany Wright Feb 16 '17 at 15:50
  • It was particularly helpful to identify 'author protection' moments. Those are so easy to happen and so difficult to spot and change. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Feb 16 '17 at 15:54
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Turn your gaze outward. A writer writes what they see. If your gaze is turned inward, you will write about yourself. If you are brutally honest with yourself, this may be revealing, but since we seldom are brutally honest with ourselves it is more likely to be a fantasy of yourself, or a form of personal wish fulfillment.

With all due respect to the other answers here, technique will not get you out of this. It's a vision thing. Whatever techniques you attempt, if you are looking at yourself you will only see yourself.

The only cure is to turn your gaze seriously and determinedly outwards. Look honestly at others. Try to see them dispassionately. (Seeing yourself dispassionately is fine too, but hard to pull off.) Focus on them and their lives and when you have seen enough to have gained some insight into their lives, write about that.

This is not to say that inward looking writing is not marketable. A fantasy of oneself is appealing (if well told) to other people with similar self-fantasies. Tropes don't get named because they don't work, but because they do.

But if you want to write more honest and objective literature, turn your gaze outward.

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I'll suggest asking yourself a few questions.

[I'm using 'it' to refer to the character to underline that characters are things we create rather than real people or their alter-egos. Unless you want it to be an alter-ego, obviously.]

Q1. If the character turns out to resemble you physically, stop and give it a moment of thought. Why did you make it your twin?

A1.1 Because I want it to look like me. Wrong: change hair and eye colour, and height or weight.

A1.2 Because I like characters that have that specific physical appearance. OK: try to change at least hair style or hair colour or height. Try to pass it off as a cousin rather than a twin of yourself.

A1.3 No reason. It just happened that way. OK: decide if the story really needs that particular appearance and then change as much as you feel comfortable. Or go overboard and try to make it as different from you as possible.

Q2. Does it have the same interests as you? The same hobbies? The same political/sports/literature/musical/etc likes?

A2.1 Don't bother to ask yourself why. In the best case scenario, you want to 'preach' something you believe in to your readers. If that's the case choose one or two things you want to preach about and which correspond to your personal views. Get rid of the rest. Either don't mention those interests at all, or give it different tastes (not necessarily opposing tastes: if you don't like jazz, it doesn't have to love it; but say you love Madonna and it simply likes a few of her songs).

A2.2 Worst case scenario: everything else. How to fix it? Make a list of your likes and dislikes. Then make a list of your character's likes and dislikes. Again, don't make it your opposite. But if you love basketball, maybe its father loves basketball and it only has a passing interest. Or it prefers netball. It's perfectly ok to have the character share some of your interests, but change it a bit... and some is definitely less than 50%.

NOTE: If you have a particular hobby or interest, it's perfectly acceptable to maintain it. But don't let that hobby / interest dominate the story. Unless it is part of the plot, obviously. Like, you're a stamp collector and the character is obsessed with stamps. But do make sure it's a hobby/interest that helps the story move forward (or makes a statement about the character's personality) and doesn't simply show up because you think stamps are cool.

Q3. Is it perfect? Worse: is it cutely flawed?

A3.1 We all know a perfect character is irritating, to say the least, and must have flaws to be more human. But if the flaws are exagerated (it is so bad at cooking that entering a kitchen is a fire hazard) or cute (it is afraid of dogs and does the silliest things to keep them at bay), they are not real flaws. Talk to (or ask about) people that have that particular flaw. I can't cook, but it's basically because I don't like it so I do stuff with my mind elsewhere and try to take shortcuts that make the result less than appealing. And an actual fear of dogs is not cute; it's paralysing and mock-inducing (especially if kids / teenagers are involved, although adults can be just as bad).

A3.2 It has a serious flaw related with personality, say an apathic, brooding or emo behaviour. If it's exagerated, see above. If it only surfaces on some scenes... why? What triggers it? Is it to be cute or is it to excuse it of something? If, on the other hand, the behaviour is consistent... make sure those personality traits are there for a really good reason and it isn't just 'it has a really dark past that made it this way' because those personalities make cool characters. They don't. Cool characters may or may not have those traits, but the traits in themselves have no coolness factor associated to them.

A3.3 It has a real flaw that relates to the plot and a really good reason for it too (e.g. commitment phobic because of a traumatic experience involving his mother and a steady string of failed relationships). Is the character perfect in everything else? If no, cool; if yes, see below.

A3.4 Yes, it's perfect. How can I fix it? Whether it's a self-insert or just an original character that stole the author's heart, MCs can easily become perfect. First rule: make sure it isn't the best or the worst at anything. And if the plot requires it to be the best/worst... make it one of the best/worst, not the best/worst of the best/worst. And if it must be the best/worst at one thing, then make it just ONE thing. Or, show that the character believes it is the best/worst at lots of things when in reality it isn't that good/bad. Or, show the characters' lover acting as if it is perfect but then show it isn't so, and that the rest of the cast has no illusion either. And remember, would you like a person that is perfect in everything? Neither would the supporting characters. Maybe its lover loves it for its (alleged) perfectness, everyone else will hate it.

Q4. Does it suffer injustices that everyone ignores until the moment it explodes and then everyone feels bad because yes, life is so unfair for it?

A4.1 Yes. Wrong: so maybe its parents should have asked it direct questions instead of ransacking its room for proof of whatever. So maybe it decides to run away from home because of the unfairness of it all and because nobody understands it. But lets pause for a moment, shall we? What did the parents see? A teenager that refuses to explain what is the matter. A teenager who may have started taking drugs. Maybe they even asked direct questions... or asked them in the wrong way further pushing it away. Maybe they want to understand but, not getting any explanations from it, look at the 'scary' teen world and can only imagine the worst scenarios. Maybe ransacking its room was actually a call for help: 'tell us what is wrong!'

The thing is: what one thinks is unfair treatment may simply be the other party trying to help. Or maybe it wasn't unfair treatment at all; maybe it's just the consequences of poorly thought out actions.

Q5. Is the character 'magically' protected from consequences?

A5.1 Yes. No preferencial treatment can ever be allowed! Unless, of course, there is a biased headmaster, but then its colleagues will make it feel the consequences of being the headmaster's pet. If it gets in trouble, it must suffer through, even if that means breaking an arm or even losing a leg (How to train your dragon pulled it beautifully). Consequences are for everyone, whether it's catching a cold from not wearing a coat or getting shot from not wearing a vest.

A5.2 Only the little things, like... clumsily breaking a bunch of glasses in a shop? No preferencial treatment can ever be allowed! Make it pay for the glasses. If it says the wrong thing, don't let the others brush it off with a laugh and a frown; if it blundered, someone is going to be offended and it must apologise. No exceptions.

Q6. Does the character always get what it wants?

A6.1 Yes. Wrong: life doesn't always give us what we want no matter how much we work and sweat and hurt for it. Let it win some battles and lose others (meaningful battles, the others don't count). Let it win second prize rather than exactly what it wanted.

A6.2 Yes, but it really suffers for it. Wrong: I've been there. I had the typical sociopath yielding to its lover. Sure, she got pounded (figuratively or not) before she got what she wanted, but she still got it. And then I stopped and thought about it. Why would he yield? Why wouldn't he just kill her rather than put up with her? (tip: if psychos are involved, love is not a good answer; make sure there's more to it) Obviously, he would have killed her. It was a clear case of 'author protection'.


Bottom line: It's ok to have a special character, but make sure it isn't a SPECIAL one.

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  • Thank you @Sara Costa! If you want to know what my character is like I can give you a rough outline and you can determine if he sounds "Mary Sueish" – AnAspiringAuthor Feb 16 '17 at 16:06
  • #1:no respect for human life #2: has the compulsize urge to arrange objects in orderly manner #3: Hates on people who have physiques better than his #4: Bulimic #5: Aware of his problems, unwilling to change them as he fears he will "Become Normal" #6: Has practical medical/doctoral knowledge #7: engages in core-building exercise on a regular basis in order to feel better about himself – AnAspiringAuthor Feb 16 '17 at 16:12
  • But for some reason still has no 6-pack (Character is 13 years old) – AnAspiringAuthor Feb 16 '17 at 16:14
  • Seems unbalanced at 1st sight. No 6-pack? A 13yo, bulimic on top of it, no wonder there. #6 at 13yo? Maybe if he's a genius, grew up in a heavily medical environment or simply has a lot of misconceptions or half truths. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Feb 16 '17 at 16:33
  • But above all, it's what you make of it. One thing is how the character sees itself; another is how the narrator makes the reader see it. Check @MarkBaker's answer in relation to 'gaze direction'. Teens will look inward, so they can see themselves as they are or as they imagine they are. If the narrator follows that view, you'll create a Marty Stu; if the narrator gives a more balanced view of the character that counteracts the character's ideas, you may avoid it. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Feb 16 '17 at 16:36

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