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I am currently writing a novel where the main character will be far more powerful than most of the people in the world and I am worried that I will end up losing sight of what I am writing and start writing a power fantasy where the main character will be a Mary Sue with every hot guy kneeling before her and telling her just how beautiful she is and that she is the only woman they will love.

The last part may be a bit of an exaggeration I am using to make a point. What I want to ask is: what are the warnings signs I should watch out for in order to not end up with a character that is obviously self inserted?

  • 2
    Are you asking mainly about self-insertion, as in writing a character into the story who represents yourself, or more broadly about a wish-fulfillment fantasy? – Davislor Apr 30 '18 at 16:46
  • Hmm, I'd be VERY wary of a character who isn't particularly interesting. "It's me, but I've got loads of power and no hardship and I have a whale of a time." isn't improved by making it sound less like you. – AJFaraday May 1 '18 at 10:31
  • If you give Frodo a light saber, then Sauron gets a death star (or the ring has to get to Jupiter to be destroyed... or the ring is literally 10 tons and is physically tough to move) -- if the hero is powerful, then the odds have to be even harder, whether it's in power-ups or complexity, whether in the task/goal or the antagonist. Balance in all things. – April Mar 15 at 20:54
28

Neither being powerful, nor reflecting the author is an insurmountable problem for a character. What you want to avoid is a character who faces no significant problems on her path to success, whose character flaws are all overlooked, and who is unjustifiably treated as intrinsically lovable. Self-insertion isn't the problem, it's the explanation. If it was intrinsically problematic to "insert yourself" into your work, no one would ever read autobiographies, and all the loosely autobiographical novels would have to be pulled from the shelves. Rather, "self-insertion" is a frequent explanation for poorly conceived, unrealistic characters who star in plots of interest solely to the author.

Basically, most readers, when they read a book, or watch a movie, want to be able to put themselves in the place of the main character, and to learn something from her story. Either they want to see her overcome a significant problem, or they want to learn what NOT to do in the same situation. But if the challenges are too easy, it feels like a cheat. We all know how to wish ourselves out of a bad situation, or how to fantasize a perfect scenario for ourselves. We don't need a writer to do that for us.

A super-powerful heroine isn't the most promising start for a compelling narrative, but there are interesting places to take it. Her biggest challenges are likely to be internal. Given how overpowered she is, you'll need to focus on her problems and her failures, not her successes. How does she keep from becoming a monster? How does she form real relationships with ordinary people? How does she maintain perspective? How does she deal with the boredom? How does she deal with the crushing responsibility? How does she keep from hurting people or destroying them accidentally? What unexpected, hidden, or paradoxical limits to her power are there? While few of us will ever actually be in the shoes of someone who is that powerful, we can still relate it to situations we do face in real life --getting a promotion, perhaps, or caretaking a child, situations that with intrinsic power differentials that can easily lead to abusive situations.

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    On the Hi-Power MC issue, I recommend reading the isekai genre of japanese novels. Most of them have MC's that are over the board, but the story is interesting nonetheless because they develop other aspects. Yes, they ROFLStomp all the enemies, and except in some cases you know they will win without almost a scratch. But the story is interesting because other aspects (most of them listed in the A). – Mindwin Apr 30 '18 at 17:38
  • Similarly, One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100 are excellent examples of how to handle stories with basically invincible main characters. – Tacroy Apr 30 '18 at 20:54
  • @Mindwin Overlord is a good example of an isekai story where the main character is so overpowered that any obstacle is a laughing matter, but still manages to keep an interesting narrative and series of events in other ways outside of a usual power struggle. – colsw May 1 '18 at 11:56
6

If this character is to be either hero or villain, there must be something they want and do not know how to get, or that comes at a hefty price. There must be a goal not easily attained, or there is no story, there is just a list of actions that produced their desired result and for the reader this is boring. There is no conflict, and to be interesting (as a story) conflict is crucial all along.

Mary Sue may be the most beautiful girl in the world: But the man she wants is a blind musician that doesn't really care, and in fact he is only romantically interested in women that are also blind and have shared his life journey firsthand. She can't have him without lying; and he will never love her for herself.

Your character needs something to strive for, and no matter how powerful, she can't be happy until she gets it. (Of course she might be happy to start the book, that is an entry into the status-quo world; but by the end of Act I she must need something that all her powers cannot easily deliver; she must be constrained somehow.

Some heroes are constrained by their own rules or code of ethics or morality: Mary Sue may be capable of besting anybody in battle, but refuses to kill for her own selfish wants and desires.

Superman detectives (Sherlock derivatives) want to solve the mystery and prove the guilt of the murderer. It isn't enough to know in their gut who is guilty and then assassinate them, even if they are morally capable of such a feat. That would still be a failure of their intelligence and ability.

Your Mary Sue needs something her powers cannot reach with simplicity: The love of another, a political revolution, technology beyond her grasp, to save the life of somebody she loves, a puzzle she cannot (by her own code) solve by snapping her fingers, because she feels that would be fundamentally wrong, or cheating, or worthless (e.g. using a potion to magically make a man love her).

She has to struggle. Act I is about 30% of the story; the setup. The finale is about 5% of the story. If she is not struggling for the middle 65% of the story, you probably don't have a story, you likely have a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

6

There are three things that make a Mary Sue. You want to avoid all three of them:

  1. The character has a backstory that is desperately tragic, but doesn't encounter serious problems in the story. (This is frequently an attempt to compel readers to feel sympathy for a character without properly earning the readers' investment into the character.)
  2. The character is always treated as being morally in the right by your story, even when they are being selfish.
  3. The character never runs into a problem in your story that they must struggle to solve.

To avoid writing a self-insert Mary Sue, you need to avoid all three of those issues. Here are some specific questions you can ask yourself to determine whether you're writing a Mary Sue:

  • Of the difficult experiences your character has had, do most of them occur during the events of the story itself as opposed to your character's backstory?
  • Why do you think readers will care about your character? Do most of your reasons have to do with what happens to your character during the story instead of the backstory?
  • Are there any friendly characters that ever disagree with your character's actions? If so, are these friendly characters portrayed as being right or at least having an honest disagreement of opinion?
  • Does your character ever make a genuinely selfish decision?
  • Do you have any conflicts that your character must struggle greatly to overcome?
  • Do you have any conflicts that are resolved by your character becoming more mature or selfless as opposed to using a cool power or relying on an aspect of who they are that was already present at the start of the story?

You want to be able to say yes to all of these questions. If you can't, that's a strong sign that you're writing wish fulfillment, not a compelling story.

I hope you noticed how each of the questions I listed ties into one of the three marks of a Mary Sue at the top of this answer. I do believe that these questions are a practical way of determining whether you're writing a self-insert character. The specific reason these questions work is because they reveal the particular symptoms of a character meant to serve as a vehicle for your own fantasies, not a story with rich meaning.

4

You should make a list of the most important conflict points that your character will have to face throughout the book. It's important to be able to tell beforehand roughly which problems your character has to face and overcome - if there is nothing to overcome the character is too powerful and/or you didn't think about the mental component.

There are different sorts of writers out there - those who plan and those who simply write and see what they bring to paper. But in any case it's a good idea to have at least a rough idea of what their characters will go through over the course of their book. This list can of course be updated depending on what you discover about your characters and their world while writing, but it gives you an idea of what you can and should focus on and where your character has too many or not enough weaknesses.

If you are thinking about what you want to write - what are the situations where your character will look powerless?

Just because you are the most powerful being doesn't mean that you are invincible.

For example the Big Bad Evil Guy could simply try to kidnap your friends and family. They are not so powerful, are they? But you are vulnerable because you have feelings that humans could relate to. You want to know your friends and family safe, which is giving your antagonists a leverage they can use.

Or you are the most powerful being - in face-to-face combat. That doesn't mean that a knife in your back during the night won't kill you. Surprises can still surprise you, even if you have a lot of alarms. A real life advice here would be that security is not meant to be perfect - it's meant to be a deterrent that will make the resources your antagonist has to use too high and the costs in case your antagonist fails too grave to make it useful to try to steal something from you.

And while we are at face-to-face combat: how many people does it take to overwhelm you? Three? A dozen? Do you have a powerful mage that can basically control the thoughts of everyone around you? In that case you could define how many are too many to control at the same time.

And people can relate to flaws. Some people might look up to a perfect super powerful being, but others - for example the love interest of your protagonist - might prefer someone who shares a common interest or displays a certain character trait. Being powerful is nice and all, but what about being good with kids/animals/..., eloquent, funny, ...? How can your character show this? And what might happen if they try to and fail? What if the kids start to cry suddenly? Would your character go so far as to use their almighty mind-control abilities on kids or their love interest? That would be a pretty big character flaw and you should definitely think about this.

All in all you should think about the limitations of your characters power. Which aspects can your character not control, when is it too much, what could your character do, but deciced they don't want to do, what do other characters value in a person, ...?

There is more to a protagonist, an antagonist and supporting characters than mere strength. Wits and character flaws are an important aspect of what is means to live. That's why it's important to think about the most important positive and negative aspects of the most important characters before starting your writing. At least a bit - this list will probably get updated regularly and that's fine.

If you only watch out for the problems while writing you will more easily get lost. It's far easier to keep track of your "milestones" that you have defined earlier and to re-read something and see if it aligns with your "character sheet" that states the most important traits and problems than trying to keep an eye on signs for overly powerful characters - because that is pretty open ended and you don't have any criteria to define a find.

4

What has helped me is the following:

  • I assume you have developed your character and "know him"
  • create a list (or spreadsheet table, if you have more than one character) with the most defining characteristics and habits, especially habit of speech
  • create a graph of the character arc (unfinished example from myself) or a list of the changes the character undergoes over the course of your narrative, or add that to the first list in a different color
  • this will be your guide, so do take some time to really have the essentials in the list and to design the list in a way that you find informative and visually easy and quick to read (so use keywords or images, not long walls of text)
  • pin both lists/tables/graphs on the wall over your desk so that whenever you switch to another character, you can look at it and remind yourself quickly of how you want to write that character
4

In this case consider the three (or four) character sliders: Proactivity, Likability, and Competence (and mission.) The podcast at the link describes this.

You are worried your character will be a ten out of ten in all three areas - Highly proactive, highly likable, and highly competent. (and on a good mission.) (incidentally, my female character suffers from extremely low proactivity, and it's a different problem ... that I'm working to overcome.)

You are right, a character high in all three areas risks being a flat character, a Superman character.

Your solution is simple: Draw down one of the sliders. (Or two.) You get to choose - but if you want a deeper character, that's the solution. Make the character less proactive, less likable, or less competent. This makes the character more relatable to us mere mortals and also gives the character more room to grow.

You can play out how drawing down a slider in any of those areas affects the story - An unlikable character will have certain interpersonal challenges. An incompetent character will fail in the action sequences. And so on.

Answer: Break it down into those three (or four, if you include mission) areas, and decide what to reduce and then just do it.

4

I think it's important to strictly define what exactly it is that you are attempting to avoid.

A self-insert is when you literally insert yourself into a work of fiction: the character acts like you would, talks like you would, has the same tastes as you would, etc. This is an extremely common trope but in and of itself is not inherently bad: see the excellent Worth the Candle for an example of the self-insert done well.

The connotation of "self-insert" often refers to a character having out-of-universe knowledge of the world they find themselves in; think the very common "I read Harry Potter and am now sucked into the world of Harry Potter" type of fan-fiction. This can lend itself to problems if handled poorly but again is not inherently bad in and of itself.

A Mary-Sue (as contentious as the term is) once upon a time exclusively referred to A) self-inserts who B) everyone loved and C) never lost, but over time the term appears to have drifted to not require the self-insertness, and for the most part seems to be a vague "this character is overpowered and never loses" (when it's not simply being used as a "I don't like this character" stand-in).

So of these three, I don't think that you're afraid of making a self-insert, you're attempting to avoid a Mary Sue. There's a very simple antidote for Sue-ness: make the character lose. Not just "darn, the villain got away", or "darn, everyone's jealous of my ability to win all the time", but "I intervened when told not to and accidentally killed a bunch of people and actually made everything worse" or "I tried to be clever and cut the Gordian knot and instead ended up cutting myself", or something of that nature.

So TL;DR is: if you find that the number and quality of the character's victories is far, far more than the number and quality of the character's failures, you might have a Mary Sue. There are exceptions, but this is the biggest flag to look out for, imo.

  • Personally, I think Mary Sue means so many things to so many people these days that it’s become unusable. (One fecund source of arguments that I especially prefer to side-step, having seen it derail other people’s discussions, is whether a Mary Sue has to be female.) Some alternatives that seem to get misunderstood less often: Wish-fulfillment character, creator’s pet, power fantasy. – Davislor Apr 30 '18 at 17:53

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