Before we continue this exploration of redeeming Little Miss Mary Sue, I want to set down two rules to consider through the rest of this series:
- There are no character traits that are exclusive to Mary Sues; context and suspension of disbelief are major factors in what a character can and can’t get away with.
- Characters in a story can get away with things the narration can’t.
Writing is not an inherently visual medium; stories can be delivered through sound as well as by reading words on a page or screen. People may say things like “painting a picture with words” or “show, don’t tell,” but in the end writing cannot produce an actual, objective visual image. This isn’t to say that sensory details aren’t important to a good story, because they absolutely are, but a good storyteller knows that it is up to the audience to develop their own mental images from the provided details, and that the audience is capable of filling in many blanks for themselves, if they’re so inclined. So, don’t worry about describing every last minute detail of a character’s appearance and outfits. Excessive attention to appearance is one common red flag that Little Miss Mary Sue is present.
If a story opens along the lines of “Hi, I’m Mary Sue. I’m a thirteen year-old half-elf, 6 foot eleven and half inches tall, 200 pounds, with ruby-red hair with natural cobalt highlights, rainbow-colored eyes, and a beauty mark next to my nose,” most discerning readers will turn away for two big reasons: 1) that description sounds ridiculous for most settings (and this is a tame example; such introductions can get far more detailed and outlandish) and 2) stories that start out simply describing the main character - with or without “justification” like looking in a mirror - is tired and boring. Readers nowadays want to get into the action as soon as possible, not after a page’s worth of Mary Sue’s physical description, choice of make-up and outfit, and likes and dislikes.
It is actually a good idea to write a full-blown description of your original character’s appearance, personality, and other relevant details so you don’t forget and change things halfway through the story. Just don’t dump that description wholesale into your story, and especially not as the opening paragraphs. Slip details in throughout the story as they become relevant, but don’t beat the reader over the head with those details. For example, the first time your elf maiden displays her nervous habit of running her hand through her hair, go ahead and tell us she’s a blonde (or whatever), but don’t bring up the color every single time her hair is mentioned.
Narrative perspective can have a powerful influence on when and how you can naturally describe your character. Writing in first-person from your character’s perspective means you’ll have a harder time finding a non-cliche means of describing their appearance until later in the story. The “looks in the mirror” justification is trite in the opening scenes, but it can be made to work if the story leads into your character dressing up for something and then uses a mirror to apply her make-up or check how the dress looks on her. If writing in third-person, or even first-person from a different character, a quick summary of your character’s appearance is perfectly acceptable when they first enter the scene. From any perspective, though, description tends to feel more natural when presented as one character’s evaluation of another or themselves; mix descriptive facts with bits of color commentary, and put whatever feature is the most “striking” either first or last so it will have the best narrative impact.
Folding description naturally into a narrative can only take you so far in a story, and it might not help at all if your character’s appearance is objectively beyond the reader’s Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Take my half-elf Mary Sue for example. Outside of some animes, red hair with blue highlights does not happen naturally, so she’d be out of place in Middle Earth. A height of six feet, eleven inches is absurdly tall for any thirteen year-old, and at least unusual for humanoids in most Fantasy settings. As a half-elf, my Mary Sue does not belong in any realistic fiction nor any universes where elves don’t exist. All this is a rather mild example; Mary Sues can take the desire to appear “exotic” to mind-bending extremes. Impossible hair, implausible parentage, extra animal-like appendages, impractical or nonsensical wardrobe choices, and eyes that are every color of the rainbow (and sometimes all the colors at once) are just some of the common features a writer will pile onto their Mary Sue simply for the sake of appearance.
So, how do you avoid this? Keep it simple. If you already have a character, break them down into their features (height, weight, eye color, hair color and style, species/race, etc.) and then throw out everything that does not or cannot reasonably exist within the universe you intend to write in. Be sure to consider things like “can this hair color be natural in this world?” and (if the previous answer is “no”) “does hair dye for this color exist?” Once you’ve discarded the impossible, replace any essential traits (generally: hair, eyes, height, weight, and species/race) that have been left blank. Go lightly on the “miscellaneous” traits, especially if the world you’re writing in doesn’t allow much leeway with unusual features. Try to limit the extra details to quirks in fashion sense and accessories and stuff like nose shape/size, freckles, scars, blemishes, and so forth. If there’s some impossible trait you simply must have, try to come up with a reason besides “it looks cool!” or “I want them to be able to fly/breathe fire/ breathe underwater/do X thing that nobody else can do!” I don’t recommend trying to justify the impossible until you have a lot of experience and an audience willing to trust you. It is hard enough writing a quality Harry Potter fan fic without trying to integrate your new student who has dragon ancestry and (only) the wings to prove it.