Trying to avoid my main lady character becoming a "Mary Sue"


Well-Known Member
Jul 26, 2021
So I started working on something of an ensemble piece with various strangers all being drawn to the same location, at least a couple are woman and one of them is a warrior. Her fighting style is fast and efficient and she is meant to be very experienced and this shows in her use of tactics and observations. So what's the issue?

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole of reading and watching some reviews of The Rings Of Power to see what people thought of it, and of course got inundated with lots of reviews complaining about Galadriel becoming some overpowered, unbeatable warrior woman queen (There were obviously some legitimate complaints about the very odd changes to the lord of Middle Earth and the total rewrite of the known history, but those are not what I want to address in this thread) and that got me wondering, if the same accusation would end up being levelled at my woman warrior.

Now, I have made it clear in her introduction that she's been fighting almost every day since she was very young in fights to the death in the slave pits, and that she's got scars on show from those fights to show her near misses from any lapses of judgement or lucky strikes from the other fighters. This is even brought up in narration about her which is seen from third person from her point of view before she ends up joining the latest fight to the death, and of course wins as quickly as she can. So there are pointers to show she is good at what she does, that she has experience and skills that she's gained before we've met her.

But my concern is this, we've seen pointers like this about new characters before, which get utterly ignored by people who complain that a woman cannot do these things, despite all evidence we're provided before hand. Classic, and very current example is Rey in Star Wars Episode 7. People complained about her being able to fly the Falcon, even though we saw her piloting a speeder earlier. People complained about her being able to fix the Falcon, despite her being a scavenger of spare parts and shown to have some working old tech she'd salvaged and kept. People complained that she knew how to fight at all, even though we saw her very quickly take out two would be assailants before she met Finn, which implied she'd already learned to fight given what a nasty world she lived on.
Not to mention people complained that she seemed all powerful in the Force (that got retconned later, badly, but that's a discussion about episode 9, not 7) and beat Kylo Ren, ignoring the fact he was heavily injured, bleeding, exhausted and so on, and didn't seem to stop to ask WHY she seemed all powerful.

Now with this all in mind, here's my concern. It seems to me, no matter how well I write the prose from her POV as she reminisces about her time as a slave fighter, show her old wounds and scars, have the ring master of the event look over the betting boards that show how much money she's made him or could make him still with her track record, as soon as she defeats her opponents, she's going to be labelled an overpower Mary Sue with no right to be able to defeat the others, no matter how clear it's pointed out that she has skills.

Is it even worth having a female warrior type when you know how certain loudmouths are going to dismiss her straight away?
You are right that certain people will condemn a woman warrior straight away, however you choose to portray her, and especially if she is very good at what she does. But should you let these people influence how you write your books, even to the point of deciding it is not "worth having a female warrior type"? I would say that you should write your book without worrying about them. You are never going to please everyone, after all. You just have to do your best to execute whatever you decide to do as well as you can do it. (I give this advice as someone who is not really fond of characters who are women warriors, but who can occasionally be won over by the right character.)

But a true Mary Sue is not just over-powered in whatever it is that she specializes in. She is a wish-fulfillment character, and thus she is remarkably good at everything she undertakes, exceptionally beautiful, and all good people that she encounters absolutely adore her. As I read somewhere, a Mary Sue is so perfect that if she dies the universe will weep. (The male equivalent, Marty Stu, is let off on the beauty requirement. Harry Potter is very close to being a Marty Stu, but that didn't stop the books from being successful, did it?)

From your description, it sounds like your character only excels at the arts of war, and if that is so, she is a long way from a Mary Sue. Also, the scars you mention take away from any physical attractiveness she may have had in the beginning, so that's another point in her favor.
I may have misunderstood, but my first impression is that you are stating you have a problem with the audience in general and not with your writing. You seem to be transferring arguments from two stories that are not your story onto your own character. Pre-judging reader criticisms before they even have a chance to peruse your work. It sounds like a long-winded defense intended to sidestep any criticism before it lands.

There's really not a whole lot wrong in doing that. To some degree we need to be aware of and analyze how the reader might take our story. But clearly this issue is bothering you... so much so I'm wondering if you're thinking of starting a GoFundMe to pay for a lawyer to defend the character in their inevitable trial by audience lynch mob. ;)

There is, of course, some level of defensiveness that isn't useful. I don't know you or where your head's really at: people are often just posting for therapy and to release steam. You do need to give your character an honest look though, and to a large degree, it sounds like you have. But I have to say, I didn't find the defense you offered for her not being a Mary Sue particularly convincing. It didn't remove all reasonable doubt, and the straw-manning to the other stories was just distracting. I would put myself in the box of "I don't know if she's a Mary Sue or not from what I know so far."

So I have questions:

1. Is power fairly balanced among this group that meets? Offset with different talents and different challenges etc.
2. Does this female fighter have any major vulnerabilities or flaws?
3. Is there anyone in this fictional world that can beat her at what she does (another way to say. are there any real stakes at risk)?
4. Is she on a collision course with this nemesis in a way that highlights the story's themes?

I would also like to add that winning fights by being "the best fighter" isn't the most effective way to get action to resonate with the reader. It's a way, and it's used a heckuva lot (see Wood, Holly), but it's not the best way. Ideally you want to have your characters win or lose fights because of the decisions they make in-story. I.e... Consequences. Now that might be as simple and as direct as "didn't train". All depends on the theme, where we are in the plot, who the characters are, etc etc. Take all that for what you will. I don't know your story's story so can't really comment other than to state this general rule. Just something to think about.

Anyways that's my two bits. Sorry, it's not much. Inflation and all that jazz. :)
"...people who complain that a woman cannot do these things" Good grief, do you really care about readers who have that attitude? Well maybe, since you've designated this female warrior "your main lady character." Get with the program and write her strong and " *** 'em if they can't take a joke."
Hi DAgent. Well you've introduced to a phrase that I had never heard before. Having read the other posts and Googled, it seems like the issue isn't having a character who is inexplicably gifted, more that it's A. unrealistic for a character to be lacking in any flaws and/or B. it also makes them a bit dull and hard for the reader to relate to.

It's unrealistic to suppose that someone has fought to the death 'almost every day' from a young age. You would expect in cases of fighting involving betting that she would be put up against an opponent of equal ability, and there's no way that anyone is going to win hundreds (thousands?) of consecutive 50/50 'fight to the deaths', even if she was injured in some of them. Even if she had some unbeatable innate quality, she wouldn't hone her fighting skills in such combat, and people would stop betting against her very quickly.

As an example Roman gladiators would fight 3-5 times a year, and usually would be lucky to survive more than 10 encounters. One of the most famous being Flamma, who lived into his 30s, having fought 34 times, winning 21 of them.

As for your second point about a character seemingly doing something without explanation, this can either be the fault of the reader or of the author - or a little of both. As an author, you may look at Rey and say to the viewer "hey, I've shown that she can ride a speeder, I have shown that she knows her way around spaceships, and she's also strong in the Force" - join the dots. Whilst the viewer may respond "just because someone can ride and fix a motorbike or car, or can scavenge spare parts off an aeroplane doesn't mean that they can get behind the wheel of a 747 and fly it like an experienced pilot."

As a reader/viewer we are sometimes asked to join the dots, to remember when reading Book 3 the foreshadowing from Book 1. The issue can sometimes be that as a writer we are heavily invested in the characters and story, and sometimes things that make absolute sense to us, doesn't mean they do to the casual reader who may have forgotten or misinterpreted the breadcrumb trail we have left. Which is another way of sometimes saying that we have to make it more obvious to them why something happened, or why someone did what they did. It's really your decision as to how much of a leap of faith you want your reader to make, and how much of an attention span you credit them with.

So I would say to give your character flaws, make her beatable, believable and relatable to the reader. Give the reader a reason as to why she is the way she is; and if they still have a problem, then that's life - you can't please all the people all of the time.
Sounds like a female barbarian, a She-ra type. There are Sholin and Taoist nuns that were known to be quite the fighters with a fist full of knowledge/experience in pre CCP China. Even in Japan and Korea, this type of Female Warrior has come up in lore. I would look at her from this point.

TBH, in role playing games like D&D, Rune Quest or the World of Warcraft there are many of these types of characters. As long as you stay within your world building logic or stay kind of close to a known world, like Conan the Barbarian, you should be fine. Just as an example.

The problem with Rey in Star Wars is the character does not stay within the world of Star Wars. An end all, be all, know it all type character kind of takes away from the adventure and suspense. There is no cliff hanger because the Rey will save the day. (I blame this on Disney myself. JMO. :))

I would make this character stronger than most men, of course, and a very fast fighter with extended endurance. Can see quality goods and knows when she is being lied too, epically when purchasing items. She would know basic street skills (street wise) and have survival/fighting/hunting skills. And knows some foreign customs/traditions/languages/laws (Goes with street wise.) Wants to be 'One of the Guys' type but knows she doesn't know everything or can do everything. (The group compensates for where she lacks. The more skilled the group, the more she lacks but has or starts to develop leadership skills. Have her develop this skill to show character growth.)

BUT, she is still a woman with female feelings. Have her appear to be emotionally stronger than she real is. And when she is away from the group and alone, let the emotions and some insecurities come out. (Potential character and or plot twist maybe?)
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If someone said she’s a Mary Sue (or whatever) would you care/rewrite her? I suspect not.

In that spirit, then, just write the story and if any tweaks to characters are needed, do it once the story’s complete; it’ll be much easier to problem-solve then.

Don’t forget also that your warrior may be held up as inspirational by some readers.

ETA: Rey is an imprecise comparison in my opinion as she’s a screen character, not conjured by a reader’s reaction to prose. Furthermore she’s not a man and we occupy a genre where often reactions to non-male heroes are scrutinised far deeper than they would be if they were men. ‘Powerful wimminz!! Burn the witch!’ Etc
If someone said she’s a Mary Sue (or whatever) would you care/rewrite her? I suspect not.

In that spirit, then, just write the story and if any tweaks to characters are needed, do it once the story’s complete; it’ll be much easier to problem-solve then.

Don’t forget also that your warrior may be held up as inspirational by some readers.

ETA: Rey is an imprecise comparison in my opinion as she’s a screen character, not conjured by a reader’s reaction to prose. Furthermore she’s not a man and we occupy a genre where often reactions to non-male heroes are scrutinised far deeper than they would be if they were men. ‘Powerful wimminz!! Burn the witch!’ Etc
This is very true. Your character is in a fantasy novel, and the normal rules don't have to apply.

Often in cases where the protagonist is strong or invulnerable, it is the secondary characters who are put in jeopardy, hence red shirts in Star Trek, companions in Doctor Who and Bond's female companion. The 'vulnerability' of your protagonist is then their failure to protect their vulnerable sidekick. Or perhaps your Mary Sue character comes up against an antagonist Mary Sue or Mary Stu, and the question then is who wins out, and how.

But as Phyrebat mentions, there is nothing wrong in a fantasy novel with having a Mary Sue type character. Readers idolise Harry Potter not because he's the accurate representation of a teenage orphan, but because of the virtues of truth, honesty, courage, charity and integrity that he portrays .
I had the same problem with my MC in my first book. Heros or heroines are expected to be faultless, to a certain extent. I got around the problem by giving my MC some flaws that fitted in with his tragic background. As others have said, if you're writing fantasy it shouldn't matter all that much. Good luck with the book.
If you want a Mary Sue type who is anchored in reality to some extent you might try Kate Macer in Sicaro or Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow. But if you're looking for a female ninja in the superhero class then don't let reality hold you back. It's already an established trope. And don't forget to make the men around her useless betas. ;)

But at least ensure she's relatable. Galadriel in Rings of Power is awful - she has a terrible personality. She completely lacks empathy for others and has a borderline psychotic ego. And she achieves things that would clearly require Marvel superpowers which the series does not make clear she has. How come she can kill a troll so effortlessly when her companions - elves like herself - are flattened by it?
Is it even worth having a female warrior type when you know how certain loudmouths are going to dismiss her straight away?

The internet sometimes feels full of sad little men, especially in the last few years, who cannot deal with this because of their own psychological weakness. That's their problem, not yours. Most readers are better than that.

While it is entirely possible for a woman to be a very skilled fighter (the spy Nancy Wake once killed a Nazi stormtrooper with one blow of the hand) some of what your character can do will depend on the rules of the setting. Is this the kind of "heroic" setting where one hero can defeat fifty enemies at once, or a more realistic one where exhaustion and blood loss will wear any fighter down? (See @paranoid marvin 's point here. It's incredibly unlikely that anyone could survive fighting to the death every day of the week for long.)

We live in a time where people continually look for tropes. People seem keen to define any character, but especially women characters, by a set of stereotypes, but that's not the point. What matters is what your version of such a person is like. As others has pointed out, being a near-invincible fighter doesn't make you a perfect person, by a very long way. The point is that she shouldn't be the winner in everything she does, and if she fails in something, she shouldn't fail in a way that makes her look good (hello River Tam).

The other thing I would advise anyone writing someone like this is to write them realistically, not as cute or sexy but as a convincing rounded person. I would also be wary of giving her a "girly side" made of stereotypical (weak?) female traits, but to be honest, I think this comes down to good writing.
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Re the female warrior thing, if 'warrior' means someone handy with a gun who sticks exclusively to ranged combat then, fine, no problem. Many ace snipers in the Russian army in WW2 were women.

But if by 'warrior' you mean sword and sandals then you immediately depart from reality if you pit a woman against trained and competent men and expect the woman to win out. In the real world she doesn't and won't. You'll have to squiff the equation: she has been genetically engineered (Hanna) or she's a straight alien or a superior class cyborg (Alita Battle Angel) or something like that.
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Is it even worth having a female warrior type when you know how certain loudmouths are going to dismiss her straight away?
First, it's no bad thing if your book gets big enough to have random idiots discuss it on the internet. ;)

It's almost inevitable that a female warrior will have less strength than an equivalent (in age, genetic quality and training) man. But given what you say about your character, those "equivalent" men might be very rare, and they might not be equivalent in cunning. People (most people) enjoy seeing a fighter realistically beat an on-paper stronger one by using their wits. In any case, women can be very strong. I have a female friend of thirty who can lift 75kgs over her head. I doubt I personally know any man who could ever have done that.

As others have said, a Mary Sue isn't just someone who's very competent in one field. They are someone the author clearly loves too much and wants the audience to share those feelings. Often they are liked for no clear reason by almost every character in the story, and easily solve any problem. To sum up: they don't have to try. This not only makes them irritating characters, it makes their stories boring to experience.
Personally I'm in favour of a female protagonist who has all the natural physical disadvantages of a woman but can outsmart a man whilst working around those disadvantages. Personally I'm bored by superwomen who routinely flatten men in hand-to-hand combat. Give me a female MacGyver any day. With a rifle. Or a bow. Make it real.
I think part of the problem is that the character described sounds like she came into being via some D&D character building protocol. "She's my warrior character." Ugh.

I would much rather read a book about a character that has an interesting plot line and, one time, physically bested a dangerous opponent. That would have more thrill packed into that one fight and would make her victory greater, and less the product of simple character design.

In one Sherlock Holmes story he unbends an iron poker, showing that Holmes is stronger than his threatening opponent. He never does anything like this again, and is a more interesting character for this solitary display of physicality. Why not do the same with your character(s)?

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