The other day, someone posted a cover mock-up of their book on a facebook group and someone immediately commented that the woman on the cover was a Mary Sue. My initial response to that was, why is every female character automatically a Mary Sue when we know absolutely nothing about her?
What makes up a Mary Sue anyway? Mary Sues are characters who are either incredibly too perfect (great hair, thin, smart, pretty, etc. Everything people wish they were but aren’t because they are real humans) or they are characters who are the authors. It comes up a lot in fanfic with young authors putting themselves or versions of themselves into their own stories. It is a generally agreed-upon rule that Mary Sues are useless characters and something to stay away from. However, then you can get stuck in the great debate over female characters and how can you possibly make them realistic without getting stuck in tropes like the “bitch” character or the “helpless” girl.
There is no way to get away from those in some respects because whoever is reading the book will see your character a certain way no matter what. Why? Because women in fiction, and women in general, have been stereotyped by society. A woman who is strong and confident and smart is often viewed as the bitch, and a woman who is quiet and meek is seen as weak and helpless, needing a man to come along and rescue her. Where is the happy medium? Often women are just plot points to help the main character along in his quest.
One way to ensure that your characters are not just accessories is to use the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test is simple: are there two female characters who have a conversation that is not about a man? If yes, then congratulations, you passed! Believe it or not, but women do have conversations about things other than guys and relationships.
Think about your favorite female character, be it in a book, movie, or whatever. Who is she? Why do you like her? Is it because she’s pretty? Is it because she’s smart? Is it because you would like to be best friends with her or because you would never want to cross her? Or maybe both? Those are the qualities you need to put into your own characters. Don’t just make her a pretty face, the best friend, the romantic interest. Make her as much, or more, of a character as any men in your story. Give her a female friend or coworker to talk to about things other than men.
Society has a stigma about women and many women in literature have stuck to it, but there’s always a chance to break the mold and when someone puts up a picture of a female character, maybe someone won’t immediately call it a Mary Sue.