I have an unpopular opinion for you:
Writing a “Mary Sue” is not the worst thing an author can do.
Or, at least, it’s not a bad place to start.
If you don’t know what a Mary Sue is, here is an explanation from UrbanDictionary.com:
A female fanfiction character who is so perfect as to be annoying. The male equivlalent is the Marty-Stu. Often abbreviated to “Sue”. A Mary Sue character is usually written by a beginning author. Often, the Mary Sue is a self-insert with a few “improvements” (ex. better body, more popular, etc). The Mary Sue character is almost always beautiful, smart, etc… In short, she is the “perfect” girl. The Mary Sue usually falls in love with the author’s favorite character(s) and winds up upstaging all of the other characters in the book/series/universe.
It is, however, not limited to fanfiction. Some famous Mary Sues include Bella from Twilight and that chick from 50 Shades of Grey.
Let me clarify that we should not be publishing these kinds of characters. I just think there are worse ways for a young writer to start. To become successful in this writing game, one has to have passion and dedication. And you have to practice. Practice.
In middle school, I found myself writing a lot of fanfiction. I used L.J. Smith’s Night World universe and inserted an original character. Of course, my original character was just me in fantasy land–a Mary Sue. But in navigating another author’s universe, I was essentially studying the art of urban fantasy. And I was having a blast, so I wrote a ton. Not much longer later, I was creating my own world with its own set of rules. I learned so much about writing and, in specific, genre writing because I had taken the easy way out: used myself, used someone else’s template. I knew, even then, that these stories would go nowhere but it didn’t matter because I loved the craft. That simple joy is what will take you through to “the end” when you are wading through the swamp of your own novel. Because writing is hard.
Also, I have heard several times in my writing education, that every single character you create, has a part of you inside them. Even if it’s the villain. Even if the villain is a true horrendous being, there exists a sliver of the author’s soul, temperament, or personality inside him. I think it is ultimately how we bring what is essentially dead, a mere abstract concept, to life. We breathe ourselves into our characters and they awaken.
I have found that at the very beginning stages of an original project, only a few pages or a short outline in, that I start with a character that is too much like me. I change their physical appearance first and then, through my various methods of brainstorming and daydreaming, the character expands. I discover their motive. How they make have experienced the same thing that I have, but how it has affected them differently. Gradually, the character turns into someone else. Complicated. Dynamic. She fits in the story and I am able to slip into a mind that is nothing like mine, but somehow familiar.
So, writers, beware of Mary Sues. But don’t hate yourself if you discover one upon first read through of your first draft. Use them as a tool. It’s a starting point that should evolve into something that will no longer be recognizable from where you began. Your characters will be richer and more real.