Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Avoiding Mary Sue

I think I'm really on the mend! No more sneezing, much less sniffling. I have cast aside the Pink, Fuzzy Bathrobe of Imminent Death. However, as Mom warned me, the cold is threatening to move into my chest, so this afternoon I've planned a Target excursion to get some cough syrup and some V-8 for Mom's super-powerful cold remedy (prepared horseradish in V-8 or tomato juice, best drunk warm, and you'll feel like a vampire getting your daily dose of blood), as well as to re-stock the other essential cold supplies so I'll be prepared for the next time (which means I'll be healthy as a horse all winter). I don't think I'll make it to choir tonight, though, since singing doesn't seem to be working for me at the moment and even talking isn't too much fun. I have a ton and a half of things to catch up on now, not even counting being WAY behind on word count. But I'll survive, and I'm even looking forward to writing, which is a sign that I'm better.

And now, for a Writing Wednesday post!

A lot of writing books give advice on how to create a character readers will relate to and pull for or love. I haven't seen any that give advice on how not to go too far with that. Not that it would be a bad thing for readers to love your characters too much. Rather, you don't want to go so far in trying to make readers love your characters that you end up having the opposite effect and create a Mary Sue.

A "Mary Sue," for those who haven't delved into the world of fan fiction, is a character inserted by the author into an existing world (like a new crewmember on the starship Enterprise), and the character is essentially an idealized version of the author or a representation of the author in that world. A Mary Sue is beautiful, often in some striking or unusual way (violet eyes are quite common among Mary Sues), she's good at everything, everyone loves her (and the people who don't are just jealous), she's romantically involved with the author's favorite character, and she saves the day by being more skilled than the existing characters. The male version is called a Marty Stu or Gary Stu. A Mary Sue can be fun to write -- after all, if you're going to play in a fictional universe, you might as well get the guy and save the day -- but it isn't much fun for anyone else to read. In fan fiction, one of the problems with the Mary Sue is that most people who are reading stories set in that universe are doing so because they like those characters, and they want to see those people doing stuff, not read about some Mary Sue who takes over the story.

But even in the realm of original fiction, a Mary Sue can show up. She's a little less obvious because all the characters in a novel are theoretically original, and the main character of the book is supposed to be the one to save the day or get the guy/girl (though I have seen series where the author seems to become enamored of a secondary character who ends up taking over the series while the original hero gets shoved to the sidelines). I would say that a Mary Sue in original fiction is a character the author loves or identifies with enough that she loses the ability to be honest or objective about this character. The author gets so caught up in living out her own fantasies through this character that plot and story fall by the wayside and readers roll their eyes.

Some signs of an author's "Mary Sue" include:
-- The character is universally liked, and if anyone doesn't like her, they're just jealous. Or else certain groups of people universally like or dislike her, like the men all fall in love with her while the women all hate her.
-- The character is good at just about everything she tries to do, better than anyone else around, even if they have expertise in that area. Taken to extremes, this becomes what I call Magical Specialness, and fantasy is rife with it. That's when a character is miraculously good at something without any training or preparation. The first time he picks up a sword, he can singlehandedly defeat an entire squad of trained and experienced soldiers. After five minutes of magical training, the greatest wizard in the world says, "There is nothing more I can teach you."
-- The character has no real flaws, just superficial imperfections like a chocolate addiction, clumsiness or a birthmark.
-- The character may have flaws that readers notice but that the other characters (and possibly the author) don't seem to notice -- she does some pretty awful things, but the other characters all think she's wonderful.
-- Things come easily to the character -- if she isn't able to get or do something she wants, it will somehow come about that it happens anyway for her.
-- She doesn't have to face the consequences of her actions -- if she messes up, it still works out for her.

Not all extremely competent, good characters who are paragons of virtue are Mary Sues. Sometimes they're incredibly likable and readers fall madly in love with them. So what's the difference between a character like this and a Mary Sue/Gary Stu?

1) Go back and add "for no good reason" to that list above), and you'll have what really makes a Mary Sue. If you actually think through why things are the way they are, then you're on your way to creating a real character. Take that tendency for a character to be universally liked, or for all the boys to like her while the girls hate her. Yes, the girls might hate her because they're jealous of all the boys liking her, but why do the boys like her? Some are shallow enough to like her for her looks, but chances are that somebody -- your romantic leading man, I would hope -- will like her for some other reason, and that may be something that at least one girl is going to be looking for in a friend. Build individual character relationships that exist for a reason. If you want to show that a character is loved by others, you need to show why the others love her. You've got problems when you tell readers how much everyone loves a character, while they dislike that character.

For another example, take the "being good at everything" point. Have a reason for your character to have these skills that come in handy for the plot. If you've developed the backstory, that will fall into place -- and it will mean that there will be some things she doesn't know how to do.

2) Give your characters real flaws. A flaw needs to be more than just some negative characteristic. For writing purposes, I consider a character flaw to be a trait that causes the character to make mistakes or poor choices. That includes things like greed, suspicion, jealousy, insecurity, cowardice or laziness. It can also include positive traits taken too far, such as independence or softheartedness. It needs to go beyond merely something that gets the character in trouble to being something that causes the character to make a decision that gets her in trouble. So, clumsiness isn't a real character flaw, even if it does get a character in trouble when she falls into things she shouldn't because it doesn't involve a choice. When the characters do make mistakes or poor choices because of their character flaws, make sure there are consequences that matter. You don't want a character to be able to screw up and get away scot-free.

3) Make characters work for it. Showing the effort the characters have to take to get things makes them more likable. Show the character working to make new friends instead of just being liked by everyone -- maybe even make the first attempt not so successful. Show the character who's the best ever with a sword doing daily exercises and practicing. Let characters have a few failures along the way.

4) Be wary of superlatives (in other words, avoid Magical Specialness). Does the character absolutely have to be the very best, right now? Would it be enough for her to have the potential to be the best, with some work? Is "really good" enough? Of course, you want your hero to be good enough to beat the villain, if it comes to a direct showdown, and the villain has to be pretty good to be a worthy villain. But it's usually not necessary for the hero to be the best ever at first try. If it is necessary for the plot, then you really need to set it up and explain it, and probably have some consequences. There should be a price to be paid for being the best.

5) Be honest with yourself. There's no crime in writing yourself into your own books -- in fact, just about every author does it in some way with almost every character because you're the only person you know from the inside out. If a character really is based on you or the way you'd like to be in that world, acknowledge it to yourself, be aware of it, and then take a step back and make sure that you remember that this is a character, not your own role-playing exercise. JK Rowling has admitted that Hermione in the Harry Potter books is largely based on herself, but I wouldn't call her a Mary Sue -- she's the best student in the school because she does her homework, studies and even does extra reading, not because she's Special. She's severely lacking in social skills and tact (even as she lectures the boys on their lack of tact and social skills). She's a bit of a bossy know-it-all. She's a human being, with all the flaws and frailties we expect to help round out the good parts. (Oddly, the character comes across as much more of a Mary Sue in the films, which Rowling doesn't write.)

Finally, writing a Mary Sue isn't necessarily the kiss of death, especially if the Mary Sue you write is universal enough that a large number of readers can easily step into that character as their own Mary Sue. There are some hugely bestselling books starring characters that are obvious Mary Sues. But I think it's risky to count on that working. It's far better to create a real character readers will love.

1 comment:

Carradee said...

I've had to be careful about the "too-perfect" characters, but I also struggle to find character flaws besides the standard stubbornness, hot temper, and the like.

Unfortunately, passivity is extremely difficult to write. And paranoia. Especially when the character who is both is your narrator.

I think this is the best advice for how to avoid a Mary Sue that I've read. Thank you. :-)