Now that the new year is really up and running, it's time to get back to the Wednesday writing posts. In case you're new here, I do a how-to post about some aspect of writing -- the craft, the business, the life -- every other week, unless I have some kind of conflict. I'm open to questions or suggestions. To subscribe to these posts via e-mail, you can sign up here.
To start the year, I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite topics: characters. In particular, problem characters -- the characters who can really trip up your story. This was inspired in part by seeing a lot of misuse of the term "Mary Sue" in discussing characters, which got me started thinking about actual Mary Sue writing. I'm not going to get into much discussion about the meaning of the term here, since this is about how-to, not geek culture, other than to give my definition. The term originated in fan fiction to refer to an obvious author insert, a new character added to an existing universe who was living out all the author's fantasies. This character tends to be too good to be true, is universally liked (or sometimes is unfairly universally hated, making the character a misunderstood victim), and takes over the story. In original fiction, it's come to mean a character the writer can't be objective about, whether the character is a self-insert or a beloved pet. The character is good at everything, faces no consequences, and the story universe tends to bend itself around her.
There's nothing wrong with falling in love with your characters or basing characters on yourself. It only becomes a problem when this keeps you from writing honestly about these characters. You want to give them shiny things they haven't earned, and you want to protect them from any pain. Basically, you become a helicopter parent to your own creation. The result is a boring story, because who wants to read about someone just getting everything they want, with no struggle? How can you make sure you're not writing a Mary Sue?
First, look at the character's role. One thing that was annoying about the Mary Sue in fan fiction was that people wanted to read about the existing characters, not about some new character. This isn't such a problem in original fiction, since all the characters are new. But what you do need to do is make sure the roles in the story make sense and are consistently developed throughout the book. If you fall in love with or start identifying with a character as you write, and this character starts eclipsing other characters who started with larger roles, you might have a problem. No one wants to spend 300 pages reading about a character and watching that character's struggles, only to have someone else swoop in and take over at the end. If you find yourself fascinated by a character, that may be a sign that this character needs a bigger role, but you need to set that up earlier in the book. If you start with an ensemble, you need to maintain the relative weights of the ensemble roles throughout or give good story reasons for the roles to change -- something other than you liking one of the characters.
Second, show, don't tell. If the character is awesome, we should be able to figure it out ourselves by watching the character do awesome things. We don't need all the other characters telling us how awesome and wonderful this person is. If the character is suffering, we can see that. We don't need other people telling us how sad her suffering is. If you do tell us something, what we see needs to be even bigger than we're told. If you tell us a character is awesome, the actions need to be even more awesome than we expect to see. If you tell and then don't live up to or surpass, then readers tend not to like the character. Praise from other characters without anything to back it up is a hallmark of a Mary Sue.
Third, let reactions of other characters to this character be proportional. There should be consequences to the character's actions. If she does something to hurt or betray other characters, those other characters should be allowed to be angry at her, hold a grudge, or mistrust her without being made to look like villains. If she does something good, the positive response should be proportional. You generally know you've got a Mary Sue if she gets a parade thrown in her honor for holding a door open for someone. She should have to earn the other characters' love and loyalty.
Fourth, make sure her skills and positive attributes make sense in the story. If you plan to use a skill in the climax, you need to set it up earlier in the story to show that this character either has this skill, is working to develop this skill, or has another skill set that will transfer to those circumstances. If someone is new to the skill, she should have to struggle and maybe get a lucky break. Easily winning a sword fight the first time a person picks up a sword is a fantasy trope, but you can make it make more sense if maybe the character is a farmboy who's developed the muscles that allow him to fight (I was in pain for a week after my first fencing class -- this isn't something you just do), he's used a staff to fend off wolves from his sheep, he's somewhat awkward in fighting and uses endurance and brute force, and his enemy is tired, wounded, or overconfident. That kind of fight is so much more fun to read about than one in which a character picks up a sword and is suddenly the best swordsman ever.
Fifth, make the character struggle for what he wants. If he sets a goal, he should have to work to achieve it, and achieving it should have something to do with his work. Fiction is about conflict, and without conflict, you have a boring story. Readers want to see achievement as a result of struggle. Seeing struggle being rewarded is reassuring. Seeing wonderful gifts floating down from heaven isn't very interesting, unless it's at the beginning of the story and those gifts get the character into trouble.
Sixth, make sure the character has human flaws and failings. No one is perfect. The best hero ever has bad days and bad moods. Good people can be bossy and opinionated or rash and impulsive. Write a human being rather than a paragon. And, going back to #3 above, when the character does screw up, make sure she faces consequences for it. Let other characters be angry, make her apologize.
I think the Mary Sue is a trap many new authors fall into even when they're not consciously writing themselves into their stories because they're so eager to create a character people will love that they go overboard. They give the character all the skills and all the rewards, and they make sure other characters love this character, but the result is that you get a character no one really likes in a weak story.