Monday, September 20, 2010

Write Characters, Not Mary Sues

Meet Mary Sue.

She’s beautiful, often with hair and eyes of some unusual and striking color; brilliant, often with education and skills far beyond her age; and charismatic to the point where all other characters’ thoughts and actions revolve solely around her. Everyone likes, or at least admires her, even her worst enemies. If she has any flaws at all, they are minor and even endearing.
Oh, and readers hate her guts.
Mary Sue is a term originating in fan fiction, for a phenomenon that has probably existed since a Cro-Magnon teenager scratched a stick figure single-handedly slaying mammoths on a cave wall. Today, Mary Sue and her brothers Marty Stu and Gary Stu have branched out into fields far removed from mammoth-hunting, but they are still vectors of wish-fulfillment for their creators, and annoyances who can ruin a good story for their readers.
So, here’s my advice on how to avoid writing a Mary Sue and being mocked by readers and fellow writers for all time:

Let your protagonist be ugly.

Especially in action stories, your protagonist is likely to get into situations that would make a person dirty, sweaty, smelly, scarred, or otherwise less attractive than usual. This should be reflected in other characters’ reactions to your protagonist. If ey has just crawled through a sewer, ey should be slimy and leaving a trail of stench. Bystanders should be gagging and backing away when ey asks them for help. And the Evil Overlord is definitely not going to demand sex from em, at least not without a shower first. Unless your Evil Overlord is into that sort of thing.
And you know what? Your protagonist doesn’t even have to start out attractive! Readers don’t generally care about characters for their looks; they’ll each have a slightly different idea of what a character looks like no matter how much detail you go into. But if you’re going to spend paragraphs on your protagonist’s appearance, at least give em some flaws. Better yet, don’t waste your time. A quick mention here and there of the character’s more noticeable traits (a big nose, straight white teeth, a beer gut, large feet, those vastly over-used purple eyes) is really enough.

Give other characters their own lives.

Here’s a rule of thumb. No character should ever swoon over your protagonist without a damned good reason. Glittering purple eyes are not a good reason. Better yet, no character’s every thought should revolve around your protagonist. Some will like em, some will hate em, and, here’s a revolutionary idea: some will be completely indifferent to em.
Your secondary characters should be worrying about their own lives, not your protagonist’s. If they’re very close to the protagonist, of course they can think about em, worry about em, be annoyed by em. That’s fine. But innocent bystanders? Could probably not care less. And even those characters who have reason to care about your protagonist probably shouldn’t obsess over em.
And. Just because a secondary character dislikes your protagonist, that does not make em Evil. Remember those kids’ mystery series in which, if a character was a jerk in the beginning, you could bet on that character turning out to be an evildoer in the end? Yeah. Grownup fiction doesn’t work like that. Characters can have all kinds of reasons to dislike your protagonist. Maybe that rude storekeeper was having a bad day. Maybe the classroom bully doesn’t want your protagonist’s super-powered competition.These are neutral characters, but good guys can be jerks to your protagonist1, too. It’s true, they really can. Especially if you follow my next bit of advice.

Let your protagonist fuck up.

And I mean really fuck up. Your character should be able to make honest mistakes, have accidents, and even (gasp) do selfish, stupid, or mean things in pursuit of eir goals. And these things should have consequences for the protagonist, for other characters, and for eir goals. Let your protagonist lose eir best friend by doing something stupid and thoughtless. Let em be too arrogant to listen to a smarter character’s advice and run into trouble. Within what’s reasonable for that character, of course. A shy, meek character probably won’t pick a fight and get eir ass kicked. But if you can’t think of any way your protagonist could fuck up that wouldn’t be completely out of character, you might have an irredeemable Mary Sue on your hands . . .

*excerpt from a brilliant post by Bethany Harvey,  a writer, artist, and editor living in Gainesville, Florida. We strongly urge you to visit her blog CLICK HERE to read the rest! Thanks Bethany!

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