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Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Mary Sue In Us All

Please welcome guest blogger Raven Corinn Carluk

Everyone here probably knows what a Mary Sue is. (For those who don’t, follow this link.) Briefly put, a Mary Sue is the perfect character, shoehorned into whatever situation is going on. The whole world of the story revolves around her. She’s perfect, unflawed, wins every challenge, and is often accused of being a puppet of the author.

I’m here to say there’s nothing wrong with putting yourself in your work. In fact, I’ll boldly state that putting yourself into your characters makes for better reading. You become their soul, and they will live for your readers.

Putting yourself into your story doesn’t mean you have to limit the heroine to your knowledges, nor that you become something you’re not for your antagonists. Think of your characters more as costumes; you put them on for a role, then put them back on a shelf. You’re the one who gives them life, who shapes and sculpts them.

Writers are supposed to write about what they know, but a lot of us are never going to know what it’s like to be a Broadway actress, or cross swords with an orc, or be a part of a jewel heist. But we’ve all done something that made us exultant, or scared, or nervous. We can apply those similar reactions to whatever we’re doing as our characters: the pride we felt at accomplishing something becomes the rush at the end of an excellent performance; the tension that comes over you from facing a vicious dog is what fills your warrior fighting the orc; waiting for an important job interview is the same thing you feel when lifting that royal crown from the display.

You know all of that, all the sensations, all the mental quirks and ticks. You’ve lived through it, been bathed in it, and grew from it. That’s all there for you to relive as your character. The way your skin crawled, your fingers twitched, your vision swam, your heart raced. If it’s intimate for you, it’s intimate for your character, and it will be intimate for your reader.

I cannot stress enough that getting into character is important because it brings them to life. You can learn all the show-versus-tell, all the great hooks, all the goal-motivation-conflict you want, and your story can still fall flat. Characters are what people care about, what they want to read, and what compels them to keep going. Poor story structure can be forgiven; boring characters cannot.

So, how do we do it? How does a Mary Sue become a star, something that keeps the readers coming back, and makes them fall in love?

I wish I could give you the magic answer, but there isn’t one. (Anyone who says otherwise is fudging the truth.) I can give pointers, get you in the right direction, and let you know how I’ve done it, but only you can do the work.

Ditch the archetypes Other than in broad terms, no one really fits an archetype. You’re not wholly a Waif, or a Bitch, or a Jock, or a Nerd. You’re a person, with different facets, which means you as a character should be faceted. Pick the traits that are going to work, and build from that. Mix and match to make a real person. Shy with a rapier wit once you get to know her. Fireman who can brave any heat level but can’t raise his voice to old ladies. If they happen to fit a mold, then they do. Just don’t try to force them.

Build the character separate of the plot Just as you didn’t shape the entirety of the real world, your character should be independent of their plot and surroundings. The story and world should be able to live without the protagonist, and vice versa. Only the worst kind of Mary Sue’s have exactly the powers needed to solve the exact problem that appears. Characters and story should fit and make sense (just like you wouldn’t raise peonies in a warzone), but design them as separate entities. You should be able to move your heroine to another story, and she should still stand.

Draw on your experiences I mentioned this before in my establishing remarks, but that’s how important it is to your characters. You may not have the exact experiences (depending on the character and event, I hope you never do), but you’ve had something similar. Harness that moment, recall everything, and put it into the scene. You’ve had an argument before, you’ve felt the first blush of lust, you’ve been hungry, you’ve been sad, you’ve been scared. Adapt and extrapolate to flesh out the character. You love pizza, but your character loves french fries; it’s not hard to let him talk about how he can’t get enough, and how it’s the best food ever, and when he first fell in love with fries. Your puppy died when you were eight? There’s heartbreak there that can be used for a fallen friend.

Build the character with you in mind You’re going to be wearing your character through multiple drafts and revisions. Possibly sequels and spinoffs. They’re probably not going to be an exact copy of you, so there will be unusual things you’re living with. Unless you really want to explore your limits, I recommend not giving your character something that you’re highly uncomfortable with. Grossed out by blood? Don’t write a vampire protagonist. If you’re a Red Sox fan, you might avoid writing about a Yankee player. Not to say you never do anything bizarre or outside your box; just think about what you’ll be working with, and what you’ll have to live with.

Don’t forget the flaws This is one of the biggest complaints for any Mary Sue. She’s just too perfect. Everyone has flaws, so our character must as well. And they need to be reasonable, believable flaws. A petrifying fear of dodos is no kind of flaw. Unable to speak in the presence of women is. You don’t need your antagonist to exploit it directly, but it should come up in the story. She doesn’t necessarily even need to be aware of it; she can be unable to walk on white tiled floors without realizing she’s OCD.


Most of what I’ve said probably sounds a lot like other character lessons. Good advice is good advice. I’m encouraging you to get into character. You must go deeper. Don’t fear a Mary Sue label, and end up distancing yourself from your protagonist. The more filters you strip away, the closer everyone can get to your story. You will always be the most dynamic character. Never forget that. Embrace it, and you will be embraced.


Raven Corinn Carluk is the author of All Hallows Blood and stories with bite o,.,o. Her site highlights many of her free stories and her artwork, and she spends quite a bit of time discussing movies and things that interest her on her blog. She wants to meet new people, and is quite friendly if you simply reach out to her.


All Hallows Blood

Mourning her mother on Halloween, Keila O'Broin, a psychic warrior and last of her line, isn't prepared for dead teenagers to ask her to avenge them. Compelled by her family creed, Keila combats the vampiric serial killer, despite her atrophied powers.

But defeating one killer is only the start of her adventure. Into her life walks Varick Eitenhauer, centuries old undead master of Portland. The vampire tells her she will now help him defeat his rivals in a battle to control the city, and he will accept no refusals.

Surrounded by her desire and danger, the only way to succeed is to rise from her past like a phoenix from its ashes.

3 comments:

Julia Barrett said...

I love your post. The archetype of the Mary Sue has always both fascinated and repelled me. I'm no Mary Sue and neither are my heroines. A long time ago, a professor told me - write what you know. Well, I know dysfunction and struggle and challenges. However, since I'm a nurse and a pastry chef, so are my contemporary characters. Sci fi is a different matter - but Mary Sues they are not!

alanarose said...

I love to create a deeply flawed heroine and give her many struggles that will fix the broken parts of her soul. She's always stronger in the end, but still keeps the parts that make her who she is. Working with her flaws instead of against them.

Rachel Firasek

claudia celestial girl said...

great post! In my first manuscript I was accused of making the protagonist a 'Mary Sue.' I was appalled. I could see her flaws, but since she was a starship captain with many talents she looked too accomplished to be real. Her sense of self-doubt (what was driving her to overachieve), and insecurity about her identity (being a half-breed) were the places to explore in the story. Ever since, I've worried about what filters the readers bring to a story - to a reader perhaps an accomplished person is a perfect character? Do readers who are not bi-racial never see identity as conflict? How do you talk about the overattention that 'celebrity' brings to a shy person, for example, without giving them on the surface what looks like a perfect life? What about a perfectly beautiful character, and how 'beauty' affects their character?

So I love what you've said here - don't shy away from diving into the character, and then do the work to 'show' the flaws to the audience.