I am having another day of not feeling so creatively inclined. But as I seem determined to do a little bit of writing everyday I thought I would discuss a pet peeve of mine, the writer’s achilles heel: Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu. I’m sure many of you have come across these characters before; perhaps have even written them. I know I have!
A Mary-Sue can be typified into three broad categories:
- The self-insert/Author surrogate: The character is essentially the Author. The pitfalls of this are fairly obvious, but it is not necessarily a disaster. If you are really in touch with your personal flaws and are sure to write your supporting characters in a fashion that is human, i.e. they react to your characters flaws and mistakes in a fashion that is Real for the character’s personality e.g. not forgiving them for murder, then this can actually work for a plot. However, no one likes this form of narcissism when it’s clearly a ploy to show people just how fantabulous you think you are. It’s just not classy.
- The 2D character (Capable wo/man): The character who is OMG Amazing. They have a wicked array of special skills, no weaknesses and can kick arse in any given situation. This usually falls dead in the water because it will pollute even the best of plots. More to the point there is no realism in character development. Any ‘flaws’ this cool character will have will be resolved with pure acceptance, a pat on the head, or unreasonable understanding from other characters. This kind of Mary Sue is usually a sign of a writer who wants everything in the plot to work out exactly how they want it regardless of how they have actually expanded their story.
- The stereotype: We all use stereotypes in our writing. Most novels need innumerable side characters and minor support characters. It is mentally impossible to construct unique characters for each. However, it is one thing for the faceless groom/servant to be stereotype, but it is another thing entirely if the main character or important supporting characters are stereotypes. The larger a role the character has the more unique they should be. No one wants a stereotypical goody-two-shoes saving the world; sure they can save the world but can you relate to the character? At the end of the day if your reader can not relate to the character then your novel is dead in the water before it gets going.
Character Development: A case by case example of avoiding the pitfalls
- The surrogate: Okay this character is me in a different situation/setting. First step: Defining the differences. You are who are because of what you have been through in your life. If you put yourself in a different time or place chances are that setting will have changed major behavioural responses. This can be as simple as how you react to cars to as complex as how you react to actions of another character e.g. If the parallel you lost their family to a fire at young age but you yourself have not then you really have to start really questioning yourself on how this would realistically affect you and, as a result, how you would have changed as a result. Second step: Real situational responses. This one relies heavily on clear definition in step one. How would this alternate you react in given situation given their altered behavioural responses? This is a crucial step to realism that will steer you clear of the pitfalls of the self-insert. If you know that you would react in a specific way but because of your self-insert’s past they would react differently then you really have to go with how they would handle the situation. This is the basis of story realism, even if the idea is that you have popped yourself into the story because you want to do certain things. If you don’t like the response then you have to do some major character development in the plot to bring about the actions you know you would take.
- Captain Wonder Wo/man: These are actually so easy to avoid. Just begin asking yourself questions on realism. If my character trains for amazing agility is s/he really going to have the time to become super strong as well? Even if your character somehow manages both, wouldn’t their sheer muscle mass compromise their agility? If my character acts like a prat and betrays their best friend (even if their intentions were good) is that character really going to forgive them even if they do happen to find out the circumstance in which the betrayal occurred? Of course, my entire line of reasoning here relies on the writer involved treating the characters as real personalities. Where as, these characters often arise because the writer is not seeing them as real individuals. I say that, but sometimes it happens because we have an idea for a really cool character and get so blinded by their prettiness we forget to fill them out. This is just so sad for the cool character; if they are so fantastic they deserve a real personality rather than nuts and bolts to hold them together.
- The stereotype: Cured by a quick rule of thumb – the more importance their role plays the more effort you should put into their definition. The stereotype is easily missed because we all use them as a basis for character development. We think ‘hmm, this kind of character would be good’ and get to the creation of said character. This is reasonable. The art of using stereotypes for character creation lies in how you construct and define the character too bring them from being 2D stereotypes to 3D characters with realistic components.
That’s enough from me on this subject now. I certainly hope you find it helpful. Ta-ta for now.
Edit: Really got to learn to do a final grammar check… Seems I always discover errors after hitting publish, even if I have done 5 edits before hand.