So long, Mary Sue

Reading the Story of Oenone

Reading the Story of Oenone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hello, children. Today we’re talking about a very special girl: a girl named Mary Sue. Yes, I know, you’ve probably heard the name. She’s quite well known. Possibly because she does everything better, harder, faster, stronger (yes, get the song going in your head now—I’ll wait) than everyone else, without having anything particularly interesting about her. The tragedy is that she’s a rather common sight around the literary parts. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret…

We don’t really like Mary, or her cousin Marty. In fact, most of us try to shut out the lights and make like no one’s home when they come a-knocking.

What’s more, while they have a rather high turn-over ratio in the literary department, I tell you this now: they do not have to be. And that, dear fellows, is the point of today’s post.


The works of George R.R. Martin are POPULATED with genuine characters, Arya Stark among the most memorable and popular of them. “Arya” (Photo credit: Jemimus)

Think of your favorite books. Why were they so? While any number of factors may come into the picture, I can guarantee, at least in part, that it had to do with the characters populating the story. What made them stick out to you? What gave you a connection with them? Think on what your favorite writers did successfully, and you will be at least part way to the process of winning the battle yourself.

But winning isn’t copying, so let’s move right along. I’m sure you know who your characters are. Unfortunately, far too many people are far too general in their exploration. What we need, and what you need, is to give these characters personality—not a defining, all-consuming trait. Hopes. Fears. A fancy little scar perhaps—with a good story behind it. There is a tendency to try to make your characters the best, because that is what you want to see in your writing.

At a word: don’t. Don’t be afraid to—excuse my French—fuck them up. We want individuals. Not another polo from down at the Gap. Substance, my friends, is the key to warding off Mary Sue.

“But Chris!” the voices cry. “There are so many characters in my book. I can’t possibly take the time to make them all unique, can I?”

Can you take the time to slap us with a detailed back-story on everyone in the kingdom? Well, no. And frankly, we’d get a little bored. But that doesn’t mean individuality falls at the wayside simply because of lack of history. Personality shines through in many forms. In language. In subtle cues of motion. A tick, perhaps. Because of the span of some novels, I realize some will see more spotlight than others, and some may see nothing but the edged shadow—you may even make placeholders until you figure out what exactly you want from a scene.

That’s fine. That’s only natural. But with every creation must come writing. Create your placeholder. Then go back and write him into existence—go over the words, the shift of his body language—and figure out what he, red shirt though he may be, desires from this conversation. What his job is. How old he is. Get a picture in your head before you try to give us one.

They may have one scene, but they should sprout from it like flowers at that first stormy bloom.

Yes, sometimes you will have to spritz them with water to get them to cooperate. It’s okay. As long as you don’t spritz your computer screen, you should be fine. (And supposing you didn’t, you can keep reading this. Goody!)

Some of these characters will inevitably not even be in “the plan.” They may come out of nowhere, on a fancy or a whim, to make right just one, particular moment that simply wouldn’t work with anyone else. (It’s good to have a purpose, you know?) Will this frustrate you and complicate matters, particularly as you try to sort out names for all these handy fellows? Assuredly. But they’re what helps the story move from point A to point B. Your main character can’t do everything.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy M51, NGC 5...

It’s all for you! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And if the story’s seeding new life on its own, well, then you can pat yourself on the back and know you’re headed in the right direction anyways. When creation begets creation, the writer has done right. Use, and let live. Flaws will come. Issues will arise. These characters haven’t met with as much time as your spotlighted folks, but guess what—that makes them more human.

And it never hurts to have a few humans in the battle for galactic dominance.

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