Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Developing Characters (or Die Mary Sues Die!!!)

Welcome back!

If you recall, last time we were discussing identifying characters for potential stories.

Since completing the final book of my Riddle in Stone series (plug! plug! plug!), I've been in the process of writing something new.  I originally was going to write about the exploits of a teenage homeless boy who was streetwise, but socially challenged.  I got about 25,000 words in before I realized that the character was a bit of a cliché.  After all, it seems in every fantasy story there's always the plucky street kid rising up above his station to show the snooty rich people what life is always about.  So I dumped him and tried to come up with something a little more unique.

After a great deal of day dreaming, I strolled across a young woman named Natalie. At first glance, Nat came across as a bit of a bitch. She's opinionate and quick to anger and wanting to be independent so much, she tends to push people away. 

Still a bit of a cliché, right?  I mean, the few women who appear as leads in fantasy stories tend to be boat rockers and a perpetual thorn in the side of the manly men who wield the swords. (What's the expression?  Well-behaved women rarely make history?)

Or they tend to be the wielder of swords themselves ... deadly bad asses just who happen to have breasts (evidently they have to have big breasts and long, flowing, clean hair, but no clothes that fit them--judging by the book covers).

So Nat needs to be something different. She can't be a female version of Conan and she can't be super smart know-it-all.  In other words, she can't develop into a "Mary Sue."

If you don't know what  a Mary Sue is, click on a few of these links.  They actually go into detail about the history of the term, Mary Sue, and give examples.  Suffice to say, Mary Sues are characters who can do everything brilliantly. 

For example, I'm reading a fantasy story where the main character is young and has powerful magical abilities and can fight and is good-looking and is able to learn languages after just hearing a few words--so forth and so on.  UGH!!!   I'm actually rooting for the villain in the story just so I can see this idiot get taken down a few pegs!

Okay. So that's a Mary Sue (or  Marty Sue for guys). You get the picture.

I hate Mary Sues.  Nobody is like that in real life.  Even the star football player and homecoming king in high school had acne or looked like crap in their polyester McDonald's uniform.  Nobody is good at everything!! If they are, I really don't want to be around them.  They'd just make me feel like a loser. 

Characters are the same way.  They need to have weaknesses.  Not weakness like Kryptonite, that only come around when it is convenient for the author.  They need to have blind spots in their character. They need to have warts and prejudices and ... well, be human (even when they're not).

So Nat is a bit of a cliché at this point and I need her to develop, but not into a Mary Sue.  What do I do? 

I don't know how other authors handle this, but I sit down and write. 

I have about 65,000 words written about Natalie.  The first 10,000 were pretty one-dimensional.  She's angry. She wants something she can't have. She pissed at the world for all the injustices it holds.  Still cliché, right?

By the second 10,000 word, she began to develop other traits.  She isn't very attractive. She isn't ugly, exactly. She just doesn't look "girly." (And she never will!  Man, I hate how beauty and success always have to go together!!!  Not everybody is a supermodel and that's okay!) Anyway, Nat is often taken to be a boy. Guys will talk to her, but only to ask about her "cute" friend.  Do you know the type?

By the third 10,000 words, I found that she has to take care of her family, whom she loves, but she's being crushed by the responsibility. She hates her life, yet she feels guilty for hating it, because she know it could be so much worse. She know what she needs to do, but ... damn ... she wishes she didn't have to. She wants so much more, but doesn't know what.  She believes in rules, but finds that she has to break them in order to provide for her brothers and sisters.  Still a bit cliché, but a little fuller.

And so forth. 

I think too many writers won't start writing until they have "everything figured out."   As a result, they never really get past the first page.   I tend to write to figure things out.   I just throw words on a page and see what happens.  Who is this character?  What does she want? How does she stand out in a crowd?  Or does she?  If she could have three wishes, what would she wish for?  She finds a pile of money in the road, what does she do?  What is her guiding philosophy ... and when is she willing to break it?

It's a process.  A slow process, but a process nonetheless.

Speaking of which, Nat is knocking on my head.   Better go write about her.

I hope all is well with you!  See you next time!



  1. Is that Patrick Rothfuss you are reading? Sounds like it. I love it and can't wait for more. I don't mind the cliches, because I think people forget that many cliches are there for a reason. After all, how are you going to make a compelling story out of a street urchin who doesn't rise above his circumstances? It would be boring to read about one who just wallows in his or her misery. So you almost HAVE to write about one who rises above. It's the story that matters, at least in my opinion.

    1. I won't comment on the author :) It's a good book. I enjoy it. But sometimes I wish the main character would meet a foe who can best him.

      But you make a good point regarding writing about somebody who has to rise above their situation. I think you're right. Stories need that change to make the story interesting. Without growth in the character, the story becomes boring...like you said.

      However, I think the character (feisty, streetwise urchin) is a bit over done... just like the muscle man who can kill everybody and everything with his mighty sword.

      I think the bottomline, for me at least, is that characters have to be more multi-dimensional. They can't be good at EVERYTHING! Clearly they have to have some attributes that help them progress throughout the story. But I think they also need to be constrained in their success.

      It's kind of like how Superman went from being a very strong guy who could fly to somebody who could reverse time. Too much power in a character devalues the power that he/she has.

      But that's just my thought. I tend to root for the underdog characters and hate the elite bastards who are treated special because of who they are/what they can do/who their parents were/ etc.

      What does everybody else say?