Shayn Nicely

Ghostwriting & Editing Services

Month: December, 2015

Continuity and Credibility

As a book coach, the most prominent problem I see in new outlines and first drafts would probably be the magic satchel–the invisibly carried inventory of a video game character–or hammerspace, which is the place from whence cartoons draw comically large items, like a mallet in the pocket. I often refer to them myself as bottomless pockets.

Continuity is the physical reality of your fabricated universe, and it’s important that it is consistent and believable within its own framework. A character who exclaims that they are stranded, although they earlier drove their functional car to this location, is committing an error of continuity. A character who is smoking a cigarette in one gesture, and then, has no cigarette, is committing a continuity error. What this does for your reader is cause a skip in the film, pulling them back into reality, reminding them that this is just a book.

The reason fantastical fiction can cause its fans to weep over the deaths of wizards and elves is that the readers have long forgotten that this is just a book, even though very little about observable reality is mimicked therein. The film has been playing with such consistency and believability in their heads that they have been dragged deeply into it.

Credibility is your authorial command over the space, so its connection to continuity is obvious. In a way, disrupting the dream causes a break in reader trust. This is why it’s essential to track the tedium of your character’s world, even though most of us are much more interested in the boiling emotions and mounting tension. What day of the week it is, what the character is wearing, and what they might logically have on their person is just as important–even more important, really–to the reader. If you can wax lyrical about your heroine’s mental strife, but you keep using her bottomless pockets to resolve crises with random rope and a sudden gun, the unreality of the physical world will trump the heartstrings you would have pulled. In order to care, they must first believe.

In order to control for this, it’s a good idea to outline the schedule of your characters, as well as to maintain an inventory for each which accounts for character type and physical possibilities. An outdoorsy character might have a blanket, but where? Not in their pocket. Did you mention that they had a backpack? It’s also not so simple as writing the backpack in. Why do they have a backpack? And, if you have spoken consistently about their body’s movements (as I hope you have), the backpack should be illustrated therein. If you mention the backpack once, and your reader is instructed to imagine this character repeatedly (bending, turning, standing) without a reminder of the backpack, you might as well have never mentioned it. They will forget it’s there–and is it really there? It needs to be there for you, too. Sometimes it takes many reads for an author to truly settle into this new physical world.

Re-read with fresh eyes. I’ve found it oddly helpful to use a different file format, such as pdf. It removes you from the “writer” mentality, and places you into the reader’s shoes. Even more helpful than that is to acquire the assistance of a beta reader. They won’t be hindered by the explanations we sometimes subconsciously provide ourselves when re-reading, which are missing from the text itself and which our readers are unmotivated to imagine. If it’s not in the text, it’s not there.

That having been said, there is a lot of flexibility for smaller items, like lighters, keys, and coins. Your reader will often understand that people generally carry these things. There is less understanding when your character has hundreds of dollars in cash that was previously unmentioned. 😉

The “Mary Sue”: A Writer’s Fear of Failure

A Mary Sue is slang, based in a Star Trek fanzine published in the 70s, for a character who is so perfect, they become unrealistic and flat. The term is sometimes criticized as sexist (“Oh, so women can’t be incredibly smart, and sexy, and tough, and rich, and funny, all at the same time, huh?” is the essential body of the retort), but as an eye-witness of the Marty Sue, I reject this complaint; some writers get distracted by the name being female, thinking this means all annoyingly perfect characters are female. Sues have nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with depth of character. It’s the hallmark of a newbie to be using one, much less two (if you happen to be writing, for example, a romance about Mary and Marty Sue bumping heads over the same astrophysics text in the library), so let’s start talking about what makes a Sue, and how to dismember one.

I worked with a man we’ll call Zach who had a persistent blindness to the Sue-ness of his main character. No matter how ardently I workshopped with him, he would not give up the perspective that his Sue was constantly winning. And that, in a nutshell, is a Sue. I’ve seen them described as being oddly flawless, and I’ve seen them described as having quintessentially female “positives” (for instance, being a virgin), but a Sue, in its heart, doesn’t actually have to be a rock star, or a princess, or a prodigy, or a half-dragon twin who is “fated to redeem the people of Blah Blah.” Much speculation circulating regarding the Sue condemns this character for its bland and flat perfection, but a Sue is actually inside the author. You can’t fix a Sue by taking out a certain skillset, or adding a piece of backstory. The Sue is in you. The Sue is in your unflinching inability to construe your beloved main character as a failure, ever.

Back to Zach, and “winning.” Zach had a main character, and a compelling premise for a novel. I would have loved to have helped him, but his knuckles were white on the reins of this baby. The problematic Sue was in the storytelling itself, and relates back to insecurity–Zach’s own actual insecurity. Because, to him, this book wasn’t a real story. This book was an important fantasy he needed to maintain. His main character wasn’t an actual person. It was a vehicle through which he could experience his own world-building skills.

Zach’s character never failed. Even his failures were written like successes. (This is how a writer can have a Sue and never realize it; they build in flaws that are later glamorized, or only appear in exposition, but never actually hinder a task.) In any particular scene, there is a particular requirement. Maybe a certain interaction between characters calls for badassery and combat, while another calls for romantic intimacy, and still another calls for quips and snark. Zach’s boy could do all of it, depending on the scene. If the scene required that his main character was no longer feuding with a long-established rival, the feud would disappear from the narration, or be sufficiently downplayed, to allow the main character to, at all costs, continue winning.

Which is where the conventional definition of the Sue and my interpretation of the Sue convene again. A Sue does too much. A Sue can do anything (except fail). Here is my advice for avoiding the incidental construction of a Sue:

  • Don’t self-insert. Writers instinctively protect their self-inserts, and it encourages the subconscious mentality that your story is a fantasy world for you to play in, and not a real story. Real stories demand failure. Not cool, magnificent failure. Real failure. Real failure does not feel cool. Real failure feels like losing. (Self-inserts also experience automatic underdevelopment because the writer feels no particular need to invest a backstory; self-inserts are just that. They provide a mode of transport for the writer, and fulfill their perceived purpose fully enough by merely existing.)
  • Develop the character before you develop the plot around them. If you have a mandatory checklist of actions before you have a human being (or whatever) with a meaningful history, you will be forced to create a patchwork person to satisfy the requirements of the plot, which is the inorganic and forced nature of the Sue that readers find so uninspiring.
  • Beware specialness. I (tried to) work with Sues that were infamous students, wounded killers, prophecy babies, et cetera (all at once). They were marksman who never missed a shot, and if they did, it was heartbreaking and beautiful (so much winning). Try to keep it within the realm of possibility. The Sue is a unique blend of not enough, and too much.

In summary, the Sue has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with the writer themselves. A Sue is the product of a writer’s unwillingness to sacrifice their fantasy for the sake of authenticity. This is fine, but it’s also unpublishable. So you just have to ask yourself what you’re writing: a real story, or a daydream?