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Tag: fiction

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?

Love, Sex, and the Concrete

I can’t impress upon you enough the importance of the concrete.  I’ve heard some writers say “Tell, don’t show,” but I maintain that they are trying to be edgy, accrue some curiosity, and sell more books. It is still show, don’t tell, with the exception of the occasional puddle of exposition or backstory, which would probably be just as good if revealed in the concrete, but is acceptable in the abstract.

When we’re talking about a character in the concrete, it manifests most heavily in gesture and diction, and on a larger scale, in what they do throughout the course of the story. I don’t buy much into what the character is wearing or their overall appearance. But, as in real life, when you fall in love with someone, it is the result of certain charming attributes. The way they lounge on things that are not meant to be lounged on, like other people. Punctuating an otherwise awkward sentence with a wink. Empathy, wit, depth–the things we love in people–exist in the most minute of word and deed. Diction gives us a very fleshy sense of character, for something that is entirely fleshless. J.K. Rowling crafted about fifty fleshy characters in her Harry Potter universe, largely the result of a couple characteristics (such as Snape’s constant curtain of oily, dark hair) and individual diction.  Hermione, Dobby, and Hagrid spring immediately to mind. Imagine how much would have been robbed from us if Dobby did not always address Harry as “Harry Potter,” or “the noble Harry Potter,” or if Hagrid had not been allowed to pronounce “to” as “ter”! It lends such flesh, such ring, to the sentence. Word choice and cadence give us a strong notion of what someone is like.

Then there’s what they say. What they say, how they say it, and why they say it. It’s hard to tell which one is most instrumental in romance, the topic of this evening’s post. In short, they are all important. If you described my face without noting the eyes, you’d be remiss, though they do not outweigh the lips. It’s all part of the same sum, and it’s all connected. If there is a discrepancy between what they say and what they think or the situation they’re in, this lends you some intrigue and unpredictability.

I had been writing a relationship into one novel, and was disappointed with how flat it felt.  I realized that I had been summing up a lot of the feelings, as if I were informing the reader of the relationship, rather than allowing them to experience it.  You never want to tell your reader (who is your vicarious main character) how they feel.  You want to illustrate the story as clearly as possible, and allow them to feel what they will.

Love lies in character, and character lies in the little words and deeds of every single scene.  These patches will eventually form the quilt of the larger story, and that’s when a reader really wishes the character was real, because they’ve fallen desperately in love with them.

Here are some other tricks for illustrating a certain character’s desirability without telling your audience that they are desirable:

    • Other characters comment on their appeal.
    • They are not constantly available, physically or emotionally, but cause the reader to yearn for them.
    • Leave the audience wanting more. Almost-not-quite love is the staple of enduring drama. If they’re leaning in for a kiss, have someone open a door and walk in.
    • Put obstacles between your romantic characters, preferably very solid ones. The Scarlet Letter was such a good book not because of its inspection of morality and individuality in society and religion, but because Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale were in love, but could never be together, for what was, back then, damn good reason.

I do mention sex in the header of this post, so let me brush on that for a moment. Sex–or physical intimacy, whether it reaches the point of sex or not–is difficult to digest as a casual reader, much like violence, gore, and gratuitous, out-of-character profanity. There is a certain audience given these topics, but like in real life, most people prefer it kept behind closed doors or “fade-to-black,” and have a tendency to shutter the windows themselves if it gets too vulgar for them. After all, your readers are your voyeurs, and they want to see a little, but they don’t want to get the whole show and feel uncomfortable. At the same time, many stories are about adults and adults have sex. This is how an entire sexual episode, or violent episode, can be covered in a story without making the audience uncomfortable reading. This is also something you can do when you want to give your reader the sense of time passing without actually writing the details of a month.

Plant a few concrete details which sum up the general feeling you’d like to impart, without being too graphic. Most readers don’t want to know the specifics of sex and violence, but rather, like a scene in a movie, to catch the glimpses that paraphrase it. It also helps to evoke lyricism, euphemism, and wit at such junctures. People like those things and will let more slide if it sounds pretty.

But remember to keep it concrete!