Friday, June 19, 2009

Characterization – Avoiding the "Mary Sue" Trap

One thing that Authonomy has exposed me to the work of hundreds of unpublished writers. What dismayed me, time after time, was poor character development leaping off the page. It didn't matter which genre or gender – there were cardboard characters, 'uber-villains' and enough "Mary Sue" types to make me not only cynical but openly critical. I finally posted on my bio that I would not read certain genre – because I couldn't be kind any more.

If anyone wants an eye-opening education, Google "Mary Sue" or go to Wikipedia – I have included this excerpt here for the sake of argument:

I quote: "A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as "Mary Sues" is that they are too ostentatious for the audience's taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the "Mary Sue" character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an "author's pet". " End quote.

Yes, many 'beloved' fictional characters are in this category, Mary Sue, or Harry Stew (ehem) the 'uber-good' are always suspect. One way to avoid this trap is to sit down with a pen and paper (eekk! No not that!) to develop the character.

It isn't that hard.

Start with the basics: Age, hair and eye color (you would be surprised at how many times I've seen mistakes made on these three alone.)

Then give the character some likes, dislikes and character traits: Likes cats, hates large animals; loves sushi, doesn't like red meat; collects photographs and vintage hats. Drinks only red wine, or malt whiskey on the rocks.

Whatever traits are appropriate for the story, make sure there are at least three. I'll start off with my work in progress characters:

Eric Macmillan – Brown hair, green eyes, former National Guard. Loves his motorcycle "Cora"; he's over-confident of his skill on the bike, which may get him killed. He does not like being called a 'biker' even though he dresses like one. He wants a home and family more than anything, so his divorce has devastated him. Has PTSD from 2 years in Afghanistan for which he refuses treatment. Drinks a lot of beer, though he doesn't have blackouts or drink in the morning, yet.

June Van Allen – curly brown hair, blue eyes, slight build. Loves her home and gardens, misses her Aunt Lori. She's afraid of her boss; her job is just a means to an end. She practices Wicca learned from books and on the Internet because she's too shy to join up with a coven. (This gets her into trouble.)

Van Man Go – has multiple piercings, tribal tattoos up each forearm, brown eyes and male pattern balding. Van sold his soul to be the greatest airbrush artist in the U.S.A., for equipment that doesn't break and customers who always pay. He likes to smoke pot and drink Genesee beer. He was chubby once, but he can't eat or drink anything sweet as a reminder of his contract. He is intelligent, sly and can be very smooth and persuasive when it suits him.

I actually have a page or two on each character, including the two ghosts Cora and Jake. This way, if I'm stuck I have something to reference, instead of falling back on stereotypes.

There are some wonderful books on characterization. Some deal with "archetypes," some have charts and forms to make character creation easier. There are many ways to do this – what I've done above is probably the simplest way to start. Be aware of the "Mary Sue" trap, give the character a few traits and if you find all this offensive there is a link below for the "Mary Sue Litmus Test".

It's free, so see if your characters can pass.


Barb said...

A very interesting post. I don't take this approach to building characters, so I was pleased to find that they scored zero over on that link!

I tend to follow this approach that Rob describes at Casting the Bones. It seems to be working so far.

Ms Kitty said...

Hi Barb, I'm very glad that all your characters passed the "Mary Sue" test.

It is easy to avoid the trap - when you know it is out there.

I admit that I have Sci Fi and fantasy characters who wouldn't pass. Luckily they aren't in any of my current works, and I'm not letting them see the light of day, without revisions. (G)

So, how do you develop your characters? There are different ways to do it - what are yours?


Ms Kitty said...

I took a look at the link you left for me.

I do like his approach, especially for minor characters, because giving them Emotion, Attitude and a Goal does keep them from being stock or cardboard.