Episode 314: March 23, 2012
Guest Writer: Bonnie Trenga
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All writers have likely heard the advice “Write what you know.” We all know ourselves pretty well, but it might not be such a great idea to base a character on yourself if you’re writing fiction. In this episode, we’ll discuss a writing problem known as the Mary Sue.
Why Is It Called a Mary Sue?
If a critic calls your character a Mary Sue, that’s not so good. This term originated, funnily enough, in 1974 with the original Star Trek TV series. Captain Kirk would often have a relationship with a woman who was beautiful and exotic—and who lacked any realistic character flaws (1).
These ubiquitous, flat female characters in Star Trek episodes started to bother a fan fiction writer named Paula Smith, so she wrote a parody of this unrealistic woman, naming her character Mary Sue. A Mary Sue, then, is a character who, according to the TV Tropes website, “serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of wish fulfillment” (2).
Mary Sue: Me, Only Better—Not!
We all wish we were flawless, good-looking, smart, and capable, so it’s natural to make our characters this way. Besides, it’s hard to come up with a completely new character who looks, acts, and sounds realistic. It’s no wonder that writers —knowingly or not—model characters after themselves. Sure, we’ve all had odd experiences that we’d love to share with the world, and who wouldn’t be thrilled to read about that quirky mannerism we have?
Well, it turns out we’re not so interesting after all. Jack Bickham, author of more than seventy-five published novels, explains that you should never use real people in your story because characters based on your neighbor or a family member are dull. Bickham advises, “Good characters have to be constructed, not copied from actuality” (3).
Aspiring novelists need to realize that basing a character on the best version of themselves is taking the easy way out. Noah Lukeman, author of several books about writing fiction, admits that authors are allowed some self-indulgence so that they can get the words down and let the work evolve (4). He warns, however, that writers must recognize when they’ve indulged themselves and then go back and focus (5).
Writing Good Characters Is Hard Work
Novelists need to spend a lot of time building a character rather than remembering what experiences or feelings they’ve had and then simply giving their characters those experiences and feelings.
Bonnie recalls editing a poorly written mystery in which the main character went to a different restaurant every three or four pages. The author had made the character as hungry as the writer had been.
The same writer also had the main character suffer a bee sting on his lip. This author undoubtedly inserted the scene because he felt readers would appreciate reading about this interesting event that had happened to him. However, the scene just didn’t work. It felt stuck in there for no apparent reason.
It hurts to realize that nobody cares about real events that happened to you. When you revise—that is, when you focus on what the character needs, not on what you the author need—you have to cut out what is irrelevant. You don’t have to throw away everything that’s true, though. Bickham suggests that writers use real aspects of real people instead of transferring the entire real person onto paper (6). The key is to know how to balance the real and the unreal. That’s why bookstores have so many books about characterization: Writing great characters isn’t easy!
This isn’t to say you can’t succeed if some aspects of your own life or personality appear on the page. In fact, some best-selling authors have used themselves as springboards for their beloved characters. Take David Copperfield. According to Random House, “Charles Dickens’s most famous novel was also his own favorite, and the one that drew most on his own life story” (7).
A more recent author, Janet Evanovich, who writes the popular Stephanie Plum series, has admitted there are similarities between herself and her main character. Evanovich says, “I wouldn’t go so far as to say Stephanie is an autobiographical character, but I will admit to knowing where she lives” (8).
You might be wondering that if Dickens and Evanovich can do it, why can’t you? Well, you can intertwine real aspects of yourself into your fiction, but if your character is too true to be good, then add a little more fake! And remember, characters need flaws, or they just end up as flat, unbelievable Mary Sues.
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier
This article was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier.. Bonnie blogs at http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com
The podcast version was read by Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl and the author of the forthcoming book author of the forthcoming book Grammar Girl Presents 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time.