Okay, I admit it. I’ve developed an addiction the last couple of days to my StumbleUpon toolbar. It just keeps bringing up these interesting sites about writing and cooking that I’d never have found otherwise. Anyway I stumbled across an article on Mary Sues that got me thinking about some conflicting writing “rules” or axioms. A Mary Sue is–to use Bethany Harvey’s words—
“beautiful, often with hair and eyes of some unusual and striking color; brilliant, often with education and skills far beyond her age; and charismatic to the point where all other characters’ thoughts and actions revolve solely around her. Everyone likes, or at least admires her, even her worst enemies. If she has any flaws at all, they are minor and even endearing.”
Bethany goes on to write an excellent article about how to avoid writing Mary Sues. Go check out the above link. It’s a good read.
Anyway, I’m sure all of us have, at one time or another, written a character that was intended to be some form of wish fulfillment. We give her (or him–but I’m a woman so I’m going to say her) the hair color we want. The height God neglected to pass on from our father. The career we might have sought if not for x, y, or z. The incredible sex appeal that passed us over entirely. I think any characters who are born of us will have some aspect of wish fulfillment to them–some being more benign than others (if I write a lot of red-headed heroines, what harm does that do really?). The classic Mary Sue is seen (if not intended to be a parody) as a sign of a young and/or inexperienced writer. My understanding of the term was that basically she is perfect–she captures the hearts of all men in her sphere of influence, saves the day, and manages to whip up a seven course meal without breaking a sweat.
One aspect that Bethany points out in her suggestions that hadn’t occurred to me as being related to Mary Sues is overdoing angst. It never crossed my mind that Mary Sues had angst or issues. Perfect, in my mind, meant no problems. Problems I associated with that rule about taking your character’s worst nightmares and making them come true. Clearly there is such a thing as overkill on that front and it’s a sin I absolutely committed with my heroine Kensie in House of Cards. I won’t pull out the laundry list of stuff that happened to her both in the backstory and in the actual novel, but suffice it to say that by the end, even I was thinking “Okay, we know you have issues–get on with it already.” Simplifying her backstory was one of those major changes I’ve been planning to make on the second draft of HOC. She’ll still have some tragedy in her life, but the nature of it will change, and I won’t be including everything but the kitchen sink. When I mentioned this to Pot she pointed out that in my defense, I’ve had her character for nine years and it’s natural to want to create new adventures for our brain dolls in that span of time. Maybe. But I definitely took that “make her nightmares come true” rule too far. Maybe a better interpretation is to put yourself in your character’s shoes–imagine what she thinks is her worst nightmare–make that come true–then come up with an even worse worst nightmare and make that come true. But remember you don’t have to use every single thing you come up with in one story!