Friday, November 29, 2013

On Mary Sues

I have never written fan fiction or wanted to write fan fiction, but over the last year, I have been reading it out of curiosity.  The first time that I scrolled down to the comments of a fan fiction piece, I saw this comment:

"Your main character is a Mary Sue!"
My reaction to that comment was “Um, who’s Mary Sue?”  I had a college degree in fiction writing, I had been to writing conferences, I had been to author readings, I had attended workshops, I had read dozens of books on writing, I had turned down an offer to tutor at a writing center, and I had edited for a literary journal.  I had never heard of a Mary Sue.  I’m willing to bet that a lot of writers, editors, and professors have never heard of a Mary Sue.  If they knew about Mary Sues, they would’ve taught me about them, right?

According to Google, a Mary Sue is a poorly-developed, unrealistically-perfect, idealized character that represents the author.  The author turns himself/herself into a character and inserts that character into an established fictional universe (such as the Harry Potter universe or the Star Trek universe).  The fictional author-character interacts with the established characters in that universe in some way. 

Judging by the volume of “Your character is a Mary Sue!” comments, Mary Sues are common and undesirable in fan fiction.  If you Google Mary Sue, there are quizzes that will (supposedly) tell you if your character is a Mary Sue.  While reading fan fiction, I saw authors arguing with commenters and denying that the Mary Sue label fits their characters.  I saw authors begging commenters not to call their characters Mary Sues.  I saw authors apologizing for the fact that their characters are Mary Sues.  I saw authors creating intentional Mary Sues.  I saw a lot of disagreements between commenters over whether or not a character is a Mary Sue.  The Mary Sue label seems to be subjective and applied often.

I decided that you have to be ballsy to put your fan fiction on the internet.  Writers have to have thick skin, but some of those Mary Sue comments are just nasty.  It made me wonder if there are aspiring writers who are so paranoid of creating a Mary Sue that they don’t write.  I also wondered if there are aspiring writers who have quit writing because of the Mary Sue comments.

I’m not sure how to answer those questions, but I really hope that Mary Sue paranoia doesn’t stop anyone from writing.  The fact that I’ve made it this far in my writing/editing career without hearing about Mary Sues makes me think that they’re not something that professional writers spend much time thinking about.  If you enjoy writing, then write.  Don’t worry about Mary Sues.  Constructive criticism is great, but it seems as if some people on fan fiction sites are just trolls who enjoy starting arguments.  Don’t let them discourage you.  Write your story the way that you think it should be written.  Trust your writer instincts.  Now, go write. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Character Development Exercise

I’ve always been slightly baffled by “Interview Your Character” exercises.  If you’re not familiar with these, they’re lists of questions for an author to answer about their fictional character.  The lists usually contain questions such as, “What’s your character’s favorite ice cream flavor?”  And, “How did your character learn where babies come from?”  These exercises are entertaining, but do they actually help with the story?  In my opinion, they don’t.  The fact that my character prefers chocolate ice cream isn’t helpful because it isn’t relevant to the story.  In the type of fiction that I enjoy, characters are usually too busy fighting for their lives to stop for ice cream.  Knowing their favorite flavor doesn’t help me.

I did some thinking, and some Google-ing, and some fiction-writing-reference-book checking, and I tried to come up with a character development exercise that would always be relevant to a writer’s story.  Here’s what I came up with. 

The most realistic characters in literature are the ones who seem to exist separately from the plot.  The characters do not exist solely to move the plot forward.  The plot is something that happens in the life of the character.  That character existed before the plot happened, and if the character survives the plot, he/she/it will continue to exist after the plot is over.

So, this is the first step in my character development exercise:

1.       Separate the character and the plot.

Who was this character before the plot happened?  Who would they be if the plot never happened?  What strengths/weaknesses/personality traits are they bringing into the plot? 

Harry Potter can be used as an obvious example of a character who brought traits into a plot.  The first time that Harry comes to Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat considers his personality and debates about whether to put him in Gryffindor or Slytherin.  The reader learns that Gryffindor students are brave and chivalrous, and Slytherin students are ambitious, cunning, and resourceful.  Harry possessed all of these traits before being told that he was a wizard.  If he’d never found out that he was a wizard, he’d still have these traits.  They are part of his personality.

The next two steps in the character development exercise are about human behavior.  A lot of human behavior is driven by two things: desire and fear. 

Think about your character separately from the plot and answer these two questions:

2.       What is this character’s greatest desire? (Not directly related to the plot).

3.      What is this character’s greatest fear? (Not directly related to the plot).

If your plot is about a character who needs to kill an evil overlord, their greatest desire shouldn’t be to kill the overlord.  The desire and fear should be much deeper than that.  They might be so deep that the character doesn’t even realize that these things are determining how he/she/it reacts to certain situations.  Once again, think about the character before the plot happens.  It might be helpful to go all the way back to the character’s childhood.  How was the character raised?  If the character had overbearing, perfectionist parents, the character might be terrified of failure.  This could make the character scared of trying new things because there’s a possibility of failure when anything new is attempted.  On the other hand, it could make the character rich and powerful because the character puts a ton of effort in to everything that he/she/it does in order to avoid failure.

What if your character was orphaned as a child?  This could cause a desire for love and acceptance, and that could lead to the character getting involved in an abusive relationship.  The character desires to feel loved so badly that he/she/it will settle for a relationship with someone who takes advantage of the character.

Here’s the last step in this exercise:

4.       Look at the events in the plot from the character’s point-of-view.   

The plot will reveal your character’s greatest desires and greatest fears.  It might be so subtle that the average reader doesn’t notice, but you (the author) should notice the desires and fears being revealed.  Different characters will react to the same situation in different ways because their behavior is being driven by different desires and fears.  A character who desires happiness may have no problem leaving a job that he/she/it hates.  A character who fears failure may be reluctant to leave a crappy job because he/she/it might fail at finding a new job.

If it helps, you can do this for each character and major plot point:

This character desires ___________, so when __________ happens in the plot, the character will have this reaction: _________________.

This character fears ___________, so when __________ happens in the plot, the character will have this reaction: ________________.

Friday, November 8, 2013


Happy NaNoWriMo!  If you’re participating, you should have at least 13,328 words written by the end of today (if I did the math correctly).  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month.  Every November, writers from all over the world attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. 

Instead of participating in the writing this year, I was going to do National Novel Editing Month and try to cut 50,000 words out of a novel.  I’ve only cut 3,600 so far.  I have a feeling that I’ve already failed at NaNoEditMo.

Last year, I did succeed at writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  It was a fun experience because I only had to worry about the word count.  I knew that the novel would be a complete, unsalvageable disaster that no one would ever read, but it was liberating to be able to write without worrying about the results.  I totally agree with John Green in this Vlogbrothers video from 2009.  (If you're on this blog's mobile site, you might not be able to see the video.  I still haven't figured out why.)


Happy NaNo, and don’t be afraid to suck.  Now, go write.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Editorial Philosophy

This was originally a school assignment, but I found it interesting because I’ve never thought about my personal editorial philosophy before.  It helped me understand my reactions to certain pieces of literature.  I thought that it might also be interesting to authors, so I’m posting it here.  I know that I’m not the only person who has these opinions.




There are many elements that I look for when determining whether or not a story should be published.  The first is imagery, which seems simple because most stories should have it, but I’m the type of person who thinks in pictures and whose senses are closely tied to memory.  When I look at the hundreds of books on my shelves, in my drawers, and spilling out of my closet, I often don’t remember the names and backstories of the characters.  Sometimes, I don’t even remember the book’s plot.  What I do remember is the imagery, and when I think about the story months or years after reading it, the imagery is always the first thing that comes back to me.  I can take a book off my shelf and say, “This novel has a scene of a mother and daughter walking in a river,” or “This literary magazine has a story where a man puts wood carvings of people on his fireplace mantel.”  I want stories that have strong imagery because those are the ones that I remember and want to read over and over.

Since I enjoy reading a piece many times, I look for writing that will hold up to multiple readings without becoming uninteresting.  I like stories with layers.  I love to read a story a second or third time and see things that I missed the first time. 

I want to read about characters with intricate pasts, complex motives, believable desires, and psychological depth.  I prefer main characters who are active, not just reactive, and definitely not just victims.  I like characters who take control of their lives and make the events in the plot happen.  I don’t want to see them only reacting to events that were created by circumstance or by less-important characters.  Some reaction is fine, of course, but I also want to see the character doing/creating/causing something.  I get annoyed by characters who are victims and nothing else.  If a character is being bullied or targeted by bad guys, there has to be a good reason.  I want to see the character do something to change the situation and not just mope around feeling sorry for himself/herself.

I enjoy reading many different types of stories, but I most often find myself being drawn to stories that are quirky and unpredictable.  I have heard people say, “There’s no such thing as an original idea,” and maybe that’s true, but I definitely think that there are original combinations of ideas.  I love it when I read a story and see some combination that I’ve never seen before or think about something familiar in an entirely new way.  I want stories that entertain me as well as make me think and keep me guessing.  I have very little tolerance for predictability.  It’s disappointing to guess the end of a story, flip to the last page, and discover that I’m correct.

I look for stories that make me feel something.  I’m always happy when some element in the first few pages of a story makes me sit up and pay attention.  I want plots that make me so curious that I can’t put the story down until I find out what happens next.  I want to feel the tension that comes from reading faster and faster until I find out what happens.  I also want characters that I can care about.  The characters don’t have to be likeable or be good people, but they have to be intriguing enough that I care about what happens to them.  The best stories are the ones where I care about the characters so much that I’m anxious when they’re in trouble, and I’m happy when they achieve their goals.  I have read so many stories that involve breakups and makeups, death and destruction, plans thwarted and battles won that I sometimes feel as if I’ve become emotionally numb to those types of stories.  I always appreciate it when an author gets me invested enough in the plot and characters that the story’s events have an emotional impact on me.  

I don’t have as much experience with poetry as I do with novels and short stories, but I’m most drawn to poems that play with language and sound beautiful when read out loud.  I also like poems that are able to say a lot with very few words and have strong imagery.

I prefer nonfiction that has a narrative and is both entertaining and educational.  I want to learn something without feeling as if I’m learning something.  I’ve never enjoyed reading a textbook.

I have a love/hate relationship with memoirs because there are so many poorly-written ones out there.  It seems as if anyone who is slightly famous or had something slightly interesting happen to them publishes a memoir, even if they’ve never written anything before in their life.  I dislike memoirs that are self-indulgent.  I’m reading the book because I want to hear a good story, not because I want to hear about the awesomeness of the author.  I enjoy memoirs that skip some of the “I,” “I,” “I,” “Me,” “Me,” “Me,” and focus on being entertaining and educational.

That’s my editorial philosophy as of right now.  It will probably change in the future.  Thanks for reading it.