Before all your comments and the links I read fade from my memory, I’m going to jump ahead to Kara’s question last week, How do you avoid writing Mary Sue’s? Later, Kara also wrote, By “Mary Sue”, I mean a character that’s perfect in every single way.
F asked, And, adding to that – how do you make your character ‘human’? Imperfect, with flaws, etc. I mean, I really don’t want to just insert a flaw for the heck of it, but that’s what I’ve done. That, or made the MC similar to me…and that’s not good. Have you ever had that problem? The character being too similar to yourself? Further on, F added, It’s the author basically writing herself/himself into the role, or rather, a glorified version of themselves. I’m scared that most of my characters are just extensions of various parts of me that I wrote unconsciously, and I don’t want that! I want original, UNRELATABLE characters.
And later on Rose wrote, …I’m also interested in a “how to” on making characters relatable-to.
I had the uncomfortable feeling as I read the definitions that Ella of Ella Enchanted might be a Mary Sue. She’s beautiful and everybody who’s good loves her. Some people have a talent for picking up languages, but Ella is almost magical at it.
Then there’s Aza in Fairest. Although she’s ugly she can out-sing Maria Callas.
For Ella Enchanted more than any of my other books I drew on books I’d loved, and I suppose some of them had main characters with Mary Sue qualities. For example, Anne, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, which I reread a thousand times when I was little, has a tragic back story. People are constantly finding something special in her, particularly when they look in her enormous green eyes. And, as she grows older, she becomes stunningly gorgeous. Put this way, she seems a total Mary Sue. But Anne is engaging. As a child she talks too much and uses ridiculously big words. She has a temper, holds a grudge, and is immovably stubborn.
If you’re writing a sympathetic main character it may be impossible to avoid all Mary Sue or Gary Stu-ishness. For instance, if Warren is likable, other characters are going to like him. In fact, you may have to show him being liked to convince the reader that he is appealing. However, some may not take to him, and here is a chance to avoid the Gary Stu. You can make a person who doesn’t like him sympathetic too, thus showing that not everybody who fails to fall for Warren is rotten.
As for beauty, perfection is probably not as attractive as mild imperfection. Your main character can have a weak chin or over-sized ears. When I wrote Aza I made her physically unattractive but I didn’t give her terrible weeping eczema or brown and crooked teeth, which might make the reader recoil rather than slip inside her.
Oops! My advice is sounding formulaic, so I’ll mention a memoir I read some years ago called Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (high school and up). The author had a kind of cancer as a child that eroded her jaw. She writes about her reconstructive surgery, the degeneration of the surgery, her feelings about being disturbing to look at. The narrator’s voice is engaging. I was certainly on her side on the page, but I was forced to wonder how I would respond to her in person. I recommend this book. The writing is excellent and there’s lots to think about.
If I remember right, some of the power of Autobiography of a Face comes from the author’s suffering. An ingredient in the Mary Sue problem may be loving a main character too much to let her get hurt. We know Mary Sue has to be challenged or there will be no story, so we make something bad happen. But because we don’t want her to feel pain, we give her an ability that enables her to overcome the misfortune, or we bring in some other plot development to mitigate her misery. Then we recognize that the bad thing fell flat. We escalate the next difficulty and make what ensues dreadful in an oversized way. Afterward, we have to save her again, which lands us in a cycle of rising misery that may even become comical.
Scaling back is probably the answer. Say Don is actually a superhero. He’s inhumanly strong. This is okay if he’s also shy. Or impulsive. Suppose he’s not good at sizing up situations and keeps rescuing people who are doing fine, and suppose some of these people are friends or schoolmates. Resist the impulse to make him so adorable they immediately forget he crashed through a window to save them from a tiger that actually was a dog. Let one of them tell him an unpleasant truth about himself. He may be strong and kindhearted, but he’s also a busybody. Let him feel hurt, and let the hurt linger. Let him not learn from it immediately. Have him repeat the same mistake a few times.
The small things make a reader identify. Imagine that Valerie’s mission is to achieve world peace and she actually succeeds. The reader will share her triumph only if he sees the failures that precede success. Show her fussing over the conference room before the big meeting and yelling at an assistant. One of the world leaders is a chain smoker. Valerie thinks smoking is a vile habit. She takes the ashtray out of the conference room then brings it back and repeats this a couple of times. She carries in a fan, then worries the fan will offend the smoker. She places his chair at a distance from everyone else’s and worries again. The reader fears that a cigarette and Valerie’s attitude may cause World War III, and he invests in the outcome. His caring comes partly from the big ideas, the important goal, but largely from the tiny moments.
As for characters who are too much like you – I don’t see this as a problem. You should mine yourself for character traits, in my opinion, not an idealized you but the real one. And don’t let modesty make you worse than you really are, either. You are the person you know best, the one you experience directly. Why eliminate your most available source? Ask yourself what makes you likable and what gets you into trouble. It doesn’t matter if others disagree with your assessment. You’re looking for material, not an accurate psychological profile.
Wilma in The Wish is more like me than any of my other main characters, particularly in her need to be liked. Near the end she pretty much begs three popular girls to like her. All my characters when they’re funny have my sense of humor. How could I write humor that wasn’t my own? Or any emotion, now that I think of it.
And as for entirely original characters, I don’t think they’re possible. It’s like when I used to paint I’d sometimes wish for a new color. Some birds can see a color we can’t, and aliens may think in ways that are entirely foreign, but if they’re entirely foreign no human writer can write them.
However, we can write characters that surprise the reader. Suppose Merry Lou’s train has hit another train. She’s trapped in a sleeper compartment with another passenger who’s severely injured. Alas, she doesn’t have superhuman strength and the sight of blood makes her queasy. What can she do?
Naturally, I would start by making a list. I’d also think about what’s available to her in the compartment and within reach outside the train window. I’d wonder how I might respond in such an emergency and how people I know might respond. As I considered the scene I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Mary Sue may fail or may only partially succeed. She may be totally useless in this crisis. The passenger may die and then she’ll have to deal with that. Afterward, another passenger can ask her why the heck she didn’t use her cell phone, and she can realize she forgot she had it. Or maybe she has an iPhone and surfs the net for first-aid tips, wasting precious minutes while the passenger loses consciousness. Or maybe she pulls off a rescue at the last moment.
Young adult writer Kimberly Willis Holt is a master at characterization. I particularly remember When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (middle school and up), which is well worth reading and studying. Wicked (high school and up) by Gregory Maguire shakes and rattles with surprising characters. In Doodlebug (upper elementary and up) by Karen Romano Young, which just came out, the main character Doreen is a delight – fresh, unique – and the reader fuses with her. Some of the fusion comes from the drawings but more comes from the level of intimacy the author draws us into. This is another one to study.
Also, I suggest you read outside your comfort zone occasionally. I confess that I don’t seek out even good books I’m not likely to enjoy, but sometimes I have to read them, and often they help my writing.
Wow, this has been a long post! Try the situation above, Merry Lou stuck in a train, as a prompt, and here’s another one:
This time Merry Lou has gotten into warrior school, scoring higher on her entrance exam than any other candidate in the school’s history. She’s gorgeous. Everybody loves her. She can read thoughts. Her reflexes are faster than Superman’s. Now make her go to her first class and do everything wrong and totally embarrass herself.
Have fun and save what you write!