Why Do People Write Mary Sues?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with what a Mary Sue is, it’s essentially a female character that is too perfect. A character that is always morally correct no matter what, has all the male protagonists drooling themselves over her even though she would describe herself as plain, and is special without having to try.

In other words, she’s boring.

So why do so many writers write Mary Sues? Even ones that claim they hate them?

I have a few theories:

The writer is trying to live vicariously through their character. Most of us want to be special. Unfortunately, a lot of us lack the bravery or skill required to become a compelling protagonist. In order for us to be unique, something supernatural in nature would have to occur like a radioactive spider biting us. Many of us have problems with ourselves so we’re tempted to fix them when we create an ink-and-paper twin. However, flaws are essentially what makes a person a person so by removing them writers create a character that is as flat as cardboard.

They want readers to like their character. If the reader despises the main protagonist, it is likely they will stop reading the story. Sadly, many writers think that the best way of avoiding this is by creating a character that has zero flaws other than superficial ones like clumsiness or being “too nice.” Truth is, a person’s foibles can make them more endearing and relatable.

It’s easier than coming up with a real person. Creating a person from scratch is hard. Especially if that person doesn’t share the same background, race, or religion that you do. It’s easy to become intimidated at the prospect of being inside the head of such a person and dictating all that they do and say. It’s even more daunting granted how delicate some peoples’ sensibilities are these days and how eager they are to take offense by any perceived misrepresentation. The writer doesn’t want to step on people’s toes and so they stick to what they know, with a few choice alterations, of course.

Or, in some cases, it’s just laziness. They don’t want to have to go through the pains of creating someone more three-dimensional because it’s time consuming and requires a lot of planning.

So how does a writer avoid writing Mary Sues?

Fear not, fledgling writers.

I have a few suggestions.

Find out in the next blog post.

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Your Characters are NOT Your Friends: A Public Service Announcement for Writers

I’ve seen several Instagram posts that say things like “is it sad that my characters are my best friends?” or “I have more conversations with my characters than I do with real people. Is that bad?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

Not because you’re a wallflower with friends that exist only in your mind. That’s perfectly normal*.

It’s sad because this means one of two possibilities: One, you are a horrible friend, or two, you are way, way, way too nice to your characters.

It’s natural to form an attachment to people that you’ve created. People have been doing this for centuries. The problem is when you care too much about someone, you want to nurture them, perhaps even protect them from impending doom.

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You cannot do this with your characters.

If you want a good story, you must put your characters through hell. Kill their families, have their lovers break-up with them, have owls eat their dogs. Nothing is allowed to go their way, or at least not for very long.

Loving your character too much might encourage you to go easy on them, to pull punches. Don’t do this. The best characters are forged in fire.

Another problem you can run into is making your characters too perfect. You want the audience to love your characters as much as you do, so you will have them always put their best foot forward. Problem is no one actually wants to read about perfect characters. Real people aren’t perfect so reading about someone who is takes the reader out of the story, constantly reminding them that what they are seeing is an illusion. And not even an entertaining one at that.

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Lastly– and I hate to break this to you– if your characters were magically able to obtain a physical form and interact with you they would probably hate you.

I’m not saying you’re a bad person it’s just that….

Let’s face it, you are responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened to them. Every illness, every death, every catastrophe that has every entered their lives is on you. You could literally make all their problems go away with the scratch of a pen. And yet, you sit there, drinking your coffee like a psycho.

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I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about your characters at all, if you don’t care then the audience probably won’t be persuaded to either. Just keep in mind that in order for them to reach their full potential, you must keep an emotional barrier between yourself and your creations.

A mother hawk may love her babies, but she’ll still push them out of the nest so they can fly.

Some of them may die, but it’s a risk you’re going to have to take.

*I have been informed that this actually isn’t normal and that most people have friends that exist in the real world. I was so shocked I couldn’t even find a gif that appropriately conveys my emotions. 

How I’m Writing What I Don’t Know

Conventional wisdom says that you’re supposed to write what you know.

However, I have decided to go the harder route and try writing what I don’t know.

Why am I trying to carry out this obviously horrible idea?

Because if I never try anything new, every single protagonist I write will be an introverted middle-class white girl from the midwest.

In this particular case, I am writing military sci-fi so I have to learn more about the armed forces.

How hard could that be?

It was a challenge at first. However, once you get past all the acronyms it still feels like your brain is melting.

Once you learn the ranking, then there’s the weapons and machines/equipment they use, and the training regiment. Then there’s figuring out the difference between a fire team, a squad, a platoon, a company, a battalion, a brigade and corps.

There are 8 to 16  soldiers in a squad, 2 or 4 squads in a platoon, 3 to 5 platoons in a company, 6 companies in a battalion, 4 calling birds, 3 french hens, 2 turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.

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When I venture out into uncharted territory, I always experience paralysis. Even after I do my homework and try to get as close to the facts as I can, there’s that persistent nagging sensation that tells me I’m going to get it wrong.

This leads to procrastination and mental gymnastics, all designed to keep me from trying.

Because not trying is better than trying and failing. Or at least that’s what my ego tells me.

Part of me wants to give up, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that the best way for a writer to understand something is for them to write about it. By doing that I was able to come up with a list of strategies to use to fix my problem and yours as well if you’re struggling like I am:

1. Get a beta reader who knows more about the subject you’re writing about than you. Hopefully, you have a friend or a friend of a friend who is knowledgeable about the topic you are writing about and would be willing to provide their services. If they are reluctant to do so, I would recommend bribery: a pizza dinner for every chapter they read.

2. Get another beta reader who knows less about the subject than you. While you want to write like someone who understands the subject they’re talking about, you don’t want to get so technical that only people who are directly involved in this line of work or have studied this subject comprehend what you’re saying.

3. Reconcile yourself with the fact that you may get something wrong anyway. Try as hard as you can to make a good product. But if you wait until everything is perfect you’ll never produce anything. Take it from someone who knows.

Now go out there, my pretties, and make good work!

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When a Writer You Admire is a Jerk

A few years ago, my novel writing class had a high-profile guest speaker talk to us: the award-winning author of a YA book we had been assigned to read about a week prior.

I was pretty jazzed about it considering how much I’d enjoyed the story. I’ve had predominately good experiences with meeting published authors in the past and have always learned quite a bit from talking with them, so I thought this would be a positive encounter.

My first impression of her was not a bad one. She glided into the room on a cloud of confidence, cool oozing from every pore. She made us laugh, told us a bit about her writing process, and then she opened the floor for questions.

I was the first to raise my hand. She called on me and I asked her how much of the book was based on her own life.

I knew she was an army brat from the bio on the back cover of her novel, but I was curious as to how much of her MC’s life mirrored hers. I had a hunch there were quite a few parallels since most authors derive minute details from their own experiences, but I didn’t want to assume that everything was a perfect representation of her youth.

“Oh,” she replied, “that’s a tourist question. That’s not a good question at all.”

Me:

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Her:

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It’s always disappointing when you discover someone you admire is a jerk.

However, it can be a beneficial lesson to learn. It’s a reminder that, in spite of all that someone may have accomplished, they are still a human being, capable of fallibility. Some foibles are more significant than others, but we all have them. Even the most gifted of us. Especially the most gifted of us.

I’m happy this woman could teach me this lesson. So… very… happy.

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In fact, I’m so happy that I’ve been inspired to write the ultimate novel that will earn me critical praise as well as sacks and sacks of money. I will then use those sacks of money to create a giant pyre and burn all her books in a ceremonial fire.

Beware, jerk writer, I will be avenged through the power of literature!

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If You Want To Be a Writer, Lower Your Expectations a Lot

When you decide to become a writer, there’s one truth that you must confront at some point: what you write will probably not be as good on paper as it was in your head.

I’ve come to realize this after multiple drafts and constant rewrites of fiction, nonfiction, blog posts and etc. I know it’s not just me who feels this way. Writers and artists like Philip Pullman and Leonardo da Vinci complain that their work is not a perfect reflection of their intentions either.

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It was Leonardo D that once said “art is never finished, only abandoned.”

So how do you know when to abandon your work?

Well…you don’t….

That’s what makes rewrites so exciting!

You never know if what you’re doing is improving your work or if it is becoming exponentially worse due to your constant attempts at redressing problems that may or may not exist, and therefore you chip away at your metaphorical sculpture until little remains but rubble and a caffeine high you obtained from drinking six cups of coffee in a row so that you could finish this one draft before you begin your shift in the morning at your dead-end job that you applied for to pay for your college loans and keep yourself a float until you get published which at this rate may be quite a long time as you’ve read from multiple sources that the likelihood of you getting your work seen by another human being, even if you chose to self-publish, is ridiculously low because so many people are more interested in making their own voices heard that they choose to ignore the other three million people who want the same thing so now you are all just screaming into the abyss, being heard by no one and eventually you become so spiritually malnourished that you start taking whiskey shots in your coffee every morning just to keep the edge off—

Fun!

But I would suggest getting a second opinion from someone you trust. Someone who reads as much as you do. They’ll tell you if you need to continue or not. And if they think it’s done, consider that it might very well be.

You do eventually want to finish this thing. Then it’s on to the next project. Aaaand it’s likely the same thing will happen all over again.

…….If anyone wants to start a support group, I’m on board.

My Muse Hates Free Time

Does anyone else get their ideas when it’s most inconvenient?

I think I am at my most creative during the height of the school semester where everything is due and my entire future hangs in the balance..

I’ll be mentally calculating how much time I should commit to studying and she’ll show up, donut in hand, asking “hey, what would it be like if the human race was forced to live under the sea?”

“Now is not a good time,” I’ll say, reading about Metella and how she likes to sit in the atrium.

“What if they were down there for so long that they forgot what life on land was like?”

I’ll pause. “That sounds kind of cool.”

“Yeah. You should totally spend the next five hours thinking about it.”

“I have a test tomorrow in a foreign language.”

“If you don’t write down everything now you will forget about it and you’ll never be published. You will spend the rest of your life working a 9-5 grind. Your soul will become drier and drier until you are simply a husk of inadequacy.”

“Crap. You’re right.”

When I actually have some downtime, however, my muse can’t be bothered. She’ll be out partying with her other muse friends, only to turn up around 12 a.m. to tell me about how she worked out a way to fill that plothole in my last project. Which, of course, I’ll be too tired to do anything about.

Writers aren’t supposed to wait for their muses to show up. They’re meant to start writing and slowly their muses will materialize.

But it’s so much more difficult writing without her. She makes it more exciting. Sure, she doesn’t always have the best ideas, but at least she makes it fun.

Sucking (Writing) a Little Every Day Part II

I wrote a post around 6 months ago about how I was going to write every single day, no matter how much the product sucked.

And for a while, I stuck to that goal. However, in recent months I’ve had difficulty maintaining.

Some reasons are legitimate like I have had homework to do and personal matters arose. However, a lot of this stems from my self-doubt and internet addiction (see “I Can’t Write At Home. The Internet Wants My Soul”).

Half of the time it’s like I’m pushing against an invisible barrier that I can’t seem to budge. I prepare myself to write, but as soon as I open the page or word document, I freeze up. Everything goes blank.

Maybe it’s because the story I’m working on is going to take more time and effort than I originally thought, or because I am wanting to change the direction of it and am afraid that I’ll take away all that was good about it before.

Since I’m due to graduate soon, I will be expected to get something called a…jobe? Joab? Something like that. Anyway, I won’t have nearly as much free time at my disposal. This means I need to kick it into high gear if I want to birth a book into the world before I’m in my 30s.

I need to go back to writing for at least an hour every single day. That’s every single day.

Not days that I feel like it, not days that it’s convenient, every day.

Even when it feels like I’m sucking.

The Short Guide to World-Building for Noobs

For some people creating new worlds is easy. For others it’s a bit more difficult. Here are a few things I’ve learned from experience:

Write more information about this world than you will use in the story. 

Get out a notebook and write down as much about this world as you can: the landscapes, the history, the language, the climate, the people, everything you can think of. However, keep in mind that most of what you are creating will not make it into the finished product. People don’t like being bogged down by too much information. Nonetheless, it’s important that you have this background information so that it feels more organic. You don’t want the reader to feel as if you’re making it up as you go along.

Remember where you live affects who you are as a person. 

Regardless of how you may dislike where you live or the customs you grew up with, it’s undeniable that where you are born affects your view of the world. The same should be said of your characters. For instance, people who live in less forgiving climates tend to be tougher than people that don’t. Think about your character and how their environment shaped their personality. Did it embolden them? Make them fearful? What side of the mountain they came from can make a difference in their development.

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Travel. 

Exploring new lands, tasting new food, and mingling with strangers is the best way to get your creative energies flowing. This is especially true when it comes to world-building. Traveling can broaden your horizons and inspire you to create new worlds that may nor may not resemble this one. You can look up photographs on the internet about certain landmarks, but it’s no substitute for being there yourself.

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Read about other cultures. 

This doesn’t mean you should directly or disrespectfully rip off of other cultures and their beliefs. However, exposure to new ideas (or at least ideas that are new to you) can inspire you to create your own. Study different religions and sciences. Read short story collections from other countries. Do as much research as you can about different environments.

Good luck!

Ode to My Lack of Motivation

They say one of the best things about being a writer is that you can do it in your pajamas. I’m inclined to agree (although I very rarely write in my pjs ). But it goes farther than that. One of the greatest things about being a writer is the freedom to express yourself.

However, freedom is a double-edged sword.

If you don’t show up to work with no explanation, you will likely be fired.

If you don’t write for a day, nothing will happen.

Absolutely nothing.

No one is going to phone you and demand to know why your word count is so low. No one is going to call you into their office because you were watching a Youtube video instead of filling in those plot holes you created in the third chapter.

Chances are nobody will care at all.

And that’s one of the reasons why I struggle with writing.

Nothing bad actually happens if I don’t write. I suppose you could consider not finishing a book/blog post/short story bad, but it isn’t really.

When you think about it, there are billions of people on the earth. Not that many of them write books before they kick it. Would the universe really think less of you if you were just another Joe Shmoe that didn’t write a novel? Probably not.

And because nobody else does, it is up to you to do all the caring. And caring is very difficult. Particularly when you’re the only one doing it.

A Writer’s Dilemma: The Problem With Conflict

It’s pretty obvious that one of the central components to a story is the conflict.

It doesn’t matter what the conflict is: fighting the Dark Lord, winning the beef cake, or keeping the world from losing its Twinkies.

There just has to be a problem for the protagonist to solve.

I am good at coming up with conflict.

My characters suffer horribly at my hands.

The problem with getting your characters into terrible situations, however, is that, eventually, you have to get them out.

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Sure, it’s easy to say the character needs to overthrow a corrupt government and ward off an alien incursion, but how would they go about doing that? Where would they even begin? Especially when these people have no military training or exemplary fighting skills?

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I expect them to have a clue what to do when even I wouldn’t know how to act in these situations.

There they are, strapped to a chair with a bomb that’s set to go off at any moment. They rock their chair from side to side desperately before turning to me in a last-ditch effort to save themselves.

“Writer!” they scream, “what do I do?!”

Me:

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Eh, I’ll get back to you when the answer comes to me during a 6 a.m. shower. You can wait that long, can’t you?

Them:

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Me:

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On the bright side, maybe if the solution is a surprise to me it’ll be a surprise to the reader as well. Or perhaps I’m just playing one long game of mental hide-and-seek with myself. Only time will tell.