A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. – John K. Hutchens
When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing. – Enrique Jardiel Poncela
One of the greatest dangers most new fiction writers face is that they have seen many more movies and TV shows than they have read novels.
The film audience looks through the camera, and its lens can look wherever it wants from any perspective it wants.
Take the case of a basic conversation at an Italian restaurant: the camera shoots over the man’s one shoulder, then the woman’s, then the man’s, close-up on her face, then over at the guy skulking by the pay phone, then back to the man, then at the bill, then at both people at the table in a wide shot that turns out to be from the perspective of the guy at the phones, then in his pocket where…there’s a gun! End of scene.
Film gets away with split-second changes in perspective for many reasons, but most especially because the audience doesn’t have to do the work to imagine the visual or auditory details of the story. They don’t even have to think, “Two people are talking at Italian restaurant.” The actors, score writer, prop master, lighting guys, grips, make-up and hair artists, cinematographer, set designer, wardrobe mistress, and caterers do that.
The novelist has only themselves and the words on the page. The relationship they form with the reader is much closer, much more intimate without cast or crew. The author must provide the reader with what they need to participate in the story, to be “shown,” not “told.” And absolutely essential to this intimacy is that the reader be able to listen to the narrator without distraction or disruption.
Of course, we are talking about a mainstream writer who wants to get published. Perhaps you’ll be self-publishing your book. The editors at a self-publishing company, if it’s reputable, will want to be sure that your book is well-written. If you’re Toni Morrison, Joshua Cohen, or the latest reincarnation of Jack Kerouac, you can make your narrator do whatever you want. How do they do that?
There are four major concerns:
1. Changes in Perspective
A writer’s arsenal:
- First person (I, me, us, we)
- Second person (you, your)
- Third person (he, she, they, them, it)
- Third person limited (the narrator is limited by following along a character’s perspective, or chronological order, or a specific place, or some other boundary)
- Third person omniscient (the narrator knows everything everywhere all the time)
Perspective is the primary difficulty of novel writers and their narrator, because the fictional narrator cannot leap about from character to character, peering over one shoulder then the next, without causing confusion. While the audience of a movie peers consistently through the eyes of the camera, the reader of fiction can be made to look through the eyes of multiple characters, including the character of the narrator.
Let’s try that scene at the restaurant as though it were in a novel:
John looked at Helen, concluding that she looked tired. It had been so long since he had been a date that he wasn’t sure if asking after her health would be an insult.
“I like this place,” he told her. “I’m almost a regular.”
Helen wondered if that were supposed to impress her. If John really wanted to win a woman over, he might try to visit the gym from time to time. She picked up the menu, tilting it up to block her eyes so she could gaze critically at his bald spot.
“Anything on the menu you want to recommend?” she asked, looking over the prices.
John worried about what Helen might like, scanning over the prices. While he ate here often, it was usually for one. Thank goodness they had agreed right away to go Dutch.
“I like the soup,” he said.
Helen’s face squinted just slightly, or perhaps flinched. John spotted a small scar on her nose. It made him think of small pox.
The guy hadn’t even picked a good table for his date, Baker thought as he scanned the lobby of the low-end Italian restaurant, making sure he was always the closest one to the pay phone. They were too close to the kitchen.
“I think I’ll have the minestrone,” John announced. Helen seemed to suppress a sigh.
Baker looked over the other diners. What a boring bunch, he decided. When was the damn phone going to ring?
Dinner ended, the waiter set a single bill on the table. Both John and Helen looked up in annoyance. They had specifically asked for separate checks.
What a cheap-o, Baker thought. The guy wasn’t even treating.
Inside Baker’s pocket was a Walther PPK. James Bond’s gun.
Whew, what a mess.
The reader can follow along if they try, but there is nothing to be gained from making them work so hard. The reader can’t even tell who the main character is supposed to be. There are many hints about the characters’ true selves, but what reader could keep them all straight as the novel progresses, leaping about from person to person?
Note that by writing from a character’s perspective and then shifting to third person omniscient, the astute reader will wonder just who, exactly, knows there’s a gun in Baker’s pocket and that it’s James Bond’s gun. Why would some all-seeing narrator make a Bond reference? Is this, in fact, Baker’s perspective we’re getting? Or maybe the gun’s?
Consider the basics of setting the scene while using multiple perspectives. How can the story “paint the picture” to provide a context when the meaning of the words change? To John, the restaurant is a familiar and comforting place, it seems to make no impression on Helen at all, and Baker thinks it’s low-rent. While that’s interesting, how can the reader develop an emotional connection? How can they fill in the blanks and see the restaurant for themselves?
Changing the narrator’s perspective means you’re swapping out a new speaker. Say you start with the perspective of an artist, “who finds the red sunset diluted with the soul of the world.” Then you start talking through an electrical engineer. The words “red” and “diluted” will no longer hold the same meaning. What is the reader to think?
Be kind to your poor reader, who simply wants to settle into the story and have a good time. Pick a perspective and stick with it. Let the words come from a single voice, or, if you must shift perspective, do it plainly and with obvious purpose.
A good exercise is to write at least one story of some length in the first person and be 100% honest about it. This is, after all, the way we actually live our lives. If we’re John sitting at that table, we may notice that Helen is trying not to be obvious about staring at our bald spot. If we’re Helen, we may learn she’s so critical of John’s appearance because it looks nothing like the photo he emailed her.
But if we are John and Helen and Baker and James Bond’s gun all at once, we’re probably going to put the book down and wonder how it got published.
2. Inappropriate Knowledge or Lack of Knowledge
This one is similar to perspective, but has its own concerns. It’s also something people usually associate with character. If your lead is, say, Trickster McGee, a steamboat captain of the 19th century who is not magical, then he should know how steamboats work but have no clue what a “computer” is.
But narrators are characters too. If the narrator is ever once limited in their perspective, then they must continue to be limited in that fashion unless they make a formal change in perspective from one character or location or time to another. Take the example:
Ace looked up at the sky, perhaps wondering if he could get right back into his plane. The sun was hot on his face, and the runway was clear and golden as a sunbeam. He thought he’d better get back into the cockpit before someone doubted his reputation.
There is no reason for the narrator to wonder what Ace is thinking one minute then know what Ace is thinking the next. Either the narrator can tell what Ace is thinking or the narrator doesn’t. Be your own editor and pick one.
3. Changes in Voice
A writer’s arsenal:
- Tone: primarily described as an emotion: happy, sad, mean, angry, delirious, rapturous, serious, conversational, casual, formal
- Voice: primarily described as a person: news anchor, scientist, boss, mother, child
The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming – an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. But she didn’t mind the heat or the littered midway called Times Square. She thought New York was the most exciting city in the world. — Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls
Nostalgic older man:
I scooted up farther and rested my worn Keds on the hump that ran through the middle of our old Pinto station wagon. I was skinny and tall for my age, which made my knees curl up toward my chest. Mom said I was safer in the backseat, but deep down I knew that it wasn’t really about safety, it was about the radio. I was constantly playing with it, changing the dial from her boring Perry Como station to something that played real music. – Glenn Beck, The Christmas Sweater
Outside it was getting dark. The streetlight came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in. – Ernest Hemingway, “The Killers”
This isn’t an article on finding your voice. I’ll have to tackle that later. But once you have a voice, whatever it is, you need to stick to it.
If you’re writing, as most writers do, in a detached third-person limited perspective that does not comment on the action, you will startle the reader out of the story if you suddenly change your voice.
Hannah was really tired of the coffee at McDonald’s, but she saw no reason to shell out $5 for something equally horrid at Starbucks. The new place on Edison sounded halfway decent, and it wasn’t much of a walk out of her way to work.
Standing at the street corner and waiting for the light to get a move on and change, she idly watched a red car make an illegal U-turn. Man, pushing the start button on that monster would set off the distinctive roar of a pure thoroughbred race car, all muscle and no mercy.
She considered buying a bagel or something. The pastry cart that came around at work was so expensive.
The break in voice is actually good, if we’re looking to startle the reader and if there’s a payoff to being startled, such as finding out that Hannah is a car nut.
If there is no reason for the break in voice other than that the author likes cars, then it is again time to be your own editor. The sentence about “the distinctive roar of a pure thoroughbred” has got to go.
If your narrator has taken the perspective of a child, don’t use big words. If the narrator is supposed to be well-educated, use big words, but make sure they mean what you think they mean and check your grammar.
Your narrator is the one speaking to your reader and it is their voice they hear. If the voice irritates or confuses them, they’ll stop reading.
4. Breaking the Fourth Wall
The “Fourth Wall” is a theatrical term made popular by Denis Diderot. The stage usually provides two wings, a back wall, and the front, which looks out over the audience. Traditional theatre has the actors pretend that the audience isn’t there, that there exists a fourth, invisible wall between the action and the rest of the theatre.
Characters have been breaking that wall since theatre was invented. Shakespearean characters make asides to the audience to reveal what they’re thinking. Characters in political plays turn away from their scenes to make social commentary. And so on.
The term is used in film when a character directly addresses the camera and the audience beyond it (Ferris Beuller, Wayne Campbell).
In novels, an author breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader with warnings, commentary on the action, jokes, and other “asides.” As with other media, narrators can break this wall if they choose, but they must do it consciously and consistently.
Narrators break the fourth wall when they throw in judgments that don’t belong to characters, such as “fortunately” or “unhappily.” They break it when they point out that it’s a shame a character doesn’t know something.
Spot the break in the fourth wall below:
Tex walked up to his horse, the best damn animal a man could have. Lil Sal would eat from his hand and kick a stranger in the head. They’d survived more than one suddenly blizzard crossing the Rockies. And the sweetheart still had a soft mouth, meaning she only needed light guidance on the reigns. He’d sell his gun before he’d so much as rent Lil Sal to a sheriff’s wife.
Just who is saying “meaning she only needed light guidance on the reigns”? The narrator was speaking as Tex, and then breaks the fourth wall to explain what he has decided the reader can’t figure out for themselves. As an editor, I’d take the phrase out.
A narrator breaking the fourth wall on purpose can be fun, as long as the author never forgets how intrusive this is between the story and the audience. Let’s take a look at some excerpts from the classic story Andy Griffith used to tell in the guise of a clueless country bumpkin at a football game.
And what I seen was this whole raft of people a-sittin’ on these two banks and a-lookin’ at one another across this pretty little green cow pasture.
Somebody had took and drawed white lines all over it and drove posts in it, and I don’t know what all, and I looked down there and I seen five or six convicts a running up and down and a-blowing whistles…
I seen that the men had got in two little bitty bunches down there real close together, and they voted. They elected one man apiece, and them two men come out in the middle of that cow pasture and shook hands like they hadn’t seen each other in a long time…
I don’t know, friends, to this day, what it was that they was a doin’ down there, but I have studied about it. I think it was that it’s some kind of a contest where they see which bunchful of them men can take that pumpkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other without gettin’ knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’.
This is wonderful, funny stuff, but you had better not want the audience to care about that football game. Basically, when you make your narrator this intrusive, the narrator isn’t just the main character, but the only character.
Break the fourth wall only if you must, and only with the greatest of care.
Following these basic guidelines for narrating fiction should keep your reader in a comfortable and imaginative space. Once there, they can concentrate on your story in the right way, getting to know your characters, envisioning your scenery, figuring out your symbolism, and enjoying themselves.
Give the reader an enjoyable experience, and they’ll always come back for more. If you’re not positively sure that your narration works, ask a good book editor or your self-publishing company to evaluate your book prior to self-publishing it.
Okay, you’ve been writing for a while now, and you’ve conquered the usual “when to use a period” and “to, too, two” problems. It’s time to take your copyediting skills to the next level.
So here are some persistent problems I’ve seen even experienced professional writers fail to overcome and simple ways to deal with them.
Even the latest version of Microsoft’s spellchecker doesn’t often catch when you put a correctly spelled but wrongly selected word in your sentence. Not much will help you when you write “verses” (sections of a poem or lyric) instead of “versus” (as opposed to) except paying close attention when you read and memorizing the difference.
But sometimes we do know the meanings of different words that sound the same and still mix them up. The best way to deal with these is making sure we understand just why we get confused and how to choose between our options.
Mixed Patterns: Read vs. Lead vs. Head
Most words follow some sort of pattern, such as using “-ed” for the past tense. When they don’t follow the main pattern, then they follow some lesser pattern, such as using “-t” for the past tense (e.g., dreamt, slept, burnt, knelt).
You can even use these patterns to understand things that don’t seem at first to make sense, such as the word “pass,” which has a past tense that ends in either “-ed” or “-t.”
I pass the ball to John. It helps pass the time.
John passed the ball back to me in times past.
But there are some words out there that just do their own thing, and these need to go into a special pocket in your brain. There is no rule of thumb, just the bare need for memorization.
By far, the most common error I see along these lines is using “lead” as the past tense of “to lead.” However, the past tense is “led.”
John liked to lead when he danced. John led Jane around the dance floor.
Writing “lead” as the past tense of “to lead” is to confuse the rules for the word with those of “to read.” And it makes a kind of sense, considering that they make the same auditory change: long e for “to lead” and “to read” and short e for “read” and “led.”
In fact, “to read/read” is the odd duck. Look at “to breed/bred” and “to feed/fed.”
It’s helpful to remember that “lead” sounds like “led” when it means a type of metal. Bear in mind that when “lead” is a noun, it functions like “head”, “bread,” and seed” when it’s used as a verb: “to head/headed”, “to bread/breaded,” and “to seed/seeded.”
Thus, gasoline that has had the lead taken out is “unleaded.”
Beware other words that seem to follow similar patterns and be sure to memorize their usage individually. Examples include:
- To drink, drank, drunk vs. To swim, swam, swum (I can be drunk, but I can’t be swum.)
- Left vs. Right (I can be righted, but I can’ be lefted.)
- Lie, lied vs. Lie, lay, laid (I lie to my friends and I lie on the grass, but I lied to my father yesterday while I lay on the sofa.)
Etymology is the study of word origins, and it’s pretty cool. But it’s also full of bad calls. One of the most famous screw-ups was the idea that “satire” came from “Satyrs,” the man-goat creatures of ancient Greece who appeared in light-hearted plays. For quite a while, satires were published with little goat-men on the pages, and satirists themselves were portrayed as magical, snarky little beasts.
However, “satire” actually comes from the Latin lanx satura and roughly means “hash.” What we call satires today were published in Rome along with other poems that addressed various bits of information and foibles of the enemy.
Real etymology requires extensive research. When we decide to figure out a word or phrase through common sense, we run the risk of making up a connection between words that doesn’t exist.
The most common error I see along these lines is “peaked one’s interest.” The thinking seems to be that one’s interest hits a high point, and thus “peaks.” Actually, the word is from the French, pique, meaning “to arouse.” So it “piqued one’s interest” and conveys the idea that something has caught one’s attention, not brought you to some sort of climax of intrigue.
Another common one is saying “deep seeded interest” instead of the correct “deep seated interest.” Having something “deeply seeded” seems to make sense, as in “deeply rooted.” But think about it. A seed put too deeply into soil just won’t grow, and roots grow down from the seed. Many a mighty tree starts off as a seed just lying there on the ground.
However, being “deeply seated” actually indicates that something is thoroughly emerged or anchored, and that’s the meaning we’re going for.
Again, there’s no real rule you can follow for when etymology will make sense and when it won’t. You just have to be alert for phrases you’ve often heard but not often read and look them up rather than trying to figure them out.
Interestingly, the most common homonym mistakes I see involve apostrophes, and yet this is one of the few times English grammar actually follow a hard and fast rule: the apostrophe goes to the contraction.
- Their = Possessive
There = Indicates a Place
They’re = They Are
- Its = Possessive
It’s = It Is
- Your = Possessive
You’re = You Are
- Whose = Possessive
Who’s = Who Is
- Lets = Allows, rents (to let)
Let’s = Let Us
Mistakes in using synonyms come from two sources: improper use of a thesaurus and just being too clever.
The one and only time to use a thesaurus is when you already have the word you want in mind, but can’t think of what it is. You can find it by looking up a similar word in a thesaurus. Otherwise, if you look up a word you know to see how else you might say it, you run the risk of using a word you don’t really understand.
Think of the word “excited,” for example. Good, useful synonyms include “aroused”, “inspired”, “upset”, “accelerated”, “awake”, “energized”, “evoked”, “inflamed”, “offended”, “stirred up,” and “titillated.” Poor use of a thesaurus can lead to all of the following:
- The process will offend electrons within an atom.
- Jane was so inflamed by her birthday party she cried with joy.
- The happy, titillated children raced around Chuck E. Cheese.
It’s not enough simply to recognize the word. You have to be familiar with it, know its meanings and associations – especially its associations.
And while this sort of problem is most often associated with ESL and college freshmen, native speakers on their own turf will stumble onto this error when they’re tired of repeating words in situations where words just need to be repeated.
Take “said,” for example. A quick way to spot an amateur author is to watch them get tired of “he said” and “she said”:
“I’m going out,” he said.
“I’m going out too,” she said.
“I need money,” he said.
“I have some,” she offered.
“That’s great,” he chuckled.
“Here’s a twenty,” she sighed.
“I won’t lose it,” he assured her.
“I know,” she laughed.
“I’m going out with Stephen the Smelly,” he sneezed.
“Oh?” she inquired.
“Yes,” he confirmed.
“Bleh,” the reader rejected.
As a reader goes through dialog, the “saids” will just fade into the background on their own. Constantly calling attention to variations on the word just gets distracting. Besides, people might laugh when they’re speaking, but they’re not really laughing/giggling/chuckling the words.
Words have weight and significance, poetry and color. In truth, any time you find yourself “substituting” one word for another, you’re in trouble. Even “big” and “large” have different uses. Each word should be deliberately chosen because it’s the best possible choice for what you’re trying to say.
Else, you’ll unearth yourself pronouncing things you on no occasion designed to articulate!
When all else fails, hire a good editing service that employs experienced book editors or dissertation editors to help you out!
Characterization and the Alter-Ego: Mary Sue, Evil Incarnate
An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. – Gustave Flaubert
A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. - G.K. Chesterton
Writing comes from within, so it’s only natural that fiction writers will often, consciously or not, create miniature, flatter versions of themselves with which to act out their stories. The feat of creating good characters can be a tightrope walk between the person we are and the people we would like to be, particularly when we are trying to create heroes.
And when we fall off that rope, the impact is painful, even deadly. No exciting plot, no in-depth exposition, no prose of pure beauty can overcome characters that put the reader to sleep while they’re rolling their eyes.
And so we must beware the horror that is Mary Sue. She has a heart-shaped face and violet/emerald eyes. She wears her long, luxurious hair in a ponytail, but sometimes she releases it to fall as an entrancing cascade around her shoulders. She is smart, funny, brave, and loyal. She’s incredibly, effortlessly stylish. In fact, she is incredibly, effortlessly everything.
The male version looks a little different, and is often a child, but he shares many of Mary Sue’s other features. Male or female, Mary Sue is, in short, the author’s idealized alter-ego. They frequently save the day and marry the hero/ine. Or sometimes they die, and everyone gets to cry at their funeral and talk about how wonderful they were.
Mary Sue’s Background
The name was first used by Paula Smith in “A Trekkie’s Tale” (1973), where Lieutenant Mary Sue was the youngest lieutenant in the fleet, “only fifteen and a half years old.” The label caught on quickly and was even applied by Trekkers to Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), created by Gene Wesley Roddenberry, a boy genius who keeps saving the ship by being so gosh darn earnest.
Mary Sues pop up in many published novels. Think of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, who is beautiful and kind to the point of being saintly, or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, who starts off just being smart and a good cook, but by the fourth book can do everything but catch bullets in her teeth. Or think of Isaac Asimov’s cameo in his own Murder at the ABA, in which we are told of his many amazing abilities.
A Mary Sue need not be perfect. She may be slightly overweight (and proud of it with a boyfriend who loves curves). He may have trouble at work (for being too moral and/or a maverick. She may have too many cats (which are all adorable, especially the one missing a leg). He may be divorced (because his ex is a total bitch).
Danger, Will Robinson!
The many ways one can write a Mary Sue is, in fact, his most dangerous trait. Disguised as he is, it can be quite difficult to discern him in your own story, even though it’s dead easy to spot someone else’s overly wonderful mirror-self.
Mary Sues are so stomach-turning that some critics apply the label to any too-sweet, too-nice, too-strong-and-silent character they don’t like. But it’s vital to define Mary Sues exactly, for only by knowing exactly what they are can we exorcise these devils from our work.
Mary Sue is the author’s wish-fulfillment, which why she is frequently described as self-pleasuring. She defies the basic parameters of writing a fictional character in that she is not only unrealistic, she is inconsistent. She tends to sprout powers and abilities on demand. She often corrects others and is always right, yet people don’t want to punch her in the face. In fact, others will admire her beyond measure, especially after she’s dead. A true Mary Sue is relentless in her perfection. Even when she is wrong, she is right.
These tailored paragons are so awful, in fact, that it’s easy to believe that you personally would never fall into the Mary Sue Trap. But take heed: that’s the first step to writing the worst Mary Sue of all.
Face Your Worst Character
Instead, if you truly wish to tame the Mary Sue Impulse, you should embrace your base humanity. Sit down, take a deep breath, and write the story of your most private and personal dreams.
Give him big muscles that come from real labor, not working out at the gym. Make him a self-made billionaire who made his first million while he was still in sixth grade. Make him a superhero who can control others with his mind but never uses his ability for anything other than the public good. Or perhaps your Mary Sue is bitter, and the whole system has screwed him over. He has nothing left but his guts and his gun. He doesn’t need anything else to take those bastards down.
Your personal Mary Sue may be able to tame wild animals with her calm soul. Perhaps she can walk into any department store, anywhere, and spot the best bargain in fifteen seconds flat. She might worry about being too skinny and force herself to eat pizza and ice-cream. Or maybe she has transformed her ability to do yo-yo tricks into a wildly successful national campaign against child molestation.
The thing is, you will never know your Mary Sue until he or she appears before you in black and white. Give everything to your story. Don’t make it a parody, or a children’s story, or an outline. Put your Mary Sue in the perfect environment. Have them meet a challenge and overcome it (usually with minimum effort, but your mileage may vary). Give them a victory moment worthy of King Henry V or a funeral worthy of Dumbledore.
Most importantly of all, don’t hold back. Don’t worry about quality, marketability, or demographics. Do whatever the hell you want, and do it big.
Once you’re done, print the story out, or otherwise get the hard copy together, and never, ever show it to anyone else (especially if they’re going to tell you it’s good because they love you). Put it in a drawer somewhere safe. Wait a few days, then pull it back out and read it through.
Whether you enjoy the story or not isn’t important. All that matters is that now you know the details of the Mary Sue within you. This is your ultimate self-indulgence, exorcised and disconnected, contained and tamed. And now you have it on the page to exploit at your will.
If you want to take the Mary Sue concept to the extreme, then every character ever written is a Mary Sue. Everything you write comes from you: your demons, your goals, your idea of how the world should be, your idea of how the world is. Authors are just people, and no one can imagine a character that isn’t somehow connected to their own life. (Or, if they could, I doubt many would want to read about it.)
Writing down your ultimate fantasy of yourself means you can examine what makes that fantasy intriguing and what is just….er…playing with your super-self. Read your own work carefully, look at it as a fiction editor would, and you should be able to see where you cross the line from hero to messiah, pilgrim to Truth, career woman to Wonder Woman, plucky explorer to Indiana Jones in The Temple of Doom.
Mary Sues in Mainstream Fiction
Let’s look at just a few professionally written characters from different media who are heroic and larger than life, but do not cross the no man’s land into Mary Sue-ism.
Harry Potter. Yes, he basically conquers all challenges, but every victory costs him. He must accept the fact that his father was a bit of bully (Draco-like) in his youth, people he cares about die and are mourned in their own right, not just because they were his friends, and – most importantly – he ends up an ordinary guy, not King of the Wizards. Hermione is used as a foil, in fact, as the smartest wizard of her age, to keep Harry out of the position of “best most wonderful ever.”
Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) in Pretty Woman. Based on Cinderella, Vivian’s character is in grave danger of being a Mary Sue, and her being a prostitute isn’t enough to ward the specter off. So additionally we find she is a “bum magnet,” loses her temper, is more than a little materialistic, and is sadly searching for a father figure.
Leroy Jethro Gibbs (NCIS). He comes a little close to Mary Sue at times, but ultimately he fends off the title by making the occasional mistake, being too rigid, and, of course, having that long line of ex-wives where he was as much to blame as the women.
In other words, a little bit of Mary Sue can be good, as long as the character still possesses familiar, believable traits that make them all too human.
Think of the decidedly non-Mary Sue Sherlock Holmes. So smart, so deductive, so insightful, and yet so introverted, even anti-social. Seriously, did the guy ever go on a date? And he does drugs.
Mary Sues can also be useful when they aren’t the main character. Melanie in Gone with the Wind is definitely a Mary Sue, as I said, but she is both a loved and hated object in the story, a subject of Scarlett’s extreme jealousy for the equally Mary Sue-ish Ashley. Moreover, Mitchell seems to recognize her for the idealized Southern example that she is.
(For those of you who had have the pleasure of seeing Carol Burnett’s parody, think of the wild laughter when “Scarlet” pushes “Melanie” down the stairs.)
A quirky Mary Sue can make a good sidekick (Tonto, Little John). A Mary Sue too full of themselves is a wonderful character to make fail in some horribly embarrassing way.
Putting Mary Sue to Work
By capturing your own Mary Sue on the page, you have a truly limitless resource into which you can dip for heroism, sex appeal, smarts, beauty, and whatever else strikes you as desirable. Just remember, if you want to get published, to take an aspect, a trait, a little bit here and there, not the whole kit and caboodle.
And hey, take something and turn it on its head, and there’s your villain. Her heart-shaped face and emerald eyes lure people to invest in bogus stocks. His gritty determination and empathy for the common man comes in mighty handy when he’s torturing the hero with a red hot poker.
From time to time, update your Mary Sue adventure. Put it in a pretty binder with glitter. Cover it in NRA stickers. Bury it in your underwear drawer. Give it sunlight and lots of praise.
After all, Mary Sue is you: perfect, powerful, efficient, effortless, and completely available for your writing needs.
What a gal.