Blog Archives

Testing a Character for Mary Sue-ism and What to Do About It

What is a Mary Sue?
There are several definitions of a Mary Sue. Usually a character that makes people say, “Mary Sue!” has some combination of the follow characterizations:

  • A Character Based Off Yourself

Named after you, working at the job you wish you had, possessing all your good qualities, dressing, thinking, and acting like you, this is the beginner’s Mary Sue. When I first started writing as a teen all my protagonists were copies – maybe idealized copies, but still copies – of me. Trust me, this is a bad idea. You will get too attached to your character, not allow them to grow and 3D-ize naturally, and will squish the story to fit the character, instead of the other way around.

  • A Perfect, Unbeatable, Fantastic Character

She is gorgeous. She will whip anyone in a fight. She can not lose. She gets all the guys she wants. If she’s got a fault it something like “a little clumsy when not on the battlefield.”  She’s a Mary Sue. These are the characters that annoy people. Unfortunately, these Sues also tend to masquerade as Really Cool characters. And it’s really temping to make your favorite character Really Cool.

  • A Character With Cliche Qualities, Backstory, or Plot Points

She was abandoned by her parents, has strange eyes that see into your soul, and will die in her lovers arms to be brought back to life at the Crucial Moment. If you’re wondering how you could possibly write a character this terrible. . . well, maybe not that terrible. But letting “little” cliche attributes pile up is easier than you think, especially if you are not well-versed in cliches.

Despite the female name, Mary Sues do not have to be girls. Guys can have the qualities too. Now, whether you call a male Mary Sue a Gary Stu or Murray Sue or Marty Stew is subject to some debate. For the sake of simplicity, however, I will only use “she” in this post. Substitute “he/she/it” in your mind.

A Little History

Originally, Mary Sues referred to original fanfiction characters. Even more originally, it referred to original Star Trek fanfiction characters. A short story mocking the abundance of young, perfect, attention-stealing insert characters coined the term. It is viewable here: http://www.fortunecity.com/rivendell/dark/1000/marysue.htm The term “Mary Sue” has lost a lot of its meaning in fanfiction due to general overuse and definition fuzziness, but plain fiction writers have happily adopted the term.

How can I tell if one of my characters is a Mary Sue?

Well, the easy way is to try a Mary Sue test on the character. Now, in no way is a simple yes/no test perfect, but I’ve found such tests very useful. I’ve compiled links to the tests I’ve found most useful. They are intended for straight fiction characters (many tests you find will be intended for fanficiton characters).

  • The Original Mary Sue Test for Fiction Characters

http://www.ponylandpress.com/ms-test.html

[Note: the original original Mary Sue test which the above test was based off of was for fanfiction characters.]

  • The Exhaustive, Recommended Test [Slight language and references to sexuality. For a PG to PG-13 audience.]

http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm

[Note: on the same site is a Mary Sue test for created races.]

  • A Shorter Test

http://www.katfeete.net/writing/marysue.html

[Note: the “summary” after the test is humorously unreliable, but all the points are something to think about.]

The Mary Sue of Stargate: Atlantis

I just realized why Teyla is my least favorite character on my favorite show. She's an orphan, the leader of her people, a keen warrioress, partially Wraith, and the only new thing she struggles to understand is Earth culture. No wonder she annoys me.

Oh dear. How do I fix my Mary Sue?

Fixing Mary Sues isn’t too hard, as long as you’re not too attached. What exactly you need to do to fix your Mary Sue depends on what is wrong. But first, let me define “fixing.” I do not mean going, “OK, maybe I can cut that out,” and de-checking boxes on a Mary Sue test until you are down to a reasonable score. I mean taking a grand look at your character, picking up the worst problems one at a time, and figuring out what should be there instead.

  • Copy of You

So, she’s actually you, huh? Here’s a quick tip: change her (or his) name. I mentioned above that all my first protagonists were coppies of me. Well, one of those protagonists has since been rewritten (along with her accompanying story line) into someone else entirely who can carry a novel on her shoulders. The first step was to change her name. Then figure out how much of your storyline was pandering to the fact she’s you – and cut it.  Leave her alone for a few months. Come back and figure out who she really is.

  • Backstory

Backstory is perhaps the easiest to fix, and it’s even easier to fix if you’ve yet to start writing (this is why you test for Mary Sues in the development stage). Just. . . change their personal story. If you’ve already begun writing, you may need to add or delete scenes, but trust me, it’s for the better of your novel. This only gets tricky if you have a bad backstory giving a character their motive or something for integral to the story. In this case it’s back to the drawing board: your character is underdeveloped. Decide what is really causing Mary Sue to act.

  • Character Traits

Ditch the purple eyes and raven hair and the out-of-time-and-place clothing. Make sure she has a real character flaw – or three or five. Realize she is not going to stay calm and collected no matter what, and certainly not when everyone else is panicking. Take a look at your character arc: how has she changed by The End? Or did you make her perfect at the beginning and leave no room for development?

  • Cliche Development

If you just realized that Mary Sue easily switches from being an apothecary to leading the rebel army, if Mary Sue never gets honestly beaten or makes a mistake (without a reasonable excuse), if Mary Sue develops amnesia, and becomes royalty. . . hopefully you’re only outlining. 🙂 Take bad plot points out and figure out a better way to get from the A before the point and the B after the point. Add good plot points (your character receiving the consequences for being a smart alec, for example). Think carefully about realism, since many Mary Sue plot point borderline the fantastic.

If you find that a character is just too deep a Mary Sue to keep alive and just can’t make it in your story, that’s OK. Sometimes its easier to start over from the beginning rather than try to revise the unrevisable. Just last year I scrapped a complete draft and started over from the beginning. It was that bad.

Things To Remember So You Don’t Huff And Ignore Everything I Just Said:
~Those tests are for symptom of the disease. Not every point is to be avoided like a hurricane; Mary Sue characteristics – when used with restraint – can be done well. See below.
~Yes, it is possible for you to see Mary Sue qualities in a character from your favorite or a classic book. If you are a really, really good writer, you can pull off a great story with a Mary Sue. And I mean J. K. Rowling good (try doing a Mary Sue test for Harry Potter).
~Every writer has made a Mary Sue in their day. You will too at some point. You are not J. K. Rowling. If you think you are, there’s a name for that psychiatric condition.

This is the first post in a serious on characters. You see, in my planning for NaNoWriMo, I’m fleshing out my main and supporting characters. So it’s all in self-interest.  May you never write another Mary Sue again! (I wish the same for myself.)

Save the Words

Some of you may have heard of http://www.savethewords.org, and if you are one of those some, this is my smile for you: 😀  For the rest of you is this post.

If you go to Save the Words, you will be greeted by a wall of artful and disused words. They have all been thrown out of dictionaries in favor of such words as “blogosphere.” Save the Words’s goal is to reverse that. Scroll over a word and it pops out at you so that you may really read it. Click a word and a window will pop up with its definition. This place can eat just as much of your time as Wikipedia and eve TVTropes.

Now, some would argue that Saving Words only messes with the march of language: if there’s no use for it, let it die. I can see that point of view. In fact, I brushed over the site the first time I saw it with this very argument. But what I’ve found is that while at some of these words have been replaced my more familiar, and often shorter synonyms, many are simply very specific words, applying to such narrow circumstances that you wonder how they came to exist at all. In a two words: they’re handy. And even those words that have been replaced with more modern words have value.

Synonyms don’t just have slightly different shades of meaning. They sound different. It’s the difference between tranquil and serene. The “s” is softer, and the “t” and “qu” are harder, so you use those words, even though they mean the same thing, at different times. Subtly, the sound affects our perceptions of words. And boy are there some doozys on Save the Words.

As I browsed the word wall, many words struck me with inspiration. They meant such interesting things and suggesting such stories to my mind. I “officially adopted” three, which I share with you now.

Starrify

I get all excited when I found this word, and a little nostalgic. See, I starrified my ceiling with little glow-in-the-dark stickers when I was little, and they always seemed magical. I’d never heard a word to describe what I’d done, and here was one peeping out at me: starrify – to decorate with stars.
Gipseian
Most importantly, all words with three consecutive vowels deserve some recognition. Secondly, though I may get romantic ideas when I hear “gypsy” that belong to fantasy worlds (but hey, what do I write?), “gipseian” is simply so suggestion to me. It mean “of or belonging to Gypsies.” My mind latched on to “belonging to Gypsies” and now whenever I hear the word I think of exotic objects.
Rogalian
One thing about the words on Save the Words: they’re rarely what you think they mean. I thought rogalian maybe had something to do with regalia. Instead, it means “of or relating to a great fire.”  “Rogalian” didn’t strike me as being exciting, but it kept coming back to me.  I’m no pyromaniac, but great fires are cool.  Now I am seriously contemplating naming a character (boy, in a fantasy I’m outlining) Rogalian. It’d fit. Except for the fact only the people reading this would know it wasn’t a name I’d pieced together using random consonants.

I spent some time clicking around on the word wall, and found a lovely collection of quirky words that suggest all sorts of crazy stories if you just let them.
Moderncide – the act of killing modern people
Now what type of world would need to specify this word for a set of crimes?
Kexy – brittle or withered

Now all you need is a kexy hex.
Pudify – to cause to be embarrassed

*cries* “You pudiffied me!”. . . and many more interesting and inspiring words all need homes. Believe me, saving the right word will serve you much more than you can serve the word.

How to write Fight Scenes: Useful Sites

A while back (and midway through a spyfy) I realized I didn’t know how to write fight scenes.  So I googled it.  Problem is, apparently everyone posts what everyone knows about fight scenes.  I ate page after page of redundant material until I had found enough unique sites to know my stuff.  Do not worry, this is not going to be yet another post on what everyone knows about fight scenes.  Other people have written enough on how to write fight scenes that I can give you a nice triplet of links and sleep at night knowing I’ve helped you bloody your characters.  Take the time to read through these; it can only improve your fighting skill.  Er, writing fighting skill.

How to Write a Fight Scene
After I read this, I thought, “I need to rewrite every fight scene I’ve ever written.”  After a friend read this (on my recommendation), she said, “I feel like rewriting every fight scene I’ve ever done.”  Essentially the same thing. 😉  I believe you will feel the same way too.  The author leads you through a fight scene step by step in the one of the more engaging voices I have read in an article.

Fight Scenes 101
An entire (small) site devoted to fight scenes.  Thumbs up.  The sections are titled Location, Weapons, Language, Writing, Big Odds, Big Battles, Other Types of Action, and Weapons Database, which gives you a good idea of the contents.

Does Your Fight Scene Pack a Punch?
Just an article, but it packs a punch.  Pun unintended.  This article focuses on two major things:  how to keep your fight scenes from looking like a choreographer’s notebook (For the record, mine did.) and how to give your fight scene emotional punch.  After all, readers aren’t going to worry about that broken nose if there is no emotion involved.

Pretty much every other article you’ll find parrots what is covered in these three sites.  ‘Tis a pity. I could rant about regurgitation articles forever (or at least a paragraph). Instead. . . Enough experts. What do you have to say about writing fight scenes? Anything to add?

How to Write Steampunk

Some people have fun creating steampunk-styled items. (click photo for full article)

I found a thread on steampunk over on one of my writing forums, and made the mistake of doing the asker’s research. I got intrigued. In an attempt to get it out of my system, I am now writing a post all about steampunk, but more specifically on how to write it.

What is steampunk?
Steampunk follows an alternate history route, asking, “What if the Victorians had more advanced technology using steampower?”  It can be based off real science, and thus be science fiction, or use anything to make a good story, and be fantasy.  Steampunk stories usually take place in the underside of society and have a gritty feel to them, matching the typical wood and brass of the apparatuses around which the stories are woven.

Subgenre Staples
Writing.com has an excellent list on the staples and ploys of steampunk. I highly recommend it as one of the first articles to read on the subject. Now, I don’t want to repeat that list, but I do want to touch a few common themes.

~Exploration
Many steampunk stories involve exploration; whether to the moon, the center of the earth, or the depths of the sea, it is a staple. Stories depicting the future as Victorian’s envisioned it often take this route.
~Flying
Hot air balloons existed, but they were novelties, queer things to be stared at. No jetpacks, no planes, no blimps, no Hindenburgs, and certainly no rockets. But, of course, we’re adding steaming technology to our stories. Maybe Victorians do fly.

Kerem Beyit created this Chinese Terror. (click photo for her site)

~Robots
Whether it’s swarms of spiders or giant robot men or dragons, they’re steam powered and traditionally created by the mad scientist.
~Subversive
Secret societies were not just stuff of conspiracy theorists, and strict Victorian society and etiquette begged to be disregarded. More conflict. And more plot possibilities.
~Tinkering
Since there is always the steam-powered something in steampunk, there is always the tinkerer who creates it. It may be a mad scientist, a wunderkid, or an incredible tired of humanity who wants to get away. They may work in their watch shop, attic, or private island. But somewhere they exist.

Steampower or Clockwork?
Some steampunk doesn’t even involve steampower. Instead, everything is run by clockwork. Instead of having steaming robots, there are robots with wind-up keys out their backs. Everything looks like the inside of a clock. This is a fun alternative, but remember never to make a clockwork rocket.

Science fiction or fantasy?
There is something of an argument about whether steampunk is science fiction or fantasy. My opinion? Both. It depends on whether you are writing “hard” steampunk or “soft” steampunk. Hard steampunk has technologically plausible ideas. Soft steampunk, eh, you can skimp on the science for the sake of story. As you can see, hard steampunk has some serious limits. There is a reason steam got left behind in the course of human events. However, if you are the type of person who likes their stories to be plausible, it is for you. Soft steampunk uses steampower (or clockwork) as a plot device to set mood. Somewhere in between the two are stories that use futuristic technology as Victorians envisioned it.

Researching the Era
Fantasy and science fiction usually require you to create your own world from scratch.  Every single detail must be different and exciting.  Steampunk requires you to research the era.  Every single detail must be correct (unless, of course, you story calls for an altered detail!).  World, decor, food, and clothing are all important when creating a setting, so make sure you research their Victorian equivalent thoroughly. Especially integral to Victorian times are social ideas, class separations, etiquette. I recommend Victoriana.com and Victorian-Era.org as good places to start.

But what if you want to use an era besides Victorian England? Well, England – and even Europe in general – wasn’t the only bit of land around with steam. America, China, Australia, and Africa all had enough contact with Europe to warrant a steampunk setting. This post on The World of a Steampunk Hero is very interesting, and covers some of the major conflict of the time. And we all know conflict makes a story.

Other settings help make a steampunk story unique. Of course, you have to make a way for the steam-power to get to your continent, and you need to research that particular country. Don’t get it wrong!

Everyday Changes
Every steampunk writer endeavors to make not just their plot unique, but their world different from all others. Steampunk is alternate history, and sometimes more than just the inclusion of steam is different. Sometimes higher steam technology is part of the everyday life. Little things like this keep your world separate from all the others. Think about how the Victorians would have responded to these changes.

The Language of Steampunk
Do not write in such a style that would recall in the minds of readers Victorian usage; far from adding culture and flair to a scene, it merely violates common rules of the trade now in place. Not to mention makes you sound like an idiot.

Neither should you use words that were not in use in the aforementioned era. (OK, after practicing that last paragraph, I still have frills in my writing system.) The point is, the phrase “teen angst” did not exist in Victorian times. Actually, neither of those words did, much less the phrase. Avoid this. Mimicking Victorian authors does not help the scene, but using out of era language (especially from the mouths of characters) only breaks the spell of the world.

This is cutie was made by Eos for Pullip. (click for flickr stream and more information)

Now here’s a do: write normally. Don’t be overly concerned about language just because I pointed out two common mistakes. If you accidentally commit one, you can always edit it.

Steampunk is different and strange, just like speculative fiction should be.  It begs to be taken to new heights.  I believe there are many untapped variations just waiting to be discovered! What do you think of steampunk? Do you have any recommendations? Have you ever tried writing it? Any more advice on how to write steampunk?

How to Outline a Novel

Outlines.  You either hate ’em or you love ’em.  Either way, today you are going to get an earful on how to outline a novel. If you are participating in Fix Your Messy Novel that Doesn’t Have a Chance Month, you might want to make a new outline for your Messy Novel of Choice. I say might, because there are cons. But I think there are more pros. Just for yourself.

 

Outline Pros
An outline puts all your thoughts in one place and gives you goals to work toward.  By plotting out your novel beforehand, you can fix plot holes before you even start writing.  Also, while organizing the ideas you have for an outline, you will make sure you have enough information and ideas to take you all the way through the novel.  I find outlines incredibly useful.

Outline Cons
You may feel restricted by an outline or that you can’t capture all your thoughts and put them on paper. Whether or not outlines are for you depends on your personality type.

 

I’ve compiled a list of four major outline methods, in order from least rigorous to most, for your perusal.

Question Setup
Some people just use a Q & A form for outlining. Many sites have a list of questions to help you develop your novel. This outline form is more of a bunch of reminder notes and inspiration than a detailed plan. Still, I find many questionnaires to be useful, especially in the early stages of development.

Site for more information:
http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/artout.htm
A step-by-step guide to a question setup outline.


Three-Act Structure
In most cultures all stories follow a basic, foundational structures, termed three acts.  Act one shows the characters introduced, the setting created, and basic motives shown.    At the end of act one is the inciting incident, the event that change everything and plunges into the actual plot.  During act two, the main characters face progressively greater and riskier challenges to overcome.  Act three begins with the climax, the ultimate showdown between the heroes and the villain.  You fill in the blanks.

Site for more information:
http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Structure&Plot.htm
The site I where first learned about the three act structure.


Scene-by-Scene
This outline method requires you to have a general idea of the direction of your novel.  Every scene is plotted.  Each scene has a form that looks something like this:
Scene setting:
Characters in this scene:
Scene mood:
Main points:

This is very thorough.  I must say I like this outline method the best, although I lack the patience to complete it. Novels with this type of outline are written scene by scene.

Site for more information:
http://www.suite101.com/content/writing-a-novel-scene-by-scene-a186023
A web page on writing a novel scene by scene and offers some fun visual ways to make a scene by scene outline.


Snowflake Method
The snowflake method was invented by Randy Ingermanson. It’s concept is simple: start small, and then add to that tiny bit and then add to that and add to that, growing the story like a snowflake. The beginning is a logline. The final step before actually writing involves actual phrases occurring in each scene.

Site for more information:
http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php
The founder’s official page on this outline method.


Now that you know different method, here are some common outline forms.  Some forms work better with different outline types or people.  I suggest trying several.

Spontaneous
Spontaneous is when you write anything that comes to mind, quickly, and in spurts.  In other words, all over the paper.

Somewhere-in-Between
I usually use this one.   It’s thought out and in a line, perhaps with side notes, but not in such a rigid, tight order as strict.  This outline form can be twisted in a lot of way to suit your unique needs.

Strict
The regular outline form you are taught in school is used.  Roman numerals and points and subpoints and all that stuff.  Works well with three-act structure and scene-by scene.

 

I hope you find this list and these links useful!  Maybe you will try an outline even if you normally do not use outlines.  If you are an outliner, how do you outline your novels?  Do you use an outline method listed here, or another one?

How to World Build: Useful Sites

Wrapping up my series on world building, I would like to share with you my three favorite world building sites.  In no particular order:

 

30 Days of Worldbuilding
Mother Site:  http://www.web-writer.net/fantasy

Specific Page:  http://www.web-writer.net/fantasy/days/index.html

Geared toward fantasy.

About:  This site’s purpose is to walk you through building a complete fantasy world in thirty days.  There are thirty sections on various topics.  Each include a daily, 15-minute activity building on the last day’s activity.  Very complete.

 

site photo

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy
Mother Site:  http://writesf.com/

Specific Page:  http://writesf.com/03_Lesson_01_World.html
Geared toward science fiction.

Disclaimer:  While this course is excellent, I can not recommend the author’s books due to offensive content.

About:  This is a section of author Jeffery A. Carver’s free course on “writing science fiction and fantasy.”  Despite the name, his course has a decided science fiction bent.  Still, it is easily used for fantasy as well.  Carver is engaging, and fills the pages with activities and examples.

 

site photo

Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds
Mother Site:  http://elfwood.com

Specific Page: http://www.elfwood.com/farp/thewriting/liljenbergworlds/liljenbergworlds.html

Geared equally toward science fiction and fantasy.

About:  Michael Liljinberg has created a series of seven articles, in the style of the seven days of creation, each article guiding you through the aspect of creation covered on that day.  This puts “playing god” in a whole new light, doesn’t it?  Worksheets and resources are scattered throughout.

 

First in the series: World to Story & Story to World
Second in the Series: In-Out & Out-In

Have you used any of these methods? Do you have a favorite world building site or resource?

%d bloggers like this: