Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Mary Sue: The “Perfect” Character

I was recently reading some book reviews, when I came across the term “Mary Sue.” I was interested, so I did some research.

Turns out a Mary Sue is a perfect character, usually acting as some sort of wish fulfillment for the author. In other terms, the author is inserting herself into the text through the character.

the_mary_sue_test_by_PinkMochiMary Sue is a term widely used in fan fiction, but has spread to mainstream fiction.

Here’s a great definition of a Mary Sue by Teresa Nielsen-Hayden:

MARY SUE (n.): 1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment. 2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author. 3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories. 4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it’s so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as “self-insertion.”

The original Mary Sue was a character used to make fun of unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction. The Mary Sue type character typically is young, smart, skilled, and surrounded by men who want her (or women who want him), usually these men (or women) are powerful, intelligent, attractive, etc. themselves.

When a character is called a Mary Sue it’s because the character (male or female) seems too perfect in one way or in all ways to be real. This creates a poorly developed character and causes many readers to roll their eyes and sigh in exasperation.

Think of it this way: Obstacles that would be different or near impossible for all other characters would be nothing for a Mary Sue.

An example: All other characters, including the villain, will be attracted/obsessed with the Mary Sue. She/he will be coveted and will be given unearned, preferential treatment and respect.

Mary Sues can be difficult to empathize with. Rather they are admired or envied, or sometimes they’re just downright annoying.

Here is an example of a Mary Sue from Monika Kothari on Quora:

Bella Swan – Twilight (Stephanie Meyer)

  • Painfully obvious author surrogate.
  • Perfectly ordinary (yet somehow “special”).
  • Pale-skinned brunette, “plain” yet beautiful.
  • Bland, no real personality.
  • Cutesy “clumsy” (informed flaw).
  • Apparently lacking in any real talents or skills, yet her lover is obsessed with her (rather conveniently), and she manages to make everything about her.
  • Builds a harem of potential love interests, despite being self-described as unremarkable in every way.
  • Her lover, Edward, is himself a Gary Stu.

*A male Mary Sue is sometimes referred to as a Gary Stu.

An example from Natalie Monroe’s Goodreads review:

Celanena (Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas)

Let’s start off with our protagonist, Celaena who’s the “greatest assassin in the world”. Okay, I’m cool with that. But it’d be nice if she could actually prove it because from what I’ve seen, she’s once hell of a crappy assassin. People walk in and out of her room all the time when she’s sleeping and she just keeps on snoring. Hello, aren’t you supposed to spring awake like a ninja and hold a knife to that person’s throat?

…Calaena is the kind of idiot that licks stuff off walls, even without the hallucinatory assistance of cactus juice.

But wait, there’s more! Nothing happens to her because she’s purrrfect and fabulous, like that song from High School Musical.

In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s a Mary Sue. Let’s check off her traits, shall we? Tragic past, check. Pretty, check. Amazingly good at something, check. Has more than one love interest, check.

Don’t even get me started on the love interests.

The review goes on, but I’ll stop it there.

Before you go off declaring which characters are Mary Sues and which aren’t, here’s a test to see if your character is a Mary Sue. Click the link.

And here’s a link to help differentiate between whether or not an established character is a Mary Sue.

What characters do you think are Mary Sues?

(Photo courtesy of pinkmochi.deviantart.com)

YA vs. NA: The Dividing Line

lets-talk-about-sexOnly in the literary world are 13-17 year olds considered young adults. To the rest of the world, young adults are those people in their twenties. However, the literary world has decided to create a category for these young adults. They’ve titled this age group New Adult.

In video games, you have E for everyone, T for teen, and A for adult. That division makes more sense than delineating novels into children’s vs. adult books, where children’s books encompass picture books to YA.

All the young adults I know are not children. They are those individuals in college, starting out with their first professional jobs, balancing graduate school and work, etc. They are not freshmen in high school or working on getting their first kiss.

Would you consider a fifteen year old to be a young adult? I think of a fifteen year old as a teenager, a young one at that.

Some of the YA books I’ve recently read I was surprised at the sexual content in them. Just because you call something “adult” doesn’t mean you can get graphic. I won’t name any specific books, but there were some YA novels that detailed a guy going down on a girl or a girl experiencing an orgasm.

I don’t know about you, but when I was fifteen, I was naïve, hadn’t been kissed, or had a boyfriend (I don’t count preschool and elementary school where relationships last about two hours).

Now that I’m older – a true young adult – I would be uncomfortable with teenagers reading some of the YA books out there. I’ve got a thirteen-year-old cousin and I don’t like thinking about her reading some of the YA books I have.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that YA books and NA books don’t have a clear dividing line. Sure, people will tell you that NA characters are eighteen to mid twenties, that they deal with losing their virginity, falling in love – true love, not infatuation – for the first or second time, and the like.

But it seems nearly every YA book has the two main characters falling in love, making out, having sex, and more. The main difference I see is that YA protagonists must be 13-17 years old.

Maybe my issue is more with YA books being called YA. Ask agents, writers, publishers, editors, etc. about what makes a YA book effective. Most will tell you one of the big proponents is an authentic teen voice. So, why aren’t YA books called Teen books? Is it because that would limit marketing capability? Would older individuals be dissuaded from reading a group of books labeled Teen instead of Young Adult?

As for NA books having a more adult voice, the few NA books I’ve read dealt with sex, drugs, and abuse, but I’ve seen all of that in YA books. More so, the NA books I’ve read each had a voice that sounded suspiciously like a teenager. I will say that many YA books don’t go into as great of detail as NA, but the same issues are still there.

What do you guys think?

(Photo courtesy of Utopyacon: http://utopyacon.com/categorize-this/)

First Person vs. Third Person POV: Which is Better?

The debate of third person vs. first person point of view (POV) has been around for some time. It can make things challenging when you’re trying to figure out which POV to write from, especially if you’re partway through your short story or novel and decide to switch POV.

First person POV is where the main character is telling the story through their eyes. The protagonist talks in terms of “I,” “I said,” “I went,” etc. (The blond guy in the below photo is the “I.” He acts as both protagonist, narrator, and reader.)first

Third person POV allows readers to get a larger picture and to see the thoughts of multiple characters. “He,” “she,” “he said,” “she said,” etc. are used in third person. (The auburn haired girl in the following photo is the “she.” The ghost-looking guy is the narrator and reader.)limited

Your writing will turn out differently depending on whether you use first person or third person.

Choosing one over the other doesn’t mean your writing will be better than someone who chose differently. What makes a piece of writing good is the quality of the writing and if people are drawn into the story.

But since the first person vs. third person debate exists, let’s take a look at it and see if one POV is better than the other.

In first person, everything has to be filtered through your protagonist’s perspective. Readers can only know what the protagonist knows. Nothing more. Nothing less. This means that the protagonist’s personality directly effects how the story is told. In other words, what readers are reading is biased information.

However, first person allows for a direct connection between readers and the protagonist’s emotions and thoughts. I.e. – Divergent, The Hunger Games, etc. This is usually the reason why people who prefer first person, prefer it. Many say they feel more connected to the main character in first person.

On an interesting note, those who primarily read YA tend to prefer first person. Many state they can directly relate to the main character through first person because they consider first person more intimate than third person. Another reason is that many feel they become the main character in the story, like the story absorbs them into the plot.

Third person may not be as obviously intimate as first person, but intimacy can be created. Harry Potter wasn’t written in first person. Neither was Daughter of Smoke and Bone or The Mortal Instruments, yet readers are incredibly attached to the main characters in all those stories.

Third person isn’t claustrophobic like first person. It allows for a more objective and well-rounded point of view. Also, if you have a story told from multiple POVs, third person is usually the way to go, unless you’re very good at creating different character voices. There are a few first person, multiple perspective novels I’ve read where I couldn’t tell the difference between the characters voices. Those are usually the novels I don’t finish.

The vast majority of adult literature is written in third person.

Both types of POV have their merits. Both have their downsides. First person jumps right into the protagonist’s head, making readers feel like they’re an integral part of the story. But first person is severely limited. You’re stuck in the protagonist’s mind, and so, if readers don’t like the main character, they won’t read the story. In first person, you don’t get the whole picture.

Third person has a lot more flexibility. You can choose to take on a more omniscient role or simply keep the protagonist’s thoughts slightly hidden.

Think about it this way. In third person, the reader sees reality, while the character’s reaction is slightly hidden. This doesn’t mean the character is an emotionless automaton. It means that the character’s emotions aren’t so blatant readers are unable to use their internal empathy and reading skills to infer a character’s emotions, motivations, etc.

Writing in third person doesn’t mean you can’t show a character’s emotions or thoughts. It’s more about leaving some distance between the outside world and the inside one, giving readers a chance to deduce what’s going on inside a character…and know that the world they’re seeing isn’t greatly skewed by a character’s emotions.

For instance, if the protagonist has a massive crush (I’m talking major infatuation) on another person (think Twilight, Obsidian, etc.) the protagonist’s entire world is going to circulate around that one individual. In reality, the world isn’t circling that one person, but to the protagonist it is.

In first person, all readers see is how the world revolves around that one individual. Readers don’t know any better because the protagonist doesn’t know any better.

In third person, readers know the world doesn’t revolve around that one person. They’re conscious of how skewed the protagonist’s view of the world is.

An elementary way to compare first and third person POV is by thinking of them in terms of opposites. In first person, the inside is readily shown on the outside, thus coloring the entire world in a blanket of the protagonist’s emotions. In third person, the outside world is seen, while a little bit of the inside is kept inside.

Personally? I don’t have a preference, though I do think it depends on the story. Some stories are better written in third person, while others are better written in first person.

Bottom line: If the story keeps my interest, I’ll read it regardless of what POV it’s written in. (Though I will admit when first person POV started gaining popularity, I wasn’t all that thrilled. It took some time to adjust from third person to first person. Now, if the story is good, I tend to forget if I’m reading first or third person.)

What do you think? Do you have a preference for third or first person POV?

(Photos courtesy of writingxmu: http://bit.ly/1KDFfkS)

Books Galore: Writing a Series

Writing a book series takes time and effort. It requires commitment and consistency. A book series is more than keeping the same main characters. It’s introducing new obstacles, pushing character development forward, and bringing innovation to the table.

3089196_1354260677808.78res_400_176A few examples of book series are Harry PotterThe Southern Vampire Mysteries (Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, etc.), and Alex Cross (Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls, etc.). From those examples you can see that book series are very wide-ranging. Harry Potter is young adult fantasy (the first book actually counts as middle grade, while the rest are YA). The Southern Vampire Mysteries is a paranormal romance/mystery series, while Alex Cross is mystery/crime fiction.

Despite book series varying so greatly from one another, there are commonalities that make them successful.

Premise/Concept

One of the first things to do is to spend a little more time on the premise, the idea making up the story. It’s harder to maintain a series than it is a standalone, and for some series – those that build off of each previous book – it requires more forethought than series that aren’t so tied together. By spending some time on planning out the series, it’ll make it easier to sustain the series.

This forethought can be as simple as a paragraph or single page synopsis for each book.

Regardless of whether you’re in the middle of book five or just starting book one, the overarching premise is carried throughout each book.

A different way to think of this is as the premise being the core of each book, like the inner core of Earth. Just as this planet has layers covering its inner core, so does a book series. But, no matter what, there is always that inner core, that center that remains despite how much the tectonic plates shift.

Characters

A series typically follows one to three characters.These characters will evolve over the course of the novels, but they ultimately know who they are and what they have to gain with each goal/action they make.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to compete in the Hunger Games in order to protect her sister. This need to protect her family is a key part of her personality. It fuels her actions throughout the trilogy.

Also, make sure your main characters encounter enough conflict and a variety of conflicts to hold readers’ interest. I was reading the second book in a YA series not too long ago and was disappointed to find that about the first half of the novel was the same conversation taking place over and over again in different locations (the second half of the novel was great though).

Readers will only keep reading if they’re interested in the characters and what is going on in the characters’ world.

The World

The world the book series takes place in must be consistent. If in book one people can’t fly, then they still shouldn’t be flying in book three, unless something happens that gives them the ability to fly.

Know the rules, government, history, environment, etc. of the world. The world can change over the course of a series. Karen Marie Moning drastically changes Dublin, and the entire world, in her Fever Series. However, certain elements do remain the same. Those common elements help ground readers in the world you create. They also help prevent confusion and frustration on both the author and readers’ parts.

A well-developed world also lends more to the story. If three hundred years ago an ancient, magical medallion that belonged to an evil sorceress vanished, and there’s a legend that the medallion could open a portal to the underworld, well that’s interesting. Perhaps this medallion is only causally mentioned in book one, but then it comes back with a vengeance in book two.

If you’re only going to take one thing away from this post, take this:

Keep track of all information pertaining to your series. Whether it’s writing it all down in a notebook or typing it up onto a word document, write out descriptions of your world, characters, etc. Include the main plot and any minor plots woven throughout your books.

While writing book two, you might remember that your town has a deep-water lake to the north of it, but by book five, you may remember it as being west of town, or you may have forgotten about it completely.

Having a document to serve as a reference for all your story information will make your life easier, a lot less stressful, and will decrease the number of plot holes you have to fix.

Are you planning a series or in the process of writing one?

(photo courtesy of fanpop: http://bit.ly/1wQ5gml)