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Posts Tagged ‘character development’

Avoiding “Mary Sues” and “Gary Stus” in Your Stories

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a lively discussion in the forums regarding “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu” characters in your writing.

First, my (unofficial) definition of a Mary Sue character:

A Mary Sue or Gary Stu is a character who is overly favored by the author, often encountering so many improbable events as to break the believability of the story, or having skills so powerful that the character has no need to grow or change throughout the story.  There is often little reason given for the character’s abilities, other than calling the character a “Chosen One” or something similar.

You can read the Wikipedia definition for more.

I’d also like to point out that Mary Sues often occur in first drafts, and they’re not really a problem at that point–you can always fix it in a future draft.  Creating overly simple characters comes with the writing territory–and you can work through the problem.  All it takes is a little time and critical thinking about your story.

There are many characters in popular stories who can be described as Mary Sues (we’ve discussed several in the forum discussion), but simply labeling a character as a Mary Sue is not useful to a writer.  Instead, I’ve compiled a list of questions to help you identify Mary Sues or Gary Stus in your stories:

  • Are the actions of each character believable within the rules of the world and events?
  • What are your character’s weaknesses?  (Hint: If there aren’t any, then you’re at risk of creating a Mary Sue).
    • Do other characters exploit these weaknesses?  How do we know these are real?
  • Does every moment of the story center around what happens to a single character?  In real life, we’re aware that other people in our lives spend time away from us–even in a first person story, other events should be happening to the other characters in the story.  Share some of these moments with your readers.
  • What is hard for your character?  Make sure there’s something the character struggles with.
    • Do they have a hard time talking to people?
    • Are they shy around members of the opposite sex?
    • Do they have superior fighting abilities, but then must use those skills against someone they care about?
  • Does your character solve every problem?  Is there a way another character can help?
  • Does your character get the girl or guy right away?  In real life, there’s usually a courting period.  If your characters fall in love immediately, you might be at risk of hampering believability.  Real relationships go through struggles–your character’s relationships should as well.
  • Is life too easy for your character?

If your characters exhibit some of the traits above, don’t fear–all is not lost.  Think about the story.  What real life events could you toss at your character to help them struggle?

Writing is an art of taking time to find problems and remove them.  Use the questions above to think critically about your story and determine whether there are real problems.  Adding some material to address the issues will help make your story deeper, and may even provide you with better solution to the challenges your characters face in the story.

Reader’s response: What are your thoughts on Mary Sues and Gary Stus?  Share them in the comments!

A Christmas Carol in 3-D

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

This weekend, my wife and I went to watch Disney’s new 3-D movie, A Christmas Carol.

A warning for anyone who has not seen the movie or read the novel: Spoilers abound below.

As I watched the movie, I couldn’t help but notice how much the movie tied into the novel:  In fact, Robert Zemeckis seemed to try hard to remind movie watchers that the movie was inspired by the book (not the other way around).

In fact, the movie even starts out with a book flipping to the first page:

Marley was dead, to begin with.

From the first scene, it was also clear that Zemeckis wanted to do something different with the movie than had been done before (besides making it in 3-D animation).  In the beginning, Zemeckis shows how Scrooge is a stingy miser–giving even one gold piece from his heavy purse is painful, and giving a second is as if he were slicing into his own hand.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

In fact, separating from each coin is so painful that he removes the two coins weighing down his recently deceased friend’s eyes.

This was a brilliant method of conveying both Scrooge’s miserly ways and the fact that he cared for nothing more than gaining an extra coin in his stack, all in a very short time frame.

As a screenplay, Zemeckis did a good job of using the elements that have been shown in films before, while also showing off some of the new technologies that we can do with today’s technology.

I loved the way that Zemeckis used the aging of wood and brick to show time passing (without moving the camera).

While watching the movie in 3-D, I noticed something else that struck me:  transitions between places, which is typically shortened in movies, were actually lengthened in this movie.  The journey, which is really what books are about, becomes much more important in the 3-D form.

Part of me wonders if, in a decade or so, when 3-D movies are more common, traveling between places will shorten again–as developers are concerned less about trying something technically challenging and more on creating deeper stories.

Perhaps my favorite part of the movie was the way Zemeckis chose to handle fear:  rather than focusing on something “scary” and trying to make people jump, he chose instead to focus on the feelings Scrooge was experiencing–showing a trembling lip, widened eyes, breathing quickly.  Though this was a movie, the idea is sound–to truly communicate that something is scary, show it through your character’s reaction, not through trying to add blood and guts.

Still, I thought this was a good retelling of the old story.  In a lot of ways, I think adding the third dimension truly does add some depth to the old tale.  And, of course, the tale ended with the traditional, well put ending, “God bless Us, Every One.”

This version of the movie also referred back a few times to the fact that this story has been around for more than 160 years. I felt a bit of awe in the idea that a short novella has had such an impact on our society for such a long time.  Charles Dickens’s story has achieved a level of immortality that I think all authors strive to match.

What makes the tale so memorable?

I’d guess it’s the idea that someone as unlikeable as Scrooge, when confronted with the choices he had made throughout his life, can be struck with a sudden epiphany and completely change his outlook on life.  No one is irredeemable–anyone can make the decision to start living life in a more compassionate manner.

When writing your own work, keep in mind the core message of your story. Are there ways for your characters to reflect on their own past, and make decisions differently?  Are there ways that a character can realize he/she is on the wrong path, and make steps towards a new direction?

Who knows, perhaps your novel is the next one to have an impact for the next 160 years!

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