Characterisation: Avoiding the Dreaded Mary Sue
The characters you write are arguably the biggest part of your story. Theyre the vessel through which the reader is able to identify with the themes and ideas that youre trying to share. But creating brand new lives from thin air can sometimes be rather difficult. You have to find their voice, their needs, their personality; its a rather delicate balance, really.
Rather tempting, and often encouraged by teachers, is to do a Character Profile to help come up with some of the details. These are often pre-made sets of questions ranging from the mundane (eye colour, height, weight) to the fanciful (if your character caught someone looking at his girlfriend, what would he do?).
I dont like these. And heres why.
The questions are all a little too cookie-cutter. They promote stereotype characters, and you dont want that. The actual physical details about the character dont need to be mentioned in the narrative probably 90% of the time. Most readers do not care if his hair is the colour of strained peaches, or if there was a slight tinge of violet to his otherwise cold, grey eyes. Remember that purple prose weve discussed? When you apply that same style of writing not to the narrative, but to the character, you create something called a Mary Sue.
But my characters a bloke.
Its just a name. Your character could be a pet dog, and still manage to be a Sue. All it means is that your character is one of two things: either amazingly perfect in every imaginable way, or deeply tragic and impossibly drawn to woe. Often times, theyre both. The most popular Sue in television (yes, even professional writers create these characters) is Daniel Jackson from the Stargate franchise. Yes, hes very likeable. Hes even the favourite of a great many viewers. But hes also an orphan, a genius, a widower, speaks dead languages fluently, and seems to be the one to die, go mad, get captured, and be possessed more often than any other character.
And this is what I mean by those character sheets. Daniel is rather... predictable. When he faces the big bad, we know hes going to monologue about his wife and all the innocent millions that have lost their lives and freedoms. Hes very passionate and driven, yes, but he only really has one passion. Its like the writers took one of those character sheets for Daniel, and wrote in The Gouald for every question about hopes, fears, and emotions.
Creating your Character
We talked about mind mapping a little bit ago; just writing down any and everything that comes to mind. Just like I do this for my stories, I do it for my characters as well. You probably wont use most of what you write down, but the non-structured way of just getting down your ideas relaxes your mind and lets more pour out than if you were just answering questions like, Whats your characters biggest fear?
Now, I dont know about you, but Im afraid of lots of things: financial instability, family getting ill, my husband getting hurt at work, Daleks. I dont think any one of those things scares me more than the others, but I have lost sleep over all of them.
And no matter how much of a one-track mind your character has, he wont have just one fear either. Maybe hes a workaholic bachelor with a cat whose only family is his mum? Yes, some of his fears would be work-related, obviously, but maybe hes worried about mums failing health, which is only made worse by the fact that she lives in London and he lives in Gloucester. And he would probably be very upset if his cat were ever to be run over by the neighbours Range Rover.
Characters are defined by their fears and hopes and dreams and aspirations. By having them all be on the same track, your character becomes boring and predictable. Our personalities are defined by these things. Maybe Johnny Character helps little old ladies across the street because he feels guilty about his mum living alone in London. Its probably a side of him his work mates never see, since there are no little old ladies in the office, and his mum probably doesnt know that he spends 12 hours a day at his desk going over forms.
Its the different layers like this that make him seem more organic.
Just as important as the abstract ideas is the characters own history. The events in a characters childhood and their upbringing can affect the way they behave later on in life. A character who spent most of his childhood indoors watching telly would have a different attitude toward some things than a character that spent his childhood being chased out of other peoples gardens.
What was growing up for that character like? Were both parents around? Was dad killed in the war? Did he run off with his secretary? Was the character an only child, or was he one of five?
Our experiences also help shape and define us, and should go into your brainstorming. Write down everything you can think of about their childhood and adolescence. The size of school they went to, their favourite toy growing up, if they participated in sport or any other after-class activity. Were they bullied about something? Did their mother dress them until they were 12? Did they want to be a robot or a dinosaur when they grew up?
Some of these sound rather pointless, and youll never use them directly in your narrative, but heres something to think about: architect Sir Norman Foster is said to have played with Meccano as a young boy.
Action and Interaction
How your characters move and behave is also a big part of who they are. This isnt just the obvious things like walking with a limp, but also how they interact physically with other characters. Do they dislike being touched and avoid contact as much as possible? Do they talk with their hands, or maybe feel compelled to fix the collars of whomever theyre speaking with? It goes back to those physical tics we talked about in Descriptions. Even when theyre not talking, let your character act, interact, and react.
Sort of tied into background, consider how the character talks. People use different words and talk at different speeds, depending on where theyre from. Even different areas from within a city can create different speech patterns. Some chavy hoodie would sound very out of place in Londons financial district.
Its perfectly acceptable to mention that your character is rather lanky, or fairly short. But like we discussed earlier, you dont want to describe every aspect of the character.
Unless that aspect is important.
In Cowboy Bebop, the main character has brown eyes. In most episodes, theyre the same colour (probably for ease of animation), but the character is said by several people to have different coloured eyes. In the episodes where this is mentioned, hes animated having a darker and a lighter eye. His eye colour is important, because while several characters dont know his name, they later recognise him by his eyes.
If you can justify your character having violet eyes, then use it. If she has violet eyes because you just like the colour, it may not work out as well as youd hoped.
When describing your character, you want to avoid the perfect figure. Very few people are actually muscular and athletic, or toned and firm. If your character is a woman, she wont have a twenty-inch waist and 40-inch boobs, unless those boobs are made out of plastic and her name is Barbie. Keep it natural. Most men are just shy of six feet. Most women are just a bit taller than five and a half. Unless that woman is my German teacher, who was just impossible.
This may seem daft, but the name is just as important as all the rest. If you have a character called Raven Rowena Nightblossom, and another called Victoria Porter, which one sounds more likely to be from our universe? Yes, some people honestly DO give their children hopelessly stupid names (Jermajesty Jackson? Seriously?), but no one ever takes the parents or the children seriously.
Your reader wants to relate to your characters. They want to be able to see bits of themselves in the characters and sympathise with them. This is much easier to do if the character is on the same level as the reader. Obviously, one character cannot span over the entire social range of the planet, but by making your character a bit more down-to-earth, a bit more plain, and a bit more common, you have a smaller risk of alienating your readers. No one wants to read about perfect little Raven Rowena Nightblossom, with violet eyes and long, silver hair, whose parents were tragically killed in a boating accident, so she was sent off to live with her rich uncle who taught her six languages and advanced maths.
Your readers are far more likely to care about Victoria Porter, mother of three, trying to deal with her husbands transfer to Chicago, which has taken them thousands of miles away from friends and family.
Who would you have a better time relating to?
Generally, though, if you can justify it, your reader will accept what you tell them more easily. It is possible for your character to speak six languages, sure, but thats not an easy task, and they wouldnt be fluent in all of them by 15.
All it comes down to is just taking the time to get the details down on paper. Figure out the organic bits about the character, and the rest will fall into place naturally. The more you map out your characters, the easier it will start to become.