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October 10, 2009
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Characterisation: Avoiding the Dreaded Mary Sue

The characters you write are arguably the biggest part of your story. They’re the vessel through which the reader is able to identify with the themes and ideas that you’re 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; it’s 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 don’t like these. And here’s why.

The questions are all a little too cookie-cutter. They promote stereotype characters, and you don’t want that. The actual physical details about the character don’t 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 we’ve 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 character’s a bloke.

It’s 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, they’re both. The most popular Sue in television (yes, even professional writers create these characters) is Daniel Jackson from the Stargate franchise. Yes, he’s very likeable. He’s even the favourite of a great many viewers. But he’s 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 he’s going to monologue about his wife and all the innocent millions that have lost their lives and freedoms. He’s very passionate and driven, yes, but he only really has one passion. It’s like the writers took one of those character sheets for Daniel, and wrote in “The Gou’ald” 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 won’t 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, “What’s your character’s biggest fear?”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of lots of things: financial instability, family getting ill, my husband getting hurt at work, Daleks. I don’t 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 won’t have just one fear either. Maybe he’s a workaholic bachelor with a cat whose only family is his mum? Yes, some of his fears would be work-related, obviously, but maybe he’s worried about mum’s 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 neighbour’s 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. It’s probably a side of him his work mates never see, since there are no little old ladies in the office, and his mum probably doesn’t know that he spends 12 hours a day at his desk going over forms.

It’s the different layers like this that make him seem more organic.

Background

Just as important as the abstract ideas is the character’s own history. The events in a character’s 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 people’s 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 you’ll never use them directly in your narrative, but here’s 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 isn’t 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 they’re speaking with? It goes back to those physical tics we talked about in Descriptions. Even when they’re 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 they’re from. Even different areas from within a city can create different speech patterns. Some chavy hoodie would sound very out of place in London’s financial district.

Physical Appearance

It’s perfectly acceptable to mention that your character is rather lanky, or fairly short. But like we discussed earlier, you don’t 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, they’re 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, he’s animated having a darker and a lighter eye. His eye colour is important, because while several characters don’t 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 you’d 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 won’t 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.

Name

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 husband’s 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 that’s not an easy task, and they wouldn’t 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.
Creating a character that your readers can believe and relate to.
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:icontheheagehog:
theheagehog Featured By Owner Jun 17, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you this really helped ^.^
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:iconkitsunechann:
Kitsunechann Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I created an exercise to help with this sort of thing :3
[link]
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:icon0anime0lover0:
0Anime0Lover0 Featured By Owner Aug 20, 2011  Student Writer
thank you so much for posting this and most of my girl friends are under 5'6" I myself am 5'2" and most of my guy friends are 5'9" to 6'3"
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:iconaniremi:
AniRemi Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I came across this article while browsing through helpful links on NaNoWriMo.com. Great stuff in here. I never have liked filling out police-blotter questionnaires about my characters, but I felt like that was the only way to go about it. It's nice to find an alternate method for character creation. Thanks!

:clap:
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:iconcazziart:
CazziArt Featured By Owner Jun 19, 2010   Digital Artist
Thankyou so much for writing this - it is so helpful!
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:iconminervagem:
MinervaGem Featured By Owner Apr 6, 2010  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This is very useful. Thanks for posting! And by the way, male Mary Sues are called Gary Stu's
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:iconml-larson:
ML-Larson Featured By Owner Apr 29, 2010  Professional Writer
Yeah, I know. That's just not what this essay was about.
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:icontwistedharbinger:
TwistedHarbinger Featured By Owner Feb 3, 2010
you've lost sleep over Daleks too? A kindred spirit!
Reply
:iconml-larson:
ML-Larson Featured By Owner Feb 13, 2010  Professional Writer
Man, Daleks are terrifying. D:
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:iconbarbecuediguana:
BarbecuedIguana Featured By Owner Oct 11, 2009
Nice tutorial.

Personally, I tend to create the story first, build up the characters during the rough draft and then rewrite the story to make it seem as if these characters have always been as they are. The characters may steal the spotlight, but in my world the story always comes first :D

Character profiles? You're right, they are not only a useless exercise, but they can also be a damaging as overwrought characters become people that you just can't do anything with because they carry around so much excess baggage.

Despite this, I will do character profiles, but usually after the fact to keep track of major characters and handle continuity problems.

I'm not sure if I agree with you on the matter of outlandish characters though. Personally, I find them to be the most interesting ones. Look at the cover of the muscle mags in the grocery stores, the ones featuring guys who are so ripped that their veins stand out like earthworms under their skin - you really have to wonder just what kind of crazy psychology is going on under all that beef to drive someone to do that to him or herself.

So in my book, odd and outlandish characters are fine, just so long as you justify the way in which they became what they are.
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