Character Flaws

A little while back, I wrote a post about Mary Sues. For those who are not yet aware of this term, TV Tropes gives a pretty good definition:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

“She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series. (See Common Mary Sue Traits for more detail on any of these cliches.)

Mary Sues as a whole are dreaded in writing communities. There are litmus tests all over the place for people to test whether or not their character is one, people debate whether or not characters X and Y are Mary Sues (or their male equivalent, the Gary Stu or Marty Stu), and I don’t believe that’s going to go away any time soon.

You see, one of the reasons Mary Sue/Gary Stu are so dreaded by writers is because they are just so common. I have jokingly called being an author “multiple-personalities for control freaks” Perhaps we authors don’t actually have multiple personalities, but we do have complete control over a world when we’re writing. And that can go to your head a little sometimes. Especially when you’re just starting out.

Of course, building well-developed, non-Sue characters is something that you learn to do as you get better at writing (writing is a skill, after all, the more you do it, the better you get). But there is one way I often see authors (especially new authors) trying to stay away from Mary Sues that I don’t believe works 99 times out of 100. The “traits and flaws” list.

Before, I talked about how often times Mary Sues become Mary Sues because of how the world reacts around them. To be interesting, characters as a whole should react in ways that are realistic to realistic situations happening around them. The world should not bend its rules for them (anybody else would be expelled for this, but you’re special, so…on your way) and other characters shouldn’t change dramatically in response to them (Well, I’ve been an evil, misogynistic bas***d this entire book, but you are so special, and logical, and sweet, and [X characteristic] you have melted my heart in one well-done diatribe and I now see the error of my ways!) The world shaping itself around the character is part of what makes Sues so annoying.

Another part is how perfect Sues tend to be.

Everybody has flaws. It’s part of what makes us human. When you have a character that doesn’t, it makes them naturally unrealistic, and generally unlikable (especially when they then spend half the book complaining about things that aren’t flaws being awful for them: “I wish I weren’t so much prettier and more popular than the other girls…it’s so hard being me…”) So, you’re worried you have a Mary Sue (or someone told you they’re Sue-ish) what’s the logical thing to do? Give them flaws of course.

And so more than once, I’ve come across posts like this:

Is my character a Mary Sue?

She is intelligent/clever, funny, witty, friendly, adventurous yet responsible, free-spirited, optimistic, talkative, creative/artistic, and basically talented. For faults, she’s a non-domestic woman in the time where a  woman’s job was to be at home, and maybe she is intolerant towards people who are slower than her in brain power.

Now, always the answer to “Is my character a Mary Sue” almost always is ,”depends how you use her.” But in this situation, my Mary Sue sensors are seriously going. For one, look at how many positive traits there are (intelligent, funny, optimistic…). Then look at the “faults”. One basically boils down to “free-spirited and people are down on her for it” (not a character flaw as much as a situation). The other could be a flaw, but prefaced by “maybe” it does not seem overly likely this flaw will be general, but just pop out as a token “flaw” to prove that the character isn’t perfect. It’s much like making a character’s flaw be “clumsiness” tends to boil down to, “Look, she isn’t perfect! She just tripped and…awww, look how cute she is with all her clumsiness. It just makes people love her more!”

And so writing out “Good Traits” vs. “Flaws” lists don’t do much to help you with a building a well-rounded character. A character, like a person, is a personality that is made up of a bunch of traits, but is not only those traits. It is not important to balance “one good trait for one bad trait” in each of your characters, it’s important to really think about their traits as one larger personality. As one of the best pieces of advice I have seen in the NaNoWriMo forums lately  puts it:

Usually, a person’s negative traits are the flip-side of their positives. For example, A person who’s unflinchingly honest may be tactless and over-blunt. A person who’s super dependable, who sees every task through to completion, may also be a person who doesn’t know how to admit he’s in over his head on some overambitious project.

“Your character is free-spirited and creative, among other things. What is the flip-side of that? Might your character tend to be impractical or a bit idealistic (naive) at times? And (this is a really important point) what are the consequences of being impractical, idealistic, or naive? How does this affect her actions, the other characters, and the development of the plot?

“If you can relate your character’s imperfections to her good qualities, and if  you can make her imperfections matter in some meaningful way, you will be well on your way to avoiding a Mary Sue.

So, don’t worry yourself with “Good trait, bad trait” lists. Consider the character’s personality, and what that means to how they relate to the world (rather than how the world relates to them) you’ll be much better off than trying to decide whether or not your character is well-balanced by “here are her good traits, here are her flaws.”

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