Personal Experiences and Author Inserts

Thank you to Emma Aveston for hosting my blog today on her site. Pop over to “in a thousand blades of grass” to see posts like this and Emma’s own writing.

Guest Post: Writing with Personal Experiences and Author Inserts

I think it is nearly impossible for writers to keep themselves out of their writing entirely. Personality, life experiences, even friends work their ways into stories—purposefully or not.

That said, I have done my very best to keep much of my own life out of my writing. I fully admit my first novel—now safely hidden away in the depths of my computer—included an author insert. Worse, a Mary Sue (an idealized author insert). Only being fifteen at the time, I do my best to be too ashamed of it, but it did teach me that it can be dangerous putting too much of yourself in a character. As much as it can be fun to put yourself into a world where you can control everything around you (or “your character”) that doesn’t make for especially good story.

Of course, just because I do my best to keep “me” characters out of my books, that doesn’t mean parts of me don’t make it in now and again. There are just a few rules I try to stick to:

1. Don’t change your world for a character
One of the major problems with Mary Sues is that the character is wish fulfillment, and thus the character is able to do things that wouldn’t happen for anybody else in the world you have built. Whether it’s an author insert, a …Read More

Character Flaws

With the term “Mary Sue” becoming more and more common amongst writers, one question I get asked more and more is how to give characters flaws. After all, one of the major reasons Mary Sues are so annoying are that they’re perfect, and perfect characters are boring at best, unbearable at worst.

The problem with thinking of weaknesses as something you have to throw in to balance out strengths, however, is that it is entirely missing the point. Giving a character weaknesses isn’t about balancing some cosmic Mary Sue scale (Good singer +3 Sue, Clumsy -1) it’s about making your character seem real

And so, if your character seems annoying perfect, throwing in a few “weaknesses” isn’t going to help all that much. A saintly character who is sweet, and smart, and entirely angelic is not going to become any more interesting because sometimes she’s a little absentminded or naive.

When trying to flesh out characters, don’t worry about the strengths and weaknesses lists, worry about building a believable character. While a lack of weaknesses is a warning sign for Mary Sues, the bigger problem is they simply aren’t believable. They’re perfect and special and the world around them changes to accommodate them because they are so perfect and special. Any amount of random weaknesses isn’t going to change that.

So, how do you build a believable character:

1. Separate yourself from your character.

Every author puts a little bit of themselves into their characters. One character might like the music you like. Another might have your sarcasm. That isn’t a problem.  What you don’t want to do is make a character your wish-fulfillment. A character that is you as you wish you could be isn’t going to be realistic. Even a character you just really, really care about might not be. Caring about your characters is fine, just don’t let your love for them cloud your judgment when it comes to building their personalities.

2. Think of personality as more than just a pro/con list.

As stated above, it isn’t possible to balance out a Mary Sue by countering their +3 awesomeness with -2 clumsiness. Instead of coming up with a list of all that is good about your character and then trying to think of an equal number of weaknesses, come up with traits. People are a balance of good and bad traits in real life, but many times what is positive and what is negative come from the same trait. Being outgoing, for example, is generally a good thing. It can become negative, however, if the character doesn’t know when to keep quiet or can’t keep secrets simply because they love to talk to people. Again, being a straight-A student would likely go on the “strength” side of the list, but what comes with that as far as weaknesses go? Perhaps they’re stressed, feeling they need to be perfect. Maybe they’re overly competitive or think school is the only thing that’s important. Consider each trait and what it means for your character’s personality, not just if it goes in the strengths or weaknesses category.

3. Change your character based on your world, don’t change your world for your character.

Everyone has a past. Whether you drop in when your character is 5, 15, or 50, it doesn’t matter. They have things that have happened that have shaped who they are. While the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know everyone’s back story, it’s important for the author to, and to think about how growing up as the character did affected them. Someone who grows up dirt poor in rural New Mexico. is going to be a different person than someone who grew up being groomed for the galactic senate. Don’t change the world you have built to suit your character (the real world doesn’t change to suit us), figure out how your character fits into the world you have built.

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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.”

Mary Sues

All right, here’s a controversial topic around the writing community. Speaking about Twilight yesterday got one of my friends talking about what a Mary Sue Bella is.

Most people who have hung around a writing community for any amount of time have heard of Mary Sues (especially Fan Fiction sites). For those who haven’t, as TV Tropes puts it, “Mary Sue is a derogatory term…[used] to describe a particular type of character. This much everyone can agree on. What that character type is, exactly, differs wildly from circle to circle, and often from person to person” (if interested you can read the entire article here, but standard TV Trope warning: it’s addictive).

Still, for not having a set definition, there’s plenty of talk about Mary Sues in literary circles. You can find “litmus tests” to see if characters you are writing are straying too close to Mary-Sue Territory (like the ones here and here) and it seems that just about everyone can agree that writing a Mary Sue is a bad thing.

In my favorite haunts, the NaNoWriMo forums, you often find threads similar to this:

Now I know there are tests and quizzes on the net for this kind of thing, but I’d like your opinions.

“Her name is XXXX. She’s an auntie to a two month old boy ; loves him more than anything, just like she did her brother before a hoarde of zombies killed him (her brother). She’s in love with one of the guys in her renegade, although she has issues with being close to him as she is afraid she will lose him like she lost her brother. She tried to kill herself because she was depressed after her brothers death. She’s an orphan (her parents were turned into zombies and she killed them) and she’s seventeen. She has brown hair, is a little over average height (just enough for it to be noticeable and look a little odd, not quite enough to make her look like a freak), has blue eyes and her weapon of choice is a .45 pistol and a wooden broom handle. ”

Now, of course it’s nearly impossible to tell someone if their character is a Mary Sue (or at least Sue-like) from a list of characteristics (after all it really tends not to be the character, but how you use them), but going back to TV Tropes:

“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 details on any of these clichés.)”

There’s of course some wiggle room on these traits, but the general consensus seems to be summed up in this NaNoWriMo forum post:

I’m not personally opposed to Sue-like characters (many beloved characters, from James Kirk to Harry Potter, score high on the litmus test), but they have to be done carefully not to be off-putting.”

And what did all this Mary Sue talk lead me to think about? Editing of course. While I assure everyone that I will never name names about books I have worked on (1. It’s unprofessional 2. It’s just rude) the main character of a recent book I was contracted on has slowly left me feeling like she’s more and more Sueish. On one of the above litmus tests she scores about a 54 (most likely stemming from a combination of “tragic back story” “unbelievably beautiful/all men want her” and “mouthpiece for authors beliefs”) which is marked as: “36-55 points: Mary-Sue. Your character needs some work in order to be believable. But despair not; you should still be able to salvage her with a little effort. Don’t give up.” A couple more points and you’re into Uber-Sue territory.

Now, this particular character is definitely not inherently unlikable as some characters I have heard discribed as Sueish are. It took about half the story before I started getting especially annoyed with her. And I’m definitely not attacking the author. Believe me, if someone dug out that first novel I wrote in high school, one of the characters would score at least that high on a Mary Sue test. I would be the first to admit to the new-author trap that is Mary Sue creation. I think, like many problems in novels, Mary Sues fade as you write more and more. When you start out, your Main Character (MC) is your baby, your perfect creation. It makes sense that people like her, and those that don’t are jealous. She’s just that awesome. More characters you write, the less you’re going to attach yourself so completely to one MC and fall into the “Wish Fulfillment” trap.

In this certain novel, however, the main unlikability of the MC is the fact that the work is so black and white around her. All the male characters are only interested in sleeping with her (or at least want to sleep with her on top of being her friend), the female characters are either “good” characters, and completely enthralled with her or “bad” characters who don’t like her because they’re jealous. There is even a line that goes along the lines of “I didn’t believe he wasn’t attracted to me” after the first male character ever says he isn’t. While there are times this line could work–in first person, it’s possible that the character is just really vain. That’s a completely valid personality flaw–in this case, though, it’s probably a completely truthful observation because, well, every male character is attracted to her. And she wouldn’t be as awful to be vain. Not like she has flaws. This man even then goes on to say she’s beautiful in pretty much the same breath.

In the same vein, when Miss Sue goes off on one of the many tirades she does on topics the author obviously finds important, the other characters either completely agree with her–even though they have no reason to as far as their upbringing/personal beliefs/etc.–meet her rather valid, thought out points with something along the lines of “uh, I never thought of that” or “uh, you’re wrong, just because, uh, you’re wrong,” or they’re just bad, bigoted people you aren’t supposed to like in the first place. And this happens over and over and over again.

And in essence, that final point makes for my definition of a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue–while often has many of the traits listed in the TV Tropes–is ultimately a character that bends the story around them. It doesn’t matter what other characters would realistically do, they react to the Mary Sue because that’s obviously the way all characters would react to her. She’s perfect and beautiful and…perfect. No matter how she acts, people have to love her. If they don’t, it’s because they’re jealous of how perfect she is. Things that happen to her in the story happen because she’s who she is. There’s no random happenstance, no logical progression, just “Oh, another guy. He’s going to want to get with her. No, it doesn’t matter he’s married. No, nothing will stop her amazing awesomeness.”

And that’s what’s annoying about them. As nice as it might be for an author to be able to write a character they wish they were, or someone who is able to say everything they’ve ever wanted to say, they’re at best boring to read about and more often just annoying. Even agreeing with at least a good share of this Sue’s points, I don’t want to hear them, especially not when it’s another tirade at another character that is so obviously unenlightened that they need this character to yell at them and change their entire way of thinking.

It’s not impossible to get a book published with a Mary Sue for a main character. It’s not even impossible to have a best seller with a MC Mary Sue (cough, Bella Swan, cough). It just isn’t interesting to read. Give me a character that has flaws, give me a character that has things happen to her just because she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, heck, give me a character that lectures, but against competent debate partners. To me, those are all preferable to a perfect character and a black and white world.