Creating characters, and a Mary Sue mini-rant (and contest winner!)

Posted on January 22, 2013

First things first: The winner of the ARC of Lauren Oliver’s REQUIEM is … Cady! Congrats to Cady, who’ll be getting her copy in the mail very soon. But I want to thank everyone who entered, because I now have a TON of great questions to answer both here on the blog and in the vlogs I hope to get going very, very soon. (Like, tomorrow, if I can figure out how to work the camera.) And if you didn’t win this time, don’t despair, because our next contest gets going in the next few days.

 

I thought I’d kick things off by answering Cady’s question: How do you come up with your characters? Not just names, but personality, hobbies, etc. How do you keep them from being “Mary Sue”s?

 

Characters emerge in very different ways for me. Often I get asked whether character or plot comes first, and the fact is that, for me, they tend to develop one another. I probably think of a premise originally (witchcraft is a secret, which is a problem for a witch who is trying to learn). Then I ask myself what kind of character would be most troubled by this (a very dedicated and talented witch, abandoned by her mom and teacher). I keep batting that back and forth; every new thing I figure out about the story informs who the central character should be, and every new element of that character’s personality adds potential dimension to the story that’s being told.

Still, even when I have all the “facts” together about a character’s role in a story, it can take a while for that character to fully emerge for me. Or not. Every once in a great while, that character just comes to life in the very first scene: Balthazar did this in the EVERNIGHT series, as did Tess in FATEFUL. But more often, I find I have to write a character a little before they announce themselves. I had to write almost all of EVERNIGHT before I fully understood who Lucas was. Nadia took her own sweet time while I was writing SPELLCASTER. (This is one reason her name changed so many times; she’s elusive, that one. She doesn’t reveal her private self to a lot of people, which I knew, but I hadn’t realized she’d even be secretive with me!)

But as I wrote my way through the story, Nadia’s personality came through. For instance, she spends a lot of time helping to take care of her younger brother, Cole. Sometimes she resents it — but a lot less than I’d expected, less than I would have at her age; mostly she enjoys the time she spends with him because she knows he truly needs her. That made me realize that there’s a very caring, gentle side to Nadia, but it’s not one she speaks about or lets most people see. She doesn’t sit around telling Cole he’s adorable and she loves him; instead, she makes him Mickey Mouse pancakes and checks in his closet for monsters. She has this softness and generosity, but she expresses it all in terms of the concrete ways she can help the people she cares about with their problems. Ultimately I realized this would be an issue Nadia and the other characters would deal with throughout the SPELLCASTER series. Sometimes Nadia comes across as bossy or unsympathetic to other people’s problems: None of that is true. Mateo is one of the first to realize how Nadia channels her love for other people — she has to feel like she’s doing something for them. He helps teach her that sometimes just being there for someone is enough. That’s a really key part of the series, one that rises from character, but it’s nothing I’d ever have planned in advance. It came to me as I wrote, and as I got to know Nadia.

As for Mary Sues: I’m enough of a fanfic nerd to feel like any character in original fiction shouldn’t really be called a “Mary Sue” — but these days, a Mary Sue is often used for an overly perfect female character who has skills, gifts, and beauty far beyond the norm, with few or no flaws to provide balance. (The flaws, if given, are “cute” flaws like klutziness or a heart-shaped birthmark.) While the Mary Sue is a real thing, and a thing to avoid, I feel like that term gets overused a lot now … and in a way I really dislike. (Though not, I should add, by Cady.) Way too many people throw the term “Mary Sue” at any female character who has strong skills, a dominant personality, a lot of plot time devoted to her, or who (in my friend Marina’s words) “can find her way home in the rain without drowning.” In other words, virtually any strong central female character is, these days, at risk of being called a “Mary Sue” by someone. Never let anyone get away with that — and let’s never do it ourselves. Female characters should never have to apologize for being at the center of events any more than a male central character would. And we should never find ourselves raising the bar for female characters — judging their flaws more harshly or questioning their gifts more cynically — beyond the standards we have for male characters. Characters are well-rounded or they aren’t; the events of their lives are believable, or they’re not. Whether or not that character is female shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

(This mini-rant brought to you by the person who attempted to tell me, with a straight face, that Hermione Granger was a Mary Sue. HULK SMASH.)

I wish I had more concrete advice for you on how to construct a character, but — as with most things in writing — there’s no one right way. Thus far, all my characters have introduced themselves to me in different ways; they’ll probably go right on doing that. I think as long as you’re asking who your character is in the context of your story, keeping yourself focused on developing these elements together, you’re probably on the right track.

2 Responses to “Creating characters, and a Mary Sue mini-rant (and contest winner!)”

    • claudia

      People do. I’ve never heard Buffy called a Mary Sue – the accusation is much harder to lodge against a main character. But I’ve seen the term lobbed at all sorts of female characters, basically because they have the nerve to be competent.

      Reply

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