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Mary Sues and You: Avoiding Common Character-Building Pitfalls

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Old February 19th, 2016 (8:54 PM).
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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Heya PC! I've assembled a short essay of musings on a topic that I think about far too much, thought I'd share in case it was helpful to anyone. Might put together more of these in the future; let me know if you have any thoughts!

Mary Sues and You: Avoiding Common Character-Building Pitfalls

Creating realistic, likeable characters is far and away one of the biggest challenges for amateur writers. Pokémon fanfiction, in particular, due to its expansive nature and the fandom’s acceptance of OCs, tends to be riddled with poorly-constructed, two-dimensional characters with all the depth of a kiddie pool. Regrettably, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for avoiding these common traps, but I’d like to pass on some advice anyway. In particular, I received two nuggets of wisdom from more experienced writers in my time, and each of them changed the way I look at building characters forever.

First, however, let’s determine what makes a ‘bad’ character. It’s not as straightforward as you might think, but everyone is likely familiar with the Mary Sue archetype, so let’s start there. A Mary Sue is a character who can do no wrong. She is perfect in every way; everybody loves her, and she never struggles to achieve her goals. Any flaws she may have feel tacked on as a half-hearted counterweight to her perfection, and rarely impede her progress in a meaningful way. In the Pokémon fandom, she often hangs out with main characters for no adequately explained reason, is an incredibly skilled Trainer/Coordinator, happens to catch Legendary Pokémon while out for a stroll, and generally bends the laws of the universe to her will. Ash loves her – who’s Misty? – and they ride off into the sunset on the back of her Lugia while everybody cheers after her stunning Indigo Conference shutout win.

Now, that may sound easy enough to avoid, and rightly so; it was a deliberately hyperbolic example, and rarely does anyone create a character that blatantly perfect. Unfortunately, the trap of the Mary Sue is very easy to fall into without noticing, which brings me to that first piece of advice I received as a novice writer: create a list of flaws to hold your character back. This is far from perfect advice, and I’ll get into why in a moment, but it’s a good starting point. Think about your main character. Does he ever have to struggle to achieve his goals? And I’m not just talking about a difficult Gym battle. I’m talking repeated defeats, growing and learning each time. Progress is the hallmark of solid character development; if your character blitzes everybody from Chapter One, there’s no sense of progression, no excitement for the readers. They want to see him grow and learn.

More importantly, does he have any weaknesses? This is a tricky one to approach, because many people who’ve made it to this stage in the character creation process see it as an easy out. ‘Johnny McWonderboy is a naturally skilled Trainer with a gift for convincing powerful Pokémon to join his team! But it’s okay, because you see, he’s afraid of the dark. Also, he can’t swim and he likes to argue with people. And his nose is flat.’ They look at weaknesses and flaws as a balancing act, stacking them higher and higher in a desperate attempt to keep the scales level. All this does is create a character with a lot of breadth, but no depth. Worse, a lot of the flaws presented are what we call informed weaknesses. That is to say, nothing in the story interacts with these character traits whatsoever, to the point where they may as well not even exist. More specifically, they are mentioned once – usually in the character introduction – and are never relevant again. Johnny can’t swim? Well, surprise, he never has to. He’s afraid of the dark? It’s never so much as mentioned again, or easily overcome with a portable night light.

The point here, I suppose, is that flaws have to actively hold your character back to be worthwhile. Creating negative traits to balance the positive ones is a great starting point for assembling a balanced character, but it’s all for naught unless he has to overcome them. Johnny’s first Gym challenge is in Cerulean, so he has to fight the whole battle on a slippery surface causing him to freak out about falling in the pool, so his concentration slips and he loses the battle. He comes back a week later with an inflatable ring and faces his fears. Boom, character development. Rudimentary, but it’s there and it’s a start. His fear of the dark prevents him from chasing a Team Rocket grunt into a cave, so they get away with a valuable stolen artefact. Boom, character development and plot progression in one. It’s easy, but you have to actively work at it to make your character three-dimensional through this method.

This, of course, brings me to the second piece of advice: disregard the first one entirely. Uhh . . . Yeah. Believe it or not, the best piece of advice I ever received was to almost completely ignore what I thought I knew about character-building. Having two lists of character traits, with pros on one side and cons on the other, is a valid start, but for truly advanced and nuanced character creation, you have to merge the two together and realise that there is no such thing as a truly positive or negative trait.

Let’s take old Johnny McWonderboy from before. I gave him four weaknesses, right? One, his fear of the dark. Two, his inability to swim. Three, his flat nose, and four, his argumentative nature. One of those, the flat nose, we can discard immediately. That’s what’s called a superficial trait. It’s got nothing to do with who he is as a person or as a character. Might be good for some laughs, or for expanding into a more serious insecurity, but for the most part it’s safely ignorable. In other words, it doesn’t act as a black mark on his record at all. The fear of the dark and inability to swim are called learned behaviours. They’re a little more involved, but at the end of the day they aren’t part of who he is either, because they have come about since his birth – either due to his environment, a certain event in his past, or simply a lack of need (There’s no large bodies of water in Pewter City!). This also goes for many positive traits: he’s a skilled Pokémon Trainer, he’s learned to talk to wild Pokémon, whatever. In other words, we want those gone too. Now Johnny only has one weakness: he’s argumentative.

Things like this, I like to call true traits. It’s a fundamental part of his personality, not easily changed or remedied. It may be a learned behaviour as well – for instance, maybe Johnny’s parents fought a lot and he learned from them – but it’s a far more deeply ingrained part of him than his inability to swim, and it affects his everyday life far more. However, this brings me to the key question that stems from the second piece of advice: is this really a weakness? The answer is, of course, no. No, it isn’t. A lot of the things that people like to jot down as weaknesses to balance out their character’s strengths are actually just one half of a double-edged sword, and I would go so far as to say that every negative trait has a positive side that can be exploited and taken advantage of when writing the character. Johnny’s argumentative nature, for instance, means that he’s unwilling to back down when Lt. Surge refuses to accept his Gym challenge. Instead of accepting it quietly, he makes a point of arguing with the Lt. until he caves, and they have their Gym battle.

Other true traits have this duality too, of course. If you’ll allow me to use my own personality traits for this example, I am particularly non-confrontational. In many situations, this is a weakness, as I prefer not to stand up for myself when challenged, and I have difficulty dictating things to others. This can lead to all kinds of negative outcomes, from somebody else getting the last slice of pizza to being passed over for a job opportunity. On the other hand, it serves me well in situations where conflict would only cause problems. It keeps me out of trouble, and prevents me from making a target out of myself for violent or other retribution. Being conflict-averse makes me more willing to pursue diplomatic solutions where somebody like Johnny McWonderboy might immediately start yelling. I use myself as an example, but any character who dislikes conflict will have similar strengths and weaknesses associated with that trait.

It doesn’t end there, of course. Your character is selfish? That’s clearly a bad thing, right? Sure, except for when she’s able to act at a pivotal moment because everybody else is frozen out of concern for each other (sociopaths woo!). She’s a coward? She’ll be all the more useful when you need to sneak around a fight you can’t win.

On the flipside, many of what we consider positive character traits can also have negative inverses. A character who is brave and steadfast will occasionally refuse to back down before impossible odds, getting themselves and their friends hurt or worse. A kind, caring person may have difficulty finding the ruthlessness to dispatch Team Rocket in time to save the day. Loyalty to your friends may stand you in good stead, but when you have to choose between one of them and saving the world, will you really be able to make the right decision (coughHarryPottercough)? One of my favourite examples is pride: somebody who is proud will be honourable, just and willing to stand up for themselves, but they may also refuse to see their own faults, leading to their downfall.

At the end of the day, a solid, three-dimensional character will have some of these many traits in varying quantities. Some may indeed only display the negative side or the positive, but that can be kind of boring unless handled appropriately. Mary Sues display only the positives and ignore the negative repercussions, while doing the reverse lands you with a dull, cookie-cutter villain completely without nuance or interesting features. Dodge the pitfalls, avoid thinking about people in terms of black and white. Good and evil, strengths and weaknesses, assets and flaws: all of these are two sides of the same coin and need to be balanced and considered when crafting a character.
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Old February 20th, 2016 (7:02 PM).
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    That was an outstanding post.
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    Old February 23rd, 2016 (10:14 PM). Edited February 23rd, 2016 by Psychic.
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    This was a neat little essay. I've been in the Pokemon fic community for awhile, and the question of what causes Mary-Sues and how to fix them comes up time and time again, and it's great seeing people trying to address that. I appreciate that you also took the time to debunk the idea that creating a list of negative traits will help create a more rounded character, because that is advice that has been circulating for a long time, and you're right that it completely misses the point.

    A lot of your points had the right idea, but I think your method of explaining them was a bit too convoluted at times. Again, it's great that you acknowledge that the idea of separate pro and con lists aren't helpful, but spending three paragraphs extolling the virtues of something you're about to debunk isn't really necessary, and I don't think it added much to the essay. I think it would have been better to sum up the theory of "making pro and con lists is good" in a sentence or two so you could then spend more time on (what I consider to be) the real subject of the essay.

    My impression is that the crux of what you're trying to say is "no single trait is always good or always bad," which is a great point, but I found that got a little lost while you were talking about what "personality" really is (which is an interesting and important conversation, but one that's kinda hard to cover effectively when the essay is about something else). You're right that it's important to define "personality" and "trait," but it's hard to tackle all of that while also explaining how to fix a Sue in a single essay. I do commend you for trying!

    That said, I think you kind of missed the real solution to fixing Mary-Sues (and flat characters in general), which is to remember that characters aren't just a list of traits (good or bad), but rather real people whose backgrounds, experiences, ideas and desires shape who they are and how they behave. That is what is needed to create well-rounded, three-dimensional and realistic characters. If you're just focusing on character traits, then you're missing the forest for the trees. (And that's on top of the fact that Mary-Sues tend to occur when a writer is overly-invested in a character, and is too attached to them to allow them to face real obstacles, to be flawed or to make mistakes.)

    Your heart was definitely in the right place in writing this, as it is great seeing writers share their knowledge and understanding, and I think a lot of your points were really good. Unfortunately, I did find they got a little lost since you were trying to cover so much at once, and it's important to acknowledge that characters are more than just a list of traits. I think you're definitely on the right track here, and if you tighten this up and chop out some of the fat, this can be a really excellent essay about character traits. :>

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