Monday, August 16, 2010

Self Inserts and the Forgettables

To begin today's entry, I thought I'd use the definition of Mary Sue from

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealizedversion 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.

They also explain that there is some controversy around this definition of Mary Sue, but that's not relevant to this blog. However, I highly recommend reading the rest of the entry.

I could argue that a Mary Sue is a creature who only exists in fan fiction, but that's simply untrue. Published authors across the world have (successfully) inserted themselves into their narrative, much to the dismay of savvy readers everywhere. I would very much like to say that all Mary Sues (or Gary Sues) are amateurish accidents, but that's also untrue.

To avoid further paragraphs in which I essentially say nothing at all, I'll define my version of Mary Sue as follows:

Any character who the writer exclusively characterizes via a series of “what would I do in this situation” questions is a Sue.

I'm going to treat this as a bad habit that needs breaking.

I don't know of anybody who sets out to write fiction that includes themselves on purpose. Typically the Sue rears its ugly head as the main character is being defined. I can understand this. I've accidentally inserted myself into stories too, but they always turned out to be awful. I learned my lesson and moved on.

This is a real bother to authors, especially when you realize sixty pages in that your character is flatter than roadkill and twice as awful. The Sue Problem becomes worse when the author is writing opposite sex characters. Their assumption, “I would do this,” becomes even more obviously wrong when the girl characters seem to share the personality as the main character, his best friend, the guards, the bad guy and the King. This is a problem I have already discussed.

But all is not lost! Everyone has to make these mistakes before they can write something truly great. The best, fastest way to improve at writing is by doing lots of it.

Instead of constantly asking yourself, “what would I do?” you have to figure out who the character is (at least a little bit) beforehand. I know that Steven King likes to have his characters “reveal” themselves over the course of the story, and I enjoy this method too.

However, I like to have a vague picture of them when I'm writing, something along the lines of, “this guy is like this guy who was really annoying in Target the other day,”or “this woman is really like this actress I hate.”

I'm not basing everything off of a personal memory, but I like to have somewhere to start. After I have a good idea of the character on the page, I try to let them grow and have their own personalities, separate from their source material.

In fact, when I'm bored in school or work, I'll write down short descriptions of characters purely in terms of their personality and attitude. They have to be written in any fancy way. After all, they're for your own personal use.


She's the kind of person who refers to her father as “my old man.”

She believes she is much prettier than she is.

She talks down to everyone around her.

She wears too much makeup.

She's flirting with me.

That's an actual note I wrote in my notebook during a class a few years ago. She was a jerk.

When you're writing characters, it's a good sign if you can define the character completely in a few pages, or even sentences. Take any fiction novel off the shelf at the bookstore, flip to a random page and read three paragraphs. You will quickly determine three things:

How well or poorly the book is written, in terms of prose and style.

What kind of person the main character is.

What kind of person the author is.

The other end of the Mary Sue spectrum is a slightly different, but nonetheless bothersome problem of Character Forgettability.

What this means is that instead of inserting yourself (or your friends) into your story, you've tried to invent a character and wound up with a shell. The symptoms of Character Forgettability include

Not having a strong opinion one way or the other on much of anything

He/she asks questions, replies, talks to others, but is less interesting than the surrounding characters

Doesn't show much emotion

If I'm spending the whole story scratching my head because I don't know who the main character really is, you might just be a redneck. Ur, you might just need to rethink the whole thing.

Last year I was writing a story. I was stuck with one of the characters; I had made him shout, yell, command and everything else I could think of to make him seem more like a character and less like a shell. I wrote one scene where this character expresses his worry and panic that his love interest might leave him. Midway through the panic, he bursts into tears. Although it sounds ridiculous, making him cry completely defined that character in my mind. After that, I knew who he was and he was much easier to write. This didn't happen until I was halfway through the story, which is actually quite bad, because I should have discovered this sooner.

For me, I realized, it's a characters emotions that define them the most. Just like in real life, you don't really know a person until you've seen them at their emotional extremes.

Write as much as possible, and fill your stories with as much character variety as you can manage.


  1. Hehe. You might be a redneck...

    I know my mom will read the last chapter of a book first, just to see if she can stand the characters. If she can, she goes back and reads from the beginning. It always bugged me, but after this post it all makes sense...

  2. I always now wonder when I start a book which person is the author. Once you start looking you can see them. I would even say that in Harry Potter J.K. Rowling is Harry,but you know that is just me. I guess would you say that in all 'I' books the whole book is about the author?
    I started reading a book and the author I think has presented herself and rich, short but skinny, 52 and owns a stitching store that makes money and she is getting ready to solve a mystery.
    It could be me I thought reading it if I wrote fiction. Scary huh? It makes me want to see what the author looks like.

  3. Not all main characters are the author, though! Rowling mentioned once that Hermione is actually the closest thing to her self-insert, for example. Bits of the author leak into all the characters, but the author is none of them entirely, unless they make a point to write themselves in. And then they usually make it easy by using their real names.

    Flat, boring characters annoy me, especially if that character goes out and does really exciting things. I read this one awful book called The Golden Apples (I think), and the first 3/4ths of the book were the adolescent hero angsting about having antlers. And the last 1/3rd was him going out on this obstacle-course adventure and it rocked. But you could tell that the author just dribbled out the first 3/4ths "because they were writing a book".