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Writing My Heart Out (with the cunning use of smoke screens!)

The one thing I love about writing fantasy is this: I can write about whatever I want. Literally. I create my own world, my own rules, and populate it with creatures and peoples, and it’s all done to my taste. Sometimes it’s just a creative idea that comes out of nowhere, nagging at me, demanding to be put onto paper. Sometimes it’s wish fulfillment, sometimes it’s getting out emotions. But to me, it’s the greatest gift I could possess. It fulfills me like little else can. Writing is my life experience put on the page, and I pour out my heart through my characters.

Still, whatever I put in, I want to make sure that it doesn’t compromise the story itself. I’ve been known to write my heart out and devote whole plot lines to reiterating past experiences, and then I’d cut them all out. They were therapeutic, but didn’t aid the story any. This happened with my in-progress novel’s main character, who started off being a few years older than she is now, and, like all teenage girls, was having boy problems. Yet, I was more than happy to cut it all out later when I realized that her angst only held the story back.

I know as well as any other writer that an author’s work contains their essence in it. They can’t escape it. When creating a main character, it’s easier to write about a character who is most like you: their reactions to the plot will be more natural and honest than if you wrote from the point of view of someone with a totally opposite personality. (It can be done, but it’s hard, at least for me.) Plus, even without trying to, you’re bound to include more of yourself in your writing than you realize, so I’m sort of walking a knife’s edge.

I’m still a beginner, so I’m not perfect in this weeding-out process, but that’s why I have other writers I trust to run writing by. My protagonist reminds me a lot of myself in some ways, and I’m always trying to avoid making us sound too similar. Thus, as I’ve read more extensively and talked to other writers, I’ve been learning to avoid the slippery slope of Mary-Sues.

The (usually not work-safe) definition for “Mary Sue.”

Often, the Mary Sue is a self-insert with a few “improvements” (ex. better body, more popular, etc). The Mary Sue character is almost always beautiful, smart, etc… In short, she is the “perfect” girl. The Mary Sue usually falls in love with the author’s favorite character(s) and winds up upstaging all of the other characters in the book/series/universe.*

*Mary-Sues appear mostly as alter-egos of the author in fanfiction (fiction written in some sort of context of your favorite, book, movie, TV show, etc.)

<p?The issue of “Mary-Sues” isn’t just limited to fanfiction, though. In fact, it has become a huge pride thing among some published authors, where they look down on books where main characters seem to mirror the writer too much. In fact, there has even been a backlash where some authors are afraid to make their main characters anything like themselves, for fear that they’ll be labeled as “Mary-Sues.”

I know I’ve feared that for me, but all I can do is be as real as possible. Someone told me a while ago that I must write what I love and worry about marketing later. In fact:

Don’t market yourself. Editors and readers don’t know what they want until they see it. Scratch what itches. Write what you need to write, feed the hunger for meaning in your life. Play at the serious questions of life and death.

This is why I endeavor to hide anything where I bare my soul deep within the story, so much so that it’s a part of the fabric of the story itself. I’m not terribly worried, since I’ve given my main character key differences in her personality, plus I’m creating my own world instead of borrowing one. But, still, I don’t want to glorify her as being just like me, or being an ideal version of myself.

The protagonist…cannot be a perfect person. If he were, he could not improve, and he must come out at the end…a more admirable human being than he went in.

In this regard, I’m trying to consider my audience…and my own sanity, really. I’ve noticed for myself, if I see an author resembles the main character too much, it creates a disconnect–or maybe too much of a connect–for me, to the point where I get suspicious. I’ve even read books and start wondering how the author got the inspiration to write things a certain way. All their stories have evil uncles in them. Were they mistreated by their uncle?

I know lots of you love Twilight, but this image (left) is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

Unless the writer makes their dreams integral with the characters and the story, it will be easier to notice, and will more than likely distract your audience away from the story. People notice.

A good editor will notice.

To double-check my characters, I like to run them through a Mary-Sue (or for males, Gary-Stu) litmus test like this one, which is very helpful showing if characters are sounding a little too perfect. And like Wikipedia says about these tests, in its very insightful angle on Mary Sues:

Most such tests include a disclaimer noting that even characters with extremely high scores can be executed well enough to yet still avoid being considered a “Mary Sue.” The test is primarily meant as a guide for better characterization.

So even if it says you’ve got a Mary-Sue, it all comes down to the way you write it.

Hiding your emotional skeletons in your story without leaving tracks isn’t easy, and honestly, I am still learning and perfecting.

For beginning writers, I must reiterate: don’t let people’s criticism stop you if you have a story burning inside you. Even if it includes a character people dub as a Mary-Sue. You have to write if you want experience. Besides, every writer isn’t their best at the beginning: it’s a jumping off point to get better. And there is no such thing as a bad character or a bad story; just a lazy author.

But, ah, the joys of being particular. I tend to think about things like this more than I should. Cereal break.