Surviving the Spotlight
Years ago, I wrote a brief piece on the cliché Mary Sue character that is epidemic in amateur writing and first stories. I touched briefly on my own perspective and philosophy concerning the Mary Sue and how I, ultimately, see it as a destructive component of an author’s work that detracts from all the constituent components in order to singularly highlight one, self-serving aspect. The Mary Sue was a problem because the Mary Sue made flat all her co-cast in order for her to shine.
Well, the other night, Derek–possessed by equal parts fever induced madness and frivolous need for a short respite from work–went poking around the recesses of the Internet in search of an old online game that both of us had once been participants. This was a play by email, homebrewed role-playing game that involved sending the owner and creator set moves for our characters to perform and then waiting the prerequisite time for those moves to complete before engaging in another activity. Hell, had the game master been savvy enough, he could have introduced a way to purchase “training boosts” and single handedly given rise to the free-to-play format that’s grabbed the modern video game industry in a choke hold. But that’s beside the point.
The most interesting part of this game was a small contribution from the game master wherein he ran global events wherein anyone could participate and gain rewards while interacting with the other characters. Since this game was conducted in high school, favouritism and fanboyism were rampant in equal measure. However, the unexpected introduction of the game master’s shitty involvement was that it inevitably lead to the players splitting, interacting and forming their own factions within the game. In truth, the game master could have simply served as a neutral arbitrator and never once introduced a stupid narrative to the game and us players would have woven our own story complete with betrayal, heroism, mustache twirling villains and underdogs fighting against all odds. Some of the more… literally inclined also took to the forms to write far more words to explain “Learns Tri-Form” truly required.
Of course, I was one of those nerds but–thankfully–I was not alone. I remember a budding rivalry between myself and Dan as he squared off his fledgling army of soldiers in a Band of Brothers-esque tale of camaraderie as he took on the megalithic global corporation that was my character’s domain which had its sights on eliminating the super soldier threat from the face of the earth so that its super weapons would skyrocket in value and demand. Obviously, to demonstrate the power of my weapons I first had to go and murder a few upstart super soldiers which brought me into direct conflict with Derek and Rob’s characters who were trying to do… well, we never found out because I put them ten feet in the ground and had to listen to a week of Rob’s complaints about my traitorous ways. Course, if he’d just read my character introduction, he would have known better than to try and train in a remote monastery near my headquarters but, alas, literacy was not high on his priorities.
Okay, so where am I going with this? Well, Derek (for whatever impenetrable reason) wanted to see if there was an archive of our teenage foibles. What he found, instead, was a treasure trove of a very different sort.
As it turns out, the game lived on its creator’s mind as well who took it upon himself to start turning his game world into a series of novels of which I will leave Derek to reveal should he ever decide he wants to post on this site again. There was a tantalizing preview and suffice to say, Derek was eager to get a hold of a copy for himself. Alas, if only he showed this much enthusiasm for my writing.
So what does this have to do with character creation? Well, the preview with which I was entreated had a rather entertaining meeting between the protagonist and… someone who seems important but was impossible to parse their exact role in the narrative from the short section. This section, once again, reminded me of the Mary Sue problem. The author seemed to struggle with the vexing problem of conveying threat and weight of this meeting with some supposedly intimidating character while also demonstrating just how awesome his main character was at the same time. Thus, we lengthy description of how the protagonist was both flippant and anxious, struck dumb by the sheer presence of his contemporary and immediately dismissing him and his work as irrelevant. It was a baffling series of contradictions that failed to either establish one character’s legitimate threat to the world or the character whilst simultaneously failing to make the protagonist any more likable, sympathetic or engaging in any manner.
Given the circumstances, I am loathe to denounce the story as being a true Mary Sue–I have not read it and to outright condemn it on such a short preview would be unjust. However, it did make me pause and consider my own work as these circumstances always do. Once again, I feel as though I don’t stumble into that very common pitfall but I did recall my sister’s concerns that she was ill-equipped to avoid such widespread mistakes in her own writing. So, what method do I employ to ensure that my characters are not flat and self-serving?
Truly, I feel my interest and experience in both theatre and psychology were some of the best preparatory measures I could take. Theatre you learn to remove yourself from your stage persona. I was taught techniques to search within my own experiences for some common ground which I shared with the character I was portraying and, from there, extrapolate new mannerisms, thoughts and reactions. Psychology further boosted this method as I was educated on the way people think and the various differences in cognitive biases and perceptions which shape the different reactions people will have to the same stimuli. Ultimately, I developed an interest in how people think and this interest naturally leads to characters that are less enslaved by the narrative requirements of the story and are capable of exerting more engaging, developed and well-rounded behaviours.
In short, all the characters I write are characters which are intrinsically interesting to me as an author. I never put a character in to solely serve a narrative purpose–whether that would be to make my character look more courageous, more clever or more fit than his compatriots. In fact, I tend to focus on ensemble pieces which lets me explore many different personalities. Lots of my conflict arises not from story needed elements but by the clash of strong personalities with goals at odds to their fellows. I never have that one character who I obviously adore above all others and lavish more attention and heroism upon. All the creations in my stories are my children and I do my damnedest to not play favourites.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t like some characters more than others. To say otherwise would be a lie. In my first novel–of the main cast–I was most fond of the wealthy but infinitely bored Theodosius and Isabella. Theo’s antics were always more enjoyable to write than the plodding and melancholic self-turmoil of Jarret. And the selfishness of Theo and Isabella was perhaps the greatest when the two were together–each seeing in the other a worthy competitor for their own whimsical obsessions but both woefully blind to how irrelevant their petty desires truly were. And, by the end, Theodosius faded into the background as he slowly began to realize that the story wasn’t truly about him. There was an almost humbling moment when at last he confronted just how unnecessary he was to the troubles surrounding him right before he bowed off the stage.
But how was I capable of avoiding making Theo the star of the story and everyone else a shade there to colour the background of his adventures? I think one of the best tools a beginning author can do is force themselves to write sections or chapters from their other characters. I did this a lot with my early work and most of this writing was either irrelevant to the story or ultimately cut altogether. However, I always enjoyed these exercises. It brought the characters to life in my mind so that, even when I wasn’t writing from a pseudo-omniscient perspective right outside their head, I knew how they’d react when the principle characters interacted with them. When you read interviews with authors, many will often comment on how they get surprised by the actions of their characters–seemingly behaving in ways they had not anticipated and taking the story in new avenues it was never meant to explore. I think this is only possible when you make your characters truly alive and able to free themselves from the puppet strings you–as the author–invariably hold over them. When you stop picturing scenes as “this is the moment the villain is going to threaten my hero and raise the stakes” and start thinking “Padma isn’t going to tell Ed anything and only entertains this interview because she’s required by law and she’s going to make certain that the erstwhile detective knows that” then you’ll start having curious conversations about classic patriotic paintings instead of dead bodies. Conversations become duels instead of set pieces with your participants giving and taking in ways neither you and, consequently, your readers will ever anticipate.
And when you give time for all your characters to shine then your work feels so much more alive. More than anything, I think that’s what theatre taught me. No production is truly a singular work and it’s important to let every actor have his time to shine in the limelight.
So, if you’re a starting writer and are worried that your main character is too “you” and that the rest of your world is flat then do this. Open a new document, take your latest character introduced and write the scene you just wrote from their perspective. Why did they say those things to your character? What are they thinking about? What do they think of this character in front of them? Are they engaged with this moment? Do they have other characters in their life that are more pressing to them? Do a quick short where they are the star and the world revolves around them. Figure out what makes them tick. Figure out what motivates them. Figure out if, maybe, they they don’t truly think what you thought they did about your main character.
Then go back and see if maybe, just maybe, they would say things differently now that they have a new perspective on your character.