If you’re looking for Mary Sue…
I’m sorry but she ain’t here.
Everyone has a deal breaker. That story element or character flaw that will make you DNF a book. I have a few, probably more than others because I read so many romances, but one character will make me close a book with a quickness:
What is a Mary Sue character? Mary Sue (or Gary Stu. We don’t discriminate by gender around here) is a seemingly perfect and idealized character. She’s the pretty one. The smart one. She’s good at everything without even trying. She’s the textbook definition of feminine, and she always needs to be rescued from herself or her bad decisions — though she rarely makes bad decisions because, COME ON. She’s perfect. She can be all or none of these things, but the one thing Mary Sue doesn’t do is change. She’s a static character.
SHE’S BORING AS FUCK.
Way harsh, I know, but it’s the truth.
Crafting a dynamic, interesting character arc is the crux of most genre fiction. The character is the vehicle for the plot. If the character is a dull Mary Sue, I don’t care what happens to her. I have no reason to keep reading. In my own writing, I try to avoid Mary Sue at all costs — assuming that I don’t have a reason for making her a Mary Sue which would be something I do intentionally to show growth in a character, but I digress.
When I wrote the blog series This Is How I Novel, I gave you guys a peek into my (still developing) process, so you already know that I’m big on planning my books from beginning to end. But what may not have been clear is that I think that character development is the most important part of plotting and planning a novel.
You’ve heard me say that characters are the vehicle for your plot.
But how exactly do they drive your story from beginning to end? Well, here’s how I do it.
Choose an archetype. Amazon, messiah, maiden, king; archetypes are used by writers of screenplays and literature to create memorable characters. I swear by them. What are archetypes exactly? An archetype is a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology. In short, archetypes are a blueprint that helps you discover your character’s nature — not to be confused with stereotypes. Stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations of a person stemming from prejudice — like the Black thug and the smart Asian. An archetype is a universal symbol. A reoccurring representation in human nature that anyone can identify with regardless of ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Now, I say this with one caveat, this is merely a blueprint — framework to build your character. Your characters will most certainly need development beyond this, but it is an excellent place to start. Check out 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It’s practically my bible.
Goal, motivation, and conflict. What does your character want? Who, what or how is she motivated to reach that goal? What is keeping her from reaching that goal? If you can’t answer these few questions about your character than you definitely need to dig deeper. Otherwise, your story will sound kinda like “Once upon a time — yadda,yadda, yadda — the end.” It’s just a bunch of things happening until you run out of words. Which is fine if you’re writing literary fiction, but we’re talking about genre fiction here and romantic fiction specifically. Check out Goal, Motivation, & Conflict by Debra Dixon.
Character interviews. There are literally a thousand different character interviews floating around the internet, and you may or may not have been able to make them work for you. The purpose of the interview is to get below the surface. If you’ve used interviews before and been unsuccessful, there might be a reason for this — your approach. Most writers tackle these interviews like someone making observations from the outside, giving the facts in third person, which is understandable if your novel is written in third person, but honestly, I think that is where you’re going wrong. I think it’s important to get inside the character when you write these interview questions. To do that, you need to respond to them in first person as the character. Check out my This is How I Novel post on character interviews, but if those don’t work for you, there are others you can try.
If you do these three things it is nearly impossible to have a Mary Sue character when you’re done. When you use your interview questions with the archetype you have chosen and your GMC, you reveal your character’s story which makes plotting a million times easier, too!
So get to work.