Happy Valentine’s Day, Cyberspace!
I spent over two hours yesterday writing this blog post before finally realizing that today is Valentine’s Day, which means that, like any sane blogger, I should probably do something about Valentine’s Day.
I am not a sane blogger.
So today I’d like to completely disregard that it is Valentine’s day for a few moments and go over something that has been on my mind lately.
Murdering Mary Sue.
And since that sounds like a sentence that could potentially throw me into the slammer, let’s switch over to something a little more legal.
We’ve all seen them in stories, and maybe we’ve accidentally incorporated them into our own writing without even realizing it. I know I have. I think that I’ve created an original cast of characters, when suddenly I have a brooding bad boy, a Mary Sue, and the charming, witty best friend who everyone adores.
*insert gag reflex*
Quite frankly it is annoying and extremely hard to fix. Most stories tend to be filled to the brim with stereotypes, and if they’re not careful, writers will fall into the same pit time and time again.
So the question of the hour is, how do we break these stereotypes? How do we create original, realistic characters? How do we murder the Mary Sue and banish the brooding bad boy to the depths of the netherworlds once and for all?
Well, it just so happens that I have a masterfully written list just for you! Aren’t I the greatest?
Of course I am.
How To Murder Mary Sue (and other annoying stereotypes) In Three Easy Steps
Number One– Observe The Human Race
For this, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and do some field training. Go to your local park, library (in case you’re writing about book nerds, obviously), coffee shop (order butterscotch hot chocolate [trust me]), or basically anywhere you will find the mythical human being in its natural habitat. Sit down, get comfy, and start observing. Watch them. Take note of any quirks they might have, or specific things about the way they talk, accents, hand motions. Anything that makes them, as an individual, unique. See how different people react to different situations. Take notes. Compare reactions.
In short, I am telling you to stalk people. Literally.
And don’t forget to bring a notebook, preferably a discreet one. There is no situation more awkward than having your subject realize that you are studying their every move and jotting it down for character reference; however, chances are this might happen to you. If it does, stare them straight in the eye, slap your notebook closed, jam your pen behind your ear, stand up, and run off the premises screaming the Mission Impossible theme song.
This method works 38% of the time. The other 62% they’ll probably call the cops.
It’s a risk you must take, my friend.
By observing actual humans instead of re-writing characters that already exist–especially stereotypical ones–we are more likely to gain a better understanding of how real humans react to real-life situations.
Number Two– Make Them Relatable
Let’s face it, guys. We are all collectively flawed. We’ve all got something about ourselves that makes us shudder and go,”ew.” We’ve all got something we’d like to hide. We’ve all got something that we’re trying to improve.
Our characters should be no different.
If you have a character who is so perfectly perfect, who everybody loves, and who has a life that seems to be as flawless as her glossy black hair, you’ve got a Mary Sue.
And you must murder her.
Okay, so maybe you shouldn’t kill her, but seriously. Give her something that makes her flawed. Stories don’t just begin with your opening line. They began a long time ago; you’re just choosing to start the story here. Each character should have a past, something that makes them them. Dig deeper into the guts of her essence. Figure out the nitty gritty, terrible flaws that make her relatable.
And no. Being clumsy is not a flaw. And neither is thinking everybody hates you when in all actuality they’re doting over your complete perfection. Unless, of course, you’re trying to give them paranoia. If that is the case, please proceed. You are doing wonderfully.
But for the rest of us, try and go for the deep stuff: insecurity about the future (#graduation, anybody?); a hard, lurking past that seems to follow them wherever they go; a bad attitude that they’re trying so hard to improve; betrayal of a close friend. Give them something that makes them relatable. Something that makes us see a glimpse of ourselves inside of them.
Number Three– Make Them Uniquely Your Own
Now, you may be looking at this step and thinking, “Wow, Kenzie. That’s about the most obvious thing I’ve heard since peanut butter and bagels”. And maybe you’re right.
But think about it. How many times have you read a book and thought, “I wish I had written this…” Only to go off and try to write your own book when suddenly you realize that–SURPRISE!–you’re writing Mystery Book A‘s sequel?
Don’t worry. This happens to the best of us. It’s like there’s this chink in our brains that says, “Well, if this worked for them, and they made it on the NY Times Best Seller list, then surely if I write a blatant rip-off to their original work, I’ll become a best-selling novelist, too!!”
But is that really how we want to live our lives? Is that story really the story you should be writing? The story you want to be writing? Wouldn’t you rather create something that no one else thought of, with characters that leap off the page with originality?
Today, I urge you to take a minute in your hectic life to ask yourself, “What is my story? What is unique about me?” Because, whether you want it to or not, your uniqueness is going to bleed right through into your story and characters. Maybe it’s your dry sense of humor, or your ability to crack open a walnut with your front teeth. Maybe it’s your love of milkshakes, or that weird twitch in your leg whenever you’re trying to sit still.
Each of us has something that makes us unique. Each of us has a story inside of us that is dying to come out, a story that has never been told before. Sure, there are going to be some similarities between our stories and the stories already floating around out there–there’s no way to escape that–but our stories and characters are going to be uniquely our own, as long as we embrace the uniqueness of the characters we create and the stories that live inside our heads.
Don’t stuff your characters into a stereotypical box. Let them live and breathe and be different, even if you feel like they’ll be considered too different to the outside world. What everyone else thinks doesn’t matter. It might seem like it does, since you’re (hopefully) going to eventually share your story with them, but in all reality, their opinions don’t matter one little bit.
(Well, if they’re your critique partners, you might do well to listen to what they are saying, but that is a discussion for a different day.)
For right now, just be yourself. Don’t get caught up in the same mouse trap as many writers before you. The cheese is never worth it, and always expires long before you get a chance to taste it. Do something different. Be unique.
Break the mold.
This is your story. This is your writing. This is the universe you created. Don’t let stereotypical characters drag it down. Make them relatable, make them original, give them the wings to fly to the beat of a different heart, and maybe–just maybe–you’ll find that someone, someday, is wishing that they wrote your story.
Well, that ended sort of abruptly…
So, what are some of your least favorite stereotypes? What are the clichés that make you cringe and want to rip your hair out? How do you avoid writing stereotypes? Have you ever written a Mary Sue? A brooding bad boy? Let’s talk about ALL the stereotypical things, and cliché things, and also peanut butter on bagels because those are DELICIOUS.