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She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About


Say you want to describe the perfect fantasy scene. An epic fantasy scene, even. Something memorable. So you describe the emerald grass in a little clearing in the forest, and the noses of the red and white mushrooms pushing up through the moss, and the sheets of golden light dappling the ground beneath the white-barked willows, and the roses, red as wine, the violets like amethysts... and the big, crap-encrusted toilet with a cracked lid sitting in the middle of it all, a centipede crawling out of its bowl. What are you going to remember about that scene? Rachel E Morris

Your character is that toilet. Or rather, your character is the whole scene, but every character should have a toilet to call its own. And depending on what form that toilet takes, your character will be perceived differently. But where to start? Because a toilet alone is not enough. That toilet needs that forest just as much as the forest needs the toilet. And what will make both interesting is the person who needs the toilet. And... umm... why.

That's Not a Flaw, It's a Feature! Your character has a problem. Otherwise, why write about them? More important than your character's name (which is totally deep), or the intensity of their ice blue eyes (just like Olivia Wilde's...), or the cheese-grating utility of their rock-hard abs (here’s looking at you, David Beckham), are the questions at the heart of your character. The fears and desires that keep them up at night and that drive them to do such novel-worthy things.

In Divergent, it is precisely Beatrice’s flaws—not being selfless enough, not fitting in—that allow us to identify with her in a society of seemingly robotic people. But it is her desire—to be herself in a society that practically makes it against the law—that makes us love her.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes! An unchanging character is a dead character. To the reader, at least. To keep your characters from stagnating, make sure that at least one of your character’s problems is solvable over the course of a novel. This problem becomes the basis of the character’s internal arc. Fleshing it out means figuring out where the problem comes from, what would make the character confront that problem, what obstacles stand in their way, and how they could overcome it all and change as a character.

For instance, in The Hunger Games, Katniss is complacent, distrustful, and selfish due to living in a harsh, starved, and conquered society. What makes her confront this is that society threatening her little sister. The obstacles that stand in her path are the deadly hunger games—and knowing she must kill one of the only kind souls she’s ever met if she wants to survive. And how she overcomes it and changes as a character…? Like I’d tell you here! Go read it and get back to me.

The Once and Future Badass: Your character is going to be awesome. Once they get to page 275. Heroes rarely start out heroes. But generally speaking, the unformed hero has about as much dynamicism as a lump of clay. Even if you are writing an origin story for your hero, you have to figure out what defines your character, what makes them awesome, and give us a glimpse of it early so that we’ll stick around to page 275.

One way to figure all that out is to write your character’s quintessential scene—the scene that defines them as a character. Don't worry about whether it even belongs in the book! Just writing the scene will help you work through their character. The first scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is quintessential Jones. You learn he’s an adventuresome archeologist who is afraid of snakes, that he has a mean arm with a whip and a near-constant smirk, neither of which help him against his constant antagonist, and that he always recovers his hat.

Building a Mystery: Hooks, like clichés, get a bad rep. Of course if someone notices it's a hook or a cliché, yes, it was bad. But the artistry in a novel is writing well enough that people don't care if it's original or not. The first instance of something is very rarely the best. Is the first draft better than the final draft? Was your first kiss really your best kiss? Sure, some people get lucky, but most of us had to deal with years (okay, maybe it was weeks) of sloppy, mushy, weird lip-mashings before we got a really good kiss.

Still, it is true that if you’re going to pick a hook, you do have to pick an interesting one. The "he twirls his moustache when he's nervous" stuff wears a bit thin. There are a couple ways to make hooks interesting. The most basic is contrast. Alanna and Jheshri are fearless in a fight, but terrified of intimacy. Raistlin and Professor X are frail of body but nearly omnipotent with power. Drizzt comes from a matriarchal, evil race, but he's a good man. The world is black and white--and your character is a splash of color.

Questions to Get Some Meat on those Character Bones:

  1. What does your character want more than anything and what is stopping them from getting it?
  2. What is the one thing they wouldn’t do to get it?
  3. What does your character fear more than anything, and what would make it even worse?
  4. What unexpected thing are they really good at?
  5. What assumptions do people make about them that always make them angry?
  6. What event has changed the way they look at life and why?
  7. What is hardest for them to forgive?
  8. What are three positive and three negative adjectives you could use to describe them?
  9.  If your character had a facebook, what embarrassing secrets could we dig up on them?
  10.  When your character goes to a party, do they under-dress or over-dress? Do they come and leave on-time, early, or late? Are they a wallflower or the center of attention? Are they excited or filled with anxiety?


Happy Writing!

Read more Writers Don't Cry
Follow me on Twitter @susanjmorris


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Wow, amazing article. Starting to write lately, and this is actually a huge help. Thanks!

Rad article; I definitely found the toilet image pretty memorable as well. I also found question three really interesting and it helped me uncover something about my main character that I hadn't really thought of before. Of course, a lot of characterization exercises ask about the character's greatest fear - but not many ask what would make it even worse! Very cool :)

Thanks, Doug! I'm glad you found it useful!

Thank you. I will remember the toilet image and keep the set of questions handy.

Thanks, Erik! :) How did you come up with your characters?

A strong, insightful article, per usual. Well done, Susan!


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