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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 16: The Anti-Mary Sue Episode

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 16: The Anti-Mary Sue Episode


Key points: Mary Sue means wish fulfillment. To write different voices, steep yourself in that voice and culture. Keep someone in mind when you write a character, a dominant impression. Get inside your character's head. Fix it in revision. Find someone fascinating and write about them, to avoid always telling your story.

[Brandon] And we have special guest star, John Brown. Tell us about yourself, John Brown.
[John] Well, I... thank you, Jordo. Jordo's waiting me on, closer. I've got a novel coming out, so I'm a new author. My debut is coming in October. I'm excited. It's an epic fantasy, from Tor books.
[Brandon] And I read it.
[John] It's called Servant of a Dark God.
[Howard] John, are you related to the John Brown who posts all those long, thoughtful comments on the Writing Excuses website on the blog?
[Dan] And makes us all look like we're unprepared monkeys?
[Howard] Do you know that guy?
[John] I don't know who that is. Sorry.
[Howard] Okay. Because we need to tell him to stop. He's making us look bad.
[Dan] We need to tell him to knock it off. You, however, are welcome to stay.

[Brandon] Speaking of looking bad, we're going to talk about Mary Sue. Or... well, Dan, tell us what a Mary Sue is.
[Dan] A Mary Sue is... that is where the author puts him or herself into the book as a character.
[Brandon] Yeah. Blatantly.
[Dan] Blatantly. Not necessarily by name. This can happen with this character is actually me but I changed the name or I changed something else to throw you off but not really because it's obviously me.
[Howard] Clive Cussler does it in all his books on purpose. At that point it becomes a cameo.
[Brandon] A Mary Sue is more of a... usually, if someone says, "Hey, that's a Mary Sue," it's an insult. Meaning what they're saying is they're pointing at one of your characters and saying you are inserting yourself sneakily into this book as a form of wish fulfillment. Instead of having a real protagonist, you just want to go on all these adventures. So you change a few things, you give this character too many things, you make them all powerful, omnipotent and this sort of thing, just to fulfill your own desires.
[Dan] I get this question a lot with my books. Is my character based on me? But I think that's more them trying to identify a potential enemy than anything else.
[Howard] That's why I keep asking.
[Brandon] I think that might be a form of a compliment. Stephen King, you'll talk to him, people will say are you like your characters? Stephen King is nothing like his characters. He's this nice, amiable person. He's an excellent writer and he can write these dark, twisted things. I don't think that actually means that he is dark and twisted although most people assume that is. It may mean the same thing about you, Dan. In your case, they're right.
[Dan] One can only hope.

[Brandon] This topic is actually a little bit broader than that. It was asked for by a listener who said all of my characters sound like me. How do you keep each character from sounding just like they are another part of the same person or that they are the same person?
[Howard] I pick ideas and viewpoints with which I disagree. I write from that viewpoint. I have an advantage in that I'm always trying to write humor. I can exaggerate that viewpoint for comedic effect. It becomes a viewpoint that is not one that I would adopt. I know I'm doing it right when people e-mail me and they tell me what a horrible person I am, because since I wrote this in my comic, I obviously believe it. I tell them, "No, no. I am not my characters." There's dozens of viewpoints there. I said viewpoints... the wrong word. Dozens of political perspectives, religious perspectives...
[John] I think this is interesting. I do have to say though that when I'm looking at my characters... My wife for example just read a draft of a book and she said, "I could hear you here, here, and here." For me, that isn't necessarily a red flag, to say I can't be in there because I don't know how to not be in there. But I do know that with the characters there are two things that I try to do. The first is, if it's a voice that I'm looking for, I need to steep myself in the voice. I wrote a story set in... back in Croatia and I wanted a Yiddish voice. I had to get steeped in that voice and that kind of culture and go outside myself to get it. That's one thing that I do. There's a couple of other things. But at the same time, have you guys not had people say, "There you are. I see you." People that know you. I see you right there.
[Brandon] It happens to me all the time, particularly in the Alcatraz books. Which I think are partially... how shall I say? You don't quite get them unless you know me, which is actually a bad thing. But a lot of people say that... they know me, they read the Alcatraz books, they can see me in the books. It's because they're more improvisational. My humor, I'm trying...
[Howard] It's bonus content.
[Brandon] It's bonus content. But at the same time...
[Howard] Hee-hee. If you watch the beside... the behind the heen... behind the scenes commentary first...
[Dan] Bulup-bulup?
[Howard] Bulup-bulup-bulup. Get to know Brandon first, watch all the behind the scenes commentary, and then read the book -- it's awesome.
[Brandon] That's what they're getting. But I see what you're saying. Can you avoid this? Can you avoid having your characters sound like you?

[Dan] Like you said in the beginning when you introduced the topic, an element of you is going to be in every character you create. One trick that I use, and this is kind of a cheap hack, but it is fairly effective is I will just have someone else in mind when I am writing a character. I will think of a friend that I know really well, or a famous actor or other movie personality, and not try to make them sound like that, but just keep that in the back of my head. Some of those mannerisms will start to creep in. Ideally, not to the point that you will read my book and say, "Oh, that's obviously Jack Nicholson" or whoever, but ... it will change the way that character talks enough that it won't sound as much like me anymore.
[Brandon] Okay. You do this, too, John?
[John] I do. I have... when I'm developing my characters, I'll often either have a person that I know that I'll say kind of like this person but then I change... I'm going to change some significant things about them. Or sometimes it's an animal. This guy is wolf. What I'm trying to do is, I'm trying to get a dominant impression in my mind. Because... I don't know... maybe I just don't have the brainpower of other writers, but I need a dominant impression. So it's... sometimes it'll be a picture. I'll have a picture of a guy and he invokes something in me. That's something that helps me.

[Brandon] I have a friend... a very good writer... and she casts every single character she writes in her books. All side characters, everything. She does it by going through magazines. Magazine after magazine until she finds the right picture. Then she cuts that out, keeps it in a folder marked with that book title, and pulls those out whenever she's writing the book.
[Howard] Wow, using pictures to represent your characters. That sounds clever.
[Brandon] Oh, wow, innovative.
[Dan] I don't know, it sounds a little...
[John] laughter
[Howard] I could get somewhere with that. I think we can learn something here from the school of deconstruction which is where you take something and pick it apart until there is nothing left. Deconstruct your own vocabulary. Listen to yourself talk. I listen to myself on these podcasts and I find that there are phrases I use repeatedly. I can't identify one of them right now, but I'm sure that if I listen to the podcast again...
[chorus] Luxury!
[Howard] Okay, that. When I find myself writing my characters and a phrase pops out that I know I've heard myself say, okay, I'm going to make a mental note to go back and rewrite that and say it in a different way. In fact, I've gotten now to where I'm wordsmithing all of my strips very carefully, where the first pass through reads a lot like me, and the second pass through, I'm imagining the character standing there saying this. This is the Reverend. Well, the Reverend does sound like me a little bit when he's talking about religious topics, but he's also... he's different in this way, he's going to phrase things a little differently. I wordsmith the dialogue very, very carefully, and that's really where it comes out, is the dialogue.
[Brandon] And we'll break for a commercial.

[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by John Brown's Servant of a Dark God available from Tor... when? Now?
[Brandon] Sometime. October. October... mid October. October 14.
[Howard] This book has a launch date, but the podcast is not brought to you by the launch date, it's brought to you by the book.
[Dan] This podcast brought to you by John Brown, The Servant of A Dark God.

[Brandon] And we're back. I wanted to repeat what Howard just said, because I think it bears a lot of repeating. If you can really get inside your character's head and you can really find a distinctive voice for that character in-world, I think that can anti-Mary Sue. That's the real trick. We're writing genre fiction for the most part. Even if you're not, your character is going to have a certain set of circumstances, history, thought processes that are distinctive to them. When you identify what these are and say whenever I am in this character's viewpoint, I'm going to look at the world through this character, you will naturally stop doing this. I think of... Robert Jordan is very good at this with cultures. Someone who is from a different culture thinks very differently in his books. I tried the...
[Howard] All of the boats and fish from Siuan.
[Brandon] Siuan's boats and fish. I've tried to do it... with profession is another good way to do it. I've got a character that I'm writing who is a surgeon. I'm trying to think what is he going to notice when you meet somebody? He will notice the faint limp that person has because they broke their leg when they were four years old and when it got reset, it didn't quite get reset right. He'll notice that, someone else wouldn't. When you start doing these things, you pull away from the Mary Sue.
[Dan] A nice side effect of getting into your character's heads and voices that much is that it will reduce your expository narration a lot, I think. Because me telling my story... most of us telling our own story... we're not going to take time to explain how a sink works or how all of these other things function because they're entirely familiar to us and they will be to your characters as well.
[Brandon] That's always a hard balance to walk. I may have to can of worms that. I think we've talked about it a little but... learning curve is just... but this wraps up in all of these things. You were going to say something, John?

[John] There's a technique, I mentioned it before, but I'll just plug it again. I think it's J. Gregory Keyes... Calculus of Angels. He did this incredible series with Ben Franklin and that... I remember writing him and talking to him and saying, "How did you come up with some of these words and the phrases?" What he told me was he just steeped himself in original journal entries and original writings from that period. I think... this is part of that getting into character... if you're looking and you steep yourself in some of these things, it's naturally going to come out. A lot of it is mimicry and we're acting. I mean, when I do my writing, I feel like some of the time I'm acting. What would he do? How would I play this? I think that acting and just getting into that role and steeping yourself in it is incredibly important. In fact, that's how some of my best stories have come about because I've gotten into the role of a farmer and a hick, I've picked up a voice from somewhere, or I've gotten into the role. In this novel that I've got coming out, this hunger character, it was getting into that voice and just trying to steep myself in it and then just let come what may. But not thinking so much about not anti-Mary Sue... avoiding Mary Sue, but just what is that guy... thinking positively, thinking forward.
[Howard] That's a critical point that needs to be addressed. If you are worried about being caught in having inserted yourself as a character in your book, it's too late for you. I'm sorry. Because that's what Mary Sue really is, is when you are inserting yourself in the book as a form of wish fulfillment. If you have designed your characters thoughtfully so that they are all different things, and your wish fulfillment is, "Boy, I really want to tell this story. This is a fun story. I want to see how it turns out." Then you're probably going to be fine. The things that we are talking about, I think are advanced techniques that... I mean, once you get to this point, Mary Sue is... her anti is so far anti'd.
[Brandon] Right, although I do think once you get to our point, you start to have a different problem, which is repeating yourself. I think I need to can of worms that so that we can do an entire podcast on it. Because I think the more you write, the more you are in danger of telling the same story. We'll talk about that. I do want to mention that as I've considered it, I do something else Howard does. Which is I fix a lot of this in post. Meaning sometimes it's too hard to keep all of these different characters straight and all their different voices straight and they will start to sound like me or like one another. In a later revision, I go in and say, "Okay, this is the character who is very left brain and wants to organize the world and think about organization and puts things in lists." Let's do this chapter again, looking through to see what contradicts that and how I can nudge it more toward that character.

[Dan] Things like that... I'm sure there's a lot of people listening out there to the talk about acting and all this stuff and they say, "I don't know how to do that." Things like you're talking about, we are let's just go through this dialogue again with something else in mind, with lists or whatever. I think setting little rules like that is a great way to simplify the process a little. One of the rules I set for John Cleaver for example was whenever he is detecting an emotion in somebody else, he describes it physically on their face. Like you say, fixing it in post, I went through the books again over and over and any time he did that, I would change that. That changed the way I wrote his character whenever I would write new stuff.
[Brandon] That's a perfect example. We do this all the time. In fact, I, in doing drafts of a book, will often times get a list of things and say this is something I want to do with every chapter. I want to have a character feature, a feature of the setting, a feature of the past that I know I haven't done enough in and I will go and I will just check mark for each chapter. Okay, do I have something in this chapter that evokes that? Do I have something that evokes this other thing? Keep a list of 10 things and go through the chapter as many times as it takes to make sure that I can check off all those things on the list. We're running just a little on time. One last question. Do... can you use yourself? Dan mentioned what I'd said, that there's a piece of me in every character. Can you tap that intentionally and say, "Okay, this is going to be that... this aspect of myself manifest as a character or is that a dangerous road to get down?
[Dan] I think if you keep it specific like that, this is going to be this aspect of me, then it can work. There are aspects of John Cleaver that are absolutely me. I won't tell you which ones those are for legal reasons. But... the character is not me.
[Howard] Acquitted!
[Dan] But there are aspects of him that seem very alive and very real because it comes directly out of my own experience.
[Brandon] Right. I do think that there is the danger of making a character who is a self-parody in doing a lot of this, though. Which is something to be aware of. If you say, this is the character that does X and then that's all that character is, they will become a character by a few chapters in, they will. People complain about this in some very good works because the author is so into the character's head that sometimes they focus on these simple attributes too much.
[Howard] I made the mistake of taking the scientist character from my strip and drawing him... depicting him as a short, dumpyish bald guy. I did it because I thought, "You know what? The world needs more heroes who are short, dumpyish bald guys." But the character is actually based on a friend of mine. One of those guys who can rebuild civilization from old bicycle parts. But when Kevyn leapt to the forefront in the Resident Mad Scientist story, people looked at him and said, "Oh, this is totally... this is Mary Sue." It's not Mary Sue. Just because he looks like me? You really think that's me? Okay. But you're wrong.
[John] I just... I kind of want to say one last thing about this. When I first started writing, I was doing a lot of biographical stuff. It all... eventually I got sick of it, it was just incestuous. The thing that I found was that I needed to go out into the world, find cool people, cool characters, and say I want to write about this other guy. That was one of the best things for me, is just to go out and say, "What's a cool guy or a cool gal or a cool person?" Let me write about that instead of always, always about my own story.
[Brandon] That's part of where Firefly came from, as I understand. Joss Whedon said, "Hey, that Han Solo guy is cool, let's do a show about him." Anyway, this is been Writing Excuses...

[Jordo] Writing prompt?
[Brandon] Producer Jordo says I have to do a writing prompt, so I'm going to make John Brown do it.
[John] Okay. Here's your writing prompt. Go out and do some research. Find a fascinating character that is nothing like you. Go pick some topic that you don't know about. Then write a story.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: character, mary sue, voice, writing excuses
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