Monday, January 31, 2011

No Mary Sues Allowed

Since I was talking about heroes last week, I thought it only fair to include heroines as well.

One thing we've all been warned against is the TSTL heroine. (Too Stupid to Live, should you not be up to speed on all the acronyms.) This is the heroine who goes down into the dark basement to see what the noise is—when she's aware there's a killer in the neighborhood. How to avoid this syndrome has been discussed at length, and I'm not going into it again today. Instead, I thought we'd look at the perfect heroine.

The romance heroine of days long past was dependent upon the hero. She was subservient, and if in peril, had to wait for the hero to come to her rescue. The pendulum swung the other way, and today you're more likely to find the heroine as a no-nonsense, kick-ass character who can handle herself.

Back in my early writing days, when I was learning the craft via fan fiction, there was a great deal of discussion about not creating a Mary Sue. In fact, there was even a test to make sure you didn't have one of these unbelievable heroines (or, in fact, any character) in your books.

Is this to say that you can't have a heroine who is fully competent? Of course not. But you can't just plop those convenient skills in front of the reader when it becomes convenient for her to have them.

As I've posted before (at least once), if the reader buys the setup, they'll buy the bit.

So, let's say the hero and heroine are hiding and the villains are closing in. The hero is injured. He hands the heroine his gun and asks her if she can shoot. She says, "Of course. I'm a crack shot," and proceeds to blow the villains away (or worse, has never handled a gun before, but still takes out the bad guys, never missing a shot). Not only that, but she is an expert in first aid and manages to do what's necessary to save the hero's life. Plus, she's an expert trapper and can snare whatever creatures are out there. Or, maybe she has no trouble catching fish. And she can create a gourmet meal out of what she catches. All without disturbing her manicure or coiffure.

She's the heroine who can fill in for a missing musician, be it a rock band or a symphony orchestra. And she can sing like the proverbial angel.

(I'd like to say I'm exaggerating, but not by much.)

Believable? Not if this is the first time you've seen these traits. But what if, earlier in the book, the heroine is dusting off her shooting trophies, thinking about how she misses those days. Or she's cleaning up after a fishing trip. Or she's doing a solo in her church choir. Maybe she has to move her rock climbing gear out of her closet to make room for her cookbooks. You don't want to dump an entire scene whose only purpose is to show a skill she'll need later. (Remember my post on scenes doing double or triple duty!) Keep it subtle, but get it in there.

When you're writing, it's important to know what skills your characters need to possess. You might not know when you start the book, but if you're writing a scene where one of these skills will move the story forward, and there's no other logical way to deal with the plot, then you owe it to your readers to back up and layer in the requisite foreshadowing.

And Mary Sues aren't relegated to romance heroes. The first, if you followed the opening link, showed up in Star Trek fan fiction. The perfection syndrome doesn't work for any character, regardless of genre. Heroes can be Mary Sues (or "Gary Stus") as well. But before James Bond pulls off his miracles, we've seen Q show him the gadgets that will save his life. We know MacGyver has a strong background in science, so he's got the theory and knowledge to pull off his escapes.

Any "too good to be true" characters that have bugged you? Any tricks you've figured out, or read, that help avoid the Mary Sue?

Tomorrow, my guest is author Doranna Durgin, who's going to be talking about the great outdoors. Not only that, but she has a giveaway, so be sure you come back.

And, tomorrow as well, my newest re-releases, What's in a Name? and When Danger Calls will be featured at Daily Cheap Reads, so I hope you'll pop in there—and spread the word.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Yes, I've read these types of heroines and watched them on television...and they annoy me to bits! I'm flawed and I want protagonists to be flawed, too. :)

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - beginners seem to want to make a heroine likeable, so they don't give them any flaws. Nobody really likes perfect people, do they?

Carol Kilgore said...

I agree with you about having a believable and subtle set-up. You don't want it to flash in neon lights.

Kat Duncan said...

If the heroine is well written I'm willing to believe just about anything, but there has to be some hint for me that what she's doing is plausible for her. All I need is a little hint that she could succeed and I'm good. Without that I'll probably put the book down.

michal scott said...

Always keeping in mind how the character has to grow has helped me. I don't mind a character starting out a Mary Sue so long as the story shows this is her flaw and where she needs to change.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - setup is everything.

Kat - yes, those skills that pop up only when needed make a character less believable.

Michal - Growth is good; interesting that you view her in-depth skill set can be part of her arc.

Vonnie Davis said...

I recently hooked up with a CP. After sending her the first 2 chapters of my beloved WIP, she responded that my heroine was TSTL. Hunh? When I asked her what that meant, I imagined her doing a big eye roll, thinking 'Great, I've hooked up with an idiot.' She graciously explained and showed me what she meant. Sadly, she was heroine did act clueless. I hadn't planned that--poor writing on my part. She's not clueless now!!

Lynnette Labelle said...

I love this post. I've read many stories with these types of heroines.

Lynnette Labelle

Katrina said...

Love that test! And I'm personally drawn toward flawed characters, as long as they're not too whiny. They need to have personality for me to want to spend time with them. I don't hang out with boring people in real life, so why would I in fiction?

Linda Leszczuk said...

I don't want a heroine to be perfect but I really like her to be resourceful. No hand wringing or "woe is me".

lizarnoldbooks said...

Of course, I believe in strong women, but I read an interesting post several months ago (somewhere, I read so many) that reminded writers that at certain times in certain places there were laws against women demonstrating certain heroic qualities. Does that make sense? I will remember to at least try to find the laws of the day while I am researching historical time periods so I can MAKE SURE my heroine breaks them! Boring women don't make history, remember?
You post is great today BTW.

Terry Odell said...

Vonnie - you have to ask yourself, "why would my character do this now?" every step of the way.

Lynette - Glad you liked the post - and those sorts of characters can turn books into wall bangers very fast.

Katrina - so true (and thanks for the Tweet)

Linda - resourceful is good. Perfect isn't. :-)

Liz - yes, there's a different kind of suspension of disbelief in reading/writing historicals, because today's woman didn't exist then.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I just read a book by an author I like whose heroine was TSTL in part of the book. Surprised me.

Hart Johnson said...

It's SO important for not alienating readers, isn't it? I like layering in the learning of a skill now and then, and I like to BALANCE skills they DO have with skills they DON'T (have them muck up at some stuff)--it's good for the tension ANYWAY if some of their stuff doesn't work.

Fiona McGier said...

I write alpha heroines because that's what I like to read. I don't want someone mooning around waiting to be rescued by love. I want someone who is busy living her life, and the hero has to work at it to convince her that she has to have him in her life. He can be alpha or beta, but she is always independent. I only write contemporaries because the morals of the past just irritate me, along with the lack of birth control!

Terry Odell said...

Caroline - authors really have to justify those TSTL moments so the reader will accept them. With the right motivation, it can work.

Hart - yes, that's the problem with a Mary Sue. They can do ANYTHING (and usually the reader doesn't know it until the skill appears)

Fiona - Nothing wrong with alphas (as long as they're not Mary Sues!) :-)

David Sklar said...

I like what you're saying here about overpowered characters, but in my experience, that's not what a "Mary Sue" is. According to everyone I've ever heard talk about "Mary Sues," the term doesn't necessarily refer to a too-perfect or too-powerful character but to one that is an obvious stand-in for the writer, or the writer's idealized self. Of course, the idealized self often is unusually capable, which is why there's the overlap.

Terry Odell said...

David - you're point is valid, but that "idealized" self ends up being too perfect. In writing, we have to make sure we establish the character's skill set BEFORE the skill is needed on the page. Either way, we don't want them in our books!

Thanks for stopping by;

Jemi Fraser said...

I find it hard at the beginning to avoid this issue - I want my characters to be perfect. But it quickly becomes no fun to write - so I change my plans and scuff 'em up. Much more fun. I can usually make the changes well before putting anything on paper or laptop now! :)

Lilly Gayle said...

Love this post but I hope I'm not TSTL! I'm one of those women who will get up to investigate a noise outside or in the basement without waking my husband because, well, he needs his sleep. lol! But, there's never been a killer loose in town at the time I did it either. Although, the last time I went trekking around the house at 2 am in my nighty with a flashlight and hubby found out about it, he asked if I were TSTL! lol! BTW, the noise was a low hanging branch that kept scratching against the bedroom screen. I broke it off and went back to bed.

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - yeah, hard to create conflict if the character can do everything

Lilly - and that could be why it's so easy to slip into that pattern. MOST of the time, those noises ARE just tree branches!