by Laura Anne Gilman
This essay comes off a comment I made on Facebook:
A secondary character who wasn’t in the outline has just developed a very real voice/personality. I hate (love) it when they do that…
And then someone asked “how do you keep a character like that from becoming a Mary Sue?”
And someone else asked “but where do those characters come from?”
First thing to note: not every character who comes to life on their own is a Mary Sue/Marty Stu [a character who Does Everything Better/Faster/Better Looking than anyone else]. Know the signs of MSS (Mary Sue Syndrome) and react accordingly when found. But don’t assume that any character you didn’t plot out beforehand is, by default, MS, or that will inevitably become MS.
(and for god’s sake never accuse anyone else of same, without actually applying the checklist. That’s lazy critiquing and you should expect more of yourself, at least).
Many writers craft their main characters – from a casual “this is who they are” rough draft all the way along the spectrum to the detailed checklist, completed with rolled-up attributes and established back stories. You use what works best for you. But sometimes, even in the most tightly-prepared cast, a character – often a very important character – will appear “out of nowhere.”
It’s not nowhere – it’s because there’s an empty character-shaped space in the manuscript. In other words, you’ve already created them, you just haven’t started writing them yet. You’ve created a scenario where the character will emerge like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, because that’s exactly what is needed at that time and place. I call those characters “self-rising characters.”
Yes, self-rising like flour, something that has a rising agent (like baking powder – or an inherent and distinct purpose) already added. Toss into the plot, and let things happen. Look, I putter in the kitchen, I like cooking metaphors. Roll with it. Or insert your own, that’s cool too.
As per my original comment, this can be frustrating – “hey! You weren’t in the outline! Stop that, you’re changing everything!” – or it can be exhilarating – “oh! That makes everything work! Excellent! Go go, self-rising character!”
My advice is to accept the frustration, and then let it go. Yes, you’re going off-outline. Yes, it’s going to change things and probably tangle threads and complicate relationships and maybe force you to rethink the major characters and how they get the story done. That’s good. It means the story’s taking on a life of its own.
In the best-case scenarios, the “living story” situation, a self-rising character fills an underlying need (in my particular instance, a night janitor who hears something he shouldn’t have). And once they’re there, you can’t get them out because, damn it, they’re solving problems you didn’t even know the story had.
Say thank you to your lizard brain, and keep writing.
Returning to the original question of how to keep a character like this from becoming a Mary-Sue….
Normally I’d say that’s between you and your editor/sense of decency*. But self-rising does not make a character idealized: in fact, it’s been my experience as writer and editor that these characters tend to be MORE flawed than ones thought out ahead of time, because you’re writing them in response to situations, rather than the other way around, and therefore channeling Actual Human Responses. When you’re writing to solve a scene, you don’t have time to think overlong about the character – they’re there, and you have to use them.
Knead, and let rise.
Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of twenty novels, including the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy, and the forthcoming DRAGON JUSTICE (PSI #4). For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)
She also runs d.y.m.k. productions, an editorial services company (www.dymkproductions.com).
And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.
*this is not to imply that an editor is the same as a sense of decency, merely that both are useful 3rd party aps in determining the level of marysuedom in a character.