Practical Meerkat Returns: On Self-Rising Characters

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.

 Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers

 

 

 

*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.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

Comments

Practical Meerkat Returns: On Self-Rising Characters — 10 Comments

  1. Hi Laura!

    So would you say its fair to say that more discovery/pants oriented writers don’t have this problem, visibly, since they are generally working with a minimum to no outline and if someone pops up, that’s just part of their process.

    In other words, this phenomenon seems to be like discovery peanut butter in the chocolate of structured plotted writing. (I can use food metaphors, too, you know 🙂 )

    • Actually, no: I think every writer has this happen to them (I don’t see it as a “problem.”) They’re just better equipped, emotionally, to roll with it when it does.

      (very few writers, working novel-length, have no idea what characters they’re playing with. Not ones that actually finish the book, anyway. You can be a pantser…but you still have to choose your pants)

  2. I find that these characters are often the anti-Mary Sues as well! Often, when you’re going into a story you have these all important main characters, and you don’t notice that they’re perfect and awesome and have everything going for them (or are just boring and trite and like every other MC ever) because they’re supposed to be the center of the story. If a self-rising character starts to take off, it can fix things you didn’t know were broken and break things that were too perfect. Suddenly, your story is a lot more interesting.

  3. Dorothy Sayers has pointed out that characters who are rooted in the plot have far more power than the characters the author has created and trotted out onto the stage. (I believe her metaphor was pumpkins, which are indeed a highly invasive vegetable. There is a long tradition of food + writers; in fact I bet you Homer was fed, not paid.) So it is easy to completely lose control of the story if you don’t rein them in hard.

  4. Then there is always a sequel when the self-rising character demands, DEMANDS, in the dead of night that he/she has a story that needs telling and they won’t let you sleep until you agree with them and promise to work it out in the morning.

    Been there. Done that. I could get a whole series out of some of them.

  5. What a cool way of putting it! And a timely post for me to read:) Will think of such characters as more a blessing than a curse from now on . . . though it can be a battle to keep the story on track when they start appearing out of nowhere like that!

  6. I have written novels where it was totally impossible to get the story back. It was easier just to recast the entire work (it is SPEAK TO OUR DESIRES) with the new character as the protagonist. I kept a thunderbolt in my back pocket for my hero, however. I planned to get even, by killing him messily on the last page. You cannot defy your author without consequences!

  7. I’ve found that if I find a bit characater is too drab, and I assign a single trait to that character — drunkard, bad temper, morose — the character has a surprising tendency to come to life.