Hello Mary Sue

by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

MEANWHILE: here is a commentary on two items that have been placed before me for analysis. One is a published novel, the other is a proposal for a Sime~Gen story (I think novel length) that we will definitely want to post for you to read when it's finished.

Both share the same flaw, but in opposite manifestations.

One has a poorly chosen, weak protagonist. The other has a poorly chosen ULTRA-STRONG protagonist.

Both stories START in the wrong place because of the CHOICE OF PROTAGONIST problems.

Beyond that, there are no similarities at all. Still, both writers need to reconsider the methods of creating and launching a protagonist into a story situation.

First, the fan-story "outline". It is a "typical Mary Sue" in the making. If that's what the writer intended, that's okay by me. I do adore Lt. Mary Sue, especially when well written. But somehow I don't think that's what this author really wanted to accomplish.

BTW: as a matter of policy, we don't "critique" on this workshop, and probably will continue a similar policy within the writng school. It has been my personal experience that "critiquing" is not instructive enough to be worth the time invested.

Instead of pointing out the weak spots in a story, we focus on the underlying skills-sets that cause the weaknesses. When the skills become stronger, the product those skills produce will no longer be weak.

Definition of "Lt. Mary Sue" -- the author's own alter-ego who bounces into a setting created by another writer and proceeds to solve most all the underlying conflicts built into the scenario effortlessly because of his/her Galaxy Class Talents That Have Lain Hidden. (I just made that defn up -- you folks can share all the other defns with each other -- the "Lt. Mary Sue" is a Star Trek fanzine convention.)

How do you TELL if you've committed a Mary-Sue-ism? Compare your protagonist to the FORMULA for protagonist creation.

I learned this formula from THE FAMOUS WRITER'S SCHOO before I wrote OPERATION HIGH TIMEL. The protagonist of a short story has ONE CHARACTER TRAIT THAT GENERATES THE CONFLICT AND THE RESOLUTION. The protagonist of a longer piece such as a novella can have TWO SUCH CHARACTER TRAITS. The protagonist of a long, involved, complex novel might have THREE SUCH CHARACTER TRAITS. Never any more than three.

Why? Well, when this writing school gets going, I will be able to answer that question succinctly in the School of Rathor using Astrological jargon, (Sun, Moon, Ascendant) or Tarot symbolism (we live in a three-D universe). Right now, just master this notion and practice applying it to your character development thinking. Once you've practiced this until it's second nature and your subconscious does it automatically, then you can attempt various ploys for violating this rule (some of them can be made to work in commercial fiction, but not without the skills-strength developed by following this rule of NO MORE THAN THREE.)

An underlying reason for the RULE OF THREE is that most people just wouldn't consider it plausible and would bounce right out of the story with a groan of disbelief. Also, more "power" than that in one person makes them someone who isn't likely to meet a real nemesis, and thus readers won't believe the character has met a real challenge.

One of the THREE TRAITS is usually a FLAW, a CLASSIC FATAL FLAW, an Achilles Heel of vulnerability.

In a THREE TRAIT PROTAGONIST you have ONE DOMINANT TRAIT (that generates the plot) and TWO SUBORDINATE TRAITS (that generate the "complications").

Thus you cannot choose the THREE TRAITS at random. They are a matched set.

How they "match each other" -- how they fit together and augment or interfere with each other -- is a matter of ART. This is where no one can advise you -- and that is the reason that "critique" fails as a teaching method for beginning writers. If there is a mistake you have made at this level of the story-conception, nobody reading what you have written can TELL WHAT YOU MEANT TO WRITE.

Here's how I create the matching sets I use. I look deep inside myself and ask myself the following KEY QUESTION.

1.) "Why do I want to write this story?"

The answer to that question is the THEME of the piece, and it all by itself generates the OPENING LINE where the CONFLICT that bespeaks or illustrates the theme first begins. That conflict is the conflict that must be RESOLVED in the last scene of the story.

Now, in the case of a PROTAGONIST who starts the story with 5 Major, Galaxy Class talents all fully developed and widely known and acknowledged, and the story is about that protagonist ADDING A SIXTH TRAIT -- a trait that is so rare you get one of them in a thousand years of human history -- (an avatar-level trait) -- the conflict and resulting story have to be about "Why Don't Humans Have 6 MAJOR GALAXY CLASS ABILITIES apiece?"

If the story doesn't address that issue, then the protagonist as formulated (5 going on 6 traits) doesn't belong to that story, and nothing the writer can do can hide that fact from the readers.

Such a story, about a 6-fold Protagonist, would have to include each of those talents being challenged by an ANTAGONIST. This would be a novel longer than War and Peace -- something on the order of Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series in length and complexity.

The "outline" (which was no sort of outline at all because it did not display a cause-effect-chain of events started by the protagonist who was opposed by an antagonist) which was presented to me had no antagonist and no conflict whatsoever displayed.

The initial event hinted at was the meeting of two characters who were matchmates, and one of them didn't want to get involved and the other did. (typical romance plot with some real SF teeth in it -- galactic repurcussions etc. )

The middle involved a knock-down-drag-out fight between them that had to be broken up by an outside force. (which is a plot-flaw of major proportions but it can't be fixed because there is no plot yet -- which is okay at the early stages of development of a story.)

And the "resolution" is that the protagonist who doesn't want to get involved goes away and studies some more and decides it's okay to get involved. That's not strong enough to carry a story with the kind of potential power shown by the Situation described in the outline. (yes, it had a dynamite SITUATION).

But I can't begin to help this writer develop this story because I can't tell what story the writer wants to write. Is it THIS PECULIAR PROTAGONIST'S STORY? Or is it AN EXAMINATION OF LOT RELATIONSHIPS? Or is it ESOTERIC TRAINING CAMP AT RATHOR? Or what? Maybe it's not even THIS PROTAGONIST's story.

I already discussed what the beginning implied the story would be 'about' -- "The Plight of the Multi-Talented in a THREE-TALENTED universe."

That story does not have a knock-down-drag-out battle at the middle that is broken up by an outside force.

That story has a "middle" in which some of the TALENTS ARE SACRIFICED, or STOLEN AWAY, or (I'd like to see) YET ANOTHER ADDED making a burden too great to bear, and the resulting desperate act generates the resolution. (what that resolution is depends on the writer's personal philosophy of life -- but it has to resolve the problem of being a towering misfit.)

Now, take the MIDDLE as outlined. That is a knock-down-drag-out battle-of-lovers that has to be broken up by an outside force. That is a TERRIFIC beginning to a story. The MIDDLE of that story is where the lovers (who hate each others guts beyond all belief) have to join forces against the OUTSIDE FORCE that has interfered with their "battle-to-a-resolution". And THE ENDING is where they vanquish the outside force working as a team -- and as a result end up with the Situation they were trying to avoid. Only now, because of all that's happened in between, they can embrace those situations.

Or TAKE THE ENDING as outlined. Multi-talented Protag acquires yet another Galaxy Class Trait and thus decides the "fate worse than death" is okay anyway. To me that is the BEAR TRAP PLOT at it's beginning.

That's why I said I think maybe this is the outline to a story that is STARTED IN THE WRONG PLACE. There are three totally different plots nascent within this outline -- one that starts at the beginning as stated (two destined lovers meet and it's hate-at-first-sight for one, and desperate love for the other), one that starts at the middle as stated (knock-down-drag-out battle against a FATE WORSE THAN DEATH), and one that starts at the ending as stated (PROTAG ACCEPTS THE UNACCEPTABLE FATE WORSE THAN DEATH). But those three pivot-points that were outlined do not belong in the same story, even a novel-length story. Even in a story that is several novels long.

How would I solve this problem? I'd re-cast the protagonist. I would choose a single Dominant Trait -- generate a plot-outline from that single trait that would work to support the THEME I wanted to discuss -- and look into what that plot-theme integration would require to SHOW DON'T TELL various subtle complicating points, and then-and-only-then I would imbue the protagonist with the SUB-DOMINANT Traits I'd invent to support and illustrate those complicating points. And I'd put the rest of the material into the file for future novels.

But there is another way to solve it. You can keep the "Mary-Sue" character, and make the story a "romp" for the reader, exaggerating each of the routine elements in a Sime~Gen story to create a parody -- in this case, the natural parody subject would be UNTO. I'd fall off my chair laughing -- it would be such a delight.

But this outline didn't have the touches of humor that would lead me to suspect that the author wanted to try that approach.

So there is a third way to solve it. You can keep the Super-Hero Protagonist and invent a Super-Villain to create a real battle with a real threat to the Protag. The style required for that would be High Camp - like a Superman movie where the villains come from Krypton. That's not my favorite sort of thing to read, but if it's well done, I'd gladly revel in it. But it's very hard to write, and I don't know how to teach people do pull off something that -- delicate. Broad farce is much easier in it's way.

Which brings us to the published novel -- no, not the one I recommended workshoppers go find and read. I'm giving you time on that one. This is one I'm not going to review.

Now, I have to admit this novel is in a very plain, mundane, setting and has one, well chosen and carefully focused FANTASY PREMISE. The scenes track smoothly, the characters are deep, interesting and well-thought-out. Most analysts would probably conclude that the flaw is in the PLOT.

But I don't think so because the author told me that the editor reaquired major cuts and revisions before publication for reasons having little or nothing to do with the content of the novel.

As a result, flaws emerged and became prominent that might not have been visible in the book as originally written.

But working just from what I can see in the published book, I think the problem is not a plot-problem at all. I think it's CHOICE OF PROTAGONIST again -- a very, very similar problem to the outline I have just discussed, but in the opposite way.

Here is a published novel with a MAIN PROTAGONIST who has no outstanding ABILITIES and only one trait of any interest -- which trait the main character does not even know exists until more than halfway through the novel (I'm only halfway through it at this writing). The book is 241 pages long, and I'm on page 123. Because of the way the beginning is structured, there is no way I know of to pull this thing together before the end of the book.

I think the story BEGAN IN THE WRONG PLACE because the chosen main POV character is not in fact the actual protagonist.

Because the POV character has no outstanding abilities to draw upon at the beginning, the POV character can DO NOTHING about the Situation that embroils the characters in the novel.

So for the first half of the novel, we have a HUNG HERO.

There are two ways to fix this. Change the POV character to someone who can and does act to change the situation. Or re-formulate the POV character to have a trait that can be used to affect the situation.

As a result of this choice of POV character, the SITUATION does not change before the halfway point of the novel because the POV character has no power to change the situation. Seeing as how a "novel situation" MUST change with every SCENE, I would feel this is a major flaw.

I think the story starts in the wrong place because The Initial Situation is not generated by an act or decision of the POV character, but rather is just something that happens TO that character. Then throughout the first half of the novel, the POV character learns about the Situation, gleans and garners bits and pieces of fact here and there, but is not actively or desperately propelled into searching for that knowledge, nor in synthesizing the bits and pieces into a theory upon which to act. There is no urgent and necessary MUST coupled to an equally urgent and absolute CANNOT - thus no "tension," no "suspense" and that is because there is no conflict.

The main POV character is embroiled in a terrible situation and doesn't even know it -- and so is not responding to that Situation in any way.

The solution I would have employed, had this story been presented to me in OUTLINE FORM, would be to move the OPENING of the story ahead in the POV character's life to the point at which the ODD TRAIT becomes known, and empowers ACTION.

The action the POV character chooses at that MOMENT OF TRUTH will define the character's MAIN TRAIT, the PLOT, and the THEME. Those are the elements that weave together into an OPENING SCENE. Without those elements, you can't construct a NARRATIVE HOOK.

Which brings us back to the definition of PLOT that I've harped on repeatedly in this workshop. A plot is a cause-effect sequence.

The main POV character is the one who ACTS FIRST -- the person attempting to impose their agenda on the course of events -- to get things to come out in their own favor. The VILLAIN or ANTAGONIST is the one who is acted-upon and objects. (it is quite plausible to open a story with the Protag being attacked by the Villain or Antag, but in that case, the Protag's chosen course of action sets the agenda and announces the theme. It is the protag's MOMENT OF CHOICE which is the narrative hook and the springboard for the story. If the character being attacked can not act, that character is not the protag or main POV character.)

In HORROR GENRE the main POV character starts out by doing or choosing something that GETS THEIR FANNY CAUGHT IN A BEAR TRAP -- they choose to go into the haunted house at midnight, and thus get trapped in a past-scenario where the ghosts live. It is that element of choice that makes them the protag.

In this published novel, there is one character who does choose to stick his nose in where it doesn't belong and thus gets himself "caught up in the affairs of wizards". And throughout the first half of this novel, he is acting boldly, while the main POV character only reacts and accepts.

That is why I think many of the problems of this novel would have been avoided had the main POV character been chosen differently.

No two writers work in the same way. For me, very often, choice of protagonist is subconscious and imperative -- that is, the CHARACTER appears in my mind and demands that I tell their story. But sometimes I have the STORY and no character whose story it is -- and I have to wait (sometimes years) for the character to appear. Sometimes it's theme, something that I want to SAY, that propels the story first. But before setting hands to keyboard, these three elements must be present and fitted together -- STORY, Character whose story this is, and THEME (something to say about the character's situation). If they aren't fitted together in your mind yet, you aren't ready to start writing.

Sometimes you can get the three elements to assemble into a cohesive whole by moving the opening event of the story forward or back in time.

Where a story begins depends on WHOSE STORY IT IS. Or whose story this is depends on where it begins. Either way -- these are not independent variables. You can start with either one, but once one half of that equation is determined, the other half is fixed.

The same with beginning, middle and end. Once you know where the story begins, you know whose story it is, and that tells you where the middle and the end must fall.

So look deep into your mind and fix one of these story elements. Once you've decided which of the Ideas you have is the most important to you, you then generate the other elements from that fixed one. And never accept a critique or criticism that demands changing that one fixed element -- but stand ready to change everything else so that it matches the fixed element.

It's like getting dressed in the morning. If you have decided you must wear that red silk shirt, pick out everything else so it doesn't clash with the red shirt. Keeping in mind that different people have different ideas of what clashes with what, be prepared for criticism of your choices by making them carefully. Always remember that dressing, as writing, is mainly an ART. There are no absolute rights or wrongs. There are no real "rules". But there are effective ways of achieving a specific result.

When you set out to learn these effective ways -- keep your attention on the result you are attempting to achieve and judge the success or failure of your efforts on how precisely you can control what result you achieve.

The commercial artist is commercial because of the ability to achieve specific and chosen results in an efficient and effective manor. A fan-writer has to be effective, but not necessarily efficient. (but I find it a lot more fun to write efficently)

One of the major, time conserving shortcuts is to understand how choosing different characters in a given situation changes the story you can tell, changes the beginning, middle, and end points, and changes the theme and the plot-possibilities too.

TEST your work in outline form by asking yourself:

1) Why do I want to write this story? (the answer to that is your theme and the title and narrative hook - i.e. the answer is the reason anyone would want to read that story) Whatever you do, in rewrite or outline, do not change anything to do with that reason why you want to write this particular story -- or the whole thing will go dead on you. People call that writer's block, but it's only a mistake.)

2)Whose story is this? (the character whose actions change the Situation with each PLOT EVENT.)

3)Have I formulated the characters properly (always remembering that a story-character is not anything at all like a real person in complexity)? Is the protagonist in real jeopardy? Do the supporting characters have more traits, and more interesting traits than the ostensible main pov character? (that's one way to fall off the conflict line -- to be lured away by a more interesting minor character. Make your minor characters minor, and less interesting than the plot-moving characters.)

4) Do I have a Beginning that goes with the Middle that leads naturally to a particular End? (this is genre specific -- happy endings require a sad-middle)

5) Test to see if the elements stated in your THEME, the reason why you want to write the story, are SHOWN NOT TOLD by being represented by and spoken for by appropriate characters.

(If you've spawned a 6-Trait character, you may solve that by factoring that character into several characters. One efficient trick is to take the outline's Hero and factor that one person into Hero and Villain (which is what Gene Roddenberry did to get Kirk, Spock and McCoy, or as he said repeatedly in public, "Three parts of myself.") Test to see if your POV character's assumptions are challenged by a suitable antagonist. (the outline analyzed above has no antagonist at all - everyone's on the same side, even the people who are fighting. They just disagree. They're not devoutly dedicated to mutually exclusive philosophies and agendas. The published novel's first half has no antagonist, and thus no conflict either.)

6) Then cast your narrative hook. What is the story about? And keep casting that hook until you find the correct place to BEGIN telling the story. That place is where the elements that will conflict to generate the plot FIRST COME IN CONTACT.

Run these 6 tests before you begin to write, and you'll save yourself 5 or maybe 6 rewrites and avoid all danger of running into writer's block. Oh, you'll still have to rewrite, maybe more than once, but your rewrites will each be a measurable improvement, not just a re-arrangement of your mistakes. That keeps your energy level high and makes it much easier to do the work of writing.

Live Long and Prosper,
Jacqueline Lichtenberg