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Monday, August 28, 2017

"Everything has already been done before" -- Has it really?

You've probably heard the idea voiced in the writing world at some point that "Everything has already been done before." Is that true? Has everything really already been done before?

I'd argue no.

And I might even be a little passionate about arguing it.

Now, before I get further, I think it's important to acknowledge that there is a difference between saying "Everything has already been done before" and saying  "It's okay to do this again." Sometimes when I hear people say "Well, everything's already been done before," they're using it in a way to grant permission to do something again. But there is nothing wrong with doing something again, as long as you make it your own, bring something fresh to the table, and don't plagiarize (or base everything off the same source). Using the excuse that "Everything's already been done" though, causes a couple of problems.

For one, it's saying that in order for your work to have value, it must do something no one has even seen before. And that's just not true. Having something new in your story that people haven't seen before can definitely make your work stand out, but it is not the sum attribute of what makes a good story. Besides, you can have something fresh, new, and original that actually hurts your story or makes it worse . . . because it's not an appealing idea, it doesn't fit the story or genre, or it's too strange and bizarre for the intended audience.

The second problem is that when you use that logic, you limit yourself. When you say and believe "Everything's already been done before," you give yourself a ceiling, a limitation. If you don't believe there can be any new ideas in the world, then you can't really come up with new ideas, can you? And if you do, it will be by accident (which is very unlikely).

This reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago with someone. We'd gotten on the topic of spirituality or the spiritual realm and if it could ever be scientifically discovered. The person I talked to said, "But how can it be discovered if it can't be measured?" I replied, "How was anything ever discovered?" To which he replied, "You have a point."

Obviously my response was an exaggeration, but the point is, there have been things discovered in science that we previously thought could never be discovered. I mean, we can freaking tell the elements in star by looking at its light spectrum. We've discovered things that no human eye can see. We've "discovered" dark matter, which is still literally undetectable to us (we only see its effect on things). My point of this conversation is that, whether or not you believe a spiritual world or afterlife exists, when we accept the idea that if it did, it can never be discovered, we vastly limit our abilities of possibly discovering or measuring it.

But if you look at history, time and time again, new things were discovered--even crazy things that vastly changed human perspective, that led to persecution, to religions renouncing sciences, to powerful opinions and thinking, to shaming and banning--and we gained access to new sciences. Whenever we believe humankind has already discovered everything there is to discover, we largely curb our learning abilities.

Remember that once most of the human population believed the Earth was the center of the universe--and if anyone could say they could actually measure where and how it fit into the universe, they would have been laughed to scorn, and worse.

Imagine people back then saying, "Everything has already been discovered," or "Every school of science has already been invented," or "Everything that can be measured has already been measured."

When we learn of these things and attitudes in history, we laugh. But honestly, today, people are no different.

But my point is, if we choose to believe that everything we could write has already been written before, we vastly limit our abilities.

And it's not true.

Look at time machine stories.

How many time machine stories do you think exist? Probably tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands.

But someone came up with the first one (The Clock that Went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell). Eventually someone came up with one that was so mind-blowing, it infiltrated far corners of the world. Now everyone knows what a time machine is, even if they don't exist.

If everything has already been done before, then how were genres like cyber punk and space opera started? And how are we able to trace back to their beginnings?

Sometimes such groundbreaking work does not happen on a huge scale. As a lot of you probably know, I'm a big fan of Christopher Nolan's movie Interstellar. When making the movie, they worked closely with physicist Kip Thorne, who gave them the most up-to-date information on black holes. No one had created a true black hole in television before. Not even Kip Thorne had seen a rendition of a true one, and he's spent his life in astrophysics. Interstellar was the first movie to accurately depict what a black hole would actually look like. Even Kip Thorne was stunned to see it.

It had never been done before.

Years ago I started reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I didn't have to get far into it to see why it was so popular and such a phenomenon. And while I've seen a few concepts that may overlap with it (and as I've mentioned before, some weirdly overlap with my own (and here I thought I'd been so clever)), it was vastly its own story--largely original. I'd never read anything like it before. And I've never read anything like it since. And it just wasn't in a few aspects here and there, it was all over. And it was clever. Philip Pullman created something that hadn't been done before.

There are many other examples I could go on about. Of course, there is Harry Potter and there is Lord of the Rings and there is Star Wars and there are many more.

Guys. Everything has NOT already been done before!

Some stories have completely new concepts--and yes, those are very rare--while other stories do something that's never been done, like Interstellar. Still, there are other stories that take something already done, and carry it out in a way that's never been done.

You can crisscross concepts in ways that haven't been done. You can play with tropes and outcomes to make something no one has seen before. You can push the limits and twist ideas into something that has never graced the bookshelves.

When Indiana Jones was still in its very early stages, during a brainstorming session, the filmmakers were talking about a chase scene. Chase scenes have been done a million times. But during the brainstorming, they come up with the idea of using a camel in the chase scene. They'd never seen a chase scene done with a camel. Horses, cars, and on foot--yes. But a camel? Never.

They took a common scene and tried to think of a way to put their stamp on it, to make it different. (Unfortunately I don't think that particular chase scene ended up in the film, but you get my point.)

You are different than other people in the world. You have different experiences, and a different perspective.

You can do something that has never been done before.

Is it difficult? Yes, it can be very difficult. But honestly, it can also be a skill developed like any other. You can work on it the same way you work on learning punctuation, style, plotting, or character. The problem is, we never teach how to do it, or try to do it, because,

"Everything has already been done before."

The. Ceiling.

The ceiling we've placed on others. The ceiling we place on ourselves.

Doomed to be borrowers and copycats.

Now, as I said at the beginning, stories don't have to be "new" to be good. And not everyone wants to write something completely revolutionary. That's 100% acceptable. Say, "It's okay to do this again." Don't say, "Well, everything has already been done before."

Whichever writer you want to be, though, I do recommend leaving something of yourself in every scene. We don't want to be complete copycats and plagiarizers. I also don't recommend repeatedly borrowing from the same sources--unless you are a writing hobbyist or fanfiction writer who is doing that intentionally for the sake of doing it (i.e. "What would it be like if my character went to Hogwarts when Harry did?")

But please, be good to yourself. And remember what I've said in posts past: People who teach that something can't be done, don't know how to do it.

Don't put ceilings on yourself. It's perhaps one of the most successful ways to sabotage yourself and keep yourself from reaching your potential.

If you truly want to learn how to create something that hasn't been done, you can. Learn to develop an eye for when others do it in books or movies . . . and when they don't. Go over to and study hundreds of story tropes--you usually need to know what's out there and how it works in order to make new combinations, alternatives, and concepts.

Here are some of my past posts that overlap and relate and may help too (particularly the first one):

Flipping Story Stuff
Writing Micro-concepts
Ramping up Try/Fail Cycles
Honestly, a lot of my Interstellar posts may help
Why Rowling Rocked the Briefcase Mix-up and How You can Rock Your Own Tired Tropes
Tips on Creating Your Own Fantastic Beasts
Leaving Your Stamp on a Scene
Starting a Scene: Two Important Questions
Playing with Foils
The Real Key to Brainstorming: Restrictions

Monday, August 21, 2017

How Seriously Should You Take Writing?

Every once in a while I get to thinking about all the writing stuff out there.

There is so much stuff.

There are so many opinions.

So much advice.

And sometimes I wonder what percentage of people who want to write really need all of them.

The title of this post is "How Seriously Should You Take Writing?" Do you know what the answer is?

However seriously you want.

There is so much stuff out there for writers.

There are conferences where you can learn about writing and meet authors, agents, editors.

There are writing retreats where you can get together with other writers, socialize, and write.

There are hundreds of books on writing you can read about and learn from.

There are blogs, youtube channels, podcasts, Twitter handles, Facebook pages for writers.

There are writing workshops where you can do hands-on learning and get critiques and feedback of your work.

There are open mic nights where you can read your work.

There are community events for writers.

There are writing groups where you meet with other writers and share work.

There are writing luncheons and dinners.

If you know where to find it, there is writing stuff everywhere.

If you really want to write, it can sometimes be hard not to get sucked into trying to do everything--everything mentioned above, including actually writing, and editing, and public appearances, and social media, and blogging, and contests, and . . .  the list goes on.

But everyone can be a writer. It doesn't require any of the things in that list above. The definition of a writer is someone who writes.

It doesn't have qualifiers.

How seriously should you take writing?

However seriously you want.

I've meet writers who simply post chapters of their stories on Tumblr. There are fanfiction writers. There are blog writers. There are people who write stories in notebooks that they want no one to read. There are closet writers.

There are casual writers--writers who write when they feel like it. There are social writers--writers who like to write, but also like writing because of the writing community. They like to take part in all the social connections and gatherings and conferences and workshops and they like to read at open mics.

In contrast, I've edited work for phenomenal, talented writers who have next to no online presence or writing community involvement.

There are writers who dream of being a leading name in the industry. But there are writers who only ever desire to share their work on Wattpad.

If you want to take your writing seriously, you can. You can study up, work, practice, hone, write, edit, put in your 10,000 hours. If you want to take your writing less seriously, you can.

Don't ever let anyone (whether it's intended or not) make you feel like you aren't serious enough to write. Don't let the pressure of the industry rob you of doing what you love and loving what you do.

Of course, this doesn't mean you get to choose all the outcomes.

As best-selling author Kevin J. Anderson says, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

If you are serious about making it on the New York Times bestselling list, you're going to have to work. Hard. You can't expect to put in 100 hours and be there. You've got to do the work. You've got to be more serious and intense.

How seriously should you take your writing?

Well, that depends largely on where you want to go.

There are always some factors out of our control. We can't control the writing universe, unfortunately. But that's one reason why Kevin J. Anderson says, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

The more work you put in, the more opportunities open up. Maybe it's just probability. Maybe it's because other people see how hard you are working, and they reach out. Maybe it's simply because hard work pays off. But it's true. When you work harder and work smarter, that work yields bigger and better results.

But if you only want to write for fun, because you enjoy it and it makes you happy, that's a good enough reason to write, even if it's just a few minutes a day, a week, a month, or whatever. There may be gates or gatekeepers that have a say on who gets to be considered a bestseller, an author, a professional writer, but there are no restrictions on who gets to write.

If you follow my blog because you like to and find it interesting and just want to write for fun, great.

If you follow my blog because you are intense (or obsessive ;) about writing and want to hit #1 on the best-seller list, great.

In the writing universe, there is room for anyone, however seriously or casual they want to take their writing.

Monday, August 14, 2017

5 Most Common Mistakes with Dialogue

As an editor, I've been thinking about how I need to do a post on some of the most common mistakes I see in dialogue. Many are a matter of fine-tuning, moving from a great writer, to a professional one.

Dialogue Tags Don't Match the Dialogue

As I've mentioned before, I'm not wholly against alternative dialogue tags ("groaned," "cried," "yelled," "lamented," etc.), and I think they can be particularly effective when the dialogue and the context of the story can't portray the way that it's said. For example:

"That's great," Melody groaned

But sometimes the dialogue tag honestly doesn't fit the way it's said. It's hard to give an example of this in a blog post, because often whether or not the tag fits the dialogue depends on the context of the story. But look at this:

"Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes," Milo whined

The direct dialogue doesn't sound like whining. The content doesn't sound like something to whine about, and the structure doesn't sound like whining. But that is the chosen dialogue tag. It doesn't fit.

"Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes," Milo said matter-of-factly.

But sometimes you get weird combos like this:

"Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes," Milo whined matter-of-factly.

I don't know about you, but "whined matter-of-factly" sounds like something that's pretty difficult to pull off.

Here are some more examples:

"I need to lose weight," Taz wondered.

"Can I check into my hotel room now?" Kelly raged.

"Want to pick up the groceries?" Katie exclaimed.

Sure, grammatically, they are fine, but other than very rare occasions, the tags aren't appropriate for the direct dialogue. Make sure what you write matches.

Modifiers Don't Match the Dialogue

Some people really love using modifying phrases (participial phrases) with their dialogue tags. Again, I'm not against this, but like anything, it can be overused, and more than that, it needs to make sense. A modifying phrase after a dialogue tag is adding information to the dialogue tag.  It works as an adjective. Here is a fine example.

"Do you ever sunburn?" Manny asked, squeezing sunscreen into his palm

"Squeezing sunscreen into his palm" is a modifying phrase--it adds information to "Manny asked." Because it functions similar to an adjective, it's also saying that Manny squeezed the sunscreen into his palm at the same time he asked "Do you ever sunburn." Not after. The same time.

Here is a problem example:

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, holding my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

You cannot yell and hold your breath at the same time. So this is a problem. But you can easily fix it:

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, then held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


"Grab the gun!" I yelled. I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


 "Grab the gun!" I yelled, and I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


"Grab the gun!" I yelled, holding my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

Other times, the participial phrase doesn't match because it doesn't fit with the dialogue (usually it doesn't logically match in length).

 "Yes," she said, putting her dress, socks, and pajamas in a suitcase and then the luggage on the floor.

You can't tell me she put her dress, socks, AND pajamas in a suitcase AND then put the luggage on the floor the same time she said "Yes."  Unless she's Quicksilver from X-Men, it's not possible to do all those things during a one-syllable word.

You can fix it like this:

 "Yes," she said, putting her dress in the suitcase. She added her socks and pajamas, and then placed the luggage on the floor.

Some writers say you should try to leave out participial phrases like this altogether, since cognitively it is difficult for the reader to imagine both things happening at once. I'm personally okay with it and don't think it's a big deal. They just need to make sense.

Improper Punctuation

I think probably every writer struggles at some point with figuring out how to punctuate dialogue. Let's be honest, to a beginner, it's not that clear-cut, and if you don't know the rules, it might seem somewhat random. For example, all of these sentences are punctuated properly:

"All I was wondering," Jill said, "was if you would like to go to the movies."

"I caught a fish once," Heber said. "It was a big fat trout."

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. "You wrecked my car?"

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked. "I do love squirrels."

Here are the same sentences handled improperly:

"All I was wondering," Jill said. "Was if you would like to go to the movies."

"I caught a fish once," Heber said, "it was a big fat trout."

"I can't believe this," Arnie said! "You wrecked my car?"

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "you wrecked my car?"

"I do love squirrels," Daisy asked, "was it a squirrel?"

For a complete rundown of how to punctuate dialogue, you can follow this link. But here are a few things to keep in mind.

"All I was wondering," [part of a sentence] Jill said, [dialogue tag] "was if you would like to go to the movies. [rest of the sentence]"

- When the dialogue tag interrupts a sentences, separate it by commas.

"I caught a fish once, [complete sentence]" Heber said. [dialogue tag] "It was a big fat trout." [a separate complete sentence]

- When the dialogue tag comes at the end of a complete sentence, use a comma inside the end quotes and then a period after the tag. If there is more dialogue, capitalize the next letter as you would the start of a sentence.

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. "You wrecked my car?"

- When the dialogue tag follows an exclamation point or question mark, you simply add the dialogue tag with a period. You don't need an extra comma ("I can't believe this!," Arnie said--no)

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

- In this example, the dialogue tag is technically preceding the dialogue "You wrecked my car?" so you can put a comma.

Notice how these actually read differently:

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. / "You wrecked my car?"


"I can't believe this!" / Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

The slash denotes that extra bit of silence. The way the dialogue tag is placed and punctuated tells us how the beat goes.

Now, some people say you should never start with a dialogue tag: Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?" I'd argue that it's the best choice in some scenarios. Also, some say you should never flip the speaker and tag: "You wrecked my car?" said Arnie.

I personally don't have a problem with it as long as it's used sparingly and not the go-to choice. When you are describing who is speaking, because we don't know the name, it's often a great choice: "You wrecked my car?" said a man with a long beard and a silver umbrella.

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked. "I do love squirrels."

- Same explanation as my exclamation point one. If you end on a question, put the question mark before the end quotes, add the dialogue tag, and put a period. Notice how this example is wrong:

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked, "I do love squirrels."


"Was it a squirrel?" / Daisy asked, "I do love squirrels."

Daisy is not asking "I do love squirrels." So again, the tag does not match the dialogue.

Making Actions into Dialogue Tags

I could have probably put this in the last section, but it happens so much that it really needs its own category.

Sometimes writers make the dialogue tag a physical action:

"Let's go to the store," Amy smiled.

"I do love pudding," Luna scooped some pudding on her plate, "When is the next match?"

"The last thing I need," Mom yanked the car into reverse, "is for you to back talk me!"

Dialogue is something audible. You can't smile audible language. You can smile while you say it, but you can't smile it.

"Let's go to the store," Amy said, smiling.


"Let's go to the store." Amy smiled.

In the second example, it is implied that Amy is the speaker, simply because of the structure of the line/paragraph. You can absolutely imply who is speaking. But notice that "Amy smiled" is not punctuated as a dialogue tag.

Here is how to fix the pudding one:

"I do love pudding." Luna scooped some pudding on her plate. "When is the next match?"

Keep the action separate from the dialogue--its own sentence.

The third wrong example is tricky. But is here is how you handle it:

"The last thing I need"--Mom yanked her car into reverse--"is for you to back talk me!"

Now, in some cases, I'm guilty of just doing the commas to set off the action, because I feel it suits the tone more than the dashes. If dashes don't suit the moment, you can also play around with the dialogue and find (correct) alternatives. Now, is it wrong if I stylistically choose to use commas? I'll leave that to my editor. ;)

Maid-and-Butler Dialogue

Sometimes an author is trying to get information to the reader through dialogue. And it's obvious. And feels contrived. Maid-and-butler dialogue is a term that originates from stories where the maid and butler would tell each other things they already both know. For example:

"Voldemort was a very dark wizard who killed Harry's parents," Dumbledore said to Snape.
"Voldemort was one of the most powerful wizards in history, as you know, and he went to school here, at Hogwarts," Snape replied.

Dumbledore and Snape both know these things probably better than anyone, but they're talking this way solely for the benefit of the audience. The reality is, as a writer, you often do need to convey information to the reader through dialogue. One way this is handled is by having a character speaking to another character who doesn't know this information.

" 'Arry, I dunno how t' tell ya this," Hagrid said, then paused. "Yer mum and dad didn' die in a car crash. It was a dark wizard who done it. You-Know-Who--one o' the darkest wizards in history."

(Yeah, I know, I can't get Hagrid's dialogue quite right without the book in front of me.)

But in this example, we have someone who knows telling someone who doesn't.

Sometimes though, you just can't work that into your story. In that case, the info itself should not be the sum of the dialogue, but often the subtext.

Here is a great example that would have worked fine (although, it of course works better in where it is actually placed)

(Major spoiler alert--since I know some of my followers haven't read or seen all of Harry Potter yet and they want to)

"You said you would keep her safe," Snape said.
"Lily and James put their faith in the wrong person, Severus, rather like you," Dumbledore said. "The boy survives."
"He doesn't need protection. The dark lord is gone!"
"The dark lord will return. And when he does, the boy will be in terrible danger," Dumbledore said. "He has her eyes."

And then as the scene goes on, you could subtly fill in more info the reader needs.

Straightforward Dialogue (Bonus)

Often the most powerful dialogue is indirect. In the spoilery example above, one of the many reasons it was so powerful was because of all that it implies--it's indirect. It has subtext. Notice how a very straightforward version takes out some of the power:

(Still spoilery )

"You said you would keep her safe," Snape said.
"I did my best to keep them safe. Voldemort killed Lily and James when they trusted Peter Pettigrew as their Secret Keeper. Their son survived Voldemort's attack. He will need protection."
"He doesn't need protection. The dark lord is gone!"
"The dark lord will return. And when he does, he'll want to kill the boy," Dumbledore said. "I know how much you loved Lily, so you must do all you can to keep the boy safe."

Sure, the dialogue is okay, but it's lost some of its power.

Other times, the straightforward is not so lucky:

"Jennifer, I love you! I love you so much! I love you more than the moon and the sun," Cole said.
"I didn't like you at first, but I guess over time I came to like you too," Jennifer said. "Maybe we can be friends for now though."

Straightforward dialogue releases tension. It has a place in storytelling for sure (like when it's time for the tension to be released). But most of your dialogue should not be so straightforward. In life, people often speak indirectly about things, and their words reveal more than what they are actually saying. Good dialogue does too. It says more than what's on the page.

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Fixing the Mary Sue Character in Your Story

The term "Mary Sue" started in fanfiction, back when someone wrote a Star Trek story that had a character with that name, but a Mary Sue can pop up in original fiction too. Really, she can pop up anywhere. But she hardly ever pops up in published fiction or professional fiction--because she often bars those works from those markets. So if you've only ever read books you can buy off a bookshelf, you may have never meet her.

"Mary Sue" is a derogatory term for a particular (yet reoccurring) character type that many beginning writers write about. But she's a problematic and poor character for several reasons. A lot of people may have different definitions for what "Mary Sue" means, and there are different subcategories for different types.

Probably the most common Mary Sue is the one that is inexplicably talented at everything, falls in love with a hunky guy or is related to a significant person, gorgeous, and embodies pure wish fulfillment. This sort of Mary Sue is what usually crops up in fanfiction, because she's inserted into an existing universe that the author already knows and loves.

However, as someone who edits unpublished, original fiction, the Mary Sue I often run into is a different type.

Does your female character embody these?

Is Your Character a Mary Sue?

  • - Often she contributes almost nothing to the story or plot--and yet, everyone adores her. (Alternatively, she's insanely talented and every problem is ultimately solved easily by her--more common in fanfiction.)

  • - At some point, she might eventually be considered very valuable, by others or to the plot, but often it's a passive value. Something she just *is* instead of anything she does.

  • - She's probably clumsy. Sometimes ridiculously so, as in, she can't even walk down the sidewalk or go down a couple of stairs without worrying she's going to fall. Bonus Mary Sue points if a male (usually a love interest or family member) comments on how klutzy she is and has to have her hold onto him just to walk somewhere. Extra bonus Mary Sue points if she falls in front of a cute guy or the love interest or when it would be most embarrassing (which, of course, is in front of a cute guy). 

  • - She doesn't see herself as beautiful, but somehow the author finds a way to convey to the audience that she is drop dead gorgeous without even trying.

  • - She does nothing, but yet people feel sorry for her and her problems. These are often problems she makes little to no effort to fix, or problems she doesn't even consciously think about fixing or improving.

  • - She needs a lot of saving--either from these problems, or because she's a helpless [insert character trait (hint: probably has to do with being a klutz)]

  • - Often other characters (usually male) go out of their way to help her with her problems--and sometimes really out of their way, like they might miss the most important meeting of their career, a prestigious performance opportunity, their mom's birthday party, or work. Whatever they miss, one thing often holds true--it was more important than whatever the female character needed help with. It might be an injury she got while being clumsy or maybe she's just sad about school and how "hard" (hint: she has one of the easiest lives of all the characters) her life is, or maybe it's just that perennial problem that she has and has made zero effort to try to solve and/or would not have even been in to begin with if she weren't so darn passive. Whatever it is, people (friends, males, family, males (whoops, did I say "males" twice?)) inexplicably bend over backwards for her. Usually people--plural, not singular.

  • - She probably cries more than any other character, even though many of the other characters have more significant things they could cry about. She cries sometimes over day-to-day challenges that the average person faces anyway. It might be over a problem she hasn't tried to fix or that she puts herself in (though the author never points those things out). For example, she might cry repeatedly over a school club she's a part of but hasn't bothered to leave. She probably cries on the behalf of other people too--people who don't even cry about their own problems.

  • - She'll likely trip in the first 50 pages, but in a way that highlights and exaggerates her beauty.

  • - If you took her out of the context of the story, you might realize she's actually kind of pathetic and passive, and yet, inexplicably, everyone STILL adores her.

  • - Often she feels stupid or foolish, but the hottest guys fight over her (heaven knows why).

  • - She's more romantically or sexually inexperienced than the love interest and worries about not knowing what she's doing and what he'll think. (Bonus points if she somehow ends up being the best thing he's ever had regardless.)

  • - All in all, she just attracts a lot of male attention, whether it's romantic or brotherly or just male strangers in the street.

  • - A lot of the time she's a wish-fulfillment character (traditionally, the author's wish fulfillment). This is why she's adored and hailed as the most important person in other people's lives and considered very special, even though she feels stupid, uncoordinated, and helpless; this is why she's actually gorgeous when she feels ugly; this is why people drop the most important moments of their personal lives to save or nurse her back to health.

  • - The flaws she has are meant to be endearing and don't actually contribute to the main problems of the plot. They may exist, but are unimportant beyond the very surface of the story

  • - She tends to be in "parent-child" relationships. This relationship can be exaggerated with her parents, but it often crops up in other relationships--whether it's from the best friend, love interest, or brother. Whatever the case, she's usually the "child" while the other person is her "parent" in the relationship. The "parent" is taking care of her, warning her, helping her, praising her, directing her--even though she's 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, or 23 years old. Whether or not she obeys, she listens to them and maintains her role of "child" in that relationship. In fact, she often seems utterly accepting of her "child" role.

Bonus Round (yes, there is more) 

  • - She has a unique hair or eye color (in a story with fantasy or sci-fi elements, the colors may change or be unnatural compared to ordinary humans) and it's described in "I'm-trying-to-be-poetic" language (a.k.a. "purple prose"). Extra, extra bonus points if it takes at least five words to describe.

  • - She has an unusual or rare name.

  • - She's a stand-in for the author (an extended version of wish fulfillment), so that the author can live in this fictive universe. This is especially true for fanfiction. ("I wish I could go to Hogwarts and be in a relationship with Draco Malfoy")

  • - She's a half-breed of some sort. Half-blood, half witch, half alien, half elf, half animal, were-dragon, (again, this is something that makes her special based on what she *is* and not what she does).

  • - She discovers she has a familial bond with another character or discovers a family secret. Extra points if there is a tragic (often cliche) backstory.

  • - While she might be uncoordinated or pathetic, in other versions she's unusually and unrealistically talented at just about everything--more things to further extents than anyone could realistically be that good at.

  • - In the opening of the story, she's late to somewhere important. Extra points if it's her own fault, negligence, or because she slept in.

  • - She may have over emotional reactions to things that don't merit such an emotional reaction. For example, she might yell at someone who is trying to help her or cry because her (ordinary) school day is "hard."

If you are sweating it out now, don't. I'm going to give you some tips that will help.

First off, an important point. Can a male character be a Mary Sue? Yes, but they are called a "Marty Stu" or a "Gary Stu." They may be a little different than a Mary Sue, particularly in the fact that they don't necessarily need a ton of female attention or a romantic plot line (though it's not uncommon to have a million girls falling all over him either). Just as a version of Mary Sue is that she is good at everything and that her flaws are meant to be endearing rather than real flaws, Marty Stu is often insanely good at everything too, and any flaws he might have might actually be cool or tough or likeable (like being overly arrogant). Marty Stu is not as common as Mary Sue though, and he's usually more tolerated in today's society, as his attributes are still often praised as the epitome of male-ness, while today's society finds many of the traits of Mary Sue to be offensive to women.

Not all of the Mary Sue Traits are Terrible

There are reasons this character type reappears over and over and over again--hundreds or thousands of times a year (most of them don't make it to the bookshelf or big screen, though both Bella from Twilight and Rey from The Force Awakens have been accused of each being a Mary Sue). It's because there are people who are attracted to those character traits. Not all the Mary Sue traits are bad, but together, they cause problems. Look at what kind of person those outlined features created. And yet everyone and their dog adores them? Love interests fight over them? It doesn't make sense. Look at how unrealistic that person is.

Many of these traits would be fine added to a more realistic, rounded character:

  • - She's beautiful, but doesn't know it.
  • - She has innate or inborn value
  • - She's half human
  • - She discovers a family secret
  • - She's inexperienced
  • - She's clumsy

None of these are inherently bad (though most of them are overused--especially the first and last in the list).

Wish fulfillment isn't innately bad either. There are loads of successful wish fulfillment characters and wish fulfillment stories. In fact, most if not all successful stories feed into some sort of wish fulfillment (that's usually why people pick up the book).

The Problems of the Mary Sue

One of the main and common problems with the Mary Sue is that the relationship between her traits and how others treat and react to her, don't make a lot of sense.

If you knew a person in real life who cried regularly about her problems but did next to nothing about them, are you really going to miss your chance to break into a big acting career to go nurse her pathetic, fragile emotions? Probably not. (And if you are, aren't you just enabling that kind of mentality?)

If you knew someone who acted as the "child" in all her significant relationships, would you really look up to her?

If you were a love interest, would you really fight over a girl who is so passive she gives Bella Swan a run for her money?

If there was a girl who got scratched up from watching Aragon take on armies of orcs and Frodo almost die destroying the Ring, would we later compliment how brave she was?


Sometimes what's unrealistic are the character traits themselves. In some cases they may even be contradictory. For example, she's incredibly clumsy but later in the scene she wins an athletic competition. Everyone tells her how beautiful she is, and she acts like she's hearing it for the first time . . . . every time. All the guys in the story have crushes on her, but she's shocked when the hot guy actually asks her out, and we learn she has no experience with guys (even though she's always wanted a boyfriend and every guy in the story ogles her). The other characters have lived through more trauma, but she subconsciously expects or hopes that they will nurse her insignificant problems.

If she has any flaws, they are portrayed as endearing or acceptable. As a society, do we really want to portray passivity and incompetence and uncoordination and child-like dependence as endearing? Acceptable? Now, I'm not saying you can't have a character who has these traits, but it's important to watch how they are handled, and the ideas that have already been established and perpetuated in entertainment (especially outdated entertainment).

By the way, it's completely possible to make your character endearing through other traits. In Harry Potter, in Harry's viewpoint in the sixth book, Hermione is described as endearing in passing because of her loyalty and faith in libraries and books. Intelligence and tenacity can be endearing, not passivity. Endearing comes from other characters knowing and appreciating a character's traits or personality.

Nursing the Mary Sue Back to Reality

The Mary Sue character isn't some gross, obscene character that only the most incompetent people write. She has a name because so many passionate writers have written her at some point. If you have a Mary Sue character, you're probably normal.

In an effort to fix the Mary Sue, some writers try to take her traits (some or all) to the far opposite, creating what is called an "Anti-Sue," which really isn't much better. I talked about this similar thing happening in my post The "Twins as Clones" Writing Epidemic, where in an effort to differentiate twin characters, the author tries to make them extreme opposites. This can be just as cartoony and unrealistic.

If you really love your Mary Sue character and can't part with her, you are free to keep some of her traits and abilities. But in order to create a more rounded, likeable, believable character, you need to be her best friend, brother, love interest, or mysterious stranger that nurses her back to the real world--or at the least the real fiction world.

Some of these things may seem straightforward when you start looking at them. If she's crying a lot, cut the crying. Excessive crying often happens in stories when the author is trying too hard to create sympathy for the character, instead of empathy. But true empathetic emotional power often comes from focusing on and rendering what causes those feelings rather than only on the feelings themselves.

If everyone loves her inexplicably, change it. However, be careful not to make the only people who don't like her rude, unlikeable, and unsympathetic, which is another telltale of a Mary Sue in a story.

Cut the clumsiness and give her a flaw that is more unusual.

If she's passive, make her more active in the story and in solving problems. She can fail, fail, and fail again, but in her sphere of power, she should at least be trying, and if she's not, show us a clever reason why. For example, in M. Night Shyalaman's most recent movie, Split, the protagonist is a very passive, young female. But not only do we learn multiple reasons why she is so passive (and they're legitimate), but we see that in reality, she does have a plan, but it's quiet, subtle, and requires waiting for the perfect moment.

If everyone bends over backwards for her, give the secondary and side characters their own lives, and moments where they chose their own lives over hers.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the most effective way to nurse a Mary Sue is to brainstorm not broader, but deeper. Don't make her more broad by adding more and more things to her; instead, dig deeper and deeper into her psychologically and explore interesting inner thoughts, motivations, fears, and contradictions, and how those things manifest themselves outwardly and in the story. Brainstorm and brainstorm and brainstorm some more, because the cliches are always what come to mind first, and if there is one thing about nursing a Mary Sue to reality, it's moving beyond cliches.