Mary-Sues don’t have specific physical, behavior, cliché traits, but in combination to impossible physics laws in the universe, along with underdeveloped personality especially with other characters, they come out to be boring and annoying to readers. Unlike Part 1, I failed to mention that it also depends on how the writer writes the story itself that their beloved characters can become a Mary-Sue. Basically, if the narration isn’t developed, your characters will seem underdeveloped. Mary-Sueish.
Scary, I know. Your own style of writing that you have been developing for as long as you have been writing, can fail you in this aspect. Don’t worry, your style of writing develops on its own, but with a few conscious changes, it will develop into something new, and hopefully something that will bring your characters and story to life. After some time and practice, it will come out more naturally.
Every story has to have a title and it is an unlocked gateway that your reader will decide whether to enter or not. You want them to enter; you want them to read your story. The title tends to be a good indicator whether or not the story and your characters are well-developed. A long title that gives away the story or has a pairing in it is usually my first sign to just skip it. Why bother? I know what it’s about, and if you gave it away that fast, it was probably written just as fast filled with clichés with the same theme and plot as so many other stories I’ve read. Plus, if you put the pairing in the title, instead of the summary, that tells me you have a disregard for the writing rules. Has anyone ever read an actual book with “Jane X John” next to the actual title? Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet doesn’t count because his title actually fits his story and it doesn’t give away the tragic tale at all.
Title decorations with hearts, squiggles and such, I personally don’t really mind it if the site rules don’t care about it; although I still agree that it would be better if there weren‘t any decorations, but if there is an excessive amount of it, it is annoying. For example, if there are five hearts in a row, or between the words of the title, then I assume that it’s a sappy clichéd romance story that I would hate.
If the title is read as text talk, there had better be a darn good reason for it! When the title isn’t capitalized correctly, or not capitalized at all, I get peeved, but if it’s not even spelled out correctly without abbreviations, then I wouldn’t bother. If the story takes place in cyber-world, or if the character uses her phone a lot and it’s important, then I could understand, and that‘s what summaries are for.
The biggest pet peeve I have are stories that are written in English, but have titles solely in another language, especially in a language that uses symbols; Japanese and Russian are quite popular. Unless it’s a phrase, written using English lettering, that just about anyone knows, then I guess it’s okay, but if it’s written in kanji, kanfu, or uses symbols from other cultures that I can’t recognize, let alone read, what’s the point? Telling us that you researched your title in another language and this is what was pooped out? Remember that gateway I was talking about? If I can’t understand the title, I have no idea what I will get into, and I would rather not take that chance and waste time when there are more decent stories with decent titles. If you like the title in that other language so much put it in the author notes, just not in the title. If the story is written in English and the title is in another language using English lettering, like romanji Japanese, Spanish, etc. and the phrase in that specific language is important in the story, then that’s fine.
People get so stressed over summaries that they usually skip it. DON’T! It’s better to put something (other than the pairing) down than “I’m not good with summaries” or “Summary is inside.” It tells me that you haven’t put any thought into developing the story so much that you can’t even give me one short sentence, or you don’t have the ability to give out a sentence. Even if you’re a great writer, first impressions are everything when your story is in a list with thousands of others. All that is required is one to three sentences depending on the space you have.
If your story is character oriented, describe what the story is about centering on the main characters. If the focus is the overall plot, describe the universe and what’s happening. That’s it.
If you do have more space, then some other things to think about putting in the summary is to list the story types or warnings. Lunaescence and Freedom of Speech already have entire lists of it so you don’t need to put it in the summary, but if you don’t have that drop-down list, the most common ones are: Alternate Universe (AU), Original Fan Fiction (OF/OFF), Plot What Plot/Porn Without Plot (PWP), Out of Character (OOC), Reader-Insert, and self-insert.
The first two are specifically for fan fiction type stories. Alternate Universe is when the original canon universal laws are purposefully changed, or the universe the original canon takes place in has been changed. When something as small as whether an iPod exists in the Naruto universe, you don’t have to put it, but when there are any number of small changes in the given canon universe, it would be better to put “slight AU” than nothing at all. Another example of Alternate Universe would be to place the canon characters in an entirely different universe, from taking the Naruto characters and put them in a high school setting, to putting them in middle-earth, or on a space-ship. In these major changes, putting “AU” in either the summary, in the story notes, or in the author note of the first chapter is a strong recommendation.
If you’re new to the term Original Fan Fiction, it probably sounds like an oxymoron, but what this means is basically the opposite of a fan fiction being an Alternate Universe; inserting Original Characters (OCs), or Fan Characters (FCs), in the canon universe, and telling a story completely focusing on the new characters, not mentioning, or hardly mentioning any of the canon characters. Next Generation stories would qualify as Original Fan Fiction, but there are others that qualify as well. For example, I’m planning on writing an Original Fan Fiction for a certain canon universe in which focuses on a few OCs. They each have families and possibly friends, so I would have to make more OCs, and only one or very few times would a canon character have dialogue or play a very minor part because the main focus is the OCs’ side of the story. It doesn’t matter of the plot, as long as the focus is on the OCs, and the canon characters, if they are mentioned at all, only have a very small mentioning or roles.
Plot What Plot or Porn Without Plot, is just how it sounds. The focus is the sex scene, or what is popularly known as a “lemon”. This story type can be for fan fiction just as much as original fiction. This doesn’t qualify as an actual story because there is no Hero’s Cycle stages—a calling, trial, or return—it’s basically just a sex scene. People write these either because they just like writing about sex and want to figure out how to diversify it so it doesn’t all sound the same, or because it’s a harmless fantasy, either with their own original character for an original story, or a canon character. Because this isn’t a “story” per se, with no actual development between the characters, this can’t be determined whether or not the characters are Mary-Sue or not, but I put it here to let you know that putting “PWP” where it can be seen can lessen your chances of annoying a reader when they expected an actual story. By the way, because there is no emotional development between characters, as well of physical development, any PWP would not be considered in the romance genre, so putting “PWP” and your story being in the romance genre really would be an oxymoron.
Out of Character (OOC) is not the same as Original Character (OC). Out of Character, is when the canon characters in a fan fiction simply don’t act like themselves. Now, a little OOCness is normal, because every author interprets canon characters differently, so you don’t have to put “slight OOC” or anything, but if they are purposefully Out of Character with no effects of drugs, alcohol, or anything, whether it’s for humor, parody purposes or anything, then that’s when “OOC” should be added somewhere. As long as you acknowledge what you’re doing, most readers don’t really care one way or another and try reading it for what it is.
Reader-Insert is basically a story written in second person, better known as “you” P.O.V. This has gained some popularity on the internet, and people like what they like despite that the only time you see second person actually published in a book would be Create Your Own Adventure (CYOA) or Pick Your Own Path (PYOP), or in short stories, so it’s just better to leave it alone if you don’t like stories using solely second person. CYOA/PYOP is when, at the end of a chapter, the narrator asks the reader which next step should be taken, and thus which next chapter/path should be read. Another popular second-person story, typically only on the internet, are Who Would You Fall For (WWYFF) and Who Would Fall For You (WWFFY) where the reader is asked questions throughout the story to gauge the answer to determine which other character would best suit the reader as a love interest. The difference between Reader-Insert, CYOA/PYOP, and a WWYFF/WWFFY is while they are all written in second person; a normal Reader-Insert doesn’t give the reader choices of which chapter to go for, or to see whether this character or that character would be better suited for you. While CYOA/PYOP and WWYFF/WWFFY can be interchangeable with Reader-Insert, it can’t be the other way around. It’s similar to how a raven is a crow, but not all crows are ravens. Reader-Inserts are not Original Characters, and nor are they self-inserts, so they all shouldn’t be present in the same story. Reader-Inserts and Original Characters can work fine, just as Self-Inserts and Original Characters, just not Reader-Inserts and Self-Inserts because they both suggest that the story is either written in second person or first person, which will be further discussed in the next paragraph.
Self-Inserts are basically author-insertions, but the main difference in writing style from Reader-Insertion is that Self-Insertion is typically written in first person (or should be). There are a few that are written in third person, but, in my opinion, that feels kind of like cheating. Like Reader-Insertion, if the story was written in third person, the reader/author knows things that they shouldn’t, so might do something they normally wouldn’t if they didn’t know the entire situation. Because Self-Inserts have a bad reputation, I would totally understand if it’s not mentioned, but people will think what they think and there really isn’t a way you can change their minds from a computer screen. If you put in Self-Insert, that will just give people the warning that if they don’t like Self-Inserts, then you did all you could to let them know that they are reading a story they might not end up liking.
The description is the first thing your readers are looking for in your characters and in your writing, whether it’s your characters themselves, or the surroundings. A lot of people say that describing a character in the very first paragraph, or the second, or the third, and so on until you reach at least half-way down the first (or second, depending on who) page, shouldn’t be done, and is an easy indicator of the character or story being underdeveloped. Also, you shouldn’t describe every physical detail of a character in that one, or two, paragraphs. Well, I say you can.
Who cares? The point is, you’re describing your characters, and it shouldn’t matter when or how much; although describing every single hair on the characters body really is too much detail. So go ahead and describe your character in the first paragraph, just don’t get too carried away with the description that it sounds more useless than conveying feeling. Describing the hair, eyes, skin and rough height for the first impression is definitely enough to appease most readers, but if there is something else that is important, describe it. After that, you can ease more descriptions further into the story to keep their attention; however, there are certain phrases that are tiresome to look at. They are one of the reasons why clichés became a trait for Sueism, but, as I‘ve explained in Part 1, Mary-Sues are not about clichés or how a character looks. Raven locks, sapphire orbs, coffee waves are just a few of the many ‘poetic’ terms, and as much as creativity is valued (even though these small descriptive phrases are becoming clichés), most of the time simplicity is better. Being hit with lightly cryptic details becomes vexing trying to decipher what you mean one phrase after another (after all, ‘orbs’ can either mean ‘eyes’ or the breasts of women). It’s okay to use them once in a while, but not all at once. I would say only use them if the detail is of utmost importance or noticeable. If the story is told in another character’s perspective, and they happen to be poetic (and perhaps deeply in love at first sight), then I would suppose the poetic terms would be OK, but I would still keep it at minimum.
Some characters have unusual markings, for example a birthmark, scars, tattoos, and maybe a persisting rash. Apparently, they hike up points in most Mary-Sue tests. Even though it’s the author’s decision where or how noticeable the birthmark is, the characters can’t really control it, and some are quite noticeable. One of my teachers has a birthmark that was dark in color that went from her chest to the side of her neck, and it looked like an old burn. Birthmarks are natural, but if it detracts or has no purpose in the story, a short description from the beginning is all you need. You don’t need to repeat it every time the character comes up.
Some parents actually let their high school teens get tattoos. Heck, my dad was a tattoo artist, and if he was still here, I would be covered in them by now (I would probably regret most of them too). Some tattoos are connected to culture, so research in that area is always best. Still, only a general description is needed, and it doesn’t need repeating unless it‘s important. As for scars, it’s the same with as the birthmark and the tattoos. It doesn’t matter if it makes the character’s face contorted, like Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, or if it’s so small it’s barely noticeable. Any of the marks don’t need repeating unless it’s important.
Rashes, however, probably only need a repeat if the condition is either getting worse or better. Other than that, we don’t need to know what color the ooze is every time the character scratches at it.
As for expressions, such as a blank face, or a heated stare, etc, that is OK. Those kinds of expressions are useful in stories, and they are real kinds of faces people make. Have you ever met a cop in an interrogation room who didn’t have a piercing glare? These kinds of descriptions aren’t poetic, and are needed. A slight change of the wording can make them more original, but the phrases are fine for now.
As for clothing, it would be best to not get into so much detail unless the clothes are unusual to what is normal, but not necessarily against the universe rules, because that would be a Mary-Sue writing trait. For example, a poor student striving for money stares at her richer peer, and takes in all of the details out of envy and desire. A military personnel takes notice of something on a uniform that is out of alignment. Just something that is of relative importance.
As I said in Part 1, and will keep repeating, research is important, especially if you need to explain something that is important to the plot. Research your own story in detail. Look at news articles, or look up psychological or medical essays that have information important to your plot. Without detail then, yes, even the plot itself can ruin the accused character, especially if there will not be any development to the character or plot.
Wanting something to happen, and it being possible for your characters, are two different things, even for the author who controls the universe they have created. As a small example would be that your character has amnesia, and you want him to remember everything before the bad guy kills him. Will he remember all at once at the very end, or will he remember bits and pieces until that event? The character and the bad guy are at two different time frames with two different plans, and even though you are the author, once you have established your characters, they have to remain that way for the duration of the story. The bad guy could be a person who wants to tie up loose ends quickly, so why would they take their time to kill a witness when he doesn’t know the witness has amnesia?
Another thing I often see in stories is what I call Etheric Knowledge: when a character knows something that would be impossible for them to know. Because the author wants the character to know something, usually at a specific event and time, they forget to clarify how the character came about the information. A normal civilian wouldn’t just happen to know top secret classified government operations just because the author wants them to know it. Even if a little kid overheard a confidential meeting, the kid probably wouldn’t be able to understand what was being said if they were asked to summarize it. Both of the examples would be impossible if the characters just understood the information.
Etheric Knowledge also pertains as to when the main character instantly doesn’t like a certain character without a plausible reason, and that character just so happens to be a major villain; however if the main character does have a suitable reason (i.e. a wicked smile, overheard parts of a suspicious phone call, etc.), then this is not Etheric Knowledge.
Granted, it’s hard to identify the Etheric Knowledge as you’re writing it, I even miss it from time to time, but that is why planning and research upon your story is essential to development to the plot and characters. What you miss in your writing, your readers are catching it and judging your skill, wondering if it would be worth looking into your other stories.
Another aspect that can put a bulls-eye on your character is when they suddenly gain strength that should be impossible. For example, in Bleach, Ichigo gained his Bankai, a special level of weaponry skill, in less than a week, when it normally takes the average Shinigami ten years. How was that possible? Sheer will-power, guts, hard-work, and even ‘Hollow Ichigo’, an entity inside of Ichigo that unwillingly lends a helping hand, isn’t a proper explanation. A few years would be an acceptable amount of time in my opinion, but less than a week?
In The House of Night Series, Zoey turns into a High Priestess within only three days of her turning. Yes, there will be a war, and soon, but the plot could have expanded to a more acceptable time frame. Why is Zoey special? Why did she hear Nyx’s (Goddess of Night) voice? Because of her Cherokee bloodline, her knowledge? Why not someone with more experience where their youthfulness doesn’t often get in their way of thinking things through, and their hormones towards the opposite gender?
I’ll admit it right here, I gave up in the middle of the third book in The House of Night, so there might have been a very reasonable explanation, but I don’t have enough patience with Zoey’s girly hormones and sexual frustration. And I’m still trying to desperately catch up in Bleach, so there might be more explanation towards the end (how many chapters are there now?)
Published works do use this technique of power-development a lot; I can make an entire list of books with characters such as these; however it doesn’t mean that you have to write like this. Maybe it’s just me, but I get more than enough irritation through this method of main characters gaining power. It’s one thing if something comes naturally, but I would still love a reason as to why.
Imagine being in an American high school walking down the hall and you bump into a blonde, blue-eyed girl and you greet her. What should she say? It’s not konnichiwa or nihao. Unless it’s in a Japanese or Chinese language classroom, where she is formally learning Japanese or Chinese, this wouldn’t be acceptable in a story. Any other language wouldn’t be acceptable, except if the person is born in another country with naturally blonde hair and blue eyes and she is used to greeting people in her first language. Please note that “born” and “first language” are the key terms.
Language is part of culture and I know that it can be insulting to others seeing their language slandered all over the internet by people who are pretending to be a culture they aren‘t. Heck, I see it everyday with people who’s mother tongue is English and they type stories ‘lyk dis,’ as if it is English at all. Language isn’t just symbols, lines, or letters that create a written communication; it has history! Japanese wasn’t just Japanese, as was Spanish wasn’t just Spanish, and as in English wasn’t just English. Changes had been made over written language for centuries. This also goes with sign language, a non-written form of language using facial and hand gestures. To practice writing in a different language is one thing, but just using it to make it ‘interesting’ and a ‘fun learning experience’ is another.
Language itself sets a place and a time because it changes. There are some words that we don’t use anymore, called ‘Archaic,’ which would be another good research topic, so most people wouldn’t know the definition to them. However, you wouldn’t hear “Yo! Dirtbag! You better give me back my purse,” in the middle ages. Using a medium between the archaic language and modern language is best when writings dealing with the past. Don’t ask me about our language of the future though because I have no clue what will happen to language. You can make up new slang terms, I suppose.
My overall point of this is that learning the history of language might be a good idea, or at least research it well enough to know what is acceptable when writing stories with another country as a base in a story. In a lot of stories referring to Native American culture, names and status are the only terms used. If you’re writing a fiction based in Japan, using only greetings and the honorifics would be a safe bet in not offending anyone.
I gave an example in Part 1 about the difference between flaws and weaknesses, but I feel that I need to go into depth with it. No, I’m not going to give you a list because then I would keep adding on to it forever, and I would be doing the work for you. I decided against adding this section to Part 1 because wording matters, and learning how to avoid writing like the character is underdeveloped, a Mary-Sue, even when they aren’t, is the point.
Because positive/negative behavior traits can be switched around depending on who is reading, you have to create lines that define what is what for your character. To get this straightened out, flaws are a personality quirk or behavioral tendencies that a majority of the other characters wouldn’t like. Weaknesses are physical activities that a character sucks at. If a character is born with a type of illness, disease, symptom, etc., it is a hindrance. Hindrances are something that is part of the character that they can’t help. If it affects the character’s flaws and weaknesses, it is merely a factor in the overall character.
In a character sheet, which shouldn’t be in stories, I see a lot of euphemisms in the flaws and weaknesses list. Euphemisms are words that have the same definition as another word, but sound better, or are less offending. They can be a handy tool, but if it’s used for personality flaws and physical weaknesses, then it can lead the reader astray and mistakenly think the character is unbelievable. Euphemisms, like language, also change with time, and you hear them often in idioms. The best way to show you what euphemisms are, are by using examples so here are a few:
- “Kicked the bucket.” Already a euphemism meaning he was hung by the neck until the person died, but now, we know it as, “Passed away“. Doesn’t that sound more peaceful?
- “Murderer.” A person who kills another. The euphemism would be “Mortality Technician.” See, it doesn’t sound as horrid even though they are the exact same thing! It actually sounds like you can get paid for this legally.
- “Coffin.” We still use that today, don’t we? Not exactly. The word “Casket” is the decorated and slightly less offensive term to use now. But really, from box, to pine box, to coffin, to casket. Who knew there were so many different words to put a dead person in to be put into the ground?
- My last example: “Paranoid.” Worrying excessively about stuff that doesn’t need to be worried about. I would prefer to call myself “extra careful.”
See, aren’t euphemisms fun? They give us an excuse to make flaws and weaknesses sound good and less obstructing. My point is that if you use euphemisms for all of the flaws and weaknesses in your character, you’re blurring the lines and taking the depth away. Do not use them for negativities at all.
There are some personality traits that are truly in the middle depending on how a person sees it. For example, if a girl is shy and it’s more of a sign of modesty and humility, instead of getting in the way of making new friends, then it’s more of a positive trait than a flaw. If someone is intelligent, does he or she sound snobbish? You have to ask yourself these kinds of questions to keep your character in order and keep their traits in black and white. If you do use character sheets to keep your facts straight, instead of listing his or her personality, or strengths or weaknesses, write about the character’s history and how it affects the character presently.
An example of weakness would be that when playing basketball, the character is fast, but he keeps missing the hoop whenever he shoots. It’s something that a character has to work hard to overcome and get better at.
Some traits, like being clumsy or a bit air-headed aren’t a flaw or a weakness. They are more of just normal hindrances, like diseases or symptoms. It’s something the character has no control over, that has to affect the character at all times and not when it’s just convenient, and that it usually gets in the way of them achieving something. It can be anything depending on the situation or plot, from being too short when the character wants to be a super-model, or being too tall when they want to be a limbo champion.
While I’m at hindrances, being ‘innocent’ isn’t any kind of trait at all. For one, it’s too vague of a term, especially if you meant to put naïve, and two, everyone is guilty of something at all times. The term I prefer to hear that word is in court (especially if I‘m a defendant). Innocent, sinner, hypocrite, or any word that can be said about all human beings, or any species with humanoid emotions, is more like labels than traits.
So, yes, wording is everything especially to readers. You don’t want your readers confused or misconstrue your meaning or theme to the story, unless you want them to be confused or misinterpret your story. There are still people who won’t give authors a chance to fix their underdeveloped style of writing, and get flamed for it, so use this as a sort of guide or checklist on what’s unacceptable, and adequate writing. I’m in no way a professional author, so you don’t have to take this into any serious consideration, but I’m still learning, and just writing this guide has helped me wrap my head around a few ideas. I hope this helped in your developing journey.