Monthly Archives: October 2015

Your Mission: Frustrate Your Protagonist on Every Page

A major component—if not the most important component—of a good plot is the movement toward some goal on the part of your protagonist. He or she should have a clearly defined objective that the whole action of the story supports and which is either fulfilled or denied in the end. However, to make the story compelling, your job as the teller of your tale is to frustrate your main character’s goal on every page.

Say, for example, that your main character, whom we’ll call Panthea, aims to live a quiet life as an anchorite. This seems a simple enough goal: all she has to do is venture out into the wilderness with a couple of goats and chickens, build a hut by a stream, and get to the business of being a hermit.
Very nice, but it doesn’t make for fascinating reading.

Hermit hut.Ask yourself, “What can possibly get in the way of Panthea’s dream?” Well, I can think of a half dozen obstacles. What if she is betrothed at an early age and must find a way to escape the proposed marriage? What if she comes from a privileged family and has no basic survival skills? What if the bishop of her diocese opposes her plans on the grounds that she is female? What if all of the land surrounding her hometown belongs to the king, and she can’t live there except on pain of death? What if, once she finally gets her hut by a stream, other people won’t leave her alone? In just those few potential obstacles to Panthea’s dream, you have the outlines of an entire book.

So as the director of your character’s life, aim to get in the way of his or her dreams. Be merciless – make your character work for his dreams.

Hi, My Name Is Mary Sue, and I’m Here to Save the Day

As all writers know, we tend to be ungainly, awkward types, generally unpopular at school, probably physically uncoordinated, and often goofy-looking. Though we might avow that we don’t care about such things, deep down we do sometimes wish we could be the belles and beaux of the ball, the toast of our peers. Wouldn’t it be nice to be a sexy writer? Preferably one with killer dance moves and the ability to perform calculus in our heads?

Yeah, we all get that. Unfortunately, for some writers, this wish crosses over from our daydreams to our fiction. The result is the Mary Sue/Marty Sue character.

For females, the Mary Sue character is invariably breathtakingly beautiful. She is a prodigy of some sort, always with a golden touch. She can figure out any problem, usually one the adults can’t think outside the box long enough to solve. She’s a rebel, doing things her own way, and somehow, in the end, her way turns out to have been the best, with everyone agreeing that she was right to blast through all those accumulated, stodgy regulations.

Wesley Crusher, the most well-known Marty Sue of all.The Marty Sue character is similar, but with masculine characteristics. He is the bravest, most dashing character, a rogue, and of course, popular with the ladies. Like Mary Sue, he breaks all the rules, drawing the ire of the Higher-Ups, but once his way turns out to save the day, those superiors begrudgingly admit he’s saved the entire Empire. Hooray!

This type of character is almost always just plain annoying to alert readers. Why? Because it’s pretty obvious that the author is simply writing a fantasy about his or her idealized self and how, in a just world, society would see that author.

It’s also wholly unrealistic. In real life, these people just don’t exist. Even brilliant, talented people have flaws—that hamartia the Greeks were so wise as to give the otherwise favored protagonists of their plays.

Certainly we want our heroes and heroines to be larger than life, but be realistic about it. Readers are just too sophisticated to buy the concept of an incarnate god, especially one that looks suspiciously like James T. Kirk.

So when you’re crafting your epic tale, please, please, don’t Mary or Marty Sue it. Your point in writing your works is not to project how awesome you really would be if the gods were fair. Make your heroes and heroines real people, with real flaws. These are the people readers can actually identify with, because these are the kinds of people we actually are.