Fix 17: Trust Your Instincts

I cannot say this enough, but you need to trust your instincts.

 

If you are writing a Mary Sue it’s very probable that you are doing so because you are having good instincts that went wrong. My Mary-Sue (let’s call her the unfixable Sue… or the one that I can’ make into a heroine no matter what I do) graduated college at the age of 15. Why? Because it was important to me that my character be able to have an education, but she went out and did so many things I know she couldn’t be both a full time student and the adventurer/dimension hopper she was.

 

In Inuyasha Kagome is shown constantly battling education vs adventure, but it never seemed realistic. She would have had to miss more than half her school work, and there are just some things you can’t miss half of, and school is one of those things. So I made my Sue have finished college, making her quiet smart. In order to make it not so… unbelievable I sent her to the equivalent of ITTech, so she was a computer teacher inJapan at 16…. Okay I know it didn’t make sense, even then I wasn’t happy with it, but I also knew I couldn’t make it any better with what I had then.

 

Surprisingly this was actually good. What is showed was that in middle school I was trying to apply logic to my fantasy, something I think is very important. It meant that I was thinking about my character in correlation to the world I’d created, and wasn’t just worried about having fun. I was considering cause and effect. I also knew that I couldn’t fix it at the time, and allowed myself to have that character run her course anyway, which I needed to do.

 

Every sin is a virtue pushed to far. Gambling is courage and risk-taking. Cowardice is caution. Pride is self confidence. The same thing with Sue-traits. Every Sue trait is a good idea pushed too far. Sues are created because a girl has realized that in order to create a female protagonist the character had to have good traits. The problem is that normally the Sue is just taken too far.

 

Here’s another one of my own examples. My sue character was at one point paired with the following character: Kaiba from Yugioh, Kai from Beyblade, Sesshomaru from Inuyasha, and Karasu from Yu Yu Hakusho. When I think about it now it’s less that I was attracted to those characters (though for some reason Karasu still makes me giggle like a school girl), it’s that I liked their character. In reality those types of characters are the types I like to write: Strong male character who are more than a little bit broken or screwed up. And yes, they are broken. For people to become stronger they must first be broken, but a strong person isn’t someone who locks themselves away from the world, that’s a sign of fear and weakness.

 

I like that kind of character. They are incredibly interesting, especially since they masquerade their weakness as strength and the world not only allows them but imagines that they are strong and unbreakable. I love that, it’s fascinating!

 

So my Sue was paired with those characters in the same way that a doctor does and autopsy on a cadaver: practice at the real thing. See, the general purpose of any Sue is actually to interact with a certain character, often to heal them. I’m someone who likes reading about the healing process, I’ll admit. (I’ll also admit to liking a character the most when they’re at they’re most broken because that is when they are most interesting.)

 

The purpose of my Sue was fix these broken characters. To do so she first had to diagnose them (meaning I had to create their back story, AKA the stereotypical Sue’s Love interest back story), and then fix them. In my own hackneyed way this was my way of studying the characters and figuring out how to construct that type of character.

 

Yes, sometimes the Sue-love-interest is someone the author is attracted to, and I was attracted to those characters. I even figured that out eventually when I was about to be ‘in love’ with Rio from the third Digimon series and thought that was too much. Same way I stopped myself from ‘falling’ for Kurama because I had a friend who liked him.

 

When I think about it I’m really not attracted to those characters. If anything I know that if I knew them in real life I would hate them. So much so that my Sue character and the Kaiba based character got a divorce because he wouldn’t let her write anymore. Kaiba is also my most enduring Anime Crush. He lasted about five years. I’m chalking that one up to opposites attract, because I both love and hate his derivative character.

 

The truth is that everything you’ve ever written has the seed of a good idea. Sometimes you have to strip down everything but that idea and start over, but everything comes from a good idea. Based things that you liked as a child are things you probably will still like as an adult. When writing your Sue you’re dealing with the things you like for the first time in the form of a person who actually can handle it (aka: the Sue). Often it’s not the Sue that we like, but the world we put her in, or the people she’s attracted to. And there’s a reason we like them.

 

I told you about the character I liked; truthfully I’m not much better at writing that type of character than any other. I’m branching out more, but almost all of my characters, male or female, have a touch of that brokenness, and those that don’t do not for a very specific reason and often have a person strength and freedom unmatched. I understand the broken type so well that now I can work with the truly free. And those free characters… man alive, it’s like write sunshine after writing raven feathers. That’s the only way I can explain it.

 

Let me also say that the instincts you have now, things about yourself that you can’t explain, they probably have a reason as well, and that will probably serve you in the future. I mentioned Karasu a number of times. He was the one name on that list that did not fit, and while I’d argue he’s the most broken of any of them he’s a minor character and a villain, on that is never shown to have a redeeming quality… and I freaking love him for all that he is, not for what I think I can make him. To date I have five, 5, five characters based on him. None of them are him but I keep searching and I feel like I might be getting closer. Somehow his character appeals to me instantly, for reasons I can’t explain or understand, and the only other character I can compare and attraction to is Iago from Othello, but even that doesn’t match because my love for Karasu was pretty instant.

 

I don’t yet understand why this is, and being a writer I can figure that it’s not because I’m a sociopath (that and I freaking hate seeing pain. Reading about it I okay, but actually see it, even a villain’s pain hurts my heart). What I know is that this is a character that effects me at such a base level, right in the bottom of my heart he as a character, for all his vicious broken devious strength and evil, for all that he is that appeals to me so badly that I wish I could contain him. He appeals to me in the same way shiny red things and yellow roses appeal to me. I like seeing it and having it so much I just want to bottle it up where no one else can see it.

 

Can I explain that little piece of insanity? Not really. I rather think that everyone has that thing that appeals to them that much, they’re just sane enough to not admit it, and clearly none of us should (or will) attempt to contain anything like that. But this character appeals to me so much, and I don’t know why. Because of that I feel like when I do figure it out it’ll be a huge epiphany, one that will push me toward the type of writing I’ve been pushing myself toward since I wrote my very first Sue.

 

You live long enough you start to realize that your instincts are instincts for a reason. They work. Why? No idea, but you shouldn’t just ignore them. You need to listen to them and see what they’re trying to tell you.

 

Anyway, I’ve ranted crazy up one side and down the other by now. If you’re still reading be aware that it’s totally okay to be insane in print as long as you act like a functioning human being in real life. (I’m of the opinion that writers are people who’ve found a way to channel multiple personality disorder onto paper.) Anyway, just enjoy. Write what you love, good things will follow, I swear. You’ll make mistakes, but good things will follow.

 

(Also, this post is my lucky number: 21. Go Devil Bats! YA~HA!)

Fix 12: Villain Sue

See, I go away for a few weeks and suddenly I come back super productive.

 

So, let’s talk about the Villian Sue…

 

I’m not gonna lie to you, I don’t really get these. Maybe it’s that I border too close to the line with my characters (as I tend to like writing anti-heroes as much as I like writing heroes), or maybe that I just really love a good serial killer. I’ve been known to have loud discussions about different serial killers, whether historical or not and what constitutes a serial killer. To give you an example of my love for serial killers: I wrote a short play called Joel, which is about a Serial Killer who thinks that God speaks to him and tells him to kill people who are too far gone to be saved.  Joel, if he weren’t insane, would be too damn perfect… no really, he’s too damn perfect. But it makes him interesting and sympathetic is some ways.

 

I like villains. I love a good villain. Talk to me about Iago from Othello. I travelled to London by myself on train just so I could see Iago be the most amazing villain in the history of villains. The closest modern villains is Heath Ledger’s Joker… I mean seriously! So I really, really, really love a good villain. They’re more interesting, need less description (especially for background), and work better when they’re more mysterious. Think about it: why does Iago do what he does? I bet you can name at least three reasons or more from the text, but what’s the real answer? How about the Joker? How did he get those scars? How many different stories did he tell?

 

So, a Villain Sue… again I don’t really get this. The same way I don’t get Ghost World and Luciferians. I just can’t wrap my head around people like these things. I keep having to look what exactly a villain sue is. So why am I talking about them? I don’t know, maybe just so I can talk about villains and how to make good ones.

 

First off the villain depends a lot on what context they’re in. For one Fanfic I’m working on a have an antagonist/villain who isn’t evil. He’s trying to overthrow the current monarch because he believes that she won’t be able to take care of the country. It’s not because she’s female, or even because she’s been kidnapped, it’s because she doesn’t have the education a monarch should have. He loves his country very much, and he’s been raised to be the monarch, to do anything for the country. He loves the King and Queen, and he loves his cousin (the soon to be Queen), but he’s willing to kill them if it means the safety of his country. He’s not evil, he’s just wrong. His reasons are explored as much as the heroes motivations, but it works in the case of the story. He’s not a villain, really he’s the protagonist because he’s driving the story, yet he’s not the hero. The cannon characters are the heroes.

 

This is a perfectly acceptable (and sadly, rarely done) type of ‘villain’. A lot of times people try to write the villain as sympathetic (or at least understandable). The problem is that in doing so they often make the villain angsty, and therefore not interesting. Sometimes the villain takes over the story… which his fine if the author meant to do that. If they didn’t then there’s just a problem. Villains can be sympathetic. I have a story that I’ve been working on for years which is just terribly depressing. There were two kids who grew up together and got separated (thinking the other was dead), then the boy grew up and murdered the new village of the girl. The problem is that the girl’s village was of assassins, and she’s a very well trained hunter. She eventually tracks him down, and when they discover that they’re the one person both loves most in the world, and hates the most in the world bad things happen. The girl ends up (slowly) torturing the boy to death, and is left alone. Really the boy is the villain of the story as he helped to destroy a village for profit, but you like him (in many ways more) than the woman because he takes the suffering as a way of repentance. He ends up dead, she ends up alone. It’s not a happy story.

 

Now, I just talked about villains I have were I explore their back story and at least make their motivation understandable. These can work as long as you don’t push them too far. In the second example the ‘hero’s’ back story is actually much more depressing than the villain, which makes her even more understandable, but also gives her greater focus. She’s the ‘hero’ because it’s her story… and because she drives the plot. She’s the protagonist at least. The thing is that these villains aren’t scary. They won’t keep you up at night or make you wonder about them. If anything they’re just people, just another character in a plot.

 

Villain Sues seem like they both want to be understandable and yet amazingly scary/thought provoking. You really can’t have both. I mentioned Iago and the Joker, two characters in the pantheon of villains, so amazing that you can’t get them out of your mind, and they take over the whole damn work that they’re in. But you don’t know a lot about them. Okay, the writer probably knows their motivation, but the audience doesn’t and it drives the audience crazy. The not knowing sets people on edge in a way that explanation never will.

 

Villains often fall under the case of ‘less is more’, and I mean this is really important.

 

So, for the fix: First off, I suggest you write out a list of things about your villain. Include personality traits, back ground information, powers, whatever. Then look at those things in relation to the plot. Think about what has to come out to drive the plot. Yes your villains fear of heights may help drive the plot (or at least end the villain), but we don’t necessarily need to know it’s because his older brother dangled him outside a window when he was a kid. It makes the villain far less impressive, while a fear of heights will simply humanize a bit and give the hero a way to beat the villain.

 

The problem with the side of work on the villain is that you need to know the plot beforehand. If you decide to take the “No Plot, No Problem” approach then you can’t figure out what’s important and what’s not until you get to editing (in which case you can use the above method). What you can do is remember ‘less is more’, or focus more on the hero’s journey, and how to make the villain scary and not at all attainable to them.  For my book the villain amounts to a satanic nun, and is modeled after something I saw in an experimental film… and then I went above and beyond on the nightmare fuel (again, this character scares me). The reason why she’s so terrifying is that I don’t even know anything about her. No really, I have no idea. She just freaks me out, and even though she’s ‘beaten’, she continues to exist and is a threat. The heroes don’t have to vanquish the demon, only escape. It means that all the threats they faced continue to be threats, and can be frightening even after the stories over. No one ever sees the metaphorical zipper on the metaphorical monster costume.

 

To sum up: you can write out a villain to be as well known as the hero, but you need to know going in that the hero and villain need to share similar amounts screen time without the villain over taking the hero’s role. But when you do that the villain simply becomes another character. Yes the villain can still be threatening or else there’s no point to the hero’s journey, but they will never reach the pantheon. They will never be and Iago. Conversely, when writing an Iago-like villain you need to strike a balance between what is known and what is not known. You need to make sure enough is known that the plot and character’s actions make sense, but leave out enough that the audience is desperately wanting to know more. And it can’t be in the “what the hell just happened?” way, but in the “shit, the play’s over and Iago never told us why he did it… I have to go see this play again and see if I can glean more information!” way.

 

Anyway, happy villaining!

Fix 5: Flash Characters

Readymade Villians, just add water!

 

While I haven’t specifically talked about different types of Sues, I suppose I should try today. I’ll be touching on the “Villian-Sue”. Now honestly, I haven’t seen a lot of these, because my villains were never supposed to be liked, not when I was in my Sue phase anyway. Now I have villains who range from being terrifying if attractive, to so likable you almost wish they could win but they’re wrong.  The last one involves an OC villain for a fanfiction, where I didn’t want anyone evil, just someone who feels his country will be wronged if the heir becomes he monarch, and is willing to do anything to stop that from happening. Ironically, the audience really loves the villain, and some of them really want him to win in the end.

 

Making characters is kind of my thing. Right now if I do any personal writing, it’s often little character sketches. Things without plot, simply describing a cool character idea I had.  It’s actually a good exercise to do for writing, because there’s no push to go anywhere, you’re simply laying out back story, and getting a feel for your character. The last time I did this I wrote about an atheist bounty hunter in the old west. He’s a fantastically interesting character, but I don’t know enough about westerns to really write things with him.

 

So, how do you write a good villain? Well, I can’t really tell you. The problem with Mary-Sue litmus tests is that they’re really only for identifying one type of character, and sometimes the character isn’t a Sue once they’re within the context of the story. Same thing with the Villain. If your villain is ridiculously powerful, but has something tragic happen to them so their destroying things is ‘explained away’, then you have a very common type of villain. These appear often in movies and books, and everywhere. What makes it interesting is if the hero’s journey include great struggle against the villain.

 

The other thing to consider about the above villain is that unless you’re doing a duel journey (the journey of the hero vs the journey of the villain) it’s hard for the villian’s tragic past to not seem… unnecessary. Remember this mantra “Less is more, less is more”. Hannibal Lector is far more threatening when you don’t know about his past. Same thing with Darth Vader. *spoiler for HP book 7 ending* Voldemort is less threatening when Harry verbally reduces him to that of man. *end spoiler* This is part of what’s wrong with the 7th movie, but I digress.

 

How does any of this pertain to the title? Well first off, characters get easier to make the more you make them. Your first character is often a Sue because you want so badly for people to love them and you spend so much time on them that you over burden them with things. I have characters that I’ve been working on for almost as long as I’ve had my Sue. One of them includes a character who I recently discovered had a mind that worked so fast that she often had trouble communicating. It’s a clear case of Blessed with Suck, but it also makes her interesting to write as she struggles to be understood. (It’s also an interesting variation on the Cassandra story, as my character may know something that could help, but she simply never speaks up because she’s so lost in thought that she forgets to say anything at all.)

 

This character I have just mentioned has taken years to perfect, and now she’s a very well formed character. You can work on a character for years, watch them grow and change within the confines of their original character. It’s a good thing. On the other hand, you don’t always have the time for those fantastically well formed characters. Save them for your magnum opus. Instead, when writing a book, or starting an RP, or something you often have a clear idea in mind, but no pre-formed character to fit the mold of the story.

 

I have a friend who I’ve been RPing with for about 3 years now. We know each other’s styles and characters very well. We ended a 2-year running RP that spanned about 2 hundred years before starting over with it because we go tired of dealing with demons and the characters formed for that world, a lot of whom were characters I’d had for many, many years.  We moved on to some other ideas, but we finally decided on things with political intrigue, like our first RP, but more normal. One of them is set with a basis for a book I’m writing, but set in the Victorian Era, instead of the present (which is a fantastic way for me to explore my world without having to taint the characters I already have).

 

For the plot there’s a witch, and a Lord who she serves. A main part of the plot up until now has just been their interaction (I don’t do RPs without a promise of a future romance, even if the romance is really screwed up). So far my main character (the Lord) has been the antagonist in the story… Lord Jasper Southerland, trader in magical creatures that are otherwise unknown to society (We’re knowingly playing fast and loose with history). Then along came Wilhelm, Wilhelm the Witch Breaker. A man who, like ‘the hero’ is on the outs of society because of his birth status (Jasper is probably a bastard, but his father acknowledged him as a legitimate son. Wilhelm is a confirmed bastard). At the same time, Jasper has more social connections, and his also physically stronger than Wilhelm. Wilhelm, though needing Jasper, hates him because he can’t use him.

 

All of Wilhelm’s back story, appearance, and personality came to me in a flash.  He’s perfectly wonderful for the story we have going, and he’s going to be a fantastic villain. A lot about writing is very much practice makes perfect… another lot of it is stealing strategically then being creative what you stole. Among the Preacher community the saying goes: “A good preacher steals parts of other sermons. A great preacher steals the whole thing outright.” Another thing to keep in mind is that Shakespeare, the God of Writing, never wrote and original play. All of his plays were based on other stories. Most of the characters based on other characters. To quote the bible: “”What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Nothing new exists anymore. It has been done. Well, what does that mean for the writer?

 

To continue with Christian type writers, on the same TV Tropes page I found the bible quote (I’m so too lazy to actually pull out my own bible and look it up when TV Tropes nicely did it for me.) I found this:

“…No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

—C. S. Lewis

 

Here’s an example from the 2nd RP I’m doing with my friend: For the RP I needed a character who is infinitely loyal to the Queen (I’m sure you’ve noticed I play all the male roles in these RPs by now). So I created Jimajen, if the name looks familiar it’s from Tamora Pierce’s Trickster series (of which the 2nd book is my favorite book.) The RP is about spies and political intrigue in a fictional, non-magical, medieval based world. The two sources I borrow the most from end up being Tamora Pierce (who corners the market on good fictional, magical, medieval based worlds) and Shakespeare (who’s Shakespeare).  For Jimajen I literally copy-pasted Othello’s back story, and then added Taybur Sibigat (Tamora Pierce)’s loyalty and position. Jim is the closest friend the Queen has, desperately loyal, and desperately in love with a woman who can (for personal and political reasons) never love him back. Instant character, new and interesting. I’ll probably never use him outside the RP, but Jimajen is a good character.

 

“But that’s a hero!” you say, “What about villains?”

 

It’s about the same actually. Wilhelm the Witch Breaker came from a concept I already had in the story (the Witch Breaker), combined with having just returned from seeing Much Ado about Nothing, and wanting a character like Don John, throw in the boyish good looks of Teaser from Anne Bishop’s Sebastian. Teaser is actually a good character, not a hero, but close, in his world. This is just to say that you can get things from everywhere.

 

Now unlike Jimajen, Wilhelm is a lot more his own person. He is somewhat like a couple of my other characters (including the terrifying one I keep talking about) in that he doesn’t see people as people, but toys he can play with or frogs he can dissect. This causes a lot of problems with Jasper because Wilhelm can’t see Jasper like that, and it really pisses him off *understatement*. Even though I said Wilhelm is his own person, I can easily trace his influences.

 

Jimajen, while being a lot more obvious about where I got his influences, in personality is a lot more original than Wilhelm. I’ve had characters that have similar personalities to Jimajen, but they were like Tset, the Cinderella-like half-breed son of the Tiger King. With Jimajen he is both hard and military, while sweet and strong for his queen. It makes him very believable. For me he is very original compared to my other types of characters.

 

To create a flash character you can’t simply just say: “I’m going to create a character!” It’s a much smarter idea to need the character for something, like a Roleplay. In the first book I wrote every single character was a flash character. This includes the narrator/main character.  All I had was the first line that popped in my head: “I killed myself”, from there I knew I was writing a ghost story told from the point of view of a ghost writing a blog. Everything else about that book came from simply filling in what I needed when I needed… and it surprisingly good.

 

You can create flash characters simply by doing the NaNoWriMo thing of just putting words on paper; but that doesn’t always turn out good product. Another way to create a good flash character is to create a character who fits a parameter. For Jasper I needed a man who was a lord and traded magical creatures. I thought he was going to be a jerk… I just didn’t realize how much until I started writing, or that he was essentially still a child in many ways.

 

Flash characters very rarely come out fully formed, but unlike other characters that you create and tinker with, all the tinkering comes in the writing process. With a normal character you create them to play with, and later write them down. You create a flash character while writing. Mary-Sues are often the characters you play with first. Now, the characters you play with will often end up being much more interesting, but they can also become over burdened with interesting.

 

If you know that you write Mary-Sues, it is you assignment to create a few flash characters for RPs or a fanfiction. Just start writing. You don’t have to show them to anyone, they just have to be. Remember that you won’t be completely original, and that’s fine. Take parts of a couple of random and non-relating characters, throw them together, give them a new name, and go.

 

So what about a flash villain? Well, honestly the best parts of villains is that you don’t know a lot about them. It’s sometimes hard to write a good villain if they exist first (although this is a good way to get either poor or great villains). Instead, start with your hero, then you can do two things 1) make the villain be someone who can stop the hero by being strong against the hero’s weaknesses. 2) make the villain a variation on the hero.

 

Type one is essentially an Iago, a person who is able to get the hero where it hurts. Iago is well trusted, but also manipulative. He’s able to get Othello thinking his wife is cheating on him. The character doesn’t have to be manipulative, in fact Iago is far and away the best villain ever written, so much so that I don’t suggest trying to write anything like him. It will pale in comparison. Ironically, the closet modern correlation is the Joker from The Dark Knight. This is ironic because the Joker is also our next example.

 

Type two makes me think of Batman and the Joker. In one of the Tim Burton Batmans, Batman (in human form) complements something in a woman’s home. Later the Joker breaks in and complements the exact same thing. Batman is a great hero because he’s only about two degrees away from the villains. The DK Joker is both a type one and two because he recognizes this matter of degrees, and his similarity to Batman (no sane man dresses in costume and beats people up). He also tries to poke Batman in his weaknesses to force him to admit the similarity.  Again, this is a once in a generation (or maybe a century) type character, don’t try to write it. If you do create the next Iago or Joker it’ll happen, but not if you try and force it.

 

So what do you? You have your hero, and you figure out what are his weaknesses. You either make a character who specifically poke those weaknesses (whether they mean to or not), or you create a character who is very similar to the hero, but just a little different. Wilhelm is a type two. He’s similar to Jasper, but he takes Jasper’s dislike of people and general meanness about ten steps farther.

 

Now, I suggest RPing to do this, because it’s a great way to get instant feedback and it’s okay to mess up. To do this I’d suggest trying to do more than the standard one-word-sums-it-up idea (Band, Highschool, Doctor, Slave, etc). I normally do one on ones, and really only romances, but I like epics a lot as well. So I’m going to list a few ideas I’ve tried before, and you can run with them as well.

 

  1. 1.       A writer has one (or more) of their characters come alive.  There’s a fun bit of meta with this, but I don’t like writing writers, it’s really uncomfortable for him.
  2. 2.       A bad man wishes on a star, and then the star falls and says she’s there to grant him all his wishes. This one I’m still doing. I saw it as someone else’s idea, but they were looking for a pure-hearted person to make the wish… which I think would be boring.
  3. 3.       A Cheerleader is secretly in love with a nerd.
  4. 4.       A Witch and Witch Hunter fall in love.
  5. 5.       A princess from an isolated country has to go on a quest with an outsider so she can save her father.

 

All of these are very random, just one I’ve done, or liked that. Start out with the hero, and then you can figure out the villain. Note that who I’d have as the villain will not necessarily be who you would have.  I listed heroes, but you need to write the villain as well, or at least an antagonist (the person trying to stop the action). It’s often hard to make the story do anything if you don’t have an antagonist (ironically).

 

So, go write and have fun!