God, Mary-Sues and Invisible Friends, Oh My!
Finding Your Characters and Getting to Know Them
There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldnt be. Hes too many people if hes any good. F. Scott Fitzgerald (quoted in Rogers 1970)
This is a guide to character development. By no means is it the only way to create characters. There is, without a doubt, great capacity for imagination in the human species. I want to begin with three humble notes:
1. Imagination is not limited to humans. There is evidence for fantasy play in various studies of other primates, if youre interested in doing the research (Mitchell 2002, Pretending and Imagination in Animals and Children). We, however, take it one step further from playing pretend to creating imaginary fictitious worlds. There is no proof that animals can do this yet.
2. The ideas I present to you here are not mine alone. I share them with the writers before me and perhaps of those to come.
3. I thank my characters for being such annoying and great companions, sharing their world, and for giving me the sanity that I can still be myself while housing several other personalities.
To write a good story one must be a very good supervisor of the fictional world and the imaginary beings that dwell within it.
You should have a very keen eye for observation, not just of real events, but mental ones as well. If you fail to take an objective stance to your mental world, it kind of comes out like the Biblical Genesis. You are God (cue egocentricity).
Im not speaking about the real God here. Just the idea of being a Creator, if the case may be you are a prospective fiction author or playwright or some other person who has imaginary characters running aloft in your head.
People often raise their hands in exasperation and cry out in despair when they come across a Mary-Sue. But I want to argue that Mary-Sues are normal, even if kind of distressing to read about. God created Mary-Sue.
If youre a perfect omniscient being who creates someone in your exact likeness, is that not a MARY-SUE (or Gary-stu, what have you)?
This is a character that has virtually no flaws whatsoever and can go around fixing everyone elses problems and always has the perfect man or woman fall in love with him or her. (Contrast this with a god-like character, which either has some superpowers but also makes mistakes, or just has a big ego and thinks hes god.)
I am guilty of Mary-Sues. I do wonder who is not. Its kind of like growing up, and realizing that not everyone thinks like you or shares your opinions.
This happens on a physical level, at that of the author as a person, and on a mental level, including any imaginary others. We are all only human. Until you can realize and come to love your own faults, then your characters cant realize and love the faults of their own either (cue denial).
All children, in their fantasy, go through stages of development from which their imaginary friends (about 65% of children documented have them) become increasing more alive and start differentiating from being a mere projection of the self, an imagined prop that is passive and acted upon, to a separate identity that can be acted upon and act for itself, and begs to be respected, else disappear (Watkins 1986).
This mental development is a process of creating self-knowledge; the child who finds pencils in the cookie bin will assume everyone else knows pencils are in the cookie bin under the age of three, but by four and five know that others may not have the same knowledge as they, and perhaps assume cookies are in the cookie bin until shown otherwise.
Realizing your own humanity, and loving it is the first step to being a human author, not a God. Hurray!
CREATING A MARY-SUE
God creates Mary-Sue. He says she is made in His image, and she should be beautiful and intelligent and whatever other description He wants. In fact, God can write a story about this Mary-Sue and her world, create other Gary-Stus to live with her and hence give them elaborate descriptions and narrate all their actions, except the other Gods would find it really boring to read.
These characters are flat, dreary and uninteresting in their perfection. They are projections of the self, a kind of selfish personality that every child is guilty of (unless you can prove to me otherwise).
Selflessness arises in the light that one is not alone in the world, when the health and well-being of others is correlated to your health and well-being; so you better treat the other guy nicely and not hurt that other girl, else they want revenge. This occurs not only in the real world, but also for us, in the mental world as well. Were just one self among other mental entities.
If you fail to listen and try to ignore the voices, then they may get angry and can become hallucinations to get you to pay attention to them (if you want to read more on the difference between normal multiplicity and psychotic ones, and do not fear monotonous academic writing, I recommend reading Invisible Guests, by Watkins 1986).
What characterises a healthy relationship with voices from an unhealthy one is the reciprocity of the relationship. In a hallucinatory or schizophrenic patient, the voices and figures are often described vaguely, not as individual persons but a mob or some stranger with no details, and they react passively to them in fear, carrying out orders and being unable to terminate the conversation. Thus they end up in hospitalization.
In multiple personality disorder (or dissociative identity disorder) the multiples exist across time rather than in time. A normal person is aware of multiplicity of personalities; they talk to one another. A dysfunctional person has only indirect awareness (such as gaping holes in the memory) because the personalities literally take over awareness and only exist one at a time, not all at the same time, ironic as that is.
So its perfectly normal to have multiple people living side by side in your head. Its been documented throughout history, if not as illusions or hallucinatory, then as religious, dramatic or poetic visions or muses.
In fact, fiction hasnt always had these expectations of multiplicity. The rendering of the poet and author from a god-like stance to a human one is fairly recent. Watkins (1986) writes that omniscient narration was possible in the past because people agreed about the nature and perception of reality; reality was something objective, something out there. Now that we are more aware of our subjective realities within an objective reality, that realties change, the omniscient style is really difficult to write for many authors in the twentieth century (p. 120-123).
Instead of getting rid of the narrator all together, the omniscient narrator in fiction has now joined the rank of characters, becoming fallible and attackable.
So the fact that most of us hate Mary-Sues with a passion is a relatively new thing (we got tired of reading them). Now we want the characters to have faults, to explore the relationships between points of view, rather than relating all to one point of view. Characters try to tell their own stories, and each of their tales claiming reality is made relative to the tales of others trying to claim theirs.
MAKING INVISIBLE FRIENDS
My point is that characters are found, rather than created. You dont conceive of them from scratch as two gametes coming together to grow into an embryo and born as a baby to be nursed. You meet them at a particular age in development already, get to know who they are and were, and contribute to who they will be as time passes while youre together.
We are not Gods and they ought not to be either. Otherwise, who else can relate? God exists alone, doesnt He? Its not like He has a wife or a girlfriend to nag Him about His hypocrisy. People are kind of contradicting by nature, though we try our best to be as consistent with our thoughts and actions as possible. Saying one thing and doing another isnt thought of very highly by your family, friends or neighbours.
When I create a character, its more like I come across him or her. At first you only know a short description, but the longer the time you give to get to know each other, the more your friend will reveal to you. The character is autonomous. He or she TALKS BACK AT YOU. Its kind of distressing at first, but you get used to it. It is a lot more fun than ordering people around all the time, Thou must do this or else. Or else what?
So did you make up your character or find him? Do you order her around or ask for her opinion? Does your character truly live? If so, then they must really be set free.
Trollope (1833/1930) quoted in Watkins (1986) wrote that the author can never know [the characters] well unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy. They must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them. He must argue with them, quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them. He must know of them whether they be cold-blooded or passionate, whether true or false, and how far true, and how are false.
The depth and the breadth, and the narrowness and the shallowness of each should be clear to him. And as, here in our outer world, we know that men and women changebecome worse or better as temptation or conscience may guide themso should these creations of his change, and every change should be noted by him. On the last day of each month recorded, every person in his novel should be a month older than on the first. If the would-be novelist have aptitudes that way, all this will come to him without much struggling; but if it do not come, I think he can only makes novels of wood (p. 111-112).
Life with multiple characters can be fun, but also tiring (who doesnt get tired of so much constant company?). There is where you must realize the humanity of yourself and set some distance, negotiating boundaries with the characters (even your real friends cant be with you 24/7). You cant do everything they say, or know in detail too many of their friends and relatives else your story will be longer than Scheherazades One Thousand and One Nights.
I have edited Watkinss criteria (1986, p. 149-150) to make it easier to understand. Her categorization of various types of imaginary beings goes as follows:
1. Developmental characterization
a. The degree of passivity and action; do things happen to the character or does the character make things happen?
b. The degree to which character expresses desires, feelings, thoughts or remains silent.
c. The degree of complexity of perspectives; how many points of view is the character seen from besides his own?
d. The degree of separate identity; how insistent are they on independence from the authors self-insertion?
2. Relationship with the author; is it characterized by control and compliance or is the autonomy of both parties preserved?
3. Awareness of dialogue
a. Are you aware of the presence, absence or availability of conversation with your characters?
b. Are you aware of what your role is in relationship to the roles of those you converse with (such as in intentional role-playing)?
The closer you are to a character who is described by others and you, has no voice or feelings or thoughts separate from you, doesnt take any action not narrated by you, then the more boring the character. For example:
Mary-Sue is an insightful young woman with a curvy figure and long flowing hair. She goes to school, and has a lot of friends. She likes Gary-Stu, but is afraid of rejection, so she keeps silent about her feelings. Things happen to her that she doesnt like, so she tried to fix them. This usually works, except today her worse enemy Joe-Bob has shown up. Okay, thats nice, I dont care about Joe because hes just as boring, can we please move on here?
Dont tell us! Show us!
Mary hated being called Mary-sue. It was such a bland name to match such a beautiful body of hers! Not that she was extremely vain or anything, because a curvy figure attracts unwanted attention from sleazy guys that care more about your looks than who you are. The only one who had never paid any attention to that was Gary, whom shed known from living next door, and she hoped to keep it that way even though they now went to the same school. Angrily, she tied back her long hair as she raced down the corridor to avoid the glance of her worst enemy, Joe-Bob. Unfortunately, all her friends were gathered right next to him.
Doesnt that sound a bit more interesting without the full omniscience? I mean, theres no need to introduce everything all at once! This is where the narrator should come in, to pick out what should be said now rather than later, where to hide the plot twists, how much to reveal in each sentence, and keep the mystery going!
That said, the more your invisible friend has a say in what youre writing (and not taking over), takes action, thinks, feels, complains and doesnt dominate you or let you dominate him or her, the more fun the whole writing process is because you two can surprise each other.
So introduce me to your friends, my fellow writers, because Im not writing this to tell you what to do. Thats Gods job. My job is to tell you what I know, engage in conversation and wait for your reply. That, is drama.