A Writer’s Guide to Background Characters

It’s easy to rely on stock personalities for background characters. They’re in the background, after all. Who’s going to notice that Guard #5 is the same guard from every other piece of media ever?

But if you throw in at least one personality trait that contrasts with what readers expect, you can bring these bit-part people to life without having to devote too much time to the details.

For the record, I define ‘background character’ as a character who’s only there to move the plot along. You know–the bandit who exists to scare the protagonist into discovering hidden powers, or the shopkeeper who’s there to mention a plot-relevant rumor. The people you don’t have the time, means, or motive to get to know well.

In Wardbreaker, I found myself in need of a criminal guy for all of two scenes. His job was to take the main character from Point A to Point B, and it would have been so easy to make him a standard Tough-Guy Criminal. But instead, I decided he’d be mild-mannered and casual. Turns out that by day, he’s a fruit salesman, and by night he’s an infamously brutal hit-man. Also he likes whistling.

He’s only around for a hot second, but that unexpected contrast helps him stand out. It got me–and the readers–curious, which made him a lot more fun, and a lot more memorable.

This technique isn’t limited to background people, either–it’s a decent starting point for any character you didn’t plan for.

I have an antagonist in my current WIP–I knew his role in the story, but I didn’t have a clue about his character until the deadlines were upon me and it was too late to do a lot of planning. So I got to thinking–normally, one would expect a guy in his line of work to be crude and brutal and mean, but this guy really cares about hospitality. He’s a flat-out villain who’d sell his brother without a thought–but so long as you’re in his house, he’s darn well gonna be a good host.

This contrast between expectations and reality made him fun–and now my critique partners can’t get enough of him.

Real people are messy and multifaceted. And everyone in your novel should feel real–even the background characters. Giving them at least one apparent conflict within their personality is a good way to do this, because it hints at the life you don’t have time nor energy to flesh out for them.


A Writer’s Guide to Strong Female Characters

Okay. This post is going to be less about How To and How Not To and more about what a Strong Female Character is, and what a Strong Female Character is not.

“But Mara,” you might be saying, “obviously a strong female character is a female character who is strong. It’s all there in the name—how much is there to discuss?”

Actually quite a bit, as it turns out.

See, “Strong Female Character” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, and there are two main interpretations. Both of them are technically correct, but one of them I like, and one of them I do not. See if you can guess which is which.

Strong Female Character:
A girl who’s tough enough to beat up the guys, doesn’t take crap, and kicks major butt!

Strong Female Character:
A three dimensional character with fleshed-out motivations and emotions who acts and reacts in a way the reader understands, and happens to be female.

If you guessed the second one, you win!

I’m going to pause for a moment here and clarify some things.

Criticizing female characters is hard. Everyone has a bias, no matter how hard they try to be objective, and there’s no way around that. And because the literary canon has, for so long, been dominated by ‘dead white guys,’ people tend to react pretty strongly to stories that deviate from the ‘norm’ of books written about… well… the lives of white guys.

And by ‘react strongly,’ I mean that there are people who will hate a book simply because they cannot identify with a story outside the established patterns of the canon, and there are people who will love a book simply for the promise of diversity.

This makes genuine criticism hard, because there are times when a character is genuinely written poorly, but the latter category of people try to hold them above criticism due to the knee-jerk reactions of the former.

Which… isn’t cool.

I bring this up, because I saw something the other day that mentioned how it’s unfair to criticize female characters for being unlikable, because real people have flaws, and girls shouldn’t have to be pretty and perfect all the time. (I’m paraphrasing.) Basically, as far as I recall, the argument went that readers are more likely to dislike female characters than male characters, because we’ve been conditioned by society to hate on any girl who steps outside the norms of femininity. So if you ain’t Snow White, people won’t like you. And if you are Snow White, you’ll be called a Mary Sue, and people still won’t like you.

On the one hand, I agree, because real people do have flaws, and a character does not have to be ‘perfect’ to be worth reading about. Female characters shouldn’t have to be paragons of virtue and purity. Not to mention the fact that a double standard certainly exists (e.g. a man with a bunch of girlfriends is a ‘player,’ a hero, of sorts—where a woman with a bunch of boyfriends gets called some seriously nasty names and is pretty much completely shunned)—but on the other hand, this legitimate criticism falls apart when it’s used to defend characters who are little more than flat caricatures of humanity.

Basically, what I’m trying to say all boils down to this: bad writing is bad writing—no matter who you’re trying to represent. I can’t speak for everyone, but I personally would rather not have to settle for half-hearted lip-service to a good cause. Representation that only gets awarded points for trying really doesn’t count for much.

Now, let’s get back to the point.

Allow me to reiterate those definitions from earlier:

A girl who’s tough enough to beat up the guys, doesn’t take crap, and kicks major butt!

A three dimensional character with fleshed-out motivations and emotions who acts and reacts in a way the reader understands, and happens to be female.

Note the awkward capitalization, there.

In the first definition, the emphasis is on the fact that you’ve got a girl who is physically strong.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a girl who can hold her own in a fight, BUT when the author focuses solely on the powers and butt-kicking strength… You end up with characters who have the emotional depth of a teaspoon. These characters run a high risk of falling into Mary Sue territory, because male or female—someone who only exists for the reader to admire tends to fall short of the mark.

There’s also that unfortunate little detail where these characters… they aren’t the feminist icons they aspire to be, by the simple fact that the characters are still defined in relation to the men in the story. If her dominant trait if that she’s a *gasp* girl, and she’s tough enough to beat up guys, who is she when you take the guys away?

Like—that’s a serious question. What does it leave her with, when her identity is based on the way she interacts with men, and you take away the men?

When the girls are constantly being measured against the guys, when they can’t stand on their own merits as people in their own right—and even worse, when their entire lives revolve around boy-acquisition drama… Your butt-kicking heroine is still as dependent as the simpering princesses she so despises.

That’s not a strong character.

Which leads back to that second definition. The strong character who happens to be female.

This definition of “strong character” doesn’t define strength as “butt-kicking potential,” rather, this definition defines strength as “the way in which the character functions as a believable, complex, independent individual who is able to carry a novel.”

 —NOTE: Nowhere does this definition say a character has to be “likable” or even “sympathetic”—this definition relies purely on the relationship between the character and the text overall.

Let’s bring on the examples. How about another hypothetical high-fantasy?

     —Princess Annie would much rather be learning to shoot a bow and swordfight than attending royal parties like all the other girls her age, but her life changes when she discovers that she’s the bearer of the awesome Power of Light—a gift that allows her to fight with never-before-seen skill.
     On top of that, Prince Jared, the powerfully alluring ruler of the Western Kingdom, has fallen in love with her—and Stephen, Annie’s heroically-handsome bodyguard and childhood friend, insists something is amiss with the foreign prince.
Is there something evil in her kingdom? Or is her Stephen just jealous of her new admirer?

And Again:

   Princess Annie never cared for balls and parties—she much prefers the stillness and focus of archery, and the artistry of swordplay. However, her life changes when she discovers that she is the bearer of the awesome Power of Light—a gift that allows her to fight with never-before-seen skill.
     Not only has her new power taken away the challenge of the art she loves, but it has attracted the attention of Prince Jared, the powerfully alluring ruler of the Western Kingdom. Jared declares his intent to marry her—but Stephen, Annie’s heroically-handsome bodyguard and childhood friend, insists that something is amiss with the foreign prince.
     A marriage would unite the kingdoms, but Stephen might have a point. Does Jared only want her for her power? Or is Stephen just trying to keep her to himself? The fate of the kingdom hangs in the balance.

Okay. So both these examples show the same basic story, but framed in different ways. Assuming that these descriptions are accurate representations of the story and accurately reflect the focus of the narrative, we can see how one would yield a strong female character, and one might fall short of that mark.

The first example—I’ll call it A—is more likely to fail at female empowerment. The second example—B—is more likely to succeed.


Example A shows that Annie is ‘not like other girls’ because she prefers combat to dancing. This is questionable, because it insinuates that ‘other girls’ are somehow lesser for liking these things, and through that, it insinuates that things classically associated with femininity are also somehow lesser. Rather than showing us what Annie is, it tells us what she is not—putting down other girls instead of actually lifting Annie up.

Example B is better, because it actually tells us about Annie as a person. She enjoys the stillness and focus and artistry of combat—and logically, a person who values those things probably wouldn’t have much fun at an event that’s all about movement and noise and such. It’s not trying to insinuate she’s somehow better than people who like parties—it’s simply giving us an impression of who Annie is as a person.

Example A mentions the Power of Light, then completely fails to mention how it impacts the plot. You could just as easily replace ‘Power of Light’ with ‘mathematic ability’ and it would still make just as much sense. In this case, the power serves as nothing more than another little detail to set Annie apart and make her special.

Example B uses the power to introduce a character-centric conflict—the fact that her power means she can no longer enjoy her hobbies, thus hinting that Annie will have to face conflicts that revolve around her relationship to herself and her power. (This is cool, because it gives her a better shot at a complex inner life.) The use of the Power of Light in this example also serves to set up the conflict for the rest of the story. It makes sense that Jared might want her for her awesome magic power, but it would make less sense if he wanted her for her math skills. (I suppose a story like that is theoretically possible, but that’d be more likely in sci-fi than fantasy… But I digress.)

Example A features a fairly baseless love triangle. Why do these people like her? I dunno. But if it’s love-at-first-sight, there’s a high probability that we’re going to have a problem. (Not to say love-at-first-sight is automatically bad—it can work well, in some stories—but a relationship needs more to it if the reader is supposed to accept it as healthy, desirable, and plausible. Moreover, it has to be more than just an excuse to handwave inconsistencies. But I digress again. Maybe that should be my next post…)

Example B ensures that the love triangle is more than just ‘two hot guys think she’s pretty’—Jared might love her, he might just be in love with her power, or he might only want to use her for her power. Stephen might love her, he might just be possessive and jealous, or he might genuinely want nothing more than her safety for the good of the kingdom. This suggests that the story deals with the choice as more than a simple matter of “Do I like blonds or brunettes?”

Example A shows Annie as facing a choice between men, and nothing more. The most important thing in her world is the choice between Jared and Stephen. That’s it. Her boyfriend is all that matters. Her entire life revolves around her man. Yet somehow, because she likes swords more than dresses, we’re supposed to see this as somehow empowering women.
…I don’t get it, either.

Example B has higher stakes. Plain and simple. The love triangle is still a vital aspect, but it’s not everything—because we also have to worry about what will happen to the kingdom. She’s not just choosing her ideal beau, she’s also trying to deal with the real responsibility of doing what’s best for her people. And the tone of the example suggests that both guys could be controlling jerks—in which case, Annie has to deal with maintaining her autonomy and independence in the face of manipulation. Personally, I find that a story about that conflict much more compelling AND empowering.

In Summary: 

  • A strong female character IS NOT just a girl with a weapon and an attitude
  • A strong female character IS NOT just a girl with ‘masculine’ interests and attributes
  • A strong female character IS NOT automatically a Mary Sue.
  • A strong female character DOES NOT have to be likable
  • A strong female character IS a well-written character who:
    • has a complex internal life
    • can function on her own, without constantly being compared to/influenced by men
    • can function on her own, without constantly being compared to/influenced by other women
    • is able to make independent decisions about her own life
    • is able to move the plot forward through her own actions
  • However, a strong female character does not make a book automatically good. Nothing makes a book automatically good, except… being good.

-Female characters deserve and require the same degree of depth and characterization as male characters, and Strong Female Characters are fictional women who reflect this and are treated with the same respect as any other character within the narrative.

That’s it.

For one final example:

A GOOD strong female character is Hermione, from the Harry Potter books. She is smart, independent, and very much in charge of herself and her own life.

A POOR ‘strong female character’ is Bella Swan, from the Twilight books. She is bland, codependent, and her life revolves around the men she interacts with.

Who’s your favorite Strong Female Character? Why?
What about ‘Strong Female Characters’ who don’t live up to that hype?

A Writer’s Guide to Plotting and Pantsing


Today, I’m going to talk about Plotting and Pantsing.

Let’s start with some definitions, because these words are rather weird, if you don’t recognize them.

Plotters are the writers who prefer to plan their novels ahead of time.

Pantsers are the writers who would rather not. They “write by the seat of their pants,” as it were.


Now, to hear people talk, it often sounds as though you have to pick a camp. You’re either a plotter or a panster, and there’s no two ways about it.

That’s not true, though. Like most things related to writing, there’s no set way to do things–in fact, there’s as much variety in means and method as there are people who write.

Like me, for example–sometimes I outline, sometimes I don’t. Most of the time, I wing it until about halfway through the book, then I stop and put together an outline to help me push through and keep the story focused to the end.

So I’m not going to tell you that you HAVE to do things one way or another way, but I AM going to try to illustrate some of the various styles and techniques. Because everyone does things a little bit differently, and experimentation is the only way to find what works for you.

So. First, we’ll go over Pantsing, because it’s probably the easier option to discuss.

As a pantser, you sit down to write with a blank sheet and an idea. Sometimes you know where you’re going, and sometimes you don’t–you write what comes to you as it comes to you. Writing becomes an act of discovery as much as anything else.

When I take this route, I tend to work linearly–I lose track of the story and character development if I try to hop around, and I use the cool scenes I’m looking forward to writing as motivation to get me through the less-interesting transition parts.

Other people, though, like to skip around. They chase inspiration as it comes, writing what they want to write as they want to write it, and they order the scenes and string them together during the editing process. Personally, I can’t work like this–I’d never have the energy to go back and fill in the gaps between things–but I’m not going to criticize a technique just because it doesn’t work for me.

Now, Plotting.

There are about a million and one different ways to write a novel, which is why I decided to do this part second. I can’t cover all the different strategies, but I can list a few.

Me, when I outline, I typically go through three phases:

  • Stream-of-consciousness braindump –I’m essentially talking myself through the plot, either on paper or over the phone with a friend
  •  I condense the brain-dump to a list of keywords so that I can summarize and order the parts and scenes
  • Finally, I sit down and expand upon those keywords into paragraphs, fleshing out the events of each scene and connecting them together logically

This process takes time and I’m impatient, so I only ever do it when I’m really stuck or have too many disorganized details to work through in my head alone, but it works for me.

If you think you wanna try plotting, there are several ways to go about it. There’s my way that I just said, but other authors prefer:

  • writing scenes on notecards so they can be easily arranged
  • drawing flowcharts and diagrams to connect scene ideas together
  • writing a formal outline with headings and subheadings and whatnot

Oh–and then there’s my actual favorite method–the one I use when I need to order my thoughts, but my thoughts are speeding along too quickly for me to waste time with words and stuff. It looks something like this:

an outline

Yes, that’s an actual outline. I know exactly what I mean. It doesn’t matter if you can understand it, because it’s not meant for you. (Well, it is–but only as an example.) All that matters is that I, the writer, can understand it.

Heck, half the time, I don’t even look back at these things–the outline is there to help me sort out my thoughts, and that’s it. The paper one gets lost, somewhere, and the ‘true’ outline survives in my head.

Which goes back to the relationship between plotting and pantsing.

You can do whatever feels right–there’s no right way or wrong way. It’s all just what works for you and what doesn’t.

Maybe you’re one of those writers who needs an outline to function.

Maybe you’re one of those writers who just throws it all on the page from the start and sorts the messes out afterwards.

Or maybe you’re like me, and you make the whole process up as you go along.

It’s all okay. You can pick, you can choose, and you can switch as you please.

Write an outline. Abandon it. Let the story go where it wants.

Write half a book by the seat of your pants. Outline the rest, if that’s what it takes.

Fun little anecdote–I participated in NaNoWriMo this past November. I had a book I really wanted to write. I had it all planned out–outlined nice and clean, because I’d outlined the last book I’d written, and it went really well.

Then Day One hit, and I was struggling. I hit 1000 words and got stuck.

On a whim, I flipped to another story I had sitting on my computer. I’d hit 1000 words several months prior, and I had gotten stuck and put it down.

Since I was at the same point in both manuscripts, I decided to switch projects. I had no plan. No idea what would come next. I had no clue where this story was going, but to my surprise–it turns out it was ready to be written.

The remaining 49000 words flew by with hardly any trouble at all.

So, In Summary:

Plotting is the style of writing where you plan everything out beforehand.

Pantsing is the style of writing where you make it all up as you go along.

Both are legitimate strategies, and each person has their own technique and preference.

The most important thing is to be flexible–even if one strategy worked once, it doesn’t mean that’s the right approach for every novel. Don’t be afraid to mix and match and reorganize whenever you get stuck.

Also–let me know in the comments if there’s anything you want me to talk about in future posts!

(Also also–Wardbreaker is up for pre-order on Amazon. Click here to go check it out!)


A Writer’s Guide to Sue-Spotting

“Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair…”

You may begin screaming, now.

Okay–in all seriousness–I should start explaining.

Mary Sues, or ‘Sues,’ as I lovingly refer to them, are idealized characters (of either gender) who exist at the center of their narrative universe. Everything that happens in a story, good or bad, happens in relation to them, but somehow, nothing is ever truly their fault, and they rarely (if ever) have to face the consequences of their actions.

Sues are the author’s darling–the pet character–and often, but not always, an author self-insert. He or she that can do no wrong, and the story’s concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ often get twisted to suit the character’s needs. Furthermore, everything that happens to this character becomes the Most Important Thing in the World–to the point where something so inane as relationship drama will eclipse and delay the main destruction-of-the-free-world plot.

Angst, melodrama, and entitled narcissism become the order of the day, and sense, logic, and plot often get thrown out the window.

Now, before we continue, I have a brief history lesson: the term “Mary Sue” originated in the 70’s, when a satirical story was published in a Star Trek fan magazine. This story featured a character by the name of Mary Sue, who was the best, brightest, and youngest lieutenant the fleet had ever seen. (Click here to read the whole story. Don’t worry, it’s short.)

As time wore on and the internet made amateur fiction more widely accessible, new patterns got added into the Mary Sue mix–bad spelling, strange-colored eyes, unrealistic romance, drawn-out descriptions of the main character’s appearance and wardrobe…

Forgive me if I torture you with the rest of that My Immortal excerpt:

“I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears […] I’m a vampire but my teeth are straight and white. I have pale white skin. […] today I was wearing a black corset with matching lace around it and a black leather miniskirt, pink fishnets and black combat boots. I was wearing black lipstick, white foundation, black eyeliner and red eye shadow.

Because the term came from fanfiction, many people assume that Sues are a product of fanfiction and fanfiction alone–but if you look back through history, you can find evidence of the patterns and tropes associated with Sues going all the way back to Chaucer.

No. Seriously. Chaucer.

I speak of the Tale of Sir Thopas–Chaucer’s tale told by his self-insert within the narrative of the Canterbury Tales. You know–the one that makes the Host character cut Chaucer off mid-sentence because the story’s too awful to bear.


So basically, it goes that–since Chaucer is a Good Writer, if he’s writing a story that bad, he’s doing it on purpose. So that means it’s satire. So The Tale of Sir Thopas is a satirical take on the common patterns and mistakes made by the less-than-stellar wordsmiths of the age. Or, in more contemporary terms: Chaucer wrote himself a trollfic.

Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the story, The Tale of Sir Thopas is about a young knight named Thopas (that’s old-speak for Topaz) who’s pretty much the best guy ever. I mean, listen to this description:

Sir Thopas grew up to be a doughty lad;
White was his face as fine white bread,
His lips red as a rose;
His complexion is like scarlet deeply dyed,
And I tell you in true certainty
He had a seemly nose.

His hair, his beard was like saffron,
That to his girdle reached down;
His shoes of Cordovan leather.
Of Bruges were his brown stockings,
His robe was of silk woven with gold,
That cost many a half-penny.

He knew how to hunt for wild animals,
And ride a-hawking for water-fowl
With grey gos-hawk on hand;
Moreover he was a good archer;
In wrestling there was no one his peer,
Where any ram shall stand (as a prize).

Very many a maid, bright in bed-chamber,
They mourn for him passionately,
When it would be better for them to sleep;
But he was chaste and no lecher,
And sweet as is the dog rose
That bears the red hip.

Does that sound familiar? Just like your prototypical Sue-story, we start with glowing (if bizarre) praise for his looks, costume-porn, a list of his talents, and an assurance that he doesn’t sleep around even though all the girls totally want him. Heck, even the naming convention was the same–I can’t tell you how many Sues I’ve seen named Crystal. (Or Krystal, or Crystal, or Kristal…) Topaz is exactly par for the course.

My point is: this is Chaucer, mocking the same conventions that annoy us today.

The Mary Sue isn’t a new thing, and it isn’t limited to fanfiction. The Mary Sue has been a character type for as long as people have been telling stories.

I bring this up to clarify what a Mary Sue is not, before I get into what it is and how to deal with it.

A Mary Sue is NOT:

  • A fanfiction protagonist
  • A female character you don’t like
  • An author self-insert (these do tend to overlap, but they are not synonymous.)
  • Something only written by female authors
  • Something only written by teenage writers

A Mary Sue IS:

  • A characters who is unrealistically idealized
  • Poorly developed
  • A black hole around which the universe revolves
  • Often lacking in genuine personality
  • Often rather unlikable
  • Usually a product of wish-fulfillment
  • Rarely subjected to genuine conflict
  • Intended as an object of idolization/pity

So. Now that that’s settled, how can we tell if we’ve got a Mary Sue on our hands, and what can we do about it?

There are several traits associated with Mary Sues–eyes that change color, rare magic, stunning physical attractiveness–but in the end, it all boils down to one thing: Do I treat this character the same way I treat all the other characters?

For example, if I spend three paragraphs describing my protagonist, but I only spend one line describing everyone else? Red flag.

Does this character get all the coolest talents and powers that no one else can have? Red flag.

Is this character the only person capable of Doing the Thing that the plot needs done? Red flag.

Is this character allowed to make mistakes, and is this character allowed to be overshadowed? If not, that’s the biggest red flag of them all.

It’s fun to write awesome characters, but if they get too awseome–if this character is the best of the best of the best at everything–if this character is the smartest and the boldest and the most beautiful, most virtuous, strongest creature that ever existed–you miiight just have a problem.

Let’s go back to our hypothetical fantasy epic. (I’ve grown rather fond of it.)

Okay, so we’re writing a high fantasy epic, and we’ve got a hero–I’ll call him Greg. So Greg’s village was burned to the ground by the bad guy, and Greg is the only survivor. Coincidentally, Greg also happens to have the rare ability to shoot lightning out of his face, and it turns out that this means he’s secretly the long lost heir to the Magical Throne of Awesome. Greg discovers that he alone can sit on the throne and restore the kingdom, so he teams up with a wandering mercenary who’s promised to help him along the way. The mercenary teaches Greg to fight, and within a week, Greg has mastered the blade. Then, Greg meets a beautiful woman and they fall hopelessly in love, and–

are you sick, yet? At first, it doesn’t seem too bad, but the longer it goes, the more unbearable it becomes…

Anyway, so let’s say we’re writing this story, and we suddenly realize that somewhere along the way, Greg accidentally wandered into Sue territory. What can we do?

Make Greg not the center of the world anymore.

Does Greg have to be the only survivor? If other people survive, too, it’d makes it look more likely that Greg survived on his own, and not just because The Author Decided.

Does Greg have to shoot lightning out of his face? If so, does the ability have to be rare? If Greg stands on even footing with his peers and enemies, it makes the conflict more intense and more interesting. It’s not as much fun to watch a fight when you know it’s been rigged.

Does Greg have to be a long lost heir? If he does, what does that really mean? Are there responsibilities involved? What about the risks?

Is Greg really the only one who can restore the kingdom? If so, is there a better way to do it than the simple fisher-king magic power of butt-in-chair?

As for the mercenary and the love-interest–do they have lives of their own when they’re away from Greg? They should.

In fact, I think that’s one of the biggest, easiest ways to make a potential Sue-story more tolerable–make sure to treat the rest of the characters as people, too.

In Summary:

Mary Sues are characters who exist at the center of their world.

They have been around forever, and probably aren’t going away.

Symptoms may include but are not limited to overblown description, unrealistic romance, easily-resolved conflict, angst, melodrama, lack of actual consequences, bored readers, frustrated readers, ‘edgy’ behavior, too-good-for-this-sinful-earth purity, and protagonist-centered morality–among others.

NOTE–Every case is unique–some stories might have all listed symptoms–others might have none. For more information, click here to check out the Mary Sue Litmus Test. It’s not definitive–few things ever are–but it’s an informative and entertaining resource, and well worth a look.

If you suspect you might have a Mary Sue–there’s still hope. Sue-ness is often subjective, and some cases are mild enough and debatable enough to be ignored. (Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter have both been accused of having Sue-ish traits, but those stories are doing just fine regardless.)

However, if you’ve looked, and you believe your story is suffering from a malignant Mary Sue, you can address the problem in a number of ways:

  • Make sure the character isn’t always the best of the best
  • Make sure other characters have lives of their own
  • Make sure that the character follows the rules of their reality, and not the other way around
  • If the character has to break the rules, make sure there are consequences
  • Allow things to get in the character’s way for longer than an instant.
  • Allow other characters to occasionally take the spotlight on their own
  • Make sure the character’s hardships are there to challenge them, and not to win reader pity
  • And most important–Nobody gets to be awesome or perfect all the time

Remember: Sues aren’t the end of the world. A lot of writers–especially beginning writers–create them, and that’s okay. The trick is to recognize the signs, and eventually grow beyond them.

(Also, my book, Wardbreaker is available for pre-order on Amazon. Click here–check it out. You won’t be disappointed.) 

Heroes: Active, Passive, and Reluctant

This is one of my personal pet peeves. Seriously, this single thing–whether your character is active or passive–can make the difference between a weak premise that I put down after three chapters, and a strong, amazing story that I want to hug after I finish reading.

Allow me to clarify:

Active Heroes:

These are the characters who take charge of their own fates–the people who embark on their adventure because they wanted to, and follow through with it because they have a personal investment in the outcome.

Passive Heroes:

These are the characters who are pawns of fate–the people who get dragged into their adventure because the someone else made them go, and only follow through with their quest because the plot demanded it.

“But what about the reluctant heroes, eh?” I hear some of you say. “Everyone loves a reluctant hero!”

Don’t worry, reluctant heroes are still cool. BUT there’s a difference between a reluctant hero and a passive one.

The best example I can come up with is in the Legend of Zelda video game franchise.

(But Mara! That’s a video game! What’s that got to do with writing?)

(Well, video games and movies are stories, too. There’s a lot you can learn from them, if you think to look. There’s more to writing than just grammar and spelling, after all.)

Anyway, let’s consider two entries in the franchise: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the games, The Legend of Zelda games all follow the same basic premise: the kingdom is in trouble, the princess is (usually) in need of rescue, and Link–the player controlled protagonist–must find the strength to save the day after overcoming all sorts of hardships. It’s the classic high fantasy plot. Therefore it’s perfect for our purposes today.

Both games begin with our hero, Link, going about his daily life in his home village. In Twilight Princess, he’s a goatherd, and in Spirit Tracks, he’s an apprentice railroad engineer. All well and good so far.

Then comes the time for the plot to kick in.

The ‘hook’ for Twilight Princess comes when Link is having a nice day, hanging out by the pond with two of his closest friends. All of a sudden, a gigantic monster breaks down the gates and grabs Link’s friends, bashing our hero over the head and leaving him for dead.

When Link wakes up later, his friends are gone.

He takes it upon himself to chase after the kidnappers–which leads him to get involved in the events of the larger story.

Meanwhile, Spirit Tracks’ ‘hook’ occurs when Link is visiting the city to get certified as an official railway engineer. As it happens, an antagonist attacks during his visit, capturing the princess and expelling her soul from her body so he can use it in a magic ritual. Link is the only one who can see the princess’ disembodied soul, so she orders him to help her rescue her body.

Link is the right guy in the right place at the right time, and the princess gave him an order, so he agrees to help her get her body back.

Do you see the problem here?

The first example is personal. Link’s friends have been kidnapped, and he must rescue them because he cares. It’s a personal motivation, and it carries the player throughout the plot. Link decides to enter the quest of his own volition, and therefore is responsible for his own fate.

He is still reluctant in that he wasn’t seeking adventure, but he is active  in that he accepts it willingly when it comes to him, and he made the choice to act by himself. When he risks life and limb on his quest, you understand he’s doing it to protect the people he loves, and you never once stop to ask “why can’t you just go home and sleep instead?”

But the second example–in Spirit Tracks, it’s not at all personal. Sure, Link’s the only one who can see the disembodied princess, but he only just met her. The player/reader has no loyalty to the girl. In fact, she’s kind of annoying, popping out of nowhere telling Link to essentially go sacrifice himself to save her. She has personal motivation, but Link does not.

In this case, Link becomes a passive hero, because he has no control over his destiny and is only on the quest because otherwise there wouldn’t be a game.

It wasn’t personal.

The same thing happens in books all the time. The hero is just chilling, living his life and stuff, when all of a sudden some Wise Old Mentor pops out of nowhere to kidnap him pull him into this epic adventure.

It worked in the Lord of the Rings, because the bad guys were searching for an item in the hero’s possession and threatening his home–so even though the hero was pulled into a quest he didn’t understand, he still had personal reason to go out and risk his life: protecting his home, and taking care of the item that he saw as his responsibility.

Throughout the rest of the plot, the hero and his companions often think back to their home–their motivation is always in the back of their minds, giving them purpose and keeping them on task, even when they really, really, REALLY want to go home.

In fact, since we’re talking about Tolkien’s works, let’s discuss Bilbo, the main character of The Hobbit. He’s the perfect example of a reluctant hero who still manages to be active.

He has virtually no personal investment in his quest: a bunch of dwarves come to his house out out of the blue and offer him a job. He is very clear that he wants no part in their adventure–

“Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”

–but then, the next morning, he realizes he does want a part in this quest, and runs after the dwarves on impulse. Later on, he regrets this decision a great deal–missing his home and wondering what he was thinking to leave his home in the first place–but he has nobody to blame but himself. He made his own decision–he took his fate into his own hands–and now he has to live with it.

So those are some great examples of what’s done right. How is it done wrong?

There are a few ways. The first, as I discussed above in the Spirit Tracks example, is when the hero has no personal motivation to join the quest.

The second biggest mistake happens when a writer tries to give the hero personal motivation, but forgets to follow through.

Say we’re writing a story–a high fantasy epic, perhaps. (I’m rather fond of those.)

So we’re writing a high fantasy epic, and we need to get our peasant hero out the door and fighting the Evil King.

We’ve realized it’s a bad idea to just have the mentor figure open the door and shout, “Yo kid, you’re the chosen one! Come with me!” because then the hero would have no motivation.

So we decide to give him motivation–in the form of the Evil King’s minions burning the hero’s village to the ground and killing his family while he watches. That’s great, right? Because now he has nothing holding him back, and vengeance is a great reason to wanna kill the bad guy! Right?

Well, no. Not always. Not only is this idea bordering on cliche, but oftentimes, though the hero starts out with a passionate drive to avenge that which he used to love, it rarely lasts very long. Somewhere along the line, it stops being about vengeance and love of what’s been lost and protecting the surviving innocent, and it starts being about… just because.

The author thinks “Okay, I’ve got him out there, that’s good enough! Time for fight scenes and love interests and all that cool stuff!” and they forget that the motivation–the hero’s reason to fight–is something that should always be in the back of his mind.

It’s important that the hero–and the reader–keep in mind what’s at stake. Motivations–vengeance, protecting the innocent, defending a home–it gives the conflict meaning, and gives the protagonist and the reader a reason to care. If the author forgets and allows the hero to forget, the story begins to feel shallow and pointless–even if the fate of the world is at stake.

In Summary:

An active hero gets involved in the plot of his own free will–not because he was forced by circumstance, and he is the architect of his own fate. He makes his decision and has to live with it, and he is personally invested in his own story.

passive hero is one who is not responsible for his own fate. He has no investment in his story, and did not make the decision to get involved. He spends the story being pushed and pulled by outside forces, such as antagonists and mentor figures.
(Note–this includes thief protagonists who start adventuring because they were starving, stole the wrong thing from the wrong person, and get sucked in that way. If the ‘choice’ your hero makes is between Joining the Plot and Dying, it doesn’t count as a choice. Of COURSE they’re going to choose to join the plot if death is the only other option.)

reluctant hero is NOT the same as a passive one–“reluctant” simply means that the character is happy at home and doesn’t spend his free time dreaming of excitement and adventure. However, reluctant heroes still have the power to make their own decisions and sculpt their own destiny.

I mean, think about it–who do you respect more, the guy who takes up arms to save the world because a wizard told him it was destiny? Or the guy who takes up arms because he wants to make a difference any way he can?

That’s one of the things I love about the Legend of Zelda franchise–most of the time, even though Link is the Chosen Hero, he doesn’t find that out until after he decides to fight. Battle becomes his destiny because he had the courage to choose it to protect what he loves–not because someone told him it was his job.

(Now, time for a little shameless self-promotion! Click this link here and pre-order Wardbreaker on Amazon! Of course I’m the one who wrote it, but I think it’s pretty great. You should buy it. That’d be awesome.)

Showing and Telling

“Show, don’t tell.”

We’ve all heard it. It’s in almost every writing book, and I’ve heard some variant from just about every writing teacher I’ve ever had. Everyone says it, and it’s featured in just about every list of writing advice ever, so let’s stop and talk about what it actually means.

Provides information in such a way as to allow the readers to draw their own conclusions.

Hands the reader information on a plate, instructing them about the opinion the author wants them to have.

Let’s take a look. In my upcoming novel, Wardbreaker, there’s a scene where Kyrin, the main character, goes home to the room he rents.

If I’m telling you about the room, it might look something like this:

Kyrin didn’t have much money, and so he lived alone in a tiny, run-down little room on the second floor of the boarding house. He didn’t like it much. 

That’s not terrible. It gets the point across quite succinctly, and brevity’s the soul of wit, right?

Well, unfortunately, that line up there doesn’t give the reader much sense of Kyrin or the room he’s in. It tells you how he feels and where he is, sure–but I’ll bet you’re having a hard time picturing it.

Now let’s try showing the room:

The walls were bare, and the old white paint had cracked and flaked in the corners near the floor and ceiling. The floor creaked and groaned like a morbid chorus no matter how cautiously Kyrin placed his feet, and the only furnishing aside from his unkempt three-legged bed and the old crate that propped it up was an ancient, battered wardrobe stuck awkwardly in the corner. Although the room was basically empty, Kyrin hardly had enough space to stand.

See what a difference that makes? Including little details makes the scene feel more real, and allows the reader to connect more intimately with the setting and characters. Not only that, but showing gives you a nice opportunity–because you’re describing the scene as the character perceives it, you can use the description as a subtle means of characterization.

It’s rather tangential, but I’ll provide a quick example anyway.


The ocean was rough that day.

Showing with Character A:

Rough waves clawed at the dark dock, growling hungrily as they splashed higher and higher towards Kyrin’s legs.

Showing with Character B:

The patchwork sea was clear, blues and greens and greys all resting together without a sign of hardship amidst the sparkling waves, and the sky was clearer—a bright blue bowl resting atop the perfect horizon. 

It’s the same ocean, but Character A hates it, while Character B loves the water. You can tell, because Character A describes it with violent imagery, as though the ocean were a monster, while Character B is more focused on the play of light and color and the thrill of the open sky.

So, by showing the environment, I’m ALSO showing the character’s reaction to the environment, thereby showing the character.

Now here’s where some of you might be tempted to think, “Great! Awesome! Showing is the way to go–I’ll never tell again!”

I encourage you to pause. I know everyone always says “show, don’t tell,” as though it were the single greatest truth of the art of storytelling, but that’s not true.

Sometimes, you have to get a lot of information across without distracting or boring the reader. Sometimes you have to summarize events that aren’t terribly important. Sometimes, you just need to get the plot moving along again.

This is where telling comes in handy.


Let’s talk about Eva Ibbotson for a moment. She wrote some of my favorite children’s books. (If you’ve never read any of her stories, check them out. They’re quick reads, but well worth it.)

I bring her up, because Ibbotson has a particular style. She explains her characters and their motivations as soon as they appear on the screen, handing the reader opinions and backstory, exactly as all your teachers told you not to.

But you know what? It works.

Her style is clever and charming enough that the reader buys every word. She’s telling, yes–but she does it in such a way as to draw you in further, and by her telling, she’s actually showing you something else.

Let’s take a look a section from her book, Which Witch?

It was a shock, of course. No one likes to think that their baby is going to grow up to be a wizard, and a black one at that. But the Cankers were sensible people. They changed the baby’s name from George to Arriman (after a famous and very wicked Persian sorcerer), painted a frieze of vampire bats and newts’ tongues on his nursery wall and decided that if he had to grow up to be a wizard they would see to it he was a good one.”

Ibbotson tells you, “the Cankers were sensible people,” then immediately follows that claim up with some anecdotal evidence, showing you how her claim is true.

By telling you some things and showing you others, she gives the readers all the backstory they need, while still keeps the focus on the narrative. If she only told us what was going on, the story would be boring. But if she only showed us, her short little children’s books would be ten times longer and nowhere near as focused and entertaining.

One last quick example:

Let’s say for a moment that we’re writing a story that isn’t a quirky children’s book. We’re writing something intense and serious and dramatic. A high fantasy epic, perhaps. We’re writing a high fantasy epic, and we’re halfway through the plot. Our heroes have to travel from one city to another, in order to rendezvous with an old companion.

We have two options: we could show every step of their journey. We could describe the sweltering heat and the dusty road and the pain of their cracked lips and aching feet. We could watch as, day after day, they slowly creep across the barren land, scrounging for food and bickering exactly as they have been for the rest of the novel so far–we could show the reader the mounting frustration and depression and make the poor reader feel every last bit of it–


–we could tell, rather than show, and summarize the whole ordeal in a single line:

Alice and Bob traveled to [their destination], and by the time they got there, they were both exhausted, dirty, and ready to strangle one another. 

I’m only telling you this. I’m not elaborating, and I’m showing you nothing–but so long as the prior characterization supports my claim, the reader won’t even notice. I’ll have carried the plot along to it’s next point, and I’ll have taken the reader with me.

In summary:

Showing and telling both have their merits. Neither method is always right or always wrong; rather, each one can serve the story in different ways, fleshing it out or speeding it along as the author dictates.


(Psst–Before you go, swing by Amazon and pre-order Wardbreaker! Trust me–it’s great. Thanks!)