Tag Archives: mary sue

Pixar’s First Rule: Character Failure is Important

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There have been multiple lists of ‘Pixar’s rules’ doing the rounds on reddit over the years, not least because Pixar has a reputation for telling a good story. When I was catching up with the backlog of Writing Excuses podcasts during my commute last week, they dissected a list and one rule in particular struck me as important but under-discussed.

The Try-Fail Cycle for character development is something that often happens fairly organically, or as part of the 5-Act Structure. The hero attempts to do something, fails, and tries again later with climactic success (unless it’s a tragedy). It’s an almost instinctive part of the plot peak-trough pattern. What’s not often explored is WHY it’s important.

Superman is boring

Um… I’m referring here to a generic superman, not the caped superhero (although he’s also often quite dull). The point is that a hero who automatically succeeds at everything is uninteresting for the reader. They can’t relate to them, or root for them during a character growth arc. There is, in fact, no room for growth which means character development is a challenge. And without character development, where’s half the story? If the assumption of success is there, you also lose the tension of conflict and, indeed, a significant proportion of the actual conflict.

Failure provides an opportunity for conflict and character development.

Why do we fall?3027013-8585006017-27591

Everybody fails (apart from Superman). Not everybody picks themselves up and tries again. That determination to succeed, that perseverance in the face of all odds is a heroic trait and one that endears the character to the audience. A reader can empathise and cheer for someone who keeps try, try, trying again. It shows a strength and greatness of… well, character.

Failure demonstrates the character’s heroism.

Raise the stakes

If you’ve already failed once, how do you know you’ll succeed next time? The previous failure raises the tension for the next attempt, which is what keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. Regardless of narrative convention, there’s no guarantee that this second attempt will be successful. The audience has seen how badly it could go – will it go that way again? But if the character hasn’t had that previous failure, your reader is slumped back in their chair with a shrug because they know the character will win. They’ve seen it before.

Failure builds tension.

So there you have it. Three important reasons why beating your character round the head with a stick early on is important. Well done, Pixar. I’m not saying it’s essential – you can’t write by rote, after all – but it’s definitely a factor to keep in mind.

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Creating Character Depth

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Creating depth is a vital part of sucking readers into your story. No one wants to read about cardboard cut-outs with no drive, no secrets, no goals or personal hurdles. A lot of the hate directed at the Twilight protagonist, Bella Swan, is because she’s just a mannequin for hot supernatural men to happen to. Without depth, your readers will utter the eight deadly words of fiction:

I don’t care what happens to these people.    ~ Dorothy Jones Heydt

If your audience don’t care, they won’t read. It’s as simple as that. Depth is a way of making them care, making them buy into the character’s journey and personal development. Part of this is making sure your character isn’t perfect, as Mary Sues are boring at best; part of it is giving them characteristic (clue’s in the name) traits that bring them to ‘life’, such as Hermione Granger’s bibliophilia or Harry Dresden’s love for his battered old car. These can tie into the plot, or even generate subplots which give the whole story more depth. They can be habitual behaviours which serve no greater purpose than to make the character identifiable. In a perfect world, there’s enough depth that different elements of the character do both.

depth

  • One way of making sure your characters are both flawed and deep is to look at some of the possible psychosis that drive them. Don’t tell me they’re all totally sane. Nobody’s totally sane. If you think you know someone who is, they’re just doing a really good job of faking it. Besides, given the kinds of situations you’re likely to be throwing at your characters, I’d be surprised if they didn’t develop a few mental hiccups. PTSD, for one. I’ve started following a blog called Think Ink which looks at character development through the eyes of a psychologist. I highly recommend a read.
  • Another technique – one you should be doing anyway – is to ask the list of development questions. There are tons of lists out there (just google ‘character development questions’) so have a look and find one that works for you. I did come across one recently that was incredibly detailed and deep but now I can’t find it again. I’ll keep looking and update this post if I locate that safe place I stashed it in.
  • Extra Credits have an interesting tutorial on creating depth versus complexity. It’s mainly appropriate only for designing games, rather than story-telling, but if you have six minutes to spare, it’s worth a watch. Their stuff on complexity isn’t really as applicable, but the view on depth – and the importance of character agency – is totally relevant to writing.

The role of character agency, incidentally, is quite an interesting one. I was having this debate with my friend The Belgian earlier in the week. Does a character need agency? Actually, no, they don’t. There are plenty of good characters in literature who have little to no agency in their own right – Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games being a prime example. With the exception of “I volunteer!” at the beginning, everything that happens throughout basically the entire trilogy happens to her. She’s still an interesting character, although I do wonder whether she could have been more complex and interesting if she’d either had more agency or if her growth arc had been to acquire it. Don’t get me wrong, agency is a very highly recommended thing to have but it isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all of characterisation. Depth, however – that, you can’t do without.

The same applies to settings, too. If they’re Hollywood backdrops – a skin of paint and canvas held up by wooden props – then you severely limit yourself in what you can do with them. You certainly can’t risk the audience looking too closely. If, on the other hand, your setting has a depth of its own then it becomes a selling point of the story. Examples include London in Kate Griffen’s Matthew Swift series, the cities in China Mieville’s The City & The City, Sarantium in Guy Gavriel Kaye’s Sailing to Sarantium, and there are tons more out there.

In summary, don’t skimp on the details, layers or murky complexities of your world and the people who live there. They are what gets an audience hooked.

Bond, Character Bond

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Some more words of wisdom from James Scott Bell today, on how to make your protagonist someone the audience will bond with (see what I did there?). This is obviously pretty important and I mostly do it by instinct, relying on the idea that because I found the character’s story interesting enough to tell the reader will find it interesting enough to follow. But that’s not really enough – it’s relying on the action to suck people in, rather than having independently interesting characters. So let’s apply some theory.

Bell breaks it down into four key dynamics:

1) Identification

The ability of the reader to identify with the protagonist is vital because it’s usually how the reader accesses the plot. In genre writing that can seem like a bit of a challenge – how many of your readers are elven archers or goblin mercenaries? – but it really all comes down to the characterisation. Do they behave like other people? Do they get angry, confused, have a penchant for peanut butter on toast, or need the toilet occasionally? These are the things that people can connect with. Identification was a major problem for me in Spiritus because the protagonist was from a fairly alien culture. The way I made her empathetic was through her fear of rejection and her often strained relationships with her family. Those are two things that could transcend fantasy and foreign cultures, allowing the reader a way in.

2) Sympathy 

This differs from identification because it’s about whether the reader cares, rather than connects. This is the point of emotional investment. The protagonist is in trouble (physically or emotionally), or suffering some ongoing hardship. This kind of ties into plot but it’s the character’s reaction to the situation that generates sympathy, rather than the situation itself.

The key to using hardship is not to allow the character to whine about it. Sure, there can be moments when the character lashes out emotionally due to the hardship, but don’t let her stay there. We admire those who take steps to overcome.     ~ James Scott Bell

3) Likeability

This can be a tricky one, especially if your protagonist is deliberately not a likeable person. I’m going to cite Thea, the protagonist from Spiritus, again here – she’s arrogant and has definite sociopathic tendencies. Combined with an alien culture, how do I get the reader to like her? I compensate. She does have some good qualities, such as loyalty or courage, which the reader can like her for. On the flip side, if your protagonist IS a nice person, be careful not to make them too nice. Nobody’s perfect and those that are portrayed without flaws often end up as the least interesting and likeable characters.

4) Inner conflict

Okay, all together now – ‘conflict is the key to stories’. But this isn’t about the action, this is about the character. Reason vs. passion, duty vs. desire, money vs. morals – these are the internal debates that bring someone to life and make them interesting. It’s also the keystone of the character arc, allowing them to struggle with their inner demons and then triumph.

By the way, there’s no harm in thinking about these four dynamics whilst considering your antagonist as well. Villains who are bad because they’re bad are boring and unbelievable. Give your enemy all the benefits that your protagonist gets and you’ll get a stronger character on both sides.

According to Bell, a fear of snakes humanizes even the most Heroic character...

According to Bell, a fear of snakes humanizes even the most Heroic character…

Archetypes of Conflict

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A friend and I were discussing characterisation over some excellent dim sum last night, and we came up with an interesting theory. To make a character truly nuanced, you have to work out the things they know about themselves and then the things they don’t know. The known knowns and the known unknowns, to quote Donald Rumsfeld.

This grew out of a conversation about character flaws. Getting flaws right is a delicate balance: too few and you’re risking a Mary Sue, too many and the character becomes unlikeable or even unworkable. So how do you achieve that balance? I used a specific character as an example – one that has the massive flaw of arrogance but is completely unaware of it. It colours all interaction with others, who of course are very aware, and will hopefully lead to an interesting character development as she recognises it and tries to overcome it.

Which brings me on to the question of conflict in plot arcs. All stories must have some kind of conflict, otherwise where’s the tension? Where’s the suspense? Where’s the story? Conflict can be boiled down, at its most generalised, into three types:

1. Man vs self – this is probably the hardest to write, but every story really needs at least a trace of it. It is the internal character development or redemption. To do it subtly is tough. To do it grandly (i.e. that is all the story) is even tougher, because you risk limiting your supporting cast and your main character must be likeable both before and after in order to keep the reader interested.

2. Man vs man – this covers any interpersonal conflict, be it human, alien or divine. It’s the most common type, which brings its own challenge of originality. You also have to keep an eye out for ‘evil overlord’ syndrome – remember that both sides of the conflict have to have depth and internal consistency of some kind.

3. Man vs nature – often a survival or natural disaster story. The Day After Tomorrow sticks in my head as an example (mainly because it was so terrible). Again, this carries its own warning label – if your protagonist is in conflict against a natural disaster, how on earth can they win? You run the severe risk of them feeling / looking helpless, and a happy ending is that much tougher to achieve.

Carrying on with the idea of internal conflict and character flaws brings me to Carl Jung’s shadow theory:

Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.

So to give a character real depth, work out their shadow. That ought to give you internal conflict and interpersonal conflict at the same time, as well as some kind of story arc. If you’re going for the hat trick of all three, of course, you could make your character someone like Loki and bring in natural disaster as well!

It’s Who You Know

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Recently I’ve been talking to quite a lot of people about the trials of characterisation. How do you make a character nuanced, sympathetic (or not), and above all real? The first trap to avoid, of course, is the ever-present danger of the Mary-Sue, which can afflict even the most experienced of writers. If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘Mary-Sue’ read this article and then consider whether you are guilty. The criticism is NOT just applicable in fanfic, so be alert!

One of the generally accepted pieces of wisdom in writing is ‘write what you know’. Unfortunately this can only take you so far in fantasy writing, which is what I primarily do. Being a LARPer, I am lucky enough to have experienced bumping into a group of orcs on a dark night, but that isn’t something everyone can draw on. How about substituting going to a scary meeting with your boss for that fight with the ogre? It’s surprising what you can make relevant.


I usually don’t have too much of a problem with characterisation, possibly due to a tendency to have conversations with my characters whenever I’m walking somewhere. Often out loud. Yes, I am that crazy muttering girl. Recently, however, I’ve run up against a bit of a problem: narrator bias. In my current project there is a major character who can do no wrong in the narrator’s eyes. In actual fact he’s a bit of a jerk, but it is very difficult indeed to get that across. My solution is to use another character who really doesn’t like him, and have the narrator deal with the interpersonal tension. In a way it adds depth to all three voices, but it is one of the tougher challenges I’ve had to deal with and I’m not sure if I’ve managed to solve it adequately yet. Time, and maybe beta readers, will tell.

One really good way of adding depth to a character is by interviewing them. This is not necessarily appropriate for all characters or even all stories, but a couple of friends have said that it’s helped them properly visualise their protagonists and even generate plot points. There are a number of suggested interviews around – quite a good (if lengthy) one is here.

Don’t forget that it’s just as important to make the Bad Guy three-dimensional. What’s driving him/her/it to act in the way they do? What are they like in person? Why the obsession with white cats and a weakness for monologuing? If you’ve got, for example, a flaming eye on top of a tower as your main opponent, then why does he want to take over the world? How is he recruiting and feeding his Hordes of EvilTM, especially if his home turf is a wasted plain upon which no life will grow?

I have to admit that I often outsource this. The raptor has a part-time job as an Evil Genius Consultant, and the amount of impact this has can’t be understated. It means that the bad guy really does think completely differently to the good guys, because someone other than me is coming up with his plans. This is one of the reasons I love roleplaying so much – the collaboration of imaginations, which automatically generates new ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask other people for suggestions or ‘what ifs’. If you have multiple characters, then you should be dealing with multiple points of view. So go out and find them.