If you’re a book nerd who scours Goodreads for book recommendations, or are an avid book reviewer yourself, you’ve most likely heard of the Mary Sue character.
You know, the plain-Jane main character (male or female) who is written to appear flawless to the reader? The one who, though they’re portrayed as perfect, ends up being the dullest person to follow because you’re so bored that you can’t relate to them or care about their journey?
Yeah, Mary Sues in fiction are something we as writers seek to avoid. So today, we’re going to learn how to do just that. Check out these telling signs that your character is basic.
Sign 1: Your Character Has No Goal
What is the purpose of a story without a character trying to reach their desired endpoint? I’m not sure, but this is an aspect of storytelling many new authors encounter with their first manuscript. I was no exception when writing my debut novel.
Think of all your favorite books: In The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss’s main goal is to save Prim and survive the wrath of The Capitol. In A Walk to Remember, Jamie’s goal is to have the wedding of her dreams despite the looming threat of a short life. In The Help, Skeeter’s goal is to publish a book that exposes the racial injustice of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi while staying true to the voices of the black maids.
And like the characters from each of those riveting novels, each and everyone one of us aspires to do something with our lives, even if it involves nothing but crashing on the couch and watching The Office on Netflix for hours on end. So, before you sit down to write, even before you outline, it’s invaluable to come up with a goal for your main character to work toward.
But, Your Character Also Needs Obstacles
While it’s good to have a goal, your character will also need to face roadblocks throughout the story that challenge them in some way, whether it be spiritually, mentally, or morally. Physical obstacles are also acceptable, though they don’t usually pack as much as an emotional punch to the gut as inner turmoil does.
So, how can we as writers work to sabotage our characters’ goals?
Sign 2: Your Character Has No Misbelief
Okay, so the main thing we as writers should know about storytelling is this: for a story to be effective, something about the character must change by the end of the story.
We’ve already established that the character needs a goal to pursue along the way, and that obstacles of inner turmoil can help spice things up and prolong the character’s journey to achieving the goal. One of the best ways writers can create inner turmoil for their characters is to give them a Misbelief.
What is a Misbelief?
Well, let’s look back at our examples from above. In the original Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss’s misbelief is that she’s not good enough to become the leader of the rebel cause against The Capitol. In A Walk to Remember, Jamie’s misbelief is that she can’t allow Landon to fall in love with her because she knows she is dying. In The Help, Skeeter’s misbelief is that she will never find acceptance because her beliefs are different than the culture she grew up in.
As you can see, each one of these characters’ misbeliefs directly correlate with their goal. Like you and I, realistically written characters have the ability to self-sabatoge by letting our misbeliefs get in the way. Misbeliefs are false thoughts ingrained in the character, usually before the story begins.
For example, in my next release, The Crush, Emery’s ultimate goal is to one day have her own til-death-do-us-part marriage that mirrors the love story of her grandparents. Her misbelief, however, is that she must be extremely cautious about who she dates, thanks to her brother’s past relationship that ruined their family name. All this sets Emery up for a whirlwind of obstacles when she finds herself falling for a guy who doesn’t believe in love and who has a troubled past.
A good formula to remember is this: Goal + Misbelief = Juicy Conflict. 😉
Sign 3: The Plot is Driving the Story
Whether you’re outlining or are knee-deep in the story, a sure sign that your characters are falling flat is when external obstacles are driving the story forward. AKA the plot, not the characters.
Unique stories are created by showing the audience a specific point-of-view of the characters’ journey, filtered through the lens of the character’s beliefs and misbeliefs. If instead bad things are happening to the character that would be equally horrible for anyone else, you’re in the middle of a plot-driven story.
Let’s say, for example, that your character Tom breaks his leg. But, Tom’s goal is to be a writer. Breaking his leg won’t hinder his journey to achieving his writing goals.
On the other hand, Ellie is aspiring to be a professional dancer. If she breaks her leg, it will definitely hinder her from auditioning for the dance scholarship she desperately needs.
External obstacles aren’t bad, but we need to use them both sparingly and wisely. Make sure these obstacles will effect your character on a personal level, further heightening their misbeliefs. If these obstacles occur and the character just goes with the flow to get through it because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to them, then it won’t be as riveting for the reader to follow.
Three sure signs that your characters may be basic are:
1) Your Character Has No Goal
2) Your Character Has No Misbelief
3) The Plot is Driving the Story
Talk to Me, Arrowheads!
What other signs have you noticed in stories that make the characters feel basic? Share with us in the comments!
Aim high, stay strong, and always hit your mark.