Everyone’s a Critic: How to Take and Apply Useful Criticism

I believe in two things: that Sour Cream and Onion is the best flavour of Pringles and that constructive criticism is the most useful thing a writer can receive. I will go to the barricades for both of these opinions but for now, let’s put the crisps aside.

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Haha I’m NEVER letting go of those bad boys (image: tenor.com)

There comes a point in every writer’s trajectory where you want to start sharing your work with other people. People reach this point in a variety of different ways – you might have some nagging doubts, or you might be considering sending something out on submission, or you might just want an objective opinion – but sooner or later everyone ends up getting there. But when it’s time to start asking other people what they think of your work, you’re opening yourself up to criticism. Let’s face it, it’s not usually a nice experience to send something out into the world and have a bunch of people tell you that it’s not working. It can be a real blow to a fledgling writer’s confidence. But there’s nothing like good criticism for improving your technical skills as a writer – it all depends on how you apply it.

GOOD THING I’M HERE TO TELL YOU HOW TO DO THAT, RIGHT GUYS???

The first thing to clarify is what counts as good (i.e. helpful) criticism and what doesn’t. Not all types of criticism are helpful, and it’s important to learn which criticism you should pay attention to and which criticism you can ignore. Everybody is going to have an opinion about the things you write, but you won’t be able to turn everybody’s opinion into a teachable moment.

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Just look at how much energy that takes. (image: giphy.com)

The basic rule of thumb I use is that the more detail, the better. Look at it like this: if somebody tells you that they thought your story was great, what has that actually told you about the way that you write? They enjoyed it, and maybe it’s boosted your confidence, but could you identify your strengths as a writer from that comment alone? No. Whereas if somebody told you that they were really invested in the relationship between two characters, or they really thought your final confrontation scene was really exciting, that tells you a lot more – you’ve identified two different parts of your writing that other people think you’re good at.

This is really important for negative criticism, too. Anyone who says “yeah, this was rubbish” isn’t going to be able to help you grow as a writer. However, people who take the time to break down the parts of your writing that aren’t working – even if it’s just identifying them by name and not going into further detail – are going to be much more useful. Basically, if you can find a critiquing partner who is willing to use the PEE method (that’s Point, Evidence, Explanation, what did you think it was) then they’re gold dust and you should treasure them forever.

Even more important is getting yourself into the right frame of mind to receive criticism. The first thing you have to accept is that if you put stuff out into the real world – whether that’s asking your friends to read through a manuscript, putting your fanfiction online, or actually starting the process of getting your book published – then you have to confront the possibility that not everyone is going to like it. People have a right to share their opinions, after all – it’s a big part of the literary tradition.

There’s two things you need to do here. The first: brace yourself. I’ve never met a writer who has only ever received positive feedback and I work in publishing, so I talk to writers pretty much every day. You’re going to hear some stuff which might knock your confidence, and even if it’s the helpful criticism I discussed above it still might hurt to hear it. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that good criticism is not an attack – and interestingly, this can apply to some really hilarious literary reviews as well. Scathing put-downs are meant for the reader, not the writer, so try not to take these to heart. Even with your loins successfully girded, it can still be pretty disheartening, so just remember that it’s completely OK to put off reading criticism of your stuff if you feel you aren’t in the right frame of mind to hear it. You’ll have to pay attention to it eventually, so don’t put it off forever, but if you’ve had a bad day it’s completely fine to just mooch about with a cup of tea instead of listening to someone list all the ways you’re doing it wrong. If you feel you don’t have the energy to stop yourself getting resentful, maybe just have a quick nap instead.

giphy dont wanna
It’s the modern way. (image: giphy.com)

The second thing you need to accept is this: you can’t please everybody. It is quite literally impossible to write a book that everyone and their mother is going to love. People have different tastes, different expectations, and what will work for one audience will not work for another. That’s completely fine. Most audiences – whether they’re readers, moviegoers or telly-watchers – can usually pick up on pandering, and you don’t want people to come away from your book feeling like it’s been designed by committee. Keep an open mind to what people are saying, sure, but you have to accept that you can’t please everyone. It’d be exhausting.

So. You have successfully sorted the helpful criticism from the kinds you can ignore. Your mind is open, your loins are girded, and you have listened to the criticism you have received. How, then, do you apply it?

The first thing I always do is to go over the criticism again and try and see where it’s come from. Are there any points in the story that I can think of (just off the top of my head) where I could see this criticism applying? Most of the time, the answer’s yes. Then, I go through the whole story again, bearing the criticism in mind, and see if I can identify a few more places where the criticism is justified. The important thing is to look at your work with an objective eye – you’ve got to see what’s actually there, rather than what you hoped you’d written down. If you can put some time between finishing your first draft and your critical read-through, this will really help.

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OK not that long. (image: imgur.com)

The next step is to consider the type of criticism you’ve received. Different problems require different solutions, and writing advice is no exception. There’s a few broad areas that keep popping up in most writing advice, and they all need to be fixed in different ways:

  • Setting: If your critiquing partner is telling you your setting isn’t working there’s two things you can do: background research and working it into the story. It’s important to bear in mind that setting isn’t just a description of the scenery – it’s food, it’s clothing, it’s speech patterns, it’s jobs. It’s everywhere. For example, if your characters are having a scene in a mine, you should know what is being mined, who did the mining, whether it’s still being used, how many people are working there. How many details you work into the story is up to you, but you need to know the answers to these questions even if you don’t spell it out for the reader.
  • Plot holes: Every editor’s nightmare. If your critiquing partner has found a plot hole then you need to patch it up. Depending on the size and seriousness of the plot hole you may want to rewrite sections completely, but I’d only recommend this if you’ve got a plot hole that completely wrecks the internal logic of your story. If you don’t agree that it is a plot hole, that’s fine, but you need to make sure that comes across to the reader. Even if you have an airtight justification and it makes total sense to you, you have to make sure that’s clear.
  • Characters: If your critiquing partner is telling you that your characters aren’t believable you’ve got a serious problem. Most readers will accept outlandish situations if characters react to them in believable ways, but if they don’t, then suspension of disbelief goes right out the window. There’s two broad-strokes ways to fix this: background information (that, like with settings, doesn’t always need to be conveyed to the reader) and keeping them consistent. Always bear their motivations in mind and make sure they match up to their actions, and you’ll be on the right track.
  • Pacing: This is making sure that your story moves along at the right speed at the right moments. Make sure background information is being delivered at the right time – you shouldn’t be giving your reader a bunch of basic background information about a character right before the big climax, for example. Look at sentence length and structure, keep an eye on what information is being conveyed, and you’ll soon be able to spot the parts where you’re going wrong.
  • Beginnings and endings: The alpha and omega of writing criticism – literally, because I make great They’re some of the most important parts of a story: your beginning draws the reader in, and your ending sends them on their way. Both should be memorable in different ways. There’s a few different things to bear in mind here, such as genre conventions, pacing, and character arcs, so it can be quite tricky to get these right.

Fortunately, there’s loads of very detailed online resources to help you get the tools you need to fix any issues with your writing. I’ve even done a few blog posts on some of these myself, but even though my writing advice is obviously the bestest and most attractive writing advice, I’d recommend casting your net a little wider and looking at a wide range of resources. Here’s a few I’ve used in the past:

Online resources aren’t going to cut it on their own, though. I’ve very rarely found a blog post that I can read that will magically turn me into a better writer (and I definitely haven’t written one). This is where writing exercises come in. If your critiquing partner has identified a few consistent weak spots, such as setting or character, then try a couple of short writing exercises that focus on these. It can be helpful to try working on something completely new  when you’re trying to work on your weaknesses as a writer. It’s like warming up before a big sports thing – you need to make sure all the right muscles have been loosened up before you really go for it.

A much more fun way of working on your weak spots is to read stuff by writers who make them their strengths, and see if you can spot them in action. If you have trouble with believable worldbuilding, why not read some Tolkien? If you have trouble with providing a satisfying end to your detective story, why not read some Conan Doyle or Christie? As you read, try and identify the parts where your chosen writer is showing off their skills – there’s nothing like a masterclass to show you how it’s done.

It’s a lot of stuff. Brushing up on your weaknesses as a writer can be very time-consuming, but it’s time well spent. When you’ve done all your writing exercises, read around your weaknesses and used all the resources you can shake a stick at, you’ll have a much stronger grasp of what you need to do to make your writing work. Come back to your original project when you feel like you have a stronger grasp on what you need to improve on, and you’ll smash it.

Criticism can be very hard to hear. But sometimes the most difficult writing advice is the one you need to hear the most. If you have a critiquing partner whose advice you trust and you keep an open mind, it can be one of the best things you can receive as a writer. With a little time and effort spent working on your weaknesses, good criticism can completely transform the way you work as a writer. You’ll never be able to please everyone, of course, but you’ll have improved your skills – and that in itself is valuable.

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And with the Learning Puppy’s blessing, you may go forth into the world and write. (image: giphy.com)
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Write What You Know: How to Research for a Book

There’s an old saying that you should write what you know. This is kind of true – or rather, it’s true that you should know about what you write. Readers can always tell when a writer isn’t familiar with what they’re writing about, and if something doesn’t feel authentic then it can turn a lot of people off your work very quickly.

However, this doesn’t mean that everything you write should be a thinly-veiled autobiography. If everyone did that, most books would be about people sitting down trying to decide where to put the commas. All it means is that before you start to write, you should make sure you know about your subject.

THAT’S RIGHT GUYS IT’S RESEARCH TIME

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WOO YEAH (image: tumblr.com)

Sitting down to research a book can feel like a very daunting task. If you think about it in the abstract it can start to feel much bigger than it really is, and it can be quite difficult to know where to start. However, it doesn’t have to be.

The best way to work out what you’re going to need to know is to look at your idea in more detail. Your story is going to dictate what you need to know in order to write it well, so before you start plan things out about your plot, your setting, and your characters to help you identify where to start. Your research will shape this in turn, and you may find a few of these details change along the way, but that’s just going to make the story feel more believable as a whole.

A couple of things are always going to be important: character details and setting always need to be authentic, otherwise people won’t believe what you’ve written. If your character has a certain job, then you are going to need to know how having that job affects them – particularly if it’s something intense like a doctor or a policeman or whatever. The same goes for setting, even if it’s completely fictional – even fantasy societies still need things like food and clothes to keep them running, and you are going to need to know how that society produces them.

But the genre of your story is going to affect the knowledge you need to write it well too. For example, hard sci-fi usually needs a good working knowledge of physics, technology and other scientific concepts, and if you don’t understand that when you write then all your fictional technology is going to feel a little hollow. You want your fictional spaceship or time machine or whatever to feel real – not like a cardboard box painted silver that occasionally goes ‘bleep bloop’.

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Such realism! (image: giphy.com)

How much this technical knowledge shows up in the book is also going to depend on the genre. To go back to the previous example – in hard sci-fi, where the focus is on how the science is possible, your reader is going to expect a certain amount of technical knowledge from the off. In this particular subgenre, the science takes an important role. But for something like space opera, where the focus is more on the stories that play out, you aren’t actually going to need to explain the physics of how the technology works. In this case, broad strokes work a lot better than fine detail. It’s enough to know that it’s there and that it works in certain conditions – your readers aren’t going to expect you to get down to the physics of it. Likewise, if you’re writing a police procedural you should be reasonably aware of what it’s like to be a police offer – which covers all sorts of things including standard procedure, forensic science and the limits of police powers in wherever your story is set. But if you’re writing an amateur detective story, you won’t need to know all that, although you will need to know the basics of forensic science to make it credible.

But once you’ve decided what you need to know, what’s the best way to find it out?

Fortunately, the Internet.

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Blog post over, everyone go home. (image: medium.com)

It’s a godsend. The Internet is an excellent place to start, but as always, take what you read with a pinch of salt. As a general rule of thumb, if the site you’re referencing lists its sources and they seem legit, then it’s probably fine for you to use it. But there’s lots of other ways to find what you need as well:

  • Libraries and archives: Extremely reliable for anyone writing historical fiction, particularly anything that’s not set in the most popular historical periods (Ancient Rome, Tudors, Regency/Victorian England, and World War Two). Comes with the added bonus of lovely archivists and librarians who will answer your questions, or at least point you in the right direction. Also, sometimes they have cafes.
  • Field trips: Very useful if you are writing something that’s set in or inspired by a place where you haven’t been before, as you’ll pick up on a lot of really small details that don’t always get written about. Also you’ll get to eat lots of interesting new food. It’s not the most affordable option, however, so if that’s out of your budget I’d recommend reading through as many travel books as you can get your hands on and killing some time on Google Street View.
  • Similar fiction: This one’s great, because what do writers love more than reading? Reading well-researched fiction that draws on similar concepts to your own idea is a great way to get into the right mindset, but make sure you steer well clear of any plagiarism. Always make sure to pay attention to the endmatter, as sometimes authors will list the research books they used there, which is always helpful.
  • Speaking to people: My least favourite research tool, because it means I have to change out of my PJs, but by far one of the best. Nobody can give you better info about something than someone who’s lived through it. They’ll be able to tell you details which you might have never even thought of, so if you get the opportunity to actually chat to someone about your chosen topic, grab it with both hands. Don’t grab them though.
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You must reach Santiago levels. (image: tumblr.com)

Basically, there’s loads of different places to find the information you need to make your book good and it’s not all online. There’s only one golden rule, and it is this: never rely on only one source. You wouldn’t do it for an essay, so don’t do it here.

So you’ve found out what you need to know and you’ve hit the books. Congrats on becoming best pals with all the librarians, but what do you do next? What is the most useful way of getting this information across?

Most of the research that you’ve done probably won’t make it into the final book. It’s like an iceberg – 90% of it is below the surface. So while you’ve got extensive notes and long lists of facts, your next task should be to pick out which are the ones you’re going to use. Certain basics are always going to be in there – such as food, clothing, transportation etc. – and getting these little details right is going to make your work feel a lot more authentic. If you’re writing historical fiction, for example, it’d feel a lot more authentic to get the characters’ clothes and food right than to have them stand around talking about relevant historical events. You might have researched every detail of the Battle of Hastings down to the minute, but if your characters are looking forward to a lovely baked potato when it’s all over, anyone who knows the first thing about history is going to think you’re an idiot.

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Historians will put on their feathery hats and laugh and laugh. (image: pirates-corsaires.com)

Once you’ve done your research, it can be very tempting to wedge it all into your manuscript. After all, you’ve done all that work, and it’s nice to have it recognised. However, I don’t think this is usually a good thing. Of course there are certain times in any novel where you do need to impart facts to your reader – any type of hard sci-fi, for instance – but for me, I think the better way of doing it is to use the facts to create a feeling of authenticity. When your research informs your writing rather than dominating it, it feels genuine without being dry. It’s like a really good bra: most of the stuff it does is structural support, it makes you feel more confident, and you don’t have to show it if you don’t want someone else to see it.

I always think that research is an important skill for any writer to have. ‘Write what you know’ is good advice, yes, but if you followed it to the letter you’d end up writing the same things again and again. Don’t let the idea of it put you off – if you work out what you need before you start, and don’t put it all into your finished manuscript, it’ll be one of the most valuable tools you have.

Time to hit the books!

November is Coming: How to Survive NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is nearly upon us. Forget Halloween, this is what autumn is really all about: finding an excuse to sit indoors under layers and layers of blankets.

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I cannot create unless I am cosy. (image: giphy.com)

But let’s be real. NaNoWriMo can be a pretty daunting task. The goal is to write a fifty-thousand word novel in thirty days. Fifty thousand. That totals out at roughly one thousand six hundred words per day, and the worst part is that you’ve got to make sure that they’re actually good rather than just stringing lists of adjectives together. It’s pretty intimidating, especially if you know one of those people who insists on comparing word counts.

Fortunately for you guys, I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few times before and have picked up a few tips that might make things easier:

 

  1. Plan beforehand, and only beforehand

Trying to write roughly 1,600 words a day is going to be difficult. It’s a lot of words to get down in one go, particularly if you’ve only got one time window to do it in. But if you don’t know what you’re going to write it’s going to be twice as hard to actually get it on paper because you’ll be working out what you want to say as well as how you want to say it.

This is where your plan comes in. I’d recommend starting this a week or so before NaNoWriMo, assuming you’ve already had the vague idea of what you want your story to be about. Start plotting things out in more detail, including character and setting. If you do it every day, this can also help you get into the rhythm of regular writing. But when you start writing, stop planning. It’s easy to wind up with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the plot of your novel and no actual text, so don’t rely on this too much.

 

  1. Start your research in October

November is for writing. If you’re writing something which is going to require any kind of research, start it a couple of weeks before you’re going to write. Read as much as you can and get comfortable with the details before you launch into your novel. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been plodding along with a paragraph when suddenly, I’ll go “Wait, when were pyjamas invented?” and it’s off down the rabbit hole I go. If you’re writing anything historical, I’d recommend starting even earlier, but this blog post is going up with less than two weeks until November so NEVER MIND YOU’LL BE FINE.

 

  1. Writing nine to five

WHAT A WAY TO MAKE A LIVIN’

No, seriously. It’d be great. But unfortunately it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have all that time just for writing. Just because you’re writing a book doesn’t mean the world will stop and wait for you to finish it. Realistically, you’re going to have to look at your schedule and try and work out when you’re actually going to have time to write. I’d recommend trying to find an hour each day, either in one go or in short chunks. Be a little flexible – if weekends are always really busy for you, try and find some time on weekday evenings. If you commute on public transport, consider taking a notebook with you and working there. See what works for you!

 

  1. Just do it

When it comes to November the first, just start. There’s nothing more intimidating for a writer than a blank page. It can take hours to come up with a first line (mainly due to all those writing advice blogs which tell you to make sure you have a good first line). But you don’t have time to dither – you’ve got a fifty-thousand-word mountain to climb. Just start, and worry about whether it’s any good later. That’s what the second draft is for.

 

  1. Get on with it

Sometimes, inspiration does strike. Sometimes your synapses are flashing, your neurons are firing and an idea comes into your head like a beautiful sunrise. You seize your pen, your notebook, your laptop and don’t look up for hours – for you, dear author, are inspired.

Ninety percent of the time, that won’t happen.

There are going to be days when you just don’t wanna. You’ll be tired. You’ll get home late. You’ll have a bad day and want to spend your writing time curled around a hot water bottle in front of the telly. But when you’re writing to targets and deadlines, sometimes you’re just going to have to make yourself do it. You have to –

– yes, exactly.

 

  1. Just keep swimming

Resist the temptation to go back and rewrite what you’ve already done. Focus instead on progressing through the narrative and get your key plot points down. This is where your plan can really come in handy (although hopefully having a plan will have helped you thrash out any potential plot holes). If you’re having some doubts about something you’ve already written, make a notes section in your plan and add them to that. That way you’ve kept a record of your ideas and you can keep going without needing to slow down. You can always go back and redraft when NaNoWriMo is over.

 

  1. Keep an eye on your daily totals, but don’t stick to them

There are special NaNoWriMo calendars you can find where the ideal word count for each day is written on them. They measure out the month in chunks of 1,667 words and some people find them really helpful.

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Such as this one. (image: deviantart.com)

Personally, I don’t. Some days are going to be better than others, and some days I’m going to come home too tired to do a sentence, let alone like, 160 of them. On those days I write what I can and try and make up the total another day, and I find that works much better than keeping to very strict limits.

 

  1. Details, details

Don’t be afraid to fudge some of the finer points to avoid getting bogged down. Obviously the really important details (i.e., the plot) should be in your plan, but it’s perfectly fine to put in placeholder names for minor characters and places. Just remember to replace these with real names when you’re done and you’ll be fine.

 

  1. More like guidelines

Some people are real sticklers for the rules of NaNoWriMo. I’m not. I once extended my NaNoWriMo project until the New Year because November isn’t over UNTIL I SAY IT’S OVER. I always found I got a lot less stressed about NaNoWriMo when I didn’t take it quite as seriously and that way, it was easier to balance writing with everything else going on in my life.

 

  1. It’s not for everyone

I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a couple of times now and on balance, I’ve decided it’s not for me. I could do it fairly easily when I was a student, but that was because I was on a course where I only had ten hours of class time per week.

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It was blissful. (Image: giphy.com)

Now I have a full-time job, I find it way too stressful. NaNoWriMo has taught me a lot about the discipline required to finish a novel, and writing every day has helped me get into some really good habits, but I find the obsession with word counts kind of counter-productive. The structure was really helpful, but now that I’ve taken that framework and made it work for me I don’t find the old model quite so useful any more. I learned a lot, but it stopped being something I did every year a long time ago.

 

 

And that’s it! My advice for surviving NaNoWriMo. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful. It’s very easy to get swept up in NaNo Fever – it can be really fun, and it taught me some good writing habits which I still use. But I don’t think anyone should take it too seriously. It’s a good way to get into writing longer projects, but it doesn’t have to be the only way you write.

Mary Sue: So Bad It’s Good

Quick roundup of what we’ve learned so far. We’ve talked about what a Sue is and how to recognise one, including a short list of the different types. We’ve also discussed why Sues as character types are problems: a potted summary is that their lack of characterisation distorts the story around them and glosses over serious issues. But last time I raised the issue of gender criticisms of Mary Sues – namely, that a lot of the flak they get tends to be couched in all these weird gender connotations. From a purely literary perspective, some of the criticism is justified: Mary Sues are bad characters. But some of it isn’t, and that’s usually where the gender stuff comes into play.

Which leads me to ask the question: can Mary Sues ever be a good thing?

giphy no
Thank you, Mr Jackson. (image: giphy.com)

Everybody loves to make fun of Mary Sues. They’re silly, over-the-top sparkly little messes, and pointing out just how stupid they can get is certainly this nerd’s idea of a good time. But the thing that everybody tends to forget is that Mary Sues are often the hallmark of young or inexperienced writers. The kind of mistakes that Sues embody – such as a lack of flaws, a lack of consequences for their actions, or a 360-degree panorama of adoration from every other character – are the sort of things you tend to see from writers who haven’t quite got to grips with their craft yet. They’re not exactly a finished product.

For me, this is where Sues come into their own. They’re a problem that a writer tends to encounter at the beginning of their journey, much like one-dimensional villains, or scene-setting which makes the reader think all the action happens in a plain, white room. The more you write, the easier it becomes to avoid this kind of pitfall. A solid awareness of what constitutes a well-written character is one of the best tools a new writer can have, and being aware of Sues as a potential writing problem is a part of that. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what the problem is.

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That’ll do it. (image: giphy.com)

Here’s a short list of questions you can ask to see if your main character is a Mary Sue:

  • Does everyone love her?
  • Does she ever find anything difficult?
  • Do other characters care about stuff that doesn’t directly relate to her?
  • How much time are you spending talking about her appearance, her heritage, or her incredibly cool powers?
  • Does she change over the course of the story? How?

The ideal answers should be: no, yes, yes, not much, yes + explanation. But this is a very brief guide: there are plenty of excellent resources out there which will help with character building. There’s an extremely comprehensive Mary Sue litmus test floating around, plenty of writers’ resources, and there’s also my own ten-question test I used in the Strong Female Characters series. The bottom line is once you’ve identified your Sue it’s not the end of the world. There are plenty of tools to help you fix it, and in doing so you’ll become a better writer.

But Sues are still useful in their own right. Aside from being a test of skill for every writer they can also help writers bridge the gap between fanfiction and original fiction. It’s not uncommon for people to start out writing fanfiction, develop some confidence, and then start trying out some of their own original ideas and characters. Of course, this isn’t always a good thing.

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NAMING NO NAMES. (image: coolspotters.com)

But that’s not the only benefit of Mary Sues. They can actually be pretty empowering, particularly for young girls. Even though we have been getting more stories where women can actually do stuff instead of waiting to be rescued, there’s still a strong cultural narrative that places women firmly in a passive position. Films like Wonder Woman and books like The Hunger Games help, but they’re a drop in the ocean. Writing a Mary Sues in fanfiction can be a way for teenage girls to make their mark on a story that they already love.

Picture this. You’re a fourteen-year-old girl feeling overlooked. There’s a lot of big and important things going on around you but you don’t feel ready to meet any of them. You’ve got advertisements on all sides telling you to look a certain way, and maybe there’s people in positions of power telling you to act a certain way, too. Things which once seemed simple are suddenly incredibly complicated – sex, growing up, and all the weird expectations that come along with them. And you really love Harry Potter.

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I mean, who doesn’t? (image: justanotheranimefan.wordpress.com)

This is really where we can see the appeal of Mary Sues. In that situation, why wouldn’t you want to make a space for yourself in a fictional world you already love? And, to make things better, it’s a world where you can look the way you want, where you can be the most important person in the universe, where you can do whatever you want and where all the messy parts about growing up and falling in love will unfold in exactly the way you want them to.

Frankly, I’m the last person to judge teenage girls for writing Mary Sues. I’ve done it myself and I can understand why they do it. It’s escapism, it’s a creative outlet, and it’s safe – I completely get it. It can be a very positive force for the people who actually write them.

Confession time: I wrote several Mary Sues throughout my teenage years and every single one of them was jaw-droppingly bad. I actually found a brief snippet of something I wrote when I was thirteen on my computer and it was so awful I could feel myself shrivelling up. It was about this girl called Sofia who went to Hogwarts, had a mysterious past and was really good at drawing, and if I remember right there was a love triangle with Harry and Draco and then Voldemort wanted to steal her soul for some reason? The point is, it was terrible. Like, really, really bad. And that wasn’t the only one: I also wrote some Phantom of the Opera stuff, more Harry Potter but this time with the Marauders, and possibly also some Pirates of the Caribbean stuff as well. I really can’t remember. Fortunately for me, Quizilla, which was where it was all posted (for some reason, not really sure why I put fanfiction on a quiz site) got taken down a while ago. Hopefully they’re dead and buried.

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No no no NO NO NO NO (image: tumblr.com)

But it was what got me interested in writing as a whole – not just actually making stuff but the mechanics of how it all works together. I got feedback, which admittedly wasn’t always helpful, but it encouraged me to go and get more. Once I got bored of fanfiction I had more confidence to move into writing my own stuff, because I’d tried out a lot of the basics in an environment I was comfortable in. And once I was getting proper criticism that got me interested in the mechanics of writing, which led to editorial gigs at university and eventually working in publishing. Now, I can look back on all the stuff I wrote in my teens and cringe-laugh, but I can also look at the stuff I’m working on now and see a tangible improvement. Writing is something I’ve really had to work at and without my legions of terrible Mary Sues I definitely wouldn’t have developed half the critical skills I have now.

So there you have it: my long-winded, slightly-TMI view of Mary Sues. There’s no denying that they are bad characters. They’re poorly written, poorly plotted and warp everything else to fit themselves. But a lot of the criticism they get isn’t justified, particularly when it starts straying into some of the weird gendered stuff. And they do actually have some benefits: learning to navigate characterisation is an important part of any writer’s journey, and they can provide an important outlet for teenage girls.

Are Sues stupid? Hell yes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their uses. It’s like putting stabilisers on a bike. They’re there when you need them, but sooner or later they have to come off.

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You’ll get there eventually. (image: buzzfeed.com)

Mary Sue: It’s a Girl Thing

It’s time for more Mary Sues. So far we’ve talked about what Sues are and why they’re bad. Feel free to refresh your memory of the previous two posts, but it boils down to this: Mary Sues are disgustingly perfect characters who, because of their own perfection, tend to ruin the stories around them. Most of the time you can’t really have a well-written story with believable characters if there’s a Sue involved, and it can also lead to dismissing some very serious real-life problems.

As you might have guessed, most Mary Sues are female. The character is set up to be female by default – if you want to talk about the male equivalent you have to be more specific and talk about Gary Stus instead. But from the moment the term was first used, it was set up specifically to talk about female characters. It was first used in the 1970s to parody a particular trend in fanfiction: a female (often teenage) original character falling in love with an established male character from an already published work. Paula Smith, who came up with the name, used it to talk about Star Trek self-inserts and unrealistic characters, but the fact that she chose ‘Mary Sue’ is significant. It explicitly signals that this is a problem seen with female characters. The clue is in the name.

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I feel like I really shouldn’t have to explain this one. (image: giphy.com)

The most notorious Mary Sues are female characters. Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, Jenna Silverblade, Atlantiana Rebekah Loren – these are all young female characters who were created to fall in love with male characters from Harry Potter, the Zelda games and Twilight respectively. A quick websearch will show you that most readers believe Mary Sues are female as well. All the artwork, fiction and writer resources relating to Mary Sues assume that the character in question is female.

But is this really fair? Perfection is hardly something that women have a monopoly on, no matter what the poets say. Part of the definition of a Mary Sue is that they are perfect, attractive, powerful and loved by all. These are not uniquely female traits and never have been. The other part is that their lack of flaws and central position in the story warp other characters’ reactions to them and, in the worst cases, the setting and plot as well. These aren’t uniquely female traits either. So why is it that Mary Sues are seen as a female phenomenon?

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We don’t have a monopoly on sparkling, either. (image: tumblr.com)

Let’s take a brief moment to look at Gary Stus. Gary Stu, sometimes called Marty Stu, is the male version of his character. That’s what defines him. Other Mary Sues are defined by what they do: Villain Sues, Twagic Sues, Jerk Sues are all identified by their actions, appearance and the way they treat other characters. Gary Stu is identified by his gender alone. They’re much less common but there do tend to be a few differences: Gary Stus tend to be a lot more active and less prone to getting kidnapped.

But these are surface differences. When you get right down to it, there’s no real difference between the male and female counterparts. Both Mary Sues and Gary Stus are disgustingly attractive, practically perfect in every way, and warp the plot around them just by their presence. Much like Mary Sues, the antecedents go back much longer than you might think: if Mary Sue is Cinderella, then Gary Stu is Prince Charming. We’ve seen archetypes of perfect male characters since storytelling became a thing, just as we have with women. What we haven’t seen is male characters getting called out on this.

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Oh I wonder why that could be?? (image: giphy.com)

Part of this is probably down to the differing ideals of male and female perfection. Bear with me, because I’m about to make several sweeping generalisations. Broadly speaking, the ‘ideal man’ in historical storytelling is strong, decisive and heroic. He’s a problem-solver who wins battles and can make great speeches. Contrast this with the ‘ideal woman’ in historical storytelling, who is passive, pretty and quiet. She doesn’t make speeches; you’ll be lucky if she says anything at all. In recent years women’s roles, both in fiction and in real life, have moved away from this. Unfortunately men haven’t been so lucky. In some areas we still expect the same things from masculinity as we did decades ago and as you might suspect, this can be really damaging. It could be that part of the reason we don’t see as much backlash against Gary Stus is because they still fit with predominant ideas about what a man should be.

Allow me to illustrate my point. There’s this character you’ve all heard of. She’s so unbelievably cool and always has the latest tech. She always looks good no matter what she’s doing. She speaks several languages, drives amazing cars, is trained in more weapons than you can even name and she’s a total badass who could kick the Incredible Hulk into next week. She can get with any guy she wants, and they all want her. She’s been all over the world and has saved it more than once. She knows about fine wine, poker, and always has a quip handy even if she’s just jumped out of a plane. She can talk her way into anything and fight her way back out again, never lets the bad guys get away with it, and does it all for Queen and Country.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s James Bond.

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IT COULD HAPPEN LET ME HAVE THIS (image: Radio Times)

James Bond is one of the most popular characters in fiction. Millions of people turn out to see the Bond films whenever a new one is released. But when you get right down to it, Bond falls into a lot of the same characters as a Mary Sue does. He’s unrealistically cool, can have any woman he wants and doesn’t have any flaws that hold him back. He’s not an exception, either. Tarzan, Batman, Luke Skywalker and Zorro have all been described as Stus too, but on them this isn’t really a label that sticks.

So why have Mary Sues manifested themselves as a female problem? I expect that part of it is because of the rise of fanfiction, which is often written by women rather than men. Obviously it’s difficult to dig up statistics confirming this, but those we have available (which are, of course, limited by online anonymity) suggest that this is the case. According to this survey, three-quarters of all users on fanfiction.net are listed as female when their gender has been made public. The vast majority are also in the 13-17 age bracket. So if the vast majority of fanfic is written by teenage girls, we can expect to see a lot of fanfic about teenage girls. This may also account for some issues with characterisation and quality, too. I know the stuff I was writing when I was a teenager was really awful, at any rate.

But if Mary Sues aren’t a uniquely female problem, they certainly aren’t one that’s unique to fanfic either. There have been Mary Sues since storytelling began. Unrealistically perfect women have been cropping up in stories since the Dark Ages, and they don’t show many signs of stopping. Two of the most notorious Mary Sues of recent years are Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele – both of whom are characters from original fiction.

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Fun fact: they’re also my nemeses. (image: fanpop.com)

So why is this ‘a girl thing’? Is it just that more women write Mary Sues, or that more female characters tend to get called Mary Sues? I’m not sure. Getting into why people write Mary Sues is always going to be a tricky question. It could just be that more women are into reading and writing as a hobby. This has some basis in fact: most surveys agree that women read more than men, something which appears to have its roots in childhood. It could be that more women write Mary Sues because they don’t see enough characters they want to emulate in already published fiction. It could be escapism. We’ll probably never know for sure.

What we can confirm is that there does tend to be a much stronger backlash against female characters than male. Look at the Ghostbusters remake, whose stars were harassed online. Look at Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy, who’s been called a Mary Sue when she’s actually following Luke Skywalker’s role pretty closely. Look at Twilight. Bella is a Mary Sue, there’s no question of that, but the sheer amount of hate the series generated was astounding. The one thing these have in common is that they’re are all female characters at the forefront of their stories. I can’t remember the last time I saw backlash on that scale against a male character. Perhaps the reason why Mary Sues are so exclusively seen as ‘a girl thing’ is that there’s still a lot of underlying sexism in the way we talk about fiction, and what’s seen as a problem for female characters is glossed over when talking about male ones.

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DO IT FOR FEMINISM (image: tumblr.com)

So is Mary Sue an explicitly gendered term? I think so. The male equivalent doesn’t receive anywhere near as much attention or backlash, and I think people’s attitudes to women definitely play a part in that. Mary Sues do cause problems, but it’s not because they’re female characters. Gary Stus cause problems too, but far less people talk about it.

But despite all the problems that Mary Sues can cause, are they really all that bad? Next time, I’ll talk about that despite all their drawbacks, Mary Sues can actually be…a good thing.

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Dun dun DUUUUHHHH. (image: giphy.com)