- Books, Literature, and Writing
Going Overboard With the Flaws (or STOP MESSING UP YOUR CHARACTERS TO MAKE THEM LOOK COOLER!!) Part 2
Damaged Statue of a Nymph
PART 3: FLAWS IN APPEARANCE
Everybody wants to be gorgeous and sexy. A lot of us aren’t.
But that doesn’t mean our original characters can’t be gorgeous and sexy, right?
It’s not fair. You could wave a picture of Lara Croft in front of a guy and send him drooling falling down the stairs, but if you describe your character as being just as pretty, then out come the pitchforks and torches again. Fanfic audiences can be hypocritical because they see a description of a character and automatically assume that you’re writing a wish fulfillment story. The beautiful woman or the drop dead handsome man is suddenly you in disguise. Supposedly, you’re showing the whole wide Internet that you wish that you were eight feet tall with purple skin and elf ears.
That’s when the fanfic authors go a little crazy.
I’ve already mentioned that you shouldn’t go overboard with physically designing your character so they look like a goddess from Olympus, but you also don’t want to go adding crazy crap that would make your OC undesirable, especially when you want to keep her or him the way you imagined them.
There’s a way to make your characters look realistic. You just need to remember that not every woman looks like Iman, and not every man looks like Liam Hemsworth. We’re short, we’re tall, we have varying degrees of weight. Different colored hair or eyes, muscled or not, prominent noses, you get the idea. It’s okay to make an attractive character with normal proportions (eight feet tall is stretching it, no pun intended), and it’s okay for them to have some physical flaws too. Just don’t go messing up the way they look to satisfy other people!
· HAIR—Some authors like to give their characters funky hair, like black with a purple stripe down it. That’s fine, and there’s nothing wrong with making it stand out in some shape or form to make it look pretty. All the same, don’t worry about it.
· SKIN—If you want your OC to have zits (which I don’t understand but okay), give them a few. Don’t make them huge, ‘cuz it’s disgusting. Nobody wants to read about that. And don’t give them massive acne either! You don’t want them to look repulsive.
Don’t feel compelled to give them scars because you think it’ll keep your character from looking too beautiful or handsome. I already pointed out that scars are basically useless if you don’t have a reason for them being there. My characters Vanessa and Awen have several scars because they’re warriors, but Vanessa’s aren’t seen very often and Awen already has dark purple skin so it makes the scars hard to see. My character Saana is sliced across the face by Impa’s sword midway through the fic and the scar remains for some time. It’s there to constantly remind Saana that she screwed up big time, not to make her less attractive.
· TEETH—A toss up for a variety of reasons. If you’re working in a universe were nasty teeth are the norm, great. Otherwise, keep them clean. If their teeth are normal save for that one canine that isn’t quite that aligned with the rest, don’t bother pointing out the one tooth. It serves no purpose. If, however, you decided to make your OC’s smile look like a collapsing fence, then you’d better have a good reason for it. Marring your characters’ teeth and smile is not a good excuse for making them look less Mary-Sueish. If there are broken or lost teeth, explain them. If they have fangs and are the good guys, they should have a nice looking set of choppers. If they have fangs and they’re evil, make them as scary as possible.
· NOSE—Don’t be tempted to give your OC a big nose if they don’t need it. It’s distracting from the rest of the face and is 99% of the time pointless. Your Hitman OC doesn’t have to look like Jimmy Durante when the rest of his body looked as though it were carved by the ancient Greeks and belongs in a temple somewhere. Maybe his nose is a little out of shape because it was broken at some point. It could be a little squat, and little pointed. It should look like everybody else’s nose out there. Don’t make it so Pinocchio goes, “What the—?!”
· EYES—This doesn’t seem to be a huge problem. I’ve noticed with some OCs that they’re described as having “large eyes with long lashes and deep (insert color here) eyes.” All I have to say with this is just avoid the cliches. Their eyes don’t have to be like Lady Ga-Ga’s in that music video. Just make them normal. And don’t give them cataracts or anything weird because it’s just distracting. If you think that you can use this in the plot somewhere, you can say that they have a vision problem or whatever but I’d advise against it—it’s just useless information. If you want them to be missing an eye, that’s good as long as you’re not doing it purposely because you think that will make them less attractive.
· EARS—That’s along the same line as the nose: not too big, not to small, just reasonable. If one or both ears is marred somehow, give a description, then let it go, mentioning it only rarely afterwards. If they are unusual for some reason, then it better be within the context of your universe.
· HANDS & ARMS—Again, if there’s something wrong with them, you’d better have a good reason. Don’t go taking hands or fingers away because it makes your OC look imperfect. If they’re going to lose a hand or finger, it has to be important. If your OC’s in “Avatar,” don’t say that they lost their hand because a banshee bit it off. Say that the banshee bit it off because your OC was trying to push somebody out of the way when the creature struck. Talk about that situation. Otherwise, just keep the hands and fingers, okay?
· LEGS & FEET—The same thing applies to legs and feet, though a lot of Anti-Sue OCs are more likely to be partially crippled than to have lost a leg or foot. You know the drill …. If it’s not necessary, don’t do it.
· HEIGHT & WEIGHT—Writers are so fearful that their OCs might be seen as Mary-Sues that some have gone out of their way to make them overweight and short. I’m not talking grotesquely obese really, or as small as a hobbit (unless that’s what you’re aiming for). Being on the heavier side isn’t bad, but if you’re going to use it as part of a character description it better be because you already planned for her to look that way, not because you think that your readers would approve of it more.
· BREAST SIZE—No, I’m serious about this one. Not every female OC has to have a huge chest. Make her chest generally proportional to her height and weight. A lot of female readers will thank you for this.
PART 4: FLAWS IN CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY
Character flaws and personality are two different things. “Character” means the traits that defines a person, such as honesty and morality. They may believe in good things such as bravery, compassion, and patience.
“Personality” is what the rest of the world sees. Personality contains traits like friendliness, kindness, humor and so forth.
And, as always, they each have their bad sides.
Character flaws are deep seated problems that the OC has. They might blame people for their own mistakes. They might be paranoid. It’s all the crappy stuff we’ve seen in other people (or ourselves, if we’re willing to admit it), all of the things that ruin an otherwise nice guy. It’s the kind of stuff we go to therapy for!
Character flaws can be identified with:
· Stubborness to an unacceptable degree
· Bad temper
· Poor self image
· Poor self control
You might not see these traits in people right away, but when you do you might start to wonder why you hang around with this person. The flaws can range in severity, maybe sneaking out once in a while, maybe being blatant, or maybe being hidden away from everyone. Someone who has all these problems is not going to be pleasant to be around, and you might want to think twice about giving your OC all kinds of nasty characteristics.
If you really want to make your character obnoxious, then go ahead. For the rest of us, we need to carefully consider who our character is before we give them negative traits. You need a few negative ones to match the positive ones, but don’t give them a hundred different horrible characteristics. That’s a annoying character and uninteresting.
Personalities are what makes us us. A personality is what we show people and is how people perceive us to be. Personality traits range from friendliness to anger, happiness to sad, confidence to doubt.
Personality flaws are those that can drive people away fast. They’re ones who are:
· Too happy and cheery
· Are defensive
· Easily irritated
· Feel the need to be sociable and get into everybody’s business
· Need to have someone praise anything and everything about them
· Need constant attention
Now comes the interesting parts.
First, to make a good character you must give them character flaws. As I’ve said before, they don’t have to be extreme and there doesn’t have to be a lot of bad things. Generally, a character is a cool person to be around, but once in a while for whatever reason you see something about them that you don’t like or don’t agree with. If it’s something that appears very briefly, then it should be noted and then forgotten. If it’s something seriously bad that makes a problem for everybody, it’s likely to constantly return and will need to be confronted.
When a personality flaw is really bad, it’s going to be there constantly. If the character is sarcastic, he’ll likely say something mean frequently throughout the story (when I say “frequently,” I mean every couple of pages, not every sentence,) and it will have to be addressed by the other characters. If he’s kind of sarcastic once in a great while, that’s not a problem at all.
Here’s the really interesting part: character and personality flaws can be fixed during the duration of the story. In other words, your OC doesn’t have to be a complete tool the whole time. Situations and characters in the story can influence your OC to improve her/himself. Maybe your OC was a womanizing jerk who became more sympathetic and respecting of women after he sees one take out a special ops agent who was going to kill him. Maybe she’s a nervous girl who becomes more and more confident as she’s being trained to be a warrior.
You get the idea.
PART 5: FLAWS IN PHYSICAL ABILITY
There are a lot of OCs out there who can lift more, jump higher, run faster or longer than the canon characters. That’s not always a good thing, and it’s one of those things that seriously tweak the Mary-Sue McCarthyests out there. It would look as though you want your character to outdo the canon character in everything, like you want your OC to reign supreme.
Maybe you want it that way. Who’s to say that there isn’t a character already out there who can out-Alucard Alucard? Sometimes you can get away with that, but largely in fanfic—and original fiction too—you should always keep your OCs from being too physically enhanced. Their weaknesses gives them sympathy value.
PART 6: FLAWS IN LEARNING/TRAINING
Even highly skilled professionals lack something somewhere. They could be good at 90% of what they do, but there’s always a deficiency somewhere.
We all know what that’s like. For example (and I’m not trying to boast or anything,) I’ve always been really talented in writing but I have a learning disorder called dsycalcula, where I have an extremely hard time doing most kinds of math. I’ve written a book, but if I don’t have a calculator with me when I got out shopping then I’m sunk. I’ve been published in magazines, but if asks me what’s 18% of 87, I practically go into a catatonic state.
Everybody’s had a problem with training or learning, and either it’s taken a very long time to learn it, part of it was learned, or it wasn’t learned at all. It sets us back, makes life difficult, and after we finish berating ourselves for not being able to accomplish it, we learn a way to get around it—like me with my calculators.
Always give your character at least one weakness when it comes to knowledge or training. It makes things complicated for them when they need to know something that would help solve a puzzle or when they need to fight a villain. Not giving them any weaknesses is stupid—we can’t root for the underdog if he is good at everything he does (which is one reason why I can’t read Sherlock Holmes stories … Gary-Stu bastard.)
PART 7: FLAWS (OR WEAKNESSES) IN POWER/STRENGTH
Sometimes you find a character, whether it be a canon character or a fanfic one, that is super powerful in magic or mutantism or whatever otherworldly or unhuman ability. Though I shudder to bring it up, Anita Blake is a good example; she’s a necromancer, the leader of separate tribes of werewolves, werelions and wereleopards, she’s a succubus, and holds sway over several vampires. When she raises a zombie they look perfectly human, and she raise zombies when they’re hundred of years old (without needing a human sacrifice!). She has the rare ability to raise vampires during the daylight.
And so, so, so, so, so much more!
I’m totally sure that a lot of you are looking at that thinking, “Really? Ugh, and there’s more?” And I don’t blame you if you’re recoiling in irritated disgust; she’s too freakin’ powerful and it’s annoying!
I used to read the books until I became sick of what might possibly be The Queen of the Original Fiction Mary-Sues (more in Week #9). One of the many reasons that I stopped wasting my time with the books was that Anita Blake seemed invincible. She couldn’t even be threatened by anything because in every book and a half she gained some new ability and any threat to her would be evaporated.
If Anita Blake were a fan fiction original character in someone’s story then the story’s audience would turn into a veritable lynch mob. There are only a very few number of people who want to read about a person like that, but the rest of us want a character that’s limited and vulnerable. We want somebody who, no matter how powerful they are in magic or anything, are still lacking and that can put them in danger.
Look at your MS character sheet and look at all the magic or mutant abilities they have. Rate how strong they are in each of these powers from one to ten. If you’ve got more than five powers, cut them all out. If your top four picks are all higher than a rating of five, start over completely.
Let’s say your top four powers are:
2. Super strength
3. Magic (Spell casting)
4. Advanced healing
Choose your top two favorite powers (let’s say Flight and Advanced Healing.) Which of these do you see your character most using? If you can’t decide, carefully think about who your character is and the situation they’re getting into. Rate your top favorite between six and eight—nine or ten could be pushing it for a first time OC, but if your character has wings, by all means give them a ten.
The second power can be strong too, but you have to be careful about how you rate them. Advance Healing means that your OC heals quickly, but it doesn’t mean that they heal immediately or completely. If they get really kicked around then it should take longer for them to recover. I would rate Advanced Healing at a six at the very highest, because anything higher means that your OC is basically immortal, and any fight against him would be pointless.
The next two could be Super Strength and Magic. Magic can be rated all over the map, but I always advise against rating something higher than six or seven. Magic is cool, but if it’s highly rated then it means that your OC would always win in a fight. If she wins every fight, then what’s the point in reading the story? A weak magic user could have limited powers (like my OC Vanessa) or could be easily exhausted from using their powers and thus put them in danger. A strong magic user can still use only so much power before she’s outmatched. A powerful magic user still has her weaknesses and limitations, and can always be tricked or outmaneuvered or ambushed. If she can’t get caught or hurt, then you’ve got yourself a Mary-Sue.
Generally speaking, super strength is just that—super. Having a guy haul a huge rock from one spot to another without getting a hernia isn’t super strong. Super strong would be picking up that rock, tucking it under your arm, and then hefting a Saab up on your shoulder and stride off whistling. Make sure you define what really strong and super strong is, but try not to make your character so strong that he could stack mountains on top of each other.
If you want to improve the powers’ strength then do so carefully. You can have them gradually build up the strength and ability to use it, or whack ‘em with a spell or serum to enhance it fast. Just remember to do only one power at a time, otherwise you’ll be in Anita Blakesville.
PART 9: FLAWS IN ROMANCE
Us fanfic writers sometimes like to screw with our characters’ love lives for a variety of reasons. It makes for good reading, but it can also get real old real fast. How many OCs out there have had screwed up relationships at one point or another?
Many OCs I’ve found that fall in love with canon characters have already had crappy relationships in the past, frequently consisting of what I can describe as:
3. Ended badly
All this gives them an excuse to fall in love with the chief CC. It gives the OCs sympathy points because she or he has had their heart broken, something many of us can relate to (dammit.)
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that it keeps happening. It seems as though female fanfic authors are really worried that having their OCs just waltz on up and get together with the CC because it just might make people resent the character and consider her to be “aggressive,” among other things that I might not want to mention here. If the OC had suffered romantically already, the theory is that more readers would pity them and be more receptive to the concept.
As far as the romance with the CC goes, you’ve got a 50-50 scenario here: either it works out beautifully, or it turns into a total mess. If it works out, that means the OC and the CC are perfect for each other, no problems, happily ever after and all that crap. And while this does happen in real life, some fanfic readers just don’t seem to like it. I’m not sure if the concept of the original character and the canon character being together isn’t believable or the readers are just jealous. Personally, as long as the story is written well and is plausible, I don’t have a problem with it.
This will be explored further in Week #8, which I’m sure is going to be the most popular hub for me ever.
PART 9: PHOBIAS
One annoying and useless flaw that is being thrown into the OC description is that the character has at least one phobia. Why? I guess that, again, the creator of the OC is hoping that will give the OC sympathy value and say to the world, “See? My character’s not an MS because she’s scared of something! So ha!”
Now, only one of my characters—and God knows I’ve written a lot—has a phobia. My Gargoyle character Awen is afraid of fire. She developed it after an accident ignited several barrels of gunpowder and exploded, hurting her severely. She can be near torches if they’re contained, and candles as long as they’re not near anything like tapestries, and she’s okay with a fire as long as it’s contained in a fireplace. No matter how small it is, Awen out and out refuses to go near any campfires because it’s not enclosed and can’t be well controlled. And you’ll never see her near a bonfire.
Did I do this to make people feel bad for her just to get them to accept her? Of course not. I wrote it as a part of her character description, and bring it up rarely in the stories unless it’s necessary. It’s there to complicate things, like a scene when Xanatos’s wife Fox makes a birthday cake for the centuries old Macbeth and covers it with candles. A frightened and embarrassed Awen waits in a hallway until the candles are blown out.
Your MSs don’t need a phobia to weaken them just so you can please your audience. If you absolutely must have the OCs have a phobia, then decide how often you’re going to use it. If you mention in your description of the OC that she has a phobia, you’d better be sure that a situation comes up when she’s confronted by it. If it’s just mentioned and you have no interest in setting up a situation for it, don’t bother writing about it. It’s then up to you to decide how often the confrontation happens (it shouldn’t be a lot) and how bad it is.
And FYI, your OCs don’t have to overcome their fears at the last minute and make a dramatic rescue, later proudly claiming that they’ll never be scared of hedgehogs ever again. You can always have them freak out when they see one of those cute prickly creatures toddling towards them. You can have your OC tunnel through the damn wall to get around those intimidating hedgehogs instead of suddenly growing brave and punting it across the room (that would be mean.) Or maybe your OC passes out or goes into living rigor mortis and then they have to be saved. In one story Awen was so terrified of the fire that Goliath had to drag her to her feet and carry her out of the building. Brooklyn later notes that it was strange seeing Awen that frightened when he’s seen her strangle werewolves without hesitating before.
JUST SO YOU KNOW …
One thing that grates on me and many other authors is that while a lot of the traits written above would make a fanfic character look like a Mary-Sue, the same traits aren’t that bad in an original fiction story. But hey, if you feel bold enough to keep writing your way, I say go for it dude.
AND NOW …
I keep forgetting to put up some links you guys might be interested in.
Jessa618 has two essays she wrote about Mary-Sue and they’re posted on deviantart.com. You should take a look: