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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, August 17, 2014

5 Protagonists Readers Hate: Why Writers Shouldn't Identify too Closely with a Main Character

by Anne R. Allen

You can learn all you want about writing powerful prose, well-planned story arcs, lyrical descriptions—or any other aspect of fiction—but if you don't have a protagonist your readers care about, none of the rest matters.

I don't think it's terribly relevant to talk about character "likability" in the sense of "niceness." The most memorable characters in fiction are not people most of us would choose as our friends.

Certainly the most enduring literary detectives are not sweet and cuddly. Hercule Poirot was comically vain, Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade were drunks, Lord Peter Wimsey was a dreadful snob, Jane Marple was a pushy, nosy old fussbudget, and Sherlock Holmes bordered on psychopathic.

You'd find even worse candidates for your BFF in classic literary fiction:  Scarlett O'Hara, Becky Sharpe, Jay Gatsby, Heathcliff, and Emma Woodhouse were pretty awful human beings. Pip in Great Expectations was selfish and ungrateful, and even Jo March could be embarrassingly strident for her era (and she wasn't very nice to Laurie.) And well, Mr. Darcy was proud and Elizabeth Bennet was prejudiced.

Would you trust any of the great epic heroes with your car keys? Not "wily" Odysseus (10 years, dude? It took you 10 years to get home to the wife?) Or Aeneas (who wasn't much better, taking 6 years to get as far as Carthage, where he was such a bad boyfriend to Dido, he caused centuries of war between Rome and Carthage.) And Beowulf? He'd get monster blood all over the upholstery.

I'll bet even Atticus Fitch wasn't much fun at a dinner party.

These are not exactly "likeable" folks.

But we LOVE to read about them.

Here's the thing: "heroic" and "admirable" aren't the same thing.

Memorable fictional characters are larger than life and severely flawed. In fact Aristotle said all heroes must have a "tragic flaw". The fictional hero needs to learn something or change during the process of the story, or there's no character arc.

This is why you want to avoid characters who are too much like yourself—or the idealized person you would like to think you are. Nice guys are boring on the page. And nobody can grow and change when they're already perfect.

Note: An exception to the "grow and change" thing is the comic hero, who needs to maintain his comic flaws. Lucy Ricardo seemed to have learned her lesson at the end of each episode of I Love Lucy, but the next week, she'd be back getting into the same kind of trouble. And wouldn't we have been disappointed if she hadn't?

Unfortunately, when writers are starting out, we tend to write about ourselves and our own experiences. After all, we are always told to "write what you know."

But putting too much of yourself into your protagonist can result in a character the reader may find annoying or just plain boring.

The classic author stand-in character is called a "Mary Sue," but there are many contradictory theories about what constitutes a true "Sue/Stu", so I have invented my own names for some of the other types of author stand-ins who don't endear themselves to readers.

I call them Special Victims, Perfect Pats, Looky-Loos and Literal Larrys.

Mary Sue

If you didn't come to writing via the path of fan fiction, you may not have heard of Mary Sue. I hadn't until a couple of years ago.

But all writers need to be aware of her...and know she is not your friend.

The term “Mary Sue” originally comes from a 1973 parody of Star Trek fanfic by Paula Smith, “A Trekkie’s Tale,” in which the teen heroine, “the youngest lieutenant in the fleet,” shows up on the Enterprise and immediately wins the heart of Captain Kirk and takes over the helm of the starship to save the day.

If you've read a lot of newbie fiction (or you've been in many workshops and or critique groups) you probably know Mary Sue well, if not by name.

She's the author's fantasy self, living the author's fantasy life.

She kicks ass like Bruce Lee, solves every case, and saves every day. No problem is too tough for her to solve and no dragon too powerful for her to slay. And absolutely no hero is too hot or high up in the hierarchy to fall in love with her. 

Mary Sue can be either gender—the male version is sometimes called "Gary Stu" or "Marty Stu".

A Gary Stu is the middle-aged guy who has hot, quirky young art students throwing themselves into his formerly unappreciated arms for no discernable reason.

Or he can be the young teen who has no knowledge of astrophysics, but somehow manages to figure out how to save the world from the asteroid when nobody else has a clue.

Garys and Marys are always adored by everybody.

Except readers, who absolutely loathe them.

As Laura Miller said in a 2010 article in Salon: "What irks readers about Mary Sues is that telltale whiff of an ulterior motive." To them, Mary Sue is "a daydream the author is having about herself. It’s an imposition, being unwittingly enlisted in somebody else’s narcissistic fantasy life, like getting flashed in the park. And just about as much fun."

There's nothing wrong with fantasies. We all have them. But we need to be aware they make lousy fiction.

The Special Victim

Special victims endure unspeakable horrors in stoic silence. Nothing is ever their fault. Their stories are plotted so they can never act to save themselves. This means the reader is put through a litany of horrors before the victim is finally rescued or dies.

We run into this kind of protagonist when the story is a fictionalized memoir where the author wants to "set the story straight," or rewrite a story of victimization with a different ending to wreak fictional revenge on a creepy ex-spouse, parent, or boss.

Unfortunately, whether it's a "misery memoir" or "revenge fiction" the reader will not be engaged unless the writer works very hard to cast a clear, unbiased eye on the story.

That's because in a story that's all about "how I suffered," villains will be unbelievable and the hero will come across as a wimp.

There's nothing wrong with using anger as a motivation for a story. I think a lot of us are inspired by the idea that "writing well is the best revenge". (I even used that as a title of my first Camilla novel.)

The problem comes when we fail to detach enough to process our anger into fiction. Then what you're writing is therapy, not entertainment.

It's like trying to fertilize your garden with actual garbage without going through the composting process first.

A hero must behave like one and act. If your protagonist is so victimized he is incapable of acting, you may have to tell the story from the point of view of a more active character.

Perfect Pat

Perfect Pat is a paragon of serenity, goodness, and gratitude who might do a bit of gardening, take long walks on the beach, or travel to scenic spots. Pats of either gender may scuba dive, sail, kayak, or hike alone in pristine wilderness. We hear about every magnificent rock, bird, tree and vista and how each one makes Pat feel. Which is serene, good and grateful.

And a little smug.

In spite of annoyingly judgmental opinions, Pat is, like Mary Sue, adored by all.

Nothing much happens in these stories because Pat spends most of the time thinking. She also never makes the mistakes that could set off conflict. Pats are not wildly brave like Mary Sues (they are always prudent) and never make the kind of misstep that would allow them to be victimized.

Like misery/revenge fiction, Perfect Pat tales are often thinly disguised memoirs or travel diaries.

I once attended a critique group whose members referred to each author's protagonists as "you." As in "you shouldn't buy those shoes; you'll go into debt." And "you shouldn't believe that man's lies. It's obvious he's an abuser," or "you shouldn't plant dahlias at that time of year."

It was a bizarre experience, since I had read them a chapter of the Camilla book I was working on. Well-mannered, conservative fashionista Camilla Randall could not be farther from my own pushy, Croc-wearing, old-hippie self.

But when I look back, I realize that nearly everybody in that group was writing a Perfect Pat book. Which is why I tended to fall asleep at meetings. And they must have thought Camilla was who I imagined myself to be. *cringe*

If you want to avoid a snoozerific Perfect Pat, try giving your character at least three traits you loathe. Make her a member of the opposite political party who is chronically late and hums while she works. Give him a fondness for heavy metal 1980s hair rock, substance abuse issues, and a houseful of paintings of dogs playing poker.

Then let Pat make a bunch of lousy decisions: voilà! Plot happens!


The Looky-Loo protagonist stands on the outside of the story, observing, but never affecting the action. She may wax poetic or philosophical, drop charming bon mots, or offer snarky, sarcastic commentary.

Readers are often drawn in by the engaging voice.

But they will eventually cool as they realize this character simply isn't the hero of the story. He's never going to do anything. And even though he's witness to one event after another, he never tries to help a victim or stand up to a bully or even save himself.

He never acts. He only reacts.

He is the same person at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. He has no character arc because this isn't really his story.

Much of our real lives are spent looking on helplessly as awful events unfold, but one of the reasons we read fiction is to escape from that feeling of helplessness.

We read fiction because we want heroes. And resolution.

We want a character who will say, "here I am to save the day" not "darn, I guess the bad guy killed another puppy. Life sucks, doesn't it?"

It's easy to slip into "looky-loo" mode when you're writing a mystery. That's why it's best not to focus entirely on the whodunit puzzle and give your detective some compelling personal problems. (Although if it's a battle with the bottle, you'd better give it a fresh spin. That's been kind of done to death.)

There are, of course, precedents in literature where the narrator is not the main character. Nick Caraway is not the focal character in The Great Gatsby and Nelly Dean isn't a big part of the story in Wuthering Heights (although some argue she's really the villain) and Mr. Lockwood only steps in at the end. But If you use the bit-part narrator technique (a tough one for a newbie to pull off) make sure you're clear—to your reader, as well as yourself—about who the real hero is.

Sometimes we start telling a story from the wrong point of view. To fix the "looky-loo" problem, try rewriting a couple of chapters from the point of view of another character who is more active in the story.

Literal Larry

Literal Larrys (or Lauries) are usually writing their own life stories, changing the names to protect themselves from imagined lawsuits, but they are not actually writing fiction.

Which means they are setting themselves up to fail.

That's because writing "what happened" and simply changing the names (and maybe making yourself a little hotter and smarter) is a recipe for an unreadable mess. Even memoirs have to be crafted into a story with an inciting incident, conflict and resolution. (For more on that, here's my post on how to write a publishable memoir.)

Literal Larrys feel compelled to tell each event exactly as it happened. No matter how pointless and boring or irrelevant to the story.

Real life is chaotic. It's an artist's job to make sense of it.

But Literal Larry refuses to do that. All his characters must have the same likes and dislikes and quirks of real people in his life. Even if those traits are contradictory and confusing.

In real life, human beings have many facets and often many different personalities, depending on who they are interacting with. In fact, all of us contain many characters.

But in art, a character needs to have only one personality (unless you're writing about somebody with dissociative identity disorder) because too many personalities will confuse your reader.

Literal Larry has also never heard of Chekhov's gun. He doesn’t realize that in art, if you put a gun on the table in act one, somebody has to shoot it by the end of the play.

He puts the gun on the table because that guy really had a gun on his table. Even if it has no meaning in the story.

This can result in muddled and pointless rambling. And an unreadable book. (And every editor's nightmare.)

A writer needs to learn to mold his own experience into a story with well-defined characters and a structured story arc.

Otherwise it's going to come out like one of those long stories drunks tell at parties that make you go hide in the bathroom or invent a pressing previous engagement rather than endure another moment of pointless blather.

The Solution is Empathy

I think almost all writers have written one or more of these characters. I have drawers full of early short stories with Mary Sue and Looky-Loo protagonists.

A few of my teachers clued me in, writing devastating comments like "this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy" or "why doesn't she DO anything?" in the margins of my fledgling fiction.

After that, was so afraid of being accused of writing about myself, I started writing about people as unlike me as possible. I even wrote about people I disliked. But I learned to like them. So much that their stories grew into novels.

Camilla in The Best Revenge was based on a real "Debutante of the Year" who came across as a selfish nitwit in an obviously biased interview in the New York Times. Congresswoman Cady Stanton in Food of Love was based on a conservative African American preacher who annoyed me on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect".  Her foster sister Regina was a composite of the impossibly perfect supermodels we love to hate.

I tried to get into their heads, and pretty soon, I found I liked them much better than my Mary Sues and Looky-Loos. And readers do too.

I'm not telling anybody not to write from experience. All writers put personal experience into their work. But we need to remember experience is simply raw clay we need to mold with our art.

Ruth Harris wrote a great post about how to transform real-life experience into good fiction.

The problems come when you ONLY write your own experience. When you do that, you're not writing for publication: you're navel-gazing. As Nikki Giovanni said, "If you wrote [only] from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."

Empathy. It's the key to writing a compelling protagonist. Get into the heads of people who are not you. Feel what they feel. See things as they see them. You probably don't know your own motivations for half the things you do, because you're too close to them. We all have unexamined beliefs that motivate us without our conscious consent. (More on this in a future post.)

But as an author, you need to know every motivation of every character you create.

Otherwise, you're not writing fiction. You're writing a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a therapy session, a lecture, a diary, or a police report.

And none of those offer much enjoyment to a reader.

If you need to put yourself in your fiction, be like Alfred Hitchcock. Be a walk-on character. I love to do that in my books. Only people who know me personally will recognize my "Hitchcock moment" but it lets me act out that "autobiographer" we all have in us.

For more on how to create great characters, check out MJ Bush's list of 99 Essential Quotes on Character Creation. (It has a quote from me and one from Ruth Harris; it's like a whole course in creative writing distilled into 99 sentences.)

What about you, Scriveners? Which one of these characters are you mostly likely to write? Have you ever felt you had to write something "the way it really happened"? What kind of protagonist turns you off the most? 


Food of Love: a Comedy about Friendship, Chocolate, and a Small Nuclear Bomb.

Food of Love is on sale for 99c! in ebook on Amazon US or Amazon UK, Amazon CA , Smashwords, iTunes, and at Barnes and Noble . It's available in paper in the UK and in the US. It's also available at 
Scribd and

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"I loved everything about this novel, the quirky humor and larger than life characters above all. The plot took me in unexpected directions and I could not guess what would happen next. This is a delightful surprise package skillfully bound by the author's immaculate writing. And like all stories involving a princess, it has a happy ending. HIGHLY recommended!"...The Bookkeeper


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014. 

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE  for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript.  River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Barthelme Prize for experimental flash fiction. $17 Entry Fee 500-word limit. $1000 first prize, $250 hon. mention prizes. Online submission form. Deadline August 31.

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I really wouldn’t want to hang out with my trilogy’s main character. Or the one in my current manuscript.
I knew the origin of Mary Sue, but not the others. That’s probably the one I’ve used in the past. As a comic book and superhero geek, that character fits the bill.
Otherwise, I really wouldn’t want to put me in a book. My life has always been rather even-keeled, and I know it would make a really boring story.

August 17, 2014 at 10:12 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Thank you, Anne, you've listed the characters that give me & everyone else a pain-you-know-where! ;-) Here are a few characters on the other end of the spectrum that readers (including me) love: (sorry I can't format this to make it easier to read)

Clarice Starling, the FBI agent in Silence of the Lambs (played by Jodie Foster in the film), must face her fears—and Hannibal Lector—to solve the identity of a serial killer but she has no personal life that we know of. She's a nun, FBI-style, and she doesn’t give up until the case is solved.
Jane Tennison, the DI in television’s Prime Suspect, played by Hellen Mirren, is a “woman of a certain age” as they say in France. Her love life is on the gritty side, she drinks too much, she can be flinty—not flirtatious. The men she works with give her a hard time and she isn’t shy about pushing back.
Carrie Mathison, the bi-polar CIA agent in Homeland, who has sex with the suspected terrorist. Carrie is also “single, childless, moody, and she refuses to fit in.”
Maya, The young CIA officer, played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, is tough-minded, focused and willing to contradict senior officers in her quest to find the al Qaeda terrorist, Osama bin Laden.
Nurse Ratched, in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Wikipedia describes her like this: “the ward is run by steely, unyielding Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who employs subtle humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments and a mind-numbing daily routine to suppress the patients.”
Annie Wilkes, a former nurse, cuts off her favorite writer’s foot with an axe and cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch. Played by Cathy Bates in the movie, Annie is the unforgettable, over-the-top “difficult” woman in Stephen King’s bestseller, Misery.
Riley, as played by Sigourney Weaver, is the warrant officer in Alien. She is courageous, authoritative and has no personal life that we know of. She’s a sci-fi heroine who must rely on her own guts, brains and fearlessness.
Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper with no first name in Rebecca, is dedicated to her dead employer, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. She is intimidating, manipulative and willing to drive the second Mrs. DeWinter to suicide.
Glenn Close, the murderous seductress in Fatal Attraction lives alone, has no family that we are aware of and is psychopathically determined to get what she wants.
Judi Dench as M is the head of MI6. She is blunt, unmarried as far as we know although in one scene it is clear she is sleeping with a male companion. She is James Bond’s boss and does not flinch from bossing him around and dressing him down for his recklessness.

August 17, 2014 at 10:54 AM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Thanks again for some thoughtful fodder. May the Mary Sues of our collective fictional world skedaddle from the page.

August 17, 2014 at 10:55 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--There's a reason Mary Sue first showed up as a parody of SciFi fanfic. I think every kid likes to fantasize about being hero of his favorite comic book or TV adventure show.

And you're right. People who are disciplined enough to write novels are likely to be pretty boring as protagonists.

August 17, 2014 at 11:01 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth: So true! It's the people we would not like as BFFs who make the best MCs. The link at the bottom of the post to the "99 quotes about characterization" includes a quote from you on "difficult women" and what great fictional characters they make.

August 17, 2014 at 11:03 AM  
Blogger pat said...

Great list! But you focus on the characters' traits, and what I find myself hating about characters is an authorial trait. I don't know how to describe it exactly, but there's a point in some books where you realize an author is not interrogating a character at all -- that in fact, this author luv-luv-luvs the character and is not exploring it but instead displaying it with peerless pride, sort of like a cat who has brought you half a chipmunk.

I don't mean the character is a Perfect Pat. Often these characters are seriously flawed, at least from my point of view. But there's something about the way they're written, the way other characters react to them, that reveals the author's thumb on the scales, and soon that thumb becomes the core of the story to me, and as objectionable as it would be in real life. I wish I could pinpoint what gives that impression, because then I could be more sure of avoiding it in my own writing.

August 17, 2014 at 11:05 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

CS--Mary Sue is annoying, and some of the rest are just boring. A flawless MC doesn't make for an exciting read.

August 17, 2014 at 11:07 AM  
Blogger Sasha A. Palmer said...

Such a fun post! Love all the names for the unfortunate protagonists, catchy.
And the examples from fiction are hilarious. A lot to learn from.
I have one objection - to me Atticus is likable. Very much so. Of course Gregory Peck comes to mind :-) (Sorry, the proofreader mode - it's "Finch".)

August 17, 2014 at 11:17 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Pat--What you're talking about is what happens when an author writes any of these characters. If the author IS the character, he won't question the character's motives or actions. He writes as if the characters are perfect,when the reader doesn't agree at all. The author won't show that Pat is smug and Looky-Loo and the Victim are wimps or Gary Stu is doing stupid stuff. He's too closely identified so he doesn't show how flawed the character is. He doesn't see the flaws, but the reader does. Because they are the author's own unexamined flaws.

August 17, 2014 at 11:31 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sasha--I adore Atticus, too: in the book. But if you think of a person like that at a dinner party, they'd probably want to talk about social issues all the time and never ask anything about you or listen when somebody asked him to pass the mashed potatoes. :-)

August 17, 2014 at 11:32 AM  
Blogger MJ Bush said...

Pat, I've run across that impression several times, and you define it better than I ever did! They always just felt "off." As for wondering how to avoid it, I don't have any specific advice, but I can tell you that most of the time just being aware of the potential for a specific problem like that is half the fight. And thank you for defining it so well for us so we can avoid it too! =)

Anne, thank you. "It's like a whole course in creative writing distilled into 99 sentences" is an amazing endorsement for my post. Thank you.

August 17, 2014 at 11:47 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

MJ--It's a great post! I'm honored to be included.

August 17, 2014 at 11:52 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

MJ—It is a great post and I'm with Anne. Honored! :-)

August 17, 2014 at 12:53 PM  
Blogger Becki Jayne Crossley said...

I thought I'd perfected the main cast of characters in my in-progress novel; they all have developed backstories, they all have at LEAST one trait that irritates me, absolutely zero of them are anything like myself.

And then I realised I'd forgotten the damn protagonist. She has a backstory and a personality, but is nowhere near as memorable as her supporting characters.

Back to the drawing board...

August 17, 2014 at 1:08 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Becki--Don't despair. It's probably not a back to the drawing board situation. Just give her some more quirks and flaws. Sometimes that's something you can do by writing her bio--just for yourself--and that will help you flesh her out when you do the second draft. Sometimes a MC can be like Mary Tyler Moore--an oasis of sanity in a sea of quirky characters. Just don't make her too sane. And give her some goals beyond "help everybody and be perky." :-)

Do read MJ Bush's 99 quotes I linked to at the bottom of the post. it has all kinds of tips for making a character memorable.

August 17, 2014 at 1:48 PM  
Blogger MJ Bush said...

I love the "change and grow" exception. Lucy is one of my favorite characters ever.

I think of these my biggest pet peeve is the protagonist acting like a victim from the beginning to the end of the story. Nice rundown. :)

August 17, 2014 at 1:59 PM  
Blogger MJ Bush said...

I'll make sure to include you both in the next one, whenever that is. =)

August 17, 2014 at 2:02 PM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

Just marvelous, very insightful stuff. I can only contribute from my very early days, when I really was writing, and in different forms like radio play scripts and camp "drama". I think many beginning writers hold back from conflict and flaws simply because they're afraid of what would happen. And as you said, in comedy (almost all of what I wrote was sheer slapstick) the sameness of character is an advantage.

One last- in heroic/epic fantasy, I think you can trade some inner flaws and conflict for outside threat. Yes, Gandalf has grumpy moments and Bilbo isn't quite sure what to do with the Arkenstone. But the real evil is "out there" and the reader is always interested in seeing that defeated. The arc comes partly from the sheer spectacle of things coming together.
Thanks as always, wonderful insight!

August 17, 2014 at 2:45 PM  
Blogger Diana Stevan said...

How timely, Anne. I'm about to revisit a novel hiding in my drawer, based on some personal experiences. I need to step back and look at the whole picture, and get into each character's shoes. Drawing from life is one thing, but as you say, it's not therapy. Although I have to admit my first draft was a particularly satisfying catharsis. In your post, I particularly liked this line - "...we need to remember experience is simply raw clay we need to mold with our art." I'll keep your points in mind as I work the clay Thank you.

August 17, 2014 at 3:03 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Anne, great advice and some very funny lines along the way. You should write comedy. (Kidding) Loved the bit about Atticus Finch. Who doesn't love that character but not sure I'd want to friend him on Facebook. Some wonderful suggestions, too. I often rewrite from different character POVs. I'm usually drawn to the female POV and have to stop and ask myself a lot, "Whose story is this?" That usually keeps me on track and off the looky-loo path. Terrifically entertaining read as always. BRAVA!

August 17, 2014 at 3:07 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

MJ--The victim-protagonist is awfully common, especially in fictionalized memoir.

I hate it when people judge comedy by the same rules as drama. If the MC learns too much, you have no more humor. That's when the minor characters start taking over. Which often happens in the third or fourth year of a sitcom or a comic mystery series.

August 17, 2014 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Wm--"Holding back" conflict is definitely a problem with new writers, especially when they're nice people. I have a dear friend always pulls back from the real conflict in his first draft and our critique group has to keep telling him to be meaner to his characters.

Epics tend to work with archetypes, but I think some of the lasting appeal of LOTR comes from the quirky characters. The Hobbits are charmingly self-involved and complacent and Gandalf is a curmudgeon. Lots more fun than the guys in the Grail saga.

August 17, 2014 at 3:19 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Diana--You're brave to tackle one of those drawer-lurking manuscripts. I've got some I've been terrified to look at for years. But the distance of years can really help. You can be a detached editor, instead of the creator with a "baby." You're much more likely to be able to see it as "clay" instead of "work of art set in stone."

August 17, 2014 at 3:22 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul--You're so right about Friending Atticus on Facebook. LOL. He'd constantly be sharing petitions from change.org.

Interesting that you rewrite from different POVs. Probably very smart. I'm just now trying to write in Plantagenet's POV after writing 4 books where he's a major character but the reader is never in his head. I'm finding out a lot of things I didn't know about him. He's more of a snob than I realized.

You write such convincing women characters in your novellas. I love Caroline!

August 17, 2014 at 3:28 PM  
Blogger M. A. McRae said...

Some real food for thought - especially that a character should grow during the story. The other things - I think I'd best not worry too much or I'll never be game to write again. Unless you're writing about a serial killer, probably most characters have aspects of 'Mary Sue' and 'Perfect Pat' etc.

August 17, 2014 at 3:40 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Oh, thank you, Anne. Really do appreciate those kind words about Caroline.

August 17, 2014 at 3:41 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

M. A.--A character definitely needs to grow and learn. Think of what a victim Harry Potter was at the beginning of the first book. And Frodo was a nitwit. We need our heroes to seem more "ordinary" at the beginning of the tale.

I don't want people to feel overwhelmed by this stuff. Every character will probably have some *aspect* of the author's personality It's just when the character is basically your own perfected, idealized self being victimized or wearing a Starfleet uniform that there's a problem.

August 17, 2014 at 4:08 PM  
Blogger Eileen Goudge said...

Great post! You hit the nail on the head, as always. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO comes to mind. If she were your neighbor you'd be scared to death and probably move, yet she is one of the most memorable characters of recent fiction.
The amateur sleuth of my Cypress Bay mystery series is brash, opinionated, and a recovering alcoholic, which is why I'm having so much fun with her character. She's outspoken the way I'd be if I weren't so polite. (I'm the queen of snappy rejoinders in my head!) Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

August 17, 2014 at 4:15 PM  
Blogger G. B. Miller said...

Strangely enough, I have a character type that perhaps a few people might've heard of: Battered Bob.

Battered Bob is the kind of character that one would write if deep down inside, the writer feels that he/she needs a can of whoop-ass unleashed on them from time to time. So they often create a character (main or secondary) that has just enough flaws to annoy another character (usually main) to the point of unleashing a can of whoop ass.

Which would reasonably explain why a lot of my male characters usually get beat up from time to time. Sort of like Walter Mitty in reverse.

Father Nature's Corner

August 17, 2014 at 4:38 PM  
Blogger Roland D. Yeomans said...

I'd like to share a road trip with Tony Stark -- he would make me laugh. If I wouldn't want to spend real time with the characters I read about, I don't want to share "mind time" with them either. Spenser would be interesting to hang out with -- but would he want to hang out with me?

You're right: perfect characters are no fun. Flawed, decent characters are. But good guys these days are boring. Perhaps that is why we have the world we do.

August 17, 2014 at 4:52 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Eileen--Absolutely. Lisbeth Salander is NOT somebody you want as your neighbor. :-) It sounds as if your sleuth isn't either. How fun to be able to make all those snappy comebacks you don't get to make in real life.

I wonder if I made my sleuth ultra-polite because I'm not... Also ultra-polite people are very good at lying--a good thing in a sleuth.

August 17, 2014 at 4:55 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

G.B.--I like the idea of "Battered Bob". I think we may all have a few Bobs we like to batter. I know I've killed off a lot of people who need killing in my mysteries. :-)

August 17, 2014 at 5:00 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

I've heard the "good guys are boring" thing from a lot of romance writers. It seems that the trend now is for romance heroines to fall in love with complete jerks--Jami Gold calls them "alpha-holes". And apparently the women are supposed to act like complete jerks themselves. My response was "ewwww".

But I do think about that sometimes. As writers try to be more and more horrifying and gruesome, are we putting that energy into the culture?

As creatives, do we have any kind of responsibility not to put horrific ideas into peoples heads? I don't know the answer to that, but I do know I don't want to write or read stuff where horrific evil triumphs. And I won't read books where little kids and innocents are tortured for the amusement of the reader. This reader is not amused.

August 17, 2014 at 5:08 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

Yep, wrote a middle grade version of this in my first ever attempt at a novel. Oh, and about a gazillion pages of backstory. Good thing nothing is wasted in writing, right?

August 17, 2014 at 5:54 PM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

Anne-- It may be nitpicking to say, but everything thought and remembered is the product of experience. Some of it happened in life, some was imagined, but all of it is part of the writer's "experience." The only things I take from direct, life experiences are settings and things. My characters are all composites. Every time I've ever tried to use direct, life experience in my work, I failed. I came to see that some moral imperative in me required that I do my best to produce an accurate record of people and events--and this won't do. The demands of the story, the fiction are what matter, not being "true to what happened." It's obvious that some writers are good at taking direct experience and using it as raw material. That's never worked for me, and I accept this as a simple reality that applies to me, not to everyone.

August 17, 2014 at 6:43 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

I think a lot of people do that, Julie, And yes, all that backstory....but it's all practice. We have to put in our 10,000 hours one way or another. :-)

August 17, 2014 at 7:00 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Barry--It sounds as if maybe you didn't read the whole post. (You're not alone: 90% of people skim blogposts) But this is exactly what I'm saying. Yes, you "write what you know' but you have to process it into fiction.

"The problem comes when we fail to detach enough to process our anger into fiction. Then what you're writing is therapy, not entertainment.

It's like trying to fertilize your garden with actual garbage without going through the composting process first."

What you're talking about is that composting process. I advocate it as much as you do.

August 17, 2014 at 7:02 PM  
Blogger Nina Badzin said...

This was so clever and it made me wince the entire time as I KNOW that my novel attempts were for sure my Mary Sue alter ego in essence.

That description of your critique group with the "you" made me laugh. How strange!

And, I love the idea of making myself a walk on to get over the "need" to put myself in the center of the story.

August 17, 2014 at 8:15 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Nina--Thanks! I think we all have some Mary Sues lurking in our files. Fantasy is what gets most of us to start writing.

The Alfred Hitchcock walk-on is really fun. And it does get you over it. I especially like to make the protagonist not like me. :-)

August 17, 2014 at 8:42 PM  
Blogger Rosi said...

Thanks for this terrific post, Anne. I will be posting the link on my blog.

August 17, 2014 at 9:29 PM  
Blogger Anna aizic-meir said...

Thanks Anne- love the protagonist tips and admittedly[ as a new writer with[ my first historical memoir published in May 2014], I had to keep my crafty needle on track of empathy and not therapy!

August 18, 2014 at 4:26 AM  
OpenID richardleonard said...

Great advice, Anne. As I read that I was thinking, cringing, yep, done that... done that, too... all the time hoping my current favourite WIP 's character is good enough. I'm pretty sure she isn't too much like me! Different gender, different race, different religion, loves a sport I hate. The irony is she's far more determined than I am which explains why it isn't finished after 10 years of (little) progress. Okay, I admit, maybe that's a wish-fulfillment fantasy!

August 18, 2014 at 4:30 AM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

Great advice, Anne, as always but I wish some readers would also read your post! Because again and again I've had "bad" reviews on Amazon from people who "hated" my MC - or worse, felt that she was inconsistent with several conflicting character traits - when in fact we all have conflicting character traits and good writing should recognize this and express it (Shakespeare certainly did and nobody said they didn't like his Hamlet or that he was an indecisive wimp - which I suppose he is for this kind of reader, ha ha!)

August 18, 2014 at 6:11 AM  
Blogger Jeannie Miernik said...

"It's like trying to fertilize your garden with actual garbage without going through the composting process first." Yeah! I think this metaphor sums it all up. Our own personal issues and fantasies can fertilize great story growth--but ONLY if they are thoroughly processed first. Otherwise, they stink! :)

To answer your question, I'm most likely to write a Looky-Loo. I think a Looky-Loo can be sort of like an omniscient POV who has taken an (obnoxious) human form. And the type of protagonist I hate most is a wimpy one. All other characteristics can be forgiven, but wimpy is impossibly boring and disappointing for me.

August 18, 2014 at 6:12 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Rosi--Thanks much for the linkage!

August 18, 2014 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anna--When you're writing memoir, you have to tread a very fine line. I think if you keep in mind that it's not therapy--and it's about entertaining and informing the reader, you can do just fine.

August 18, 2014 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Richard--I think we've all done it. We all have fantasies and when we're writers, we write them down. Sometimes that raw material turns into great fiction. It sounds as if your protag is nothing like a Mary Sue, but if she's got you bogged down for 10 years, you may have to add some energy by adding another POV character. That sometimes works for me.

August 18, 2014 at 9:41 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Claude--I agree that it's incredibly frustrating to get reviews from people who think a character has to be perfect on page one and isn't allowed to grow or change or make bad choices. Those people should not be reading fiction. Maybe we should offer them a nice booklet of paint samples they could watch dry.... ;-)

August 18, 2014 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Jeannie--I'm glad you liked that metaphor. I've used it with editing clients. Sometimes they get offended. But it's all about the process. Life doesn't have clean story arcs, but our brain craves them, so it's our job as writers to create them.

"Looky-Loos can be sort of like the omniscient POV in human form" Great insight! You're absolutely right. That POV can be used effectively, especially in epic fantasy, but it's really, really tough for a newbie to pull off.

Wimpy characters are fine if they learn to unwimp by the end of the book. Poor Harry Potter is pretty wimpy at the beginning of the story. That's what makes his triumph so much fun.

August 18, 2014 at 9:48 AM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Wonderful post. Informative and so funny. You make learning fun. I'm going to look more critically at my protagonist in my series. I'm thinking she may need a couple more flaws. After reading this, I'm beginning to wonder if she might be a tad boring. Yikes!

August 18, 2014 at 10:53 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Christine--We do tend to overlook our protagonists faults, the way we do our own, but I'll bet you'll find you can punch up existing traits and give them more of a downside. Even virtues like loyalty can lead to trouble when a character has them to excess.

August 18, 2014 at 12:20 PM  
OpenID californiamuse.com said...

Fabulous post. Thank you for the inspiration.

August 18, 2014 at 2:05 PM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

Anne--just to set the record straight, I DID read all the post. As I always do with yours. What I'm saying is that for whatever reason, no amount of "composting" makes any difference with me. But that's OK: even though they aren't directly based on anyone I know, my characters work well--or so my editor tells me.

August 18, 2014 at 3:27 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

California--Thanks for stopping by!

August 18, 2014 at 5:06 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Barry--I think we probably have different definitions of "composting". But if you can write stories and not bring in one moment or feeling that stems from your own personal experience, you've achieved something pretty unique. Good for you.

August 18, 2014 at 5:10 PM  
Blogger ryan field said...

I love this post. I know how hard you worked on it, too. This wasn't easy to put together :) Kudos!!

I've always found it interesting to take Perfect Pat and turn her into Slutty Sally :)

August 19, 2014 at 8:20 AM  
Blogger John Nelson said...

Fascinating post, Anne. My one comment would be about Marlowe and Spade. They drank, perhaps they were even what we now call functioning alcoholics, but they weren't drunks incapable of controlling their actions (or taking action).
Thanks again for a great reminder about character! I'm adding your spot to my Bloglines feeds.

August 19, 2014 at 10:50 AM  
OpenID dimanagul said...

Great article. I especially love your jabs about the Protagonist never doing anything. So many people dread the Sue and flop to the other extreme.

August 19, 2014 at 11:23 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ryan--Ooooh. Slutty Sally (Or Sammy) would be much more fun! Thanks!

August 19, 2014 at 11:23 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

John--I think all noir detectives are required to drink to excess. Nick and Nora Charles did too. On the page, they're all functioning and charming. But in our living rooms, we might find them a little less so. Thanks for adding the blog to your feed!

August 19, 2014 at 11:25 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dima--I think you may be right: the Looky-Loos may come from "fear of Sue"! Good insight.

August 19, 2014 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Raquel Byrnes said...

This was a great post! I really got a great deal of insight from it. I think maybe I could do some tweaking to my main character. :)
Raquel Byrnes

August 20, 2014 at 4:17 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Raquel--As I was writing this post, I realized that an awful lot of writers (including me) tend to give their main characters less attention than they need in making them interesting. We're so busy with the plot and quirky minor characters, we forget to look out for #1. We're like the mom who is so busy tending her family she forgets to take care of herself.

August 20, 2014 at 4:33 PM  
Blogger Southpaw HR Sinclair said...

Timely! I kid you not, just yesterday I had a lengthy conversation about this very thing.

August 21, 2014 at 9:30 AM  
Blogger Linda Thorne said...

A lot of truth to this. Identifying too much with your protagonist is very easy to fall into - a way to express your own feelings through your character and a yawner for readers. I love your descriptions of some of our favorite protagonists. In one book I read, the writer seemed to be forcing flaws on a character. It was as if he knew she needed some, so he just latched them on to her. They seemed detached from the character. They also got me off-track from the story line. You're right, too good of a protagonist is boring and unrealistic, but flaws need to be characteristic of that person and carefully seeded in.
Very interesting article. Thanks.

August 21, 2014 at 9:40 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Southpaw--I hope it wasn't too hard for the writer you were talking with. Sometimes newbies take it hard when they're told they're writing a Mary Sue book. They feel they've been personally insulted when they find out readers don't like Mary Sue, because they take it to mean readers don't like THEM. But it's just that readers don't like personal fantasies masquerading as fiction.

August 21, 2014 at 9:44 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Linda--It sounds as if that writer may have had a bit of a quarrel going on with an editor or beta. Sometimes writers will add the stuff the editor wants and do it so badly they hope the editor will be forced to admit it was a bad idea. Childish, but it happens.

We need to inhabit our characters and know them inside out, or none of their actions--good or bad--will ring true. Certainly tacking a few quirks on a Mary Sue will only make the character more annoying,

August 21, 2014 at 9:50 AM  
Blogger author Christa Polkinhorn said...

Funny post and so true. It gives me a lot of food for thought. Oh, and I absolutely love Plantagenet!

August 21, 2014 at 11:19 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Christa--Thanks! I'm so glad to hear you like Plantagenet. A lot of readers have been asking for a book from his point of view, so I decided to let him do half the chapters in this new one. It's not as easy to get into his head as Camilla's, but I'm having fun.

August 21, 2014 at 11:57 AM  
Blogger Maggie Anton said...

But everyone wants to read MarySue's story when kinky sex is involved. How else to explain the zillion copies of "Fifty Shades of Grey" sold?

August 22, 2014 at 3:46 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Maggie--I think I'm one of the few people on the planet who has never read that book. I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed by that or not. :-)

Is that heroine really a Mary Sue, or is she an "everygirl" the reader can imagine herself to be? A lot of romance heroines are kind of bland and sketchy, so the reader can see herself in the scenes. What makes those different from the Mary Sue is Mary Sue usually has characteristics and opinions of the author--things the author may not realize are not universally loved.

August 22, 2014 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger E.B. Black said...

I love this post. I've been working on getting better and better at characterization and you helped me realize that in my path, I wrote about a lot of looky loos and special victims. LOL. I'm glad there are words for them. It helps me understand the problems I've had in the past more perfectly.

September 25, 2014 at 3:52 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

E.B. I'm so glad it helps. I used to write lots o f looky-loos myself. We writers are observers, so we tend to make our characters into observers too. But heroes need to be more active than the average writer. :-)

September 25, 2014 at 4:08 PM  

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