No, Virginia, there is no Mary Sue

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Real life can bring disappointment. Santa Claus is a Catholic bishop who punched heretics. And Mary Sue, that figure beloved by amateur writing lore, isn’t real. She and her stepbrother Gary Stu are just figments of the amateur writing wars.

Mary Sue, other than being a way of making fun of women with unfashionable names like Mary and Susan, has no objective meaning. One person says it’s a character that is too perfect. (Was Jesus Christ then the ultimate Mary Sue— or Gary Lou?) Another says it’s a character who is too ‘nice.’ Or a character that doesn’t have the right flaws— the ones that ‘count.’

Realistically, calling someone else’s character a Mary Sue is another arena to fight the opinion wars. John’s a hardcore angry atheist? Then every character in your Evangelical Christian romance is a Mary Sue because they all go to church weekly and refrain from stealing and using heroin. Does Mandy have a low opinion of the ‘politically correct?’  Then she will accuse your characters of being sensitive-snowflake Mary Sues who will worry if a murderer would think it’s ‘racist’ if he is asked not to do the murder thing any more. Any  character more morally straight than Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan can be seen as a Mary Sue by somebody.

If you get accuse of having written a Mary Sue, perhaps the best thing to do is ignore it, as you would do if someone accused your protagonist of being Santa Claus’s lead reindeer. If you really feel you have to respond, ask the person— what, specifically, is wrong with the character? If he responds ’she’s too nice,’ that’s not a specific response. In what scene, in what action, is that character being ‘too nice?’ Chances are, it’s going to come down to a matter of taste or opinion.

Sometimes the problem is genre. If you are writing Christian fiction or Amish romance, the guy who writes spy novels with high body counts may see all your best characters as Mary Sues. But the genre standards are different. If you write an Amish girl who can kill bad guys seven different ways with a pencil eraser, that won’t meet the standards of the Amish romance genre, which has a notoriously low body count.

When you despair, remember that the greatest writers in the world wrote characters who were nice as well as ones that were Lady Macbeth. Jane Austen wrote whole books full of people who never called anyone a motherf-ck-er, not once. Was she a writer of Mary Sue characters? No. And neither are you. Go forth, and write stuff!

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Setups and Payoffs in Fiction Writing

I’ve been reading Plot Gardening by Chris Fox, and he introduced to me the concepts of setups and payoffs in a fictional plot.

What is a setup? What is a payoff? Actually it’s easier to define the payoff first. A payoff is a story event for which the main character (and the reader) need to prepare. If your fantasy novel has at its conclusion a sword-fight between your hero and the Dark Lord, you need to set that up. Your hero needs a sword, and needs to know how to use it. Perhaps he needs a magic sword in order to win a fight with that particular Dark Lord.

Payoffs don’t always happen at the conclusion of a novel. Perhaps in your historical novel your heroine needs to be put into a position where marrying a (handsome) stranger seems like her only choice. This marriage is a payoff, though it will probably happen closer to the beginning of your novel. To set up for that payoff, you may perhaps need to turn your comfortable middle-class historical heroine into an orphan, and have a loathsome step-brother offer her a position as an unpaid nanny in his home. Perhaps the step-brother tells her that is her only choice to avoid ending up in a workhouse or worse. That kind of setup would make a marriage to a stranger seem like a plausible choice.

Setup scenes make the reader expect a payoff. If we are shown a firearm in an early scene, we expect that firearm to be fired in a later scene— not necessarily a self-defense or murder type firing, it could be hunting or target practice. But if something is mentioned in a significant way, we expect that it is a setup that will be paid off later in the story.

In the same way, big payoffs in a story have to be set up. Is your character going to undergo a major change— perhaps learning skills or becoming more independent? You can’t just state that fact in your climatic scene, you have to set it up in earlier scenes, or the change seems unrealistic and unmotivated.

Chris Fox says that to avoid ‘plot holes’ you have to pay off your setoffs and set up your payoffs. Setups make your future payoff scenes seem less random and ‘out of the blue.’ Actually having the payoff happen means that those setup scenes had meaning for the story as a whole.

One way to start thinking about setups and payoffs is to think about your climactic scenes. What payoffs will happen at that time? What might you need to do to set up those payoffs? And if you have a scene, often near the beginning, that feels like a setup, think how that scene can lead to a payoff. (If your scene sets up something that will never lead to any kind of payoff, it may not be an important scene for your novel.)

Assignment: Read a favorite novel and note scenes that seem to be setups or payoffs.

How To Dispose of a Dead Body

I must point out right away that’s I’m talking about fictional bodies here— if you have a real-world corpse around, the only solution is to summon the police immediately. Yes, even if you were the one that caused the corpse to be a corpse. Immediate police summoning is for the best. Imagine how much easier O. J. Simpson’s life would have been if he’d called the police as soon as he got done murdering Nicole and Ron. He’d have had to do a little time for manslaughter, they would have written it off as a crime of passion, and when he got out no one would have been mad at him but Nicole and Ron’s families.

Fictional dead bodies are a fact of the writing life. If you go in for writing murder mysteries, they are your bread and butter. (Or steak and salad, if you are doing Keto.) But almost any other type of fiction might have a murder or a murder mystery in it.

There are three basic methods murderers have used to deal with the corpses they make. I suppose there are a few other methods but they are for the most part a variant on one of the three themes. Except for that fellow who killed his mistress, stripped her corpse to the bones, and sold her skeleton to a medical school (H. H. Holmes.) Different types of murderer do different things with the body, depending on their personalities and what situations they are living in. Here are the main methods of body disposal.

Leave the corpse where it falls. This is the method famously used by Jack the Ripper. It served him well in the Victorian era when the police knew next to nothing about forensics. Modern let-‘em-lie killers have to worry about leaving any evidence behind with the corpse. In the modern age, it’s best for those killers who use a gun or who are efficient users of a knife or machete. You want as little contact with the victim as you can so you leave little to no evidence.

The problem for many types of murderer is that they want to do something to the victim that would lead to evidence. Murderers who sexually assault their victims before or after the murder risk leaving a sample of their DNA around where it will do the police the most good.

Keep the corpse around the house or yard. John Wayne Gacy famously hid his victims in the crawl space under his house. Christie left his backlog of corpses all over 10 Rillington Place. The advantage of this method is that you have the corpse someplace that you have control over. If you have a corpse in the downstairs loo, you needn’t allow your guests to use that particular facility.

The disadvantage, though, is that once the police take a look at your place, it’s hard to deny responsibility for the corpses they find. They are on your property (or your rented home) in any case. Who else could have done it? Mind you, Christie managed to blame a dead woman, her dead unborn baby, and her dead toddler on the woman’s husband, who was executed for it since the police didn’t do a thorough search and find the other bodies Christie had around the place.

Dump the corpse somewhere remote. This gets the corpse far away from the murderer and gives the body time to decompose before discovery. It’s the method used by Casey Anthony in getting rid of her daughter’s body— by the time it was discovered, the coroner could no longer say what the exact method of murder was.

The problem is that most of us don’t know of properly remote locations that are not connected to us. We may think of that wooded area we found on a deer-hunting trip, but not realize that it’s pretty close to the parking lot of a busy tavern, or that the dirt road that leads there is someone’s driveway.

Some people have used city parks as body dump locations. Thousands of people have access to these city parks, and so the location doesn’t point to any one person as murderer. If the park has some remote spots, you can even hope to not have the body discovered for some time.

Remotely dumped bodies can remain undiscovered for months or years, or can be found almost immediately— perhaps soon enough that witnesses can describe the murderer and his vehicle which were parked near the body-dump site. It’s a crap shoot, but even the most dim-bulb type of murderer usually thinks he can be clever in finding a good body dump site.

As a writer, it is up to you to decide how soon your fictional corpse gets discovered and what evidence may be found along with it. It all depends on what works in your story. For the main murder in a murder mystery, you are expected to make it a little more clever that real-life murders usually are. For example, don’t have your murderer dump the corpse right next to where his dad’s deer hunting cabin is. Fictional murderers need to be smarter than that.

Avoiding Deus et Machina Endings

If you regularly read ‘how to write’ books you may have read warnings against having a Deus et machina ending. What is that? It is usually explained as a tradition in ancient Greek theater where the playwright could land the character in a load of trouble the playwright couldn’t fix, and then just use the ‘God from the machine,’ a stage device that made it look like a god-character had taken the troubled character up to heaven and solved all his problems.

Well. I’m skeptical. The little ancient Greek drama I have read is on mythological and legendary stories— stories the audience knew. They would not welcome a divine intervention that wasn’t part of the traditional story! The divine interventions in the stories was expected by the audience, in the same way modern Christian readers of the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels were not surprised by the Second Coming of Christ at the end which did solve the Antichrist problem. (I was not a Christian when I started reading them, but even I expected that ‘Second Coming’ event since book one.)

In your real-world writing life, Deus ex machina as a failed story ending is different from what we might imagine. It does not need to involve God or ‘the gods.’ It usually involves unexpected, surprise help from a powerful source— a king or president, a scientific discovery or a space-alien intervention, whatever.

The problem is not the powerful helper, but in the fact that it is unexpected and a surprise, and that also the main character did nothing to earn it. In our own real lives, we don’t have all our problems solved by a divine miracle or by a president making a visit to our town on our behalf. We usually have to work and suffer to try to fix our problems, and it may not work even then.

Also, real world instances that seem to be possible divine intervention— such as when God allowed the Blessed Mother to appear to Bernadette in Lourdes and the three shepherd children in Fatima— the divine intervention didn’t solve problems but caused them. The Fatima children were even taken to jail and threatened with being boiled alive!

The reason the true Deus ex machina is a bad story ending is that it makes things too easy for our lead character. We don’t enjoy following the adventures of characters that have it all so easy. We like the Harry Potters who are little babies when a major evil wizard tries to kill them, or the Katniss Everdeens who have to volunteer for what seems like certain death in the Hunger Games to save a vulnerable younger sister.

In Mercedes Lackey’s book, Aerie, there is what a cynic might describe as a literal Deus ex machina towards the end. Several Egyptian gods intervene so the main characters won’t be destroyed by an enemy army lead by a monster who was becoming a goddess. But that’s just at the end of the book. The main characters have to go through a lot of struggles and hard work to get to the point where the gods intervene. Mercedes Lackey, having published probably as many as 50 books by the time she wrote Aerie (part of The Dragon Jousters series which I highly recommend, at least to mature readers.) She is too good a writer to put in an actual Deus ex machina ending.

I once read a critique of ‘Christian fiction’ by someone who didn’t seem to have actually read any. He claimed that all Christian fiction has an ending in which a miracle from God solves everything. I have read quite a bit of Christian fiction, both evangelical and Catholic, and I’ve never read a book where a miracle solves anything. To see an example, read the ’Saint Tommy’ series by Catholic author Declan Finn. His character Tommy Nolan is a NYC cop who has been given by God some ‘wonder-working’ abilities like the ability to bilocate and to smell demonic evil. But that doesn’t fix his problems, but makes him a major target of both demon-possessed criminals and of progressive politicians.

In your own writing, you can keep from unintentionally writing a Deus ex machina by richly providing your Lead character with problems. Let him work on the problems with his own efforts. Let him suffer! If he does receive special help, whether divine or otherwise, don’t let that solve the problems for him. Yes, sometimes especially in Christian fiction a character may have to trust in the Lord for something instead of trying to fix it himself, but deciding to trust the Lord is also an action. And your character must act, not just be buffeted between helpful and oppositional forces.

What Writers Know that Isn’t So

Writers face a problem that, now in the Internet age, is worse than ever— what we know about writing that just isn’t so. Rumors run through the would-be writer community. The Internet makes them spread faster, and self-publishing makes it possible for even the horribly ignorant to write how-to-write books that contain this misinformation.

These false ideas cover many things. ‘Writing rules’ that just make you more inhibited about writing, since you can’t possibly remember all these arbitrary rules. Bad ideas on how to approach a potential agent, or how to promote your self-published book. Even the idea that you can use a pen name that makes you seem to be another, famous writer.

Where do you go to get more accurate ideas? How-to-write books are not all helpful, especially now that anyone can self-publish one. I find that Writer’s Digest Books publishes how-to-write books that are at least free from the worst howlers. The authors they publish are not all at the same level, however. They may throw out ideas at random that will lead you astray, even if the core message of their books is sound.

Lawrence Block, a mystery writer who also wrote articles on fiction writing for Writer’s Digest magazine and who also wrote how-to-write books, is a sound source on writing information, though dated. He got his start writing short stories for the ‘pulps,’ which no longer exist. But he was for many years a nationally known mystery author and some of his books have been made into movies. Any of his books is a good place to start your quest for writing knowledge.

James Scott Bell is an Evangelical Christian writer, also in the mystery genre, who took Lawrence Block’s place at Writer’s Digest magazine in the fiction writing area. He has written many how-to-write books as well, both from Writer’s Digest Books, and self-published. He gives out a lot of useful information to writers, and is, obviously, not biased against Christians like so many people are today.

Stephen King is a popular Left-Wing horror writer who wrote a book, On Writing. I was at one time a massive Stephen King fan, but I found the book a disappointment. I learned a lot about King’s life, but little about writing lore I didn’t already know. I do know of people who found his book helpful, and I’d imagine you might find a second-hand copy if you look for one.

Jerry B. Jenkins is famous as the author of the Left Behind series (LaHaye was just the theology consultant) and he wrote a book ‘Writing for the Soul’ which is helpful, and not only for writers who, like Jenkins, are Evangelical Christians. Even the most secular of secular writers can find something useful in this book, the same way I, as a Catholic writer, might consult books by secular writers like Lawrence Block.

To evaluate writing books in general, look at the author’s name. Have you ever heard of that author as a fiction writer? If you have, the book is probably worth reading at least once. Famous writing agents and writing teachers who are respected by ‘real’ writers can also contribute to your fund of knowledge.

After you have a fund of writing knowledge from good sources, you can expand your hunt. Even self-published how-to-write authors are not off limits then, because you will be able to discern which advice is good and which is likely to be bunk, or self-serving.

One reason that it’s important to get more writing knowledge is that there are plenty of con artist out there who prey on struggling writers. Google the term ‘vanity press’ to learn more about one of the schemes to make money off of writing ignorance.

Yesterday I discovered that the left-wing social medium Pinterest has chosen to classify prolife material as ‘nudity’ or porn. I have a Pinterest account which I haven’t used in years. I now use it exclusively to post prolife graphics. Find me at: on Pinterest until they ban me!


Antagonists and Villains

Most stories have not only a protagonist or hero, but an antagonist or villain as well. These characters function as the opposition. Whatever the protagonist wants or needs to fulfill his story goal, an antagonist will stand against it. The antagonist is the human face of the opposition. Or the space-alien face, in some fiction. In any case, the antagonist personalizes the conflict.

A villain is an antagonist with the addition of the element of moral evil. A villain does not have to be a total Lord Voldemort or a Hitler. He just needs to have that element of wrongness that makes it that much harder for the protagonist to give in.

A lot of people today say they don’t believe in right and wrong, that there is no difference. There is an easy way to show such a person doesn’t really think that way: just steal his car. He will at that point have a lot to say about the evils of people who steal cars.

Readers like stories with heroes and villains even if they swear up and down that there is no such thing as good or evil. They like feeling that they are taking the right side in a struggle. They wouldn’t appreciate it if the young struggling hero they have loved throughout the story turns out to be Adolf Hitler and the wicked antagonist a Holocaust victim. A story like that, illustrating the point that there is no good or evil, ‘punishes’ the reader by making him side with evil by mistake.

Some stories can’t bear the weight of a true villain. This is especially true of Amish romances or children’s fiction. The antagonists of such stories can be cold or uncaring or unsympathetic to the protagonist, but in the rest of their lives they can be morally upright people. They are just wrong in this one instance.

In other stories, a Lord Voldemort type villain would be too much, but a more realistic villain— a criminal, a selfish person, and, if you are a socialist, an ‘evil’ businessman who wants profit— would fit the bill. The villain need not be evil in every aspect of his life. He may be kind to his cat (or his pet snake,) he may routinely give money to the local charities, and handouts to beggars. He’s just a villain in relation to the protagonist and his goals, and perhaps in other areas that trouble the protagonist.

You can write a story without any human or animate antagonist or villain. It’s common in man-against-nature stories, though in those cases there might be an animal antagonist in the form of a bear or a wolf pack. But most readers are more satisfied with a story with some personified opposition. Such stories are often easier to write. Because isn’t that how we experience opposition in the real world? Mostly, there is some human agency which makes the situation worse— and more memorable.

Read Declan Finn’s blog post ‘Making a Villain’ at A Pius Geek.

Novel Openings: Don’t Start with a Dream

There is a rule for fiction writers which I have read many times in different sources: never start a novel (or shorter fiction) with a character having a dream.

The reason is that dreaming story-openings are a mark of the amateur writer. New writers don’t understand that a reader starting a new story is eager to meet the characters in the normal world of the story. Show that character dreaming, and there is confusion. Who is this dreaming person? Who is he when he is awake? And why should I care about him?

Dreams— and visions, hallucinations and virtual realities— are a problem in fiction. Writers may think including such things are nifty. Or symbolic. But they are not part of the REAL story. And readers know it. These non-real events must be used very sparingly in any point in a work of fiction. But as an opener, dreaming is a story-killer.

Dreaming in the story opening delays the real beginning of the story, where you get to know the main character and his story-worthy problem and the other key characters that play a role. You may think ‘but the dream foreshadows the events in chapter three!’ But the story opener is too important to be wasted on a foreshadowing dream. Let’s get to the action!

A better way to start a story is to identify the first important action of your planned story and write that. Many new writers throw in a lot of stuff at the beginning that isn’t story. Dreams, getting up and having breakfast, pointless converation with wives or mothers….

Many new writers find their story beginnings are so clogged with unneeded stuff that they can throw out the first few chapters and have a stronger story. And that’s fine, if you are willing to throw out the unneeded scenes even though they add to the word count.

To know what is important enough to put in your first chapter, you have to know what the story is about. Look at a few examples of novels published by traditional, commercial publishers. How do the professional authors show you what the story is about starting from the first paragraph?

If you are still tempted to start with a character dreaming, know this. People that are judging your work in a professional way— agents and editors at a publishing house, for example— know that an opening scene dream is usually the mark of a not-there-yet beginnning writer. People in this position often have hundreds of manuscripts that they have to read (a little) and judge. Many unsolicited manuscripts are dreadful. No one is going to read the full first chapter, or even the full first page, to be ‘fair’ to the writer who clearly can’t write well enough yet. So if the story starts with a dream, even if it picks up right after the dream and is great fiction thereafter, it won’t matter. The reader has already put your manuscript down when the dream started.

The key to a good and compelling story beginning is to know what your story is about. Who is your main character? What is his story-worthy problem? Everything that is not part of that story— like dreams, breakfasts and subway trips— is just fluff and padding in your story. It will need to be cut.