On Mary Sues

Mary Sue: a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional. [x]

“Wow, what a Sue!” is thrown around a lot these days in literary criticism.  It’s always insulting.  It always implies that the author did something wrong.  And if it’s applied to an amateur or developing work, it generally means the author needs to do something to reduce the “Sueishness” of the character.

The problem arises when any character who’s exceptional is labeled a Sue.  But wait, don’t we like reading about extraordinary people?  Having a character who’s truly unique in her world can’t be the mark of incompetence, can it?

Recently, in a completely unrelated-to-writing forum, I received a nice message from someone who appreciated one of my articles online, and she added this at the end of the message:

Also, your webcomic rocks. Actual plotlines and character development? Yes please.

After I thanked her, she said a little more about it, mentioning one of my characters in particular:

Too many stories—especially webcomics—are filled with cheap action and universe-spanning prophecies, but the whole thing is ruined by the one-dimensional cardboard cutouts the author pushes around. I’m especially in awe of how you manage to handle Ivy—with all her unbelievably Mary-Sueish characteristics—in a way that makes her realistic and likable. Seriously… how do you manage it?? I try to work with characters that have half her Sueishness and every time they wind up devouring half the story like some sparkly black hole.

So, I thought about it. Hey, how do I manage it?

The character she’s talking about is indeed in the red as far as Mary Sues go. I’ve been well aware of that for a long time. To give you some idea:

  • Author self-insert: When I named the character, she got my nickname, and I didn’t realize it was going to stick to both of us. . . .
  • Exotic and attractive appearance: She’s biracial (half Chinese, half white American mutt) but somehow ended up with features you don’t often see come out of that combination: blonde hair, huge tilty green eyes. Annnnd is randomly missing the pinkies on her hands and feet and has pointy ears for no reason.
  • Has unusual powers that aren’t commonplace for the character’s race: She has an unexplained and unprecedented gigantic case of telekinesis. Why? Got me!

At this point in the webcomic story, my character was a two-year-old, so she’s too young to really do most of the Sueish things people in her situation are prone to doing (e.g., angsting, being sought after by people who are drawn in by curiosity or attraction or greed, making some kind of Epic Plot based around superpowers, etc.). But she’s still got a LOT of the warning signs of Suedom, and yet the compliment above suggests I’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls somehow. Well, what’s up with that?

Here is my somewhat rambly and surely incomplete guide to making your characters not suck, even if they are, by some definitions, Sues:

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Five-Year Anniversary: Negative One

So I seem to have made it to FIVE YEARS with my webcomic, Negative One.  I updated every single Friday. Without ever being late or missing an issue.  261 issues.  16,186 panels.

So I’m feeling pretty awesome about it and elected to celebrate.

I made a cake, received some gifts from friends, and collected a bunch of fan art from readers.  And I made a tribute video for baby Ivy.  You can see it all on the Five-Year Celebration Page (offsite at my webcomic, though).

Negative One: Open Window

Last week’s issue of my webcomic Negative One involved a storyline that smashed my audience over the head with a mostly unexpected sudden tragedy.  You don’t get much more horrible than missing children without involving death.

I was pretty depressed about it, even though I knew it was coming.  This is me after I finished drawing it.

So it’s been nearly a week since I posted the update and people are still e-mailing me with tales of woe. Most notably, I’m receiving e-mails from parents who have had close calls with their children similar to what I’ve depicted in #0159, and they’re all talking about how much they hope Amanda’s parents find her.

Gulp. . . .

Looks like we are all in for a really hard couple of months here, ’cause the comic is going to continue to be about this. What choice do I have? I have to deal with what I spawned now.

One parent posted a comment about the issue leaving them “sobbing at the keyboard.”

Another shared a similar experience of losing (but finding) their kid.

And one person’s just mailed to plead for Amanda’s safe return as well as to ask how this couple ended up with an “Elfquest Glider baby.” (I don’t get this reference. Er?)

Well, I cried over this, but I knew I would. I’m the author. I go through whatever the characters go through, sorta-kinda. (Sometimes it can seem pretty real.) It was touching and rewarding and . . . a little disturbing . . . to get so much mail about people crying over my work. I didn’t WANT to upset people, but I guess it’s also a sign that there are tons of people I don’t even know whose lives I am touching once a week by posting this.

I could tell from the hundreds of hits per week, but it’s more real to me when I get the letters.

I hope I have a chance to do this with my novels sometime in the near future.

Negative One: Several Reviews

My webcomic got featured in Top Webcomics, so I started getting a few more readers and, consequently, more mail about the story than usual.  Reading the mail, I have noticed several themes and things people tend to like about the comic.

  1. They tend to like the characters.
  2. They normally point out that it’s different from every other webcomic they read.
  3. And they like the realness and sincerity and inventiveness of my plot.

Some of them mention they like the art, too, but mostly almost everyone who writes me says something about having experienced a personal connection with the characters or relating to their situation.

One thing I think I do well is write convincingly about things I’ve never been through. I was discussing this with a person who contacted me about the comic recently, and after I told her I’ve never had a baby or gone to another dimension like the characters in the story have, she reacted with surprise, saying, “WHAT? I thought *sure* from this story that you were a mother!” (Paraphrased.) That’s awesome. I guess we’ll never know how convincingly I write about traveling to other dimensions. I don’t think there are any people out there who can say whether I’m doing it right or wrong. Heh.

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New Webcomic: Negative One

I love the old Ivy stories I wrote in college—from my modern fantasy series, The House That Ivy Built—but her story just isn’t cohesive enough to survive as a marketable novel, so I think one cool thing I can do with it is make a webcomic about it.  So . . . that’s exactly what I’m doing.

This alternating-story webcomic will update every Friday for the foreseeable future.  And since it’s pretty much my own thing, you can expect a lot of sort of indulgent narration.  But if you like that sort of thing, perhaps this webcomic will be up your alley.