Why ‘not a Mary Sue’ is a terrible approach to character creation

For you lucky people who’ve never heard this term, it comes from fanfiction and is used to…wait, why am I wasting time laying this all out for you? Here, skim the TvTropes article. Quite frankly I don’t think this is a concern for writers who’ve either never bothered with roleplyaing or fanfiction, but since the term does show up all over the place and points to a more fundamental flaw in the way people approach characters, I figured I’d roll it out for the opener.

So anyway, my real issue is with people who think of characters in terms of flaws, strengths, and quirks.

And okay, yes, if you’re new to writing then you should start there. We all have to start there. But if you’ve been doing it for more than like a month, the rest of this post is for you.


Let me explain why I think the ‘flaws/strengths/quirks’ approach is a terrible idea.

Take me, for instance (we can confirm I’m a real human being with a short battery of medical tests). You could say public speaking is one of my strengths, but when I have an unexpectedly large audience or all my bosses are there I tend to flub things. So the flaw might be interacting with authority, except I do just fine when I’m not giving a presentation to them. Basically, there’s one specific circumstance that causes me bothers, and probably a better term for it is ‘performance anxiety’ except it ties in to a bunch of other stuff I’m not going into here.

Basically, reducing someone to a series of flaws/strengths/quirks overlooks the fact that people behave differently depending on the situation.

I’ll stick to writing personalities, thankyouverymuch. I mean, in one sense it is just a matter of how you choose to word it, but since the central thesis of this blog is that language shapes thought, that’s pretty important.

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