Writing Gripes: Physical Attributes

Today, I read an interesting post by Hannah Sutker at The Huffington Post called “Writing and Polite Racism”. Essentially it was about how some writers tend to approach writing race in characters in two ways: (1) Ignoring it; or (2) Watering it down into more ambiguous terms. Since Miss Sutker does such a sublime job at writing her own article, you can read the entire thing here but what I wanted to focus on was point number 2.

In the article, Miss Sutker provides some fine examples of the physical characteristics of ethnic characters being compared to food stuff. A part of me wonders whether it’s because as children we were made to learn poetic techniques (similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia – remember learning these fun tidbits for about 8 years?) and then forcefully inject them into every piece of creative writing we ever did. Did this contribute to the lack of originality when describing ethnic characters? Or is it really like Miss Sutker suggests? That authors “water down” racial character descriptions so as not to draw attention to race itself?

Nevertheless, this is not a topic that I feel like I have an informed opinion on. What I do have an opinion on however, is the bits of racial character descriptions that I see in books that annoy me (but not all are related to food!). Here’s the top 3:

1. “Almond shaped eyes”

A character descriptor most commonly used on characters with Asian heritage. FYI, I’m 100% Chinese and my eye shape does not resemble mildly delicious nuts. Just sayin’.

2. “A halo of frizzy hair”

Usually used when describing a character of African or African American descent. I suppose frizzy hair could be described as a halo if it is gravity defying and surrounding the head, but in my mind it just conjures up images of somebody with a doughnut made of hair that is hovering angelically above.

3. “Chocolate coloured skin”

Again, used to describe darker skin toned people. This isn’t quite as annoying as it is common because I feel like writers could think outside the box with this one because chocolate is not the only thing that is darker in colour. My dislike for this description is very much akin to my dislike for when writers harp on about how “the colour of her eyes were like fresh blades of grass in the spring” but when it comes to brown eyed girls and boys, it’s either “chocolate” or just “dark”. Come on guys, consider putting a little thought into it.

Now I realise that this whole post just turned into me revealing how nitpicky I am, but aren’t all roses flowers? Are Ferraris not cars? And are not blogs essentially spaces for opinion and occasionally ranting?

I’m sorry, I’ll dial back the melodrama in the future but for now, answer me this: What is your biggest gripe when it comes to describing ethnic characters in books?

Till next time,

Not Another Mary Sue

Mary Sue’ism #2 – Weird Names ft. Cat Nip and Enoki Mushrooms

This is quite a genuine question – why do authors feel the need to have unnecessarily complicated names? While it is not immediately a hallmark of being a Mary Sue, the apparent need to draw attention to it seems to be an attempt to make the character sound interesting right off the bat.

For those who know me personally, you’ll know that I am one of those that have an unnecessarily complicated name. It phonetically doesn’t make any sense and 99% of the people I meet give me this queer little look as if to say “Are you sure that’s your name?” (Yep, I’m sure.). But rest assured, my parents did not name me oddly in attempts to be cool or to make me interesting. More likely than not, they spelt my name wrong on the birth certificate and just went with it.

Anyway, as I said before, having a different name doesn’t make a character a Mary Sue. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games may have a name that rhymes too much with Cat Nip (pretty sure this Harvard Lampoon parody called her that too) but I wouldn’t consider her to be a Mary Sue.

"The Hunger Pains" - A parody by The Harvard Lampoon

“The Hunger Pains” – A parody by The Harvard Lampoon

But once in a millennium (it’s more frequent than that – let’s be honest), writers take it way way too far.

For those who have lurked on the internet long enough, you might remember what is considered the absolute worst fanfiction in the history of the internet (and before then, probably fanzines too). “My Immortal”* by a user named Tara in the Harry Potter fandom (Surprise Fact: It had nothing to do with Harry Potter really) featured the most obvious self-inserted character I have ever seen. Besides the eyesore that was her spelling and everything else, her character’s name was Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way which she frequently misspelled as Enoby which then reminds me of Enoki mushrooms.

Let that sink in everyone.

Her name was Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way.

I get that the Ebony, darkness and raven bit adds to her character’s persona (I use that term lightly) but why the mention of brain disease? Normally I would insert a jab here about how the reader would probably be inflicted with some sort of illness from reading that story but I like to think I’m better than that (I’m not, clearly.)

So luckily, any name that crops up in YA fiction in comparison is really not that crazy. Sure you get names like “America Singer” (from “The Selection” for those wondering) or Renesmee (from “Twilight”) but I suppose at the end of the day, the name of characters doesn’t matter too much if you’ve got everything else going for you. But if you’re angling for that character to be exotic and “different” compared to the others just based on their namesake? Then nope, I’m not here for that**.

Till next time, #readoutsidethebox

Not Another Mary Sue

* The temptation to google this story to read may be strong, but do yourself a favour and just don’t.

**Obviously this is my opinion and I’m sure many people love interesting names and challenging ways of how to spell things in the most confusing way possible.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: What is the most ridiculous name you’ve ever encountered in a book?

Marty Stu, I Don’t Want You

Dear Marty Stu,

I know what you’re thinking: “Who cares if you want me? You’re one in a billion girls! It’s no loss – there are still plenty of readers to fawn over my good looks and angsty past!”

"What do you mean you don't love me?" Source: cracked.com

“What do you mean you don’t love me?”
Source: cracked.com

Well, yes. You’re right Marty. There will always be readers who love you and your ridiculously handsome face but I for one am looking for someone different. Let’s just say it’s me, not you. You will find the perfect girl one day, but that girl is not me etc.

For those who don’t know, a Marty Stu is the generally agreed upon term for the male variant of the Mary Sue. He’s good looking, he might be mysterious and more often than not, he’s a bit of a noob who does things for the female protagonist because it’s “what’s best for her” (seriously, if you want to know what’s best for her – JUST ASK HER.).

Now, I don’t have anything against good looking people (not many people do, to be honest), but the astounding amount of cookie cutter male characters is starting to grate. Not only do they contribute to the unrealistic expectations of men in general, but it’s just getting so boring.

So Marty Stu, I want you to remember that you don’t always have to be heroic. Everyday people aren’t always heroic human beings and you can let yourself be vulnerable or dare I say it; realistic.

I also want you to know that you don’t have to be a human embodiment of perfection. People are flawed – both in character and in physical looks and that’s a beautiful thing.

And I want you to remember that you don’t need a tragic backstory to be interesting. You could be the most average Joe whose life’s blood comes from getting your morning coffee from the little café down the road. I don’t want you to get confused with the differences between character complexity and having angst for the sake of attracting readers, who then get roped in under the premise that another character can “save you from yourself” or set you on the road to redemption.

But perhaps most of all, I want you to be yourself. You can be a character with your own agency outside your love interest. You can be whatever you want to be without worrying whether you would sell books because there will always be at least one girl/boy out there who loves you for who you are.

So I suppose this is goodbye Marty. I’ve had a good time reading about your perfection but it is time to move on*.

Love,

Not Another Mary Sue

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: From all the books you’ve read, who do you classify as the biggest Marty Stu?

* By move on, I mean talk to me on my Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr! #readoutsidethebox

The Potential Perils of Writing Diverse Characters

Since it’s a Sunday (in Sydney), I’ll treat you all with a short blog so you can maximise the amount of time you spend in the glorious sun as opposed to laboriously scrolling through my posts on your smartphone/laptop/apple watch etc

So as you can see from the blog title, I’m going to talk about the potential perils of writing diverse characters.

First of all, I feel like I need to offer a disclaimer. I’m not the best at writing – I can come up with stories but implementing them into a cohesive narrative that people enjoy? Nope. In fact, when I took a creative writing class last year at university, I got a “pass” for the subject. A pass. I don’t have wildly high expectations of my grades but hopefully that gives you some idea of how much of an amateur I am when it comes to the whole creative writing business.

Nevertheless, I will endeavour to approach this topic with pretty much no grounds of credibility besides my observations through copious amounts of reading.

In my opinion, the number one reason for authors not writing diverse characters is because it doesn’t fit in with their own experiences. As a result, wanting to write diverse characters becomes a lot more effort and fear of getting it wrong takes centre stage.

This to me is quite understandable. If you asked me to write a books about a transgender character in ancient Egypt, I would have no idea where to begin. On one hand, I love researching history for the fun of it, but on the other hand, what do I know about transgender characters? And even if I did know a thing or two about transgender characters, would I do it justice?

Ramesses II disaproves of my story idea Source: Creative Commons/Flickr DuncanH1

Ramesses II disaproves of my story idea
Source: Creative Commons/Flickr DuncanH1

The answer is no. Well, more accurately, the answer is no if I put absolutely no effort into it.

Like many a lazy bones, effort is not something I exude naturally. But if I were to write a book so far outside my own experience, I absolutely would put the effort in because diversity in books is something I’m passionate about and is so so important. I’ll research the hell out of it, I’ll talk to people who do have these experiences who are willing to share so I can get the characterisation, In an ideal world I’ll even time travel to Egypt to get a feel of the culture and context.

I get that not a lot of people would bother writing something so far out of their comfort zone and that’s absolutely fine. You can still have diverse characters within a setting that you’re comfortable with. You don’t know the culture/background of a character you were planning to write about? Then ask somebody who does. You’d be surprised at how willing people are to share their stories and experiences if you just ask them (nicely. And throw in some free cake too).

As always, feel free to join in on the discussion using #readoutsidethebox and don’t forget to follow me on my Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr!

Till next time,

Not Another Mary Sue.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Have you ever tried writing a diverse character outside of your comfort zone? How did it pan out for you?

BONUS: Head over to my tumblr for this super cool character inspiration drag and drop thing. I take no credit for making it but if you feel like writing a diverse character but are a bit stuck on the specifics, this is great fun! Feel free to forward me the end product because i would love to read 🙂

“Not Being Like Other Girls” & Milk Crate Rage

Many moons ago (it was probably only one), I referred to this Tumblr user who vehemently believes many things such as the idea that Batman is a Mary Sue (I digress), Mary Sue’s are often targeted towards female characters (I agree) and that female characters are often classed as Mary Sue’s because they are feminine and they get what they want (I digress again).

A segment I want to focus on today is the following from the original post:

“Why does someone falling in love with her make her a Mary Sue? Well, she hasn’t “earned” this awesome dude character’s love. What has she done to show she’s worthy of him?”

To be honest, I understand where she’s coming from. A few scrolls down my Tumblr dashboard reveal random spouts of hate/vitriol/condemnation for female characters that have a relationship with the main guy and very rarely do I ever see a post where someone says that he doesn’t deserve her (and not in an angsty/romantic way either).

It’s a problem for sure but being the professional fence sitter that I am, I don’t believe that Mary Sue’s are Mary Sue’s because they haven’t “earned” love or proved that they are “worthy”.

Frankly, I often consider them to be Mary Sue’s because there is absolutely no substantial lead up to these so called “relationships”. She doesn’t need to earn his love or show she’s worthy but some sort of hint as to why the characters are attracted to each other is good. For example, maybe she’s a professional hyena breeder and her stories remind him of that awesome time he had in Africa to celebrate his wisdom tooth removal anniversary?

Remember, it’s also important to note that this is a two way street. Too often, guys in books settle for the “I don’t know why, but there’s something about you that’s different to all the other girls” line which I hate with a fiery passion that can only be matched by my intense dislike for café’s that use milk crates as chairs.

My heart knows rage when I see one of these at a café. Source: Creative Commons/Flickr

My heart knows rage when I see one of these at a café.
Source: Creative Commons/Flickr

First of all, not only is it biologically impossible to actually be the same as other girls (unless human cloning happened and nobody told me) but for goodness sake, WHAT IS THAT SOMETHING? In any story, whether it be in a book, film or television show, character and plot is what drives it. People need to take the time and effort to develop characters that actually have a personality with their own motives, interests and backstory that are not in direct relevance with their love interest. Simply saying that magical love-at-first-sight happened is not good enough unless a love potion is involved. I need to know enough about these characters to see what makes them tick and why they behave the way they do.

Loki wants to know why fictional characters do what they do. Source: gif-central.blogspot.com

Loki wants to know why fictional characters do what they do.
Source: gif-central.blogspot.com

In summary: A character is not a Mary Sue/Marty Stu if they fall in love with each other, but it does make me raise my eyebrows if there is no basis as to why the characters like each other.

As always, thanks for sticking with me and please let me know what you think about my rage with this “Not being like other girls/guys” BS. Is this just me? Am I crazy? (Check yes and yes for both)

Till next time #readoutsidethebox,

Not Another Mary Sue

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: What other Mary Sue’isms annoy the hell out of you? Or like the Tumblr user I mentioned above, do you not believe in the concept of a Mary Sue at all?