Character: Y is for You (and not Mary Sue!)

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Y is for You.

You are the author.  These are your characters.  You gave them life and imbued them with all the traits you wish you had, you think they should have, or you’re glad you don’t have.

Every character has a little bit of the writer inside him.  But there are problems with basing a character entirely on yourself.

The Mary Sue conundrum

You may find that you’ve slipped into writing an idealized version of yourself.  It’s doubtful such a character will pass the Mary Sue test, but you can try it.  It’s difficult to look at yourself objectively in this fashion, and a character based on you may not be as authentic as you’d like him to be.

Let’s face it; we all want to be him.

Image:  Wikipedia

If you write yourself into a book as Stephen King did (he appears in Book Six of his Dark Tower series as himself in 1977), you might be tempted to go too far the other way to avoid the Mary Sue conundrum and make yourself into a weak, whiny character.  You could actually end up with something pretty amazing, if you’re a skilled writer with years of experience.

It’s too meta

Metafiction is when a work of art uses self-reference to draw attention to the fact that it is a work of art.   The Stephen King/Dark Tower thing was very meta; the writing of the books actually affected the outcome for the rest of the characters.  Sometimes, the narrator of a book will reveal himself as the author, as in Clive Barker’s Mister B. Gone, or as in the book itself telling part of the story (Toni Morrison’s Jazz).

In TV, stories about characters who are in show business are meta.  Personally, I hate this; I’d rather see shows where the characters are a bit more of a stretch.  Actors playing actors, writers writing about writers writing, singers performing on shows about singers.  People who do not do these things have a hard time relating to the characters’ situations.  I don’t want meta when I’m watching TV; I want to escape into an alternate universe.

This show is all about escape. 

This show is all about escape.


That’s what made the early seasons of Roseanne so brilliant.  The Conner family was a working-class, everyday family with the same problems and issues as many of their viewers.  It was a little meta in that Roseanne Barr’s comedy had its roots in her blue-collar origins, but it worked because the viewers could relate to the characters.  I had a very hard time with Full House for this reason:

  • Danny Tanner had his own talk show (played by Bob Saget, a TV host and stand-up comedian)
  • Joey Gladstone was a comedian (played by Dave Coulier, who also did stand-up comedy)
  • Jesse Katsopolis had a band, Jesse and the Rippers (played by John Stamos, actor and musician)

These aren’t things most of us do.  The only thing that saved the show from being impossibly meta was that the focus wasn’t on their jobs but on the relationships between the characters and their unusual family situation, and that it was so clean it squeaked.  There was nothing objectionable; everybody could watch it.  But meta characters like this are usually hard to take seriously.

 Criticism is too personal

If readers don’t like a character who is a reflection of you, can you handle that?  Writers sometimes have a hard time taking feedback on characters that are nothing like them.  Imagine if you poured your heart and soul on the page and it’s really yours, and they rip it to shreds.

Next on Oprah:  Writers who play the characters they write on TV!

Next on Oprah:  Writers who play the characters they write on TV!


When you write anything, whether it’s based on your own life/experience/traits or not, you lose yourself in the creation of it.  It comes out of you.  It’s yours even if you’re writing about a sentient dog who runs an underground railroad for stray cats.  (Okay, I have no clue where that came from, but I just climbed three flights of stairs four times for my afternoon workout and I’m dizzy as hell.)

Alisa Carter has a good post here about how to take criticism.  While you’ll probably be lurking inside your own pages anyway, it’s less of a blow when the character someone is critiquing (or attacking) isn’t your own.

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