Archive for January 26th, 2011

Jan 26 2011

How to Save Mary Sues (Insufficiently Challenged Heroes)

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Some tips for fixing a Mary Sue, a protagonist that is insufficiently challenged by his or her story.

1. Give the character flaws, ideally one he’s accountable for. Most unchallenged characters have a bevy of strengths but few well-developed flaws.  One approach is to play up the character’s strengths so much they sometimes become liabilities.  For example, in Point of Impact, Nick Memphis is unfailingly loyal, even though it ruins his career.  Virtually any strength taken to an extreme could create obstacles for the character.  For example…

  • Being too smart could create social obstacles for the character (see Flowers for Algernon or House), impatience with less intelligent people, overconfidence, a willingness to jump to erroneous conclusions on too little information, etc.
  • Being too nice could lead to gullibility/naivete, a reluctance to confront someone even when a confrontation is necessary, or a handicap against tougher (and maybe more brutal) foes.
  • Being too honorable could result in situations where the character loses because he/she refuses to take the most effective course of action available.  At its most cliche, perhaps a superhero stops chasing a gang of villains so that he can defuse a bomb or free a hostage from a deathtrap.  But that only affects a scene.  More significantly, a villain can manipulate a hero’s sense of honor so that he/she does something that shapes the plot.  For example, Cassius draws Brutus into the assassination plot in Julius Caesar by exploiting Brutus’ honor.
  • Being too brave could result in reckless mistakes.  The character’s overconfidence might get him hurt, and possibly bystanders as well.  For example, if a superhero tries to rush a hostage-taker without any sort of plan, hostages will probably get shot.
  • Being too committed to one’s goals (even honorable goals) could result in obsession and/or a willingness to sacrifice friends, morals, bystanders, and anything else to achieve the goals.

2.  Have the character make some decisions the audience won’t approve of. If the character is so purely heroic that readers will probably approve of every decision he makes, he probably doesn’t have much moral complexity.  Usually, that’s not as believable or interesting as giving the characters some human edges.

3.  Have the character make difficult decisions. Difficult decisions distinguish the character.  If the character is just making banal decisions that 90%+ of the genre’s protagonists would make in the same situation, the plot probably isn’t giving the hero enough room to distinguish himself.  Let your hero show how different he/she is with some decisions that most other heroes wouldn’t make.  For example, the protagonist in Point of Impact, Bob Swagger, is on the run after he’s been framed for an assassination attempt on the President.  The people framing him planted incriminating evidence in his house, but they had to kill his dog to sneak inside. Almost every action protagonist in this situation would probably have started by trying to take down the conspiracy.  Swagger starts by breaking into the FBI-occupied morgue where the dog’s body is being held as evidence so that he can properly bury it.  It really helps develop his character: the dog is the closest thing he had to a friend and he feels honor-bound to return its loyalty.  It also gives the villains reason to panic and ratchets up the tension.  If this guy is suicidal enough that he’d risk a high-speed chase with the FBI over his dog, his dead dog at that, what’s he gonna do to them?

4. Challenge the character! Raise obstacles high enough that it will be interesting for the character to overcome them.  For example, if your character is the most powerful superbeing in your story, the potential for interesting straight-up action is probably pretty low because he’s more powerful than his opponents.  For example, The Watchmen couldn’t have done much with a straight-up duel between invulnerable hero Dr. Manhattan and semi-powered villain Ozymandias.  Instead, Ozymandias challenged the heroes with his stealth and subterfuge, buying time so that he could make his survival so valuable to the heroes that they wouldn’t dare to kill him.   Another approach would be to try challenging the character in a sphere where his superpowers aren’t very useful.  For example, in a superhero romance, a guy that’s used to solving his problems with violence would have to try a very different tack to wooing the girl of his dreams.

5. Have the character face some morally gray obstacles. I would really recommend against making everyone that opposes the hero a straight-up bad person. For example, maybe the character’s friends aren’t 100% supportive of everything he does, maybe his coworkers/bosses have reasonable disputes with the character, or maybe there’s an antagonist whose intentions are pretty pure, etc.  If there’s no approach for a character to disagree with the hero without coming off as a bad person, the hero is probably not morally complex enough to feel fully believable.  (Hey, even Gandhi and MLK took some flack over their pragmatism).

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Jan 26 2011

How to Write a Great First Line for Your Book

Published by under Introductions

When you’re writing the first line of your story, try to accomplish at least one of the following:

1. Show us something interesting about a major character (ideally the lead protagonist).  

  • If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway. (Austere Academy).
  • There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
  • I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. (Notes from the Underground).
  • Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting ‘v’ under the more flexible ‘v’ of his mouth. (Maltese Falcon).


2. Set something unusual and interesting in motion. YES: A drug-fueled trip across the desert or an execution by firing squad. NO: Waking up and doing a mundane morning routine.

  • They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them. (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
  • The telephone was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was nobody in the room but the corpse. (War in Heaven).
  • We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
  • It was cold at 6:40 in the morning in Paris and seemed even colder when the man was executed by firing squad. (Day of the Jackal).


3. Establish the setting with a striking detail, ideally one that sets the mood.

  • Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth. (Silence of the Lambs).
  • It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. (The Bell Jar).
  • The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. (Neuromancer).
  • You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. (Bright Lights, Big City).
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984).


4. Introduce an unusual relationship for the main character (with other characters, himself, his surroundings, and/or the readers).

  • All this happened, more or less. (Slaughterhouse-five).
  • Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. (The Stranger).
  • The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. (The Napoleon of Notting Hill).
  • I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. (Infinite Jest).


5. Introduce problems and/or conflicts.

  • A screaming comes across the sky. (Gravity’s Rainbow).
  • Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror. (Herbert West, Reanimator).
  • Justice? – You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. (A Frolic of His Own).
  • The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.  (IT).


6. Subvert expectations and/or set up eye-catching contrasts, like exploding grandmothers.

  • High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. (Changing Places).
  • It was the day my grandmother exploded. (Crow Road).
  • Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
  • One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. (The Crying of Lot 49).


What are some of the best opening lines you’ve encountered?

232 responses so far