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Writing 101: What the H is a Mary Sue?

The dues ex machina. Foreshadowing. Using an allegory. The Roman a clef. Some literary terms sound so cool, you want to figure out what they are just to use them. And then...there's the Mary Sue. Who is this character and how is this a literary thing?

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

Mary Sue is a name that many critics will use, often with a bit of a sneering tone. But she sounds kind of sweet and innocent, so what's so bad about her that critics always seem to dismiss this as a literary device altogether?

The Mary Sue is a specific character trope, meaning it's a frequent and somewhat static characterization that appears in fiction of all kinds, be it on stage, on screen or on the page. And despite the name, a Mary Sue character can be of either gender, both genders or have no gender at all.

So what makes a Mary Sue a Mary Sue? For starters, they are ridiculously lucky. And unlike most of us mere mortals, they emerge from the worst of situations generally unscathed. They are often very positive in nature, though this is not a requirement, and often characterized as somewhat clueless, though this isn't necessary either.

Mary Sue's big claim to fame is saving the day. When all hope is lost and the other, and generally more competent, characters are facing certain doom, Mary Sue saves the day...and always by sheer luck. Mary Sue does not succeed by being smart or solving a problem, but through some happy accident or some wild twist of fate. This victory feels unearned and this makes the payoff of the victory fall flat. This is why the Mary Sue character so annoys the critics.

A character who lucks into a solution does not typically garner a lot of admiration from those of us observing the story, because they have done nothing to earn the victory they achieve. They just got lucky. And for many, this rings false. Critics may dismiss the character entirely as lazy storytelling and they kind of have a point.

However, when done well, the Mary Sue can be a highly likable character who does serve to drive the plot forward. Mary Sues have appeared successfully in many stories. The Mary Sue trope itself comes from “Star Trek” fan fiction and Mary Sue types still frequently appear in “Trek” stories of all types. Many lead characters in stories display Mary Sue qualities.

Tropes are tropes because they do work. And sometimes, people can become a Mary Sue even in life. Pure dumb luck does happen in reality and so, it must also happen in stories.

Writing 101: So What the Heck is an Allegory?

When critics talk about books, they tend to throw around all sorts of important-sounding words and phrases, like “allegory” It’s a big, fancy word and it’s almost always said in some sort of reverential way. Many of the greatest stories are given that label, allegory. So...what the heck is it?

Defining the Allegory

 In the proper definition of the literary term, an allegory is any story, poem or another work of art that has a hidden meaning. Usually, that meaning is political, religious or somehow moral in nature. But that's just the problem with an allegory. There's a fine line between a real allegory and an interpretation.

One of the most well-known allegorical stories, they say, is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis. It’s all one big metaphor for the life and subsequent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, perhaps the most famous literary figure of them all. Critics say the book has extremely clear references to the Biblical story of Jesus of Nazareth, heralded as a savior for mankind during the Bronze Age. Critics have even said that the stone table in the first installment of "Chronicles of Narnia" represents the stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. And "Aslan's country" is, of course, Heaven.

Unless you don't want it to be. Because like any other critical review of any work of art of any type, the most significant meaning is what you get out of it...and not what all the critics and experts say about it. No one can know what hidden meanings an author hides in their work except for the author themselves. And if the author gives the readers every single answer and reveals every single hidden meaning, then what's the point of reading the book?

An allegory is just one more of many literary terms that are often used to break down and analyze books. It's just one more thing that people use to try and figure out the author's "real" meaning in any story. Only the author can decide what meanings they’re trying to put into their stories and only the readers can figure out what they find inside that story.

But it’s always good to know what the term means. That will make it easier for you as an author to roll your eyes when critics try to tell you what your stories are secretly all about.

Writing 101:Writing Comedy

Being funny is a huge asset in writing. People remember what's funny. They react. If you can make someone laugh, you can make your stories much more enjoyable. But is funny something you can learn? How did comedic writing start...and how can you master it?

Ha Ha Ha

The first stories were not funny. The earliest stories ever found were epic, lengthy tales full of tragedy and trials. The first plays ever performed, way back in ancient Greece, were tragic tales. But then one ancient Greek decided he didn't want to make people cry. He wanted to make them laugh.

Aeschylus is considered to be the father of comedy because he was the first playwright to write a comedy. It was in ancient Athens, the city famous for building the Parthenon and inventing democracy. It was classical Greece, a time of learning and enlightenment. Great philosophers and mathematicians walked the streets here. It was in this great city of the ages that Aeschylus invented the idea of comedy.

And he did it with a lot of dick jokes. It's true. In that great city of Athens where walked the greats like Plato, Euclid and Socrates, the first-ever comedies were ribald plays full of sexual innuendo with actors who walked around on stage wearing enormous strap-ons.

The ancient Athenians loved it. Aeschylus became wildly popular and his plays were soon used as inspiration by other comedy writers. In fact, dick jokes and sexual innuendo still carry the comedy genre more than 2,000 years later.

Comedy doesn't need to be sophisticated. It doesn't need to be fancy. It just needs to be funny. Aeschylus succeeded at writing comedy because he simply wrote what made him laugh. He liked ribald comedy full of sex jokes and huge fake penises. And it turns out, the very fancy and sophisticated and enlightened Athenians loved it, too.

Many writers fail at writing funny because they are trying to be funny. They spend a lot of time thinking about comedy, about what's funny, about making people laugh. You don't need to do that. Sometimes, a basic penis joke will work wonders. Don't try to be funny. Just write in a way that makes you laugh and others will, too. Whether they're laughing with you or at you, they're still laughing.

Writing comedy is only as hard as you make it. The whole point of comedy is that you shouldn't have to think too hard to get the joke. So go ahead and include that dick joke in your next story. After all, it was good enough for the ancient Greeks.

Writing 101: It's All Greek to Me

Star-crossed lovers, destined to never be together. Revenge that becomes twisted and ugly, turning back around to go the other way. The mother who kills out of jealousy and rage when her husband takes a younger woman. If you think you've come up with a plot so twisted, so dark, so gory and tragic that no one can top it, guess again. Whatever you write, the Greeks probably wrote it first.


Been There, Done That

Incest. Debauchery. Infidelity. Murder. Self-mutilation. Patricide. Matricide. Whatever it's called when you kill your own son. It's not a new show on HBO. It's your basic Greek tragedy.

Most modern storytelling was shaped by those early Greeks, who went on to inspire Shakespeare, James Joyce and countless others. The Greeks took their characters into Hell, sometimes literally, and saw them ripped apart by plot twists, sudden reveals and betrayals of all kinds.
If you're looking for new story inspiration, try turning to some of the oldest stories ever written down. All the plots have already been covered, all the twists already sprung and lots of the good ideas have already been explored. But you can still put a new twist and a modern take on all these old stories and make something completely your own. Many, many writers have turned to the old stories to create new ones. 

Writing 101: Epic Stories

The oldest recorded story is an epic tale of adventure. It's fraught with passion, death, battle and love. It's a tale of a heroic journey. And in this regard, it's pretty much like every other epic story. 

The ancients loved their epic adventure tales. Hercules, Gilgamesh, Beowulf and their ilk continue to capture the imagination and inspire new retellings of their stories. But when it comes to modern storytelling, is writing an epic an epically bad idea?

The Long, Long, Long Tale Of…

Epic tales, whether they come from the ancient Middle East or J.R.R. Tolkien, tend to have some elements in common. There is usually a hero who is often tested, and frequently. There are dragons to slay, unusually metaphorical but sometimes actual (looking at you, Beowulf). Action, adventure, romance, good versus evil...you get the idea.

But epic tales often have yet one more thing in common: they’re long. Like super long. Like the fourth Harry Potter book long. And if there’s one thing traditional publishers don’t like so much, it’s publishing super long books.

Self-publishing is a perfect way to get your epic story out there without worry about rejection from traditional publishing houses. The success of stories like the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones series proves that super long, epic tales still capture the public's imagination. There is still an appetite for these adventure tales that are packed with plot, characters, failures and triumph. 

Unleash your long tales and tell epic stories, because the modern writer has one huge advantage over all those who have come before: you can publish whatever type of story you want on your own and put your work out there for millions and even billions to read. So when it comes to publishing houses...luckily, you don't really have to worry about pleasing them at all.

Writing 101: Hitting Them Over the Head

There's a well known episode of "Star Trek" that depicts a conflict on a planet that is being visited by the crew of the starship Enterprise. The people on the planet are embroiled in war. One group of people has bright, white skin on the left side of their bodies and black skin on the right side. The second group has white skin on the right side and black on the left. Because of this, they are gripped in bitter war. And as we know, "Star Trek" aired in the 1960s, during time of great racial strife. And this is what we call hitting readers (or viewers) over the head with a metaphor.


Also known as being heavy-handed, hitting your readers over the head with your point is a sure way to get that point across. But is it also a sure way to annoy your readers?

Beating a Dead Horse

There are lots of metaphors for overstating a point, even when it's a plot point in a story. That's because it's a thing that many people don't like.

However, re-stating a plot point is a truly time-honored tradition in storytelling. The oldest stories ever told were not written down, they were passed along orally, spoken aloud into groups. In order to make sure specific information is stuck in listeners’ minds, storytellers would repeat the same information over and over again. This style of storytelling can still be seen as a lingering tradition in many of the oldest written stories. Homer's "Odyssey," for example, is repetitive on several points.
There are tens of thousands of words in the average book and certain information will stick with some readers and not with others. If you want to make sure that they retain specific points of information, repetition is the best way to make that happen. However, you can be repetitive without being boring.
You can present the same information over and over again but in different ways, using different words. If it is important to know that a character is a coward, for example, show the readers a cowardly act committed by this character. You can also show the reader the character's thoughts about the event afterwards and in this fashion, show the cowardly action again in a slightly different way. There are many ways to give the readers the same information. You can also do it through dialogue by having a character relate a story to another character and have the character repeat the tale, using somewhat different words, to yet another character. 

You can also use an extremely transparent metaphor, such as the one used in the "Star Trek" episode mentioned above, to make sure a point sticks out. When the point is thinly-hidden like this, you won't need to use repetition to get the point across. Readers may roll their eyes, but you as the writer don't have to worry that they won't "get it." They will.

Sometimes, hitting readers over the head may be a necessary evil. But if you do it well and craft a story that readers love, they won't mind.

Writing 101: Reading the Classics

Classic literature. This is a phrase that everyone has heard and most everyone can name at least one story that's considered a classic. They're the biggies, the books you have to read in school, the authors who are studied and regarded as something beyond regular writers. But honestly...who's got the time to read them all?

That's Classic

Outside of school and the occasional Hollywood blockbuster, classic literature doesn't get discussed much. However, classic stories are actually everywhere. Many authors, books and TV shows borrow from the classics, borrowing the plots, characters and settings to re-work them for a modern audience.

This has happened way more times than anyone can list and way more times than you realize. That adorable love story with Renee Zellweger. That suspenseful TV show about the wronged woman seeking revenge. From the fun rom coms to the dramatic films about frenemies, cases of mistaken identity and children switched at birth, many of these seemingly fresh pieces of entertainment are based on stories that are decades, centuries, even millennia old already.

With even a cursory look at Greek literature, you may come to realize that there are no new plots. They wrote some of the most salacious stories and they truly ran the gamut when it comes to human emotion. The themes, plots and morals found in classic literature can't be beat. This is why so many authors use them to create new stories. This has been done throughout history, with everyone from Virgil to Dante to Shakespeare to Helen Fielding borrowing from the classics. 

Studying from the classics and even borrowing from them from time to time can be a great way to write a new beloved story. If all the plots have already been written, won't you be forced to repeat them anyway? Greek myths, Sumerian legends and writers like Dickens provide lots of rich plots, great settings and strong characters that are truly timeless. Re-working these classic themes and stories into new material is a time-honored tradition. For many writers, it can be a great way to deal with writer's block as well. Once you've got the main themes and characters already in front of you, the rest is a lot easier.