Saturday, April 20, 2013

Should you include characters just for the sake of including them?

Consider the Planeteers for a moment. It’s a multi-racial group of kids serving the greater good; each has a power ring giving them control over an elemental force that when combined creates a guardian of the planet. There were three boys, two girls, with an Asian, a native South American, a black African, and two Caucasian; a more heterogeneous group you are unlikely to find. However, they do raise an interesting question: Is there a reason to include every gender and race in your story just for the sake of inclusiveness?

The problem is that too many people worry about political correctness. There is a fear among far too many writers that by excluding a particular group the writer seems to be racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever. The obvious reaction to this is to create a character that has the appropriate qualities and is likely to relieve the fear of being exclusive. The problem, however, is that the token character is likely to be marginalized, since he or she is there just for the sake of providing a character with the given qualities, and at the very least you are likely to write the character with as little effort as possible.

This means that you have a character that is there for no real purpose, and that is something you should never has as a writer. Every character should fulfill a purpose in the story, be it to drive the story, to serve a symbolic purpose, or even as the expository focus. A character that is there to just have a color may as well be little more than the background, and eventually you will be treating that character precisely as that. Worse, he will act as an anchor on the story and the fans will notice. Worse are those that were drawn to the comic because of that character will get tired of the comic, and will soon start spreading a negative word about the comic, nailing you for precisely the reason that they should.

Now, if you can use the character and turn it around so that the character serves a purpose, go for it. Do not feel as if you need to use the character a particular way; the stereotype is do not have a black person and use that person to inject some level of ghetto or minority issue into the comic. Kwame, the black kid of the Planeteers, was pretty much a waste of flesh because they treated him as the voice of reason, as he was the kid from the wilder regions, so to speak, and then the leader as apparently a way to be different. However, Linka usually gave better advice and Wheeler was the better leader. Kwame would have been the better ecologically-confused kid because he was in a position to least understand worldwide effects. Okay, so I would have liked to have Gi use more brains and Ma-Ti with more passion, but that’s me.

The bottom line is that only include a character is you have an internal reason to have that character around; otherwise cut the waste off before it becomes waste. At the same time, if you do include a character for the purposes of multi-cultural consideration, do not feel obligated to use that character in a stereotypical fashion; feel free to have a black character who is a doctor rather than an ex-street thug. They are your characters; feel free to have some fun with them and use them as they best serve the story, not some idiotic sense of racial guilt that almost always ends up messing things up. Your characters should be guilt free for maximum effect, not minimized to serve some stupid token use.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Avoiding the Mary Sue

One of the biggest problems beginning writers have is the Mary Sue. The problem is to create a balanced character that the reader can identify with, while at the same time creating a character that is powerful enough to take on just about any challenge that you can throw at them. It’s a lot easier than you would think, but you need to make a lot of decisions. Oh, and just for the sake of not being sexist: The male version is called a “Gary Stu”, but this article should take care of both problems.

The character needs to have a limited skill set. A Mary Sue has a ridiculously huge skillset; this allows her to deal with almost any problem, and remove the challenge from any encounter. Although there are some characters where it works well, that’s because they are also dealing with equal adversaries where that huge skillset works. Normally, however, having a huge skillset is a bad thing and removes the challenge. You need to limit the skillset to a double handful of skills, with a further limit that if the character is highly skilled, skills should be eliminated from the pool. In other words, if the character is the best shot in the world, the character should only have a few skills. This can represent focused and/or limited training, but the limited skillset gives you more options.

The same especially applies to power level. The character can be really powerful, but only under certain situations. And those situations need to be rare situations; the more powerful the character the less often that the situation should come up. Do not power game this; “only during a syzygy of six planets” should not come up every other day. If the character can depend on the power enough that it is a practically standard issue, then you have not limited the power enough. If everyone is powerful, then you can take off the limits, but keep in mind that you want all of your characters to be on the same level, roughly, as one character with overwhelming power just won’t be as much fun as you think.

Popularity is another issue. Keep in mind that the if the character is an outcast, that character should not also be the most popular person; the two sort of cancel each other. Also keep in mind that popularity takes some effort to maintain; you cannot be friends with everyone without owing everyone favors and that you need to play politics in order to remain popular. In other words, if the character is a rebel and avoids politics, the character should not be popular, regardless of how important she is. On the other hand, if the character is popular then the character is going to be spending a lot of time dealing with others. Just a consideration…

Last is that the character needs to be reasonable stable emotionally. A character that bounces from one emotional state is going to drive readers crazy, and drive them away. This is not to say that the character is only allowed one emotional state, but that the emotion has to apply to the situation. Even Batman has a range of emotions, and that he is capable of expressing joy, hate, and anger, usually applicable to the situation. He does not, however, bounce from wall to wall when he is happy, and even when he is angry he maintains just enough control to make the situation fun to watch in a “will he, won’t he, he just might, he’d never” way. Just maintain some stability, and you should be okay.

So…Limit the skills to a particular skillset. Limit displays of overwhelming power. Debate popularity. Generally keep emotions in check. Do that, and you should have limited problems with Mary Sues. I hope…