Character as an Extension of Self vs. “Mary Jane”

Written by . Posted at 4:57 pm on December 20th, 2010

I love playing games. Every other week I get together with a gaming group, typically playing pen-and-paper games. If you’re not familiar with the concept, the term “Dungeons and Dragons” should be sufficient. Our group is currently working through a campaign set in the Old West (“Coyote Trail” is the rule set). Our previous genre was standard sword and sorcery. Next we’ll be battling through post-apocalyptic cities or space. Each one of these settings has their own set of rules.

Character creation, however, is pretty standard. You’ve got statistics, skills and abilities, equipment. Then you have background, where you tell about why your character prefers to fight by removing his pants and strangling his prey, for example. Some players can spend hours on this step alone. I’ll admit that I don’t typically take that long, but for my western character “Lester Graves”—a Navajo medicine man of European descent—I wrote a 2000 word background telling how he came to be in California working in a gold mine in the 1870’s with his best friend “Robert ‘Rabbit’ Tacoma.” Read more of my thoughts on putting yourself into the makeup of your character after the jump.

I believe it was partially this process, along with a few other role-playing games on the Xbox and PC that needed new characters, that made me start thinking about how much of what I put into the background and traits of these characters reflects me.

Obviously, putting myself with my real stats into a role-playing game isn’t very exciting. I’ve tried it. It’s successful in some games, but if I wanted to play as myself, I’d L.A.R.P. Part of the point of these games is to use your imagination to explore new worlds, to see things you’ve never seen. I could be wrong on this, but being a web developer wouldn’t help me much if I was actually stuck in the crypt maze of Lyzandred the Mad.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how much of what I create in a character—whether in a game or a story—represents some degree of either how I see myself, or something I want to be, even the female characters.

Lester, for example, started life in an uptight Methodist family on the frontier. He never quite understood the racial and social prejudices of his parents, and never let them bother him. In his teens he rescued a young Navajo brave that had been near the ranch to steal from the storehouse or the barn. In the process of fighting off the mountain lion, Lester was injured but managed to get the other teen and himself on the brave’s horse before passing out. The horse took them back to the Navajo camp, they both get healed by the medicine man, and Lester finds himself fascinated with the shaman. He learns how to be a medicine man himself because frankly, our party members are going to get shot and someone needed to play a functional role in healing them (in addition to Lester and Robert, the latter of which uses his pants as a weapon, we have a thrill-seeking Swede, an opium-addicted gambler, a grumpy old blacksmith, a twenty-year old Tom Sawyer with the voice of Bobby Hill, and a war-decorated mountain man).

How much of that character is actually me? I grew up in a strict Christian family. My mother was mildly racist, mainly because of a lack of being around anyone but “crackers” most of her life. She often pointed out people who weren’t living the lifestyle she wanted me to follow and would indoctrinate me with phrases like, “that man has a pony tail. He looks like a girl, doesn’t he? You would never want to look like that when you grew up, would you?” If we’re going to be frank, I think it had the opposite effect, but that’s a topic for a different day.

The largest parallel between Lester and myself is that we both love learning. I feel it is one of the reasons I’m attracted to writing. For his character, I spent hours studying up on Navajo language and traditions, landscape surrounding Cimarron, New Mexico, and historical events that would have taken place during his life. Guess what? It was fun. I enjoy researching topics for either my own benefit and learning or for specific projects. My parents were also both teachers and that could be a part of it, but I did well in school and while there are always distractions that are more appealing than homework, the payoff is typically better if you read a book.

This is only one character, however, used here because he is one of my more recent. In reality, I think any time any of us creates a character, for whatever reason, this “hero” is going to reflect what we desire. Yes, even if I’m a guy and I’m playing as a heroine instead of a hero. I’ve long held the theory that in games where I’m going to stare at a character running around the screen, I might as well enjoy the view. Oddly enough, my wife enjoys playing as as “hot chick” as well—interesting how the psychology of that works between men and women. Again, topics for another time.

Another recent character creation is an unnamed hero set in modern day, the main character of a story I’m working on that combines some elements of the paranormal with science fiction. Surprisingly, the only connection I feel with this character is that the phenomenon I’m basing the story arc around is something I researched in college and have come across again recently. I literally feel no connection to this man yet. He’s crazy. He’s dealing with issues I’ve never had to face before. Will it be hard to write once I get past the research and outlining phase? Possibly, but I suppose the solution to that is to inject something of myself into his character.

It seems obvious that no matter how obscure the character is, there’s going to be part of that personality that speaks to you, or there should be even if it’s not entirely clear at first glance. Writing a character that has nothing in common with yourself and no redeemable qualities you would want for yourself, and is not a villain, then write that person in such a way that your audience can relate to them? I won’t say it’s impossible, but it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

One important concept to take into account when writing is the idea of a “Mary Sue” character ( – “Writing Excuses” podcast, Season 3 Ep 16), in which your character is basically yourself or a very idealized version of yourself. This is most common with fan fiction pieces, where a person writes themselves into their favorite fictional world so that they can be part of the story. You’re putting yourself into the plot because these are things that you think would be cool to do, not to mention probably make you out as some type of super hero. Again, this can work in a game-type environment. Part of games is to help you imagine yourself into that world. In books and literature, however, this is typically a disaster. While it does make it easier for more inexperienced writers (like myself) to relate to a character, it usually doesn’t work.

One flaw with that idea is that objectivity goes out the window completely. If the story is heading in a direction where the protagonist is going to get hit by a bus in order to learn a valuable lesson (ala Stranger Than Fiction), as a writer you may take issue with putting your character—you—in harm’s way. The story suffers because you can’t accept that it may be best benefited by the demise of your hero.

Another great reason to avoid the “Mary Sue” is that they’re boring. They may seem exciting to you, because they’re an idealized version of yourself. They are what you want to be if you could use god-like powers to reform yourself instantly. Imagine if you picked up a book or story that wasn’t an autobiography, where the author talked about themselves constantly. In your head, you may be thinking “that doesn’t sound so bad,” but you’re probably in denial. It means you’ve probably been guilty of this before, and let’s be honest, most of us have; however, if you still take offense to the idea or aren’t willing to analyze your own characters, you may need to put the brakes on whatever project you’re currently working on and take the test linked below.

I found an evaluation tool for determining if your character is a “Mary Sue.” Earlier, I talked about a new character I’m developing for a fiction story that I’m currently outlining. The premise of the story is psychological or esoteric, but my main character is pretty different from me. This was my initial fear—I have a basic idea of who this guy is, and he and I have little in common. I didn’t make him the exact opposite of myself either, but rather I totally disassociated myself from this character as far as any personal ties.

I previously worried that I couldn’t find enough similarities between this character and myself to be able to write about him with any type of empathy or emotion. I ran through this “Mary Sue Litmus Test” using him as my reference. The scoring is golf-style, where the closer to zero you are, the better. My character’s score was -4, which means that he’s so completely mundane that he might even need some work to make him interesting enough to grab the reader’s focus.

That’s part of the plot, however. While thinking about this issue with this character, I realized that it didn’t really matter if I could relate to him completely. In a way, it’s my job as a writer to help the reader, who also may not have much in common with this character on anything other than superficial level, to sympathize with this guy and care if he succeeds or not with his goals.

Go ahead, take the litmus test with your latest character. Be certain to follow directions. Part of the reason my character scored so well was that he’s part of a new fiction world I’m creating on my own, centered in our own world initially, so I was able to skip some sections that were specifically for RPG characters and fan fiction. I still read the questions, and if I would have answered “yes” to the ones that applied, I would have still ended up with about a zero. If you do take the test, post your score in the comments section, then identify areas you think your character could improve on.

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