Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mary Sue: Analyzing a Hated Character Type

Originally posted on Young Writers' Treehouse

She's probably the most bashed character in the writer-world...but who exactly is she? And is there a place for her anywhere in literature?

Who is Mary Sue?

"Mary Sue" is a term used in the world of fiction to represent a certain type of character. It is most commonly seen as a bad thing, but there are also some characters that fit the description who are seen as well-written. There are many attributes that can make a character a Mary Sue and there are a lot of variants so it's hard to define, but I’ve boiled it down to 4 of the most frequent aspects.


Even if they have humble beginnings or “normal” attributes (and they often do) Mary Sues always have something special about them—more special than anyone else in the story. For example: he is The Chosen One...she is an amazing singer and gets noticed by a talent scout...he has a heart so pure that even though he is an average guy he’s loved by extraordinary girls...she’s a master at archery even though she’s only been doing it a week...he is only 15 but a karate master! Yeah, you get the picture.

These characters are also special physically with their appearance often described in detail with Purple Prose (flowery descriptions). Perhaps he has raven black hair and sparkling green eyes...She’s too humble to know she’s beautiful but little does she know the hot new guy at school thinks she’s the most amazing girl he’s ever seen.


The rare time that Mary Sue does have flaws, they are minor or even endearing...such as being shy, clumsy, rebellious to authority, TOO brave and daring, or TOO devoted and loyal. Oh, and anyone in the story who doesn’t think this character is special and wonderful is probably just evil or jealous. Because these characters are so perfect, they go through very little internal transformation: power does not corrupt them, they stay loyal to the quest, etc.


One of the reasons Mary Sues are created is because their writers are so desperate to make readers like their protagonists. Thus, they make the character talented, beautiful, kind...and one more thing: disadvantaged, in order to ellicit sympathy. This is why despite the fact that they are special and perfect, Mary Sues will often have tragic backstorys or are mistreated in some way. Common forms of this are bullying, poverty, cruel authority figures, or the loss of one or both parents.

A Version of the Author

Mary Sues are most commonly born when authors create a character that is a combination of who they are and who they wish to be. For example, a typical 15-year-old guy might write about an average village boy who gets a special power that makes him strong and skilled at fighting even though he used to be a wimp...and soon after he meets a beautiful girl who loves him for his heart, not his looks. On the other hand, a typical 25-year-old woman might write about a woman struggling to start her career who gets a big break when a handsome young executive recognizes her remarkable talents and promotes her to being the editor of a big magazine.

Examples: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

Harry Potter
With both parents dead, his guardians treat him poorly for no reasonable cause. He soon discovers that not only does he have special powers, he is The Boy Who Lived and is looked on with awe by many people. His flaws are few...he breaks the rules but it ultimately is seen as the right choice. I have to roll my eyes at how intensly Mary Sue this character is, but he's beloved around the world and still comes across as reasonably relatable, so I'd call this character a Succsessful Sue.

Bella Swan
She’s just your average high-school girl...who just so happens to get obsessive levels of attention from multiple attractive men. When she becomes a vampire her skills are unusually high. Some have even noted how her physical appearance descriptions closely mirror that of the author, Stephenie Myer. This is one of the most cliche cases of Sue-ness I've come across. I know trashing Twilight is old hat..but really?!

He seems to be a typical commoner until we learn than he has special magical abilitites. In fact, even among magicians, he is naturally superior! He is the chosen one and has a SPECIAL fate! I'd say this is a borderline Mary Sue..not too bad, but not too poor either. Plus, there isn't really much of a way to maintain the basic premise of the series without adding at least a bit of Mary Sue-ness to Merlin, so who can blame them?

She has a tragic backstory with both parents gone and now lives under the cruelty of her stepmother. She can talk to birds and mice, has a heart of gold, is essentially without flaws, is extraordinarily beautiful, and she is chosen above every other woman by Prince Charming! Even her feet are special...they fit a shoe no others can fit! She's a classic Mary Sue, but I can't help but love her anyways--another Successful Sue!

Luke Skywalker
The Force is strong with this one! He was born special and accelarates in his Jedi skills at an unusual pace, saving the day many times. He has few flaws and finds he has a special calling. Luke even wins the affections of a pretty girl (nevermind that she turns out to be his sister)! But hey, it's Star Wars. It's the classic Hero's Journey!

Beautiful, sweet, adorably shy, not only great in science but also an amazing singer, and one of the most popular boys falls for her. She's pretty much a dream-girl. Oh, and her biggest challenge? Choosing between going to an elite school or spending more time with her perfect boyfriend. Most of us would be happy if we could have even one of those options! And yes, her boyfriend Troy also qualifies as a fully fleged Mary Sue. A perfect couple, and perfectly facepalm-worthy examples of Sue-ness.

Is Writing a Mary Sue Ever Okay?

I've written some pretty awful Mary Sue characters in the past and this type of protagonist is often the mark of amatuer writing, but can these characters ever be considered good writing? Absolutely! Some books regarded as great literature have Mary Sues at the center of their stories...It seems to me that that difference between a good Mary Sue and a bad one comes down to if they are created as a result of daydreaming and the author's self-insertion into the storyverse or by conscious character design to make an engaging, believable story with an extrordinary yet relatable protagonist. Mary Sues can be inspiring and empowering to readers as role models, especially if the character's morals and willpower are shown to be the true source of their greatness.

Of course, simply making yourself aware of what attributes make up a Mary Sue can help challenge you to either avoid them altogether or be sure that when you do write one you rise above amateurish stereotypes for this type of character. You can do this by not being desperate to make your protagonist "likeable" and being self-aware enough to be sure the character isn't a manifestation of your own insecurities. You can be an important person without having a special skill, you can be loved without being physically attractive, and you can be a good person without being perfect.

So even if your protagonist is the Chosen One, is especially beautiful, or highly talented it can still be a good character as long as you examine yourself and be sure you are making choices for the right reasons and are still keeping your protagonist within the realm of being believable and relatable.

What are some other examples of Mary Sues?
Why do some work and others come off as amateurish?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Ultimate Guide to Free Educational Videos

  • These videos vary in level, complexity, and length. Something for everyone!
  • Preview videos before showing them to your students to make sure they align with your personal standards and values.
  • If you find that any of these links are outdated please let me know.
  • If you think something should be taken off this list, let me know.
  • I'll continue to update this list when I run across more great videos. Suggestions welcome!



Crash Course Literature
TED-Ed, Literature



Theology and Christianity

Gresham College, Divinity Lectures
YaleCourses, Introduction to Old Testament
YaleCourses, New Testament History and Literature
Christian History Made Easy
Gresham College, Thinking Theologically About Modern Art
Epydemic2020, Various topics
Messianic Mondays, Messianic Judaism and more

Young Earth vs. Old Earth

Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham
Creationsim: Old Earth vs. Young Earth
John Ankerberg, How Old is the Earth?


Crash Course World History
Crash Course World History 2
Crash Course US History
Khan Academy, History
Tom Richey, US and European History
NOVA Archeology
Oxford, The Great War
Annenberg Learner, Social Studies and History
The Aspen Institute

Social Issues

TED Equality of All Kinds
Big Think, Global Education
WorldFish, Gender Equality
The Aspen Institute, Women and Work
TED Feminism
Femist Frequency
The Aspen Institute, Latinos and Society
The Aspen Institute, Police and Violence in America



Crash Course Biology
Khan Academy, Biology
SciShow Biology
TED Animals
PBS Biology
NOVA Evolution
Oxford, Biology

Anatomy and Physiology:

Crash Course Anatomy & Physiology
In a Nutshell, Immune System
NOVA Body and Brain
Big Think, Brain
TED-Ed, Brain
Vsauce Brain Perception
Vsauce, The Mind
Gresham College, Eye and Vision Lectures
History Channel, The Universe


Crash Course Chemistry
Khan Academy, Chemistry
Khan Academy, Organic Chemistry
SciShow Chemistry
Periodic Videos, Chemistry


Crash Course Ecology
TED Environment
PBS Climate Change and More
NOVA Planet Earth
BBC Earth
National Geographic, Amazing Animals
National Geographic, Oceas
National Geographic, Wild


Crash Course Physics
Khan Academy, Physics
SciShow Physics
PBS Physics
Physics Woman
NOVA Physics and Math
Vsauce Physics
TED-Ed, Physics and More


Khan Academy, Cosmology and Astronomy
SciShow Space
SciShow Atronomy/Astrophysics/Space
Crash Course Astronomy
PBS Space
PBS Space Time
NOVA Space an Flight
Kan Academy Cosmology and Astronomy
Google Talks NASA
Vsauce, Space
Gresham College, Astronomy Lectures
TED-Ed, Space
In a Nutshell, Space
Scientific American Space Lab
National Geographic, Star Talk


Khan Academy, Computing
PBS Technology
NOVA Tech and Engineering
In a Nutshell, Technology and Society
Derek Banas, Computer Science and Software
Vsauce Technology
Gresham College, IT
Dartmouth, Algorithms


California Academy of Sciences
American Museum of Natural History
NOVA Nature
NOVA ScienceNow
TED Nature
PBS Earth
Minute Earth
Frankenstein, MD
American Museum of Natural History
Big Think, Bill Nye
TED-Ed, Superhero Science
TED-Ed, Body
TED-Ed, Nature
The PenguinProf, many topics
In a Nutshell, many topics
Sick Science, experiments you can do at home
Discovery Channel, many topics
National Geographic, Naked Science
National Geographic, Cosmos
Harvard, many science topics
Annenberg Learner, many science topics
LeBron Asks, many science topics
MIT+K12, many science topics


SciShow Great Minds
Khan Academy College Admissions
Google Talks Media
Google Talks Leadership
Annenberg Learner, Foreign Language

Friday, September 18, 2015

Choosing the Right Main Character for Your Novel

Originally posted on Young Writers' Treehouse

Photo credit: Rubin Starset / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Classic Hero

The classic good guys. Sure, they slip up, learn things, and grow, but overall they try to do what's right and often end up saving the day. Examples of these types of Main Characters (MCs) are Luke Skywalker, Frodo, Captain America, and Elizabeth Bennet. These characters are what most people think of when they hear the word "protagonist." The reader always roots for them and wants to see them come to a good end. There is a danger that these MCs will be goody-two-shoe Mary Sues if they are TOO moral and noble to be relatable but they are popular because they win reader's hearts by pursuing worthy goals and desires that the reader begins to care about.


This character isn't really the main focus but serves as a window into the world. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Watson a prime example of this, with Sherlock Holmes being the main focus. Doyle's The Lost World also follows this format, with a journalist following a group of explorers. Mystery novels also frequently take on this style a bit, such as The Murder on the Orient Express where Poirot is the observer of a story focused on the lives of the killers. This type of MC is ideal for taking the reader into unfamiliar worlds to learn and experience along with the MC, such as what the reader experiences when reading The Hobbit and following Bilbo. Likewise, Jules Verne used this technique in many of his books such as Around the World In 80 Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth. This type of MC worked well for Verne because his books often took readers into imaginative and unique territories.

Morally Ambiguous

These characters spend a significant amount of the story vouching only for themselves, blurring the lines, and breaking the rules. They have serious character flaws but are often good at heart. Examples are Deadpool, Han Solo, Scarlett O’Hara, Jack Sparrow, and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy team. Despite the fact that it is sometimes difficult to tell if they are "good guys" or not, these MCs often catch readers' attention and can be a lot of fun to write. One has to be careful to avoid glorifying wrongdoing but these MCs can serve as a relevant analysis of what it truly means to be "good" and if or when the ends justify the means.


You start out in opposition to these characters but end up rooting for them in the end. They may stay “bad” for the first third or even half of the movie before having a change of heart. Examples are Eustace from Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Gru from Despicable Me, and Maleficent from Disney’s live-action Maleficent. These MCs are rarely sympathetic in the beginning so good side characters are essential. A story about this kind of MC can be powerful because it takes something big to cause the dramatic change in character.

Villain MC

These characters rarely show any shred of good, except perhaps at the very beginning or end of the story. Despite the fact that the character’s aren’t people we would look up to or root for, they can still be fascinating. These types MCs are rare and primarily occur in more “mature” works...such as The Clockwork Orange. Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray, Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars (especially the 3rd prequel), and Light Yagami from Death Note are some more popular examples. These MCs are a risky choice because the reader is often supposed to want the MC's demise and it's hard to keep the story from being an indulgence in darkness. On the other hand, these MCs can make for a dramatic, intriguing, and potentially significant story.

What's your favorite type of protagonist? Which ones have you used in your stories?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Reading Tag

I was tagged by my friend Lisa...

1. Name three of your favorite books and tell us a bit about them.

- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I grew up listening to the audio books and now everytime I read the books or listen to the audio again I notice some new awesome thing. All the books are so unique but have common threads. It means a lot to me and has great messages and inspires my imagination.

- The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Most people know this from the musical, which I like...but I probably don't even have to tell you: THE BOOK WAS BETTER. This book had everything...exictment, humor, romance....I found it to be unique.

- The Theif Lord by Cornelia Funke. I loved the characters...especially Scipio. It made me fall in love with Venice and I felt like I had been there myself. Even though I sort of didn't like the ending, this book gave me a lot of feels and stayed in my mind constantly for days...something few books do. So, that's how it gets a place here among my faves!

2. Name three of your least favorite books.

\\I usually just don't finish books I hate, so these are ones that I don't exactly despise but also wouldn't read again.\\

- Small Steps by Louis Sachar. The sequel to Holes... it kind of lacked the playful innonence of Holes and didn't meet my expectations. I don' think Holes needed a sequel and this book had a totally different feel. Don't get me wrong, it was good in many ways but I guess I just wasn't the intended audience. The protagonist had his admirable points most certainly, but I also had a hard time relating to some of his decisions and personality.

- Dante's Inferno. I enjoyed parts of it and it's interesting from a historical/philosophical perspective so I do think it's a good, but I honestly got really tired of hearing about all the tortures in Hell. Even though it wasn't super long, I still feel like it should have been shorter!

- Cannot think of third...other than this one Christian Romance book I read that was overly sappy and sensual. I mean, it was historical so it had a few interesting points and the Christian part helped give it a bit more depth and kept it from being overly sexual...but overall it was pretty "meh" and the characters were too cliche.

3. Name some books you've loved since childhood.


-Anne of Green Gables

- Time Cat

4. Name a book that disappointed you.

Artemis Fowl. I thought it was gonna be super awesome and I did like some parts but it didn't especially impress me at the time...I found it to be a little weird. I kinda wanna go back and read more Artemis Fowl though because sometimes I was a weird kid and now the series really attracts me. Weirdly, I like it better now than when I first read it!

5. Name a book that surprised you.

The Prince by Machiavelli. I honestly thought it was going to be dry and irrelevant but I found it very interesting and even amusing...I loved how honest the narrator was, even if i didn't always agree.

6. Name a favorite graphic novel/ comic/ manga.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Haven't gotten my hands on it long enough to read the whole thing but I love it.

7. Name a favorite non-fiction book.

Mere Christianity because it hath LOGIC.

8. Name a favorite poetry book.

Hmm...I really liked this one Robert Frost poetry book that had illustrations that I got from the library several times. Also Love That Dog by Sharon Creech is delightful!

9. Name a book you'd like to see made into a movie.

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis. It could be so super awesome.

10. What are you reading now?

I have a bunch of books that I've read partway and intend on picking up again soon but these are the books I'm currently reading:

-Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.

-The Bible. I'm on a year-long reading plan thing...time will tell if I actually follow through!

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Key to Writing Romance Readers Will Love

I'd like to address an element that has been bugging me for some time that can make or break a romance storyline. The thing is, all too often characters are purported to fall deeply in love with each other for no apparent reason and without ample time to even do so. Thus, there is a plot thread or even an entire novel wrapped around a relationship that has very little basis--which causes readers to care very little about the story. Admittedly, this has been a flaw in my own writing whenever I try to insert a romantic thread and have only recently discovered the true problem with boring, dispassionate love stories.

When I'm watching a poorly written chick-flick on the Hallmark Channel or browsing through romance books online, too often I wonder, "Why are these people in love? Why do they want and need each other so much? Why should I care?" An example of such lack of "chemistry" and basis for romance would be the movie Love Comes Softly--in my opinion, at least. Maybe I'm just missing it, but I don't see a particularly spectacular reason the heroin and love interest should be paired together. It makes sense that they are both lonely and need someone to share life with, but there isn't much reason the lead characters in particular should be paired, it seems most any other decent person would do. Love comes softly indeed--so softly you can't even hear it, in this case.

As an author, you can't just tell your readers "and they were deeply in love and would even die for each other so they are going to get married and you should be thrilled" and expect readers to get emotional about it. You must show why and how those elements of romance and true love arose. How is the character's life different with or without her significant other? Why must the character be paired with THIS particular person and no other? What is going make your readers ship these characters? Why should your romance story be your readers' OTP?

One of my all time favorite love stories is Pride and Prejudice. Why is this love story so provoking? Because Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are just so perfect for each other--both are prideful, both hold prejudice against each other initially, both enjoy witty banter, both are stubborn and cynical, yet when they see virtue truly appreciate it. All of these things and more make them seem as though they were made for each other. When reading the book, we feel that Elizabeth could never love any man but Darcy, and vice versa. The King and I is another great example--both are interested in each other's cultures, both want to better the world around them, and both have a very strong sense of "the way things should be." As in Pride and Prejudice their similarities at first cause conflict but end up making the better understand and love each other. In both of these examples, the characters have attributes that make them complimentary to each other, the characters are complex enough that it is extremely unlikely any other pairing could work, and the two have gotten to know each other well enough to reveal their deepest attributes to each other.

If you still have difficulty giving your romantic pairing a good basis, it might help to forget about the romance element altogether for a moment and consider why any relationship is significant. What makes the parting of two best friends so sad? What makes a person away at college miss her family? What makes some siblings love spending time together? What makes a student remember a particular teacher all his life? The deepest of love stories don't have as much to do with infatuation as they do a deep connection--someone who understands her better than anyone else, someone who makes him want to be of exemplary moral character, someone who makes her want to suck the marrow out of life, someone who makes him feel like he's no longer an outcast of the world, etc. These type of connections don't often happen and go much deeper than just someone to hang out with who has a few things in common.

Your romantic storyline will fall flat and fail to impassion if two characters suddenly "fall in love" without explanation, reason, or build-up; however, you can enthrall readers when you give a strong basis for why your characters are in love.