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No Mary Sues Allowed
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Since I was talking about heroes last week, I thought it only fair to include heroines as well.

One thing we've all been warned against is the TSTL heroine. (Too Stupid to Live, should you not be up to speed on all the acronyms.) This is the heroine who goes down into the dark basement to see what the noise is—when she's aware there's a killer in the neighborhood. How to avoid this syndrome has been discussed at length, and I'm not going into it again today. Instead, I thought we'd look at the perfect heroine.

The romance heroine of days long past was dependent upon the hero. She was subservient, and if in peril, had to wait for the hero to come to her rescue. The pendulum swung the other way, and today you're more likely to find the heroine as a no-nonsense, kick-ass character who can handle herself.

Back in my early writing days, when I was learning the craft via fan fiction, there was a great deal of discussion about not creating a Mary Sue. In fact, there was even a test to make sure you didn't have one of these unbelievable heroines (or, in fact, any character) in your books.

Is this to say that you can't have a heroine who is fully competent? Of course not. But you can't just plop those convenient skills in front of the reader when it becomes convenient for her to have them.

As I've posted before (at least once), if the reader buys the setup, they'll buy the bit.

So, let's say the hero and heroine are hiding and the villains are closing in. The hero is injured. He hands the heroine his gun and asks her if she can shoot. She says, "Of course. I'm a crack shot," and proceeds to blow the villains away (or worse, has never handled a gun before, but still takes out the bad guys, never missing a shot). Not only that, but she is an expert in first aid and manages to do what's necessary to save the hero's life. Plus, she's an expert trapper and can snare whatever creatures are out there. Or, maybe she has no trouble catching fish. And she can create a gourmet meal out of what she catches. All without disturbing her manicure or coiffure.

She's the heroine who can fill in for a missing musician, be it a rock band or a symphony orchestra. And she can sing like the proverbial angel.

(I'd like to say I'm exaggerating, but not by much.)

Believable? Not if this is the first time you've seen these traits. But what if, earlier in the book, the heroine is dusting off her shooting trophies, thinking about how she misses those days. Or she's cleaning up after a fishing trip. Or she's doing a solo in her church choir. Maybe she has to move her rock climbing gear out of her closet to make room for her cookbooks. You don't want to dump an entire scene whose only purpose is to show a skill she'll need later. (Remember my post on scenes doing double or triple duty!) Keep it subtle, but get it in there.

When you're writing, it's important to know what skills your characters need to possess. You might not know when you start the book, but if you're writing a scene where one of these skills will move the story forward, and there's no other logical way to deal with the plot, then you owe it to your readers to back up and layer in the requisite foreshadowing.

And Mary Sues aren't relegated to romance heroes. The first, if you followed the opening link, showed up in Star Trek fan fiction. The perfection syndrome doesn't work for any character, regardless of genre. Heroes can be Mary Sues (or "Gary Stus") as well. But before James Bond pulls off his miracles, we've seen Q show him the gadgets that will save his life. We know MacGyver has a strong background in science, so he's got the theory and knowledge to pull off his escapes.

Any "too good to be true" characters that have bugged you? Any tricks you've figured out, or read, that help avoid the Mary Sue?