“Evelyn was tiny at only 4′ 11”, and imperially slender. The only weapons she carried were two engraved scimitars belted at her waist and two pistols concealed in her ornate vest. A distinct air of joie de vivre followed her everywhere, bounced in her fiery curls, shone in her entrancing black eyes, as though she existed solely to make herself happy and freely acknowledged the fact….”
I grinned and continued madly typing away. This story, Family Ties , would be my masterpiece. Pirates, adventure, magic. . .but best of all was Evelyn. Pardon my French, but she kicked butt. She showed those worthless bad guys what she was made of! Her fighting abilities were impeccable! She was gorgeous and intelligent! Everyone loved her!
And I doubted not my ability to bring her to life on the page. I was a teenage prodigy, a master of prose, a modern Shakespeare, delighting my hordes of excited readers (I was sure they were out there) with an exquisite adjective here and a flowery description there. I was at the top of my art. Peak of my perfection. I knew a publishing deal was only months away.
Then one fateful day, I came across the quiz that changed my writing life. Unimaginatively titled “The Mary-Sue Litmus Test,” it was a single long page of questions claiming to ferret out the Mary-Sue (unrealistic qualities) in your character. As if I need this, I thought, but curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to take it for Evelyn, my crown jewel.
“Does your character have a particularly piercing (EG, “can stare straight into your soul”), haunting, captivating, or dazzling gaze?” Uh, yes.
“Has your character been in a lot of physical fights and/or battles, but doesn’t have many noticeable scars to show for it?” Yeah, so what?
“Does your character end up in a tight spot and discover that he/she has really cool powers that were dormant and/or unknown before?” Ha! N–oh, wait. Yes.
“Does your character succeed at virtually everything he/she tries? Is your character ever spared by an otherwise-ruthless villain? Is your character liked by all the canon characters you like?” Yes, yes, and yes, for crying in the mud!
Evelyn scored 135. Ultimate Sue. At 50, you’re supposed to seriously rework or kill your character. I slumped back in my seat, horrified. No. . .it can’t be. . ..
What followed was a blur. Scads more Mary-Sue Tests, all clinically stating the same conclusion. A frantic dash through the 11 chapters of Family Ties already posted. A douse with cold water. Chocolate. A deep breath. And an idea. . . .
The next day, rested and refreshed, I committed myself to a real reread. Not with my sympathies; instead, a dispassionate picking apart of my dear little masterwork.
The reread took several days, aided by style guides and my first real research into the craft of writing. I sat at the computer and consulted notebooks for long hours, filing away every error I could find, ego deflating steadily with each new discovery. Little did I know that I was also building the style and technique foundations that would stay with me forever afterwards. And guess what? After all was said and done, Family Ties was terrible. Convoluted prose. Messy plot. Unrealistic portrayals of canon characters. Stilted dialogue. A Mary-Sue to top it all off.
Ah, Evelyn. . .I now saw her with open eyes. Yes, she was perfect, an excellent swordswoman, intelligent beyond her years, beloved by everyone. . .but those, I now knew, were the problems. Who can relate to someone like that? Who can triumph in her victories, cry for her defeats? I was beginning, even, to find her irritating.
My path was clear.
A swift memorial ensued, and Evelyn and her monstrous hulk of a story were consigned to the literary depths. Before allowing myself anywhere near a word processor or notepad, I delved into the world of writing. I read online articles and newsletters until my eyes had to be manually held in their sockets. I identified my problem areas–plot, characterization, and style–and worked away at them. I set deadlines and learned to stick to them, under the threat of five merciless slaps to the forehead (and let me tell you, I learned quickly!).
But, most importantly, I learned how to learn. I am not a prodigy; far from it. I am firmly a beginner, just like all the other young writers out there, toiling away on word processors for the love of it. The only thing that separates the good writers from the bad is our willingness to commit ourselves, our drive, our determination in the face of setbacks. I am grateful for my mistakes, because now I know what to avoid and how to do so. I am grateful for Evelyn.
About a month later, I logged into my fanfiction.net account. It was littered with the bloated corpses of stories past, written before The Test (as I called it). I flipped through a few of them, listing the ways in which they could be improved: delete this paragraph, spice up this verb, rework that chapter. . . .
This was going to be fun.