Written on 2003-05-27; Read the original post on LiveJournal
Once again, highly personal.
1. Do not overdescribe her appearance. This means: Do not use more than two adjectives in a row, one if you can help it. "Long dark silky hair" stinks worse than Blood Simple. "Long dark hair" is better, "long hair" even better. Don't change adjectives. If her eyes are blue, then fine, call them blue. Don't suddenly start calling them "azure" on the next page, then "cerulean" again. If they're green, do not call them "emerald." If they're purple (must you?), don't shift between "lavender," "purple," and "violet." Unless your story is meant as a parody, or unless the whole thing is written in a very high and poetic style, don't use words like this. Using a high poetic style for the heroine's beauty alone is a dead give-away that this heroine will Suck.
2. Don't describe her appearance all at once, like this:
"Feeareena Isilandria sighed as she looked into the mirror. She sometimes wished she hadn't been born with blue eyes that looked like the sky after a storm, or long silky golden hair that gleamed as it fell in soft waves to her shoulders. She supposed that her sapphire dress that hugged her in all the right places complemented her beauty, but it made all the men pursue her, and that depressed her."
I cannot believe that I just wrote that. *goes to wash hands*
Slip in bits of description in various places, if you really must. Mention her hair on one page, and her eyes twenty pages later, only in passing. Also, consider: Does it really matter to your story if the readers know what the heroine looks like? If the story has any depth, your readers will come to love your character, not her looks. If it matters that your readers know your character is blonde (I'm trying to think of a situation where this could matter, and only coming up with a need for disguise by hair dye or bastardy, but there could be other reasons), then tell them. But do they really need to know just what she looks like? And do they need it kicked in their faces again and again, with constant reminders that your heroine is green-eyed and blue-haired? If a reader asks if your heroine has blue eyes, you could always tell her in an A/N, so you don't pollute the story with it.
3. Do not describe your heroine's beauty by having her look in a mirror or pool of water. This has been done to death. The absolute best way to do it, if you must, is to have another character gazing on the heroine- a character who has reason to be given to flights of poetic fancy, if your description tends in that direction.
4. Give your heroine flaws. Yes, of course, the oldest advice in the book. But I probably mean something a little different by this than most people. I don't mean things like "a quick temper" or "she's too compassionate," flaws that could be advantages in the right situation or worse- gag- could help in capturing the Hero of Her Dreams. Try to think of some flaws that will not help her at all. Does she make a fuss about her clothes? Does she insult others when they don't deserve it? Does she pick her nose and eat it? You need not mention them obsessively, but you should come up with some things that make her human.
5. Give her real problems. Give her more than frustrated love or parents who don't understand her. Those are common problems- to a very, very small subset of people, among them teenage girls. If you're going to give her a romantic problem, try to make it more general than "I really like him but my parents oppose him!" If you're going to give her problems with her family, make it more general than "Abuse! Abuse! Abuse!" or "My parents don't understand me, WAAH." No one has a perfect family, but not everyone's an abuse victim or Angsty Teen of the Month, either. Consider importing some of the more common but less-used problems- sibling rivalries (in which your heroine takes a part, and is not just an innocent victim of), old family secrets that won't go away, words once spoken in the heat of anger that are still hanging around, and in general small things that can drive your heroine nuts.
6. Consider not giving her a dark and mysterious past, any more than teenage angst. Isn't it possible that she's a simple village lass who really does know who her real parents are and feels that they understand her? Peasants who find out that they're royalty is my personal detested example of this cliché, but there are many others. Secrets are fun, but they can also make a story fall into extremely well-trodden paths. If you think you can handle it, come up with an unusual secret, or handle it in an unusual way. For example, perhaps your heroine thinks that her magic comes to her because her father is not her real father, but then it's actually her sister who was the product of an adulterous liasion.
7. Consider having your heroine not cause strong reactions in everyone she meets. Heroines who Suck tend to inspire either instant love and devotion, or gnawing hatred for no obvious reason. Where are the people who are indifferent, amused, or contemptuous? Often not in evidence. Include characters who don't have much to do with your heroine, or are so busy they aren't involved in her life. Don't make a world for your heroine; make your heroine part of the world.
8. Reconsider making her witty, with a comeback to everyone. Spunky heroines are only fun if done exactly right, and made human as well. Test the dialogue on your friends and readers. Do they laugh out loud? If you're writing a funny, witty story, that should be the direction you're going. If your heroine only sounds like a smartass, rewrite.
9. Make your heroine uncertain at times. She should not make snap decisions about everything, and she should not make decisions that always turn out to be correct. Have her confront a few characters more powerful/beautiful/intelligent than she is, and see what happens.
10. Make her lose some things. Say you've got an HP original female character who really wants to help her House win the big Quidditch final game. I personally would probably not read this story, because I know where it's going- her team wins, probably because of MS (hey, that can be Miss Sucky as well as Mary Sue!), and there's vicarious satisfaction for the author and vicarious disgust for me. Consider having her lose. Consider not ending the story with some platitude about how her House is the real winner. Consider some real loss, disappointment, and compromise. If you're into eighteenth century literature or long novels (though those two are almost simultaneous), try reading Cecilia by Fanny Burney for an excellent example of a heroine who, though close to the perfect stereotype in some ways, does not have everything work out for her, and has to face real problems.
11. Have your heroine really interact with other characters. One thing that makes me hit the back button (unless I'm Sue-hunting, of course) very quickly is the scene where the heroine explains her sucky past with many tears, while everyone stands around and says "Aw!" at appropriate moments. Other Sucky Heroines don't do this aloud, but instead have angsty internal monologues about their powerful magic, dead mothers, and dead pets. Many heroines seem self-contained; everything relates to them, usually at the author's will. It's of a piece with the idea that there are no characters who react with indifference to Miss Sucky, or have their own lives. They all become pale shadows of her. Give your heroine some conversations, some give and take, where they don't all turn into whirling tornadoes revolving around her, and where she actually learns things about the other characters as well as imparts whatever urgent information she has to give.
12. Do not identify too closely with your heroine. Remember that criticism of your character is not criticism of you. It's highly likely that the person criticizing your character does not even know your depth of identification with Miss Sucky, unless you tend to leave long, rambly A/N's on your story expounding about how much this character means to you. If you can answer the objection, answer it, but don't whine and cry about how your heroine is really your baby. (This is getting to sound familiar, isn't it?)
13. Consider having your heroine fail in a romantic relationship, or not be involved in one at all. Among the greatest clichés of all (and they show up even outside of romance fiction) are love triangles, heroines with dead lovers who are afraid to love again, and love at first sight. Write relatistic relationships where the man (or woman) involved doesn't become a shadow of Miss Sucky. Make them real, human characters, and have them interact.
Shielding taken down now.