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Mary Sues

My first fanfiction was set in the world of the movie Sky High, and my main character was a girl named Lorena who had every superpower that I could think to give her. She was gorgeous, shy, modest, sweet, and was in total control of…everything. And she managed to turn a total jerk (Lash, if you’ve seen the movie) into a nice guy just by making him fall in love with her.

Oh, but don’t worry—she had a severe facial scar. Because that clearly redeemed her.

When I first heard the term “Mary Sue,” I didn’t realize that there was such a thing as a character who was too perfect. In case you haven’t heard the term, the first definition that pops up in google is this: “A Mary Sue is an original character in fanfiction, usually but not always female, who for one reason or another is deemed undesirable by fan critics. A character may be judged Mary Sue if she is competent in too many areas, is physically attractive, and/or is viewed as admirable by other sympathetic characters.” In other words, someone who a) couldn’t exist in real life and b) you would hate if they did.

Of course, one of the most important things to mention is that Mary Sues—since they’re original characters—can exist in fanfiction or original fiction. They’re easy to spot in fanfiction since there’s a pre-established world, but they’re just as annoying in original stories too.

So when my friend, in all niceness, called Lorena a Mary Sue, my defenses certainly came up. After all, why wouldn’t I have a character who was exactly who I wanted to be? And why wouldn’t other people enjoy reading about her?

The truth that you’ve probably discovered in reading but may not be aware of in your writing is that readers like a character with flaws. You want a relatable protagonist, not an idealized one. So if you’re like me and instinctively want to smooth out your characters’ rough edges, here are some tips:

  • APPEARANCE: Make your character’s appearance average—perhaps admirable or attractive, but not the kind that draws attention from everyone they pass
  • PERSONALITY: If your character has a really good character trait—say, they’re just really kindhearted and good—you have to balance that out. You can do that two ways: 1. They have a flaw that contrasts that trait, like the tendency to lie to make people feel better, or 2. That good trait goes overboard and causes more problems (eg: they’re really nice to someone who turns out to be a murderer and inadvertently encourages them to kill people).
  • ABILITIES: If they’re good at something, make them really good at one, maybe two things, OR moderately good at a handful of things. They have to have a specialty and then be weaker in everything else.
  • RELATIONSHIPS: In relationship to other characters: give them some enemies and/or people who are just indifferent towards them. They can have good friends and love interest(s), but not everyone should fawn over them.

One of the greatest resources I’ve come across to help process the concept of Mary Sues is this online “litmus test”: http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm. Just to give you an overview of what to expect, the test asks questions about your character’s physical appearance, powers (physical or supernatural abilities), effect on other characters, and personality. Even if you haven’t created an Original Character yet, this detailed list will give you an excellent idea of what to avoid. It was a real shock for me when I put Lorena through the litmus test and she scored way above the minimum in order to be considered a Mary Sue.

If you’re just learning about Mary Sues and discovering you have a tendency to write them, don’t worry. You might feel a little defensive at first; I certainly did. But character development requires a different and new skill-set than writing in general. You can be an excellent writer who happens to be creating Mary Sues right now. However, now that you’re able to evaluate how your character ranks on this Mary Sue scale, you can see qualities that you can change and enhance to create a more likeable, believable character.

How Writing Fanfiction Can Help You Create Better Original Fiction

I am a huge supporter of writing fanfiction. Fanfiction can be an end in itself if you use it to explore characters in new ways and extend your stay in the fictional world. However, it’s also an invaluable tool in developing your writing abilities with the intention of using them for original fiction. It gives you a chance to practice your writing without the pressure of creating a world from scratch.

My tips for getting the most out of your fanfiction:

  1. Create an original character (OC) as your protagonist. It’s one thing to get into the mind of a character that someone else created (which you can definitely do with your secondary characters), but it’s an invaluable skill to create your own character and get to know him/her. See my post on Mary Sues as well.
  2. Speaking of secondary characters…use them! Secondary characters are underdeveloped to make way for the main characters, so they provide you with a perfect chance to write backstory and explain how they came to be who they are. They can be a lot of fun for your OC to interact with.
  3. Do what you can to change the plot of the canon world.
    1. If you’re setting your story in the time line of the movie/book/show/etc., what impact will your OC have to change events? You can explore secondary characters in the story to get their side of things, giving readers “bonus” scenes and background material.
    2. If possible, try creating an original plot within the world you’ve chosen. For example, I have written fictionalized episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. I use the pre-existing characters and setting, and I use the established template for an episode to create an original plot. This gives me the opportunity to practice creating the kind of stories I love watching.
  4. If you’re just writing this for yourself or other fans, you don’t have to start from scratch by describing setting or objects (eg: in Star Trek, describing the different technologies like tricorders and com badges). However, if you want practice describing settings and odd objects, go for it! This might give you some ideas for crafting your own world.
  5. This is the most important one: Use the same level of craftsmanship as you would with original fiction. Don’t get lazy because the world has already been created. You will gain nothing if you put a sloppy story together.

Because it’s fanfiction, there’s little to no possibility you could get paid for your writing—but that doesn’t mean you can’t get it out there for people to read. I highly recommend posting your work on fanfiction.net. It’s a great, safe site for reading and publishing fanfiction. This gives you a chance to get feedback on your writing from people who already love the world. It also gives you a great esteem-boost if your story gets a lot of views and comments. There’s lots of fanfiction out there, and lots of it isn’t great—so you’ll contribute a lot to the fandom community by creating a brilliant fanfiction story.