On Fanfiction: The Mary Sue Counteroffensive


I’ve been writing fanfic for well over 20 years now; I’ve had some short stories published, and the fanfic tales I started on are now real-world published as my own real, unique, original works. I support fanfic! It’s a way for writers to play, to learn their craft, to experiment, to create unique works that continue & expand others’ existing universes.  Musicians learn to play by playing others’ compositions or by copying what they hear on the radio — we don’t expect them to create wholly new compositions right off the bat. Many musicians don’t create new compositions, anyway; they get fame & recognition & paid for playing others’ works, and no one looks down on them.  Hell, there’s an entire genre of music based on using samples & tracks from other artists’ work.

Writers are the same way. Same creative brains, same creative process.  Humans learn by mimicking. Some of us are really good at interpreting existing works, others use parts of existing works in new & unique ways, others are good at creating their own. It’s all creativity, it’s all good.

Anyway, these’ll be my rants & talks on the art of fanfiction: how to create, how to do, & how to do it better.  We all know there’s tons of godsawful stuff in the world of fanfic, but there’s also tons of really good writing there, too — just as in the “real” published world.  So…let’s start off by addressing the elephant in the room, the one factor that’s exclusive to fanfic:


The Mary Sue.

First, let’s get one thing clear.  There’s been an awful lot of chatter over what a Mary Sue is and how to identify her, and whether or not This or That female character in a work is a “Mary Sue”…and nearly all of that chatter forgets the one key thing that makes a character a Sue:

The Mary Sue is an invader to the universe canon.

Mary Sues originated in fanfic & they are solely in fanfic.  Mary Sue is NOT an original character in the creator’s original work. Wonder Woman & Black Widow are not Mary Sues.  Rey in The Force Awakens is not a Mary Sue.  Bella Swan (*gag*) is not a Sue.  Any of Mercedes Lackey’s or Tamora Pierce’s female characters are not Sues.  They are original characters *created* by the creators of the universe in question.  They are Canon Characters.  An Awesome Character in an author’s original work might be an Author Insert or a Creator’s Pet or just teeth-grindingly gag-me-with-a-dead-Smurf annoying, but s/he is NOT a Sue.

(Side note: Rey is no more overpowered than Luke Skywalker was.  Y’know, Luke: farmboy able to infiltrate the Death Star, fly an X-Wing, & shoot down same Death Star with no training? Rey’s the same, and we don’t know her whole backstory yet. & Kylo Ren had been shot in the gut by a fuckin’ bowcaster when both Rey & Finn took him down.  Shut up about Rey already.)

A Mary Sue is an invader.  She’s an invasive species: a non-native that gets in among the natives and proceeds to take over & choke out the natives & can’t be gotten rid of.  No one wants her there; she contributes nothing & is always disastrous to the environment.  She warps the Canon ‘Verse out of all health and balance & kills the story dead unless drastic measures are taken. 

(Rabbits in Australia, kudzu in the US South, starlings in the US — yeah. Environmental Mary Sues.)

Mary Sues are wish-fulfillment cranked up to the annoying max.  The writer wants to run around with the Hero/Villain, have sex/love with him, fix all the problems, and in general have the Whole Canon acknowledge her as an Awesome Person & anyone who doesn’t see her that way is a Bad Person.  Readers hate Sues, they don’t want to read them, they don’t care about them, yet fanfic writers keep putting them in, convinced that their Sue is the Most Awesome Character Alive & that the Readers simply adore the Sue as much as the writer does.

There’s quite a few Mary Sue tests around the Net that are really useful in determining whether or not you’ve got a Sue on your hands.  Two of the best ones are over at TVTropes (Common Mary Sue Traits) and from Dr. Merlin & LRC The Mary Sue Litmus Test. 

However, does having any of those traits mean a character is a Sue?  Does it mean the character is “bad”?

No.

It all depends on the handling.  It all depends on the character as a whole, the uses to which he/she is put within the story, and her relationship to the canon.  Your character could go straight down that Litmus Test and check off every single point on it…and still not be a Sue if she’s handled right.

The keys here (say it with me, everyone): Well-rounded. Realistic. Grounded.

But let’s go into the One Big Red-Flag for all Mary Sue’s, that’s almost always the definitive test:

She takes over the story with her Awesome McCoolness.

If you post a summary on Fanfiction.Net that’s all about your Awesome OC — that’s a big indication your OC’s a Mary Sue (and an obnoxious one, at that).  Readers of fanfic don’t want to read tales about your Awesome Original Character.  They want to read about the Canon Characters, major or minor or background. They don’t care that your AOC is the sister//love interest/whatever of the Hero or is So Beautiful or has abilities that put all the other Canon Characters in awe of her.

Fanfic Readers Do Not Care.

It’s your job as a writer to make the readers care about your characters. Readers do not care about Super-Awesome OCs.  You didn’t like those Awesome Popular Cheerleader Bitches in high school, did you? Well, your Sue is one of those, and Readers will hate her as much as you hated them.

The focus of your fanfic story cannot be your OC, period. The Readers want to read about the Canon Characters, Heroes, Villains, secondary, background, whatever: OCs need not apply. (Mind, there’s always exceptions, but we’ll put that aside for a bit.)

Now I made this mistake in my first Hardy Boys fanfic tale, “Voodoo Doll”, which is my re-take & fix-fic of the second season episode of the same name.

(I’ll be using my own works as examples; I don’t want to piss off any fanfic writer by using their characters, either good or bad.  Everyone, meet Kris Mountainhawk, one of my OCs in my ongoing “Blood Circles” fanfic series for the 1970s TV show, The Hardy Boys Nancy Drew Mysteries: a mousy teen who who grew up next door to the Hardy brothers, who unofficially adopted her as their “tagalong” kid sister.  Yup, Mary Sue potential cranked waaaay up, huh?)

I put Kris into the series (along with the other Association folks) as a balance & alternative viewpoint to the Hardy Boys, and to correct one of the major issues with “Doll”.  The Nancy Drew side of the original episode is so, soooo teeth-grindingly awful — but it’s integral to the story structure. It revolves around something going on behind the scenes that Frank & Joe don’t know about, but keeps dragging them in.  I had to replace ND’s half completely (or it would’ve ended with Nancy 6-foot-under the bayou), so I decided to put my OCs into the tale.  I wanted to see if I could do a Mary-Sue that was a balanced, real character that folks wanted to read more about.

Yeah, I like setting myself these kinds of impossible you-must-be-insane challenges.

On top of that, the episode (and series) is full of obnoxious ’70s bigotry (both misogynistic & racist).  I wanted to have characters that would call that out, yet stay within the mind-set and growing-enlightenment of the late ’70s.  So Kris wasn’t alone — the rock band Karma, Joshua Thomas & his aunt, Alma Dupre, & the rest of the various Association characters came into play & replaced the Nancy Drew side of the episode wholesale.

(Side note: Joshua, Kris & Karma weren’t created for my HB series, either; they’re part of my original fiction ‘verse about Karma, starting with The Severed Earth.  The whole “Voodoo Doll” thing started as a what-the-hell, anything goes mashup for National Novel Writing Month a couple years back, and snowballed out of control.)

First problem: the Association characters were psychic. Magic-Gifted, empaths, telepaths, precogs, Spirit-talkers — and Kris is a jack, someone gifted with lots of small talents (like a Swiss Army Knife: jack of all trades, master of none).  Rafe & Vao of Karma, major-Gifted; Joshua, magic-Gifted.

The Hardy Boys aren’t…at least, not in the usual canon.  So right away, I had the potential story-destroying issue of my OCs overpowering the Canon Characters.

But the TV series offered me an out.  One of its minor running gags was that Joe would see weird things that no one else did.  The “Dracula” episode has the best example: Joe sees that the main villain doesn’t have a reflection in a mirror & thinks that the villain’s a vampire, but no one else notices nor believes Joe. That’s a textbook-description of someone who has the Sight, an ability that’s common among Irish/Scots bloodlines: being able to see ghosts, faeries, the “otherworld” & things that go bump in the night.

That opened the way for Joe being Gifted, too, just as my OCs are. But that wasn’t enough.

The key phrase here is “over-powered”.  How do you prevent your OC from over-powering the Canon Characters? Simple — you don’t make her over-powered.  You put in limits, real limits that have real consequences and cause real problems.  In this case, the Big Bads were majorly Gifted, too. The Gifts can be blocked, tricked, stopped.  Using them exhausts the Gifted in question and in Kris’s case, triggers extreme migraines that make further Gift use damn difficult (and crippling-painful).

Mary Sue, meet reality: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL).

Also, just because my OCs are “Gifted” doesn’t mean they’re right. Kris makes mistakes. She makes bad errors in judgement.  Her bad judgement gets Vao caught by the Big Bad & nearly gets her killed. She’s not good with social skills or explaining things & has major issues with trust. She tends to hide things; she keeps secrets that almost get Frank & Joe killed further down the line.

And Frank and Joe are both rightfully skeptical of her claims & the Gifts, even after they finally accept that such things are real. They have their own skill-sets & abilities that are just as important to bringing down the Big Bad as the Gifts are.  Most important, they push back. They do not lie down & let the Awesome OCs walk all over them — when the OCs get angry at them, Frank and Joe get angry right back. They know their own strengths and use them.  When Kris tries to blow Joe off over his being “too-inexperienced” to play bait to trap the killers, Joe gets right back in her face about it…and wins the argument.

Great Powers do not equal Infallibility.

Second Problem: how to connect Kris to the Canon Characters.

Part of Kris’s established background in my original work is that she’s adopted. Her original parents were abusive, psychotic SOBs, & Kris ran away & was found/adopted by Mar Mountainhawk…a Native American of the Arizona Navajo…oh, yeah, we’re in prime Mary Sue territory right there.

Add to it that Kris started insisting on calling Frank & Joe “big brothers”…and oh hell no, kiddo, you are not going to be the stupid Mary Sue Cliche’ of the Younger Sister of the Canon Hero.

The big problem: adding siblings to established Canon characters destroys existing family & friendship dynamics.  Most “sibling” Mary Sues don’t have any idea of what a real brothers/sister relationship is like.  When you have a solid Canon Brother/Brother bond/friendship like Frank & Joe Hardy do, a Mary Sue Sister gets in the way of it & interferes — she becomes Frank’s or Joe’s “best friend”, not the other brother.

Abuse also tends to over-dramatized or blown off by Mary Sues; they tell it to everyone around them, then forget about it. Having Abusive Parents means little to nothing to the Awesome OC or the story; it’s just a cheap way to attempt to get the Reader to feel sorry for the Mary Sue. (Tip: Ways To Write Better Abuse Victims & Abusive Situations)

The fix? Research.  Research into the Navajo culture & Native tribes & issues surrounding cultural appropriation & politics & Native Americans so that Mar would be a real, live person & not a “Magic Indian”.  Research into abused children & case studies; research into runaways & what living on the streets actually means, research into the psychology & tactics of abusers & stalkers…and PTSD, and the effects of abuse…

Research means reading. It means talking to people. It means looking up and beyond your limited little world-view.  It means getting beyond the superficial things you think are “cool” about a certain culture & learning what they actually mean & how they’re used & using them in the ways that someone who actually grew up in such a way would. It means watching & learning from friends who have older brothers & sisters, and what they actually act like towards their siblings, brattiness & all.

So…abusive parents would hunt down their little “possession” to punish her for daring to misbehave. Like any abuser, they want their property back & they don’t take kindly to other people interfering in “family matters”.  Mar ends up having to move away from San Francisco to get Kris out of reach of the SOBs…and ends up in Bayport, next door to the Hardy family.

Frank & Joe are brothers & best friends with each other. They’re also curious, intelligent kids who want to be detectives when they grow up. They see the new kid next door, they’re curious — but it’s not instant friendship. They scare the bejesus out of Kris shortly after they meet; she avoids them for a long while afterwards. Like any real relationship, trust has to build; it has to be earned.  She doesn’t tell them of the abuse or any of her backstory; they have to earn that trust before she even lets a little of the story slip.

And the Abuse isn’t a “name-drop” for sympathy — it has repercussions, in the characters, in the storyline.  The Original Parents don’t give up; they’re damn terrifying to Frank & Joe. And on, and on.

But always, always, we see this through Frank & Joe’s eyes.  They are the main characters. The story is theirs. They see & act & react to what’s happening. When the viewpoint changes to Kris, it’s still about Frank & Joe’s story & what she sees/does that affects them.  An OC’s viewpoint should be like the eyes & mind of the Reader, so that they can see the Canon characters in new & different ways.

So…enough for tonight.

Next up, more of the Mary Sue Counter-Offensive.

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