Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Detecting "Mary Sue"s

Remember how in my last blog entry, I said that a large portion of the terrible fanfictions out there are full of idiotic romance with fan-made characters who are obviously stand-ins for the fanfic writers themselves? And how I said that I've never put anything like that in any of my stories? Just a few hours after posting that, I seriously started to question whether or not it was true.

You see, there's a term for the type of character mentioned above. It's called a "Mary Sue," or if the character is male, a "Marty Stu," "Gary Stu," "Harry Stu," or some other variation of the name. "Mary Sue" stories are so abundant that they make up their own category of fanfiction, and unless the author is intentionally writing such a story for humor's sake, they're usually unbearable to read. The reason for this is that a Mary Sue is not just a self-insertion (which is perfectly acceptable if done carefully), but an idealized self-insertion -- a version of the author that is extremely attractive, popular, multi-talented, always right, and completely lacking in flaws. In other words, not a real character. Did I also mention that she's typically the protagonist, and that you're supposed to follow her throughout the story and be totally invested in her? Yeah, try getting through fifty chapters of that.

Now I know what you're thinking: "So what if people write characters like that? It's just fanfiction." That's where my concerns started to pop up, because even though the term "Mary Sue" originated from fanfiction, it's not exclusive to that. I won't name names (a few are probably springing to mind anyway), but there are several highly detested Mary Sues in professionally written works of literature. All of the other characters adore them, they save the day every time, they don't develop or learn much over the course of the story, and they hardly have to work to get what they want. Not only does that make for a poorly-written character, but it can ruin your entire story.

So how do you determine if a major character in your book is a Mary Sue? As I discovered the other day, that's not so easy to do. The problem is that while we know what a Mary Sue generally is, there's no cookie cutter definition out there. Worse, there are many different types of Mary Sues that each have their own list of common tropes. It's okay for your character to follow some of those tropes, but you don't want him or her to follow too many. Some of the better Sue definitions and trend lists that I've found are on, if you want to look through those. If not, here are a few traits to watch for:

  • Having a very strange natural hair and/or eye color for no reason (for instance, a normal human having naturally orange eyes and pink hair just because the author likes those colors)
  • Having a name that's uncommon for the character's culture, for no reason (a white Canadian who's named Yuriko just because the author likes that name)
  • Having multiple nicknames for no reason
  • Wearing clothes that are unusual for the setting or time period, for no reason (a modern-day African American who wears a kimono just because the author likes kimonos)
  • Being described in far greater detail than any other character
  • Being instinctively loved by all animals and/or children
  • Succeeding at virtually everything they try, even though they've never tried it before
  • Being able to learn new skills unusually quickly
  • Being immune (for no reason) to weaknesses common to the character's species (a human who's immortal or can breathe under water "just because")
  • Being able to dispatch entire armies of enemies single-handed
  • Always saving other characters who should be able to defend themselves
  • Being able to win every argument and convince every opponent to change their viewpoint
  • Being romantically pursued by virtually every other character
  • Being romantically interested in virtually every other character
  • Being envied by virtually every other character  
  • Having a profession or being in an organization that they are way to young to be involved in ("She was accepted into the Air Force at age 13 because she's THAT good at flying planes!")
  • Being immediately forgiven for every mistake they make, no matter how serious
  • Routinely being let off easy and/or rewarded for breaking the rules

The key to all of those traits, as I gathered while compiling the list, is that they are so just because the author wants them to be so. There is no sufficient explanation given for them in the story, and they don't have any bearing on the plot or the character's development. While my characters that I was concerned about do exhibit a couple of the above traits, I feel that their backstories, their roles in their respective stories, and the events in their subplots justify them. 

For instance, a character in my sci-fi/fantasy series is unusually fast at developing mental skills, such as learning new languages and solving puzzles, because their entire storyline revolves around them having that ability. Inversely, they're not very good at developing physical skills, whereas a Mary Sue would excel in both areas and the story would never address why or how.

So what makes a Mary Sue? This may sound obvious, but I think the answer is plainly and simply the author -- rather, the author's ability to write. If you put the thought and effort into creating a three-dimensional cast of characters with compelling backgrounds who develop naturally throughout your story, you should be alright. If you name every other character after yourself and have them beat up everyone you don't like with no repercussions, you might want to consider a revision.

And for the record, I've definitely never put any smut in any of my fanfics.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Fanfiction Friction

I don't know if this is something to be embarrassed by or not, but I have a confession to make: I used to write fanfiction. A lot.

For those of you who don't know, a fanfiction ("fanfic" for short) is a piece of literature that ties in with a movie, book, TV show, etc. and is written by a fan of that franchise rather than the official writer or writers. It can be anything from a short poem to a novel-length story with multiple chapters, and it usually centers around pre-existing characters from said franchise. Anyone can write one, and there are entire websites such as,, and that are dedicated to sharing them.

So why is it semi-embarrassing for one to admit that they write fanfiction? Well, there are two main reasons. The first is that, as stated before, anyone can write it - including people who simply can't write. For every decent fanfic out there, there's probably a hundred terrible ones, so the practice is usually viewed as a joke among serious writers. It doesn't help that a large portion of those terrible stories are full of idiotic romance (often with fan-made characters who are obviously stand-ins for the fanfic writers themselves) and loads of disgustingly detailed smut. I've never put anything like that in my stories, and that seems to make fanfics like mine a rarity.

The second reason, which I do take some blame for, is that fanfiction tends to be a huge waste of time and effort. You spend days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years writing a story that you can't publish once it's finished because it's about characters whom you don't own the rights to. Sometimes you can change their names and make a few other adjustments to turn out something original, like E.L. James did for Fifty Shades of Grey, but normally the details are so specific that there's no way to cover up who the characters are supposed to be. I have four or five novel-length fanfics out there, and only one of them has a chance of becoming an original work that I can publish. My Kindle library could be almost triple the size it is now if I wasn't so obsessed with Lord of the Rings, Pokémon, and Pirates of the Caribbean in high school.

At the same time though, there are some benefits to writing fanfiction. If you're serious about it, it can be a great exercise tool. I can honestly say that my writing style, character development, and overall storytelling skills have improved ten times since Deer Lake, and that's thanks to practicing on fanfics and getting constant feedback from online readers. Feedback isn't something you get on a regular basis when working on a book. The only downside is that when you write about characters that have previously been established in other works of fiction, you don't get much practice at creating any from scratch. That's why it's hard to get away from writing fanfics and focus solely on original works; you get more story ideas for characters that you already know.

So the question for anyone else in this position is, how do you make that transition? How do you take that urge to write about your favorite fictional characters and harness it to help you create your own great work? The answer is fairly simple: trick your brain into thinking that you're still writing fanfiction.

For instance, if you're a huge Jack Sparrow fan, then come up with a character for your book that exhibits Jack-Sparrow-like personality traits, then picture him in their place every time you write a scene for them. It doesn't matter if your character looks nothing like him, just picture him in their place anyway. Ask yourself how Jack would react to the situation in the scene you're writing, and the ideas will most likely come to you. The goal is that eventually your character will outgrow their Jack Sparrow training wheels and take on a life of their own. You might even decide to go back and change some of their earlier scenes to make their behavior more like your re-envisioning of them and less like Captain Jack. I do this all the time with my characters, and so far, it's worked very well.

Another strategy that I've recently started to use is "reassigning" fanfiction scenes. Suppose a really interesting scene for a potential fanfic just materializes in your head one day. Instead of writing it about Jack Sparrow or whomever you picture as the subject, look at the cast in your book and decide who among them is most like the person in that scene. Make a few adjustments to the scene, and you've suddenly got a really interesting moment in your book. I took a bunch of ideas for things I'd like to see in the next Hobbit movie and turned them into what I think is a funny and heartfelt mini plot for Part 2 of my sci-fi/fantasy series. Heck, I've even got half of an outline for a Pokémon fanfic that I'm in the process of developing into a prequel to my series.

Bottom line, fanfiction can be both a curse and a blessing to writers in this day and age. The trick is learning how to rein in that wild horse so it can pull your carriage and get you rolling.