Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fanfiction, Fandoms, and Fear of the Mary Sue

            Happy New Year, everyone. Apologies for not blogging, but here is post three on Fanfiction. We're entering dangerous waters now.


Matt Anderson has read my HTTYD fanfiction, and he asked me why I didn't introduce an OC -- an original character-- into the HTTYD universe, or make the story more accessible to readers who weren't familiar with the movie or the show's villains. He even wrote a blog post about context, how such knowledge can make or break a fanfiction if the audience becomes privy to the information.

I had a perfectly logical explanation for why I didn't include an OC until diving into Norse and Germanic mythology and using obscure deities: I didn't want to create a Mary Sue. I didn't want to put an idealized version of myself, or any unnecessary character, into a world filled with imperfect characters and fun banter. In my view, HTTYD was already filled with enough interesting characters that I wanted to chronicle, and to put them through the wringer.

For those who don't know, the Mary Sue as described by TV Tropes is "a character that is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature." The male version is called Marty or Gary Stu, though the term Mary Sue was coined in response to female authors inserting female characters into the Star Trek fandom, usually avatars of their female selves.  


As you can imagine, Mary and Gary don't have a good reputation, and they exist in every established fandom. Shows like NCIS and The Big Bang Theory have made reference to inserting oneself into an established canon, all for the sake of entering that particular world and escaping reality. In essence, the female or male author bares his real self, and expects that in this fictional world that everyone will like him or her.

One fact about Mary Sue characters: they don't last long in anyone's mind, even the author's. I learned it the hard way, by drawing bad hero comics in elementary school, and then switching to Harry Potter fanfiction that has (mercifully) vanished; my bad hero comics had me flying around, being the only survivor of a disaster, and defeating the strangely gun-shaped bad guys. Around the same time this happened, I lost my elementary school friends after inserting them as the rest of a hero team that I concocted, though I'm not sure if the events were related.
Did I learn from my early storytelling mistakes? Heck no! I inserted a character like myself AGAIN, this time into the animated Teen Titans fandom, though at least I had the sense to make her imperfect and not liked by everyone. Even so, I never finished her stories because they weren't fulfilling enough, not when I knew myself better than anyone else did, and there were no surprises for me when digging for hidden depths. I borrowed plot lines from Japanese anime and the Teen Titans comics, without seeing what I could do on my own. Thus, when I returned to the realm of fanfiction fall 2011, I vowed to use no OCs, since canon seemed to have enough character fodder and not enough plot resolution for my liking. When I did decide to break that rule, I went into Norse mythology as mentioned before and helped myself to the more obscure gods.


Image source:

One year later, however, I remember one other important thing; all Mary Sues are OCs, but not all OCs are Mary Sues. This is an important truth for fanfiction writers, and even for those pursuing original fiction, because original characters are just that: original characters. Going back to Hitchups, the OCs there range from foreign Viking warriors to Timberjack dragons to mermaids, and even then AvannaK relies heavily on mythology to support her narrative. LuciferDragon's fanfiction series about the Boogieman family depicts a very brash and imperfect spirit of Halloween, who while dealing with serial killer revenants and the devil, gets varying reactions from her partner, child and coworkers.

Matt, when I discussed benefits of the Mary Sue with him, brought up the good points of having such a character:

"Well, for one, familiarity breeds understanding. If the character is you, you understand them entirely. You know their deal and what they want. For two, the character wins all the time. It gets us into the mindset of continuing a character through their story as the hero. But if we learn that these characters can evolve, have flaws . . . yet still win, we can have a golden combination."

Most writers advocate writing what you know, and for the most part we know ourselves the best, our favorite food, if we sleep with the lights off, and what books we'll keep by our beds. We also have less trouble when facing the infamous writer's block.

There is another reason, however, why new writers should practice with the Mary Sue, within or outside of fanfiction, because the Mary Sue inspires us to keep writing. The comic below illustrates that reason perfectly:


Roger Fox's novel, about himself as a James Bond agent that attracts all the ladies' eyes, is terrible. I would recommend reading the rest of the hilarious storyline and thus his novel, but essentially Roger pens adventure and romance he would like to have, and he chronicles these exploits in a weekend. If he had decided to follow Matt's advice, to make his alter ego less perfect and endure a stronger narrative arc, then he could have been a prolific writer. 

Embrace your inner Mary Sue if you're a beginning writer; don't be afraid to put yourself on the written page, even with your physical or personality traits changed. Just be aware that Mary Sues don't have to be your only OCs. Be willing to write about grumpy blacksmiths or crazy cat lovers, or even the police officer helping the good guys out.

1 comment:

Matt Anderson said...

Hot Tip (for young writers): Never Forget, Mary Sues are more tolerable as a supporting characters. Some of the most popular characters in famous stories get away with being Mary Sues by virtue of NOT being the Main Character:
Doctor James Watson; Hermione Granger; Brian Griffin & [arguably] Captain Jack Sparrow come to mind.
Also, thank you for those kind words, Priya.