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Beyond Mary Sue - Writing Credible Original Characters - Mo's Journal
May 12th, 2005
09:48 am


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Beyond Mary Sue - Writing Credible Original Characters
When Dorothy Sayers fell in love with Peter Wimsey and wrote herself into her novels so she could marry him, her fiction went downhill fast. Ever since then, Mary Sues have been problematic. In fanfic, self-insertion has happened so often and been done so badly, that the Mary Sue phenomenon has given all original characters a bad name. A lot of readers are immediately turned off by the idea of a non-canonical character and a lot of writers are scared to write them.

Yet sometimes... an author needs something to happen and there's no canonical character available that works. Sometimes an author wants to expand on the character set to introduce new elements, new complexity, new relationships to the story. Sometimes an author just needs an original character and plunges ahead, braving the potential cries of "Mary Sue!"

When do you write OCs and how do you use them? How are they introduced? What, if anything, do you do to avoid Mary Sueism? How do you ensure that your OC is credible as a character and credible within your fandom? What are your OC taboos? Would you ever have an OC have sex with a canonical character? Fall in love with one? Would you ever make an OC the center of the story? Do you worry about losing readership over OCs? How have your readers responded to your OCs?

I'd love to hear answers and opinions on the above. I'll go first :-). I write X-Men movieverse, but use some comics characters as well. Over time, I've also introduced OCs and some of them have become major characters in my fiction. I do have an OC who's in love with a canonical character; I have OCs in couples (i.e. both members of the couple are OC); I've written stories where an OC is the focus.

I was afraid of OCs when I began writing fanfic, afraid that I'd be deemed to be writing Mary Sues, or just that my readers would not like to read about non-canonical characters. I resisted writing any for a while. My first OC was a fifteen-year-old boy named Oliver, and he was introduced to give Cyclops some specific challenges. I introduced him because I did not feel I could do what I wanted to with any of the canon characters. I thought I would likely be exempt from the Mary Sue charge in part because my stories don't sound like they're written by a teenage boy. I do spend a lot of time listening to teenage boys talk, though, so I thought I could write him credibly.

Over time, I've become more comfortable with OCs and my readers seem to be comfortable with them as well. The one I've written the most about, I think, is an investigative reporter named Adam Greenfield. He was originally going to just be in one scene in my series Foreign Correspondence - he was the vehicle by which Jean-Paul (and, ultimately, the X-Men and Alpha Flight) get embroiled in the mutant cleansing crisis in the Republic of Belarus. But I got interested in him for his own sake, and he is to me now a fully fleshed out and "real" character, as much so as the canon ones.

The pattern I describe with Oliver and Adam is pretty much how I use OCs. I introduce them when I need a character to do something or be something, and there's no canon character that meets that requirement. Often they do just show up in one scene. But sometimes I get interested enough in them that I want to find out more about them, something I can only do through fiction. None of my OCs is a disguised version of myself, but all are informed by my life and my experiences. I think that's how fiction works. Adam Greenfield works the same place as a relative of mine; Billy Halverson is from my home town; Wendy and Arthur are attachment parents.

In light of my early Mary Sue worries, it's interesting (to me, at least :-)) what has happened with Oliver over the years. Once I stopped worrying about being accused of Mary Sueism I was able to relax enough to see what he and I do have in common - we both were disowned by our parents when we came into our powers during our teen years. In my recent series (Trials and Unexpected Occurrences) Oliver - now several years older - deals with the issue of family estrangement in a much more direct way than he had previously. And I, as an author, deal with the issue much more directly than I had previously, as well.

Authors always use our experience and our feelings to inform our work. With time and perspective, I think we can avoid the self-indulgence and transparency of mindless self-insertion. What do you all think?

[I kind of thought this should be posted to a community, because I'd like to hear the views of people I don't know, but couldn't think of a suitable one. It's too much about craft for fanthropology, I think. It's not about sex per se, so it doesn't fit in writing_sex. It's not X-Men-specific or slash-specific, so I don't think it works for x-slash. Anyway, maybe there are enough authors on my f-list to get some discussion going. If anyone has ideas of somewhere else to post this, let me know].


(51 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2005 03:11 pm (UTC)
You know, I've always liked Harriet Vane. But then, there are people who like Emily of New Moon, and I've always found her horribly Mary Sue-ish (purplish-grey eyes, pointy ears, a gift for poetry, the ability to foretell the future...) so you never know what'll appeal to people.

I wasn't aware of Mary Sues when I started writing fics, so I've done my share of them. After I read my first litmus test, I got apprehensive - but I've never been able to stop writing OCs. I have noticed, however, that while people may like my OCs, they're much more ready to accept an expanded CC. I've had many people compliment my Alonna - a character who was in one episode of Angel (and was turned into a vampire after half that episode). It's as if the sheer existence of an original character makes people suspicious, while they can accept pretty much anyone hogging attention as long as they recognize the name. :-)
[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2005 03:31 pm (UTC)
You know, I've always liked Harriet Vane.

There's no accounting for taste :-). She always made me cringe. I think it's great when authors use their experiences and their personalities in characters, if they seem to have enough perspective to make it work. But you're certainly not alone in liking her, and I didn't mean to suggest that Harriet-Vane-as-the-Archetypical-Horrible-Mary-Sue was anything but my opinion.

I also think you are quite right that many readers are resistant to the idea of OCs, and quite accepting of a minor CC becoming fleshed out and major in fanfic.

Hey, Katta! Who's the woman in your icon and is the quote from something? And how do you put words on icons like that, anyway? And am I sounding too much like a clueless newbie?
[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2005 07:34 pm (UTC)
Ahhh, interesting discussion. I love original characters myself, both writing them and reading them. It's what makes work creative and stretches the original universe your working in. I think without a few original characters here and there, things get boring fast. In both my own work, and in other's, I've come to regard some OCs as significant, if not more so, than canon ones.

In my largest "published" work to date, Changes, I created an OC called Tereln, who happened to be bi-gendered (i.e. male and female). I even wrote sex scenes between Tereln and Obi-Wan (I'm generally a Star Wars Prequel era writer) before Obi-Wan ended up with Qui-Gon. Tereln was very much instrumental in getting Q/O together, and in my humble opinion, the story would have been very much reduced without the OC. I had good feedback for the story and a couple even mentioned how much they enjoyed the OC.

The point here, is there was quite a bit of "Mary-Sueism" about Tereln and even Obi-Wan's developing character in that story. Mentally, I'm very much bi-gendered, even though I'm physically female, so there was a lot of "me" went into the story. But as you said, and I quote "Authors always use our experience and our feelings to inform our work. With time and perspective, I think we can avoid the self-indulgence and transparency of mindless self-insertion.", I don't think I can write an authentic story without using my experiences. However, even though the issues have emotional import for me, time has given me the distance to reflect on them from an intellectual place, and hence I don't feel I'm simply just putting myself into the story. They say to write about what you know - of course there's much to be said for doing research into what you don't know! - but I think that's what makes stories interesting.

Of course, I create a certain vulnerability for myself then, as an author. I'm not afraid to write about mental health and gender issues, and while I receive wonderful and often thoughtful feedback, I do wonder if sometimes people are afraid to open a dialogue with me, given the often taboo nature of what I write. However, it seems I can do no less than to explore these issues honestly, and if that means sometimes I isolate myself socially, so be it. I suppose that's a whole 'nother can of worms in itself.

Thanks for starting the topic! The only place I can think of off-hand for such a discussion would be the yahoo group "Chix-Talkin-Fix"

P.S. As for putting words on icons and graphics, you just need an image manipulation program like Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, or the Gimp. I've seen the wonderful images on your website, so maybe you have the tools already? I can help out if you don't! :)
[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2005 08:07 pm (UTC)
I love original characters myself, both writing them and reading them. It's what makes work creative and stretches the original universe your working in. I think without a few original characters here and there, things get boring fast. In both my own work, and in other's, I've come to regard some OCs as significant, if not more so, than canon ones.

Ah, I love a woman who's not afraid of OCs :-). I do think they can do that kind of stretching when done well. And although they certainly are often done badly, so are canon characters!

Changes sounds very interesting. Where would I find it? I'd like to read it. And I don't think using what one has learned from one's own experiences ought to be labeled Mary Sueism at all! It's what authors do.

I read actively in TPM but I've never read the JA books that so many authors use as secondary canon. So I never know which characters who weren't in the movie are OCs and which are canonical JA characters, although when the same one shows up in lots of authors' stories I make assumptions. I do think it wouldn't be the vibrant and rich fandom it is if authors felt limited to characters who show up in the movie.

As to the pictures on my website - I had nothing to do with them. Well, except for finding some. My website designer did all the Photoshopping etc. I've never even tried! But I guess there's always a first time.

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[User Picture]
Date:May 13th, 2005 12:46 pm (UTC)
Insightful, as usual, Min. I'd add that focussing on an OC is more likely to be well received if it's not done in the story that introduces the OC. Where I've seen it work for readers (in my fiction and in others') is where the OC is introduced in a story that focusses on canon characters, but later on more is written about the OC directly. So, for example, story A might have the OC as a minor character, then story B has him/her as a character more central to the story, but still focussing on canon characters, but it's not until C, D, E or later that the OC is a main character.

In part I think that works because the author builds a following for the OC before focussing on him/her. I think it also tends to avert the Mary Sue fear. Mary Sue-ism is essentially self-indulgent, and self-indulgence doesn't usually mix well with deferred gratification.
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[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2005 09:31 pm (UTC)
I think the biggest mistake that OC authors make isn't so much who the OC happens to fall in love with, or who the OC is related to. The thing that makes or breaks OCs is how well the author sticks to canon.

I write for both the X-Files, Buffy and HP fandoms. With The X-Files, unless you're writing pure mytharc, it's really, really, really hard to write a fic with no OCs whatsoever if you're writing a true-to-episode fic. Somebody's going to have to get killed off right away. There are locals who the agents have to interview. There are the victim's family. New characters popped up all the time in The X-Files canon. It is interesting to note that not one of the canon New Characters ever asked Mulder and Scully if they lurved each other.

Even with the X-Files, there's sooo much room for what I call Instafamilies (families we've never heard of before in canon) that it's not even funny. So you have Doggett who only has an estranged ex who we know of and a dead son. Why not give him siblings he's estranged himself from since the death of his son? Also...there's Reyes, who, annoying as she is, is pretty much fodder for however you want to interpret her. She's an adopted child...but there's probably extended family there, too. We've met all of Scully's relatives, so she probably DOESN'T have a long-lost sister somewhere...although it would be plausible with that canon, especially given that her father travelled with the Navy a lot...ooo, down, plot-bunny, down! Also given that we didn't learn about one of Mulder's half-brothers until the very end of the series, it would be possible that he'd have more half-siblings.

With Buffy, it's the same thing. It's possible to write a fanfic with just the Scoobie gang, but it's not going to be true-to-form if you don't have random people getting killed.

Of the three fandoms I participate in, I'd say that the HP fandom is the hardest to blend in if you choose to write fanfic set in Harry's years at Hogwarts. You need a DADA prof, but you can easily use a character that is currently a name.

However, if you choose to write fic from the years when Harry's parent's generation went to Hogwarts, that's a different story. It'll be virtually impossible NOT to include OCs. Even a fic that is set after Harry's years at Hogwarts, HOPEFULLY Harry et. al. will have met more people than the ones they went to school with, and to write a post-Hogwarts fic with only canon characters seems contrived, IMHO. Granted, you can include post-Hogwarts fics with characters who are mere names at this point, but you still have nothing but the name to go on and it's as good as an original character.

In all of these fandoms, I've seen two kinds of OCs: Those who are written for the plot, or those whom the plot is written for. The latter is where the dreaded Mary Sue lies. The story is centered around the OC. It doesn't matter what canon rules had to be broken. It doesn't matter how OOC established CCs act. All that matters is that the canon world revolves around the OC.

Now when you have randomSue being the vehicle for your OTP, then there's issues. Say I give Scully a step-sister she doesn't know about. If she's causing trouble for Mulder and Scully's relationship, and forcing Scully to realize how Scully twoooly feeels about Mulder, then that's definitely NOT GOOD.

The former, however, when the character serves a function in the plot, is a successful OC. He/She is there because there is no other canon character to do the job.

who will stop rambling now.
[User Picture]
Date:May 13th, 2005 01:16 am (UTC)
I like your rambling! I thought this was particularly salient:

I've seen two kinds of OCs: Those who are written for the plot, or those whom the plot is written for.
[User Picture]
Date:May 13th, 2005 02:01 am (UTC)
As it would be, I do have a couple of OC floating around. As Avatar Zêta from The Avatars' Gambit is the most prominent of them, I'll use him when I need a personal example.

When do you write OCs and how do you use them?

I write OCs when no canon character can in-characterly serve the role in the story. They are used to move the plot and characters along. Zêta is a foil character to the canon character Cole. The antagonism between the two of them helps to prompt Cole in the direction I need him to go.

How are they introduced?

That's a case by case question. They are introduced when it is the proper time to introduce them.

What, if anything, do you do to avoid Mary Sueism?

I don't let my OCs overshadow the main characters, and I give them interesting personalities. Zêta, for instance, is a overly-loud, ranting, raving, vitriolic spaz.

How do you ensure that your OC is credible as a character and credible within your fandom?

I take time to plan things out. With each aspect of the character, I think, "Is this possible? Is it plausible? Does it make my character too special?" As an Avatar, Zêta is quite powerful, and some level of competence is required. So I balanced it out by giving him a deep loyalty to Alpha. Also, him and Cole aren't allowed to fight, since they are on the same side. So Zêta's frustrations have to remain pent up.

What are your OC taboos?

The story should be about the canon characters, with the OC as a special guest star.

Would you ever have an OC have sex with a canonical character?

That depends on the canon character. Lex Luther is a canonically promiscuous guy. The idea that he would have sex with a brown haired female OC is entirely acceptable...provided that there was a bigger story.

Fall in love with one?

That all depends on both the canon character in question and the story I'm trying to tell. The question should not be, "Can the OC fall in love with a canon character?" but "Why should the OC fall in love with the canon character?"

Would you ever make an OC the center of the story?

Define center. My OC Deon from A Comedy About the Tragedy of Chaos is the focus of the story, but the main characters are the canon characters Kyle and Zankou. I would never make an OC the protagonist.

Do you worry about losing readership over OCs? How have your readers responded to your OCs?

No. If an OC is needed, then an OC is needed. I simply make sure that they aren't 'sues. Oh, and I don't put OC in the summary; there is no need. As for reaction, several reviewers have expressed a liking of Zêta. ^^

I save my main character OCs for original fiction.
Date:May 13th, 2005 07:20 am (UTC)

OC vs. Mary Sue

I am a writing teacher who has my students write fan fiction as an exercise in discipline. The purpose is two fold: 1) to take a character's existing personality, strengths, and limitations and write a credible story, and 2) to get practice keeping a character in character which helps in their own writing. So, this is actually a subject we've discussed in class. I think the basic problem with Mary Sues comes down to how the characters are used. Let's face it, every character ever created that is not a fictionalized portrait of a real person is an OC. That is what writers do, we create characters and the stories they inhabit. Fan fiction has certain endemic qualities being that fan ficcers are mainly using other people's characters. Personally, if you can create and add a credible character to an established universe and meld them into the story well, I am impressed. The main problem I see where an OC becomes a Mary Sue is when they take over the whole story to the detriment of the canon characters. A good example of an OC in the HP universe would be a character whose different kind of magic might help Harry and the other canon characters defeat Voldemort. Why not? There's nothing to say he has to do it without help and it is realistic that Voldemort might well be thrown by magic outside of his experience. The character becomes a Mary Sue when they defeat Voldemort instead. another Mary Sue contrivance is characters that come pout of nowhere with no logical explanation possible for their existence. A good example might be that you could create a credible foster sibling for Daniel Jackson in SG1 that he has never mentioned in canon because it never came up. But he had no blood siblings that he grew up with. So one shouldn't just show up.

A character can also be Mary Sued, I feel, when you can look at the character and say 'the author feels that' or 'the author said that'. Of course, by this definition Canon characters can be abused in this manner too. A good example is Riley Finn in the Buffy universe. Many people didn't like him for not being Angel, not being Spike, not being evil, etc. Whatever the individual reason, he is mightily abused in fan fiction. Canonically he was a Psych doctoral student and an Officer in the military (which requires an MA in most services) yet many writers have portrayed him as stupid. Personally, I feel that abusing characters, others' or your own, because of dislike is worse than creating a not quite fully fleshed out OC.

I have read stories in various fandoms and many have featured OCs that I have really enjoyed, including yours. The best were well thought out and fully fleshed and fit well into the fan universe they are written into.
[User Picture]
Date:May 13th, 2005 10:49 am (UTC)

Re: OC vs. Mary Sue

I am a writing teacher who has my students write fan fiction as an exercise in discipline.

How interesting! At what level do you teach? Thanks for your comments, which were enlightening.
Re: OC vs. Mary Sue - (Anonymous) - Expand
Re: OC vs. Mary Sue - (Anonymous) - Expand
Re: OC vs. Mary Sue - (Anonymous) - Expand
[User Picture]
Date:May 14th, 2005 01:36 am (UTC)
The first time I wrote an OC in fanfic was because I needed to write about a character's father, who had not yet been introduced. The piece I'm working on now is OC-centred just because that was how the idea came to me, and I really wanted to write the story. I wanted to see how a mutant psychologist would handle a particular problem, so I used two characters to look at it: one canon (Charles Xavier) and one original (Joel). Like Min, I was used to writing original fiction (I'm not a professional, but I didn't start writing with fanfic), so it felt natural to me. I actually feel a lot more anxiety when writing canon characters, because of all the expectations readers have going in.

The advantage I have with this piece is that I'm working with a setting and a milieu that hasn't been discussed in movieverse canon: Xavier's professional life as a psychologist and the mutant situation in Canada. I'm not contradicting anything, or really adding to the ensemble, so I think/hope that readers can accept that Xavier sees patients who don't become superheroes, and that he has colleagues who also handle mutants.

I've had characters try to walk away with the story, and I did my share of Mary Sues when I first started writing. The second is easier to avoid than the first. Even Shakespeare had trouble with characters that wanted to steal all the scenes they were in (paging Sir John Falstaff). I love Joel, and there's a fair amount of me in him, but he's not a Marty Stu, because he doesn't have a life I want. He's not my perfect image of cool.

This story has a miniscule readership, and I knew going in that it would. I don't care because I've had a few good comments, and I'm happy to write for an audience of two if that's all there is for a story that I really love. So I'm sympathetic to Mary Sues, even though I find them funny. I know that sometimes you just really want to write it like this, and screw audience expectations.
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2005 01:13 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing your story and view. I laughed at:

I actually feel a lot more anxiety when writing canon characters, because of all the expectations readers have going in.

Just because I never thought about it like that! I guess with OCs you don't have to worry that someone might think you got the characterization wrong.

Date:May 16th, 2005 09:11 am (UTC)
I write Harry Potter fanfiction, and I've had to introduce four OCs. 1 was esential because I needed an unknown muggle, but JKR has not given us enough other characters that are in school in different years. My characters I doubt are Mary Sues but 1 (Aeryn) is in some ways more important than Harry, but she stays in the background. If there had been canon characters I would have used them, but i was forced to invent.
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Date:May 17th, 2005 05:21 pm (UTC)
I like your OCs a lot, but I did wonder one thing about Jamie and Roseann: was it necessary to make them both top students? I mean, both of them wrote new takes on Othello that blew Scott away. In addition, Roseann is a top mechanic, a "gifted actress", etc., etc. And Jamie is several years younger than the other kids in his gifted class. Adam, too, is a top reporter in his field. Do I recall that Billy is also academically gifted? Oliver, too, is one of the great assets of the Academy.

I happen to like all of these characters so I'm not saying you've written unengagingly. Not at all. But I wonder why they all have so many success cards in their hands.
[User Picture]
Date:May 17th, 2005 05:49 pm (UTC)
Well, that's interesting. I don't think I ever noticed that as a pattern, but I think you're right. Most of my characters are pretty successful, both canon and OC. J-P's a high school drop out, but that's canon. My X-Men all went to good schools after Xavier's and did well. Adam went to Stuyvesant High, which is very hard to get into, and then to Columbia. He and J-P likely would not have met if not for him being successful in his profession. And the Bryn Mawr set all seem pretty accomplished (but that's my experience of women who graduated from Seven Sister schools). Anjuli is obviously very smart and accomplished (but I wouldn't expect Hank to be in love with someone who was not). Hey, Jake's a sports writer, so maybe he's not so brainy (yet still very hot).

Jamie's kind of in a class by himself. He's a prodigy of sorts and doesn't fit in with the other kids because of that. When we first see him he's 12 years old and in the advanced Shakespeare seminar and Jubilee is complaining about Scott letting a "little boy" into the class. Both Scott and Charles express worry about him because of how gifted he is, not just because of the abuse he suffered. It's a big part of why Scott wants Warren to mentor him - he feels Jamie's not likely to get his social needs met by the kids at school.

The rest of the kids I write aren't genius level, but the ones I write most about are smart and good students (when they work at it - Oliver has his ups and downs). I do think, fairly or unfairly, that the kids that teachers tend to get so close to usually are the brighter ones and the kids I write most about are the ones with whom Scott develops a special, mentoring relationship. The kids in Logan's Wilderness Survival Class, other than Jamie, are not portrayed as being particularly academically gifted, but we see them mostly in relation to each other, not the teachers. Anyway, something to ponder...
[User Picture]
Date:May 23rd, 2005 01:10 pm (UTC)
Just found this via metafandom. I gleefully committed all of the Mary Sue sins (love, sex, spotlight) with my OCs when I was collaborating with a friend on an insane amount of stories. I kinda wish we'd published them; I'm still curious as to what the fannish reaction would be. They were not politically correct OCs at all -- different universe, different time, different fucking species. ...actually, I'm still kind of welling up with pride. I think that's the entire reason I'm commenting, now that I think about it -- I feel the need to get the word out somehow. *g*
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