Mo (mofic) wrote,

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].
Tags: original characters

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