Gather round, children, for the legend of Mary Sue.
Once there was a fan-fic author, whose name has been lost in the mists of time. Some say she, for it’s always a she, wrote Star Trek fan-fic. Others say no, that she wrote Lord of the Rings fan-fic. Regardless of which universe, in her story, a lovely young woman nurses a hero back to health and in return he professes his undying love. Aragorn, Spock, it doesn’t matter — according to this legend, the young lady’s name was Mary Sue.
A Mary Sue is a thinly disguised version of the author. In fan fiction, the author places their avatar inside a well-loved universe for all the characters to interact with, be impressed by, and fall in love with. Before you go all, “I’ve never written that,” yes you have. We all have. Everyone does. It’s part of the learning process. And it’s not just a part of writing fan fiction. Some of the best-loved characters in literary history are Mary Sues.
Case in point: Jane Eyre is a total Mary Sue.
Most writers mock Mary Sues, but they have their place. Your protagonist is going to have a piece of you inside them anyway, and Mary Sues are just that process writ (hah!) large. We write for ourselves, first and foremost, so putting ourselves in the story is a natural step.
Trying to move away from writing a Mary Sue to creating a full-fledged character takes more than changing the hair color or sex or handedness. You have to dig deeper for motivation, which in turn drives plot. How to do that is where the magic happens but a few rules are in order for any character-driven storyline.
- Know what your character wants.
- Don’t let them be buffeted about by the action. Your character must act on their own behalf. When they act, they let you see even more of their character than you previously knew.
- Serendipity. Stay open to the unexpected. Allow your character to do something, well, out of character, and all of a sudden you get new insight.
- Provide your secondary characters with motivations that have nothing to do with the main character. Instantly, in the world you have created, the main character is no longer the center of attention. Once that happens, she or he loses some of that Mary Sue sheen.
These are just some of the ways you can go from writing thinly veiled LotR fan-fic to creating your own worlds. Then the magic really happens — that’s when people start writing fan-fic about your books, and not the other way around!
Good luck, Merry Christmas, and may 2010 be full of high word counts and many writing epiphanies!