Saving the Mary-Sue (& the $%#@ing Mary-Sue Litmus Tests)
Time to Get Down and Dirty
Week #3: Saving the MS & GS: Character Evolution (& the $%#@ing Mary-Sue Litmus Tests)
Most people think that MSs aren’t savable. Especially if you go by the perimeters of what I lovingly (gag) refer to as the $%#@ing Mary-Sue Litmus Tests. I plan on getting into the Litmus Tests some more later on but seriously, if you’re masochistic enough to try one of these damned things, don’t be surprised if you reach the end and then feel as though you never ever want to write again. Never write anything. Period.
Why? Well, let’s say that these anal retentive jackasses—who probably don’t have a single iota of writing ability or talent anywhere in their bodies—sat around, read some crappy fics, rolled their eyes to the sky and sighed, “Oh dear me. I’ve read yet another story that I consider to be atrocious just because I personally disliked this particular OC since she fits MY definition of a Mary-Sue. For heaven’s sake, if only someone had a day to sit around fiddling with Tripod, and had the input of a few other cruel, brain dead non-writers/writer hacks to create a test—some kind of wonderfully brutally unfair litmus test—to weed out everything I consider to be an MS then, why, I—uh, I mean we—can find much more enjoyable fanfic to read. Now who could do such a thing …? Oh, wait! I CAN!!!!”
And I’m serious about the stupidity of these tests. Some of them when put together do sound like a true to the stereotype MS, but other tests that are taken make you think, “Well, Lara Croft does all that stuff that my character does and I never heard anybody complaining about her. How is my character an MS then?” Or, as I found out by randomly picking out 29 answers to a 100+ question test, I was congratulated on having an Uber-Sue and was firmly warned to dump the character and start from scratch.
One question on a test asked point blank if your OC knew martial arts, but did not say why they the testers wanted to know. Another one wanted to know if this person who knows martial arts is unusually young for that skill, but never defined what “skill” was. A style? Technique? Ranking? What? All I could think of when I read that is my little buddy Ajay at my dojo. He’s twelve years old, but he’s attentive and practices and is almost always in class, and as a result he’s on his sixth belt (out of ten.) I’m on my sixth belt too, but I have no shame in saying that he’s better than me. So when I read that question mentioned above, I started to get a migraine.
What’s my point? My point is that most people who outline what they think is a Mary-Sue and think they’re doing the world a greater good by posting these Nazi Litmus Tests are full of crap and they’re destroying writers (they actually had the balls to put out an Original Fiction Mary-Sue Test.) So many people out there, fanfic authors and original ones too, are so bloody afraid of revealing their original characters because they don’t want to suffer unfair backlash.
Well, I want to help.
I’ll agree right now that there are real I-can’t-stand-‘em Mary-Sues out there, the ones that are so ridiculous that one wonders if they’re supposed to be a joke. But there are other good characters that come across as MSs when they shouldn’t be. It just takes some tweaking and what I can best describe as “evolving” for now.
PART 1: WHAT WE’RE AIMING FOR
I firmly believe that 90% of all MSs can be fixed through good writing and development. I understand a lot of you don’t consider yourselves to be good writers, but this part doesn’t take much. There might be times were you must drop something completely, but there are things that can be pared down or meted out as well. Some of it’s theory, others are tips, so you can pick and choose what you want.
PART 2: PICK YOUR SUE
Take any of your OCs that you’ve out in a fanfic (or original story, doesn’t matter) and list who they are, where they’re from, what they do, how they look, etc., and be thorough and honest. No changes yet.
First, look at your character and think about why you wrote her (or him.) When did you get the idea? How did you develop it? Does it resemble you in any strong way? (Note: little things like my character Nyx and I both drinking Coke doesn’t count. Big stuff, like if all of their tastes in music, clothes, family, school, etc., is the same as yours, does count.) What are their powers, if any? Do they have any particular skill i.e. computer hacker, espionage, whatever? Are there any limits to their skills or power? What do they look like? What’s their age, ethnicity, species, etc.?
Use the list from the first two blogs as a guide, and then look for what are major MS traits and list them—again, be honest.
Movin’ along …
PART 3: HOW DO I LOOK?
Part of the problem is that OCs are described in just one fell swoop. It’s basically like “Here’s my character and how she looks physically, have a nice day.” There’s suddenly way too much info. There’s no mystery or hook that would make people want to find out about her.
One of my favorite teachers of all time was Dr. Stocking. He was my writing instructor in high school, and while he liked my stuff he usually scrawled across the front page, “SHOW, DON’T TELL.” He repeatedly but patiently and gently explained to me that at the time I had a habit of just giving the reader a basic description and nothing more. It’s one thing to tell the reader what a person looked like, but it’s another thing to actually describe it. Telling is boring and sometimes overwhelming with details. Showing is interesting and enticing.
Usually when people create an OC they feel the need to just spew out the details and description of this character right away in order to move on with the story—that’s where readers may collectively grunt, “Mary-Sue,” because it seems as though you’re showing off the character to show everyone how awesome they are. There are ways to describe an OC gradually, and it won’t take too much.
· Unless there’s a really good reason to immediately describe your OC’s appearance, deal it out over the next three or four paragraphs. Don’t stuff it all into one or two. If the character is a queen, immediately describe what she looks like because she’s important. If she’s a milkmaid, there’s no need to leap in there and describe her face, body, hair, clothes, and so forth right away. Work it in over the next few paragraphs. It makes people want to know what she looks like and keep reading.
· Unusual traits should be noticed first before everything else. Let’s say your OC has a scar, since they seem to be so popular. If it’s a small one, don’t bother pointing it out right away. That’s for later, but only if it serves a purpose—otherwise, just say that they’re scarred.
Medium scars are noticed briefly, because they add a little more character to, well, your character, but don’t dwell on them if they’re really not that important. Something big like, say, an old vampire wound on the neck should be instantly seen by the other characters.
It’s up to you if the OC points it out right away, or if someone else immediately asks about it, or if it’s seen and everyone chooses not to say anything at the moment. If the OC immediately points it out by themselves and explains why they have it, it sounds boastful, which is annoying. If they notice that people are staring and they want to explain why they have it so everybody will knock it off, cool. These should always be explained.
For example, in my Samurai Jack fanfic, Jack sees a woman who looks exactly like his childhood friend. She doesn’t recognize or remember him but he tells her about a scar she has and why it’s there:
“Miyuki please ….” Jack’s mind raced, trying to remember everything he could about Lady Miyuki. “Miyuki, you have a scar on your right shoulder!”
The woman’s eyes shot open and she clapped a hand over her shoulder, taking a few wary steps away from Samurai Jack. “How did you know that?” she hissed.
“I know because I accidentally gave you that scar when we were thirteen—we were sparring with sais! I caught you by surprise and cut you—”
The scar was pointed out and its existence explained. It served its purpose to show readers that if Jack knew about that scar, then he must actually know who this woman is, thus drawing the reader in further. The woman received the scar from sparring with a samurai, showing that she had some skill and wasn’t afraid to fight back. After that, the scar is never mentioned again. That’s it.
· To drive home the strangeness or uniqueness of the trait, your canon characters should react appropriately. My LOZ/Tomb Raider character Vanessa has gold rimmed pupils as a genetic trait of her people. While it’s barely mentioned in the LOZ fic (because stuff like that is normal there,) it gives Lara Croft a pretty bad jolt, and it’s the first thing she fixes on every time she meets a Cibolan.
· Be subtle—there’s no reason to immediately say, “She also had green eyes.” You could work it in. Try, “She squinted in the sunlight and Hellboy squinted back, straining to see what the color of her eyes were. They looked green to him. More emerald than plain green, but otherwise, they looked green.” Much more engaging.
· If a canon character falls in love with your OC, have them start to focus on the OC’s physical appearance and react appropriately. You could have them notice something:
Right away—Brooklyn starts to fall in love with one of my OC Gargoyles named Bathsheba the second he sees her brilliant smile. She’s beautiful to begin with, but when she smiles her face lights up, brightening his otherwise dark world. In a different story Lexington is instantly attracted to the curvy and ample OC Irene before he even gets to know her. He admits that it’s a “male thing.”
Gradually—Wolverine steadily warms up to my OC Tigress as they spend more time together. Before she was just cute, but Wolvie begins to notice that he likes the way her hair looks when she doesn’t have it in a ponytail, or that she looks hot in a particular pair of jeans. The more he pays attention the more he becomes attracted and starts to love her. It just takes a bit of time, and you’re showing it this way. It makes it more romantic too.
Suddenly—In my LOZ fic Lamia’s Revenge, as Link watches my OC Vanessa treat her cut hand, he looks at every inch of her, going over the physical traits that attract him so much and realizes that he’s in love with her. It just hits him like a Megaton Hammer.
As they see it—both OC and CC secretly look at the things that attract them physically without ever stating it out loud. As they think it the reader pieces together the thoughts to learn how the characters view one another without the characters ever stating anything out loud. They’re the ones providing the physical details of the other character, not the author.
For example, in the case of my OC Nyx (not the comic book one) and Nightcrawler, they’re starting to realize that their mutual attraction is becoming more intense, but they want to keep it a secret from each other for fear of rejection. Struggling to keep herself in check, Nyx sees Nightcrawler washing in a stream:
It wasn’t anything bad … Kurt, well … he was just naked to the waist, washing up, his muscles flexing and tightening with every movement ….
· Downplay the details just a little to better describe a character and at the same time be a little more illustrative. Don’t go crazy with the superb anatomy for your OC because it does sound like wish fulfillment. It’s okay if you’re describing the goddess Aphrodite, but for your OC to have a tiny waist, extremely large breasts, pouty lips and so on, it’s probably too much. If you’re writing a romance story, well, then go nuts. That audience is kind of 50-50 on stuff like that, so you shouldn’t have to worry about that.
· Don’t be blunt. Don’t say, “She was very tall.” Try, “She was tall enough that she could almost stand nose to nose with Goliath.” It helps the reader form a better idea of what the OC looks like without sounding dull or insistent.
Here’s an example of mine from an “Avatar” fic:
Dazed, Jake squeezed his eyes shut against the suddenly agonizing light filtering down above him. Sucking in a breath, he regained himself and rolled over onto his stomach, planting his hands under him.
He noticed the heavy black boots first. Stunned, he froze, then slowly raised his eyes upward, recoiling at the glittering gold ones that stared back.
It was a woman. Jake’s first thought was that he was staring at a human, but it took his brain a moment to process the sight and he gasped, jerking away.
She wasn’t wearing a breath mask … she was breathing Pandoran air as if she had lived there all her life. Staring down at him, the woman’s eyes slitted and she bared her pointed teeth, snarling softly. Her clawed hands tightened around his bow as she waited, seeming to want him to do something. She bared her fangs a bit more, as if in challenge.
Slowly, Jake’s mind began to focus, and his vision raced over the woman’s body. She was human, but he could still see the faint blue stripes running across her bare arms, around her neck and face. She was tall—smaller than him, he could tell, but still tall for a human. Her long light brown hair was braided and slid over her shoulder …
She had the queue tendrils just like the Na’vi!
Shock turned to horror, and Jake slowly raised his eyes to the creature’s again. He felt his mouth go dry.
“What the hell are you?” he whispered.
PART 4: CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
I like dialogues. I really do. They really help establish a character’s personality and their mentality.
If your OC’s from Halo and is in the middle of a firefight, it’s unlikely that he’s going to say to the other soldiers, “Watch out, guys. I’m going to get the Warthog, but it’s over there. I need some cover. Who’s coming?”
He’s a soldier. He’s a fighter. There’s no time for niceties, and his grammar might not be all that great. Who cares? When bullets are shrieking over his head, he’s a little more apt to say, “Shit, we need the Warthog! I think I can get it, but I need somebody to watch my back so I don’t get goddamned bullet through the back of my skull. All right? Any volunteers? We can’t wait any fucking longer!”
But, on the flipside, you can’t have your OCs in Assassin’s Creed walking around Renaissance Venice saying to Ezio, “No prob, dude,” after he asks you to kill somebody. In this kind of setting the dialogue is much more era-appropriate. 21st century speak is not going to fit no matter how hard you try. You’ll have to work the dialogue to fit the time period and location. “No prob, dude,” must be, “Not a problem, amico.” (Or if the Italian’s a pain in the butt, just use the appropriate English variants, i.e. “friend” instead of “amico.”) If you’re OC doesn’t speak this way, they won’t be believable and it’s one more Mary-Sue tag that you don’t need.
Accents are fun, but be careful. In my LOZ story Lamia’s Revenge all of the Sheikahs have a Scottish-sounding accent. Mostly that was just for kicks, but I also wanted to set the Sheikahs apart from the rest of the Hylians. They said things like, “aye,” “lad,” “lass,” and such, but I also knocked off the “g’s” off of every “-ing” since Scottish and Irish accents tend to omit those. The problem was, in my effort to really make the Sheikahs sound Scottish (or Irish) I started removing too many letters and sounds: “here” became “’ere,” “and” became “an’,” “to” became “t’” and so forth. It might sound more authentic, but it was confusing to read so in the fix-ups I corrected a lot of those. It’s tricky to not get sucked into that.
Furthermore, it should be noted that some people like to throw in some words from different dialects. Sometimes this is for authenticity, sometimes this is just to sound cool. Please don’t sound cool. If you try to sound cool, you’ll wind up sounding dumb. Why? Chances are that you won’t really know what those words mean, and it’ll be confusing for the readers that do.
If you decide to throw in a few words to make your story seem more authentic, do your research. Fore instance, if your story takes place in Japan, don’t go throwing “chan” behind every name. “Chan” is reserved for people—especially young people—that you’re affectionate to, kind of like “buddy”. “San” is the equivalent of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” “Sama” is for those who are higher in rank or greatly admired. Therefore, if you greatly respect this person you’re not going to call him “buddy,” or “Mister Sensei Daisuke.” It’s going to be “Sensei-sama” or “Daisuke-sama.”
If you use terminology, don’t use a lot of words in the same paragraph, italicize them to differentiate from the normal dialect, and for God’s sake understand what they mean, and decide how to define them. There are a few good ways of doing this and they’re relatively easy. These are from my VHD fic:
You can state the word and then give clues as to what it is:
She broke free with a leap onto a nearby butsudan, not bothering to ask forgiveness of the spirits enshrined within.
Or what it means using the context of the description or conversation:
“Shit!” Shiori’s claws dug furrows in the ornate railings as she watched creatures emerging from around dark corners, galloping out of shadowy alleys or scrambling over steep rooftops. “We’re going to be surrounded. We’ve got to get out here!”
Seeing her reach for him, the wounded demon batted her hand away and shook his head. “Don’t waste your time.”
“But if they get you--!”
“Lady, look at me.” The guard smiled weakly in the dim, smoky light. “This is a killing blow. I’m gonna be dead in another few minutes anyway. I won’t slow you down.” He waved her away. “Go on.”
Shiori swallowed a curse. She knew he was right, and she hated it.
Quickly, she bowed before the guard. “Domo arigato gozaimashita.”
Forcing a brave smile, the wounded guard could only incline his head in return. “Do itashi mashite. Now, get out of here. I’ll cover you as best I can.”
You can have the narrator describe it:
All had slashed throats, and sword wounds to the solar plexus … they had been attacked from behind. With a ninjato, the sword of the ninja.
You can have the character describe it outright:
Drawing in a ragged breath, Shiori quickly rubbed at her eyes. “We were betrayed. Somebody, a muhonin—a traitor—let the walls fail, and stopped the alarms from being rung. I found dead guards with sword wounds through their backs.”
Or you can have the characters discussing it:
Shiori glanced at him briefly. “I owe you a debt of honor, D, for getting me away from those hunters.”
“I do. It is giri.”
“Man,” the parasite growled disgustedly. “Do you come with subtitles?”
Shiori glared at the Left Hand, but it was D who answered. “Giri is a life-debt, a matter of honor. Keeping it is very important to Tengu demons.”
A faint smile ghosted over Shiori’s lips. “Met some demons before, huh?”
If you have a small term that you will use often, you won’t have to explain it. After Shiori describes what a “muhonin” is and it’s then frequently repeated, it’ll become part of your story’s lexicon, so to speak (no pun intended.) You won’t have to italicize it anymore because now people recognize it, and it’ll look messy and be distracting otherwise. For words that are infrequently used or for long phrases, such as when Shiori thanks the guard for his sacrifice, should always remain italicized. These words are important and need to stand out.
PART 5: HOW OLD ARE YOU NOW?
People have a hard time pinning an age for their characters. Usually, these OCs are younger than what is proper for their story, or they’re too young to be able to do what they’re doing.
Wish fulfillment? Maybe. But then again, a teenager doesn’t know how to write adult characters. Sixteen years old is not thirty-six years old. Different mindset. Different maturity levels. No way to understand what it’s like to be thirty-six until you turn thirty-six. So it’s naturally easier for the fanfic authors to write about characters their own age, frequently unintentionally.
And yet, the problems remain.
When I posted the first draft of my X-Men story Tigress, I actually had a lady email me thanking me for writing about an adult character. She went on to say something to the effect of, “So many people write about these girls who are too young to do certain stuff. I mean, a 14-year-old girl assassin? Please.”
This made me wince a little bit. Why? When I read that note the very first thing I did was think back to the female ninjas called kunoichi. By the time these girls were fourteen years old they were trained to spy, kill, and even seduce their targets. They were assassins.
But, these girls don’t exist anymore (or do they?), so when you write about a fourteen year old girl assassin—and especially place them in our modern era, not feudal Japan, say—it’s not realistic and sounds like wish fulfillment. It’ll come across that the author of this OC wants to be this awesome character and have all the skills and the cool and often twisted past that should come with it. That’s a bad thing.
But, in addition, the X-Men stories very often feature new mutants as teenagers, since their powers often emerge at puberty. Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Beast and Angel were all around sixteen or seventeen when they first appeared and every one of them was extremely powerful. Buffy was first called at fifteen. Anakin Skywalker was eight years old and was already powerful when Qui-Gon Jinn found him. Katara was thirteen and already a strong water bender. Link from Ocarina of Time was ten in the beginning and aged seven years in the Temple of Time, thus turning seventeen (really! That’s how it works!). Cassandra Cain (a.k.a Batgirl) was extremely skilled in the martial arts and killed for the first time when she was five.
And Spider-man was fifteen or sixteen when he got gnawed on by that radioactive spider.
Oh, but let’s not forget about the movie Hanna, which is about a … fourteen year old girl assassin.
If you’re going to write about a young but powerful character, you should probably stick to a story where they’ll fit. I’m not saying that you could never find a way to work it into a story, but realistically, your fourteen year old assassin is probably better off in “The Last Airbender” than in 24. If there are both younger and older characters in the canon universe, match up the ages with the canon characters. For example, Link and Zelda are both seventeen years old, so I made my OC Vanessa seventeen. It made no sense to have a fifteen year old warrior-witch scurrying around Hyrule because it wouldn’t be realistic. Neither Link nor Zelda would have been able to relate to the OC because her maturity level wouldn’t reach theirs, and she’ll come across as a joke to the reader. She’s not realistic, she’s not believable, and now she’s not relatable.
My X-Men OC Nyx (made long before the comic book character) joined the X-Men when she was sixteen, in accordance to the mythos. I aged her another few years in order for her to have a romantic relationship with Nightcrawler, because, though he’s quite the lady-killer, there was no way in hell that he’d have a relationship like that with a sixteen year old (mutant or not, the laws still apply.) If he did, then that would be considered wish fulfillment/self-insert for the author—though if Nightcrawler’s involved, I don’t blame them—and not only would people not believe the situation, they’d get annoyed and stop reading. Because I couldn’t peg Nightcrawler’s age, I just wrote that Nyx was twenty when they began to date and left it at that because it was much more realistic and believable. There are a lot of twenty somethings dating older guys. Look at me—I’m twenty eight and my boyfriend’s forty. If somebody’s too stupid to remember that, ignore them, and then grab a voodoo doll. Use it to make them walk off a cliff.
PART 6: WITH GREAT POWER …
It’s always fun to have your characters be badasses. You like them so much that suddenly your Hellsing OC is stronger than Alucard, can transform into a dragon, is half demon and half human or angel or is Alucard’s child, wields incredible magic powers, better at fighting than anybody else, knows how to use guns and katanas, is a vampire who doesn’t need blood and isn’t affected by sunlight, can turn Alucard back into a human, has telekinetic powers so strong that they can lift an eighteen wheeler and fling it over London’s skyline, is psychic, impervious to gunshot wounds, can conjure weapons out of thin air, can fight fifty ghouls at once, can fly, can use a whip, unaffected by vampire bites, can use weapons that are twenty times bigger than Seras Victoria’s, can talk to dogs, make a mean lemon meringue pie, create a fool-proof attack plan ….
There is such thing as too much power. And it is true that we’ve got a multitude of canon characters that are way too powerful, which understandably leads to the fanfic’s author’s eagerness to create an OC that’s just as awesome.
I think I can help fix that.
Remember how I talked about describing physical traits earlier? That applies to powers too. If you don’t want to overdo your characters, that’s easily fixed. If you’re determined to make your OC the most powerful character in the story right away or at all, then three words: don’t do it.
On your character sheet, look at what you wrote about their powers. Do they strike you as fine or over the top? All the same, they probably need to be fixed.
And away we go!
· Number of powers—for starts, you cannot let them have too many powers all at once. It’s description overload, and it’s annoying to read whether it’s in a single paragraph or in a few dozen pages. The OC, no matter how sweet they are, has too much stuff at the moment. I know that Superman has laser vision, can fly, is super strong, cannot be injured by normal means, can hold his breath for an hour, can run faster than a speeding bullet, has cooling breath (if it’s minty fresh I don’t know,) super hearing, x-ray vision, super hypnotism, and can fly into outer space. I know that. I love Supes. But you have to understand that he gets away with all of this because he’s an established character.
Yours is not.
Superman has been around since the thirties, back when he had booties instead of boots and people accused him of Socialism (seriously.) Back then people suspended disbelief, but nowadays readers want a believable character. They like well written characters that are created and then develop their powers or skills over time. They’re receptive to that.
On the flipside, they’re not so generous to OCs in fan fiction. That’s not fair, but it’s true. Original fic stories/comics/games/and the like have time to develop, but now your OC has invaded a particular universe with its own particular rules and has dumped out all these powers all at once.
Honestly, I have to agree that it’s unacceptable. I, for one, find it extremely annoying when the OC shows up and has every goddamned power imaginable. Why would I want to read about somebody who’s stronger than all of the canon characters combined?
So, how to start? Look at your MS sheet and count how many powers they have. Put in order your favorite powers. If you have more than ten, eliminate them. All of them, even if it’s just one extra trait.
Look at your top ten. Think about your OC and why you want her/him to be this way. What canon universe are they going to be in? Who are those characters and what are their own powers? Look at you MS’s powers and compare them. Now pare it down to five powers.
Now take off two.
You’re left with three powers. Rate each of these as “1” for a little power, to “10” as in “I might have to rethink this.” In your story let them be equal to your characters in either all of the powers, or kind of weak or kind of more powerful with one of them. If they evolve in their powers, it’s better to go slowly then to suddenly have them have phenomenal, cosmic power. If you do that, your readers will put your OC into an itty bitty living space called “Mary-Sue” and never read the story.
So, start with a few powers, less than five at least. Don’t make them wipe out everything around them. Don’t have them steal the show from the canon characters. Don’t make them stronger than the canon character. Explain the powers and how they got them, and be sensible about it. It’s better to expand the powers than to gain more than at least three of them.
· Fighting—Your character doesn’t have to be Jackie Chan. He or she doesn’t need to be the be-all end-all of kenpo karate masters. They don’t need to be top notch snipers or pack a walloping punch. They don’t have to be like the Green Goblin from an episode of Justsomerandomguy’s Youtube vids, stating that he was about to destroy Iron Man “easily, with one punch—‘cuz I can totally do that …”
There is no such thing as perfection, especially in martial arts. A lot of jackasses are out there walking around claiming to be the best in their martial arts class and that nobody could ever take them on. Not even the master could fight them for longer than five minutes … and the very hacked off master will come over and slam them into the ground in exactly 0.37 seconds. Who wants to deal with people like this? While I am proud to say that I’ve never been this way I am also sorry to say that I know someone is like that in my dojo. I can’t stand him at the dojo, so I sure as hell don’t want to be reading about the same smart ass in a fanfic.
Think about your character and the universe they’re going to be in. If your character is going to be a former cop lost in Raccoon City, then there’s really no need for them to be a tenth level master in tae kwon do. They can be, you can mention it, but it’s not going to be useful against something like Nemesis. Your OC kicks him. Nemesis looks down at him, and then squashes him like a bug. Spinning back flips ain’t gonna help you when you’re fighting an 8+ foot monster.
Sometimes the fighting skill has to match the setting in order for the OC to be interesting and believable. My VHD OC Shiori is a highly trained Tengu demon ninja in a clan of highly trained Tengu demon ninjas in a city that is filled with nothing but highly skilled Tengu demon ninjas because historically they really were highly skilled Tengu demon ninjas. She’s one of the best hand to hand and armed fighters, something that is useful when you’re being chased by vampires. Vanessa from Legend of Zelda and Tomb Raider is a good fighter to compensate for her weak magic ability. Miyuki from Samurai Jack is a great fighter because she was forced to learn martial arts at an early age.
On the flipside, the OCs all know that they’re not the greatest fighter out there. Compared to Samurai Jack, Miyuki really sucks at fighting with a katana. Vanessa is good, but she knows she could never take my OC villain Lamia Carna on alone. Shiori might be the best out of these three, but there are a lot of creatures out there that are ten times stronger than she is and she knows better than to go up against them.
Furthermore, all of my OCs aren’t able to block an attack all the time and get hit, punched, cut, kicked, throttled, broken and bloodied. They don’t have force fields around them. They’re mortal. They have bad luck. They get hurt.
There are a lot of fanfic OCs that I found that never even get a nick because they’re so fabulous at fighting. Please don’t do that. Not only is it annoying, it’s also an insult to martial artists like me who have had days where we’re going really great and then we take a punch to the floating ribs. I don’t want to read about someone who’s untouchable. I want to read a story where the hero fights and gets hurt and keeps fighting.
The anime, Kenichi, History’s Mightiest Disciple is a great example of fighting character evolution. Kenichi is a little dweeb who’s sick of being picked on and desperate to impress a well endowed girl named Miu. Miu lives at a private dojo run by her grandfather, and The Elder is so amused by Kenichi’s desperation that he allows the boy to become the student of each of the extremely scary masters. In every episode he’s beaten to a pulp (particularly by my favorite character, the cheery Muay Thai Master Apachai Hopachai, who is also referred to as the God of Death,) but he presses on, becoming a well trained fighter and taking on Odin, the leader of a huge gang of delinquents. He’s not naturally gifted. In fact, he sucks in the beginning. But he works for it and becomes an awesome martial artist.
· Magic—Everybody loves magic. You can do anything with it, right?
Truthfully, no. Your OC is not going to have all kinds of amazing powers. If they did, then what’s the point in having a story? It’s not dramatic if your OC can conjure the weather, speak with animals, divine the future, casts spells with ease, can put up impenetrable magic shields, can heal, bring the dead back to life, create fire and ice and eclipses, so on and so on and so on. If your OC bursts onto the scene with more than three powers, it’s too much. Especially if they’re the greatest spellcasters of all time. If they are, they’ve just taken over the story.
When you give your OCs powers, give them at the very least three. One is best, but if your OC’s in a universe that’s riddled with magic like Harry Potter, you need to let them know a few spells. If they know more than Harry, than you better have a pretty good excuse for it. If the OC’s Dumbledore’s daughter, the idea might work but you’re going to have to describe what she knows and how she learned them.
Magic has its weaknesses and limits too. The limitations add to the conflict of your story. In my Legend of Zelda fanfic Lamia’s Revenge, my character Vanessa is from a lineage of witches and is predisposed to magic. Unfortunately, magic training begins when the witch is three, and Vanessa wasn’t able to begin her training until she was thirteen. She might never fully develop and control all of her powers, but she has the natural ability to heal and uses that above everything else. Even so, she can’t make injuries just vanish, and she can’t always save a dying person. It’s just something she has to live with.
· Intelligence—Your OC shouldn’t be a rocket scientist. If your OC is in a Half Life fanfic and they’re another physicist, then yes, they should be smart. It’s a bad idea to make them smarter than Gordon Freeman, but you could put them on par. If you do make them smarter (be careful that if you make them smarter that you also don’t make them sound arrogant), make sure that they’ve lost huge chunks of info or they’ve discovered a formula that only Freeman could solve. If your OC is a survivor running for their life, they can be street smart and they can know all sorts of things, but they shouldn’t be able to understand complex nuclear theorems. Not likely. If you can make it work and make it sound plausible, then do it.
· Talent—People are talented. Your OCs can be talented too, but you shouldn’t deluge people with this information, and you run the risk of making them too talented. If Jane Doe is an excellent singer, that’s fine, but you don’t need to go and show that in a fic that takes place in “Underworld.” Unless there’s a scene in your story that requires Jane Doe to sing, leave it out. Don’t even mention it. If your OC has talents that have nothing to do with the story, don’t mention them. The more talents an OC has, the less believable they’ll be and they’ll be seen as self inserts or wish fulfillments.
PART 7: MY PERSONALITY? I WOULD DESCRIBE IT AS …
Overall, Mary-Sues are great to be around. They’re happy, friendly, kind, sweet, funny, charming, attractive and lovable. They’re the kind of person that if they were real, you’d either love them or take a bat to their head.
You cannot have an OC that it is perfect in emotions and personality. Why? Because it’s not real. The people who act that way all of the time are faking it. There’s always a time when they’re going to be upset and won’t show it until they explode. Really real people like the rest of us, are complex. We have ups and downs. We can be friendly, but we can also be shy. We can be happy, but we can also be cranky. Some of us aren’t very attractive personality-wise. Some of us are charming when we want to be. If I ever meet anybody who fits all of traits listed at the very top and are like that for real, then I’m going to be scared.
I don’t know why so many MSs have personalities like this. Self insertion? Possibly. I think a good reason might be is that the author is trying to make their OC likeable.
Your OC can be likeable without being sappy. You can also keep this character from being a total jerk, ‘cuz that’s another trend (discussed in Week #4.) The trick is to make your OCs behave the same way normal real people do.
You should have listed personality traits on your MS list. Count how many you have and number them. How many have her/him as being so friendly that the CCs are automatically drawn to them? How many times do they make people laugh? Are they able to console everybody who’s sad, angry or in pain? Are they so happy that it’s infectious? Are they always very caring of others?
Okay, while I want to talk about this more at length in Week #4, it must be quickly addressed here. You cannot have your characters have a perfect personality. Make them friendly, but a little unsure. Make them force themselves to be cheery even though something bothers them. They can be sweet and funny, but they can also be guarded and easily annoyed. If they’re startled, it’s okay to make them squawk. If they’re mad, they can either yell or seethe. If they’re sad, they can cry outright or leave so others don’t see.
But that’s just a basic head’s up for next week, really.
PART 8: EVERYBODY TO THE LIMIT
Again, this is more appropriate for next week but it must be briefly addressed here. And I would dearly like to begin with this: NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER make your character stronger than the villain. EVER.
Why? WHO IN THEIR FREAKIN’ RIGHT MIND wants to read a story where the OC hero is more powerful than the villain? What kind of a story is that? Where in the flaming blue hell did the story go? There’s no story!!! What the hell?!!
I don’t know if you noticed that I don’t like this one. It really bugs me. Your character cannot be stronger than the villain. Without conflict and struggle, there is no story. It’s not worth reading. You can have your OCs develop and grow stronger over time or find something to help them or they could take the villain by surprise, but they cannot be physically or magically stronger than or know the villain’s every bloody move before it’s made. They cannot be better at martial arts or weapons until they have suffered various defeats and then resolve to train harder and become more skillful.
Villains are there to be defeated. They’re not there to be squashed in five minutes. They can be taken by surprise and they can be stunned and they can be wounded or they could be lacking in certain powers, but your OC absolutely cannot be stronger than the villain. They can’t. I can’t stress that enough.
In addition, if your OC has some degree of power, you must have a limit on them. Superman has kryptonite, the Green Lantern has the Yellow Ray, and your character must have a weakness. Maybe their powers only work or work best at night, like my OC Nyx. Maybe they use fire but they’re weakened by ice. Maybe the prolonged use of the power exhausts the OC. Maybe being around a certain object weakens them. You get the idea for now.
PART 9: WHAT’S IN A NAME?
This is a complicated one. It can be difficult to find a fitting name for your OC, but many people fall back on adjectives or translatable names or names that are oddly spelled.
In the real world, this isn’t so weird. I found alternate spellings for a lot of real names, like Cyndi, Dakoda, Chazzmyn, Jaxson, Kayleigh, Zakary, so forth. MS haters claim that if your OC has an unusually spelled name, it’s the dreaded mark of a Mary-Sue. I’ve always had a hard time believing that because so many kids have these wacky misspelled names anyway. Plus, in original fantasy stories, it’s very hard to find a real, actual name for a character. Frodo, anyone?
My advice to those who like misspelled names—be very careful about what you choose for your fanfic. I don’t mind odd names so long as they are aren’t difficult to recognize. “Erika” would be an acceptable variant of “Erica” to me. “Tielyor” for “Taylor” is not. (No offense intended to those people who have these names, it’s just difficult to recognize as a real name.) If you’re writing a story that takes place in Middle Earth, you can have fun with the unusual spellings because it’ll look like an ordinary name for that universe. Otherwise, stop it.
Another complaint is that people use what I guess I can describe as virtuous names that describe who the person is or what their personality is like. These names are things like Joy, Chastity, Hope, Faith, and others. They’re pretty names and they’re often used in our real world, but in the end they’re not very creative, and you’re more likely than not to name your character based on that particular virtuous name.
“Joy” means joy, right? If you name a character who happens to be very happy 90% of the time, your readers are going take one look at it and sigh. They don’t want to be tipped off right away as to what your OC’s personality is like.
Some authors deliberately choose a real life name that has a particular meaning to it. If their character is a warrior, they might name him “Harvey,” because it means strong warrior. On a Litmus Test it was noted that this is a sign of Sueism, which I don’t get because unless you happen to have the 60,000 Baby Names book sitting next to your computer, who’s going to know?
Lastly, many people name their OCs after characters in mythology or legend, because either they’re related to a deity in some form, they’re chosen by a deity, they have similar powers, or the name represents the traits for a particular character or the name itself is just neat. I don’t have a huge problem with this concept, but it’s not very original in the long run. Sometimes naming your OC after a god is pretentious. It appears as though you’re actually trying to make your character “godly” in that way.
My first Gargoyle OC was named Athena. She was named Athena because I couldn’t find a better name for her at the time. She wasn’t godly. She didn’t have any amazing powers or anything like that, but she was smart. She had been a mentor in the past and in the future Athena helped Hudson train the Rookies how to fight. She was skilled and could be a good leader when it was required. She eventually learned how to use a little magic to help fight or trap enemies. She wasn’t a goddess, and I didn’t intend to make her seem like one. And the only reasons I changed her name were that the goddess herself was a character in another book so I wanted to keep them separated, and I plan on making Awen a legit character anyway.
And yet, even with the twenty points removed because of the name change, the Tests still brand her a Sue.
PART 10: BUT IT WAS FUNNY, HUH?
In TV, movies, comics and games, the most popular characters are the funny ones. Avatar the Last Airbender had Sokka. Buffy had Xander. There was Captain Jack Sparrow and Indiana Jones, for starters.
So it’s no surprise that so many MSs out there are or supposed to be funny. Humor’s not an easy thing to write, but we’ve been given the impression that since the time man painted on cave walls, there is always going to be a character who is funny. Nearly every damn movie, tv show, video game, comic book—hell, even Shakespeare—has a character who is brave tough, and funny.
Characters who are talented in cracking jokes and making wry observations are the ones that make people feel more comfortable and at ease. Generally speaking, most of the funny characters are secondary. Aang’s helming the metaphorical ship, but it’s Sokka that steals the show. He might spazz, but he’s also the one can put the rest of the Aang Gang at ease, even if he is staring down the snout of a badger-mole. Main characters that are funny are the defiant ones, the unworried, the cool and collected.
But don’t go thinking that your character has to be drop dead hysterical.
There are people who won’t be able to write a hilarious scene in their story, so if you’re one of them right now I’m going to tell you to don’t sweat it. Do yourself a favor, and don’t go driving yourself crazy trying to describe the perfect joke or scene. The more you stress on it, the worse it’ll be, and then nobody will understand it.
One liners are great, but they’re difficult to think up sometimes, so if they’re not important, don’t worry about it. If your OC is from the James Bond universe which requires at least one clever quip, then you should think of something. If your OC is from Silent Hill (twitch twitch) then there’s no point in having the person make wisecracks all the time when those weird I-don’t-know-what-the-f###-those-ugly-bastards-are-and-I-don’t-think-I-want-to-find-out come trundling out of an alley in the thousands to chase your OC down the street.
Humor also serves as a way to show how cool and collected the hero is no matter what she or he is up against. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy and his Dad are captured by Nazis and held at gunpoint. When the beautiful Dr. Elsa Schneider remarks that she didn’t expect to see him again, Indy smirks and says, “I’m like a bad penny. I always show up.” His witty response and wry smile shows that he’s unafraid of the situation around him, and the audience, laughs in relief because they know Indy’s confidence remains strong.
On the other hand, humor can also help keep your character in check so that he doesn’t come across as Gary-Stuish (or Mary-Sueish). This is from a fic I wrote for my brother James about his X-Men OC character Blitz, a teenager who can control electricity:
One day, Storm had been giving a lesson to some kids on the other side of the compound, while James and Gambit tried to zap targets near the woods. Storm summoned a lightning bolt--and it immediately ripped across the sky and blasted straight into James, taking him screaming off of his feet! Gambit later found his sneakers, melted to the spot where James had stood before the lightning struck.
Since then, kids at school have been calling him ‘The Rod’, and James was afraid that was going to be his nickname now.
He was terrified of hurting someone. The more nervous he got, the harder it was to manipulate the electricity. He couldn’t focus, and things around him would go haywire. Blenders would start up, toasters would start popping, lamps would blink on and off a few thousand times then burst, the microwave would ding wildly, televisions would turn on and off while computers powered up and down and printers spat out yard after yard of paper. The first time that happened, James tore out of the mansion, screaming at the top of his lungs, “It’s the Amityville Horror!!!!!”
One more thing: be sure to keep your OC from going over the top. Don’t make them crazy or crass or stupid, and don’t let them out-joke all of the canon characters all of the time.
PART 10: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
I know I always talk about being “relatable.” That’s something that I should have put first, but I already numbered all the parts so I don’t wanna go back do them all over again.
What I mean by “relatable” is simple: you want people to like your characters. Your readers might nod sympathetically when Cloud from Final Fantasy 7 sadly but firmly turns the OC away, leaving her feeling wretched and wishing that she hadn’t approached him like that. Or, as sad as it makes her feel, she does leave him be. Or she’s embarrassed and just wants the earth to swallow her. Or she’s irritated because she thinks that it’s time he moved on. Or she could be so mad at the rejection that she can’t even see straight. We’ve felt stuff like that.
The best fictional characters are the ones that we can see ourselves in. They’re the ones that are believable. We relate to characters like Buffy because we know what it was like to be in high school (sans monsters, I hope), what it was like the have good and bad romances and terrible school lunches and principals that were so vile you would swear that they were in league with some diabolical force. Buffy and the crew were teenagers who grew up suffering through the same annoyances that we did … only they had vampires.
People relate to Mulder of The X-Files because he stands up unflinchingly against a greater power. He believes in the truth and will fight to find it at almost any cost. He’s loyal and he’s dogged. He’s also often refuted, denied, ignored or considered to just be nuts. He can be socially awkward at times as he sometimes can’t keep his dedication for his job apart from his normal personality and vice versa. When he’s anxious he chews on sunflower seeds like a mad man. When he’s in a good mood he jokes. When he’s in a bad mood he might be sarcastic. When Scully pokes a hole in his theory, Mulder glares briefly but always comes up with a new idea. We can relate to that.
PART 11: I’M NOT CRYING, I JUST HAVE SOMETHING MY EYE … (SNIFFLE)
Emotions are interesting and complicated. You can’t have your characters be so perfect emotionally that they’re robotic. People cry. They get mad and scream. They get happy and then they get sad. Every day they feel different emotions. And we know how to write ‘em.
So make them have different emotions. Just don’t make them so extreme in one way or another because they’ll make your reader uncomfortable. If you intend on making your OCs normal emotionally—as you should—then have them respond the way that you or relatives or friends would to a situation. If your OC drops a lasagna upside down on the floor, don’t make them just shake their head and say, “Oh dear,” before cleaning it up. Describe the reaction. Make them gasp and jump back in fright, make them groan in disbelief, make them growl or swear in anger, make their eyes well up with tears a bit because they spent so much time making that lasagna … you get the idea.
As far as the negative emotions are concerned—anger, rage, misery, sadness, irritation, fear—should match the situation. Don’t make your character so brave. We real people aren’t always so brave. A cop might be able to stand before a criminal’s drawn gun without flinching, but he might be quaking with terror on the inside. A plucky teenage girl might be smiley and bubbly, but she might change into a raging bitch when she finds out that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with her best friend. A little boy might be miserable because his gerbil died, but he might be a defiant hellion otherwise.
When writing emotional scenes, don’t state that “So-and-so was sad.” Describe it in the scene using expressive terms. Build up to it. Write the scene so that you “show” instead of “tell.”
Here’s a scene from my Gargoyles fic Newa 12:
Newa 12’s eyes no longer glowed, the deep pink irises staring out at nothing, but still retaining the horror she felt as she died.
The eyes broke Awen’s heart. She felt a sob rising in her chest as she gently closed her daughter’s eyes and mouth, carefully tilting the corpse’s head so it rested against Awen’s bloodied shoulder.
Awen cradled the body of her dead daughter, unconsciously rocking back and forth, staring down at the office building’s roof.
Hopefully this passage leads you to understand that Awen is grief-stricken over the death of her cloned daughter. I didn’t need to say, “Awen was sad.” I noted that Awen’s heart was broken and she felt a sob in her chest. I showed you that she loved her daughter by resting Newa’s head against her shoulder and rocking her back and forth as though she were an infant. I showed that she was in shock by having her stare down at the rooftop.
I made an effort to illustrate the scene rather than just stating how badly Awen felt. Writing this way builds up the overall feeling of sadness that the reader can feel than by just throwing it in their faces.
It’s been almost three weeks, but I finally got to post this. I think I covered everything. I’ll try to be more prompt with next week.
More by this Author
Did you know there's such thing as a Mary-Sue villain? Yup, a villain that's incredibly evil and impossible to stop and has zero depth or motivation. If you have an MS villain, time to fix it!!
A common accusation regarding Mary Sues is that they're just a stand-in for the authors themselves. Hey, guess what? That's not a bad thing--and a lot of famous authors are guilty of the same thing.
How a sixteen year old girl helped write American history.