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When Good Canon Characters Get Sued
Week #11: Canon Sue
Picture this: you come home from another long, grinding day at work or school. At the moment, you’re not in the mood to write anything just yet, so you decide to unwind by reading some Legend of Korra fanfic. You hop into the chair, fire up the computer, head over to your favorite fic site and pick a story you haven’t read yet.
Ten minutes later, you find yourself staring at the computer screen with wide eyes, saying, “O-kaaaay … since when was Korra able to metal bend? And sand bend? And blood bend? And talk to animals? And evade every attack? And fly? And move faster than time? And why is she right about everything all the time? And how does she not get hit once by the forty different chi-blockers she’s fighting all alone? And how come she was able to laugh at Koh and not let that thing steal her face?”
Disturbed by Korra’s sudden god-like abilities, you decide to switch to a different story. You find a Buffy the Vampire Slayer story that sounds good … only to react in horror when you find that in this story Xander is suddenly stronger, is a fighter on par with Buffy, is smarter than Giles, can outthink the enemy, kill the big bad when Buffy is mysteriously unable to, actually does well in all of his classes, and still works in a few quips here and there.
Think back to fics you’ve read over the years—I’m sure this scenario strikes you as all too familiar. Periodically, we all have come across a fic that features one of the canon characters acting out of character and possessing strengths and skills that they don’t ordinarily have.
Congratulations: you’ve encountered Canon Sue.
PART 1: CANON WHO?
Yup. Canon Sue. The half sister to Mary-Sue. While the concept of Mary-Sue applies strictly to original characters created by fans, a Canon Sue is a character that was already created in that universe (e.g. Harry Potter), but has been taken by fans and given more powers. For example, if Harry Potter was turned into a Canon Stu, he wouldn’t be playing second wand to Hermione anymore—he would be the best wizarding student in Hogwarts, the best Quidditch Seeker in Hogwarts history, wouldn’t need the Cloak of Invisibility to sneak out of school, would have taken Voldemort on single-handledly and won, he would have found a way to resurrect his parents … you see where I’m going.
PART 2: SYMPTOMS OF CANON SUE SYNDROME
It’s a little odd; while Canon Sues and Mary-Sues are both supposed to be uber-characters, the Canon Sue doesn’t have as many of the unforgiveable Sue flaws that a regular Mary-Sue has … although a Canon Sue’s flaws are a helluva lot more obvious in comparison.
Symptoms of a Canon Sue include:
· Sudden bold leadership qualities that they have never possessed or demonstrated before in their universe.
· Extreme strength which they never had before (like if Robin was suddenly able to pick up a manhole cover with one hand and whip it like a Frisbee from hell at an oncoming enemy. A manhole cover is about 200 pounds, by the way.)
· Fighting ability that has either greatly improved (improved like the canon character had taken a pilgrimage to a ultra remote Shaolin Temple, spent every day of ten years training under the tutelage of the world’s greatest kung fu master) or that they never had (like the character had gone to the ultra remote Shaolin Temple, the master took one look at them and said, “The hell with it,” so instead they went and found a genie that granted them the ability to fight)
· Magic ability that has improved exponentially or any magic ability at all
· Heightened intelligence in a character that isn’t exactly an idiot but at the same time isn’t exactly a member of MENSA
· Increased sex appeal, suddenly attracting a large number of attractive people that they wouldn’t have ordinarily
· They’ve become braver (this would be like Shaggy and Scooby suddenly being eager to go after whatever creature is haunting the old amusement park this week.)
· They’re suddenly funny when they normally wouldn’t crack jokes
· They’re suddenly cool under pressure, particularly if they’re characters that are supposed to be prone to overreacting.
· They easily find all the missing clues that nobody else could find, even when they’ve all searched high and low
· They might not be the leader of the group, not even second-in-command, but all of the sudden they’re calling the shots and the leaders are strangely letting them (that would be like Xander taking over Buffy’s role as commander in everything from figuring out a plan to sassily back talking to the week’s featured monster, and Buffy’s the one hiding behind a rock in terror)
· If the universe features a team like the X-Men, where they’re all supposed to be working together and have fairly equal parts, the designated Canon Sue outshines them all and is the most heavily featured (so if it’s established that it takes at least ten X-Men to take down one Sentinel, the Canon Sue who normally wouldn’t be able to do it alone will now be able to do it on their own while everybody else either mysteriously/conveniently disappears or are all incapacitated—and I’m talking about a monster of a villain that the character shouldn’t be able to fight alone, not a piddly little jerk like Sabretooth)
· If they’re accident prone in their universe, they aren’t any more in the fanfic. Suddenly, they can walk serenely through a china shop without turning into the proverbial bull, when we all know that in their universe they would have accidentally smashed everything within two minutes of walking in the door.
· If they have a particularly annoying trait in their universe, it mysteriously disappears in the fics.
· If they have an established weakness (like Superman and kryptonite), it won’t affect them as badly or at all in a fic
· Often in a Canon Sue fic, all of the other characters are superbly nice to them, especially if the Canon Sue comes from a universe where they’re picked on a lot
· They often act greatly out of character, becoming tougher when they’re ordinarily gentle, nicer when they’re usually mean, etc.
· Canon Sue is always the hero in the end.
PART 3: WHY SUEIFY A CANON CHARACTER?
At this point, I bet you’re wondering: if a canon character is already established in her or his own universe, why do people turn them into Sues or Stus? Well, you see …
· Reason #1: The author really loves this character, and wants to write a story about them. Their imagination takes off like a bat out of literary hell, and they start adding things that the character ordinarily wouldn’t do or have, or they add things that they think would make the character sound even cooler … as if there was nothing cool about the character to write about in the first place.
· Reason #2: This person really likes this character, but they haven’t spent enough time really researching the show/book/game/movie. They’ve seen juuuust enough of the series to learn the names and descriptions of the cast, but don’t know anything of their backgrounds, personalities or storylines. They start adding in things to fill in the blanks, and think that it’s okay to take liberties on certain details.
· Reason #3: The author has turned the character into a Canon Sue somewhat purposely because the character isn’t especially strong (like Xander or Sokka) and they’re sick of seeing their favorite character get kicked around. It’s like they’re trying to show us that this particular character isn’t a loser, even though not one of us ever thought that way about the character anyways.
· Reason #4: I’ve just discovered that there’s also a rather insidious element of self-insertion here (well, I think it’s insidious), because the author usually identifies with the character so much that they wish that they could be like them, and that leads to the addition of powers that the writer would want, or personality traits that the author themselves has, not the character. For example, somebody watches Doctor Who, and absolutely loves the Tenth Doctor. They start imagining themselves as the Tenth Doctor in every episode. When they sit down to write a fic, they actually start writing a veiled-insert, with the Doctor being their disguise. They then proceed to write about how they—whoops, I meant the Doctor—destroy all the Daleks in the universe using some kind of vicious weapon, which would ordinarily be against the Doctor’s beliefs.
· Reason #5: They’re new at writing, and they’re not good at it yet. Seriously, in most Sue cases, that’s all it is.
What makes a Canon Sue so much more detestable than your ordinary run-of-the-mill Mary-Sues is that people are taking characters that we know well and love as they are and are writing them in such a way that makes them unappealing to us. Altering characters annoys readers who already have a clear idea of who the character is and like them the way they are in their respective medium. We don’t like it when somebody takes an otherwise perfect character and makes them too powerful, or makes them act in ways that we know they wouldn’t behave. People resent that, and you’re not going to like it when they tell you.
My advice? Don’t change the characters!!
Don’t know how to avoid that? Then you’re in luck! Read on!
PART 5: HOW TO NON-SUE YOUR CANON CHARACTER
So you want to write a fic, but you’re afraid of Sueifying or Stuifying your chosen canon character? Fret not! It’s simple:
· First, pay attention to the character in whatever book, show, game, etc. you’re writing about. Watching one or two episodes isn’t enough to write about a character accurately because you haven’t had enough time to learn about them. Watch or read whatever’s available to you. Pay attention to the character’s mannerisms, their personalities, their reactions, speech patterns, fighting style, clothing style, and so forth. If they make clear statements about their values and beliefs, you MUST adhere to them—if they think that it’s wrong to kill Na’vi, you can’t have that character slaughtering the Na’vi wholesale if they attack. If the character in the movie refuses to kill a Na’vi, then that same character must refuse to kill a Na’vi in your story. You might think they should, but if that’s not how they think, then you can’t change that.
· Second, sometimes adding some details are necessary, particularly in cases of characters that don’t speak much or demonstrate much of their personal selves (e.g. Link from The Legend of Zelda, Darth Maul from Star Wars Episode 1, Samurai Jack from Samurai Jack, Vampire Hunter D in Vampire Hunter D). If your canon character doesn’t often express himself/herself verbally and doesn’t reveal any complexity to themselves … well, on paper it’s frickin’ boring. You can add details to stoic characters to make them more readable and relatable, but don’t go overboard. Pay attention to what they do in their universes, all the little reactions or responses. Some characters are more likely to respond with body language as opposed to speaking out loud. Maybe in your story they speak more openly with people they trust well. In some cases, like Link, not much explanation is given to his personality, which leaves a lot to be interpreted. You can build a canon character’s personality, but don’t go overboard. Use what you do know about them, i.e. Link is a noble warrior who strives not only to save the princess and defeat evil, but also to help others in need—so we know that he’s a good person and can attribute positive traits to that. Other things, like phobias, shouldn’t be added unless they’ve been stated in the character’s universe—so if Samurai Jack isn’t ailurophobic in the series, then there should be no reason to have him suddenly running away in terror at the sight of a tiny kitten.
· Third, don’t play favorites. Just because you love Elektra doesn’t mean she should be the biggest bad ass in the story. She does get hurt, she does slip up, she does get tricked—and that’s okay. Making her invulnerable to every wound, making her able to evade every attack, predict every move, makes her unrealistic as a character and makes for a crappy story. People want to read about Elektra’s struggles, they don’t want to read about her breezing through everything. That equals BORING!!! And annoying.
· Fourth, just because you think this particular character needs to catch a break doesn’t mean that the rest of us think so. Okay, sure, Xander does get his butt handed to him periodically, but he also gets up, keeps fighting and pushes on and survives. That’s what makes him a great character. If you change him into something that’s “greater” just ruins an already ideal character. Don’t do it.
· Fifth, yes, there are times when we’ve all come across a character and thought that we’d like to be just like them. That doesn’t give anybody the excuse to do a veiled insert and disguise themselves as the character they like. One you start pretending to be Bolin from Legend of Korra, he stops being Bolin. You start writing in your own behaviors and responses, you take over the character.
That does that for this week—not the longest blog, but it’s important to mention Canon Sues since they’re EVERYWHERE. And wonder of wonders—I actually got it done on time!
Next week (hopefully): Self-Insertion (& Again with the $%#@ing Mary-Sue Litmus Tests)!