Who's Afraid of the Mary-Sue?

In Defence of OCs


We've all heard of Mary-Sue*. Critics typically describe her as 'boring as hell ... an expression of self-absorption' (The Divine Adoratrice), while all fanwriters who create original characters (OCs) live in her willowy-yet-voluptuous shadow. This brief essay attempts to see whether OCs can be rescued from The Curse of the Mary-Sue.

If I may be permitted to start by stating the obvious, writers for many television series have been known to use OCs from time to time. Indeed, a fairly standard episode format in series such as Smallville or Angel involves the introduction of a one-off character the explication of whose problem or gifts forms the A-plot of the episode. Often these characters would score highly on a Mary-Sue litmus test:

So, why are fan-written OCs so universally reviled?


The Curse of the Mary-Sue

A number of different arguments against OCs in fanfiction have been aired in my hearing. The argument that might be summarised 'All Female Original Characters are Mary-Sues... Yuk!' comes high on the list. (Female OCs generally seem to come in for the most stick, probably because the vast majority of writers and readers in most fandoms are women.) Personally, I think this is a rather irrational response. To my mind there's a big difference between a Mary-Sue, which I would define as a non-canonical character that is unrealistically idealised (whether or not s/he acts as a surrogate for the author), and a realistic OC of either gender with an interesting personality in his/her own right.

There are several attempts at realistic, fleshed-out OCs in fanfiction. A selection of examples in fandoms I'm familiar with:

The characters I've mentioned don't seem to have a lot in common (besides a general lack of violet eyes) -- and perhaps that's the point. They fit into their respective universes, have good points and flaws, hopes and fears. They're integral to the story that the author's trying to tell -- and that story doesn't usually involve the OC saving the universe three times before breakfast, nor inspiring undying devotion from one or more of the regulars. (It's probably worth mentioning that I'm not alone in my liking for the above stories; several have won or been nominated for awards.)


'If you want an FSA-trained pilot, why not use Tarrant?'

Another, perhaps more rational, argument against introducing OCs is that most sources provide a considerable range of characters. To take the example of Del Tarrant (Blake's 7), one might wish to elucidate aspects of Tarrant's character by contrast with someone shaped by a similar background who's made different choices. One might like to portray Tarrant's response to a character sharing his skills and background. One might want to put the character into situations where canonical Tarrant won't fit, for reasons of age, or whatever.

In some sources, at least, the range of characters doesn't seem to be complete, as discussed later.

The flip side of 'always use the series characters', of course, is that many novice writers simply write themselves in through one of the series regulars with whom they identify. The phenomenon is so common that she's even acquired a name of her own: Willow-Sue (from BtVS's Willow Rosenberg). In Smallville she's Chloe, or Martha for more maternal writers; in Blake's 7 she's probably most often Cally, or perhaps these days Avon; in LoTR perhaps Sam Gamgee or Legolas (though smart bets are on Éowyn as soon as the Peter Jackson version of The Two Towers is released). One-off characters occasionally get the same treatment, eg Levett in 'Seven Days to Destiny' by Vega (Blake's 7) springs to mind (though, for all that, I found the story an enjoyable read). In the process of Willow-Suification, the canonical characterisation becomes stretched, sometimes to breaking point. (One might therefore argue that OCs, even the most overt of Mary-Sues, should be welcomed because they distract the novice writer from character raping the regulars.)

A certain amount of responsibility for the whole phenomenon, in some cases at least, rests with poor characterisation provided by original writers: Chloe could well be a young Lois Lane with a bottle of peroxide, Cally's character seemed to get lost somewhere between Auron warrior and Earth mother, salt-of-the-earth Sam Gamgee can sometimes feel a bit of a cliché, while many one-offs don't get the screen time necessary to develop their character beyond the immediate demands of the plot. Tighter initial characterisation reduces the character's elasticity and makes distortion more obvious to the writer, as well as the reader.

A related argument against OCs is that fanfiction should restrict itself to the series characters -- after all, that's what readers are 'paying' to read about. An alternative phrasing of this point might be that if writers want to write OCs then they should write original fiction instead. Clearly, in web-published fanfiction, readers are paying only in terms of metered access and time spent reading (and even in printzines I doubt anyone is making much profit); however, there is a point here. Most fanwriters who choose to publish their stories wish to please (entertain, inform) their audience. Writers, such as myself, who choose to write OCs would therefore do well to look hard at what the use of an OC can offer in the context of fanfiction.


What an OC can do for you

There's the villain and the victim, of course, which serve as the plot-hooks around which the action/adventure unfolds. Following the pattern set by various television series, many action/adventure fan-stories have one or more OCs in these roles. A couple of good examples might be Jennifer-Oksana's Daisy in 'The Blue Dahlia' (Angel), and Miranda and Ariel Caldwell in 'The Sixth Hour' by Tara O'Shea (Smallville). Villain/victim OCs are often underdeveloped: bland one-dimensional ciphers with little or no plausible motivation for their actions, existing only to allow the regulars to shine. In some stories this isn't a problem. However, such characters can be indistinguishable from those in other stories, when a few well-chosen details might make the story stand out. More complex, morally ambiguous characters in the villain/victim role can give the opportunity for the regulars to explore moral dilemmas (as, for example, in the BtVS episode 'Lie to Me'). Lack of proper development of the villain/victim arc, in favour of showing its effects on the regulars, can make the story feel structurally unbalanced or even incomplete.

In my opinion, OCs can have several benefits beyond the above relatively uncontroversial role.

They can provide a character type missing from the source itself. For example, in Smallville, a suitable (and legal) partner for Lex (Jenn's Lena in 'Three Impossible Things'); in Blake's 7, more typical examples of a Delta grade (Executrix's Tom Weston in 'Venezuela') or a Federation officer (Ika's Siv Holland in 'With/out Blake'); in LoTR, a rank-and-file Ranger (Miss Padfoot's Halforth in 'Exile'). Several sources have a paucity of well-developed female characters, LoTR being a good example; stories such as Isabeau of Greenlea's 'Captain My Captain' attempt to redress this balance.

For sources with historical, sf or fantasy settings, OCs allow the exploration of different aspects of the source universe. My nameless OC in 'The Mutoid's Tale' was created to give an insight into the life of mutoids serving in Space Command; Ika's Della experiences political and sexual repression in the Earth Domes in 'Future Perfect' (Blake's 7). Magda is caught between different cultures in the hierachical and multi-racial society around Bree in 'Magda's Tale' by Meg Thornton; RiikiTikiTavi's Terisda negotiates the pitfalls of being a war widow in Gondor aristocracy in 'Stardust' (LoTR). OCs can also be used to portray the history of the source universe: Epsilon's story 'To Live or Die' explains the origins of vampires and slayers via a five-thousand-year-old demon called Mera, while 'Never Again' by Christina uses Eighth Century slayer Helena to fill a gap in slayer/watcher history (BtVS). The minor characters who populate the streets and bars of Metropolis or Minas Tirith would also fit here.

An exaggerated OC can provide a touch of humour, either straight, eg Shrift's 'Uncle Einar' (Smallville) and Alawa's Keeper in the Houses of the Dead ('The Jewel in the Crown'; LoTR), or 'meta' (Mary-Sue parody), eg Astrid in Marian Mendez's 'Flattery' (Blake's 7), without necessarily sending up the series regulars.

Lastly, OCs provide the opportunity to look at the series characters and their relationships from the outside. Such a fresh perspective can often be revealing. Of course, there are many other ways of doing this -- setting stories before the characters met or in an alternate universe; using a universe-appropriate device such as amnesia, drugs, a spell or time travel; using the PoV of a series one-off or crossover character all come to mind -- but each of these solutions comes with its own built-in limitations/disadvantages. I suspect this is the rationale for a high proportion of serious OCs; a few representative examples might be Corinna's Brother Xiao in 'Ang-Nuo' (Angel), Alison Page's twelve-year-old girl in 'The Young Ladies' Home Companion' (Blake's 7), Isabeau of Greenlea's Hethlin in 'Captain My Captain' (LoTR) and Jon Wolff's Elizabeth Ellington in 'Lonely is the Man...' (Lois & Clark). (The last is an interesting example of a female OC with some of the characteristics of a classic Mary-Sue which appears to have been written by a male author.)

It's probably my final rationale that is most likely to get writers into trouble with the Mary-Sue police -- especially when the OC eschews the passive lens approach (exemplified by the PoV characters in Rheanna's 'In the Waiting'; Angel, or Blair Provence's 'Not Even Jimmy Olsen'; BtVS) and dares to participate actively in the story or, even more heinously, to have a close relationship with one of the principals. There's a delicate balance to be drawn for such characters. To plausibly interest the 'super-characters' of the source and to survive in their turbulent world, the OCs need to exhibit a range of super-characteristics themselves. Moreover, to develop them as fully-rounded individuals with believable motivations for their actions, they need to be given plenty of 'screentime', inevitably at the expense of the regulars. Yet these are two of the most disliked characteristics of Mary-Sues. The most important criterion is probably: does the OC (and his/her attributes) exist to serve the plot, or vice versa?


'I'm going in'

Like 'em or not, authorial insertion characters (avatars, surrogates, projections) form a subset of OCs. Wish-fulfilment fantasies are probably rightly reviled (all very well for the bedroom, but hey -- let's keep them there?). However, not all authorial insertion characters represent wish-fulfilment fantasies, and a realistic portrayal of the author in the source universe has the potential to be interesting. The character Rel in my own 'Ash Wednesday' (Blake's 7) falls into this category -- she's unashamedly based on me, but a me shaped by a dystopian universe into a form that not even my most masochistic fantasies would enjoy. There are multiple humorous takes on a similar idea, where a realistic version of the author (love handles/grey hairs and all) gets to meet the character of his/her dreams. Things rarely go well.

Everyone brings their own experiences to their writing. The characters one invents often bear some resemblance to oneself, or at least to facets of oneself. No-one seems to object to an autobiographical element in mainstream fiction, so why all the fuss in fanfiction? Aren't the benefits of well-written OCs, whether author derived or not, worth risking the occasional violet-eyed, ivory-skinned, silky-haired, telepathic concert pianist who bops the Mutant of the Week/fixes the teleport malfunction using only a hair-pin/stakes vampires ambidextrously/single-handedly dispatches the Balrog -- all without breaking a perfectly manicured nail -- while Lex/Avon/Angel/Aragorn gazes at her in silent awe? There's always the back button.

22 September 2002


Thanks to Executrix, Kathryn Andersen, LJC and Una for feedback on earlier drafts; to members of the Smallville Fanfiction Recommendations, Henneth Annûn and Better Buffy Fiction lists for suggesting well-written OCs; and finally, to members of various Blake's 7 lists for interesting discussions on OCs and Mary-Sues over the years.

Comments welcome -- please send them to: firerose@fireflyuk.net


*If you haven't, then Pat Pflieger's insightful essay 'Too Good to be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue' will fill you in on her characteristics and history. A categorisation of Mary-Sue subspecies can also be found in Richard Pugh's article 'Look Out! It's Mary-Sue!' .


Fiction discussed

Blake's 7

Executrix 'Venezuela', forthcoming in ttba2 (Tavia, ed.)
Firerose 'Ash Wednesday' in ttba (Tavia, ed.)
Firerose 'The Mutoid's Tale' in I, Mutoid (Emma Peel, ed.)
Fran 'A Star is Born' in Sleer as Folk (Fran, Ika, eds)
Ika 'Future Perfect' in Sleer as Folk (Fran, Ika, eds)
Ika 'With/out Blake' in Trooper Orac's Fantastic Plastic Army (Neil Faulkner, ed.)
Mendez, Marian 'Flattery' in Pressure Point (Neil Faulkner, ed.)
Page, Alison 'The Young Ladies' Home Companion' in Stadler Link (Neil Faulkner, ed.)
Penny Dreadful 'Relations' in I, Mutoid (Emma Peel, ed.)
Vega 'Seven Days to Destiny' in Star 3 (Judith Proctor, ed.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) and Angel

Christina 'Never Again'
Corinna 'Ang-Nuo'
Epsilon 'To Live or Die'
Jennifer-Oksana 'The Blue Dahlia'
Nostalgia 'Dig for Victory'
Provence, Blair 'Not Even Jimmy Olsen'
Rheanna 'In the Waiting'
Yahtzee 'Phoenix Burning'

Lord of the Rings (LoTR)

Alawa 'The Jewel in the Crown'
Isabeau of Greenlea 'Captain My Captain'
Miss Padfoot 'Exile' (WiP)
RiikiTikiTavi 'Stardust'
Thornton, Meg 'Magda's Tale' (WiP)

Smallville and Lois & Clark

Jenn 'Three Impossible Things'
O'Shea, Tara 'The Sixth Hour'
Punk 'Interstitial'
Shrift 'Uncle Einar'
Wolff, Jon 'Lonely is the Man...'

References updated 25 June 2004.

Note: some of the linked stories are R or NC-17 rated.


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