Fix 1: Pepper Jack Cheese

There are all kinds of problems with Mary-Sues, but we’re going to tackle them one at a time. Today I’m helping you tinker out one that plagues a lot of Mary-Sue fanfiction, Pepper Jack Cheese!

Anyone who reads Pottersues know what this means, but if you don’t, Pepper Jack Cheese is when the writer puts some of their own personal tastes on an original character, thereby making that character an OOC Mary-Sue. For our purposes, let’s expand this phrase to an author writing a character, any character, to share the same interests as them. This sometimes happens when the character is a self-insert (see the infamous “My Immortal”). But it doesn’t have to apply to Self-Insert characters; it is a part of the phenomenon though. Whenever an author applies their own interests to a character invariably the author writers a scene including said-thing, and making the story seem disjointed. It can range from completely bastardizing an original character to merely having a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment (TVTropes it up).

Pepper Jack Cheese and Self-Insert are both closely related, in that they came from the same (generally not great) advice to “write what you know”. This is a problem that plagues not just fanfiction, but all amateur writing. One of the first things any writer is told is to “Write what you know” (WWYK). In some ways this isn’t bad advice. I waited start a Yugioh RP until I’d seen at least the first series arc, and then waited to write fanfiction until I’d gotten at least halfway through Battle City (for people who don’t know Yugioh, that’s the first two season). I can’t say I was fantastic when I started, but I at least had some information under my belt. I knew what I was talking about.

This is not how most people take WWYK. They take it that they should write about their lives. Let me state right now that most people don’t want to read about living a normal life. They live normal lives themselves. People read to go on adventures, ranging from murder mysteries, to fantasy, to Sex in the City. Normal People like seeing characters (who they can often identify with on at least some level) doing things that the Normal People will not ever be able to do. This is why a lot of professional writers disparage WWYK. Fantasy writers do write what they know: they write people, they do insane amounts of research, they combine their imagination (which has over years of work has created worlds and people) with real world understanding of stuff like sword fighting, religion, psychology,etc. They do in fact WWTK, but they did a lot of work to be able to do it.

A lot of new writers don’t consider that WWYK means that you have to research on something. They’re writing about themselves! Who knows them better than them? The answer to that is that it’s completely possible that other people know them better, as space lends to a better understanding of an overall picture; and that most people don’t want to be seen as ‘bad’, so they trump up their positive traits. Very few people are able to be completely honest about themselves. Humans are either overly kind, or overly harsh on their views of themselves. Mary-Sues are born from this.

Back to the point of Pepper Jack Cheese. The problem comes with PJC when it 1) completely mirrors the author’s interests and 2) derides the plot. The truth is that all characters have part of the writer in them. Your characters are a part of you. In order to grow you have to be honest with yourself and often find and admit your own faults. Same thing with your characters. You are basically growing little 2.5 dimensional people in your mind. In the same way that babies will always have some of their parents traits, simply due to genetics (which is even stronger if the child is raised by said parents), your characters will always have some of your traits. The trick is to narrow it down to only a few.

Now, if you’re writing a cannon character and want to give them an interest you have, then 1) you better have a damn good reason (of which are not anything similar to ‘I want to’, ‘it will make them more relatable’, or ‘it’s my fic’) and 2) you have to be sure it adds to the plot. Otherwise, it’s just deadwood and unnecessary.

If you’re writing an OC character, the above apply to some extent, but OC characters are a lot more a part of the author than a cannon character. An OC character can become a character for your own original stories later (that’s how most of my characters came into existence anyway). As such, it’s so much easier to give them a lot of your own interesting. Here’s the best advice I can give you: everything in moderation.

Those three words sum up most of the problem with a Sue: she will have little moderation. Now I can say that over and over till I’m blue in the face, but people need specific examples to bounce off and get their minds going, which is why I’m writing this blog.

What you must understand is that a character having your own interests is not bad. In fact it helps with the research process. What you want is to give them a reason for the couple (only a couple) of interests that they have in common with you. For instance: I have an OC for Harry Potter. She’s interested in Genetics (something I find very interesting). The difference is that she cares way more than I do. I like the study, but not enough to read a lot about it. She cares enough study it even while she’s at Hogwarts. She also likes History. I like history. The difference is that I like Russian, Scandinavian, and South American history. She likes British History, something I couldn’t give a damn about. Thankfully the story will doubtfully call for me to need to write about British History.

The genetics thing is built into the story for a character with pureblood wizards, who’s afraid of how being a pureblood will actually affect her. The history thing is just a horrifying personal revelation on my part that I once mentioned in passing to compare to the character’s dislike of History of Magic. These things only come up to either service the plot, or add characterization.

Your OC is a part of you, so is you’re writing. If you’ve ever had something you worked on thrown away by a disapproving parent, or a truly oblivious substitute teacher who thinks it’s okay to throw away journals because they’re filled with ‘just scribbles’ (yes this last one happened to me) then you probably know the feeling of your heart being ripped out through your throat. It’s why negative criticism hurts so badly. Your writing and your characters are your babies, your children. But your children will never be you. They may look like you, or have similar traits as you; but if you try to force them to be carbon copies of you only bad things can come. You’ve denied them their own lives, made them hate you, or abused them into fitting the mold. And there is a type of bad writing or each of those examples, I assure you.

So, here’s what I suggest to fix your Pepper Jack Cheese. Start out by thinking about your character. Find a sheet of paper or something and write down interests they have. Then put a check next every interest that exactly (or near exactly) matches an interest you have. Put a squiggle next to interests they have that are similar to yours, but that your character cares about more/less than you or in a different way. If your list is completely, or majority populated with checks and squiggles, then you need to do some work.

There are a couple of ways to fix this, but each different technique depends on your relationship with your characters. My relationship can best be described as being like I have multiple-personality-disorder, except I know the voices are only in my head. When I’m particularly vexed, I have been known to have imaginary conversations with my imaginary people. As insane as it sounds, this isn’t an unheard of way of dealing with your characters (writers like the great poet Byron have commented on characters having a mind of their own.)

If you are like me, I suggest ‘asking’ your character to describe what they like and just let them vent. You can take notes if you want to. Similarly, you can try and feel out parts of characters that just feel wrong. I had two characters who I made gay because I wanted gay characters. It just never felt right with them. When I let them be straight again they flourished.

If you’re more concrete or less experienced with your characters you can go back to your shared interest list I had you write earlier. Start by thinking about which interests are unnecessary. Get rid of them. You may stop from simply removing an unnecessary interest if you don’t feel bad about getting rid of it because you like that interest so much yourself. If you think it adds to the character’s personality, then it isn’t useless; but set these interests aside in an “I need to think about it pile”. Then you go through the list again. Start removing things that aren’t important to the plot. Again, you can set aside traits that you think add to the character.

Now we get down to the really decision process. Look at each remaining interest and seriously think about if you let the character keep this interest because it helps them or because you really REALLY like the whatever-it-is. Now, go back to your “I need to think about it pile,” and do the same thing. Any interest that is only there because you’re really attached to the whatever-it-is you strike immediately. Now consider each trait on the thinking-list to decide if it adds to the character. Remember, a character can like something that you don’t mention in the story. Also remember that if you feel in your heart of hearts like a character will collapse without a certain interest it’s probably not a good idea to delete that interest.

Your character has just had some impressive holes punched through its personality. The next step into fill in some of those holes. A lot of times Pepper Jack Cheese makes the characters bloated, which is why we just spent all that time cutting out interests. Think about a couple of interests that you don’t like, but might fit the character. You don’t have to fill in any new interest instantly. In fact, I suggest you leave the character alone. Let the holes fill in organically, and they will. If you think about your characters or RP with them, then the holes will fill in on their own. Sometimes they’ll fill in if you just throw them in the back of your mind and let them alone.

I caution the last one, just because I happened to get a terrifying serial killer out of throwing a character in the back of my mind and ignoring it. At the same time, she’s one of the most interesting characters I have. I can’t grantee you’ll get a super interesting character from tossing a character aside. Sometimes you’ll forget about them completely. Sometimes you’ll make then side characters. Sometimes you’ll come back to them months and years later and actually be able to shape them into a really good character.

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