Fix 0.5: Sue Authors Anonymous

I was going to write about naming your character today, but I found a more important thing to talk about. Today’s topic is entitled SAA- Sue Author’s Anonymous.

Hello, I’m Marysue Fixer, and I’m a recovering Sue Author.

I wrote my first sue when I was in 6th grade. I was 10, and she was the love interest of Seto Kaiba from Yugioh. She later moved on to being the love interest for Sesshomaru, and then the love interest for Karasu from Yu Yu Hakusho. She had a child by each. Then I moved on to the second generation.

It’s been about four years since I write my first Sue, but she continues to be a part of my original cannon, being the mother of character who’s the mother of a character who’s the love interest of one of my main characters.  My Sue was a self insert, with my name, who did things that I personally would never do. She was beautiful, and had a lot of magic. Her exact title was ‘The Light Maiden’. While I’ve personally modified the title to fit other more interesting characters and ideas, she is still the original.

Today this Sue is a flakey writer was in love with one man, had a child by him before getting married to a rich man, has a child by him and divorces him because he tries to make her stop writing. She married a second man who dies after she had another child. Then she proceeds to be a single mother/writer who has a decent income from alimony. She adopts two boys after that.  She meets her old sweetheart, who now is a porn photographer, and they marry and have twins. She’s blissfully unaware that her children, except for her new twins, have problems; that her eldest son had tried to kill his sister, that he’s also involved in illegal activities and dying of a genetic disease. The eldest son is her favorite. Her eldest daughter hates her for being flakey, but loves her dad and her two adopted brothers, and the boy she found and cares for as a son. The writer’s middle son depends on his sister for a mother figure, and only one of the adopted boys sees her as a mother figure.

She is not likeable to anyone, even me, which is why she’s a background character at best, or never sees the light of day at worst. She’s also not my first O/C, that title is built out by a princess named Rose and a Mouse named Suzy.

The princess never had a good name, so I finally decided on Rose. I have another character named Rose, but we shant speak of her at the moment. Princess Rose was a blonde-haired, blue eyed princess who wore pink dresses and lived in a tower that her evil step mother put her in. Her only companion is a grey mouse named Suzy who has a blonde bob, a green head-band and pants (which show off her Hartman Hips) and a pink shirt and flats.  Suzy has a crystal flower on her headband that has magic in it to protect her. Rose had a crystal red heart locket (that is powerful and therefore must hide from the wicked stepmother) that she can open up and go into when she wants to escape her tower room and go on adventures.

Rose has a prince, who has no name/face/origin, but is blonde and dresses like Eric from the little mermaid. The prince has a mouse that plays the prince role for Suzy, and also had no face/name/origin. Rose also has two friends, both of whom have mice and prince-love interests. Neither of the girls have names, but one is white with brown hair and wears periwinkle dresses, while the other is black and wears lime green dresses. Rose, the infinitely more interesting Suzy, and friends escapes the tower often to go on adventures, but always get Rose in home before her wicked step mother finds out, while the prince desperately tries to find a legal way to free Rose so he can marry her.

I came up with all of this when I was about 5, (about the same time I came up with the fantasy of having to survive in the arctic with only one blanket and no supplies). Until this moment I have never written down. Ironically, the adventures and characters from the original characters are way more interesting than my self-insert Mary-Sue. The reason for this is because when I hit about eleven I wanted to make darker edgier stories. Suddenly the light hearted Disney Princess/Alice in Wonderland innocent stories were replaced with tales of a girl who is struggling with her interest in different nonexistent males as I struggled through puberty.

Some people start later, but the Sue is, as I’ve said, a process of writing. I think that most people’s first characters are like Princess Rose and Suzy. For boys they’re more like the Ninja Turtles (which I was a big fan of as a kid, but I digress). Their stories are light hearted, over exaggerated, often plotless, and fun. Even looking back at them the creator can feel a sense of joy and fun that comes with the story. If I wrote Rose now, her adventures might all be in her locket that she keeps hidden as are all her friends, while she simply sits in her tower and waits for life to pass her by. Or I’d write about young girls sneaking in and out of the tower to have adventures, going between a fearful life and a life of fun. Ironically, my old children’s stories adapt better than my first ‘serious’ work.

The reason for this is that when you start creating characters they’re often you sticking yourself into a situation. When you’re a kid you may fantasize about going to magic worlds, but you’ll do so by the Harry Potter/chosen one route, or by stumbling across a magical item that takes you to a magical world where you can explore. Otherwise you create characters who aren’t you, but are characters you want to see have adventures. When you’re a teenager you often want desperately to be anywhere else than your boring life. It comes from a bizarre split between childhood and adulthood. You want to be seen as adult, but you also want badly to play. The Mary Sue is the answer.

Mary Sue is the author avatar in the story, yet unlike children, teenagers have become self conscious of their faults, and so try to mask it with creating a perfect character. The Sue is a perfectly natural way of expressing ones-self and should be accepted as such. Think of Sue as a way for the new writer to improve their writing style. They can fix character later, but the important part is practice writing.

A lot of people treat Sue as something to be reviled. This is a really bad way to think. Sue authors are normally new writers: people testing the waters of writing, expressing imagination on paper, testing their own limits. While it doesn’t seem like it sometimes: words mean something. Some people feel like Sues are toxic and must be flamed to death. This way of thinking is toxic. What you write matters, even on the internet. Let me give you a personal example. I’ve mentioned in passing that I Roleplay, just text-based post-by-post, one-on-one Roleplaying. I’ve done it for about as long as I’ve been writing fanfiction. The end result is ten years of near constant writing has improved my writing and my ability to form characters.  But you notice how I said I only do one-on-one roleplays?

I’m a naturally shy person. I’m very opinionated. With friends and teachers I can be loud and even a little pushy when it comes to my ideas. I’m a great public speaker. All that said I am very shy. I don’t make friends easily, and I over analyze mistakes I make. When I was new to RPing I friend requested a lot of people who had similar interests as me. Someone was offended by this and stalked me on a forum, flaming me and my newbie writing in every RP thread I was in. Since then I don’t RP in threads, and I don’t RP in groups. This person scared me. There is the possibility that I could have been more open on the internet than I am in real life, but in many ways I’m even shyer online than I am in real life.

This is a very real reason to not flame a Sue author, ever. I can’t say my group RP aversion is completely this person’s fault, but honestly she couldn’t have done much worse to affect me and my specific personality. Your words mean things, and if you say hurtful things you will hurt people. You can’t take your words back in real life, and it’s even more impossible on the internet. There is the edit button, but honestly you remember things said in text better because someone took the time and energy to type up a long ‘you suck’ tirade.

Mary Sue should be discouraged, but it needs to be done directly and carefully. One of the sites I’ve mentioned more than once is a Livejournal blog called Pottersues. The author of this blog reviews only Harry Potter Mary Sue fanfics. She writes funny things about these people, but when she sees a writer who’s clearly new she tells her fans to be kind to the writer.

The problem with a Mary-Sue comes when the writer refuses to fix their work. When you’re a new writer you don’t know what you’re doing wrong. When you figure out that you’re doing something wrong you either try to fix it, or refuse to fix it. The second option is like knowingly dumping toxic waste into a river. Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but knowingly writing Sues, insisting it’s your fic and you can do whatever is not good. Instead of trying to improve you’re hurt yourself, which does hurt others. People take inspiration from other people. Most people become inspired by good word. What happens if someone who stumbles upon your Mary Sue? Someone who could have been inspired by a good work from you? Will they start on that idea they’ve had floating in the back of their head?

I’m bizarre in getting inspired by bad writing. It’s only because I have a desperate need to prove fantasy (Twilight) or Fanfiction (My Immortal) can be well written.  That’s actually how I decided to start this blog. I don’t believe I’ve stated this before, but this blog is for people who know they have a Sue problem and want to try and fix their character. It’s also for seasoned writers like me who can use a reminder about writing good characters. Hopefully someone who’s being willfully ignorant will stumble across this one day and decide that they do want to improve. I believe in the power of words, and I believe that words can sway people, for good or bad.

So keep this in mind: hating on something is funnier and easier. It makes you feel superior. On the other hand, giving some constructive criticism is hard, but much more necessary. You can make fun of Twilight all day, but if you refuse to read the series you’ll never figure out that Stephanie Meyers has mastered the art of writing page turners, something you really want for your story. She’s also mastered the art of selling, since the books suck terribly and no one should want to read them, but lots of people do. You can learn things even from bad things. The quote from Edison is that he didn’t fail to invent the light bulb 300 times (or whatever the actual number is) he just learned 300 ways not to make a light bulb. Learn from your own mistakes, and from someone else.  But I will warn you that you can’t learn from anyone if you bash or flame them. In order to flame someone you do the internet equivalent of sticking our fingers in your ears and going “LALALALALALA” as loud as you can. You don’t gain anything, you may actually lose something, and you hurt someone who probably doesn’t deserve the hurt.

So here’s what I’m offering. SAA will be a part of this blog. If you submit a piece of work I will critique it for you. Please keep in mind that you can ask for a private critique, and once the work is posted on the internet it’s there forever, so if you want to keep your original work to yourself I don’t suggest letting me post it here.

I won’t say that I will read and critique your work, especially if I have a lot of entries. But one of the best ways to learn is through the hands on help. For whomever I’m doing the critique it will be a good, character driven critique of the things you can fix and possibilities for your text. For the reader, you can see how to dissect a work, and maybe use the same technique on your own work. I suggest some hands on practice of critiquing as well, so readers can comment on the work as well.

Please be aware that if you want help with grammar, I’m not your person. For my fiction I have people who edit for me. They range from my English major friends, to my parents who are real grammarians, to professional editors, even teachers. I also need these people because I’m not a great grammarian. If you really worried about grammar there are blogs for that and a helpful little book called Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

Back to more normal fixes tomorrow, but I felt everyone needed a chance to understand why I’m in the business of fixing, and not just poking fun.

Good night my lovelies,

Marysuefixer

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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.