Fix 13: Variations on a Theme

So maybe it’s not a way to fix your Mary Sue problem… or maybe it’s the way to stop the problem before it happens. I’ve read a lot of fanfiction in my day. An insane amount, and I’ve noticed two things: 1) no two fanfiction are alike and 2) there are a lot of fanfiction that are exactly alike. Okay, that does seem contradictory, but it’s surprisingly not.

 

For one of my classes I had to write a paper comparing the first four books of Harry Potter to the Ring of Gyges (from The Republic)… no really, it was a class on Harry Potter as argument… now you know why I have an HP reference in about every single post.  The teacher gave us only two options: that one and another I didn’t take so I don’t remember. What I do remember is that she thought that we’d talk about the invisibility cloak, which to be fair is the obvious answer (the Ring of Gyges makes the wearer invisible and then they can do whatever they feel like doing), but I thought the passage applied better to being an animagus. Only one other person took the option I did, but it didn’t matter if everyone in out 25 person class had talked about the Ring of Gyges and invisibility cloaks because each person’s paper would have been different.

 

Truthfully, if given the exact same topic no two people would write it the same way. They wouldn’t pull the same points, or use the same references, or even interpret the references the same. No two people will ever write the same paper without cheating off each other.

 

On the other hand, people can come surprisingly close to coming up with the exact same idea even if they’ve never come in contact with each other.  I had a classmate whose big 4,000 word paper rated at over 60% plagiarism, and he’d done all his own work. Some of it was the program not recognizing the way he cited his paper (which was correct, but not in the format that the computer was used to), but there was also that there’s simply only so many ways to combine words. Our teacher had a similar problem once where he had sentences that perfectly matched an older source, and they were words he’d written himself. There’s only so many different combination of common words.

 

Another way to put this: there are only so many character interpretations. Let’s take a Harry Potter… there’s really only so many ways you can write that character and still be writing that character and not some variation on the character. Truthfully very few people will be able to write that character exactly outside of the author. I have a friend who writes the best Kaiba based fanfiction I’ve ever read, and a lot of it comes from having 1) written the character for many years and 2) having picked up on a few key parts of a Kaiba and accentuated that.

 

The many ways a good caricature is more realistic than an exact portrait. A great artist will slightly exaggerate someone’s more noticeable traits. The exact portrait may be more exact, but it doesn’t capture the real spirit or personality of the subject.  Same thing with writing a fanfiction. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take a part of a character and focus on that aspect (in my friend’s case he focuses on Kaiba as a parent figure to his brother. It might not be exact, but it makes the character feel a lot more real and a lot more in character than any other Kaiba-centered fanfiction I’ve ever read).

 

Now, as I said, not everyone can do this. Did I mention that my friend has been writing the character for years and years? Practice always makes perfect, or at least improves you greatly. Someone once said that no one is a natural born writer. Good writers are people who practice and practice and practice. Just like there’s no such thing as a natural born speaker. You don’t come out of the womb knowing how to speak a language, and even if you naturally have great oratory skills you still need to learn how to properly put words together and expand your vocabulary. The same thing with writing.

 

So, how does this relate to a lot of fanfiction being the same? Well, truthfully a lot of fanfiction will be the same because it’s not good, and it will not be good because the writers don’t have enough practice and they don’t understand the character. If a writer doesn’t understand a character they will often simply hop along with a popular fan interpretation and end up not really thinking for themselves. The reason why a lot of fanfiction isn’t good is because it’s kind of a form of plagiarism.  It’s so much easier to just run with what everybody knows than to think for yourself. On the other hand the bad writer may simply reduce a character to a ‘type’, which is similar to simply not thinking about the character. When I wrote Kaiba he was the tortured-brilliant-jerk looking for love… You know who else gets thrown into this? Just about any snarker in any fandom ever.

 

In a previous post I believe I mentioned that one of my favorite anime characters of all time ever is Karasu from Yu Yu Hakusho. I can barely explain it to myself, except that I really like screwed up characters who kill people. Iago is my favorite character ever, and how much does he fit that description? Karasu is famous in YYH circles for being the perfect pre-packaged Kurama stalker/rapist to make the red haired bishie suffer so prettily for the fangirls. Honestly this always makes me squirm because: 1) Damn, Kurama is incredibly strong, stubborn, and a badass who can put Hiei in his place. He’s not weak, and he wouldn’t suffer prettily for anyone. 2) Way to bastardize a perfectly good character (two really). I mean, Karasu only has a little known about him, which leaves so much room for exploration, and that doesn’t mean he has to stalk Kurama forever.

 

I don’t normally read Karasu fanfiction because it hurts me feelings how unoriginal it is. I read two stories in one weekend that managed to follow the standard tropes of the character and still make him interesting. They did this because while he was still obsessed with Kurama he was still his own person, and the writers had something new to say. One used the character to explore the dichotomy ((love that word)) between what it means to be human and what it means to be demon. The other used it to make the (very uncomfortable and highly underplayed) point that rape is not at all sexy. It’s about control, and it’s horrifying.

 

The thing about fanfiction, or really any writing, is that you damn well better have something new to say before going in. I got back to school today and was chatting with a friend, Rocky, who I haven’t spoken to since the end of school last year. He was telling me about his new book he’s thinking about writing. One of the best things about him is that (unlike me) he’s very good at taking one simple premise and being able to expand it into something great. His premise was a bit creepy but would be a great plot point to drive a horror story, even a novel.  We were discussing what it was similar to, and truthfully we could all think of similar things, but nothing exactly like what he was writing. Even if there is something very similar he’ll be able to write his own (different) version because his characters and conclusions will be different.

 

Rocky wrote a screenplay that I read last year. Again, it wasn’t an unfamiliar or uncommon story or plot, but he wrote it in a way that was different than anyone else could write.  Truthfully there is nothing new under the sun (that’s even stated in the bible… look it up, I’m serious). Every single story is merely a variation on a theme, but that’s fine. How much harder is it to write something when you’re told you can write whatever you want and have no parameters. If you can figure out what type of story you’re writing then you can have parameters and be able to express yourself even more.

 

Everything is a variation on a theme. The thing is that the only way for anything you write to be good is to think about what you’re going to write a lot.  I talked about plagiarism before, and really all that plagiarism boils down to is a refusal to think, either because you don’t have the time or the inclination. In some ways I think the lack of thought is what people find more reprehensible than the theft. I mentioned four friends, three who write fanfiction, one who doesn’t even know what fanfiction is.  All of them have something in common: they think about what they write… a lot. They plot, they plan, and they care about their characters and their stories.

 

I don’t always plot and plan. Frankly I’m big fan of the NaNoWriMo method (since I also follow the Shakespeare in Love idea of it “all [being] locked safe up here. *taps head*”). That being said, I do think about my characters a lot. I plot their stories, figure out their backgrounds, know their family and friends. Trust me, I know, and I care. When I start a fanwork I go through a similar process of learning the character, talking about the character, thinking them all out.  The other thing I focus on is not starting a story until I have an idea.

 

I’m not talking about the “Karasu’s not dead, and he kidnaps Kurama” idea, more the “Karasu’s alive, and becomes a serial killer” idea. It there’s nothing new then there’ no point for me to write a damn thing. It’s this same thing with the blog. Yes, there are a lot of blog about writing, or way to fix bad writing, but mine focuses on outlining how to fix problems with characters that will probably only fit into fanfiction or roleplays.

 

Honestly, I think that thinking may be the best way to fix a Mary Sue. Thinking and practice will fix everything. I simply try to draw attention to different little parts to help facilitate the thinking. Honestly I had Mary Sues… lots of them. I’ve just thought about them for eight years. At the same time I’ve been writing non-stop for the same time, so when I finally put the characters I’ve been thinking about for eight years on paper they go from being a Mary Sue to a complex character.

 

A great way to stop a Mary Sue from even cropping up is to think about your story and figure out what you want from it before hand. Honestly, if you are trying to avoid a Sue, and you see that your main character is an OC whose at the center of everything then you’ll probably know something’s wrong. Yes, the idea that’s stuck in your head may never get written, but you may pick a new idea to write which is less Sue-centric, and while you’re practicing writing on that story you can be thinking about your Mary Sue. One day she may be a real useful complex character capable of driving her own plot.

 

A little less concrete help, I know, but there aren’t really short cuts on this. If you’re a visual thinker then write it out and plot web. If you’re like me and can’t stand to write things down and prefer to think them out then do that. Just keep thinking. For the love of all that is holy never stop thinking… ever. Please, I beg of you. It’s not just a writing thing, it’s a human thing. Everything would be a lot better if people actually use their brains and thought about stuff instead of letting other people think for them.

 

Okay, I’m ending this here before I devolve into a rant on ignorance and children. When I start thinking about quoting Hitler I know I need to stop and go do something else. (Yes, Hitler is very quotable… another brilliant speaker… an absolute horror of a human being, but a brilliant speaker… go watch The King’s Speech and agree with me.)

 

Nighty night all!