The Problems with Mary Sues: Part One
Part I - Mary Sue?
I'm sure you've heard of her. Beautifully beautiful, perfectly perfect, stunning in every single way, with great hair, a great body and a simply stunning fashion sense, she's endlessly written about, railed against, and parodied. Yup, she's Mary-Sue.
She is an amorphous character who pops up in almost every fandom, and in fact in most writers? imaginations. She's almost irresistible to most writers: here is the Perfect Woman, who can Have It All without reality intervening. In fact, for young writers, this character pops up more often than not; she's an opportunity to differentiate between reality and the world of writing, and besides, who wants to read about plain old boring ordinary characters who look and think like you and me?
Unfortunately, this way of thinking doesn't hold up to scrutiny. There's nothing that bores an audience quicker than a beautiful, perfect character who's impossible to identify with.
Fiction writing, no matter what anyone else says, is about trading your
perspective for someone else's, just for awhile. We're willing to step
into your version of our beloved world, providing you keep the journey
entertaining. And we want your character's tale to keep us interested.
We're interested in your story because we like the characters, and care
about their plights. If we're reading a story in which Character X is dropped
into Middle-Earth, we want to know why she's there, and how she's going
to deal with the problems of being suddenly shoved into a foreign universe
set in Medieval times. Remember, we've already seen the movies, and read
the books- we know THOSE stories; reading the same story, with the addition
of a cardboard Beautiful Woman, gets very boring, very fast.
Part II- Ho-hum, Not Another One: Your Character
I actually found this introduction to a character in a story on ff.net that shall remain nameless; the main character's name has been changed. For the rest of the essay, the OC example will be referred to as Lilliana.
"Lilliana PrettySilverHair was a gorgeous girl with long silver hair down her back and violet eyes. She loved karate. She was the youngest black belt in the country. She was also very smart. People made fun of her at school because they were jealous of her."
Now, this seems pretty acceptable: after all, we know about her interests, looks, and school life, right? It's a decent introduction, right?
Wait, hold on a minute. Let's examine just the first sentence. Her eyes are violet? Her hair is long and silver? Wow! How many violet-eyed people do you know? I don't know any at all; in fact, I've never seen anyone with violet eyes in my life. And people with silver hair (who aren't old, that is)? Those are even rarer! Giving your character odd-colored eyes and hair may seem cool, but to us readers it's a bit off-putting; if you saw someone with silver hair and violet eyes walking down the street, chances are you'd do a double take and think it was pretty weird. It's very common to paint your characters in Technicolor; Mary Sues are typically larger-than-life, better, cooler, smarter, stronger and prettier than other people, and thus need hair and eye colors that make them Stand Out.
Now, the second sentence. So she's an uber-young black belt, eh? Another mark of Sueishness shines forth: Mary Sue is the best at everything, be it martial arts, archery, swordplay, or Bavarian yodeling.
So here we have an unnaturally lovely, brilliant, skilled young woman who has yet to show any personality at all.
Admit it: if you met someone like this in real life, you'd want to strangle them on sight. At least I would.
My point is, if you're going to give us a main character, let us love
her first. We're open and willing to let our reality be molded by you:
let your story be set in Bavaria, in a yodeling festival; let it be set
in Rohan in the middle of a charge; let it be set in Rivendell, in the
midst of the Council of Elrond. But get us interested! Make us want to
read on! For Eru's sake, don't spend five pages describing your character:
we don't want to read about Lilliana's perfect hair, we want to
read about her personality. We want to know why she's interesting enough
for us to spend our time reading about her. And readers are a
fickle crew: if not grabbed and held, many will simply up and leave.
Part III - Lilliana In Middle-earth
Now, Lilliana's been transported to Middle-earth by plothole, Deus Ex Machina, random magic jewelry, or the sheer dimension-spanning power of hormonal lust- and she's plopped right down in the middle of the War of the Ring (in 99% of cases).
Most of the time, she's dropped into the middle of the Council of Elrond, and is chosen to join the Fellowship by sheer virtue of political correctness ("You should have a girl in the Fellowship! You're all chauvinists!")/immediately proven skill with a weapon/a fulfilled prophecy/the amazingness of her beauty/her |\/|4d 5k1lz/her "strange knowledge of the future".
(Alternatively, Lilliana, Princess of PrettySilverWood, a hitherto unknown Elvish realm, is chosen to go the council and then with the Fellowship because she is mad spiffy.)
Whatever your setup is, if your female character joins the Fellowship and/or fights at Helm's Deep, joins the Three Hunters, or helps Frodo and Sam in Mordor, it will put off many readers, for the simple reason that it's been done so many times that the words "Lilliana joins the Fellowship" are enough to put many readers to sleep.
Something to remember, if you put your OC into the Fellowship:
These people have the entire fate of Middle-Earth in their hands. Don't you think they have better things to worry about than Lilliana PrettySilverHair's romantic aspersions- like the army of Orcs following them, thirsting after their blood? Or how about the birds and wolves and evil squirrels that may or may not be reporting their every move to the enemy? Every step holds peril; every move could mean doom. Remember, one wrong decision by Frodo caused Gandalf's "death"! Think: would these people trust a randomly appearing girl who has mysterious knowledge of their quest? Imagine a tiny troop of super-elite US Special Services in WWII, on a stealth mission through enemy territory, being suddenly confronted by a random woman who knows all about top-secret military information and can provide no adequate proof of her security clearance, mission, or - well, anything really. What would their reaction be? (Note: I know this isn't the best example?)
Wouldn't they be just a BIT suspicious? The obvious reaction would be to shoot first and ask questions later, not accept her into their Fellowship! (The Duhhh factor.) Frodo only trusted Aragorn's identity when presented with written proof from Gandalf (in the bookverse, that is).
Even if Lilliana somehow does join the Fellowship, adding a romance invites further difficulties. Remember, the Fellowship is a tightly-knit legion with a hell of a burden on their hands. There's an incredible amount of tension in the camp; any wrong move could bring destruction on the world. That's some heavy stuff, man. If Lilliana shags any of her traveling companions, what could happen? In a battle, would her partner's judgment be hampered by their romance? Would he "play favorites"? When co-workers have a romance, working together can become awkward and difficult. How much more so, when she's sleeping, eating, waking up, bathing, peeing and everything else barely feet away from her partner! Would they take foolish risks? What if they had a fight, or broke up?
The thing to remember is that Middle-earth, while being an alternate reality, still has a reality. People are people, whether Elf, Dwarf, Hobbit or Man. Keep in mind that for every action there is an opposite reaction, and that suspension of disbelief does not mean suspension of desire for good writing.
If you're not willing to think past Orlando Bloom's hott yummy a$$ (not speaking from my own feelings here; this is sarcasm at its purest), you're not really writing fan fiction at all, but simply airing your own childish fantasies for all to see. This essay was meant to help those who are serious about writing and want to write everything they write as well as possible, including fan fiction, but simply don't know any better.