Three Simple Starter Steps: ground the character in the setting, have them know their place in the fiction, and don’t work backwards.
GROUND THE CHARACTER IN THE SETTING:
This is one of the first big mistakes for writers who end up making a Mary Sue: the character they make may end up ridiculously overpowered, or a better term, “out of balance”, with the rules of the setting.
Internal consistency is important in writing, and when it goes astray, people notice. Aragorn pulling out an AK-47 and mowing down orcs at the end of Lord of the Rings would be really out of place for the setting, as would watching Frodo power up to God-Tier Frodo and blowing up the Earth.
Closer to the mark, if we saw a character like Faramir show up to the battle wielding some magic ring we’d never heard of, one that wasn’t forged like the rings of power but gave him invincibility on the battlefield, we’d have something that really sticks out in the setting because magic rings were exceedingly rare and what they could do had already been loosely defined.
So when writing your fanfic character, stick to what is believable in the setting you’re writing in. You can have cool skills, powers, and abilities, but they should be on par with what the setting already provides.
KNOW THEIR PLACE IN THE FICTION
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a terrific episode tackling the Mary Stu/Gary Stu trope called, “Superstar”, where a nothing side character cast a spell and was suddenly the most important person on the planet. The Slayer, (Buffy) and her team looked to him for advice on how to tackle threats, the military sub-contracted him to help in the Initiative, he was a pro-basketball player, and pretty much anything great in the world was re-written so that he was responsible for it.
I call this episode a “Must-Watch!” because it nails this problem with Mary Sues taking over the fiction from the primary characters so obviously that you can dissect the rest of the trope from there.
Essentially, in a fanfic, you want your character to be part of the universe, but that means letting the heroes of that universe still do what they are set to do. If anything, a fanfic character is essentially a guest star to the setting: they might have one important play to make in the overall game, but they aren’t the quarterback of the team and shouldn’t be doing everything better than the stars.
I like to say that characters should know their place in the fiction, because not every character is the lead, and not every character is the chorus. But you don’t have much of a show unless you, the writer, know which is which.
If you’re trying to avoid a Mary Sue lead character, you still just watch out for same problem: if the universe seems to re-write itself so that the lead character continually remains the center of attention even when the setting and plot should say otherwise, then your character is likely shifting away from being a lead to being a Mary Sue.
DON’T WORK BACKWARDS:
Boy, this drives me nuts. Okay, so you want to write a cool character who does a lot of cool things like the characters you admire. You see the cool things they do, like the bomb pictured above, and try to emulate it. There’s is a lot of light, a big noise, and a big fiery cloud, so you try to re-create that in your own special way for your story.
What I pictured above isn’t a bomb. It’s an EXPLOSION, what happens AFTER a bomb goes off. This is a bomb:
Doesn’t look quite as attractive, does it? But this took a lot of thought and a lot of work to make, and it’s when the bomb goes off that you get the explosion I pictured first.
This is the problem with a lot of writers: they see the explosion, or think about the explosion they want, and try to write that, instead of starting with the bomb. What I described usually ends up with a writer trying to copy someone else’s work, hoping to get the same effect; or they are trying to copy the original work with a few extra tweaks. It usually falls flat on its face because the person doing the copying has no idea about the work that went into the original to get the desired effect or how it was applied to get the outcome. The second writer is trying to skip to the end without realizing that what made the explosion possible needed to be expertly crafted.
Starting with the bomb means carefully planning THE PURPOSE of the bomb, how best to achieve that purpose, and then putting a ton of thought into how to create it and deliver it. It means you have to spend analyzing, planning, researching, designing, and then implementing the character.
THAT is where you need to start as a writer. You’re trying to build a bomb in the hopes that the makes a big boom that the audience will love:
… and not destroy everything around it.
When you’re writing your characters, it’s like building a bomb: you have to decide if it’s a firework, a nuke, a grenade, a breaching charge, or mining dynamite. You have to know what you want that bomb to DO, and design towards that. If you don’t know what parts of the character will make it into a nuke instead of a mining charge, then you need to slow down, do your research, figure out what ingredients you do need, and then build.
Take anger, for instance. Anger can be fueled by guilt, shame, fear, trauma, helplessness, victimization, righteousness, justice, and just about anything other than indifference. Each of these comes with potentially very different backstories, motivations, and developmental arcs as to how they got angry and what they are looking to do to relieve that anger. A character who fuels their anger with self-righteousness and justice is different from an angry character lashing out due to being traumatized, even though they both externally may look angry.
Don’t work backwards by looking at someone else’s explosion and trying to write the explosion. You may not know all the work the author did, but you CAN know what you’re putting into your work.
If you build the bomb correctly, the explosion will happen naturally as the bomb fulfills its purpose! The explosion is the byproduct, not the starting point. Believe in your ability to craft good work, do your due diligence, and craft your character to fulfill a need in the story.
You can create some amazing, special characters for your own fictions. But remember the three key rules:
- Ground the character in the setting. If it doesn’t work in the setting it doesn’t work for your character.
- Know their place in the fiction. They are a part of the story, but not the center of that universe.
- Don’t work backwards. Don’t write the explosion; you need to build the bomb. If you build the bomb correctly, you’ll get the explosion you want as a result.
If you do, you’ll have a much better chance of not making a Mary Sue!