Fan-fiction, as a concept, shouldn’t be seen as a detriment to literature. As much as writers may deride fan-fiction authors, we should appreciate that there’s something good in inspiring someone’s personal creativity with our own. If the literary bug is infectious, then infection would probably look like someone writing a story with our characters before going on to create their own. But sometimes they do start to create their own characters and, before long, they’ve stumbled into a bad place.
What many don’t realize, because we’re taught to scorn it, is that fan-fiction is the place where you can go when you’re not confident in your own work. When you create a world all to your own, you’re opening yourself to being judged on every single detail. It’s terrifying to consider being that exposed to people. So when you enter into the world of fan-fiction, you’re already a little insecure. This doesn’t apply to everyone but, to those it does, there’s always that nagging itch that needs to be scratched.
Before long, you feel like if you don’t add something you’re going to be considered a simple thief. You need to put your mark on it to make people recognize you put effort into it. But, as you put it in, you find yourself insecure about the character you’re creating. This character needs to be loved by everyone because if they aren’t then the only thing you really added to the material is being disliked. They have to be interesting, different, special – they have to be worth being there. Unfortunately, that’s how Mary and Gary get written into your story.
And then they wreck the place…
The problem is, while the community is eager to tell you not to do something, they rarely take the time to explain why. Quite a few people don’t even understand why we should stop to explain it to the “offenders”. But the fact of the matter is, we keep writing articles like “how to know you wrote a Mary Sue” and “steps to avoiding a Gary Stu”, while these characters continue to be made regardless.
Of course, the assumption is that these people are just full of themselves or too immature to listen to our advice. But maybe the problem isn’t with the newbies. Maybe the problem is in how we explain it. Maybe they don’t understand…
The Damage Caused By Mary and Gary
Now, knowing my audience consists of a lot of writers and a few fans, I know there’s quite a few of you who don’t understand why this is something that needs to be explained. After all, if an expert says not to do it, that should be enough, shouldn’t it?
But what many don’t understand is that we’re basically validating every fear that new creator had before even creating the character in question. Regardless of what we may think of their decision to create these characters, more likely than not, they went down the path they did to avoid two things:
1) Looking stupid
2) Being disliked
And we manage to make them feel both at the exact same time. Bravo for the home team.
It’s no wonder, when you look at it that way, we find so few of the newer writers actually turning around and rewriting what they just put forward. After feeling like they had to add something special to it, we tell them almost universally that the thing they created was bad. Worse, we manage to tell them that it’s annoying or that it’s simply bad writing without explaining to them why. As far as twisting the insecurity dagger goes, we may as well have all critiques written in the style of George RR Martin.
So maybe, instead of shaming them for what they’ve done or will do, it’s time to explain to them why it’s in their best interests not to.
The first thing to understand is that a character being identified as Mary or Gary isn’t because you’ve followed a blueprint. Like all other archetypes, this one expands to a lot of different types of character and usually it’s only identifiable in hindsight. Even the creators don’t really know that they’ve done it until they see that list with all the symptoms and realize, like most things describing symptoms, they managed to have every single one of them.
So first we have to define that Mary and Gary are characters who have entered the world as an exceptional case. Somehow, the rules of the world, or simple logic, have decided to look the other way in order to allow this character to exist as they do. There’s only 24 hours in a day, but somehow they speak 8 languages and hold a black-belt while maintaining a perfect GPA. This is a world where people live in constant fear of dragons attacking their homes – except for that one girl, she’s half dragon and can speak to them. Everyone thought Harry Potter was “the boy who lived” until it turned out there was another kid who managed to survive the same spell that no one noticed until just now.
Somehow, some way, this character is “special” in a way that just doesn’t make sense. And that’s the first thing that you need to understand: not making sense is usually a deal breaker for stories. There’s the well known metric of how far you can stretch someone’s suspension of disbelief. If it’s a fantasy world, it’s to be expected that your character could have some special power, but it has to be a power that others can have had as well. If it’s just your one special snowflake, you’ve rewritten the rules of the world to make an exception for this one person, effectively ending suspension of disbelief as you violate the internal consistency of the world itself.
But that’s not where it ends. Even if you can get some people to overlook your internal rule breaking, the character archetype does far more damage to the fundamentals of storytelling as a whole. There are four key things that drive your audience’s reception of your story: plot arc, character arc, conflict, and empathy. If these things are lacking you’re going to find people unhappy with the end result. The sad truth is, Mary and Gary derail all four without even trying.
The most obvious way they derail it is with empathy. The problem is that empathy requires the audience to believe that these people are experiencing something. But for the audience to believe, they have to maintain a suspension of disbelief. To be able to feel good or bad about what is happening in the storyline you have to first be involved in the illusion that it’s trying to create. Unfortunately, when that breaks, so does the empathy.
As I mentioned earlier, Mary and Gary break suspension of disbelief. By existing, they’re ruining the idea that this is something that could happen – even in extreme cases like sci-fi and fantasy. And, when something breaks that suspension of disbelief, the audience is going to take especially strong notice of the thing that broke it for them. We’ve all experienced it before – the one detail in a story that completely ruins the rest of it for us. Hell, one detail a few years ago managed to anger an entire audience so much that some of them tried to sue EA over it.
And, in the case of that detail being a character, they become the face of the unpleasant feeling experienced by being unable to connect to the storyline. This means, unfortunately, that your character is going to be annoying to them for being the thing that breaks that connection.
Another problem is that these characters are going to interact with other characters in a poor fashion. Character arcs are a must for any good story and that means that your character has to be capable of growth. By their nature, Mary and Gary generally can’t grow, or if they do they grow in an unnatural fashion. This is one of those things that will break the suspension of disbelief earlier, and it will make it so whatever you do with this character feels artificial. If it’s artificial, it’ s not believable, and it won’t be enjoyable.
Further, the nature of the characters often means they will break the character arcs of others around them. One example that easily frames this is the earlier suggestion that there could be more than one “boy who lived”. Almost everything that happened to Harry Potter over the course of seven books was based on the fact that he survived a single moment in his life. He instantly became famous, infamous, and important to the world. Sure, there was more than one person who fit the prophecy that made him important, but he was the one who was forever marked by that one encounter with Voldemort in the past. So if you were to make a second character who survived… you’ve made his entire life not make sense.
It was just that easy, an entire work could be derailed in a single sentence: “Someone else survived.”
This goes on to plot arcs, in the case like the one stated above, the central character arc is the backbone of the plot arc. So if you derail that character arc, you derail the whole plot. This could be argued to be an extreme case, but at the same time it’s incredibly easy to do almost everywhere. If you’re writing a Sherlock Holmes mystery and you introduce a character who is not only smarter than Sherlock but demonstrates that Sherlock isn’t as smart as people think he is every step of the way, if that character’s name isn’t Mycroft you’ve just derailed an entire franchise for it.
The Sherlock scenario also demonstrates another problem with Mary and Gary. Some (many) plot arcs are based in the characters lacking an ability that would easily solve it, and most Mary and Gary characters have this ability that the others lack. A Sherlock Holmes story doesn’t work unless the police are incapable of solving it without Sherlock’s help and other genres have a lot of the same issues. If you were to have a story featuring ghost hunters stuck in a house with a malevolent spirit and the only way out alive was to figure out what the spirit wants, you easily make the entire plot and all of the other characters moot if you introduce a character who can not only speak to the dead but understand them perfectly. Sure, that character would be special, but they’ve also removed all drive from the plot and defused the central conflict.
And that last part, the lack of conflict, is the most damning of reasons for avoiding Mary and Gary. There’s a concept well known in the literary world called the “hero’s bubble”. The hero bubble is an unwritten acknowledgement that the hero is not going to be killed before the end of the end of the story under most circumstances. They may be threatened, they may be left forever marked by what has happened, but they will generally not die. When it does happen, it is either an extreme circumstance or a work that keeps people on their toes by defying convention. And people generally like it when it happens, it may not be something they’re happy with, but it excites them.
And the fact people become excited at the pop of the bubble around your average protagonist should go to say that people are, for the most part, not fond of this idea that a character may be beyond true harm. But, in the case of the hero’s bubble, there are other reasons to be intrigued. Maybe the hero won’t die, but how close to it might they come? Maybe they’re going to be physically fine, but forever tormented by what happened. Maybe they’re going to suffer an emotional loss, due to conflict with someone else or even an internal conflict. With these characters, with the bubble they have, the question is generally not “will they survive?” but “how do they get beyond this?”
But Mary and Gary have something far more powerful than the hero’s bubble, they have a bubble that removes them entirely from conflict. By design, as characters who generally cannot grow, have all the things needed to surpass the people around them, and are generally protected by their creators from anything truly bad happening to them, Mary and Gary are given a shield which makes them invulnerable to all acts of plot, character development, and random chance.
Mary and Gary may be kidnapped, but they will come out of it just fine. Mary and Gary may argue with the people around them, but those other people are generally considered “wrong”. Mary and Gary may wander into the den of a vicious dragon, but their secret bloodline that speaks to dragons allowed them to not only survive but to ride that thing right back out to freedom. Mary and Gary are, for all intents and purposes, untouchable. And, because you’re so caught up in making them likeable and protecting them, if you happen to strike them down to throw the audience off the trail – they’ll get better.
And it’s knowing that to be the case that makes these characters the hardest pill to swallow. After all they do to derail your plot and character arcs, after all the loss of empathy and the destruction of the suspension of disbelief, the greatest crime is that they are removed from your story. They need to be, because characters who are part of your story could get hurt, could be traumatized, or could come to harm in some other way.
You created this character with the idea that if they don’t succeed, neither will you. So you’re going to protect them by any means necessary…even at the cost of the rest of your work. Their bubble is crafted not just from the necessity of your plot, but from the fear that popping it would reflect badly on you.
We need our creators to let down their guard. We need them to be able to pop those bubbles, sacrifice the elements precious to them, and put the quality of their work ahead of their personal insecurities. And that’s painfully hard, I know, but it’s something necessary for your work. You can’t get through the writing process without feeling a little bit exposed at some point. You can’t really get through any creative process without feeling a little exposed.
In the end, it’s better to accept that uncomfortable feeling, rather than become defensive. Because very few people get to the top without finding some humility. Very few people create quality work without surrendering a little of their pride. And the others, who don’t surrender that pride, who continue to insist that their creation is perfect…?
They become Kanye.
(I write novels. I also wrote fan-fiction once upon a time. I understand what it feels like to just start. You’re going to be fine, promise. )