9. Cinderella story: orphaned, mistreated and ill-used
Giving a character a tragic personal history is an easy way to grant her the sympathy of the reader. And indeed, in a world like Middle-earth, most of the canon characters are orphaned, abandoned or otherwise traumatized during the course of their life. What is, then, that distinguishes a believable character with an unlucky story from the angsty Sue? The answer is: the importance that said character, and the canon ones, attribute to such an event.
We live in a world where, fortunately, being orphaned or losing siblings in their young age is a rare event, at least for those of us who live in the Western world. Even the soldiering percentage of our populations is very much reduced, and much less subject to losses, than it used to be in a Middle Age environment such as Middle-earth. For us it is inconceivable to think of attributing a quality of normalcy to a tragic background.
However, when we are talking about Middle-earth, things change rather drastically: of the components of the fellowship alone Aragorn, Frodo, Boromir and, some guess, Legolas, have lost a parent rather early on. This has of course affected them: but they do not spend endless pages waxing about it with puffy eyes. A Middle-earth OFC whose parents have been killed in war will have suffered about it, but she should not make her angsting about it the main subject of the story for 36 chapters out of 50. Her story is common, and even trivial in such a violent, brutal world.
The same goes of course for being mistreated by a parent or guardian: Faramir had it rough with crazed Denethor, and the Sons of Fëanor might have had more than something to say on the issue of bad parenthood, but they never dreamt of inflicting their private traumas on the world at large. Middle-earth is a place where people deal with their problems quietly and on their own. Meaning? If your OFC befriends Boromir and they eventually share a conversation about what it means to lose your mommy it's fine; another thing is if the fact has become the favourite Fellowship campfire conversation subject by paragraph 2.1.
Another thing: a beloved theme for many writers is to have their protagonist be saddled with the scars of having been raped, save solving every trauma by snuggling up to Legolas or Aragorn. Let's not beat around the bush: this is preposterous. Rape is a trauma that can kill, that can lead to depression, phobia of contact, and several other unpleasant things. To pretend that such a thing as 'healing sex' exists is to trivialize the sufferings of those who have gone through such a terrible experience. Your character was kidnapped and raped? In a war-ridden world such as Arda, it may well be; but to solve her problem she'll require much more than a kiss from Merry.
The same goes for eating disorders: anorexia and bulimia are not glamorous traits to glorify your character. Modern day anorexic girl in Middle-earth, fed back to healthiness (but still mysteriously rail-thin) by Legolas with amorous spoonfuls of Elvish honey has MARY SUE branded all over her in characters three foot high. Eating disorders are mental and physical diseases: they can bring death. To make them into cheap plot devices is to offend all those still in their throes.
One final brand of angsty Sue is the 'Angel type'. You know, Angel, Buffy's first hot vampire boyfriend, the one who spent his life brooding about all the terrible things he had done. If your character is a warrior, if she has unwittingly or voluntarily caused damage, guilt and remorse may well ensue. But they should not become the main plot point for all the other characters to sympathize with.
Angst is good. Almost all of Tolkien's tales provide rich and juicy starting points for some angsting, and most of Tolkien readers like their dose of existential dilemmas and dramas. But when angst is just the self-referential flavouring of an otherwise impossible character it only sounds whiny.
10. Goody two shoes: when Sue gives us diabetesTo the other opposite from angsty Sue there is sugary Sue. This one was happy, always happy, forever happy: everybody loved her, she always loved everybody, nobody was ever mean to her, and wherever she goes flowers spring and everything becomes better. At her appearance Frodo forgets the Ring, the Fëanorians throw the Silmarils to the nettles, and movie!Aragorn suddenly feels the crown is only a step away. Somehow, also, Legolas feels an irresistible urge to quote Mariah Carey. Wanna puke? Good.
Middle-earth is a harsh place. Scan Tolkien's tales, and do so attentively: can you find a single story that is happy, sugary and sappy from start to end? No. Can you find a character whose life never presented them with an antagonist, a difficulty, a bad moment ranging from sheer misery to naked despair? No again. Nobody gets to grow up in the middle of Orcish wars and develop the same (non)personality of a rainbow unicorn. The presence of such a chimeric character would not make the heroes feel better: it would make them feel like running for their lives.
Your character has a positive attitude to life? Very healthy, I should say. But when things are grim, they stay grim. Little Miss Sunshine's presence cannot turn the War of the Ring into a beach picnic. What is enormously puzzling about this character is also the fact that her undaunted goodiness, purity of heart, flawless perfection&co seem to be the same towards anyone: confronted with Sauron, Legolas or Sam this Sue stays the same. Sweet, smiling, tender and understanding. When Sauron will bite her head off, as a self-respecting Sauron should do, the readers shall cheer; unfortunately, in the presence of Goody Two Shoes Mary even Sauron usually starts to feel that Mordor would be much better off with pink wallpaper.
Which brings us to the next point: what happens to canon characters when Mary Sue is around.
11. OOC: a character by any other name
As we have said since the beginning, one of the most dreadful characteristics of the Sue is the way she affects the canon characters. She is the rule-breaker par excellence: consequently, to accommodate her, the universe itself in which she is set must by necessity shift, bend, and change. And with it, the characters.
Tolkien's favourite way of presenting a love story was a poetic, philosophical, and appropriately vague description; there would be a mystical setting, a fated meeting, a discreet gliding over the most physical aspects of attraction, and the consequences for the lovers' lives. He very rarely indulged in those phases of courtship, first kisses and, Valar forbid, lovemaking that are the bread and honey for all modern romance readers and writers. (Eowyn and Faramir's story is perhaps the sappiest he ever wrote, and even there he remains in the boundaries of a tasteful, quite manly restraint.)
His heroes are not exactly the kind of blokes you'd catch buying chocolates or singing the Blue to court a lady; in a grim, lightless world, love is a serious thing that comes after warring, serving and ruling. When it comes, it comes with commitment, an exchange of promises, and, usually, a black fate hanging over the two cuties. Amidst battles, feuds, sieges and curses, no wonder that Legolas would have a hard time finding lease and will to carve his ladylove a bow decorated with hearts and arrows.
For all the abovementioned reasons, even if you have managed to put together a likely, believable, and all-rounded heroine, when entering the minefield of writing Tolkienverse romances you have to be careful. OOC, acronym for out-of-character, is the sword of Damocles that hangs over your head. Are you writing, for instance, an Aragorn/OFC? Very well. Consider now, and attentively, which kind of guy he is; and once you have him framed, stick by him. Can you envision him throwing all the promises he made to Arwen to the nettles, bedding a girl behind the trees instead of guarding Frodo, abandoning Gondor for the sake of a merry life in a meadow in the woods? Not really? Good. Then you're on the right track. Writing a hero in character is sometimes difficult, sometimes impossible, and sometimes downright hellish, as, to get out of the fandom for a moment, all those who have tried to write a Severus Snape in love very well know.
But the canon, in-character heroes are the ones we fell for; and turning Haldir into somebody that might well be called Harry of Bob, so far he has gone from his true spirit in the quest for a sugary love story, cannot be right. For sure Middle-earth can be a happy, even a merry place from time to time; but, at least the way Tolkien saw it (and when we're talking this particular universe, Tolkien is da Man one must inevitably turn to) never for too long and always before a catastrophe. The bottom line being: gallivanting around laughing and lightly kissing is nice. But winter is coming, and the Elf your heroine is cuddling happens to be a trained warrior/ruthless prince/king with responsibilities. Sooner or later, something must happen. It's called conflict, and it's the stuff plots are made of. And no Tolkien hero shirks his duty in favour of braiding daisy garlands; if he does so, you'll know there's Mary's imprint somewhere.
Quite apart from love, or sometimes closely intertwined with it, is another very common brand of OOCiness that comes with Sues: that of redemption. Many Sues, while with one hand fondly tickling the ears of Leggy as he mumbles Coldplay to them, with the other spank Sauron/Morgoth/other perceived or canonical villains back to the righteous path. Seriously? No.
Tolkien has been accused of making his baddies monochromatic and unidimensional; whether you agree or not with this criticism (I, for an instance, don't, but this is not the place to discuss it) to dig a depth to them by showing your reader how, under the beneficial influence of your protagonist, the Witch-king shall display an innate fondness for knitting and petting puppies cannot work. Many, if not all, of Tolkien's villains are offered many chances for redemption; and they usually kick them in the teeth.
Does this mean the dark side is an inexplorable taboo? Not at all. But only that one must be courageous, and accept the fact that black and white don't exist: the truth is always gray. If you can pull off a romance with damned, black heroes such as the Nazgul, or fallen Maiar, or corrupt, treacherous Men and Elves, kudos to you; your story will surely stand out. But, as Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights showed the world, that the villains have a heart does not necessarily make them any the less villainous. And for them to have depth, and more facets than flat black, one needn't turn them into lost lambs brought back to the fold by triumphant Mary.
12. Whodunnit: when Mary steals the sceneAn issue very close to OOCiness, the stealing of plotlines from the main characters is one of the characteristics that most surely identify even well-hidden Sues. An heroine may be original, well-written and nice to read, but if she destroys the Ring in lieu of Frodo, governs Gondor while Aragorn takes a walk, and slays the Witchking to protect Eowyn, Sue takes off her mask and smiles radiantly, having baffled us all.
The difficulty of writing OCs in fanfiction is quantifiable in the problem of fitting something entirely new in a tightly knit, well ordered plot. Tolkien didn't leave much to the imagination when it came to the things he chose to write; unless you write your whole story as a gap-filler, inevitably your protagonist will come across what the canon characters are supposed to do. Changing the plot is, of course, the right choice here: Alternate Universe is the place where most fanfictions find their place anyway. What is not right to do is to keep roughly the same plot, simply attributing to your character what others would be supposed to do.
A classical example of this are Tenth Walker fics (stories about an OFC joining the Fellowship): when they do not get embroiled with a romance that distracts the heroes from the quest, the war, all those tiny things that are going on outside Mary's low-cut neckline, they usually feature the female protagonist saving Frodo from the Orcs, single-handedly defending Helm's Deep, keeping Denethor from roasting Faramir alive and, last but not least, managing the undying classic of shoving both Gollum and the Ring down Mount Doom's volcanic throat on the soundtrack of Sam's cheering.
It goes without saying: once you've thought out the character, the story must come next. Recycling the original plot minus the changing of one character cannot but be damaging; for you, for your OFC, and for that little thing that is called good fanfiction writing.
13. Not that kind of girl: sex and the OFCsOnce we have established that OFCs usually turn up for romance fics, it's easy to see that the S-word is one they shall have to deal with. There are, of course, many genres of romance stories, and some of them have lovemaking at their core: we may meet erotica (tasteful smut), porn without plot (exactly what it sounds like), or BDSM, and the label has already the writer's work cut out. With these stories, you know where you are. With what we may call general romance, you do not.
Any writer, and any reader, has their preference to what concerns sex in romance: some like it hot and graphic, some prefer it shaded and vague, and some, especially ever since the Twilight craze, like to keep it chaste. All of this is, of course, perfectly legit; what is, then, that sets Mary's own attitude apart from any good character's? It all depends on two things: numbers, and likeliness.
Whether they travel fast through all the bases of a romance or deny themselves as adamantly as Richardson's Clarissa did, a sure sign of Mary Sues is the sheer number of canon characters falling for them. We all know love triangles happen in real life; but when Mary is around tetragons, pentagons and various other multi-angled geometrical love stories spring as easily as if Euclides were rewriting his mathematical principles. Mary shall smooch Legolas, flirt with Aragorn, bed Boromir and give Pippin his first kiss; or, on the other hand, be courted by Frodo, refuse Legolas and eventually keep Eomer's appetites at bay until the wedding day. Ridiculous? A tad. Or rather, a lot. In a fandom as packed with hot guys as the Tolkienverse, it's only natural for a fangirl to nurture more than one love; most will have several favourites, evenly scattered throughout the ages. But when you're writing, keep the numbers low: two heroes falling for your heroine is the highest, and there already you have to be careful. Unless, of course, you're interested in writing a very crowded PNP scene; but that, by definition, is a boundless land.
Likeliness comes into play with the race, temperament, and background of your heroine. Many OFCs are high ranking Elven or human ladies; are you sure they would be likely to cash in their V card with the first handsome warrior that comes along? Virginity, for a princess, is a political commodity; just like, if your character is a modern day girl in Middle-earth, losing it should be more than a plot device.
Usually, 'modern day girl'-kind OFCs follow a well established path: they somehow stumble into Middle-earth, join the Fellowship, and lose their innocence, to put it in an old-fashioned way, to the author's favourite hero. Just as usually, they are likely to be in their teens; and while it's fair to argue that in a medieval of world like ME girls will marry young, often to older men, and that a middle-aged warrior would have no qualms in fancying a sixteen-year old given the cultural context, if you asked your average tenth-grader what they think of having as their first bedmate a forty years old they would probably shriek out a sonorous no.
With all this, Boromir and Aragorn (whom, by the way, is 86) remain hot property; but a realistically depicted seventeen years old heroine would probably think it out before ripping apart their mailshirt behind a bush. (Why it is that middle-aged, sexually active, emotionally mature women that would be able to make a rational decision about hopping in the sack or not so rarely end up in the Tolkienverse is a mystery as yet to be resolved. I thank the Valar for the existence of Pink Siamese's Dawn of Many Colors series, and keep investigating.)
While we're at it, I'll say it once more: raped heroines abound in romance stories, and to have them utterly traumatized about it is very life-like; to have them shed all their complexes (and their clothes) by chapter 3, just in time for that candlelit rendezvous with Leggy, is not.
14. The social contract: tackling issues in fanfic writingTolkien's works are the writings of a man born and raised several decades ago, who had a severe religious education, and morals that by our standards are about as liberal as an iron corset. To the modern reader his stories usually present a range of perplexities, prejudices, and fair questions that have found many, and different, form of expressions.
Tolkien's treatment of people with coloured skin, of one in-universe race rather than another, of women have all raised questions that essayists, aficionados and fanfiction writers have all found different ways to cope with. Let us be very clear: tackling the darker, objectionable side of Middle-earth is a worthy, difficult subject. There are great fics about such things out there; but exactly because this is a delicate matter, it is not a good idea to entrust its exploration to Mary Sue.
Xena-Sues, wonderwomen OFCs who go into Middle-earth to show the canon characters what girls are capable of, usually take control of the plot with high-tech gadgets they conveniently happened to bring along, dazzle Gandalf into silence with their encyclopedic knowledge of Middle-earth, toss away the Ring 'cause an empowered gal would never be tempted by such a clearly chauvinistic device (get that, Galadriel?) and use the time they saved by such a swift resolution of the plot to beat gender-awareness into the canonical heroes. Did I exaggerate? Not by much. Any long-term fanfiction reader will have happened across the 'spitfire' Sue who bests Boromir (always identified, for reasons unknown, as the emblem of patriarchal society and all its evils), refuses scornfully Aragorn because she is nobody's wife and shows it by seducing any Elf that happens along the path.
I am as enraged as the next girl that all that book!Arwen actively contributes to the plot is a frigging banner she embroidered in an incredibly long time; but supplanting her with Xena, warrior princess, is not the way of solving the issue. There are incredible female characters in Tolkien to explore; strong girls like Haleth, who told Lord Caranthir she could cope on her own, thankyouverymuch; great leaders like Galadriel; beautiful but resourceful characters like Lùthien. Take inspiration from them, lose Lùthien's looks, and we're on the road to OFCs who are believable, but still would make the suffragettes proud.
15. Unhappily ever after: watch the ending, ladiesIt happens rather often: a book, or movie, or TV series we loved from head to toe, characterization, plot, style, loses it as the end approaches and eventually tosses it all away in a cheap, cliché-y, highly unsatisfactory epilogue. There are countless stories, both filmed and written, which have ended up spoiled this way; and the fanfictions that have thus fallen from grace are even more. Any tale's ending should be carefully thought out by an author, as coherent, meaningful, neither too hurried nor too drawn-out. And when we're talking OFCs, the ending is the place where Mary deals her final blow: an apotheosis when she has dominated the previous fifty thousand words, or an unexpected, treacherous tailstroke when the author had successfully managed to keep her out until then.
There are Sues who die. Killing off your heroine may sound like the perfect way of silencing the haters (she didn't get the happily ever after, hence she is original), but if your character dies the noblest of deaths, a couple of canonical heroes commit suicide upon the news, another swears off dating for all the ages of Arda, and a flower blooms, fragile and beautiful, on her tomb every year on the anniversary of her death, dying for her has been the equivalent of the Roman elevation of emperors into gods: she used to be a simple Sue, but now she's attained the rank of Saint patron of all Marys.
The character dies? Fair game. Some will be sad, some will be desperate, some will not care. Just like in real life. And just like in real life, the Sun will keep rising and setting, and the Earth, Middle- or real one, will keep spinning quite happily, and indifferently. Keep it real, and it'll be good. Reality can be wreathed in poetry and good writing, and still be itself.
But there are Sues, of course, who do get the happy ending. Who marry the hero in pure, unadulterated sappiness, have a couple of kids, raise them and, if their beloved is an Elf and they happened to be human, somehow get to immortality without a way back. Unlikely? A lot.
Here we may take a leaf out of Tolkien's own book: the best endings, the most realistic ones, are bittersweet. At the end of any tale, good or bad tend to balance each other out, especially in a moral world like Middle-earth. Some characters are defeated, some others triumph; not all evil is punished and not all evil is spared. No black, no white. Just gray. And when we're there, as Sam Gamgee once put it, we're home. Where Sue is only a distant remembrance, and a very faded one at that.
16. Riddikulus: laughing Mary awayMary Sues are much like Potterverse Boggarts: they are our worst fears as fanfiction writers, but a laugh is enough to banish them. The flaming, the hating, the insulting that has been going on in this fandom, like in any other, originated of writers and reviewers that took it all too seriously. In writing, as in many things, practice makes perfect; and beginners are likely to make errors. Friendly advice was needed; but hammer-strokes rained down. A sober self-criticism should have occurred to digest the thoughts of those who sincerely wished to counsel; but self-esteem got hurt.
We're out to have fun; and learn how to be better story-tellers in the process. Authors, any of them, put a bit of themselves in any character they write; with OFCs, when we're girls at our first try, we sometimes tend to get a tad overboard. There, in that shadowy place where daydreaming hasn't bloomed into fully fledged imagination yet, Mary Sue is born: but if we manage to detach ourselves from her a bit, she dies just as quickly. The best way to do it, if you ask me? By reading parodies.
Parody is the place where we make fun of the fandom, and of ourselves; and if parody if well made, you're going to learn a lot from it, aside from the having a good laugh. Here I will list a few works that I have happened across through the years, and which I found useful, but also, and most importantly, incredibly funny; I am sure that out there there are a lot more I simply did not know of.
The Game of the Gods, by Limyaael; where the Valar, Tolkienverse equivalent of gods, play chess with Sues as pawns. The dark Vala Morgoth puts them down, the white Valie Varda beats them with logic. And a fantastic tale of epic proportions, and equal amusement, is sprinkled all over it.
Fair Wanderer, Thou Makest Me Sick, by Araloth the Random; Mary wanted Leggy, and Mary was right strange. And Araloth got her all right. This fantastic oneshot was developed in the equally funny multi-chaptered sequel Fair Wanderer, Thou Makest Me Sicker.
Debbie Does the Fellowship, by Gypsie Rose; remember the Sue that got all the heroes? Right. Elevate her to the power of ten. And laugh your head off.
The Official Fanfiction University of Middle-earth, by Camilla Sandman; this work initiated a whole tradition of 'Official Fanfiction Universities' in other fandoms. What would happen, asks Camilla, if Tolkienverse characters could teach fanfiction writers how things actually are? The answer is: readers will be rolling on the floor. Followed by Once More Into the Urple Depths of OFUM. Plain Jane in Thirteen Chapters,
Plain Jane in Thirteen Chapters,by Larry1710; albeit unfinished, this is the fic that for me brought metafanfiction to a whole new level (AND Boromir was in-character. In a romance.).
The LOTR Mary – Sue Litmus Test, by Gil Shalos: inspired from the legendary 'Mary Sue Universal Litmus Test', good fun, and an helpful device for a last-hour check.
17. Conclusion: good writing, and good luckWhat I tried to do here was not Sue-bashing, or hating, or flaming. I don't hold with flamers. I don't hold with lecturers, either. If you have felt offended, or lectured to, I apologize; it was not my intention. What I tried to do was simply putting a long story of writing, beta'ing and discussing OFCs at the service of others, providing them with the answers I would have needed back then, when I started writing and half my characters had violet irises and a tendency to snatch all the hotties from the scene. I have grown, I have learnt; but I am not perfect. Nor, everywhere in writing this essay, have I assumed I am.
Mary Sues exist. But good OFCs do, too, and that's why OFC writers go on on their long, difficult road. One that, if sometimes it gets lost in the brambles of Sueishness, can also climb to unsuspected heights. It takes some time; but it is worth it. Good writing, and good luck.