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Losing Mary

Chapter 1: Chapter 1

by Eldalie

This is an informative and critical essay. All characters and plotlines here discussed belong to J.R..

Losing Mary

How to write OFCs in the Tolkienverse and escape the clutches of the Sue

He was a man, take him for all in all/ I shall never look upon his like again.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2

Probably it was Legolas that did it. Or Boromir, for those of us who fancied rugged Gondorian manliness over Elvish good looks. For some, instead, it was Frodo's forlorn blue eyes that triggered the idea first. Shall we speak of Eomer then? And some, eventually, read the book and found they didn't like Arwen much. Definitely, Aragorn deserved better, they thought. However it happened, it happened for many of us: the sudden thought that Middle-earth as it was lacked something. That little bit of romance, of warm beds and intertwining hands. That in that bunch of hot guys there was an unmarried one too many. And where Tolkien had not cared to fill the gaps, where he had left a faceless, sometimes nameless girl to conquer the hero's heart, the readers and viewers decided they would step up to the play. And make up a heroine of their own to fill that empty space.

The idea was good; the intentions glowing. But an accident happened, while eager fingers typed or scribbled the protagonist to dominate the scene: and the accident had a name and a surname. We are talking, of course, of Mary.

'Mary Sue' is a term that scares the living breath out of any would-be writer; mostly employed in fanfiction, it has recently spread also to the field of original writing. Mary Sue is everywhere: because, very simply, it is the point we all started from. A husk for us to slip in when we daydream, the raw prototype of all the wonderful characters we might create, the initially humorous term has become overtime an insult often hurled at those whose Original Female Characters (OFCs) we happen not to like. It goes without saying: flaming is always wrong. It also goes without saying: Mary Sue is not an inescapable doom.

Not all OFCs are Sues; and every writer, with a few useful tips, can successfully avoid the clichť and make her protagonist into an all-round, believable, compelling character to build the plot around. If you are a would-be writer in the Tolkienverse, at your first fic, or just wishing to check a few points, this essay is written for you: to put down black on white a few facts, and free you once and for all from the nightmare of the flamers. To help you bring out in the fandom a whole new generation of interesting, well-written, absolutely original OFCs.

What this essay is: an easy guide to all you might need to know in the creation of Tolkien-verse OFCs.

What this essay isn't: a critique, an attack, a pretence at knowing everything. I'll quote bits of books from Tolkien to support what I'm saying, and occasionally essays from other writers or directly their words.

Sources: The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and the History of Middle-earth; within its twelve volumes, notably the essay 'Laws and Customs of the Eldar'. Also, the experience of years of writing, beta-ing and discussing OFCs.

Follows an index of the contents of this essay, so that you may easily find what you need.

1. The fortunate few: when OFCs are sorely needed
2. Pictures of Mary: who is she and why we loathe her
3. What's in a name: when the callsign is a label already
4. More beautiful than Lýthien: Miss Middle-earth
5. Some like it flawed: perfect Mary
6. Foretold: a girl with a destiny
7. Blood ain't water: OFCs and family trees
8. The Last of the Mohicans: an OFC left all alone
9. Cinderella story: orphaned, mistreated and ill-used
10. Goody two shoes: when Sue gives us diabetes
11. OOC: a character by any other name
12. Whodunnit: when Mary steals the scene
13. Not that kind of girl: sex and the OFCs
14. The social contract: tackling issues in fanfic writing
15. Unhappily ever after: watch the ending, ladies
16. Riddikulus: laughing Mary away
17. Conclusion: good writing, and good luck

1. The fortunate few: when OFCs are sorely needed.

Let's face it: Professor Tolkien was not particularly fond of writing girls. His few female characters are certainly memorable (Galadriel, Eowyn, Aredhel, Lýthien, Melian, Haleth, just to quote the most famous) but, when compared to the rich cast of male characters, they are undeniably fewer and farer between. Endless essays have been written debating the issue of whether or not Tolkien's works are misogynistic and unfair to women; methinks not, as those characters that we do have often shine for resourcefulness, charisma, power and brilliantness of mind and spirit. Without a doubt, Middle-earth is a medieval kind of world, and the role of women in such an environment is limited by precise rules and to well-definite areas. Those female characters who do not conform, or reach peculiar peaks in their field, shine through.

However, that the writer does not portray female characters as often as we'd like him to does not mean that behind the heroes we so much love there is an affective void that no self-respective fan should ever dream to fill. As any Silmarillion reader knows, Tolkien has a well-ingrained habit of saying that some male character has children, or gets married, without ever spending a word on the wife or mother in question. (For all Caranthir, Curufin and Maglor fans out there who always wondered about their invisible brides.)

In the LotR trilogy, probably the best known of Tolkien's works, Merry and Pippin marry maidens of whom we know only the names; the same does Eomer, and the love life of well-loved characters such as Boromir and Legolas is an empty space blissfully open to speculation.

I say love: indeed, this is the context in which almost all of the OFCs that we may encounter in fanfiction are to be met. While some reviewers relish in telling the authors just why romance fics are by definition rubbish, I shall sustain to my death by flaming that this is completely untrue. If you like a character and want to explore the possibility of his pairing with a heroine of your imagination, taking in the course of your story a different angle on the canon events, that is a plot as good as any other to start from. Never let any mean reviewer get you down on the basis that OFCs are bad for the fandom. On the contrary; sometimes, and in romance rather often, they are fundamental.

How, then, has it come to be that such a reasonable proposition as the creation of original characters to fill the gaps in canon and, why not, create alternative plots has become a byword for trashy stories? We go back to the beginning: the guilty party is, of course, our friend Mary.

2. Pictures of Mary: who is she and why we loathe her

Very probably you have met her in a movie, a book or a TV show. She was the character you did not like: the perfect one, the beloved one, the one who got everything she wanted, and immediately, and the one everybody fell in love with for no apparent reason. She usually is female; her male variation, dubbed 'Gary Stu', is rarer, if, in original fiction, more evident. (James Bond and Harry Potter are two cases of extremely popular characters some critics have accused of being Mary Sues.)

In the fanfiction world, where you are familiar with the universe you're reading about, she's even easier to spot: Mary Sue is the new girl in town who turns the tables, and, very often, quite inappropriately and quite dramatically. She's the Slayer who's better at it than Buffy and Faith taken together, the new witch who outshines the Halliwell sisters, the Hogwarts student brighter than Hermione and braver than Harry. And, in the Tolkienverse, she's the one who charms the hero, destroys the Ring and saves the day for the good of everyone.

Why we do not like her is easily explained: being a character who does not fit in with the rules of the world she inhabits, created to better and best the original characters that drew us to a fandom in the first place, Mary Sue turns the fictional world we love into something we cannot recognize. And, in consequence, cannot love.

But I love her, some of you may say. Honest, I like to write about her. I like to read about her. I have seen Sue fics being reviewed and praised wildly.

To which I reply: ever read anything else? Ever tried something different? Believe me, we all started from Mary: any long-term fanfiction writer has in her past at least one cringeworthy character that was deleted in shame when the author realized exactly where she was going. Sue is not a good character, she is not a different kind among a roll-call of many: she is the death of the originality of the stories and characters you may weave as a writer, for the simple reason that every Sue is a clone of the next. There are angsty types and cheesy types, but they all have one thing in common: they are bi-dimensional and flat, and they obey the same set of unwritten rules. Tell me what is your Mary, and I will tell you how your story goes.

This said, all the shame, all the angst, all the flaming that has been going on in every fandom ever since Mary was first spotted and defined (and we are talking of the Star Trek fandom, in the '70s) is quite out of place. There's nothing as easy as avoiding Mary, once you know how to go about it.

3. What's in a name: when the callsign is a label already

A character's name is important. It's the way other characters call her, the way you think about her. It's only natural that a writer should dedicate some time to choosing it, and that she should like its sound and its meaning. What is not right, is that the name should become a shiny presentation box for the character: 'oh, she's called like this becauseÖ' As long-navigated readers of fics well know, the name of an OFC is very often the first sign of its being a Sue.

Every universe has its naming rules: you see it around you every day in the different traditions of the various cultures, and the same applies to Middle-earth. When you create an OFC and choose her race, the age in which she lives, and the place where she is born, you should do a bit of research to find for her a name that fits her background.

A classic example is that of Elvish OFCs. What happens very often there is that the author, who does not know a word of Elvish (nothing wrong with it) invents for her a name that sounds Elvish (a lot wrong with it). To be called Galadrina Tinuviella is not a good introduction for your character: any Tolkien fan can tell it's a made-up name, and badly made up at that. If you want an Elvish character, out there there are several different websites with excellent, long and detailed name lists divided according to the different languages and kins of the Elves. There you can find true Elvish names, with beautiful meanings, and thus make both yourself and your readers happy.

The same goes for human OFCs (Middle-earth ones): Numenorean and Gondorian Men are often named in Elvish, so you may use the same namelists for them. (Or, since Men, unlike Elves, often repeat names, you can adopt for your character a name previously used by an Elf. Not Lýthien though. More about this later on.) For the Men of Rohan, you have to resort instead to Anglo-Saxon names, since we do not know enough of the language they use, and ancient English was the source Tolkien used for them anyway.

Hobbits have names that are more similar to our own: many of their maidens seem to be called after flowers or other plants. Here, of course, your work is easier: any Hobbit girl can be called Lily or Pansy or Violet.

When we get to modern day girls in Middle-earth, a very popular plot, again the character's name can tell us a lot about the story: when an experienced reader of fanfiction meets a Miss Crystalia Loveheart, the smell of Mary Sue hits the fan and taints the air. If your fanfiction purports to be about your average schoolgirl thrown into the Tolkienverse, you do not need me to tell you that in our world we are far more likely to meet a Sarah Jones than a Stella Shinyeyes.

Another thing to be avoided is a character who has chosen her own name. Unless the character in question has a need to conceal her identity, in Middle-earth as in our world it's the parents of the child who choose her name. The Elves have a tradition of giving nicknames to people (called epessŽ), but again this is a name assigned by others. We have in Tolkien an instance of a character who changed his name several times during his life to escape a curse: but he always chose a name that would fit into the new environment where he lived. Your character, if this be the case, should do the same.

4. More beautiful than Lýthien: Miss Middle-earth

Imagining a character also concerns imagining how she looks. Here the same rules we discussed for the naming process apply: while every author could probably give a good idea of what her character looks like, for a story to work this is not as vital as other elements. Whether your protagonist is a blonde or a chestnut is ultimately irrelevant to the result of the readers finding her believable or not.

Many Mary Sues betray the fact that they look just like the author wishes she did: if you spend long paragraphs describing in detail the hair, eyes, figure, clothes of your protagonist, especially in the first few pages, the doubt is born in your readers that your story is ultimately just a showcase for your little personal fantasy. If your story is in the first person, it is highly unlikely that your character should have any need to describe herself while narrating her tale. And yes, tricks like writing 'I let my long, carefully braided wheat-blonde curls slip through my tapering fingers and onto my velvet-covered, generous bosom' are cheating.

Before you decide whether your OFC has blue eyes or brown ones, there are other, more important things, like her personality, her background and her role in the story that you should attend to.

When you decide what your character looks like, you have to respect the rules of plausibility and the norm of her race and world. Some Elves have natural silver hair; no young human being will have hair the same colour, unless they have dyed it. Nobody, just nobody, whether on this earth or in Middle-earth, has purple eyes. Unless your character is an albino, or a crossover from a manga, white locks at fifteen are out of the equation. 'Blonde hair, naturally streaked with blue' (and I swear I've found this and worse) spells 'Mary Sue' a thousand miles far. For your character to be interesting, she has no need of looking like nobody else in her universe ever could.

Then, the discourse of beauty. All Elves are, says Tolkien, 'fair to look upon'; if your character's an Elf, she is canonically pretty. No need to hammer this in saying that she's 'more beautiful than Lýthien'; also because nobody, whether in Tolkien canon or fanfiction, can be more beautiful than her. Daughter of a Maia and an Elf, Lýthien, whether we like her as a character or not, was unique: Arwen looks like her, but only because she is her great-granddaughter. No other character can share this with them; and to say that your own Elf beats them is to take the shortcut to Suedom without a way back.

It's only understandable that, if the hero falls for your heroine, he should find her attractive. To give us some clues as to what she looks like is all very well. But to make her into a Middle-earthish Helen of Troy is both unnecessary and damaging to your plot.

5. Some like it flawed: perfect Mary

Besides an unlikely name and shiny looks, the element that most gives away a Sue is a flawless personality. Mary is good, Mary is nice, Mary is kind, Mary is pure, and Mary is so boring and unlikely that you drop her story by paragraph three. Nobody's perfect; all of us have flaws, and by flaws I mean real ones: some are cowardly, some are mean, some are prone to anger. Flaws are the bits of us which are not really likable, and those that get us into trouble. When a character is always perfectly adequate to the situation, save for the little detail that she can't play the piano, Sue has stepped into the story and is not likely to go away.

Some have tried to overcome this, but keep the character substantially flawless, by endowing her with the so-called 'spitfire personality': the character has always a sharp word for everyone, but no one ever takes her up on that, or gets back to her for it. Do I really need to point out that this is unlikely? We all have bitchy days; but usually people make us notice we're getting on their nerves. It's natural, it's human, and it's the way things work. Yes, even in Middle-earth.

None of the heroes your heroine is out to get is perfect: they're sometimes proud, sometimes inadequate, sometimes seized by despair. Why should they need the perfect girl to fall in love with? Perfection is boring to read. It smells of falseness, and it's annoying to your readers, who are granted to be normal human beings. But I want my readers to like my character, you may say; and I'll reply to you that liking a character has nothing to do with enjoying reading about her.

What a reader wants is somebody to identify with; and they can't do it with a perfect, unlikely, exasperatedly flawless girl.

6. Foretold: a girl with a destiny

Destiny and doom are important elements in Tolkien's world; prophecies, curses, and the like are often found in his tales. While Mankind in Middle-earth ultimately possess freewill ('the ability to shape their own destiny', as the author puts it), the fates of the Elves were sung and decided by the Ainur before the creation of the world. If your character is an Elf, she has a destiny. If your character is a human, she does not.

To make a character the object of a prophecy, a curse, a doom, a peculiar fate, is an element that derives from the most ancient legends; but to do so in a world like Tolkien's, where such things come along by the kilo, unless you are very experienced author, is downright suicidal. All too often, 'girl with a destiny' screams Mary Sue: the one born to destroy the Ring/save Boromir/keep FŽanor from swearing his Oath.

If your character becomes entangled with the canon ones, automatically she gets caught in the prophecies, the curses, the dooms Tolkien already thought for them: to endow her with a series of her own, perhaps even antagonizing the canon ones (all the OFCs I have known to be fated to rule Gondor instead of Aragorn), is to single her out for special treatment, and to belittle all the canon characters. (Typical Sue behavior).

If, indeed, your OFC can keep Boromir from dying, and she can do so plausibly and interestingly, kudos: no need to have a solemn stone declaring she would do it a thousand years before she was born.

7. Blood ain't water: OFCs and family trees

When you think up an original character for the Tolkienverse, an important thing to be considered is her link to the main characters. While a subject, a friend or a lady-in-waiting are options always open to any enterprising author, another solution is to make her a relative of the characters you mean to write about. If you find a gap in the family tree (and Tolkien has left many, both for Elves and Men, not to mention Hobbits), all is good and fair: the family trees the Professor drew are often limited only to the main characters, and secondary branches of the family, even if unmentioned, are certain to have existed.

What you can't do, however, is giving a canon character with a well-established family another, close relative: sisters of Aragorn, daughters of Elrond, nieces of Galadriel, etc. Any such character stops the reader in her tracks with the sheer impossibility of her existence; and to go past such impossibility is rather hard for a critical-minded reader. Rivendell is certain to contain more Elven maidens than Elrond's daughter alone; no need to add another child to his family to put your character in a prime position to meet the Fellowship.

Also about family links, many OFCs are endowed with unusual, rare genealogies: half-Elves abound, and some, co-opting traditions from other fandoms, have written of half-dragons, half-Orcs, and more. The unions between Elves and humans being extremely rare in the Tolkienverse, for your character to start out with such a peculiar background is not quite believable; if you are determined to go on with this idea, remember that half-Elves are not discriminated against by the full-blooded ones. Elrond is an half-Elf: as you can see, this was no problem for him.

Forget, instead, about the half-dragons: Middle-earth dragons breed on their own and, even if very powerful and gifted with speech, they remain animals. For the half-Orcs, we know that Orcs and the other races can interbreed: a theory for the origin of the Uruk-hai is that of Men procreating with Orcs. As always with such unusual families, however, beware: Orcish blood will show. A pretty Elven lady hiding an Orc father is just as out of the rules of the Tolkienverse as a good dragon.

One last note: the Valar do not breed, even if they do lust (see Melkor). A half-Vala, or full-Vala OFC cannot exist.

8. The Last of the Mohicans: an OFC left all alone

For the joy of those fanfiction writers who desire to give their characters an unusual but plausible background, Tolkien's pages are full of entire kins of Elves, Men or Hobbits who detach from the rest, move elsewhere and simply 'are lost'. That is the case for some of the Elves who did not join in the march to Valinor, or of those of the Men who went back to the East of Middle-earth and were never heard of again. Many authors make their protagonist a princess or ruling lady: such lost peoples are their only chance to do so.

Indeed, the uncharted, unmentioned East of Middle-earth past the Sea of RhŻn must be an interesting place: aside from the above-mentioned Elves and Men, the two Blue Wizards that had journeyed from Valinor with Gandalf, Saruman and Radagast have also 'been lost' there. If your OFC comes from there, you have more freedom of inventing her culture, her family, her powers; still, to make her the last of the faeries who comes to the Council of Elrond riding a unicorn means bringing the story derailing from chapter 1.

To add new, unmentioned creatures to a land already rich in Elves, Dwarves and Dragons is superfluous, lazy and redundant. With a bit of research you can make up your Elven princess, and with some care make her sympathetic to the reader; to make her the last surviving exemplary of a lost species, come angsting about the future of Middle-earth with people who never even knew her kind existed, but immediately feel for its loss, is one of the most dreaded, most indigestible brands of Sueishness.

Which brings us to make the acquaintance of one of the most widely spread Sues: the angsty type.


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Chapter 1
01 Oct 2010
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01 Oct 2010