I want to tell you a story.
The first time I ever wrote fanfiction was in the fourth grade, and it was a rewritten ending of Peter Pan 2: Return to Neverland. Somehow, the ending aggravated me to such a point that I visited the family computer room, opened up a Word document, and typed up a two page, single spaced ending that no one will ever read. It involved okay grammar, cliche language, and, overall, wasn’t anything special or original.
Even though I have outgrown my appreciation for the film and my skills in writing have massively improved, that piece is still important to me because it opened up another world. I learned that if I wanted something in a story, whether it be a new character, a better ending, or a whole new storyline based off the original, I possessed the power to change it.
What I didn’t possess early on, however, was an outlet to share my work. Not even to reach a wide audience, but just to receive feedback. I may have loved to write and continued to do so, but it was a lonely hobby. Unlike video games or outdoor soccer, adapting movies into my own words was neither accepted nor usual. For about a year, I penned pieces about various Disney films and Doctor Who episodes and hid every story on a hot pink flash drive.
One day, I told a friend who was massively obsessed with reading about my secret love of writing, and she excitedly informed me of online communities where I could share my work, read the work of others, and give and receive feedback on any piece I wanted.
From that day forward, every time I watched a film or read a book, I would examine it for places I wanted to change and share it on various forums. Nothing was safe from my young, watchful eyes. If I didn’t like the romance within the story, I’d rewrite the entire thing to fit my opinion of how the story should’ve gone. No female character I identified with? Fine. I’ll put myself in the story!
This final element of fanfiction writing is known as “The Mary-Sue.” Named after a character created by Star Trek parody writer Paula Smith, a “Mary-Sue”-like character as defined on Wikipedia as, “idealized and seemingly perfect…a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.” Hence the name, this sort of character is usually female.
To many young female fanfiction writers, creating a Mary-Sue is the worst possible tragedy to ever create in an original character or utilize in a canonical one. It was certainly mine! The first original character I created was Janice Mellark for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Youngest assassin in S.H.I.E.L.D., introverted, and a tragic backstory involving her human parents being killed. Within the seventy-four page, single spaced document, readers discover that she is actually Hel, daughter of Loki, sent to rain an early Ragnarok upon the universe. But through an intense, painful battle, she winds up ending the apocalypse, bringing back all the dead, and getting together with Steve Rogers AKA Captain America. To thirteen year old me, this was the most creative and imaginative character I could come up with!
Hoo, boy, did I get dragged by other fanfiction writers. I was called unoriginal, vapid, cliche: the worst words you can call a young writer. Rather than receive helpful criticism, vicious condemnations and cruel worlds were hurled at my writing. That day, I ended my fanfiction account, deleted every story from the website, and still haven’t shared a single piece with anyone else.
Since the Janice Mellark debacle, I’ve grown as both a fanfiction writer and as an original writer. And in that time, I have come to discover that I as a thirteen year old making a character that inspired me, reflected me, and encouraged me was utterly valid. Furthermore, it is my opinion that writers, especially young girls and other marginalized youth, should always start off by writing the stereotypical “Mary-Sue.”
Every single person who criticized me and my character with cruel language was someone who already had a lot of representation. They are the same people who grow up to criticize films like the 2016 Ghostbusters and the character of Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, yet praise the same films with trite plots involving relatively bland and cliched white male characters. Cliches are only acceptable when those in power see them in themselves. Once the marginalized become normalized, they are outnumbered.
Understanding fanfiction writers involves understanding where they come from. Many of those writers long for their voices to be heard, and writing is a way for them to express themselves and what they wish to see in the world. “Mary-Sue” was born out of young girls wishing to be seen as who they truly were: special, intelligent, extraordinary.
So, this is my open letter to young, marginalized, fanfiction writers: keep going. Keep sharing your work. You will run into the cruel powerful people who will make you feel like your voice is meaningless. I can assure you, that is not the case. People wish to silence those who intimidate their established powers, so being louder is the most perfect counterattack. And don’t worry about writing anything Mary-Sueish. It’s the stepping stone to creating stellar representational characters. You know yourself better than anyone or anything else, so writing about yourself as a marginalized young person will help you to write other types of characters like yourself.
Take it from me: just like your characters, you will experience development and unexpected twists and turns in your own plot. But you will always be you, and your voice will always be relevant.
A Proud Mary-Sue