Confessions of a Mary Sue: Can Bad Fan Fiction Be Beneficial?
by Rachel Dvorak
I used to write some Harry Potter fan fiction.”
I’ve said this line to more people than I’d like to admit. Almost always with the same expression. My voice was soft, my eyes downcast, and a burning sense of shame filled my stomach.
There’s a reason for this. You see, fan fiction does not have the greatest of reputations. It often conjures images of either fun but ultimately worthless smut or silly teenagers projecting their romantic fantasies onto fictional characters through self-insertion and a slew of Mary-Sues, Gary-Stus, and dozens of other hyphenated monikers.
These images are why I have always been ashamed of my fan fiction writing. But now that I’ve grown older, should I be ashamed of it? Is fan fiction genuinely worthless? A silly distraction at best and a horrible time-waster at worst? Lately, I’ve started to think about my past fan fiction writing career. It was filled with a lot of the cliches and tropes mentioned above. But now, I’ve concluded that my years of writing fan fiction were not entirely useless. To explain how I came to this conclusion, I will tell you the entire story.
I wrote my first fan fiction at 17, and it was terrible. The story was filled with tropes people deride, including self-insertion, poor grammar and spelling, and a Mary-Sue heroine. At the time, I didn’t realize that. I was too busy hurriedly getting all my feelings, thoughts, and daydreams about my favorite fictional world onto the page. I didn’t have time to worry about misspelled words or punctuation.
What inspired this frenzied desire? Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
It was the summer of 2003. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Sure, I would write bits and pieces of stories in my own time, and I would dream up fictional scenarios and think about giving birth to them as full-fledged novels. Despite that, I had never once finished a story. I would start work on a writing project and quit halfway through, convincing myself that the idea was stupid or that no one would ever read it.
Then Sirius Black died.
I’d been through fictional death before. I’d read Little Women and cried when Beth died. I’d cried as well when Cedric Diggory passed in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire three years earlier. But, this time, something was different. It didn’t feel like enough to cry about Sirius while reading, close the book, and forget him. I kept going over the reasons for his death in my head. I knew they made sense in the storyline, but I still couldn’t accept it. So, as I often did when I was upset, I turned to daydreaming. Inspired by frequent listening to the Les Miserables soundtrack (in preparation for our high school musical in the fall), I created an alternate reality in which a musical theater actress enters the Harry Potter universe with the sole aim of saving Sirius Black from his fate. Eventually, I decided to write down this daydream and throw it on fanfiction.net.
When I published the first chapter, I was surprised and relieved to receive two positive reviews from people eagerly awaiting the story’s continuation. I was given a confidence boost by this and continued writing. I spent the rest of the summer holed up in my room, neglecting my school assignments and many other things in favor of pounding out my story. As I stated at the beginning, the story was terrible. Besides spelling and grammar mistakes, my heroine bore a striking resemblance to me as I wished I was, and she also had little depth or natural character. But, despite all of these flaws, positive reviews for my story kept coming. There weren’t many of them. Maybe two per chapter. That didn’t matter. The fact that there were people out there, even just two people, who seemed to enjoy my writing and wanted me to continue was enough to spur me on.
I completed my first written work in September of 2003. My two faithful reviewers were sweet and enthusiastic to the end. But I didn’t want it to be the end. At this point, writing fan fiction had become an addiction. In my senior year of high school alone, I wrote three novella-length fanfiction stories and two short stories. They were all in the same vein, with female characters that much resembled me doing things that I wanted to do in the universe, including punching an unlikeable character, Percy Weasley, in the face and dating a younger version of my favorite male character: Remus Lupin.
My fever for writing, in general, continued through college. By now, I wrote the occasional original short story or play in addition to my fan fiction. When the sixth Harry Potter book came out, I found a new reason to write.
In 2005 I became infatuated with an older boy at my university. Through signals, occasional looks, and brief touches, I had convinced myself that he felt the same way but didn’t want to say so. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when Tonks revealed her feelings for Remus Lupin and Lupin expressed his reluctance to be with her even though he clearly loved her, I was ecstatic. I became convinced that this challenging, angst-filled, yet strangely romantic scenario mirrored my own.
Of course, I had to get this feeling out on paper. In a multi-chapter examination of Lupin and Tonks’ relationship, I found a creative outlet for my feelings. In Tonks’ passion, frustration, and a hint of hope, I was able to safely express the pangs of unrequited love I felt. Through Lupin, I was able to project what I hoped the object of my affection felt about me. Over two years, I wrote that story and many other Lupin and Tonks fan fictions. Through Livejournal, I discovered a whole community of fellow Lupin and Tonks shippers. These beautiful people, many of whom were genuinely excellent writers, gave me advice and encouragement to strengthen my skills in fanfiction and my original works.
I remember receiving advice on developing characters’ thoughts, feelings, and inner life. Good advice on how to show and not tell the audience what I wanted to say and even suggestions on how to improve my editing, proofreading, and grammar skills. Slowly, with the help of my new fan fiction colleagues, my writing began to improve. I was now submitting my own original stories to local contests. I even wrote a play chosen from several to be performed at my college. Confidence in my writing grew. Through it all, I continued to flesh out my angst-filled vignettes based on Lupin and Tonks’ relationship.
Then, one day, when there were only two chapters left to write in my great “epic,” I stopped. I couldn’t have told you if you had asked me why I never again updated that story. I might have said I didn’t have time. I was graduating from college and working a part-time job, after all. But, as my school work and job hadn’t kept me from writing other “one-off” stories in the Harry Potter universe, that explanation didn’t exactly ring true. The truth was, every time I sat down to write the penultimate chapter in this story, something stopped me, and I couldn’t make myself finish the story.
It wasn’t until years later, when I got a wild urge to look back at this old fan fiction, that I saw the date on the last updated entry and realized what had happened. I stopped writing my epic love story in October of 2007. That was the same month and year that I entered my first genuinely adult romantic relationship with a young man from the new college I had transferred to. Even though the story hadn’t ended for Lupin and Tonks, it was over for me. And while I wrote several more tales about this couple, that particular tale of longing, angst, frustration, and passion wasn’t something I needed to write anymore.
Looking back, I now realize that’s what fan fiction was for me. It was a safe space where, in complete anonymity, I could express my fears, my doubts, my views, and my longings. It was also a place where I could safely play around with plot ideas, writing styles, and points of view.
Now, with a published play, novella, and several ghostwritten works for Kindle under my belt, not to mention a career as an advertising copywriter with a national marketing agency, I realize how much of my life I owe to that first self-insertion fan fiction story. Writing that story showed me that I could finish the tales I started, that people would want to read my work, that people are willing to help and support me, and that I have a safe place to express myself.
The truth is a “bad” fan fiction that helps a teenage girl express and deal with her feelings can be just as beneficial as any great work of literature. Everyone has a strong emotion or impulse that needs to be let out at some point in time. The strength of our thoughts, feelings, and impulses makes us human beings. I believe that genuinely successful humans are the ones who find creative outlets for their intense emotions. Rather than snapping at strangers in a shopping line, destroying property, harming themselves, or harming others, these people find a way to channel their energy into creation. Fan fiction is one way to do that.
The way to measure fan fiction is not in its literary merits (though there is fan fiction out there that genuinely shines in this area). Instead, fan fiction should be measured by what it gives to its writers and readers.
It gives its writers a place to work out their emotions, trials, joys, and fears. And it provides its readers another escape into a world they love.
Now that I’ve come to realize that (well into my thirties, I might add), I’m no longer ashamed about admitting my terrible fan fiction writing past. Earlier this year, I let my husband read some of my oldest fan fiction works. I was lucky to marry a Star Wars fan who loved watching fan films when he was younger (and occasionally still does). From my very first shame-faced admission early in our relationship, he’d understood and accepted my fan fiction writing.
Now, I’ve come to accept it myself. Fan fiction is what made me the writer and the person I am today.
So, to fan fiction writers, especially young fan fiction writers, my message is this: keep going. Even if people deride your work as “self-insertion” or your characters as “Mary-Sue” or “Gary-Stu.” Even if authors and pundits decry fanfiction as “plagiarism” or “unoriginal.” Don’t listen to them. Listen to yourself and listen to your readers. If you feel something inside that compels you to finish this story about a world you love, that is all that matters. If you write fan fiction, you need to write it; chances are, someone out there needs to read it.
That’s the lesson that writing terrible fan fiction taught me. And it made all the difference.