Young writers (‘young’ can mean age or inexperienced) get an idea and think, “It would be so cool if I could do that.” They proceed to daydream, form a story, and might finally attempt to write the story. This results in an author-based character.
An author-based character doesn’t have to be a writer in the story. It doesn’t have to be in present day or do anything the author does. The author could be a stay-at-home mom who writes a spy thriller. The way you can identify an author-based character is the voice of the character, the actions of the character, and the lack of real depth in the character.
Author-based characters come into existence because the author places himself into the situation and writes how he would respond if he ever had run from the CIA, save the world with some new superpower, or travel back in time. This is where all the daydreams and fantasies come to life, and you’re able to do what you could never do in real life.
These characters are often found in fan fiction because the author gets the idea for the story by thinking, “Now, if I could have been in that movie/book, what would I have done? What would happen?” Author-based characters have the tendency to become Mary-Sue or Gary Stu–that is to say the ‘perfect’ characters. To the author, these characters are charming and beautiful, but they’re absolutely annoying and unrealistic to the readers.
Once a writer asked me to read the first novel he ever wrote because he wanted to publish it. I met his female protagonist, and I had to put his book down. Everyone in the story loved that character. They crowded around to reach out to her just to get a brief touch of her. They said she was an angel, and she was described as beautiful.
This, in and of itself, would be all right if the twist had been that on the inside she was dark, but the worst part was this character was absolutely innocent, ignorant, but knew anything about everything. There was nothing wrong with her, nothing different, no shades of gray, or depth. Have you ever met someone who just seemed so perfect that it’s annoying? The same goes for stories.
Needless to say, I couldn’t finish reading that story. I had to give him credit though because it was his first novel, and he was writing a female character. His downfall came in being too careful. He didn’t want to insult his female readers by making his female character unlikable in any way whatsoever, but there is a crime in being too careful. Every character has a conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.
“But I didn’t mean to write a Mary Sue! What am I supposed to do?” Think back and reconsider why you’re writing the story in the first place. Yes, Mary Sues have their proper place in writing, but they’re never the main character. They’re often used in parody.
“If there’s even the slightest chance of me accidentally writing a Mary Sue, I don’t want to write.” That’s your choice, but if you’re a writer, you won’t be able to not write. No one said writing was easy. Characters are only one aspect of writing, and you must master them before you can think about publishing your work.
This is why the Playground Experience is important! During the Playground Experience you can play around with all sorts of characters, tear them apart, piece them back together, find out what makes them tick, and talk with them–argue with them. You’re going to disagree with your characters. They’re going to storm away and slam doors in your head on the way out, but they’ll always come back because you are the only means they have to get their story told. Like us, they want their story known to the world. The Playground Experience is the proper place to experiment. Mary Sues are tolerated in fan fiction because it is an unspoken agreement among fan fic authors and readers that fan fiction is merely a playground to learn the craft.
Writers have the most selfless people in the world because even though they write the story, imagine the characters and the setting, they have no say in what actually happens. They may want something to happen, but in the end, it’s all up to the characters.
Every writer must know and understand their characters and realize they are not their characters, and their characters are not them. This understanding comes with practice, and over the course of many years, you—as the author—will develop how you connect with your characters and how you communicate your characters to the world.
Quick Tip: If you think your character is an author-based character, change the gender of your character. Author-based characters are the same gender as the author, so if you change the gender, you automatically create a distance between that character and you.