Tropes to avoid in fanfiction

In my last article, “How to write fanfiction,” [LINK] I discussed several tips for improving your fanfics.  I specifically stayed away from anything relating to writing craft like dialogue, plotting, pacing, and others because they are common to all writing.  You can find articles and videos about them on my website or YouTube channel.  I focused this article on the tips and tropes that are specific to fanfiction as an art form.

In this article, I will be focusing on the dangers of fanfic.  I’ll start with some of the most common pitfalls of fanfic and finish with a list of 10 most reviled tropes in fanfic. 

Let’s get started.

Mary Sue

I think everyone is familiar with the Mary Sue.  A Mary Sue is usually female, but not always.  She’s typically a generally perfect character.  Everybody likes her, she has no flaws, she’s pretty, charismatic, warm, hopeful, kind, etc.  Imagine a female, fictional Jesus and you get the picture.  She activates her Mary Sue powers to overcome the antagonist and save the day to the applause of everyone around her.  But her victory can come at a cost as she’s bravely killed in the attempt and has an over the top, weepy funeral in her honor.

Don’t do that.  A perfect character that everyone loves and saves the day is unrelatable.  People want to see flawed, vulnerable characters who struggle against their flaws and overcome them by the end of the story. 

The Insert Sue

Similar to the Mary Sue, the Insert Sue is when the author inserts himself into the story.  Now, if you’re writing for your own private collection, that’s fine.  You can do whatever you want for yourself.  You want to write a story of you and Chewbacca riding King Kong into battle against an army of giant squirrels?  Go nuts.  If it’s for your own private library, then do you.  But if it’s for consumption by other readers you need to take their tastes into account.  And reading a story written by an author who makes himself the star of his own show is a bit like watching someone play video games.  Great fun for the guy who’s doing it, boring for anyone watching.

OTT (Over The Top) Characters

If you’ve read fanfic for any length of time, then you know the type.  These characters, though based on a canon character, have over the top personalities that don’t appear anywhere in fiction or real life.  These are the stories where Draco Malfoy struts into a room, winks at Hermione and says,

“Hey, good looking!  Want to go to the Room of Requirement, and help me break in my new broom?”

No!  Stop!  Bad fanfic writer.  Down, boy.

If you want to create an alternate universe fanfic, where Draco and Hermione hookup, fine.  But Draco and Hermione still need to be recognizable as Draco and Hermione. 

It’s all about the difference between character and caricature.  A character is the group of qualities that make a person, group, or thing different from others.  A caricature is an imitation of a person where certain characteristics are exaggerated in a comical or grotesque way.  Your characters should always remain characters.  You can subvert expectations, but always remember to honor canon.

To learn how to subvert expectations in you fanfics, check out my article, “How to write fanfiction,” [LINK]. 

If you stray too far from canon then you’re not writing fanfic anymore.  At this point you’re basically writing an original story.  There’s nothing wrong with that and loads of authors have made names for themselves by repurposing fics that strayed too far from canon.  But a fanfic should remain true to canon.

That’s not to say that you can’t do a caricature, but you need to be purposeful about it.  I once read a Star Trek spoof that had me in stitches.  It was based on the TNG episode, “The Qality of Life,” where Data argues that some construction robots Star Fleet is using are alive.  One scene had Picard, Data and Geordi in the ready room discussing the issue in standard, Star Trek, technobabbly goodness. 

In the spoof Data turns around and, in order to prove that Geordi was alive, lights his beard on fire.  The rest of the scene is Data and Picard calmly talking while LaForge runs around in the background desperately trying to put out his beard. 

This was a caricature and it worked because it was intentional.  It created a caricature by playing on Data’s established character traits, that he’s emotionless, and having him casually light a friends beard on fire to prove a point.  It subverted expectations by having Data and Picard talk calmly while Geordi’s beard burned instead of rushing to help him, as a sane person would do.

Melodrama and villain monologuing

There’s a writer on YouTube I like named Alexa Donne.  She gives really good advice, including fanfic advice.  She calls this “Bond Villain Syndrome.”

You even see this in some old movies and modern “B” movies.  The antagonist has the hero dead to rights.  But rather than finish them off, they start monologuing which allows the hero vital seconds to escape.  This cliché is dead for a reason.  Even modern movies, like The Incredibles, make fun of it.  It might be fun to write, which is fine for your private library, but it’s not fun to read.

Original characters (OC’s)

This is a bit of a controversial one.  In my last article, “How to write fanfiction,” [Link] I endorsed the creation of OC’s to fill gaps in the story and stir the pot between canon characters.  But the truth is that some people don’t like OC’s in their fanfiction for any reason.  I stand by my original assertion, but I also understand that it isn’t for everyone.  If you choose to introduce an OC into your story, just be intentional and upfront about it and understand that some readers won’t like it. 

Think about the story you want to tell and decide whether an OC is needed or not.  Depending on the story you want to tell, an OC may be the only way to go.  I’m writing a Star Wars/Stargate crossover now where most of the cast are OC’s by necessity.  It takes place in the Old Republic, several hundred years before the events of “A New Hope.”  Most of the characters, except Yoda, haven’t even been born yet and I’m not about to torture space and time to squeeze them into the story.  I haven’t given you full details of the plot, but within the greater context of the story this decision makes sense.  At least to me. 

The point is to be intentional and purposeful. 

Inserting authors notes

Some fanfic authors insert notes about their thoughts on the scene and why they made the choices they did.  Stop it.  No one cares.

Can you imagine watching a movie where the director cuts in every few minutes to explain why he chose the lighting for a particular scene.  Or where the actors broke character to explain their motivations to you?  It would be completely frustrating and spoil the illusion. 

You can always tell a great actor or actress because, once the camera’s rolling, they melt away.  They aren’t there anymore and you only see the character.  As an author, you should melt away into the background of your work.  For a skilled author, the only proof of your existence at all should be that the words on the page had to get there somehow.  They didn’t just appear by magic, but your reader almost needs to think they did.

If you really feel the need to engage your readers with author notes, do it at the beginning or end of a chapter.  Make a clear, obvious separation so those who enjoy them can read it and those who don’t easily skip them.  But I still encourage you not to use them.  There’s something to be said for allowing a little mystery in your writing and letting your readers imaginations fly.

Tropes to avoid

I’ve also compiled a list of tropes you should avoid.  According to, which I’ve linked to below, these are some of the most consistently reviled fanfic tropes.  Some of these should definitely be off limits, but even the others could go horribly wrong if not very well thought out and executed.

  1. (Very) Underage.  I won’t go into detail.  This one should be obvious.  Just remember, folks, when it comes to underage girls 16 will get you 20. 
  2. Noncon.  Non-consensual pairings.  Rape, essentially.  Also obvious.
  3. Incest.  Another no-brainer.
  4. Eating Disorders.  Anorexia, Bulimia, and the like.  A very sensitive subject, and one that needs to be treated with respect.
  5. Major Character Death.  This is a big one.  Most people don’t tune in to a fanfic to watch their favorite characters die.  They will more likely read if you decide to retcon an unpopular character death.  Like bringing back Beth, from “The Walking Dead”, or something.  They call this “fix-it-fic.”  If you desperately need to kill off a character, I recommend creating an OC.
  6. Mpreg.  (Male pregnancy.)  I don’t get it.  My wife has been pregnant 3 times.  It did not look fun.  Much less like something anyone would fantasize over.  The writers at don’t get it either.  I am agog. 
  7. Slavery.  This usually focuses pairings and certain pervy elements.  
  8. Bullying.  Another serious issue that needs to be treated with respect. 
  9. Self/Self.  A character kanoodling with an alternate universe version of himself.  Ego much?
  10. Centaurification.  Where a character turns into a half human/half horse.  Apparently this is a thing. 

The article also has a list of tropes that aren’t liked or reviled, but just that fans consider controversial and undecided.  It’s worth checking out if you’re interested. 


If you haven’t read it, I would read my original article, “How to write fanfiction.”  Functionally speaking, as far as craft goes, there isn’t that much different from fanfic as traditional prose.  The same rules of craft that make a great novel will make a great fanfic.  But there are some unique challenges and opportunities in fanfic that will help you make the most of this unique literary form.  I hope this article will help you avoid some pitfalls in your own writing.

Good writing and Calamus Gladio Fortior!