Monday, September 20, 2010

The death and transfiguration of Mary Sue.

These people in our heads to whom we become, as it were, God to: ai, mine must hate me. I can imagine Virginia Shaw, with a fist raised to heaven screaming ‘damn you, Author, I will not die!' And reaching for a chainsaw and coming looking for me.
The ‘Mary Sue' (or Marty Stu, if this bothers you) concept -- wish fulfilment characters with too many of the attributes we wish were ours to be realistic characters -- a thing typical of fanfic particularly (but certainly not exclusively) by adolescents. It's never too late for that happy childhood, and many of us linger on in the terrible twos until the Zimmer frame lurches and deposits our white-haired form in front of the oncoming furniture truck. At this point the Superman / Robin / Wonderwoman written version of ourselves does not whisk us out of the way, and we become one with the tarmac.

It's a comment that pops up sooner or later to every writer. A character 'is a Mary Sue'. A character is an author's pet. There are tests for it. There reams of literary thought written about it. There are accusations of sexism. It's a put-down for women, you know. Women are afraid of writing female characters in case they are accused of writing Mary Sues...

Sigh. It is a real thing, and not just a female one either. At its extreme it is easily pin-pointed. The version of Superman who has the same nickname as the author, who is without flaw and to whom kryptonite is a kind of cheese-spread. To quote Sarah - "to the Mary Sue it all comes easy. People love her/emote with her/cheer her victories, cast down her enemies, etc -- even those who have no reason to."
The Mary Sue version of Superman never gets arrested for getting up to something kinky in the phone-booth (remember phone-booths?). I spent years wondering if Superman had been in less of a hurry not to get arrested if he'd have managed to put his underpants inside his trousers. Or with the mental image of a battered half-dressed Superman fleeing a sweet little white haired lady who is belaboring his head with a parasol... she happened to be occupying said booth when he rushed in to change. Anyway, to wrench myself away from this delightful image: The extremes are obvious. But writing has few absolutes. And the reality is that the gradual shade away from this extreme takes us to something almost every writer has to do. And no, it is not necessarily unpopular. Or bad.

It is necessary that the writer identify and care about a character. If you can't do it, how do you expect your reader to? And duh, logically, if they're your hero/ine, they're going to be front-and-centre to the story a lot. There is no doubt that all my heroines are a wish fulfilment of mine. No, not to be them, or even to admire their chest measurements... but in attitudes. In some way all of them are Barbs, in that they do not give up, and they tend toward the pragmatic, they do not set boundaries on what they can achieve, they are, I suppose, all people who care and give of themselves, usually without counting the cost. I like to imagine, anyway, that I give them different exteriors, different flaws, and different chainsaws. But yes, they are wish-fulfilment of mine. And yes I might be pushing the limit of characteristics in one person, but I believe for every whiny-assed ‘hensopper' in her Manolo Blahniks out there, there is another one of ‘my' people, possibly with the exterior disguise of a plump, harassed mum with two live-bait children and a mortgage in negative equity -- who will take on hell with a fire-bucket, and that I will be just a teeny bit in love with the courage and attitude of.

It's almost inevitable, when you write sf or fantasy, or for that matter murder-mystery or anything but slice-of-life literary novels that there will be a concatenation of the plot and something ‘special' about the heroes. Even if it is only that they're pig-headed battlers and overcoming the odds will require determination and repeat efforts. Or that they're practical jokers with a dislike for authority's dictates, and authority therefore would like them removed. Or that they're little ‘uns and used to having to think their way out of difficulty, because brawn won't do it, and now they face more brawn than the brawniest could ever deal with. Or -- as is more usual -- all of the above and then some. And yes, some will be the finest swordsman outside France too, or the best shot since Annie Oakley, or be able to kill a man in unarmed combat at fifty paces with their bare armpits.

So let's explore just how you avoid the extremes, and look at the success.
For a start the key has to be ‘it's not my Mary Sue -- it's a lot of the readers' wish fulfilment.' I'd like to be a lot more like many of my heroes (no I don't want to do that stuff. Well, not all of it. But I'd like my attitude to be like theirs). And I'd be in love with many of my heroines... but hopefully, if I have it right, so would a lot of people (Ok so this depends on gender and orientation. I really don't care, as the writer -- so long as they appeal to you.)

Secondly, my mum was a teacher at my junior school. It's very hard not be called teacher's pet, when you are small and, I admit, cute (I grew out of it, right) and fairly bright. It took a team effort. For a start my mother was twice as nasty to me as she was in the same circumstances to any other kid. A lot of the other kids were sorry for me -- as they didn't realise this was ‘school-face'. And for a second I was something of a mischievous brat who looked for trouble, rather like my best buddy the Anglican priest's son (as nice a natured lad as you could ever find, who was always in trouble) who also had a similar point to make. Your character will have to do the same thing. You, the author, will have to be bloody horrible to them. And they will have to do stupid things.

Thirdly: flaws. The one thing the extreme of Mary Sue which people battle to like does not have, it's character flaws (circumstances against them: yes. Flaws. No.). Often these are self-inflicted flaws. Doubt - self doubt is a flaw in our hero, but it's also something most of us can identify with. Just be aware that too much of this a VERY BORING THING - unless you are a self-centred late-teenager. Others are hard to write well: Jealousy being one - that if you can do it, can work really well. We've all been there. It's pretty noxious. Immaturity of course is the commonest - but you can flavor and shade that. Often it's dealing with that flaw - or character perceived flaw, that really is the story.

Ok so take it from there: Have you ever been accused of this? Have you taken steps to counter it? Can you?


MataPam said...

I've heard it mentioned often enough to be aware of it. But since my main example of a female is myself, it's hard to not see myself in every female character I write.

Do about it? I try to start with physical characteristics that are different than mine. Different ethnicity is tough. Difficult to get right unless you grew up with close friends in the category. Different family situation, different education.

_Something_ very definitely "Not me at all." It seems to help keep separation between me and the character. Sometimes just showing a different attitude about something, the first time the character shows up, is enough to entrench her in my mind as a separate person.

And yes, my best male characters partake somewhat of my husband's traits, or my sons' as they grew up.

Once I start looking, I can see characters, good and bad who are like grandmother, or one of my sisters. Has a temper like so-and-so, boy-crazy like X in high school, always well dressed like Y.

It's a wonder our families still speak to us - but then perhaps they think that overly perfect main character is the one modeled on them. ;)

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - I've read some of your work and not been aware of any 'Mary Sue' - unless you have very weird wish-fulfillment ;-).

Obviously we model on people we know and love (or hate) best. And I hope my seeing B in Ginny Shaw does not extend to her chasing me with a chainsaw.

Ben Godby said...

Every time I put pen to paper, I'm fulfilling wishes--namely my wishes. Therefore, I take the stance that when I'm writing, I'm popping out Mary Sues like a machine-gun mother in labour. I'm not so juvenile as to name my characters "Benji" or "Benjamini" or even my Internet handle "Benilius;" my characters are creatures in their own right. There are things that distinguish them from me, because I do not how to wield heavy weapons, I have not been ridden with solar radiation disease, I was not born beneath a full moon in a blizzard to the daughter of a dark wizard, I am not, y'know,. female... et cetera. But I wouldn't be writing F&SF if I didn't want ray guns, alien babes, gritty detectives, sexy intergalactic battlecruiser pilots, cybernetic implants, and fireball-casting wands to be part of the actual fabric of my real, everyday life.

Because of this intensity--the fact that I won't write about anything that I don't think is totally wickedly awesome--I consider myself the Master of Mary Sues. I am a veritable mage, a magician, a conjurer/summoner of Mary Sues. At the core of my writing is nothing by Ben-Godby-having-a-blast. It takes time to craft these episodes into workable and believable stories rather than just those variegated F&SF elemetns mentioned above, but I can't imagine writing for any other reason to scream: "This is awwweeesoooome!" at my computer screen every few hours, and every time a discussion about Mary Sues comes up I feel like it's an underhanded condemnation of the totally cool.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I've never been accused of it, but I don't put myself in my females, who -- frankly -- scare me.

C Kelsey said...

I've never been accused of it. Then again, I'm not published so i haven't had the opportunity to be accused of it.

I happen to have a very specific character in my head who is my Marty Stu. He will never get any stories written about him, he's just there. But I like to think that having a character specifically identified that way means that the ones I do write don't have that particular pratfall.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, unless I'm confuseled -- happens. Often -- you're missing one of the elements, which is "to the Mary Sue it all comes easy." People love her/emote with her/cheer her victories, cast down her enemies, etc -- even those who have no reason to.

Given that, I don't think you -- or I hope myself -- or most writers could do that.

Chris L said...

Short fiction I've had accepted generally doesn't have too many characters, just an untrustworthy narrator with a serious issue.

So in that respect, my characters are exactly like me.

Doesn't mean life's any easier for them though.

Dave Freer said...

Ben (I will avoid Benji :-)) That is kinda what I was saying - with the possible (hopeful) exception of a handful of literary novels all books have some elements of it. And yes, there is a desire to snipe at it.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, I see parts of you in your females :-) In attitude.

Dave Freer said...

Chris, it'll come. Trust me, it's as sure as the trots from drinking the water in furrin parts.

Dave Freer said...

You're quite right Sarah - to the extent I am going to amend the original post. I implied that without being clear

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave Freer: There is no doubt that all my heroines are a wish fulfilment of mine. ... In some way all of them are Barbs, in that they do not give up, and they tend toward the pragmatic, they do not set boundaries on what they can achieve, they are, I suppose, all people who care and give of themselves, usually without counting the cost.

Ori: In other words, your heroine is your wife. Lucky you! I feel the same way. Well, almost the same way. I feel it about my wife, not yours. I'm sure Barbs is an outstanding person, but I don't know her.

Brendan said...

I always thought Polgara from the David Eddings books was a bit of a Mary Sue. She could never admit to being wrong and Eddings had trouble writing her in a negative light.

Before I had heard the term Mary Sue, I called these characters Goddesses.

The Goddess: This is a character that can do no wrong. All the men may get drunk, swear, fart, fight each other instead of the enemy and do silly, mean or selfish things, but this lady is always right. Says the right thing, does the right thing and has everyone agreeing with her actions even when the reader may be wanting her to:
A: shut-up
B: Go away or
C: try to burp(or for serious brownie points fart) the national anthem.

Anonymous said...

Microsoft has a saying of killing your babies. That is be prepared to kill a project rather than produce something that does not work.

I remember a scene in that abomination in Alien III where the doctor gives a spiel about his life then get munched by the alien a second later.

If you can strike a happy medium between Mary Sue and Mary Lunch break, you could have sympathetic characters you are moved when they die.

I remember Peter David wrote about the murder of a secondary Spider Man character, and the howls of protests from the fans saying that the character had much potential. And David replied: That's the point!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Sarah considers asking if Dave sees her in Athena OR -- forfend -- Dyce, then decides he probably means Kay Ho, and slinks away into the night.

Chris McMahon said...

It's one thing I have never been accused of. Sounds like fun though, maybe I should write a little more wish-fulfilment:)

Dave Freer said...

Ori - my heroines have an attitude to life which I found admirable and a reason to love my wife. The physical (and even mental) attributes arenot the same. And yes it's that attitude that I'd say make the core thing someone should look for in a partner. But then I am biased. Glad you found yours.

Dave Freer said...

Brendan... but then I think there is enormous reader satisfaction when Polgara is shown to have been mistaken. It happens a few times. I actually think she's there to ofset some of the more entertaining characters.

I hope Meb gets brownie points for throwing up on the innkeeper's wife when she propositioned her in Dargon's Ring?

Dave Freer said...

Darryl - Ah, Microsft. So they've pulled th plug on most of their existant products?;-). It's true though, and it's hard.

Dave Freer said...

Aspects in Athena at times...

Dave Freer said...

Chris, just do make sure nothing can stand before your Marty Stu, and they all love him. Especially the all the gorgeous wenches. And then make sure your wife never reads it ;-)