Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Just Enough Trope to Hang Myself: There’s Something about Mary Sue

In fact, I actually have been writing. Just not here.
I had been thinking about different tropes I could play with. Tropes, as defined on the Television Tropesand Idioms home page, are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. (If you want to see a whole lot of time magically disappear, head on over to that page and click the “Random” button.) Anyway, my musings got me to thinking about the concept of a Mary Sue character. Is it possible to write a good story centered around a Mary Sue or does her very “Mary Sueness” make that impossible? If the latter is true, why is that? What’s wrong with being young, attractive, charismatic, hyper-competent, and sympathetic? We like that in our heroes, don’t we?
I’ll back up a tick. “Mary Sue,” according to Television Tropes and Idioms, “… is a derogatory term primarily used in fanfic circles to describe a particular type of character.” The article the goes on for quite a bit discussing the characteristics of said “particular type of character,” because like all things Internet, there is much disagreement over what makes a Mary Sue a Mary Sue.
The term comes from “A Trekkie’sTale,” a 1974 Star Trek fanfic parody by Paula Smith published in the second issue of the fanzine Menagerie. The super-short story stars Lt. Mary Sue, a half-Vulcan who, at 15½ is the youngest lieutenant in the history of Star Fleet. This does not prevent Captain Kirk from immediately hitting on her, but she’s not that kind of girl. She proceeds to impress Mr. Spock with her logic, beam down to a planet with Kirk, Spock and McCoy, encounter hostile green androids, use a hairpin to help them escape imprisonment, and then take command of the Enterprise while Kirk, Spock and the other senior officers are incapacitated with a space illness. In the end—spoiler—Lt. Mary Sue contracts the space illness herself and dies tragically and beautifully, surrounded by the mourning crew of the Enterprise.
A Mary Sue is typically an author wish-fulfillment character. Her most widely agreed-upon characteristics may include any or all of the following to varying degrees: In addition to being young, attractive, charismatic, hyper-competent and sympathetic, as noted above, she is a natural leader (usually because it says so somewhere in the narrative), is widely adored and admired by those around her, has striking (often exotic) good looks, may possess one or two endearing personality quirks, and likely comes out of a complex and dramatic (often traumatic) back story. In the case of fanfic, which is Mary Sue’s natural habitat, said dramatic back story may intertwine in some way with a main character’s back story (e.g., Captain Kirk’s long-lost daughter, Dumbledore’s college roommate’s great niece, a pirate girl turned into a vampire by Lestat come seeking her sire, and so on.)

Outside of fanfic, a Mary Sue is sometimes referred to as a “Canon Sue,” which is a character in the original work who serves as the author’s stand-in wish fulfillment character. Some have suggested that the young, hyper-competent Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation was the Canon Sue character for one Gene Wesley Roddenberry.

This brings up another widely agreed-upon Mary Sue trait: The author generally likes the character much better than the readers do. In fact, the more the author likes the Mary Sue, the less the readers do, which makes sense because Mary Sue is there first and foremost for the author’s wish fulfillment needs, not anyone else’s.

 In her paper presented to American Culture Association Conference, March 31, 1999, “Too Good to Be True: 150 Yearsof Mary Sue,” Pat Pflieger posits that many, if not most, writers have a Mary Sue or two somewhere in their pasts. “Write what you know” is the classic advice inflicted on young writers. Well, when you’re twelve or thirteen or fourteen, mostly what you know is your own self and your fantasies. Put those musings on paper (or—heaven forbid—put them online) and you’ve likely got yourself a Mary Sue story. The more you write (and learn to curb your own excesses), the more you gradually move away from her.
One shudders to imagine an early draft of The Great Gatsby by a teenaged F. Scott Fitzgerald

I had some Mary Sues or, in my case, the boy version, Marty Stus. A couple of them were non-player characters in my high school Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. I got called on it too: “Are you gonna have the NPCs do everything?” That was some bad dungeonmastering.
 I will neither confirm nor deny that I came up with a new character to join the New Mutants
That brings me back to my original question, bad dungeonmastering aside, is Mary Sue/Marty Stu automatically a bad character? I was keen to play with the concept. First of all, I created an original, or at least originalish, world for my new Marty Stu character because, as I’ve often pointed out, there ain’t no money in fanfic. It’s a world of high fantasy wherein he, the Mardest’u (see what I did there?), is the leader of an elite force of dragon-riding heroes. Naturally, he rides the biggest, most powerful dragon. Our guy is young, brave, brilliant, undefeated in personal combat, a natural leader, has some tragedy in his past, et cetera, et cetera. He is adored by his people; in fact, they’re a bit obsessed with him, particularly with the question of which of any number of beautiful women will eventually win his heart.
So how’d the story come out? Don’t know. I ended up not writing it. Instead, I turned the whole thing on its head and approached it from the opposite direction. Take, for example, the climax of the Harry Potter series. Harry is about to face Voldemort. Dumbledore’s Army is in final battle against the Death Eaters. Meanwhile, down in Hogsmead, a young wizard—probably a Hufflepuff—is on patrol on the off chance that there might be a sneak attack by Voldemort’s forces from that quarter. He wishes he was the Chosen One; hell, he wishes he was as important as Neville. He misses the whole battle and that, in fact, is a lucky thing. He would have been killed in the battle had he been there. He wouldn’t have been the first one killed who spurs the hero to fight on so his death won’t be in vain. He probably would have been somewhere in the middle of the fatalities, possibly by collateral damage or even friendly fire. In any event, it would have happened off camera.
Since when is Hufflepuff's uniform a red shirt?
If it’s Marty Stu’s world, what about the other people who have to live in it? Naturally, everyone adores Marty Stu; that’s one of his defining characteristics after all. (His enemies don’t adore him, of course, but they do respect and grudgingly admire him.) But it’s not hard to imagine a kind of love-hate dynamic going on as well. Even though we can’t all be the Chosen One, everyone is the hero of his or her own story. Those are stories worth exploring too. 
Hamlet: The Story of a Gravedigger who met a Prince


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