Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Friend Mary Sue

I met someone new recently, and I made a brand new friend. Her name is Mary Sue. Mary Sue is not a person. Mary Sue is a form of literary criticism. Despite the best efforts of their creators, critical diatribes have (mostly) failed to achieve auto-sentience, and so Mary Sue narrowly missed out on personhood. Mary Sue is very, very unpopular. That’s strange because she’s just about perfect. But she is. She’s not just unpopular, she’s reviled. She’s so reviled she has a whole Wikipedia article discussing her flaws.

“A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader.”

But she’s a friend, and while I don’t particularly like all my friends, I like her. How can I not? How can I dislike someone who has a perfect body, perfect face, perfect hair, perfect <you get it>, wears perfect clothes, speaks perfect circa 300 BC Greek, knows twenty three forms of jujitsu and hundred and two languages, someone who beats Olympic swimming record times for a spot of exercise, likes to call herself Ophelia and is all of twenty three? I fear that some hitherto unknown cosmic mechanism to hoover out monumental stupidity will switch on and pop me into a handful of spacetime nothings if I don’t.

Right, now that I have established my firm logical grounds for supporting the delectable Ms. Mary Sue, let me trot out all those hackneyed criticisms and stomp on them. Squash them like bedbugs, and if possible throw them back at the original critics. Make them squirm uncomfortably until they admit to being kind of Mary Sue-ish themselves, and immediately commit suicide on an overdose of principle.

Author self-insertion.
I thought it would be a good idea to get the criticisms I partially agree with out of the way first, so that I’m free to build up my unassailable arguments later. So, I sort of agree with this. Budding authors find it hard to dream up completely new characters, so they take the ones they already know and change a feature or two here, and a name or two there. Who do we know better than ourselves? Actually, scratch that. We barely know ourselves, and that is where the problem of wish fulfilment comes in. Ain’t I irresistible as a slab of chocolate? Look at me, I’m tall, handsome, I’m smart, hunky, I’m funny and I can sing Cannibal Corpse in my sleep. Darn, who put that mirror there? Ah, not a disaster, there was that story I was working on that’s nearly complete, except for the minor matter of er... a protagonist.

I don’t unconditionally go with the criticism however, because of two seemingly contradictory reasons. One: authors have only themselves, their minds to work with. Everything a writer brings out is necessarily a depraved fantasy born in his mind. The devil’s in the details, however, and the talent’s in the obfuscation. How well can you mix and match your characterizations? A good author will still use a character sketch of himself, but he’ll probably patch a sketch of a childhood rival on to it to sow some novelty. An even better author will probably have the ability to portray slices of himself, allowing him to create many convincing characters simply by altering the ‘honesty’ filter he uses to evaluate himself. So, I would argue that it’s not only not better to avoid self-insertion, it’s often wrong. Don’t make it obvious though.

The second reason: people misinterpret all the time. Do you see Palestinians and Israelis sitting together on a beach smoking pot and singing along to Pink Floyd? Do you see bible thumpers and homoseksuals hunting quail together? There, somebody misinterpreted something somewhere. The moment our discerning reader detects a minute sniff of partiality towards the story’s hero, a little hint of favouritism shown by the author, he’ll slam the book shut faster than you can say ‘Wait... !’, absolutely convinced that he’s now reading a touched up autobiography. 

On general fantasizing about something or the other
This is an extension of the ‘self-insertion’ criticism, and Mary Sue haters generally club the two points together and simply call them ‘wish-fulfilment’. (I picked up the politest of the lot. Wankery is a cruder but often clearer term.) Remember that little speech I gave when you asked me to describe Mary Sue? Wankery. Good old fantasizing. Again, it’s a really, really fine line. All fiction is fantasy, and an author has no source but his own mind. (There are of course revealed truths which float in from the ether, but I’ve politely decided to refrain from discussing religion, so.) 

Do I think anything should fall on the wrong side of the fine line? I’m not really sure - because the things that critics generally put in that basket are things I don’t really mind – ostentatiously exotic things, for example. Like my friend Mary Sue who can speak hundred and four languages. Did I mention she’s one heck of a CS player? People are not really irritated with the idea of Mary Sue in these cases: they don’t like it that despite their best efforts they’ve gone on to finish the book. It’s OK, folks. It happens to the best and the bravest. It happened to me. Fantasy is fine.
Goody Two-Shoes-ness
I know people don’t like perfect people, but in the real world it’s called pettiness and is definitely not a sign of refinement. On the other hand, it appears that when it concerns fictional ‘people’, it’s supposed to ooze sophistication. You absolutely cannot have ‘good’ characters of any flavour in fiction. Goodness is boring. Give me serial killers, rapists and conmen. I don’t care about that guy who’s so snow white he’s never even bribed a cop. Pah! Mary Sues! My immediate reaction to this was (and still is): What?

I don’t want to appear as black-and-white as the evil side, so I’ll bring out the different-people-like-different-things argument: Different people like different things! For every flawed, insecure person out there who wants to read about other flawed, insecure people so that he can feel good about himself, there is a flawed, insecure person who wants to read about perfect people so that he can experience in fiction what he can never achieve in real life. I’ve firmly entrenched myself in the second camp. (Even if I’m rather more perfect than normal humans, my perfectness encourages modesty and so I cannot claim it. Sigh, now I’ll have to strike through this whole confession.

What is so wrong about people reading about people they aspire to be like? Having read through many a thread on this topic, I’m convinced that if someone were to write up the story of Jesus Christ and post it to a critic who’s lived in a hole and not heard of the great man, he would get lambasted for not working on his character development, and the word Mary Sue would inevitably figure at some point. Everything’s relative and one man’s impossible perfection is another man’s triviality.

I’ll make a minor concession: Even I get put off by absolutely perfectly perfect perfectness. Everyone has a flaw, but it need not always be apparent. The devil is - it always is - in the details. If the author actively tries to impose the idea of his character’s perfectness on us either through omniscient narrative, or through every other character fawning all over our man (or woman), the reader has every right to switch off. The author’s inserted himself into the story again. But what if the perfection is inferred? The author merely narrates all the good things the guy has done, and you, good reader, start to resent his Goody Two-Shoes-ness. You need to get used to yourself. Good people exist. Deeds of great nobility are as readable as deeds of great evil, at least to a not insignificant number of people out there.

Author propaganda
If there’s one thing unequivocally criticisable about a classic Mary Sue, it’s this. Ironically, this is one point that’s almost never raised when Mary Sues are criticized. It’s either so widespread, or people don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. I hope it’s the first.

What do I mean though, by author propaganda? I dislike characters that only exist to transform into words the author’s narrow viewpoints and generally parochial mindset. Let me qualify that: I don’t dislike such characters by themselves, because I know that all sorts of people exist in the world and the author has every right to make a gun-toting drug lord his protagonist. I have no right to draw inferences on the author’s personal life based on merely one errant character, and it’s an even bigger crime to call this propaganda. But when you see a book with twenty five characters, characters from all over the world and various walks of life, and every single one of them agrees wholeheartedly with every single thing our hero has to say, I get put off. I can’t help but trace it back to the author. In Philip K. Dick’s works (his later works, to be fair), Christian theology is correct. It is axiom. It is always vindicated in the end against perfunctory doubts.

It's a Predictable/Boring Story...
Now this is one point that really bugs me. People rail against Mary Sues because they think Mary Sues destroy stories. If there’s a Mary Sue there’s a sense that all confrontations are redundant because she'll win them all anyway, and that’s no fun. 

My immediate reaction when I first read something like this was to draw an analogy to the story of life itself. Life starts with birth and life ends with death. There’s never any variation there, the story is always about the journey. Are all lives boring then? Not everyone wants stories that have unpredictable endings. I don’t know how my own life is going to turn out – there’s enough chaos there for me, I want at least my fiction to show some stability. I know real life has no true good and evil, and it’s difficult to point fingers and not become aware of your hypocrisy at the same time. But I crave the guarantee that Good is going to win out over Evil in the end, and it’s only fiction that can offer it. Yes, it is not realism. Of course, it isn’t! It’s all about one man and his depraved fantasies, remember? Some people want endings they can’t guess. Some people don’t.
Harry Potter’s been called a Mary Sue. (It was on a manga fan forum, but in my defence the arguments were reasonably erudite.) Why? Because everything always seems to work out for him just in time, it’s so boring. (Let’s drop the fact that his parents were murdered while he was still a baby. That must have been fun, knowing that he’d have no parental pressure for the rest of his life.) I find the argument cyclic, and I’ll respond in kind. How is it that he always gets to survive? Because it’s his story, friend. Why (or how) would you write a long running novel series about a thirteen year old whose greatest adventure was slipping on a banana peel and whacking his head on a lamp post? We’re writing about his story because it’s remarkable. We’re writing about him because he’s overcome ridiculous odds and emerged triumphant in the end, because he has greatness around him, for whatever reason. We’re chronicling his story as it happened in the past: we’re not blogging about it live. If only everyone learnt to admire greatness, instead of letting their insecurities develop into poisonous cynicism, the world would be a better place.

On the theme of Harry Potter, I find it astounding how many people ‘like’ Severus Snape and ‘dislike’ Albus Dumbledore. Come on, strip away all those cobwebs you’ve build around your convictions, isn’t it just pettiness? Is Dumbledore a Mary Sue? His character certainly seems to tick most of the criteria used to identify one. His perfection is resented, although he isn’t really, if you see the backstory. Isn’t a man who can’t seem to do no wrong more admirable than someone who does, and corrects himself? Maybe not, but I argue that the point is at least debatable. 

Look, mama, the world is helping Mary! 
Character development, character development. Where would the art of criticism be without you? Because although this criticism is outwardly directed against everything-working-out-for-Mary-Sues-all-the-time, the real gripe is always about some form of character development.

“She's perfect, everything always works out for her, she never learns from failures because she never fails, and that’s boring, and I so hate Mary Sues!”

Yes, if you have a character who knows everything, does everything right, beats everyone and walks away, there’s hardly a story there, so it’s a wee bit boring. But this criticism is often applied to stories where the character already has a more or less well-tuned moral compass, and the story is about his journey in discovering the system, and his own abilities/skills/powers. It is character development, only not the sort you’re expecting, dear haters.

There are people out there who are plain lucky, people to whom good things happen despite their best efforts to mess things up. I have had occasions when this has happened to me, I'm afraid. If it happens in real life, why can't it happen in fiction? Suspend your disbelief, step out of that little pond you think is the ocean. Strange things happen all the time. Take a deep breath, and enjoy your fanfic. 

The End
Ultimately a Mary Sue is a stereotype, and like all stereotypes it’s just a handy stick to beat people you don’t like, which is disappointing because some of the criticism has merit. Now though, Mary Sue has accumulated so many traits that there’s hardly any character out there that you cannot call one. And beware! A few even seem to have crossed over into non-fiction. :)

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