Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Character building ... stuff: Mary Sue

What is a Mary Sue?

I answered this question for the nine-millionth time the other day, and I realized two things simultaneously: One, it's a really hard thing to pin down, and two, I really need to just post this to the blog already and move on with my life, because copy-pasta would really save time and energy.

So without further ado: Mary Sue.

I met her for the first time with my very first novel. Which was never finished. I had an idea for a story about a girl who turns into a dragon. Which was actually a pretty good idea, and in a couple more years I may revisit that story. The descent into Mary Sue territory began with the name. I searched baby name sites anxiously, seeking that perfect name that would fit the character and perfectly express everything I needed to know about the character (because at this point, I didn't know bupkiss about writing for an audience). I settled on D'Lorah. And a good time was had by all.

Then I read the Malloren series by David Eddings, and suddenly my dragon princess was a foundling of another set of princesses. D'Lorah was her real name (BTW it was just "harold" spelled backwards. My female MC had a boy's name, spelled backwards) but her foundling name was "Gracelyn" because she was so graceful, (and psudo-welsh) And she was an elf. And then she was a shape-shifting elf. And the elves became golden beings of light who fought the evil queen of darkness from their magical never-to-be-invaded island kingdom of Riva Iswyn (or something like that.) And she went to war with the evil queen of darkness and recruited the evil queen's faceless minions as her own, and yeah, it was a pretty horrible story. But what I remember most clearly is the progression from "dragon princess" to "conglomerate elvish WTF" (and none of the main cast was proof against this. Talk to her love interest for a few days worth of traumatic nightmares). I would come across something I thought was cool, think "gee, I wish my character was like that", then think "Well, why don't I make her like that?", and then a good time was had by ... me.

However, I had this nagging voice go off in the back of my head: "Hey, this might not be a good idea. Hey, I don't think this is working out. Hey, I don't think you ought to do that, I don't think war works like that, hey, listen, hey, CW, HEY STUPID! WRITING DOES NOT WORK THIS WAY!" Unfortunately my reaction was to pile more cool shit into the story, and not to worry about realism or characterization or anything else that might salvage what was originally a pretty cool idea. Eventually it collapsed under its own weight with just that little idea seed sticking out.

I tried my hand at sci-fi writing, and again, had a pretty good seed idea. That I proceeded to ruin through a combo of conglomerate SF WTF and incest!rape (I was also thirteen). And again, I remember that same progression from "space captain fights monster on space station with a twist" to "what the hell did I just eat read?" (Reading Stephen R. Donaldson's "Gap" series at thirteen DID NOT HELP AT ALL. DAMN, the man has issues with women) Any and all cool ideas that I thought might work got slamned into the book everywhere I thought they might fit until the whole story collapsed under the weight of its (horrible) cast.

And then I encountered the words "Mary Sue" for the first time, and the symptom (because it's a symptom, not the disease itself) got a name. I learned what this symptom looked like (cool royal bloodline, awesome friends, great boyfriend, eventually gets preggers, rainbow hair, mood-ring eyes) and learned to avoid these things in my own writing. And in avoiding them, I learned why these were bad. "Because I think its cool" is not a good enough reason to include it in the story.

However, I hit another problem with Ms. Sue when I started trying to explain why the Sue family is bad. Because the Sue definition is pretty vague, and while we know that something is bad, we're not 100% sure why it is bad. So now, without further ado, we give you yet another of CW's Spectacular Writing Theories (Consume with Grain of Salt):

1.A Mary Sue is an extraordinary character without an extraordinary plot to match.

2. She is a character so poorly constructed that her inadvertent negative character traits overshadow her intentional positive ones.  Her intentional negative traits, which in a good character would balance out the intentional positives are not credible and thus do not register with the reader.

3. She rarely encounters credible danger, or if she does, she will be kidnapped, bound, gagged, raped, physically abused to the point of death, and then rescued by another (*coughmalecough*) member of the cast. At no point will she defeat the credible danger herself.

4. When asked to describe Mary, her author will respond with a list of character traits and attributes so far removed from the reader's perception of Mary, the readers will stare in disbelief. They will either laugh, cry, or start posting slightly vindictive, yet wholly justified reviews of Mary and her story on the internet.

5. Mary will not be the biggest problem in the story. She will, however ,be the most obvious.

I'm going to do a more in-depth post on each of the five points over the next several days, so ... yeah, get comfy.

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