Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Yes, It's A Real Job: The One Deadly Sin

This one's going to be about the craft. Not the shitty witch movie with Neve Campbell and Rachel Leigh Cook*, but the craft of storytelling, of how to (or how not to) turn a brief neuronic crackle of an idea into something worth paying money to read.

There are a great many sins a writer can commit: breaking suspension of disbelief, vapid prose, embarrassingly bad sex scenes**. Second among them is the "Crossover Man Was Not Meant To Know," something thankfully confined only to fan fiction (except for certain abberations). But the first and foremost sin of writing, though it was first identified in fanfic, is one almost as old as storytelling itself, and one many a professional writer, including some of the world's most well-known bestsellers, is guilty of.

What is it? The more appropriate question would be "Who is it?" It's our old friend, Mary Sue.

Mary Sue is a catch-all name applied to the Perfect Character. Not "Perfect" in the sense of "the best character to tell a story about." Indeed, she*** is the worst possible character to tell a story about, because she is literally Perfect. At everything. If she's a Star Trek character (and the character who lent her name to the phenomenon was), she's smarter than Spock, a better doctor than McCoy, can coax speeds from the warp engines Scotty could never dream of, and can beat Kirk in negotiations *and* ship-to-ship combat, simultaneously. She's everyone's best friend and ideal lover, everything they wish they could be and more. She is The Goddess Incarnate.

Readers hate her fucking guts.

A "Perfect" character is an insult, not just to the readers' intelligence, but to the conventions of storytelling. If Mary Sue is perfect, then her victory over the forces arrayed against her is foreordained. Things might look bad during the second act, but she'll pull through. She has to. Even if she has to give her life (and she often does; martyrdom is often the Mary Sue's finest hour), she will win the day. And, of course, if she's destined to win, there's little-to-no dramatic weight to the story, no reason to follow through to the conclusion. No matter how high the author might make the stakes, they pale next to Mary Sue's prowess.

She's also a damned annoying person, presented in a way that lets you know you *have* to like her, or you're a bad person. Readers don't like being ordered around by authors; it makes them ornery. We like to decide for ourselves whom to root for, and base it on what we're shown instead of what we're told. "Gosh, Mary Sue, you're wonderful" is a sentence likely to make us gag, not smile warm-heartedly. And it certainly doesn't help that such statements are often used to excuse what is in fact morally reprehensible behavior on her part. (For an excellent example of this, see Rayford Steele and Buck Williams, heroes-in-name-only of the popular post-Rapture series Left Behind. Two more vile people you will hopefully never encounter in real life, yet the authors insist on holding them up as paragons of moral virtue, despite their narcissism, misogyny, and borderline sociopathic interpersonal skills.)

And finally, Mary Sue's greatest sin is that she has no flaws. Readers will not abide a hero without feet of clay. Even the most simplistic or beatific characters will have flaws, and acknowledge them. Hal Jordan, the "perfect" Green Lantern, is arrogant. Indiana Jones is a narcissist. King Arthur is too naïve to see that his wife and best friend are carrying on an affair right in front of his nose. Launchpad McQuack can't land a plane to save his life. Christ himself, for that one moment in Gethsemane, weakened in heart and asked, begged for the cup to pass from him. (I realize that's a hell of a rhetorical shift, but bear with me.)

Heck, some of the most endearing characters are characterized almost entirely by their flaws. One of my favorite recurring characters in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is "Cut-Me-Own-Throat" Dibbler, Ankh-Morpork's omnipresent shyster. Often found selling sausages of dubious origin, Dibbler is guaranteed to latch onto any new business venture that crosses his path and (a) bilk it for all the money it's worth and (b) mismanage it into a disaster that, more often than not, spirals into a cataclysmic threat to not only Ankh-Morpork, but the very fabric of space and time. This combination of equally extreme avarice and ineptitude somehow metamorphoses into a kind of perverse charm. He's the entire series' black sheep uncle, the one who shows up to your bar mitzvah half loaded and asks to borrow money, but no one can quite turn away because he's just so damn good at tugging the right heartstrings. He has sad puppy-dog eyes on his soul.

Mary Sue could never match that kind of pathos. It's hard to feel anything for Mary Sue except naked envy, the kind teenage girls have for the head cheerleader who's class president *and* dating the captain of the football team (who also happens to be the valedictorian). And that's why she never works. She's noble, but not a hero. She's beautiful, but not attractive. Everyone loves her, but no one likes her.

And despite this, writers keep turning to her, again and again. As if the best way to make their point is to have it thrust at us by the ultimate unassailable authority. As if we're willing to take the moral as a foregone conclusion on page one instead of discover it as we go along. As if we'll automatically take them at their word that she is the way and the light and the hope everlasting, just because she has glittery hair.

Comics is no stranger to Mary Sues. Next week, we'll discuss some of the most most egregious offenders, past and present, and try to puzzle out just why a writer who has progressed beyond the level of novice would even consider using her for any purpose but parody.

And believe it or not, I'll also tell you why Wolverine *isn't* a Mary Sue, even though some of his fans wish he was. Hope to see you then.

*Apropos of nothing, there's a great anti-witchcraft video put out by the 700 Club or Jerry Falwell or one of those groups, that has a seven-to-ten minute segment on "The Craft." It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen, not least because it can't seem to decide if "The Craft" is a dangerous film that seduces youngsters into the black arts or a disturbing cautionary tale outlining the pitfalls of such an endeavor. That "poorly plotted, abysmally acted teen pap that doesn't even have the decency to give us a naked Neve Campbell for our $7.50" never occurred to them is perhaps the funniest part of all.

**I've yet to read a sex scene in a novel that doesn't make my skin crawl or give me a fit of the giggles. If you think you've got one, let me know. I'll even be nice and let erotica count (because I haven't read any of that that wasn't awful, either).

*** There is a male Mary Sue, called "Gary Stu," but for some reason he's far less prevalent in fan fiction than his female counterpart. Professional Mary Sues do run towards the male. I'm accepting theories on why this is true; my current guess is that fanfic authors skew heavily female, and professional authors heavily male, but I'm open to other suggestions. There's a paper in here somewhere.

No comments: