Tag Archives: storytelling

In Defense of Mary Sue

There are two distinct ways in which the term Mary Sue gets used in literary works (as well as any other fictional medium, really).  The most common usage today is in the context of the perfect protagonist.  This could mean a character that has a seemingly limitless aptitude for displaying/learning skills that go well beyond the realm of reason even within the reality of the fanciful narrative in which s/he exists.

Think of characters that are described as flawless physically, and around whom all the other characters gravitate towards, whether the plot necessitates it or not.  Obvious examples are characters brought to life within the pages of fan-fiction, but I would say that such writings are somewhat of a given on account that they are meant to be tributes to existing characters, thus overemphasizing said characters attributes might be unavoidable in this genre.  More worthwhile examples of Mary Sues are characters that are actually successful, and one could say well-respected, within literature.

Characters like James Bond and Nancy Drew in their original literary inceptions could very easily be argued to fit this description.  James Bond speaks every language of every country he steps foot in, can fight (and always win) in every fighting style confronted with, and can (and will) seduce any woman he desires because every woman he meets just naturally lusts after him without hesitation.  Likewise, Nancy Drew effortlessly picks up any activity she tries, is seemingly liked by everyone and often complimented on just how great she is by the other characters, and of course understands investigative deduction and forensic science well beyond what ought to be plausible for a person her age.

A word needs to be said about not going overboard and pinning the Mary Sue label on any character that just happens to be either capable, or powerful.  For example, although Superman is essentially a god-like character in many regards, he’s not really a Mary Sue as the term is commonly used.  Notwithstanding the fact that he has a fatal weakness in kryptonite, a lot of the narrative around Superman centers on the way his immense power keeps him on some scale separate–even isolated–from the very people he is dedicated to protect.  No matter how humane he is, he is never going to be human, and will always be an outsider in that regard in the only world he knows as home (especially since his birth planet no longer exists).  In this sense, there is a genuinely ongoing tragedy underlying the Superman saga, whether it is explicitly stated or not, in a way Mary Sues don’t really have to deal with.

There is a secondary definition to a Mary Sue, and it involves authors who essentially write themselves into the plot of their stories as a means of wish-fulfillment.  To put it simply, when the main character in a story is written as a idealized version of the author her/himself, and is written in a way to fulfill the perfect protagonist archetypes described above, then we have a Mary Sue on our hands.

I can see why people dislike either incarnation of the Mary Sue trope sneaking into the pages of a story.  Perfect character can get stale very quickly, because they are largely unrelatable to the vast majority of readers.  Moreover, the overreaching plot of a story will become very boring if we can tell from the start that the main character will always save the day, get the love, or that every obstacle encountered is just a superficial plot piece that offers no real danger in the long run.  However, despite all this reasonable criticism on why not to write characters in this way, the fact is that Mary Sues can actually resonate with readers if they find the story engaging enough–compelling writing just have a way of trumping all tropes.  The two examples of James Bond and Nancy Drew can attest to this just by how prolific both characters have been through the decades.  (It should be noted that I am aware how Bond has been greatly “de-Sued” in his cinematic portrayal over the years, in particular in the most recent Daniel Craig films, which show him as a far more vulnerable and broken person than he ever was in print.)

What this tells me is that people don’t mind Mary Sues so much as they like to use Mary Sues as a convenient way to write off a work of fiction they probably disliked to begin with.  And I get that, too.  Sometimes, characters in a book can just rub you the wrong way.  I for one absolutely loathed Holden Caulfield when I first read The Catcher in the Rye, and am still not too found of the little shit to this day.  (I’ve mellowed out about him because I’ve come to terms with the possibility that he’s a character I’m not meant to like.)  If I discovered that Holden was written to serve as an idealized stand-in for J.D. Salinger my opinion would not be swayed one way or the other.  This brings me to the final point I want to make on this topic, and it deals with the issue people have of authors writing themselves into the characters.  As anyone who has ever written fiction can confirm, it is unavoidable that some part of you will come through, in some way, in every character you will ever create.  I’ll even go as far as to say that I have never written a character that didn’t reflect some aspect of my personality, morbid curiosities, lived experiences, faced dilemmas, overcome setbacks, learned failures, and hard fought successes.  And I know that people will object that I’m shamefully stirring away from the genuine opposition leveled against Mary Sues (i.e. an author’s perfect protagonist wish-fulfillment), but I would argue that the fear of not wanting to create a Mary Sue-type character may be holding some writers back from exploring the full depth they can push themselves to because they are too paranoid about falling into this trope.  What I would urge instead is for a different approach.

You shouldn’t just see yourself as the author of the story, but remember that you are also its first reader.  You are the first one who will look through the characters’ eyes and see the world as it is written for them to see.  Regardless of whether you are a novice or been doing this for years, it is no easy feat to create an entire world from whole cloth, and then give to it a pair of eyes (several pairs, if we are being honest) for others to share in the experience.  It can be a rather frustrating task to even know where to start.  My take on the matter is simply to realize that, as you’re struggling to give sight to your story’s narrators, it is perfectly fine to first start with the pair of eyes ready made in your head, and expand from there without fear of breaking some unwritten rules of storytelling.

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The Importance of Consistency in Fiction

The appealing thing about writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction is having the ability to create one’s own reality in the prose.  Be it gravity, atmosphere, characters’ sensory perception, human anatomy and mortality, none of these things need to be bound to the limitations we ourselves feel in our daily lives.  This is a powerful tool that allows authors to explore and describe the worlds they create with interesting insights without having to worry about being in line with the minutiae details of modern physics, and let’s them appeal to the reader’s wonder about the infinite realm of possibilities concerning reality as it can be challenged by her/his imagination.

Science fiction is an excellent example of this, both in book and movie form, where entire alternate universes can be conjured up with their own set of logical rules and physical laws that characters have to abide by.  There is a pitfall in this whole formula, however, that’s easy to fall into if an author is not careful.  While it is true that the sole limitation to the worlds you create is the depth of your own imagination, it needs to be remembered that what makes even a fantasy world realistic and believable to the audience is that–once its rules and laws are laid out–it remains consistent to its own reality.

If characters in a story generally cannot fly, having a character suddenly appear in chapter ten who inexplicable flies is an example of inconsistency.  If the monsters of the story are initially described as slow moving and clumsy, having them give chase in the middle of the story to create suspense is an example of inconsistency.  Speech patterns are a similar issue, where if a character’s accent quirks are sometimes emphasized in text and other times they are not, this is an example of inconsistency.

Generally, in epic sagas like Lord of the Rings it is understood that occasional logical flaws will occur for the sake of keeping the plot going (i.e. why didn’t the Eagles just take Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom at the start of the books, because then the story would be resolved in one book, rather than a trilogy).  Small-scale errors most readers can forgive for the sake of the narrative.  It’s when bigger, more obvious gaps in logic occur that many start to raise their eyebrows suspiciously.  For example, why do the vampires in Twilight go to school?  They’re over a hundred years old in the story, what reason do they have to keep attending high school?  And since they don’t age, do they have to keep changing schools so as not to have to explain why they spent the last ten decades in the same exact grade?  Since they do have regular contact with humans via having to go to school, why aren’t more people suspicious about the fact that none of them have aged, ever?

Science fiction films tend to be even worse offenders to this rule of consistency.  The now forgotten 1994 time traveling movie Timecop, sets up a reality in which time travel exists.  Within this reality they make the explicit mention that you can only travel to the past, never to the future; essentially making this the one and only “time travel rule” the characters need to follow.  Yet, the plot goes on to break this rule almost immediately by having characters who have traveled back to the past return back to their former present; even though, technically, when they travel to the past that past becomes their present, so returning to their original timeline means they are traveling to the future, which is they one thing the plot explicitly states you cannot do in this time traveling reality.  And it’s never explained how this is possible, even in a halfhearted way.  The viewer is simply expected not to notice.  But we do, and we are naturally put off by it, even if we can’t fully articulate why at first viewing.

If you are setting out to write fiction, and epic fantasy fiction at that, by all means let your only limits be the depth of your own creativity.  But please, for the sake of all our collective rational senses (as well as the senses of the characters you have so painstakingly born onto the page), don’t cheapen the experience by failing to have your worlds adhere to the rules and laws of the realities you yourself saw fit to give life to on the page.  Your future legion of devoted readers and admirers will thank you for it.

The Problem with The Walking Dead: A Case of Bad Storytelling

The Walking Dead TV show (henceforth to be referred to as TWD in this post for the sake of preserving valuable time and endangered cybertrees) has been going on for eight seasons now, with potentially many more seasons to follow in the years to come.  The original source material, The Walking Dead graphic novels, have also been in publication for close to fifteen years, so there’s little reason to think that the show’s writers will run out of material or story arcs anytime soon.  I’m aware that writing this criticism of the show will be seen as somewhat pointless by some readers as an ever greater portion of TWD’s fan base has steadily been voicing their displeasure with the direction, pacing, and overall content that the show has been putting out for the better part of (at least) the last four seasons or so.

Usual complaints range from too many boring filler episodes that are hardly necessary for the amount of time spent on them (i.e. we really don’t need to see flashbacks of secondary characters wandering through the woods before they met up with the main cast, especially if we already got the jist of it through previous dialogues exchanged between the characters; we have imaginations with which we can piece spoken/written narratives together, it’s one reason why books still exist, after all).  Contrived moral dilemmas that seem out of place in the reality of the world the characters inhabit (i.e. Morgan’s infuriatingly laughable pacifist stance when it comes to even killing literal undead monsters that feed on the flesh of the very people he considers his friends and loved ones; it is not a noble position to be respected, it is just stupid, even for a guy that went–still is[?]–crazy).  The introduction of characters that had no great impact in the overall plot despite heavy buildup (i.e. the Terminus crew of anally-retentive cannibals), or whose presence/nature defy belief (i.e. the Trash People of season seven, who in the mere 2-3 years since the zombie apocalypse have forgotten how to speak in complete sentences, despite being fully grown adults who presumably went through a school system and had some semblance of a regular life prior to the relatively recent fall of civilization).  And, of course, the fact that the show is hardly even about walkers/zombies anymore, who serve largely as a background piece to all the issues discussed above.

I see all these complaints, and largely agree with them.  Many more invested writers have done a great job giving full analyses on these issues (and many more), and I see no point in harping on them further than I already have.  What I want to discuss here is a criticism that I personally haven’t come across all that much, and that is that TWD suffers, and will continue to suffer, from a key flaw repeated in most bad storytelling: lack of optimistic direction for the characters/story itself.

The dystopian concept of a hopeless world isn’t new, and has been used for a longtime in fiction.  However, what separates a well-written dystopian story from a bad one is that even in a hopeless environment the reader/viewer is given some notion that the protagonists can have some kind of ultimate triumph over the hopelessness that plagues them.  That doesn’t mean that a happy ending has to be delivered at the story’s resolution (in many powerful cases, it’s not), but if there is no semblance of any kind of optimism that readers/viewers can get emotionally invested in during the progression of the plot, what exactly is the point to continue to care about where the character/story is heading?

Within the reality of TWD, everyone–and I do mean, every single person on the planet–is infected with the zombie virus that will be triggered once s/he dies, regardless of whether s/he came in contact with a zombie.  As of the moment of this writing, the plot has given no indication that there’s any chance of a cure to this ultimate fate for the characters (the first’s season hinted that there isn’t).  Nor is there any attempt by the characters to investigate the possibility of such a cure (notwithstanding Eugene’s scientist charade, which the main cast was never really dedicated in pursuing besides very briefly, and then mostly as a means of moving the plot setting out of Georgia).  So, the original dilemma of the show were the zombies, and since we do not, and seemingly cannot, resolve that dilemma, ever, the next dilemma for us (the viewers) to be invested in is the protagonists’ continued survival in this hopeless world.  The problem is that, if the dilemma is learning to survive in a world where “zombie-state” is the inevitable fate for everyone, we’ve already seen the fully extend of how the characters would cope with this reality, and one would argue repeatedly so in the course of the last seven seasons.  So what’s left to see?  What is the ultimate payoff that they deliver to the viewer from here?  Are they going to learn how to fortify themselves from the undead threat better than we have already seen them do in Alexandria?  Seems unlikely.

The repeated attempts to introduce new villainous characters to serve as antagonists to the main characters each and every season is also redundant in the grand scheme of things.  At the moment, the main villain is Negan.  I’m supposed to care if Negan’s group (the antagonists) defeats Rick’s group (the protagonists).  But let’s say the so-called unthinkable happens, and Negan does win the war against Rick’s group.  In the end, Negan is still human, and Negan will eventually die (even if just from old age), and then Negan will be just another mindless zombie in a world littered with equally mindless zombies.  Again I ask, what ultimately is the point?  What is the payoff for us to get emotionally invested in as viewers?  Because I really don’t see one.  Furthermore, I would argue the writers of the show (and, yes, I’d put the graphic novels in this same boat) have failed to give us much to really care about anymore at this point.

I know there are fan theories online about how maybe those born after the zombie outbreak (like Rick’s daughter Judith) might be immune to its effects, but short of the show/plot actually confirming this it remains mere fan speculation.  Maybe it will be the note that the show finally ends on to give us a bit of needed optimism for this world’s fate of humanity, but at this point, given how there has been no buildup to any such dramatic revelation, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a plot point was met with a resounding “meh” from the viewers that haven’t already moved on by then.

As much as I hate admitting it given how much I enjoyed this show at one point, I have to be honest that The Walking Dead has given me no real reason to care about what happens from here on out, no reason to be emotionally invested in its continued plot development, and therefore no reason to continue to invest my time in it.