Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Dangers of Naming Mary Sue

So my last post was about my hunt for an ideal netbook or notebook. But I am not sure if I really went into detail about why I want it. Well, I have had this concept for a series for several years and I have finally decided to nail my butt to a chair and actually get to the writing of it. Of course there is the fact that I am going to be in Florida this February -- from the 11th to the 27th -- which is the reason for wanting a portable writing device. But with that preface out of the way, lets move onto the topic at hand.

Since I cannot just wander down to the local walmart / future shop / whatever and get my new netbook or notebook, I decided that I would try to get the research aspects for my book finished before I was ready to head off to Florida for two weeks of no World of Warcraft, no Final Fantasy XI, and no telephone calls that I need to become a speed demon to race downstairs and answer. (It also means no Jay, and while this is sad in a way, the fact that he is not coming is part of what has solidified my resolve to write my story while I do not have the (charmingly) distractive pleasure of his company.)

I am a weirdo in how I go about figuring out a market that I want to write for. Once I have decided what I do is read novels from that market and then go to amazon.com -- to read reviews from people who did *not* like it. I do get around to reading the good reviews so that I can clarify issues, but I find that reading what people -- especially if the issue is repeated by reviewers time and again -- don't like can help me in not repeating careless and needless mistakes in my own story.

For example: In "City of Bones" by Cassandra Clare a lot of people seemed to feel that the story was predictable and that it borrowed way too heavily from well known series like Harry Potter and the Star Wars movies. Meanwhile, "Chosen" a novel in P.C. and Kristen Casts' House of Night series, obtained a large number of negative reviews for a scene of the heroine losing her virginity to one of the teachers at her school. While I might not have had any intentions of going in that perticular direction with my own work, knowing that I need to test my limits when writing a Young Adult novel -- but also knowing that times have changed since I last read The Bab Sitters' Club books -- is important.

But the one thing that really got to me, the thing that made me scratch my head in utter and complete confusion, was the concept of the Mary Sue / Gary Stu. I am no stranger to the term. I use to write a lot on FanFiction.net as Kianna Starling and Professor Issabelle Snape. It was a prevelant concern then in the FF genre. It is shockingly a common stone thrown at authors on Amazon.com as well. What I find a problem after this evening's research, however, is that the general concept and definition of Mary / Gary have grown and changed.

The initial understanding that I had of the concept of Mary Sue was that she was a proxy, placeholder, replication or avatar for the author. But what does that mean? Taking myself as an example, does it mean that I should avoid any character that is female with a name starting in C or K that is a derivitive of Katherine (of which my name, Kathleen, is an offshooot?) In that case, my character Cait McClure would need a namechange. Furthermore, does it mean that my heroines should avoid having brown hair, brown eyes and having anything resembling physical disability or weight issues?

Now I realize that having one of these things is not the end of the world. Even a second or third can be acceptable. And truth be known, most people are not going to really notice if you do genuinely write solid characters (and not barbie doll immitations of you, family and friends).

At the same time, the thing that I found troubling and disturbing was that the definition of Mary Sue has been extended. It would seem now that any character with a unique destiny risks being a Mary Sue. Any character who has an extraordinary talent discovered after the story begins is a Mary Sue. If your book has anything resembling a love triange (really not a fan of these, but still...) your character is a Mary Sue. Are you putting a rare being into a world in which he or she is not of the dominent species? If there is anything about this that goes with any type of fortune or ease s/he is a Mary Sue / Gary Stu. Hell, even being a generally likeable / liked character could put your hero or heroine in danger.

It has gotten much too far out of hand. Like a guy telling a girl that she is clingy, Mary Sue has become a catch-all phrase that covers a broad spectrum of things without *necessarily* forcing the unsatisfied party to actually identify the problem and, *more importantly*, to provide what s/he would have viewed as a better alternative.

When is a character too nice / likeable / liked and why does that bother you? (The general answer would be that if a character is loved by all the potential for conflict decreases. A decrease in conflict results in weak plot which results in a boring story.)

Why does having a power or gift destroy a character? Luke Skywalker; Zoey Redbird, Harry Potter, Buffy, John Crichton... Each of them has something special about their character that equips them for what their story will require. Can you spot the odd one out here? As much as I love the HoN books, it is Zoey. While Crichton, Luke, Buffy, Harry, etc. have to spend time working and honing their skills, something has pre-determined their ability to have them. (Crichton is a scientist studying wormholes, Buffy knows she is a Slayer, Harry goes to school to learn magic without which the fact that his and Voldemort's wands both have phoenix tails would not matter...

Zoey, meanwhile, discovers her powers in a much more instantaneous (and potentially, to the Casts' target audience, much more gratifying?) manner while attending a ritual of the Dark Daughters. The problem that creeps in is that Zoey, aside from being way too horny for her own good, has no faults that result in perminent and jeopardy-indusing reprocussions. Stevie Rae does not die -- she becomes undead. She cheats on Erik and he takes her back. She cannot decide what she wants from Heath and yet he puts up with her. Yet despite all this, HoN sells well and -- depending on one's tastes -- is an enjoyable read.

I have certain things that I expect from myself as a writer. I expect to tell a story that people beyond me, myself and I will find interesting. If my testers (usually family and friends) find something wrong with what I am writing and can tell me what it is and why -- or at least try to point me in a direction -- I am going to look at it. Especially if the issue is one that is recurrent in people reading my work. If my main character is the same on page 300 as she was on page one, I have failed miseribly as I like to see character growth. If my character has obtained something for nothing, I did something wrong because (as I said earlier) story without conflict is boring. (Speaking of which developing a villain for my newest project is proving a pain.)

All in all, my point is this: there are no new stories, only new interpretations of what has already come. True Love, Revenge, Rags to Riches, Natural Disaster / Survival, Fantasy, Sci-Fi... Its all been done by somebody else. It is your take, your slant, your voice that must be unique. I just find it interesting that for decades people have said "write what you know" and yet now writing anything related to one's own areas of knowledge is suddenly passe and frowned upon. Yet again: I do not think that putting myself into book form would sell or be interesting. But a character is not instantly me if I make her interested in the Beatles.

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