Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gary Stu Transcendent and the Question of Fiction Categories

Based on anecdotal evidence1, the vast majority of Americans, when they do manage to pick up a book, read for the pleasures of escapism, to live vicariously another life. But they are looking for a specific set of qualities in that other life: power, success, confidence, vast intelligence, admired by all, attractive to the opposite sex2, and single-handedly saving the day (or playing the most substantial role in a set of people saving the day). There is a character that serves this purpose in spades: Mary Sue, assuming she's written "well." When written poorly, the Mary Sue experience is best described by Teresa Nielsen Hayden as follows:
A Mary Sue story is the literary equivalent of opening a package that you thought would be the new jacket you ordered on eBay, only it turns out to contain a poorly-constructed fairy princess costume made of some lurid and sleazy material. It’s tailored to fit a human-size Barbie doll, not you; and when you hold it up to the light, you can see the picked-out stitchmarks where someone else’s name used to be embroidered across the bodice. The dress has been used but not cleaned, and appears to have last been worn during a rather sloppy romantic interlude.

In order to write Mary Sue well, the serial numbers must be filed off just enough to serve a large chunk of the American book-buying population. The physical description of the character, while sufficient to make members of the opposite sex swoon, must be generic enough to be Everyman. The character's job or hobbies must be whatever popular culture considers vogue. The homelife must be supportive or, if there are problems, they must not be the character's fault, and the character must be doing everything humanly possible to resolve the problems. The conflict must always be external: Big Bads mucking things up for the hero. It is essential that the character not really be a character at all, but a flexible outfit that the reader can easily don and move around in without any chafing from rough seams or itchy tags.

In essence, to write a Mary Sue story well, one must transcend the entire purpose of the phenomenon and write not self-insertion stories, but reader-insertion: a choose-your-own-adventure story without the use of the 2nd person voice and conventions of choosing options. This is not exactly easy because human creatures are inherently selfish. We go right to the most cliched of Mary Sue stories when we first start writing: we are seeking that escapism, that world in which, by golly, we are the most important being. Our minds make us the heroes of our own life stories, so naturally we create stories that indulge that. And every slushpile and fanfiction archive groans under the weight of those smelly, used fairy princess costumes.

But we mock and deride Mary Sue. We laugh at her, at the obvious and often grotesque display of someone else's particular ego indulgences. For those of us who don't read for escapism (or at least, not solely for that), and for those of us who write for a story that doesn't serve only to launch ourselves out of our own daily grind and disappointing experiences, we find her in popular culture and roll our eyes. I'm beginning to think we shouldn't. We may be lumping the successful character suit with those soiled fairy princess outfits. The former serves a purpose that millions of Americans pay good money to experience. The latter is the amatuer conflating the experience with the purpose. It's important to sift through those lurid, well-worn costumes. Teresa gets at this herself:
(Someday, not today, I’ll tell the story of how, years ago, Joanna Russ and I used Star Trek fanfic as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decipher recurrent themes and motifs in fantasy and SF written by women. It’s often easier to see underlying patterns and mechanisms in amateur fiction than in slicker commercial work. This started when Joanna identified and described some recurrent narrative motifs she’d spotted in the Trek slash of the day, of which the inverse relationship between incidence of explicit sex and liebestod denouements was the most obvious and least important. There was much more to it. She laid out her entire description; and I, considering it, said “Which is not to say that The Left Hand of Darkness is a specimen of Star Trek slash fiction.” Joanna’s jaw dropped, and we stared at each other in wild surmise. The patterns not only fitted; they explained some otherwise inexplicable plot twists in that novel. We were on to something. And—hey! What about thus-and-such story by Zenna Henderson? And that one by Leigh Brackett? And so forth and so on, ever onward. For the next few weeks we were stoned on literary theory and the codebreaker’s buzz of seeing a seemingly knotty puzzle resolve into plaintext.)

There's a lot of festering humanity in Mary Sue stories. A treasure trove of psychological profiles and cultural trends. This is why they fail as written works, though. They are not stories with characters and conflict and arcs and resolution (genre fiction). They are not clever essays on language and human nature (literature). They are not plot routines for a character suit (popular fiction). They are little more than journals, generally of use only to the author for purposes of entertainment.

At this point, I almost feel compelled to apologize for every snide remark I ever made about Jack Ryan, popular fiction's most successful character suit, Gary Stu Transcendant. I held him in contempt because I decided to hold my reading needs as superior to those of others, while also discounting the purpose behind him. People need that safe haven to shed their existence and don someone else's and experience the euphoric rush of winning big against impossible odds. Some people prefer to fold that need in with other things. Some people don't want that need at all because they'd rather take all the lumps of their own life head-on.

So that is how I shall endeavor to look at book categories and Mary Sue stories. Popular fiction is not trying to tell a story, it's trying to provide the reader with a vicarious experience of another life. This is something that can happen in genre fiction, but is more often than not not the primary purpose. And literature attempts to examine language and humanity, often without the use of a story. Neither method of fiction is better than the other, they only serve different functions. However, within each function, you have a broad range of authorial ability to serve those functions, and some categories are more predisposed to publish the lesser examples than others. For example, a chafing Gary Stu suit is still likely to make a lot more money than a poorly realized genre story or a failed language experiment.

What brought on all of this philosophical musing? The experience of picking up what I expected to be a good space opera (genre fiction) and instead discovering I was being presented with a character suit and asked to dance around in it as the plot moved along. Yet this author is very popular and even escapes from the genre ghetto every now and then to the "validity" of the bestseller lists. This was a thing that made me go, "Hmmm." And, thus, a blog post was born.

1. What, you were expecting something more empirical? From a blog?
2. This is a reflection of the fact that the majority of Americans if not are then at least choose to identify as heterosexual.

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