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Me & That Mary Sue Character - and Others

There's been a lot of discussion recently about how the concept of the "Mary Sue" (which can be briefly and incompletely summed up as a supremely admirable female character that a female author inserts into a story so that she can vicariously live this remarkable woman's life) has become (or perhaps always has been) an excuse for misogyny and the bashing of female characters. In turn, this has resulted in some discussion of female characters in general, and the lack thereof in many popular fannish works.

This has made me think about my own relationship with these ideas, and I wanted to write some of it down and wave it about, so to speak. I didn't want to pontificate about my own headspace on other people's journals, so I'm doing it here on my own.

Authorial Self-Insertion in Original Fiction

I was wrong about this one. And I was equally wrong on the male side of the equation, for that matter.

OK, if an author wants to insert her- or himself in a story, that's her or his right, and the work needs to be judged on other factors. It doesn't matter, really, on whom a character is based (although if an author uses someone else's characters ... that can be a problem for different reasons), because there's far more to a work of fiction that that.

So I was wrong to sneer about Herald Myste in Exile's Honor (which I have done in the past, although not in this space), and equally wrong to sneer about Morlenden in Gameplayers of Zan, whom I would bet money is a "Gary Stu." (Gameplayers is a quirky work that is an old favorite of mine, more for the characters and atmosphere than for making any remote kind of logical sense.)

A Digression on Why I Like Certain Fictional Works

I've mentioned before that teams, families, and families-by-choice are very important to my appreciation for a work. I like Saiyuki more than Wild Adapter because the main cast is larger. The main cast in Samurai Deeper Kyo is probably too large - and I love it anyway. I like Noel Streatfield's sibling teams in Ballet Shoes and others. I liked Witches of Karres even more when (mild spoiler) Vezzarn and Hulik joined Pausert and Goth.

I'm partial to pairings as well, but I like them better in a larger context of friends and/or family.

If I'm really passionate about a work, then I like the relationships that the author has set up among the characters.

Hold onto that idea, please.

When Fanfiction Breaks the Bonds: What It Means for Me

What happens in a lot of fanfiction that features an original character - especially if the author identifies strongly with that character and is crushing on a canon character - is that the relationships that appeal to me in the story are trampled in the dust.

This particularly bothers me when the characters in canon were close - whether romantically so or not.

If Gojyo in Saiyuki is matched up with someone other than Hakkai - whether it's an original female character or Yaone or, for that matter, Sanzo - what happens to Hakkai?

Does the author come up with some valid substitute for Hakkai's best friend and sanity anchor - or do they just leave Hakkai pottering around on his own, harmless and sterilized and quirky ... and in the back of my mind, eventually going berserk again and slaughtering another thousand?

Likewise, if Hakkai is the one who gets the girl or guy - does Gojyo find someone else to be special in his big heart? Or will I find myself visualizing him once again sliding down into a pool of casual empty sex and booze?

I realize that this is just fiction. But the relationship between these characters is a major part of what I liked about it. So if a story messes with that, and doesn't do something remarkable in terms of making a new reality that's kind to both partners, I am not going to find that story appealing.

Would I care if it were a sexy male character interfering with canon straight or female-female relationship? Yes dammit, I would.

Take Black Lagoon. The author is pointing toward a Rock/Revy relationship. That's indisputable after the most recent published English volume. It may never actually happen, or it may happen just before both of them go down in a hail of bullets, but that's what's building. I like it. The fact that it's tough for both of them to face it makes it even better: if it happens, it will really mean something. Would I enjoy a story that had some sexy male beast showing up and seducing either of them away? Hell, no! Their relationship is one of the things I value in this story.

Likewise Kyo and Yuya in SDK. I admit that I have written a couple of casual sex slash stories with Kyo and Yukimura - but in my heart, I know that (spoiler) Kyo is heading for a lifelong marriage with Yuya, while Yukimura is going back to his arranged marriage and an early grave.

On the other hand, where there is essentially a relationship vacuum? I'd be happy to see a well-written OC. Want to come up with some really kickass person of either sex for Dutch in Black Lagoon? Friend, or lover, or both? I'd love to read that story, as long as Dutch still reads like Dutch.

Female Leads, Male Leads

When I first started thinking about this subject a couple of years ago, I remembered mostly just enjoying stories with male leads and not thinking about it.

In actuality, there were a quartet of female characters that were intensely important to my shy, chunky, unathletic 12-year-old self:

  • Goth, the wiry 11-year-old Karres Witch who is an equal partner with Captain Pausert in The Witches of Karres
  • Dido Twite, the brash Cockney girl who is a supporting character in Black Hearts in Battersea and who comes into her own as the lead in Nightbirds on Nantucket and a half a dozen sequels
  • Marion the Girl with the Dogs, whose daring, loyalty, and friendship with all the dogs in town enable her to come to the rescue of all the rest of the kids in The Horse without a Head
  • Petrova Fossil, who endures years of ballet lessons and attempts by her nurse to make her more ladylike and is eventually rewarded with her dream of becoming an aviator, in Ballet Shoes

(I should also mention Sally Watson's adventurous girls in her YA historical romances, which have all recently been re-released in paperback by Image Cascade. And Anthea in E. Nesbit's fantasies. And Nan in Linnets and Valerians.)

But it's also true that in general, I read books about boys, and liked them. And identified with the boys.

I've had some pushback when I've said this before. And I'm not sure why. Can't female authors write male characters? Haven't a number of them done so with such success that critics insisted that these authors must be male? So when I read a male character who appeals to me, I identify with him while I'm reading the story.

The fact that a number of these stories were written by female authors - Rosemary Sutcliff, Susan Cooper, Patricia McKillip - probably deserves consideration. But I also identified with Paul Atreides and his father Leto, Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, Frodo and Sam, Geoffrey in The Weathermonger, and other male characters by male authors. While I was reading those stories, I lived in those character's heads.

Later on, I came to realize that there were more adventurous boys than girls, more noble men than women, in what I liked to read. For the most part. that did not make me turn my back on my old literary friends. (Although it did make some visits less frequent: Dune hasn't lasted well, for me, and the treatment of women in the story is one of the reasons.)

Can male authors write plausible female characters? Certainly. Examples: I think the girls in Edward Eager's children's fantasies are as well portrayed as the boys, and the women in Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury are as awesome as those in Black Lagoon.


So, that's where I'm sitting on these things. You?

Comments

( 43 comments — Leave a comment )
fmanalyst
Apr. 15th, 2010 02:38 am (UTC)
I like what you have to say about needing to address the existing relationships. I would even say that my favorite original characters are those who provide a new perspective on the canon characters and relationships.
When I think back to my three musketeers Mary Sue, she had a crush on Athos, but wasn't very hopeful. now I suspect I would explore Athos/D'Artagnan, as the most interesting relationship.
chomiji
Apr. 16th, 2010 03:35 am (UTC)

I felt weirdly bad and guilty when I read your post about feeling erased from so many stories.

fmanalyst
Apr. 16th, 2010 11:05 am (UTC)
It's weird for me too, and I think a big part of it is my own loneliness. If I was in a relationship, I don't think I'd feel this way so much. But there's also an element of having always wanted to be noticed, to be seen as present, that has been there from childhood on.
smillaraaq
Apr. 17th, 2010 02:27 am (UTC)
We all have such different histories, different tender spots, etc., that I think it's hardly surprising that the same sorts of media can be empowering and affirming to one reader/viewer and triggery and unhappy-making to another -- or maybe even hitting the same person in different ways at different stages of their life. Cho, for instance, has talked about feeling rather alienated and hostile when reading some chick-lit characters who were very attentive to their appearance -- their focus on clothes and hair and makeup brought up all sorts of sore spots from times when she was made to feel bad for being a tomboyish geek girl who didn't have a proper conventionally-feminine level of interest in such things. And I've had almost the exact opposite reaction -- I get twitchy when I start to notice that a particular writer has a pattern of repeatedly showing female characters who like girly clothes, makeup, etc. as stupid, shallow or evil, because I've had bad experiences as an adult with folks who look down on women who are too femme. thedeadparrot raises some interesting points on similar issues, focusing on the Mary Sue discussion, in how some of these power-fantasy/wish-fulfillment characters may be fun and empowering to the authors, but potentially leave some readers feeling devalued when the canon characters they identify with are denigrated to further build up the wonderfulness of the Sue. I think a similar process can go on with canon characters, too -- some books really seem to carry a strong whiff of the author working out their own past issues with the jocks or mean girls who bullied them, or the crushes who ignored the smart, shy girl in favor of the pretty, popular cheerleader, etc.; this stuff can be really powerful if the author is able to tap into all those old feelings, and have an immense appeal to readers who had similar experiences. But if the author gets carried away, it can wind up going cartoony -- all the geeks and tomboys are triumphant paragons, all the jocks and cheerleaders are mean and stupid and destined for defeat. That can be a satisfying sort of revenge fantasy in small doses, for the right readers, but in the long term it doesn't really make for more nuanced writing and characterization...
chomiji
Apr. 17th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)

>>Cho, for instance, has talked about feeling rather alienated and hostile when reading some chick-lit characters who were very attentive to their appearance -- their focus on clothes and hair and makeup brought up all sorts of sore spots from times when she was made to feel bad for being a tomboyish geek girl who didn't have a proper conventionally-feminine level of interest in such things. And I've had almost the exact opposite reaction -- I get twitchy when I start to notice that a particular writer has a pattern of repeatedly showing female characters who like girly clothes, makeup, etc. as stupid, shallow or evil, because I've had bad experiences as an adult with folks who look down on women who are too femme.<<

The cho and smilla show, all Yin and Yang, all the time ... .

XD

>hugs<

smillaraaq
Apr. 17th, 2010 06:42 am (UTC)
That's very much a case where my reactions have been drastically colored by age and experience, too -- it's not the sort of thing I ever noticed back when I was too young to even be allowed to wear makeup, or to have more than a very limited degree of choice in how I dressed. As a child, the main sort of appearance issues I'd have noticed and latched on to in stories would be things like Jame's displeasure at being stuffed into a Kencyr noblewoman's costume, or Petrova having to put up with those frilly audition frocks -- not a gendered feeling of inadequacy at being judged for not being girly enough, more the general resentment of powerlessness at not being allowed to choose clothes and shoes and haircuts you like, and being forced by adults to wear stuff they like and you despise. More subtle, gendered stuff about appearance flew right by me because I just didn't have the experience to put it in context -- I read and reread The Once and Future King endlessly as a child, but didn't notice then how badly the women tend to come off...the pretty ones are almost uniformly vain, selfish, and bad for the men in their lives, while the homely ones are held up for mockery: damned if you do, damned if you don't...
smillaraaq
Apr. 20th, 2010 01:22 am (UTC)
Ooh, and I just came across this article with lots of interesting commentary on the whole impossible contradictions women face around appearance issues -- lots of good discussion in the comments, too.
vom_marlowe
Apr. 15th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)
I like what you have to say. I'll have to drudge up my favorite Mary Sue essay. I wonder what you'd think.

I have gotten flak for liking and identifying with boys, too. I always was that way, in part because there weren't a lot of girls to read about. I suspect that not all of my identification was strictly, oh, cis, if I might put it that way.

I do still feel cranky about the Herald Myste, because it felt so darn disrespectful. But I have a lot of weird conflicting views about Lackey. Sort of a love and hate thing.
chomiji
Apr. 16th, 2010 03:44 am (UTC)

>>I suspect that not all of my identification was strictly, oh, cis, if I might put it that way.<<

Yes, I think there was a bit of that in my case as well. It was all part and parcel of treating my dolls like action figures and preferring to hang out with my dad and go to the hardware store and things.

I didn't read Lackey until quite late - already in college or maybe just past it. I think it was the Last Herald Mage series, and I was alternately captivated by the emotional charge of the relationships and appalled by the emotional manipulation. She was also the first writer I recognized as using throw-away characters: someone would say "Hey, remember so-and-so?" and the POV character would spend a page or three remembering so-and-so, who had never been mentioned in the story before, and then the lead would be told "Well, he was killed horribly."

But I know that her books made such a difference in the lives of so many gay teens, I find it hard to stay perturbed about her.

Tell me more about why "disrespectful"?

And I'd be glad to read anything you wanted to show me.

smillaraaq
Apr. 16th, 2010 06:51 am (UTC)
That's such an important point, and one that I fear gets lost too often in the pro-female-character screeds: internalized misogyny is a very real and serious thing and absolutely deserves discussion, but it's NOT the only reason why someone might have a recurring pattern of being drawn more strongly to male characters, non-het ships, and so forth. If you don't have a firmly grounded sense of cis identity, and you don't have much in the way of trans/ambiguous/genderqueer characters to latch on to in your reading/viewing, then reading yourself into some male characters may feel like less of a bad fit than the cis female characters. If your sexuality isn't 100% straight, then it may sometimes be easier to see yourself in the hero who's crushing on the princess rather than the princess herself, or more sublimated, in the hero who has an intense and erotically charged friendship with another male character. In an ideal world, along with more awesome female characters of more different types, there'd be more LBGT characters out there for kids to find their reflections in -- but we're not there yet, and we absolutely weren't there in YA and kidlit three or four decades ago; so all of us girls who didn't yet have a name to put to some of the ways we didn't feel like we fit what we were expected to be had to muddle along as best we could with the media that was available to us.

I missed both Lackey and Tamora Pierce entirely, despite being a bit younger than you -- it looks like the first Pierce YAs didn't start coming out until I'd already pretty much abandoned the YA section, and by the time Lackey's first books came out I was already starting to drift away from fantasy, period; I don't recall seeing either in the library I haunted at the time, and none of the handful of other F&SF fans I knew at the time seemed to be into either author. I've never dared try to pick them up now, decades after the fact, because I rather suspect I'm a little too old and jaundiced a reader to be able to enjoy them properly; but I'm a bit envious of the younger fangirls out there who had shelves and shelves of such female-centric, queer-friendly stuff to choose from -- they really sound like they're tailor-made for the geeky adolescent girl id.
vom_marlowe
Apr. 16th, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC)
I would never have picked up Pierce's Alanna books if it hadn't been for a librarian who befriended my deeply pre-teen/teen troubled self. She used to set aside books for me to try. That's where I got the Lackey, too. I'd been reading a lot of adult fiction and other things, as was my wont, but she found what I now realize was very empowering not-quite-bog-standard fiction for me. Good thing, too. Saved me, she did.

The Lackey and Pierce didn't wear as well as I wish, I'm afraid. The gays in Lackey especially tend to go crazy and die, not to mention some of them are evil. Er. It bugs me now, and did some then, too, but it was also really empowering at the time.
smillaraaq
Apr. 16th, 2010 09:57 pm (UTC)
I had a wonderful librarian like that when I was much, much younger -- when she saw that I was reading way beyond my grade level, was crazy for the Andre Norton and Rosemary Sutcliff juveniles, and my mom had given the OK for me to go into the YA and adult stacks, she walked me into a side room where the bulk of the genre paperbacks were kept and handed me some SF. (Dragonflight and Moorcock's The Land Leviathan, I remember for sure -- there may have been a few other titles but those were the ones I definitely glomped on to like crazy. I think the first Alanna books came out around the same time we switched to a brand-new library closer to home, though, and while I was such a regular that my mom and I got to be friendly with all the new librarians too, I took out such huuuuuge stacks of adult titles at every visit that I guess they might have thought I didn't need any help finding stuff to read, and might have thought myself too grown-up to go back to YA? *shrugs*

I'm a little sad that I missed out on stuff like Lackey and Pierce and Hodgell when I was at an age where I would have appreciated them immensely, but I'm so so grateful that the libraries were there for me and that my mom, for all her faults, was very supportive of reading and didn't let her controlling tendencies out in this one sphere -- so reading and imagination was the one place I could always feel free. (She would have been appalled if she had any idea of the sexual content in some of the stuff I was reading, but she wasn't much of a reader herself and none of her friends read genre stuff, so as long as I didn't try to pick up some sleazy mainstream bestseller that she knew was "too old for me", I could really get away with murder...)
lady_ganesh
Apr. 17th, 2010 03:19 am (UTC)
Whether it was a question of access or there just not being much of it out at the time, when I was at the YA reading age, YA seemed to mostly consist of The Babysitter's Club and its ilk...and that was not me.
smillaraaq
Apr. 17th, 2010 04:09 am (UTC)
The Babysitter's Club stuff was a little after my time -- and the really big boom in YA F&SF, especially the girl-centric stuff, also seems to have come about a decade too late. The YA selection on the library shelves I remember from when I was a tween were very heavy on Awesomely Depressing, Socially Relevant 60s/70s problem novels -- lots of S.E. Hinton, Farewell to Manzanar, The Chocolate War, that sort of thing. I was several years younger than the intended demographic -- v. precocious reader -- and at the height of my F&SF obsession at the time, so the absolute LAST thing I wanted to read was depressing-looking stuff about kids living dreary lives in the modern-day real world. I'd never even warmed to the less-dreary contemporary-setting kidlit like Judy Blume -- I couldn't really see the point of reading a book about someone whose life was as dull and limited as my own -- so I spent most of my time in the adult stacks, and mostly scanned through the YA section briefly in search of anything new with the helpful rocket-ship stickers on the spines. (In retrospect, some of the F&SF I loved at the time would probably be considered YA now, but for some strange reason a lot of the hardcover Andre Nortons were shelved with the children's stuff, and paperbacks of stuff like Dragonsong or the Heinlein juveniles were all shelved willy-nilly with the adult SF paperbacks.)
lady_ganesh
Apr. 17th, 2010 04:18 am (UTC)
I liked The Chocolate War a lot, but there was certainly nothing raw and honest like that about girls around. (I saw the movie a couple months back. AMAZING. Not really good but amazing.)

And yeah, by the time I was in sixth grade I was sucking down Agatha Christie like candy.
vom_marlowe
Apr. 16th, 2010 02:09 pm (UTC)
Oh, I have such mixed feeling about Lackey. SUCH mixed feelings. The Last Herald Mage series made me so happy, because gay boys! I didn't understand why it was so wonderful and powerful. It made so many things seem possible. And yet... The partner dies, you know? Twice even! It really falls into the lesbians must die genre, except guys, and good ole Tylendel goes caraaaaazy to boot. At the time, it made me sad, but I didn't understand why it was fated for them--it felt unfair and yet right, which now makes me feel rather sad about my young self.

*flaps hands* Does that make any sense?

It feels disrespectful to me because it really breaks the third wall, and for a joke. It yanked me so hard out of the story I couldn't get back into it. It seemed like, I don't know, that the story wasn't as important to her as it was to me these days. Like, she used to really care, but now it's just silly fantasy, instead of an important story.
lawless523
Apr. 15th, 2010 05:27 am (UTC)
I'm not sure all Mary Sues (or Gary Stus) are self-inserts, and I agree with your more recent conclusion that in original fiction at least, the use of a self-insert alone is not reason enough to be critical. It's what the author does with the self-insert that matters. Lots of fiction is semi-autobiographical; Ryu Murakami's Sixty-Nine, which I adore -- it's about the year, not the position, btw -- is heavily autobiographical, but is breathtaking, wonderful, and funny all the same. Dorothy Sayers has been criticized for creating Lord Peter Wimsey as her ideal man and having her fictional alter ego, Harriet Vane, fall in love with and marry him, but I thought it worked as a concept, though Strong Poison is probably my least favorite of her novels, probably because I so despise Harriet Vane's ex-lover, whose murder caused the whole mess.

I guess that as a child, I read different books than you did, though we share a love of Edward Eager and Streatfeld's Shoes books. The vast majority of children's books I read, by authors such as Madeline L'Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, E.L. Konigsberg, and C.S. Lewis had female protagonists, with or without male ones. I identified with male characters when they were the sole leads; I don't see how you can read and enjoy The Lord of the Rings and not identify with Frodo and Sam somewhere along the way, though I also identified with Gandalf, Merry and Pippin, Faramir, Elrond, Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn, among others. But books in which male characters were the sole leads were in the minority. I probably sought out books on the basis that they contained female leads who were more like me: imaginative and bookish, not tomboyish and active.

It annoys me no end when it's automatically assumed that an original character is a Mary Sue or self-insert. It equally annoys me when it's clear that an original character is in fact a Mary Sue or self-insert, like all those ridiculous stories on FFN in which the ikkou meet one, two, or more teenage girls with ridiculous names. I get it, but if people want to couple themselves and their friends with their favorite ikkou characters, consider that personal and private pornography (or maybe real person/fictonal person het) and circulate it among the interested parties; do not inflict it on the rest of us.

Liking established relationships is why I regret the tendency in Gravitation fanfiction, either because the author genuinely believes Eiri is bad for Shuichi or as a means of heightening tension and conflict, to break up the main pairing. (Which is not to say it isn't often brilliantly used, just that it's a bit of a tired trope.) But when there are no canonical romantic relationships, as is the case with Saiyuki, I have greater tolerance, as long as the relationships within the ikkou haven't been frayed to the breaking point or there's a good explanation why. Hakkai and Gojyo are best friends and rely on each other, and Sanzo and Goku share a deep, fated bond, but the relationships don't have to be romantic or sexual ones, leaving them free to form such relationships with other ikkou members, OCs, or canon characters outside the ikkou.

As for the whole family/variety thing, part of the reason I'm fonder of Gravitation than Saiyuki, even though Saiyuki is inarguably more accomplished, is that Gravitation has a larger main cast with more gender variation than in Saiyiuki and few to no true villains.

Thanks for the thoughtprovoking post.
chomiji
Apr. 16th, 2010 11:59 am (UTC)

The thing is, the secondary characters in Gravi aren't developed enough for me to do much with them in my imagination. In SDK, you would not believe how many characters get at least one tragic flashback. So I find it a bit easier to think about stories for more of them. (On the other hand, although the fandom finds lots of them slashable, there are relatively few clear pairings in any direction.)

I think that with better authors, people don't notice the self-insertions as much. But when I see the same basic character type repeated with minor variations, I have to wonder. For example, C.J. Cherryh's tough, cynical older woman in command (with a weakness for damaged young men) shows up in several different series - Morgaine in the titular fantasy series, Signy Mallory and Ariane Emory I in her Alliance/Union SF series. The likelihood of self-insertion in these cases is increased by the paperback cover of the first book of three-volume version of Cyteen, where Ari I is clearly drawn as Cherryh herself.

Hee, I actually read some more of those authors you mention. I liked The Egypt Game, but I identified with Melanie more than with April. And my semi-identification with Claudia in Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E, Frankweiler only made me uneasy - Claudia's so bossy and never stops to consider what heartbreak she's causing her folks. In Narnia, the only girl I really identified with was Jill. I liked Aravis, but identified more with Shasta. In LotR, I don't remember ever identifying with Galadriel or Arwen - such womanly people - and Eowyn was so powerfully intent and self-destructive ... I can get into her headspace now more than I did then, actually.

lawless523
Apr. 16th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC)
Perhaps its Gravi's supposedly real world setting that enables me to take sketchy secondary characters like Eiri's editor Mizuki (my fave!), Kitazawa's brother turned sister Yoshiki, and NG employee Sakano and run with them. Or maybe it's that their very sketchiness enables me to be freer with them. There are secondary Saiyuki characters I don't feel are much more fleshed out than the Gravi ones, anyway, particularly the denizens of Houtou, other than Nii/Ukoku, and as Nii, he's still a little opaque to me.

What a stroll down memory lane! I don't remember what made Claudia so obnoxious, nor which characters April and Melanie were -- I identified with the one without the little brother; there were other E.L. Konigsberg books I liked better than The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler anyway.
redbrunja
Apr. 15th, 2010 07:07 am (UTC)
But the relationship between these characters is a major part of what I liked about it. So if a story messes with that, and doesn't do something remarkable in terms of making a new reality that's kind to both partners, I am not going to find that story appealing.

I think this is a such a deep part of why we connect with stories and something that so many authors (pro and fan) don't respect as they should.
chomiji
Apr. 16th, 2010 03:48 am (UTC)

... I am so relieved to hear that.

I think also that the tendency to try to pair everyone up, although very normal and human, can also encourage some pretty poor writing, both in canon and fanfic. Fruits Basket sort of goes to pieces toward the end because of that.

redbrunja
Apr. 16th, 2010 10:12 am (UTC)
I think also that the tendency to try to pair everyone up, although very normal and human, can also encourage some pretty poor writing, both in canon and fanfic.

Agreed. Even when there is an even number and the pairings actually make SOME sense, it still comes off as WAY to repetitive, and thus, boring.
smillaraaq
Apr. 16th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC)
We've ranted about this before, but the end of the Harry Potter series has that issue in spades, too. Rowling seemed to feel the need to pair off all the younger survivors (and make them all parents, to boot), and on top of her existing pattern of tending to warp established characterization once a character is partnered, the results were pretty disappointing.
redbrunja
Apr. 16th, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
Oh, word. I mean, I would say more, but what else is there to say?
fmanalyst
Apr. 16th, 2010 11:23 am (UTC)
I think that's why Torchwood fans, for instance, were so upset with Children of Earth. Many express the feeling that it altered the relationship that had already been established between Jack and Ianto, to the point of being unrecognizable.
smillaraaq
Apr. 17th, 2010 09:29 am (UTC)
In mainstream Western comics, another strong recent example would be the fan backlash to the "Brand New Day" reboot. That involved all sorts of changes to the established continuity, but the one that seemed to provoke the most outrage was the erasure of Spider-man and Mary Jane's marriage.
avierra
Apr. 15th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
I had to think about this before I posted, because I disagree with a few of your points, but I had to think about how and why I did.

Before I begin my dissertation *g*, I don't think a Mary Sue is necessarily the same as a self-insert, although it frequently is. I do think both types of characters are puerile, though, and a sign of a not-very-mature authorial voice.

Having said that, I don't think you (or anyone) are wrong for disliking a particular type of character, whether it is a Mary Sue or self-insert. That would be like saying, in a romance novel, that it is wrong for me to dislike an uber-alpha male "hero" who uses rape or forced seduction to coerce the object of his "affection." Sure, the author has a right to write it, and have it published if s/he can find someone to publish it. I also have the right to think it is crap. I don't like to read that sort of thing, and those sorts of characters will seriously impact my enjoyment of other aspects of the story, thereby making it crap to me. If other people like it, more power to them.

That doesn't mean that I think that characters that are unlikable for various reasons make a bad story, btw. There are a number of works I enjoy, particularly in the urban fantasy genre, that have a protagonist that is Not A Nice Person, that I enjoy as part of a work as a whole. But I regard MarySues and self-inserts as something approaching literary masturbation: much more fun and interesting for the person doing it than anyone else.

An exception, I think, is if the work is a parody or satire of some sort. Actually, I was thinking about this the other day, in the context of Candide... in some ways Candide is an 18th century MS whose beautiful, simple face-- as well as his preternaturally pure and innocent viewpoint-- was used to make a lot of religious and political points that got Voltaire into a world of trouble. So I think a MS can successfully work in this way, perhaps better than a flawed (normal) character.

So, basically, I don't think a work needs to be judged on other factors than the fact that a character is a Mary Sue or self-insert. If a character doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you. That doesn't make you an elitist, or wrong.

In terms of fanfiction and OCs, I generally don't want to read about people's OCs doing things as part of or an equal of the main cast. In some cases, I read fanfiction to think about other people's perceptions, interpretations and insights into the canon storyline /cast. I like AU's for this, actually. Other times I just care about the pr0n. Either way, I don't care about an OC except as an adjunct (or perhaps observer) of the main cast that advances a storyline in some away, and I will never care about a limelight-hogging OC. I don't care about the zany adventures of an OC in fanfiction. Again, that doesn't make me an elitist. It makes me someone who knows what she enjoys and doesn't in a story.

I guess at this point, I should also confess to writing MSs for the lulz, or to get something real underway. But overall, I can think of no situation in which Shadowmoon Sapphire and her amethyst orbs add one iota to a thoughtful interpretation of a canon cast or storyline.

Having said that, I have read and enjoyed fanfiction that was clearly written by an inexperienced or young author, simply because of the ideas expressed or the way it was written.

As you know, my reading and personal experience pretty much paralleled yours (as we are les dames d'une age certaines :D ), so there isn't much to say there. I agree with pretty much everything else you have said.
smillaraaq
Apr. 16th, 2010 12:05 am (UTC)
In terms of fanfiction and OCs, I generally don't want to read about people's OCs doing things as part of or an equal of the main cast. In some cases, I read fanfiction to think about other people's perceptions, interpretations and insights into the canon storyline /cast. I like AU's for this, actually. Other times I just care about the pr0n. Either way, I don't care about an OC except as an adjunct (or perhaps observer) of the main cast that advances a storyline in some away, and I will never care about a limelight-hogging OC. I don't care about the zany adventures of an OC in fanfiction.

I've been thinking about this myself, and for me I'd say that a lot of my openness or lack thereof to original characters in fanfic comes down to the nature of the source material. For something like LOTR or Avatar: the Last Airbender, where the worldbuilding itself is so richly detailed and hinting at all sorts of fascinating things just off the map or half-forgotten in its history, I'm much more willing to take a chance on stuff where original characters are strongly in the spotlight; they can be helpful or really almost necessary to explore areas where the canon characters can't plausibly be used. In settings like those I can enjoy stories where the canon characters play more minor roles or barely even appear, so long as the sense of place, culture, etc. fits in with the canon material. In a setting like Saiyuki, OTOH, where the worldbuilding is a little sketchy and slapdash and the characters and their relationships are the main draw, I'm much less inclined to give OCs a shot, unless they're clearly in service of driving a plot, filling in backstory, serving as outside observers, etc. in a story that's primarily focused on those canon characters who draw me to the source material.
avierra
Apr. 17th, 2010 01:42 am (UTC)
I concede your point here. :) I can a lot more easily see something like what you describe in LOTR than something like Saiyuki. Although, make no mistake, if I never again see another fic with Aragorn or Legolas (in particular) falling for some Sweet Young Thing that everyone loves, it will be TOO SOON. Screw Arwen and Aragorn's fateful love for her. :P But I can see that it would be fun to have an OC running around Middle Earth and doing heroic things. I just don't want to see them as part of the Nine. I guess in some ways I think that is just sort of... presumptuous. But then again, now that that has occured to me, it makes me wonder if the process of writing fanfic (as opposed to original fiction) itself isn't sort of presumptuous.

As for Saiyuki and its plethora of Sweet Young Things that are going along on the journey as either Gojyo's (or Sanzo's!!!!) squeeze, don't get me started. :P
smillaraaq
Apr. 17th, 2010 03:06 am (UTC)
I've been chewing over that whole thing more and I think the worldbuilding/setting vs. character/relationship axis also has a lot to do with my openness or lack thereof to AUs, too. In something like Saiyuki where the worldbuilding isn't really a big part of the draw, AUs really really work well -- even leaving aside that reincarnation is part of the canon here, the big thing that gets me reading is wanting to see more of the characters and their relationships with each other, be it platonic or romantic; so you can transfer those characters to another country, another century, another planet, another gender or species, and so long as that core spark of their personalities and the way they relate to each other is there, I'll find those AUs every bit as satisfying and enjoyable as something with a canon setting. Something like LOTR, on the other hand, where the characters are so firmly grounded in their world and that world is so rich it's almost like a NPC -- it's really really hard for me to imagine taking the characters out of that setting and having it work as anything beyond deliberate parodic crack. And the only cases I can think of where I've seen AU-ish LOTR fic that seemed to work were either the near-canon, how-would-history-change-if-one-thing-went-different sorts, or stories in which one or two immortal characters have covertly survived into the modern world. If I try to imagine plucking a few Tolkien characters out of Middle-Earth and transplanting them to some wildly different setting...my brain just can't seem to go there; put them in outer space, or a Victorian drawing room, or Wall Street, and they're just not THEM anymore. But Gojyo and Hakkai, you can put them anywhere and still make them feel like they've got that recognizable spark.

I just don't want to see them as part of the Nine. I guess in some ways I think that is just sort of... presumptuous.

I think I'm probably in a fairly similar place, as a reader? My main draw to read or write fanfic is to fill in things that are missing or incomplete or unsatisfying in canon. I don't want to see LOTR retold with just an extra character tagging along, because I'm already perfectly happy with the story as it stands -- I'd much rather see fic exploring all the bits that weren't covered in the book. FAKE is a huge favorite of mine and I adore the Dee/Ryo pairing, but I've never had an overwhelming craving for fic there because the emotional arc and resolution of the canon series is pretty satisfying as is. But when a series is left hanging unfinished (like Robin of Sherwood) or flings around shippy subtext without ever explicitly resolving the tension (like Due South or Saiyuki and Wild Adapter or From Eroica With Love), the urge to find fic to resolve those loose threads can be really compelling.
chomiji
Apr. 17th, 2010 03:02 am (UTC)

Actually, a self insert can be handled in a pretty sophisticated fashion. In my response to lawless, I mentioned several likely self-insertions in C.J. Cherryh's fiction, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are based on Fritz Leiber and his friend Harry Otto Fisher, and I'm sure there are numerous other examples. So I don't think that having a self-insertion (as opposed to a textbook Mary Sue/Gary Stu) alone is enough to disqualify something from being worth reading.

I've seen some good OCs in Saiyuki fic, but not as romantic interests of the lead cast. For example, I really liked Singing Tree and Master Jiang in louiselux's "The Curse." But they're catalysts and foils for the main cast, not competition.

I can't read even pr0n if the characters aren't true to canon. When Gojyo is using $50 words and being uber-confident, and Sanzo is getting all mushy and conventionally romantic, I am so out of there.

I've very, very rarely imagined myself as a character in something, and even then it's more like snippets of original fiction. If I want to be in fanfic, I do it as one of the canon characters. As I've said a number of times, the reason that 585 is so effective for me is that I can be either Gojyo or Hakki - they both have elements that feel familiar to me.

I don't think young is a disqualifier on its own, any more than age is a guarantee of quality writing. We've both recently enjoyed the work of quite a young Saiyuki fanfic author here on LJ!

lady_ganesh
Apr. 17th, 2010 03:38 am (UTC)
I don't think young is a disqualifier on its own, any more than age is a guarantee of quality writing. We've both recently enjoyed the work of quite a young Saiyuki fanfic author here on LJ!

And young writers are more likely to grow and change than a thirtysomething who already thinks she's learned all there is to know about writing.
smillaraaq
Apr. 17th, 2010 03:40 am (UTC)
Ha, yes, I was just thinking of Fafhrd and the Mouser -- the modern equivalent of the genesis of those stories would probably be someone taking what started as their D&D characters, or online RP logs, and polishing them up into shape for publication! lawless253 has already mentioned Harriet Vane, and I was just reading this Madeleine L'Engle profile which goes into some detail about which of her characters are self-inserts or based on members of her own family. Not to mention the inscription on Tolkien's gravestone, which made me hopelessly wibbly when I first read of it...

(And I can't remember if we've discussed this yet or not, but I've been getting a definite self-insert vibe from the Hodgell book, too. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I was right about reading the signs of the cat thing, and Jame has an awful lot of similarity to the self-insert characters I was writing in my head as a tween...)
avierra
Apr. 17th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
Actually, a self insert can be handled in a pretty sophisticated fashion. In my response to lawless, I mentioned several likely self-insertions...

I am not sure it is actually possible to write a character without some degree of self-insertion. Even if you write one that you think is completely opposite of yourself, you are still basing it off yourself. Writers tend to write what they know. So I don;t particularly have a problem with someone using aspects of their own personality or relationships in creating a character.

I have a problem when that character is a carbon copy of the writer and has become part of the main cast. (That is where the MS and the SI collide, for me).

I'll also note that the use of a recognizable SI/MS (see Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake) can become pretty darned unsettling, even when it is an original story.

I've seen some good OCs in Saiyuki fic, but not as romantic interests of the lead cast. For example, I really liked Singing Tree and Master Jiang in louiselux's "The Curse." But they're catalysts and foils for the main cast, not competition.

I don't mind OCs when they are an adjunct to the main cast. It is when they are running around as a romantic interest (because we all know what a spectacular catch and wonderful mate any one of the Saiyuki boys would be), or equal too -- or better than-- the main cast that I start to get annoyed. The guys you mention help drive the main story, which is about the canon cast.

I don't think young is a disqualifier on its own, any more than age is a guarantee of quality writing. We've both recently enjoyed the work of quite a young Saiyuki fanfic author here on LJ!

Yeah, my comment sounded really snotty, and was one of the things I wanted to edit >:| It didn't convey what I meant at all. I intended to change it back to just "an inexperienced author."
smillaraaq
Apr. 16th, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC)
So I was wrong to sneer about Herald Myste in Exile's Honor (which I have done in the past, although not in this space), and equally wrong to sneer about Morlenden in Gameplayers of Zan, whom I would bet money is a "Gary Stu."

I'm not familiar with either book and don't think I've ever seen you talk about those characters or your problems with them before -- care to expand on that a little bit for context?
chomiji
Apr. 17th, 2010 03:23 am (UTC)

Eh, I should have used Fafhrd as an example of a Gary Stu, but I thought about him too late!

I think I fussed about Myste mostly to the Young Lady, who actually read Lackey at the right age. Basically, there was an older male character, angst-filled and noble-enemy type, master of arms etc., who showed up in one of the sub-series. And shortly after he shows up, we get Herald Myste, an absent-minded near-sighted older woman who falls for him and vice versa. Mercedes Lackey's nickname is Misty ... you can fill in the rest.

Morlenden Deren ... this is going to get complicated. I need to explain to you a little about the Ler, the para-human race Foster made up for Warriors of Dawn,, Gameplayers of Zan, and Day of the Klesh.

The Ler were created from human genetic stock. Their lives have four distinct stages. As child, up until about age 10, they're pretty much like human children. Then, up until age 30 or so, they're adolescents: they have a sex drive but are not fertile. So they can (and do) have lots and lots of sex (straight sex only, as far as I can tell ... ). Then, at 30, fertility kicks in, and their culture marries them off into an elaborate arranged group marriage of 4 (called a braid) that is complicated enough that I would want to make a diagram for you. This is called the parent phase. They have two (or rarely, three) fertilities, each of which almost always results in a child (twins are even more rare than among humans and are always fraternal male-female). After the second or third fertility, they become sterile and functionally sexless. Theoretically at this point they are elders, but are still called "parents" until a certain pair of their children (the insiblings) are married off. At that point, the former parents leave the family household and take up an entirely new life.

So, Morlenden: he is about 45, and he has had three children, and so is now functionally no longer male. But sexy adolescent girls keep throwing themselves at him ... OK, it's really only two, but he has sensual thoughts about two others.

It's hand-waved as part of the Ler eidetic memory (which does have valid other uses in the plot): he remembers how it used to be, so he can appreciate the girls even though he can't do anything about it. And really, he's a pretty good person and not too uber-perfect, and I enjoy his viewpoint for most of the book. But every time one of the incidents with the girls occurs, I find myself thinking "Heh - yeah, right, Mr. Foster!"

smillaraaq
Apr. 17th, 2010 04:34 am (UTC)
And shortly after he shows up, we get Herald Myste, an absent-minded near-sighted older woman who falls for him and vice versa. Mercedes Lackey's nickname is Misty ... you can fill in the rest.

Bwah! Although I suppose it might be a little easier to get away with that sort of thing in YA, where your target audience may be a lot less jaded and willing to just roll along with the tide of squee -- goodness knows a lot of things far more blatant than that flew right over my head as a young reader. XD

So, Morlenden: he is about 45, and he has had three children, and so is now functionally no longer male. But sexy adolescent girls keep throwing themselves at him ... OK, it's really only two, but he has sensual thoughts about two others.

Ha, yes -- and that's exactly the sort of thing I probably would have totally glossed over at fourteen, and now would doubtlessly cackle "yeah, in your dreams, buddy!" at -- that definitely smells like a classic case of Author Appeal. Although at least it sounds like it isn't nearly as blatant and shameless as late Heinlein, or Piers Anthony at his creepiest...
ginnyvos
Apr. 17th, 2010 02:36 pm (UTC)
I'm going to reply first and than read all these comments because this is a seriously interesting subjects.

When I first discovered the internet about 10 years ago (on the school computers because we didn't have internet at home back in the days) I ended up on this Harry Potter website and eventually on the forums. On these forum it was common practice to write self-inserts. We'd write VVs (Vervolgverhalen, litterally translated; follow up stories) in which every writer inserted their character and wrote the story a little further along, then leaving it to the following and following author, creating some magificent stories along with the silly, fun, weird and just plain stupid ones).

We were all young teens that just loved the idea of walking around on Hogwards and having magical powers and with all the issues of young teens trying to find their way in life and highschool. Most of us were geeks (you had to be, to be readng Harry Potter back than. This was before the 4th book had even been published) and many of us had experiences of bullying and other stuff that wasn't all that fun.

We wrote Mary Sues. Every single one of us, even though I think our ideals were different enough that we had very different characters regardless.

I'm sure I gained a great deal by writing like that. Not only is that what got me into writing down the stories I've always made up and did I learn a lot from it in terms of writing but it gave me the opportunity to explore some issues in a way that wasn't threatening, it gave me the opportunity to be this cool, kick-ass girl who can fight to safe her friends, is smart and funny and pretty popular. We started meeting up IRL a couple of years later and before I knew I really was much more popular. This is also around the time my character started being less and less like a Mary Sue and more like an actual rounded character.

I know writing Mary Sue is something that's often frowned upon, but it's also very debatable what you see as a Mary Sue. Many, MANY strong or beautiful female characters get instantly branded as Mary Sue but... Damn it, have you ever looked at the GUYS involved? Gorgeous, brave, awesome guys who beat every danger into submission and get the girl and blablabla. Yet they're no Mary Sue. That irks me.

I also don't get why girls go on about how authors make girls so girly. I'm sorry, but in the end a lot of girls ARE girly. After puberty hits most girls ARE phisically weaker than guys. Girls do more emotional violence and manipulation while guys are more physical. Guys beat up strangers and if girls do beat anyone up, they know the person, often very well. It's proven fact, even if there's a huge overlap as well.But so what if an author writes a girly girl. So what if girls often get the caring part. Look around you. There's a lot of girly girls out there. The overwhelming majority of caring professions are done by women. That's how nature's wired us. Does that make us worth less than men? No. Different? Hell yeah.

And hell, if I get the chance, I'll be a stay at home mom in a couple of years, by choice, fulfilling the nightmare of every feminist.

I enjoy writing and reading both guys and girls. Who knows, it might have something to do with the fact that I'm bi-sexual and so girls are just as attractive to me as guys are.
ginnyvos
Apr. 17th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
And about the relationships in fiction: I really, really like Gojyo/Goku (or the other way around) BUT there is no way I can read it fully if there isn't a very good reason why they aren't with Hakkai and Sanzo, respectively or, in Sanzo's case, why Sanzo is unavailable, so I know what you mean.
chomiji
Apr. 17th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)

With a big ensemble cast like there is for "Harry Potter" at Hogwarts, it's easy for a young writer to imagine him or herself as part of the action. My question is, though, did people create Mary Sues/Gary Stus for the express purpose of removing canon love interests for characters that they desired themselves? Did people create female characters to wrest Harry away from Ginny, or male characters to free Hermione from Ron? Especially with horrible things happening to Ginny and Ron?

That's the sort of thing that irritates me.

I'm sure that it was fun for you, and yes, it probably was a good starting point for writing. At that age, I had a whole imaginary universe that was essentially RPF AU, peopled with old D&D characters and real-life rock stars, with a gay male character who was essentially my Gary Stu (and man, was there a lot of hurt-comfort going on in my brain). But I have never inserted myself into a canon story to snatch away either the limelight or the hero/heroine.

One of the problems with writing a response to my post without reading the conversation in the comments is that some of the giants at which you're tilting are really windmills. At least three of the other participants here enjoy looking at girls as much as they enjoy looking at guys (or maybe more), so your perceptions from the viewpoint of bisexuality are only unique in that we are all different from each other in some way.

For me, girly =/= feminine. Shenhua (from Black Lagoon) is intensely feminine, but not at all girly. Renge (from Ouran High School Host Club and Kagura (from Fruits Basket) are girly.

I truly believe that there are equally ridiculous Gary Stu characters. In our discussion here, I remembered a famous one: the ever-more-noble yet still earthy barbarian Fafhrd, in Fritz Leiber's famous "Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser" sword-and-sorcery series of short stories (written from the 1940s to the 1970s).

ginnyvos
Apr. 17th, 2010 05:15 pm (UTC)
If I read the comments first, I often forget what I wanted to say to the original post or lose the guts to actually say it...

We did all of it. We had all the horrible cliches, we had our self inserts date characters from the cast, we had them date each other, we beat Voldemort a whole bunch of times and we were animagi (my chara turned into a polar fox *laughs*) and brilliant at school and... Well like I said, they were Mary Sues and Gary Stuts, down to the last one. Most important thing though? We had an awesome time doing it and it was wonderfully therapeutic.

You have to remember though, that at this point there were no love interests declared yet. Especially at first we worked off the first three books, later the fourth when no romantic interest had truly taken serious form yet. This is ten years ago and Rowling was only just starting to get famous.

My main point of view is that as long as you don't force people to read what you've written (which is a very hard thing to do indeed, for both published and online authors, except maybe those whose books are mandatory in schools) you can write and imagine whatever you want. If I don't like a story, I close the page, hit the back-button or close the book. It's as simple as that. So yes, I have written and read horrible, horrible stuff that I would make me hit back as fast as humanly possible. Wasn't hurting anyone with it though...

The remarks on bi-sexuality were fueled by some discussions I've read about yaoi, and how the tendency to edit out the female lead/female component would stem from the fact that it's often written by straight women who enjoy yaoi because there is no female (and therefor unattractive to them) component in it.

I've got no idea of Fafhrd (what a name XD) but I think that many male anime characters would have been Mary Sue had they been female. That's all I'm saying.

As for girly and feminine... It might be a failure to grasp a linguistic nuance on my part but for me the two are more or less interchangeable depending on how serious/formal the discussion is.
smillaraaq
Apr. 17th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC)
As Cho noted already, if you look through the comments you'll see that there's quite a lot of diversity in attitudes towards Sues and Stus, and towards self-insert characters -- IMO they're not necessarily one and the same. Personally I have no philosophical objection to well-written self-insert characters in general, and any list of my favorite fictional characters would include quite a few, like the previously-mentioned Harriet Vane, the Grey Mouser, etc., who are generally thought to have had some element of authorial self-insertion in their creation. And I really don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with writing even a more over-the-top idealized self-insert, wish-fulfillment Sue or Stu, or even with letting your fantasies run wild and hooking up your Sue/Stu with a favorite canon character: this is a very common stage for young writers, my own imagination definitely went naturally along those lines as a child and young teen, and I have fond memories myself of the sheer fun of spinning such yarns with a handful of likeminded friends. However, as a reader, I will tend to avoid works (both pro and fanfic) where it sounds like the main character is an over-the-top unbelievably perfect Sue or Stu, and especially so in cases where a fanfic looks like it's all about the Sue/Stu becoming best friends or romantically involved with the canon characters. While that sort of thing can be loads and loads of fun for the author to write, they often don't have much appeal to a reader outside of the author's circle of friends; and that sort of idealized self-insert is very commonly coming from a more immature and inexperienced writer, so the odds are high that something that sounds very Stu/Sue-focused just from the story summary is also likely to be unsatisfying to me on other grounds, too -- plot, quality of prose, etc. (Which isn't to say that I automatically assume that *any* OC, even one that's romantically paired with a canon character, is going to be a Sue/Stu: if the summary is competently written and doesn't show any of the usual cliches, then I'll probably give the story a shot.)

And while it's really kind of a huge tangent from the more fannish aspects of this discussion -- being a housewife and/or SAHM is not "the nightmare of every feminist". While you may have encountered some individual feminists who disapproved of such things, it is by no means any sort of universal point of doctrine. For feminists outside of the more radical fringes, choice and fairness are the big issues: if you *want* to be a homemaker, that's fine, but you shouldn't be forced into that role by default, or barred from educational and career opportunities if you want to do something else with your life.
lawless523
Apr. 18th, 2010 03:51 am (UTC)
Amen about the Mary Sues/Gary Stus. It's fine with me if people want to write it, and I can see why it would be fun and fulfilling to write about, but it's personal, to be passed around to your friends, not shared with the world.

Your other remark is on point too; feminists aren't opposed to embrace of traditional gender roles, though some look down on it as the equivalent of letting the side down. They're opposed to forcing people into traditional gender roles they don't want.
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