Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Three Mary Sues For Your Consideration

More Star Wars: The Force Awakens thoughts, also without spoilers. There is a thrilling twist at the end.

Some people have declared Rey a “Mary Sue. Pretty much everyone else has laughed at them because they're obviously a bunch of sexist dorks who are angry that a woman is allowed to demonstrate the same baseline level of heroic accomplishment that men in adventure movies are granted as a default. But I'm not here to talk about that. I want to talk about one aspect of the “Mary Sue” phenomenon that isn't just howling sexism: the idea that “Mary Sues” distort the setting to accommodate their protagonism. Because it's one of my favorite things in all of fiction.

Batman makes no sense outside of Gotham City. Attempts by DC to integrate him into the larger superheroic world result in ridiculous attempts to place "good planning" on par with "stronger than God and twenty dinosaurs." And Batman's lunatic behavior only makes sense around his equally lunatic villains. That's why Batman is so funny out of context.

Speaking of funny, the old "Conan the Librarian" gag works because Robert E. Howard and his imitators shaped Hyboria to accommodate an outsized murderer like Conan. "Aragorn the Librarian" doesn't work as a punchline because Aragorn has qualities we recognize as admirable outside of heroic adventure. Even closely-related fantasy settings would dismiss Conan as a mere bandit warlord; Howard had to build a setting around the Cimmerian. And Howard was aware of this: the opening chapter of his Almuric explores what a Conan-like hero would look like in the modern world, and it's not pretty. Conanoids need to live in Conan Land or they are either ridiculous or pathetic.

And then there's Sherlock Holmes. Less defined by his setting than the other two, Sherlock nonetheless operates in a strange clockwork reality that only makes sense in the brittle social milieu of fantastic Victorian England, where a man's Inner Property X manifests itself as Outer Characteristic Y, every time. The newest TV show, for all its charm, falls down most often when it calls attention to the fact that the world doesn't work like that any more, and never really did. (The new Sherlock, famously and humorously, can't even realize that a character with a masculine-sounding name is really a woman.)

All three of these characters are men. All three characters are beloved by millions of fans. So, in a surprise twist, this article isn't about Star Wars, tropes, or sexism: it's suddenly an article about writing advice! If you find yourself stuck on characterization, if you can't make your protagonist work, stop trying to redefine them. Instead redefine their entire setting so that the character is as interesting as possible, and that character and setting are inseparable. This trick is cousin to the science fiction dictum that the “big idea” in your SF story should be important enough that, without it, the plot makes no sense. In fantasy (whether that fantasy has swords, killer clowns, or tobacco-brands-as-clues), try building a protagonist who, separated from their setting, makes no sense. It's worked in the past.

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