Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Monday, April 18, 2005

Mary Sue, Mary Sue, Pretty Pretty Pretty Mary Sue

Mary Sue has been bothering me lately. And I want to throw her under a bus.

You may not recognize the name, but you recognize the type. That most annoying of characters.

Who is she? She’s easy to spot. She's the idealized stand-in for the author of the story. The naked fantasy figure.

The name came from a Star Trek fan fiction story written back in yonder days. The character of “Lieutenant Mary Sue” arrives on the Starship Enterprise, and is so beautiful, brilliant, and so forth that she not only saves the day, but one (or more, I’m not sure) of the regular Trek menfolk fall madly in love with her.

Badly-written “fan fiction” is jammed with Mary Sues, as you’d expect. What’s worse is when published fiction is marred by these authorial stand-ins. Just thinking about them makes my eyes roll back in my head.

The biggest Mary Sue producer in comicdom who leaps to mind is Matt Wagner. Take, for example, his character Grendel. Grendel was a prodigy, gifted with superhuman intelligence and physical grace. He becomes a world-class fencer in his teens, seethes with resentment at the idiots around him, is seduced by an older woman (who promptly dies), and in his late teens/early twenties, he becomes a best-selling novelist of great artistic merit in his public face as "Hunter Rose" and a masked crimelord known as "Grendel."

If this isn’t a teenage boy’s id splashed on paper, I don’t know what is. Wish fulfillment doesn’t get a lot more naked.

To his credit, Wagner took this teenage daydream character and transformed the Grendel story into something much, much more interesting. Hunter Rose died in his first story, and the subsequent Grendel stories were about different folks. It went from a Mary Sue story to a damn fine series.

Then there’s Wagner’s Mage. Perhaps Mage also evolved, but I just couldn’t read it long enough to find out. I opened the first collection of the first series and couldn’t take it.

The protagonist, Kevin Matchstick, begins as a regular guy. For no readily apparent reason, in the beginning of the first issue, he sits on a stoop and begins answering personal questions to another guy sitting on the stoop. The answers are standard-issue “I’m alone and nobody gets me” horsecrap, that watered-down Byronic self-pitying wanna-be-sensitive-tough-guy knucklehead stuff common among those who consider themselves intelligent because they read the occasional book, get their feelings hurt sometimes, and wear their hair funny.

I put the book down and walked away. Hunter Rose died right away and was replaced by more nuanced characters. Kevin Matchstick is still stomping around the pages of Mage, swinging his magic baseball bat and probably still acting the watered-down Byronic self-pitying wanna-be-sensitive-tough-guy knucklehead. No, thank you.

Wagner’s a talented creator. I actively seek out his work. But I don’t buy anything he’s done until I give it an examination first.

In the world of prose fiction, the King of Mary Sue is Elmore Leonard.

Leonard’s work has been praised so much that a few years ago, I felt I had to check it out. Most mystery and thriller writers bore me senseless. I keep hoping to find a truly good one. Thus far, the only truly good authors in the genre appear to be Hammett, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. If Leonard’s work matched the praise, he’d fit right on that short list. Sweet.*

Oh man.

I’d never run across a middle-aged white guy Mary Sue before. Mr. Leonard introduced me to several. Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, the title character in Stick, um…that guy whose name I can’t remember in that book that bored me...

Leonard’s protagonists are middle-aged white guys with criminal ties who just so happen to be the most cunning, clever, lucky, and seductive middle-aged white guys around. Not that they broadcast this, oh no. The world just bows down to their inherent coolness. Manipulating the swirling madness around them with swagger, they get the best of everyone, win the (younger) girl, and make a sack of money.

Please.

I figure that the Leonard Mary Sues probably match the fantasy lives of most critics. Thus, they love it. Pandering is harder to spot when it’s in your direction.**

(Me, my fantasy life involves less gangsters and more donuts. Mmmm…donuts.)

Mary Sue-ism is a problem of degree, not type. Fictional characters are extensions of the author. Many of them are wish-fulfillment types.

What distinguishes the Mary Sue is the purity of the wish-fulfillment and the author’s over-identification with the character. She's always right, she's impossible to relate to, and you always know where a Mary Sue story is going. Yawn. Mary Sue-ism places the main character of a story in direct violation of the First Law of Fiction: "Don't Bore the Reader."

Is Superman a Mary Sue? He’s supremely powerful and always saves the day. Not a lot of flaws in the Man of Tomorrow. Wish-fulfillment doesn’t get a lot more direct than him. So, is he?

No, because his personality is vague and bland enough to allow millions to share in the story. Nobody who wrote the character over-identified with him. One or two writers may have tried to make him their personal Mary Sue, but if so, it didn’t stick.

How about the polar opposite? The protagonist of Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog was based on Bellow himself to such a degree that it angered a whole lot of his friends and family. Was Moses Herzog a Mary Sue?

No, because Herzog wasn’t a fantasy figure. Bellow gave the character deep flaws and provided enough distance that readers who weren’t Saul Bellow could identify with and relate to him.

...oh man. Having just put Superman and Saul Bellow side-by-side in a blog essay, I now feel dirty and wrong. I must shower now.

------------------
*I’ve tried a couple of highly-praised mystery/thriller/crime novelists and they all suck ass. George P. Pelecanos? Walter Mosely? Awful. I couldn’t finish Pelecanos’s Hell to Pay with a gun to my head, and Devil in a Blue Dress was deeply, profoundly underwhelming.

**This is why movie critics can hate Forrest Gump for pandering to normal folks, but adore Wings of Desire or Blue Velvet, movies that pander to the self-designated "arty" crowd. Folks have a much harder time noticing pandering when it’s directed at them. I certainly have that problem. Dammit.

26 Comments:

  • Yes! Thanks for the warning about Elmore Leonard's books - wish fulfillment Mary Sues drive me up a wall.

    By Blogger Kitty, at 11:32 AM  

  • Have you read any Lawrence Block? Specifically his Matthew Scudder series? IMO, he's one of the best mystery/thriller writers out there. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes remains the best of the series, though I'd heartily recommend just about any of them - excepting perhaps the first couple.

    By Blogger Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, at 11:35 AM  

  • I've never read Mage, but as I understand it, Wagner doesn't deny that Kevin Matchstick is a Mary Sue. That might mitigate your enjoyment of the work, but at least he's up front about it. Matchstick is even supposed to age like Wagner, but I don't know if that's gone by the boards. I agree with you about Grendel, though. Hunter Rose is the least interesting incarnation of the character.

    By Blogger Greg, at 7:07 PM  

  • Wagner admits Kevin Matchstick is a Mary Sue? A point in his favor.
    It doesn't make the title any more appealing. Ah, well.

    For those looking around, the best mystery/thriller I've ever found was Ross MacDonald's Sleeping Beauty, his novel about his own lost daughter.

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 10:26 PM  

  • How about Frank Miller and Sin City? Tough guys who can kick everyone's asses and get any type of woman (or, in Marv's case, a perfect one)?

    Seems Mary Sue-ish to me.

    By Anonymous Mike Loughlin, at 8:17 AM  

  • Lets hear it for armchair quarterbacks!
    I've heard it said that those who cant...teach. I think it would also be accurate to say that those who cant...critique.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:04 PM  

  • Frank Miller and Sin City? Frank Miller's work as a rule! His stuff gets more and more self-indulgent as time goes on, and now that he's getting props in the movie biz, I expect that trend to grow exponentially.

    By Anonymous Cheshire42, at 4:36 PM  

  • By Blogger dfadf, at 3:42 AM  

  • Elmore Leonard's books have certain thing to watch out for...:)
    Thanks for this nice post....:)

    By Anonymous Erectile dysfunction remedies, at 3:59 AM  

  • The story was seemingly interesting, I liked it very much. nice work

    By Anonymous Herbal treat constipation remedies, at 2:38 PM  

  • Take, for example, his character Grendel. Grendel was a prodigy, gifted with superhuman intelligence

    By Anonymous Best last longer supplement, at 2:52 AM  

  • Experience the natural formula of increasing longing time in bed. Its Vimax increase semen volume pill.

    By Anonymous Vimax increase semen volume pills, at 12:33 AM  

  • Just thinking about them makes my eyes roll back in my head.

    By Anonymous Penis enhancement pills review, at 8:18 AM  

  • Nice post. Great innovation. Thanks alot for sharing. I am really impressed by your work. keep up the good work

    By Anonymous Digest it colon health pills, at 3:57 PM  

  • I’ve tried a couple of highly-praised mystery/thriller/crime novelists and they all suck ass. George P. Pelecanos? Walter Mosely? Awful. I couldn’t finish Pelecanos’s Hell to Pay with a gun to my head, and Devil in a Blue Dress was deeply, profoundly underwhelming.

    By Anonymous Digest it colon health pills, at 4:01 PM  

  • In my opinion everybody must go through it.

    By Anonymous www.ciudad-real-3d.com, at 2:09 PM  

  • Hunter Rose is the least interesting incarnation of the character. HCG Blue Drops, the Faster and Natural way to lose weight

    By Anonymous hcg buy online, at 8:45 PM  

  • George P. Pelecanos? Walter Mosely? Awful. I couldn’t finish Pelecanos’s Hell to Pay HCG Blue Drops, the Faster and Natural way to lose weight

    By Anonymous hcg buy online, at 10:44 AM  

  • I love this article and the most interesting for me was the title thanks for sharing a very good post

    By Anonymous pharmacy reviews, at 12:09 PM  

  • That a very pretty rhyme.love this . Mary sue .marry sue.

    By Anonymous Vigaplus erectile dysfunction supplement, at 2:18 PM  

  • The biggest Mary Sue producer in comicdom who leaps to mind is Matt Wagner.

    By Anonymous Vigaplus best herbal ED product, at 12:51 PM  

  • The biggest Mary Sue producer in comicdom who leaps to mind is Matt Wagner.

    By Anonymous Best Hypospermia treatment, at 11:16 AM  

  • all about marry sue...

    By Anonymous 19PFL3505D, at 1:52 PM  

  • The biggest Mary Sue producer in comicdom who leaps to mind is Matt Wagner.

    By Anonymous Natural penis growth pills, at 12:58 AM  

  • Mary Sue has been bothering me as well. Let's throw her under that bus together....:)

    By Anonymous Vimax penis enlargement pills, at 12:06 PM  

  • I am so glad that you are back. Hope that your vacation was a great one and hope that you will write about it something for us.

    By Anonymous Top Models shoes 2012, at 7:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home