Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Oh, Mary, Mary

Okay, I'm sorry. I was gonna hold this one off. Really, I was. But the thing is, if I don't get it out now, a whole bunch of other stuff I want to tell you about what I'm writing and why and how the journey is going is not going to make sense. I didn't want to make this post, because it involves more Twilight bashing, and also because it involves a lot of Really Unpopular Opinions About Writing. So before I alienate all of my BRAND NEW READERS (oh my gosh people are reading my stuff! oh my gosh people are commenting! holycrow people want other people to read my stuff! *squee*) I would like to say, to those of you who have added me to your blogrolls, or commented, or are just lurking around, Hello! and Thank you! It's pretty awesome that this blog is being discovered by so many people in its very, very youthful state. Possibly I don't suck at this marketing thing nearly as much as I thought I did, which is heartening. Keep the comments coming! And while I have you, how do I comment on all the awesome comments I've been getting? Because I'm really all *cherishes comments* about it, and I'd like to know how to do that, but I'm a total blogspot newbie. Help?

Now, on to the alienation.

For those of you who don't know, that is apparently the Universal Mary Sue Litmus test. My apologies to the person who wrote the test, but it is the most ridiculous thing you will ever do with ten minutes. And here's why. Watch me, I'm about to blow your mind:  

Mary-Sue is a myth. She was invented by fanfic readers to scare - er, that is, discourage - writers from putting OCs (most particularly OCs meant to be reflections of the authors themselves) into fanfics when all the readers wanted to do was read about their favorite characters. She has morphed and mutated to basically mean any character any reviewer or commenter doesn't like. Want proof? I want you to do three things for me.

1. Run the test with a fictional character you created and have a particular attachment to.
2. Have someone you know run you through the test, as if you were a character they created.
3. Run the test through with one of the following characters, depending on which fandom you hail from, or, if you're so inclined, try all of them:
Harry Potter. Luke Skywalker. Edward Cullen. Dr. Who. Superman. (I chose boys for a reason, you'll see in a sec.)

See that? Amazing, isn't it? FYI, Hannah scores between 39-45, depending on how generous I am being, and which novel I am testing her on. I scored around 28. Probably would have got higher, but apparently, being inherently flawed like having a disability for no reason, and being asexual and getting no action at all means you are less than Ideal Character, and therefore, less Sue-ish. Aside from making me grumble, this is actually problematic, as, when I write characters with disabilities, I am basing many of the experiences and feelings on my own, so, would that make it more Sue-ish? Or does the natural bad of having a disability cancel that out? And if I want to write an extremely likeable asexual, or an asexual who has to fend off the boys/girls, is that wish fulfillment? Because, trust me, it's not something I want, but it has, on occasion, happened.

Sorry. I'm really not here to pick, on the test, or the author of the test, who I'm sure felt that zie was doing a very good thing, clearing all this up. But the thing is, a shocking number of those questions are geared specifically towards female characters. And they are amazingly stupid and inane questions, too. Like, "if your character is a girl, does she have a boy's name?", "if your character is a girl, does she have to prove she's 'just as good as the guys'?", "if your character is a girl, does she have 'rebellious princess' syndrome?" In other words, kids, if your character is a girl, she is more likely to fail this test. I pointed this out to someone once, who responded with, "It's written that way, because Mary Sues are mostly girls. There aren't that many Gary Stus." Which brings me to experiment #3.

When I tested Harry Potter, he scored about 116. When I tested Edward Cullen, he scored about 129. When I tested Luke Skywalker, I stopped halfway through from giggling. (He eventually scored an impressive 149) You get the point. This is incredible for several reasons. Firstly, almost everyone you know knows, or knows of, one of these characters. Most of the people I know, know all of them. These characters are from best-sellers and well-loved stories. Secondly, is the fact that they are all male, and many of them were written by men. Thirdly, Star Wars was written in the 70s, Harry Potter began in the 90s, Twilight in early 21st century, and apparently, the original Dr. Who was written  in the 60s and holds the record for the longest-running sci-fi series of all time. (I didn't test the Doctor, but I know people who did; he scores around 102.) Which means, to those of you playing along at home, Gary Stus are everywhere AND WE LOVE THEM! In fact, they are probably a large part of the reason many of us are writing today. And, I would hope, a large part of the reason there are so many Mary Sues. Why let the boys have all the fun? Finally, and most importantly, for those of you ready to remind me, "Well, yeah, but those are good writers." I would like to say two things. Firstly, no, they are not all good writers. George Lucas has been telling the same story for 40 years. It's getting really effing old, dude, seriously. And oh, Stephanie Meyer, please do not think that because you led us all on for three books that the fourth one required absolutely no plot at all. Secondly, none of those best-selling authors had (well, actually, I don't know Dr. Who from a hole in the ground, so one of them might have) written anything major up until that point. George Lucas was a budding film student, Stephanie Meyer was raising three children, and we all know the meta-myth of J.K Rowling. They had no way of knowing, not even the capacity to dream, what they were about to unleash onto the world.

Here's the thing: I think everyone should write. I don't force writing on people, I'm not one of those "you're an artist or you're nobody." people. But I think everyone should be in the practice of telling stories. We should tell stories, early and often. We should tell stories about the people we are, the people we know, the people we wish we knew, the people we dream would exist some day, and the people we want most in the world to grow into. We shouldn't tell stories to be realistic, we should tell them to be honest. We should tell stories because they are fun, because that's what makes our lives better, because deep down inside, we believe we really are that special, that beautiful, and worth the kind of struggle worth writing about. Because even if you don't believe it, when you write it down, when you can make it work, make it fit into a story, it starts to make sense. And then you will believe it. Mostly, though, we should tell stories because we exist, and we are not alone.

There's a reason I wanted people to run themselves through the test, too. People who yell Mary-Sue at your original fiction, and even at your fanfic or RPG, want you to believe you are alone. They want you to believe no one is interested in what you have to say, or your perspective. Because everybody else thinks differently. They want you to believe, that if you tell your story, that everyone will know, instinctively, that it's you, and you will be punished severely. Because yes, beautiful, incredible, wonderful, tragic, unimaginable things can happen. But they won't happen to you. They won't happen to anyone like you, and you can't imagine yourself a better person, smarter, prettier, more likable, more lovable, more talented or stronger, either. Because you are not any of those things, and you probably never will be, and it's absolute arrogance to assume that could change. I asked, in this post, for readers to run themselves through the test because I wanted you to see that unless you have really bad friends, or incredibly low self-esteem, don't find yourself particularly well-liked, likable, talented, smart, unique, good-looking, well-mannered, good-tempered, basically, unless you or your friends find you a totally boring, generic, bland, and in some cases, downright detestable human being, you're probably going to score pretty high. You probably won't reach kill it dead, you have no magical powers, and unless your friend has a huge crush on you, zie is probably not extolling on your beauty at this moment. But, I mean, you would have to dislike yourself or distort yourself quite a bit to get a low score, and if you got a low score, you may need to get some better friends. Which means, in order for your characters to pass, you have to make them as forgettable as humanly possible, especially, as the test decrees, if your character is a girl. And, even more frightening, in order for you to be someone people want to read about, you have to make yourself as bland and forgettable as possible. If you're female. Because that, apparently, is what makes good writing.

I don't mean to generalize. Some of you probably passed the test with flying colours, and some of your characters probably did likewise. Hats off to you. Some of these points really are overused cliches. And some characters are actually really annoying. But let me tell you a little story about my girl.

I am not responding to the fact that Hannah scored poorly on the test. I'm actually really pleased. 45 is pretty much best-seller territory, as long as I use a pseudonym and choose a different title. I designed her to be a Mary-Sue. At the time, of course, I had only the vaguest notion of what a Mary-Sue is. I only remember looking at the drawing and thinking, "No. I want to make her younger, I want her to scare people, and I want to make her powerful." In this body, power is difficult to define, and even more difficult to express. I wanted her kind of powers, the powers to move things she couldn't move physically, with the power of her mind, which is sharp and clever and sarcastic. The power to get inside people, to understand why they thought the things they thought about her, and the power to recall and remember things the way she does, so she could know every important moment in her life, zero in on it like she's seeing herself under a microscope. I wanted to be different and special, like Hannah was different and special. I wanted to look the way I felt inside, odd, out of place, and a little bit someone to be wary of. And, to be honest, I didn't want to be disabled. I was at a time in my life where I was afraid to write about people with disabilities, because I live in a small town, and in many cases, I was considered "the girl with cerebral palsy." So Hannah is physically normal, but improved. Because whenever I did write based on my own experiences, it didn't matter what the disability was. I wrote about a blind person, a person in a chair, a person with canes, and still, there were sidelong glances, 'mmhmms' and amused half-smiles, softened by pity-tinged eyes. It didn't matter what else was going on, I was a person with a disability, and that's all I was. So I wrote about someone who wasn't. I wrote about power and presence that had never been ascribed to me. And I slipped by, unrecognizable. You see, it's not that nobody wants to read about someone who is supposed to be perfect, although I'm sure, it started out that way. It's that nobody wants to read about you. The internet is not kind. Your friends know you are inherently awesome, so your friends take the test, and you score high. However, strangers assume any scrap of confidence you got, any positivity in your identity, as a girl or a women, is accidental or imagined.

When Rowling was about to publish her book, she was told to change her name. She was advised that boys wouldn't read a book by a woman, even if the protagonist was a boy. Which is why her first fan letter is addressed Dear Sir. When I set out to start on The Damn Vampire Novel (sorry, I'm not ready to talk about that yet.), I asked everyone at the NaNo boards what their take on the current crop of vampire novels was, what they were doing wrong, specifically, and if it was simply vampire purists vs teenage romantic vampire lovers. I was concerned, because my vampires are a far cry from Edward Cullen, but I am no expert either. One response stood out to me. He said, essentially, that he didn't like to read vampire books written by women, because women had some weird sexual issues involving vampires he didn't like to think about, so he just steered clear of all of that, and if I had to say my vampire novel was different, it probably wasn't. And in film school, they teach you that no matter what you are writing, you should be trying to appeal to men, ages 18-35, because that's any movie's most profitable audience. It took years before I realized that's not who is watching movies. That's who is making movies.

I said, before, that a certain insidious type of ablism involves telling our stories for us, which means, in reality, that we no longer have that job. Eventually, that means someone is telling our stories to us. Thus, we believe them, subscribe to them, and the cycle continues. There's a matching kind of sexism too. Think about it. They have taken bad writing and given it characterization. They have given it a name. A girl's name. Not because they're sexist. But because that's something girls do. Girls write about girls. They write about strength that real girls don't have. They write about individuality real girls don't have. They write about girls who are comfortable with their body and their sexuality, girls who are wanted, and have the power to turn a boy down, or the ability to say yes and still maintain their sense of self. They write about girls to whom bad things happen, a lot, who still manage to be good people, in spite of that. They write about girls who overcome their surroundings. They write about girls with power, and girls who grow into women who other people aspire to be like, and girls who get the boys everybody wants to have, and girls who make people sometimes uncomfortable with their inherent awesomeness. And that is not good writing because it doesn't happen that way.

I want your Mary-Sue. I want to read fanfic with original characters again, because that's what started me writing my own, and that's what started a lot of my friends writing, period. I want to read books about girls and women like you, whoever you are, or like me. I want to know you, and I want to know that you want to know me. I love meeting new people. Because if we could call bad writing what it is, we could turn writers into good writers, and I love helping people who maybe aren't strong writers yet, but have big feelings and big dreams and good feelings about themselves, and love their characters and treat them like family and have them over for lunch every now and again. I want to write like I'm good enough to get away with writing whatever I want, and I want everyone else to do the same. I want your Mary-Sue, and I'm pretty sure you want her, too. I mean, I may be a disabled, asexual, pagan, feminist, neurosis-ridden writer. Still.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. Not completely, anyway.


  1. I suspect part of the reason that Mary Sue characters in fanfics are so unpopular is exactly because Harry Potter, Edward Cullen, and Luke Skywalker score highly on that test. This means that they are, in some sense, implausibly perfect

    The trouble is that writers of true Mary Sue fanfics tend to want their inserted characters to upstage the established characters, who we've already established are often quite special within that fictional universe. That means either setting-defying levels of pure awesomeness or knocking the established characters down a few power levels, often changing their characterization in the process.

  2. This is a great post; I especially enjoyed your points about ableism and our stories being told to us (I'm another person who was known in childhood primarily as the "girl with CP", too!), and how that interconnects with sexism (and, I'd argue, racism as well).

    Anyway, this is kind of a roundabout way of saying that I really liked this post!

  3. This post is really encouraging. I have found that trying too hard to avoid being a Mary-Sue just makes me unable to do anything, especially in roleplaying.

  4. @makomk - I understand what you're saying. You'll notice the first thing I did was to underline the original intention of calling Mary-Sue on someone, that is, to keep OCs out of fanfiction, except when strictly neccessary. And on one hand, I understand that, but on the other hand, self-insertion into stories we already know is what starts most of us on the path to writing, one way or another. Mary-Sue has, as I mentioned, devolved to mean pretty much any female character in any capacity where a reader might not expect or want to see a female character. It leads to fem-hate among readers and writers both male and female, (picture fanfic where the disclaimer reads "I actually really like (insert female character), but I needed a bad guy." or where even the established female characters get only a token mention, because they're just not as interesting to readers.) It makes it harder for interesting and strong original female characters to gain any kind of foothold, especially when Mary Sue is so strongly held as a 'girls-only' error, and it's not so much constructive criticism as it is, "you wrote a girl/woman, and I don't like her." So, that can be damaging, and lead to things like it being acceptable common knowledge that boys won't read books written by women, or that female characters come in 'types' that must be adhered to rigorously. The point of the post was that Mary Sue isn't really constructive critism, and all it does is scare girls away from writing about girls, which means we grow up with women writing their characters as men, or for men, because they believe that's what everyone wants to read. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear in the post.

    @annaham - Thank you! You're right, of course, ablism leads into feminism, which leads into racism which leads into classism... Any discrimination is all discrimination, in my eyes, though I admit to being comparably ignorant of racism, except, of course, as it intersects. I'm glad you liked the post.

    @Lemur-Cat It just made my day that I encouraged somebody! I find that's a common problem, and one that I talked about in terms of myself not wanting to write about someone with a disability because I didn't want to be recoignizable. You get too scared to write anything, which, of course, is the entire point, making Mary Sue just another scare tactic to stop us from being ourselves, or writing what we want to, and figuring out how to make that work in context on our own, without simply scrapping the characters we love for the ones 'everyone else.' wants to read.

  5. Oh, this is exactly, exactly what I have been saying.

    Boys are allowed to imagine themselves as superheroes. Girls are allowed to imagine male superheroes, but not allowed to be superheroes themselves-- and most especially, not allowed by other women.

    I am sick to death of the anti-mary sue brigade.

  6. The name Mary Sue came from a character in a Star Trek fic several decades ago, not a bias against women, and the Mary Sue Litmus Test states clearly at the end that there are characters who score very high on the test but they aren't actually Sues. The test is meant as a way to see if you're straying into Sue (read: poorly developed, shallow character) territory, nothing more.

    All the characters you cited as ranking high on the Sue test but not being Sues have flaws and weaknesses. True Mary Sues do not. The characters you cited have depth. Mary Sues do not. Mary Sues can do no wrong (except in the eyes of the Big Bad Meanies). Mary Sue can pick up a broadsword, despite never having even seen one before, and can use it well enough to best someone who's been using a sword for decades and has Much Experience after only a few lessons (or, sometimes, right away). She's always pretty, always smart, always unjustly disliked and treated badly...Bella Swan is the perfect example. She says she's not good looking but everyone around her clearly thinks she is. She has two or three guys sniffing after her before her first day at Forks High is half done. She gives her father major 'tude and disrespects him and he takes it. Bella treats her mother with condescention and patronizes her, and her mom takes it. Bella is billed at being smart and well-read, despite there being scanty evidence of either (her saying so doesn't count). Bella can do no wrong. Even when she goes to the dance studio by herself, after she's told to stay hidden and not go out alone, and puts herself and others in serious danger, all she needs to say is, "I'm sorry" and that's enough. I don't know what color the sun is in her world, but the one I live in, treating your parents with the kind of 'tude she throws around is not taken passively, average-looking girls do not attract multiple guys their first day as the new student, and you are called on the carpet for doing Really Stupid Things that Endanger Many People and "I'm sorry" doesn't make everything all right. Edward is some paragon of perfection who has nothing but distain for humans, is incredibly rude and patronizing to Bella on many occasions and she's all 'Oh, he's so fabulous!', he can never do any wrong. Both Bella and Edward are poorly-developed (just one of many problems with the series).

    There are some people who'd rain fire and wrath down on anyone, including n00b writers, who write a Mary Sue. Those people can go suck an egg. Everyone, when they first start writing, sucks and Mary Sues are very common. The first thing I wrote was a Phantom of the Opera fic with a self-insert main character who was a total Mary Sue. The problem isn't that Mary Sues are written by those who are still learning, it's that some writers of Mary Sues who get all shirty over any feedback/comments/critique that isn't praising what they wrote. In the fanfic community, you have Suethors who think it's fine to distort canon and canon characters to fit what they want to do and they get quite snotty if you point out OOC moments and where they deviate from canon.

  7. Great post, quite interesting. Especially nice to see such a condension of the basic original purpose of 'Mary Sue' being called out.

    I'm not going to go on too much here, but I will say that, for fanfiction, in general, I am anti-Mary Sue and this post didn't really change that. What you have to say is great and awesome and well-said, and I definitely think that so-called "Mary Sue"s should so totally be allowed in original fiction. (Again, see Tamora Pierce's stuff, that I mentioned in my other comment. xP)

    But I think some of this, while definitely relevant to fanfic and fandom (in the auto-hatred of anything that smacks of "Mary Sue" in many parts of fandom), isn't entirely so. OC's are great. OC's are huge fun and can be very interesting. I'm saying this coming from a fandom with a strong history of supporting/writing OCs (shockingly so, for someone who learned in the fandom school of PotC).

    But some characters who do come in and upset/outshine already established characters (who may or may not be varying levels of OC)... I don't think they have a place and should be called out. (Upset/outshine in the sense of, say, an OC in an HP fanfic who is so-completely-awesome that she is smarter than Hermione, more famous than Harry, and really, really good-looking...)

    Why do I think this? Because I read fanfic (and write it) to read (and write) about the characters that are already there. OCs are great. OCs are awesome. But Mary Sues? Not so much.

    (Although, I think I'll add that there has been instances of people I know noting that 'they were really nervous about/almost didn't introduce this strong, awesome female character because people might shout 'Mary Sue' at her'. The character is not a Sue (IMHO and my perception/personal defintion of a Sue), but that those fears would almost prevent someone who is, really, a BNF (of the best kind) and a great writer, that is an issue.

  8. "an OC in an HP fanfic who is so-completely-awesome that she is smarter than Hermione, more famous than Harry, and really, really good-looking...)"

    1- Realistically someone will always be smarter or better-looking or more famous than someone else--no exceptions.

    2- Realistically intelligence and fame manifests in different ways. Looks are generally eye-of-the-beholder.