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Lieutenant Colonel Gar Cuttsit stared at the blue-haired, green-skinned alien sex slave. He ground his teeth, driving any feelings he had for this admittedly alluring creature away. His hand shook as he pointed the ray gun directly between her seven eyes.

“But Gar!” she cried in her husky, silken voice. “I love you!”

“Save it!” Gar growled, quenching back the multitude of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. “You’ve betrayed me for the last time!”

Oy. The Space Opera: a classic sub-genre of science fiction, it was once the fodder of serial novels and short movies. Nowadays, the serial novel is all but extinct, and movies that even show a hint of Space Opera-tude get laughed out of the theater. It’s been parodied extensively on television, from the Pigs In Space skits on the Muppet Show to Tek Jansen on the Colbert Report. But is all this ridicule really deserved? If one looks at a similarly bashed and battered genre, Romance, one would see that even though the general perception of the genre is very far off the mark. But talking about Romance isn’t my job (I’ll leave that to the Smart Bitches), nor am I even remotely qualified to do so. Instead, let’s focus on Space Operas and why they have the reputation that they have.

Space Operas are a sub-genre of science fiction, which in turn is a sub-genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is described by Wikipedia as:

…a term used as an inclusive descriptor covering a group of fiction genres that speculate about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps with one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history.

However, that description doesn’t really get at the heart of what speculative fiction is. Essentially, speculative fiction takes our everyday world and ponders what would happen if one (or sometimes more) thing was different. So a story might expound on what would be different if we had faster-than-light travel, or if the Allies had lost World War II, or if magic had existed since the beginning of time. While much of science fiction and fantasy fit into that category (take Stranger in a Strange Land or the Harry Potter series, for instance), some doesn’t quite fit the bill. For example, some science fiction or fantasy is so far removed from our current reality, and so many speculative assumptions had to be made on the way from our reality to that of the story, that it hardly counts as speculation any more. An example of this would be Star Wars. Though there are some tenuous connections between its universe and ours, it is so different from our world that it hardly counts as speculation. Similarly, fantasy stories set in unique worlds, such as the world of Forgotten Realms, are so far disconnected from our world that they barely qualify as speculative fiction. It would probably be more accurate to describe science fiction and fantasy as overlapping with speculative fiction rather than being sub-genres.
Overlapping genres
Speculative fiction may be the larger genre, and may overlap with most fantasy and science fiction, but there are areas that are independent of it.

But Space Operas are almost universally a sub-genre of science fiction. So what is science fiction? Well, trusty Wikipedia doesn’t tell us much on that front, other than

Science fiction differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).

This could encompass any number of things, and, indeed it does; everything from near-future fiction to, well, Space Operas. It can be very strict (the purple area of the ven diagram) or even involve some fantastic elements (such as steam punk; the orange area). And sometimes, science simply becomes a pat explanation for strange, impossible or highly improbable things, essentially acting as magic sometimes does in fantasy. The train of thought seems to be that if it sounds scientific, your deus ex machina is rendered believable. Star Wars (with its midi-chlorians), Star Trek (time and time again), Futurama (although there it’s intentionally played for laughs), Flash Gordon, and many others fall into this particular category. Space Operas seem to be particularly prone to this fallacy, thus earning their somewhat laughable reputation.

So Space Operas are science fiction, but what is it about them that sets them apart from the pack? The key is mainly in the plot. Generally, Space Operas are sweeping tales that focus on broad themes, playing out melodramatic adventures against the backdrop of space. Technology and science act more as a prop than as a focus of speculation or the drive behind the stories. This, perhaps, is what most strongly sets Space Operas aside from science fiction in general. Science fiction strives to predict what could happen if variable X is altered (spaceflight, nuclear war, etc). If you remove the setting, the variable that has been changed, then the story ceases to exist. Not so with Space Operas. Since Space Operas play on large themes — romance, melodrama, good and evil, tyranny and democracy, freedom and slavery — the setting can be changed dramatically without the underlying story being altered much at all. For example, say a Space Opera that tells the tale of a rebel alliance fighting to overthrow a repressive galactic regime. The fact that it’s set in space adds a “hook” to the story, but the underlying themes of tyranny and democracy wouldn’t change a whit if you set it in Stalinist Russia instead of the Galactic Federation.

Although largely defined by its broad themes and sweeping scope, Space Operas are also defined by the cliches that are specific to the genre. While a good Space Opera can be written without falling prey to these cliches, they are unfortunately common. These are oddities most readers are familiar with: faster-than-light travel with little to no explanation as to how, a vast excess of humanoid aliens (especially ones with compatible genitalia), larger-than-life heroes, an alien race bent on destroying planets for no concrete reason, guns that never run out of ammo and have a “stun” setting, etc. These cliches can be written well, but it is the (often highly visible) cases when they are not that end up giving the genre a bad name.

So are Space Operas inherently a trashy genre that’s made up of nothing but cliched pulp fiction? No, of course not. While they may not be my cup of tea (I’d much rather read “hard” science fiction any day), when done well, they are as much a piece of literature as a well-written fantasy (or “hard” science fiction, or mystery, or horror, or romance) story. However, if you’re setting out to write one, ask yourself two questions before you start. First, is it really necessary to set your story in space, or would transporting it into a different setting still get your point across? And second, does your story avoid the pitfall cliches of the genre? If your answer to both is a whole-hearted yes, then by all means, have at it.


Purple Prose: Where’s the Line?

Budding authors looking to get published live in fear of the dreaded purple prose, painstakingly going through their rough drafts and debating the necessity of each and every adjective. With the preponderance of critique-less form replies from publishers and agents, the newbie author struggles to determine whether their prose was too purple or too stark and barren. What with the recent publication of some suspiciously lavender novels, and the resulting backlash from the Purple Prose Patrol, the world of eloquent writing is doubly scary for the entry-level author. Is purple prose inherently bad? Yes, it is; it jars the reader out of the world created by the author and either leaves them laughing or confused. But where to draw the line between pale lavender and ultraviolet is an issue that budding authors, including myself, struggle with, often without much support.

So what, exactly, is purple prose? According to Wikipedia:

Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.

Television Tropes & Idioms echoes this definition, if you can ferret it out of the ultraviolet passage. Deb Stover, a prominent romance writer, has a definition that is more accessible and may be of better help to a writer:

One way of identifying purple prose is by your reaction when you read it. Does it make you laugh out loud because it’s so ludicrous? Or does it make you shake your head in disgust? If it does either, feed it to the Purple Prose-Eater. He’ll appreciate it a lot more than your readers will.

So where does that line fall? Of course, there’s no objective way to define that; much of the definition of purple prose is in the reaction of the reader, and every reader reacts differently. However, there are a few things that can act as tips that a passage is dyed purple. Take the following passage, for instance, from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (I didn’t record the page number, unfortunately, and I no longer have my copy, so apologies for the poor citation):

His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.

Now, there are several indicators that this passage is at least a little lavender, even if it doesn’t read like the examples given on Wikipedia or Television Tropes and Idioms. First, the sentences are generally long, with several clauses linked by commas. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can make the passage seem long-winded. Second, it reads like thesaurus tossed in a blender. Even though different adjectives are used, because they’re all synonyms or very close cousins, it comes across as repetitive. Also, there are far too many adjectives; a few of the nouns are modified by at least two adjectives, and the rest have at least one. This lessens the impact of the scene, as well as making the reader groan. The last tip off is the use of certain phrases — “smooth like marble” for instance — that are used with all due frequency throughout the book. If you overuse a certain descriptor it can lead to Purple Prose-itis, rapidly followed by Gangrene of the Modifier. Generally, if you describe the character once, unless there’s significant changes to their appearance, it is acceptable not to describe them again.

Romance seems to be the genre most affected by Purple Prose-itis, though certainly not in its entirety, and no genre is truly safe from its grasp. While romance tends to resort to purple prose in erotic scenes due to the need for euphemisms, as hilariously detailed in Deb Stover’s article, any other genre may devolve into a lavender mist when confronted with an awkward, uncomfortable, or difficult passage. Science Fiction might face issues when trying to describe future technology in as brainy a way as possible. Fantasy, with the need to describe an entirely new and unique world to the reader, faces almost as many issues as romance. Mysteries might get purple while trying to describe a murder scene in detail, or some sort of forensic science. Horror could become purple while describing the terrifying thing chasing the protagonist. A historical or steampunk novel might be very purple to elicit the feel of writing of the time period. The list goes on and on.

The bottom line is that there is no line except for the one you draw yourself as an author. Some writers have been able to write extremely purple prose and be published and lauded for it (although most of them lived in the late 19th century). What is most important is bringing to life your world and your characters so that the reader feels that they are truly engaged in the plot. If a passage or phrase feels to you, or your test readers, stilted or jarring, it’s probably in your best interests to edit it. Otherwise, keep on writing how you write best and worry about the Purple Prose Patrol later.

Do you have an opinion on purple prose, or an example for us? Then drop a note in the comments section!

From Dead To Worse

Caution: Spoilers ahead, though I’ve tried to keep them light.

I’ve been a long-time reader of the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, and while I consistently enjoy her writing and her world, I have to say that over the past few books (there are 8 currently; the ninth comes out in May) I have been having more and more difficulty believing the world setting. While From Dead to Worse certainly goes in for some of the less-believable elements (there’s a Secret Baby. Seriously), it also compensates by bringing back Sookie’s feisty independence, and giving us the barest hint that maybe, just maybe, Sookie will find her happy ending soon.

I had initially intended to do this review as a liveblog, but it’s a testament to Ms. Harris’s writing that once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. I read the book in about a day and a half, and every time I needed to put the book down and do something else, I kept telling myself “Just one more page…or chapter…eh, doing [insert important chore] wasn’t that important anyway, it can wait…” Sookie’s wry and occasionally simple views on what’s going on around her add a dash of reality to the often absolutely bizarre events that are going on around her. Ms. Harris manages to describe complex scenes like the werewolf showdown or a murder scene and make them feel real without going into great detail or delving into the world of purple prose. Some of the descriptions made me laugh out loud, literally —

But I was clinging to her like a homicidal monkey. (pg 160)

The air around him got hyper. (pg 164)

And he poofed. (pg 348 )

But as silly as these descriptions sound, they work because they are in line with Sookie’s character. One thing I must say, however, is that it felt as if Ms. Harris is just as tired of writing the crazy stuff Sookie has to go through as Sookie is of going through it. I can’t point out anything in specific that made it feel that way, but an overall sense of exhaustion pervaded the writing. That could be intentional, but I’m not sure.

As for the plot itself, there’s only so much I can say without giving away the whole thing. Suffice it to say that the Secret Family thread shows up more than once. The Weres of Shreveport are having some serious issues, most of which stem from the pack leader contest from a few books back. Debbie Pelt makes her presence felt from beyond the grave (again), which stirs up some trouble in Hotshot. There’s Bob the cat, again, and Amelia’s mentor. Quinn is missing, which causes Sookie no end of hurt, especially when she finds out where he was. And, of course, the vampires have a turf war, which I can’t discuss much about because of mega spoilers.

This much plot is almost too much for the length of the book, but each of the plots couldn’t really fill a book on their own. As it stands, the Secret Family portion shows up in the beginning, and while certain parts are mentioned throughout the book, the Secret Baby part is mostly forgotten until the end. The weres’ war is resolved a little too conveniently for my tastes, wrapping up in the middle of the book. Its conclusion felt a little forced and pat, but it served its purpose. Ditto for the Debbie Pelt sub-plot; it got resolved way too easily, so easily that I kept waiting for the catch. The vampire issue showed up in the beginning, went into hiding, and showed up again in the end. It was somewhat disappointing, but it was the only one of the sub-plots that really felt like it had a realistic conclusion. I got the definite feeling throughout the book, especially with the easily-wrapped-up sub-plots, that Ms. Harris is going about the business of tying up loose ends. As it stands, the only loose ends are the Secret Baby and Who Sookie Ends Up With, with the caveat of How Does She Get Out of This Mess. I have a strong suspicion that the next book will be the last in the series, or at least an acceptable conclusion.

On a side note, there were far fewer instances of Oblivious Sookie than in the last book (come on, even an idiot would be suspicious of suitcases they don’t recognize when there’s terrorists threatening the convention). There were, however, plenty of instances where I wanted to reach in and slap the characters. Somehow, even though not communicating has caused life-or-death problems for the seven books prior, they still haven’t gotten the clue that telling the whole story could save lives.

As far as the romance goes, I have to say I’m pretty happy how this one went. Sookie dumps Quinn for a very valid reason, but her explanation of why is lacking. She tells him that it’s because she wants him to put her on top of his list, and he can’t. Honestly, it seemed to me more like she dumped him because he already betrayed her once because of his mother and sister, and she can’t trust him not to betray her again as long as the mother and sister are around. Given that she’s already been betrayed by Bill and carries some pretty hefty scars from that, I’m a little surprised that the rationalization given didn’t match what I knew of the character. In any case, I’m happy to see Quinn go. I didn’t like him from the get-go — he’s kind of a Gary Stu, what with being the last of his kind and having purple eyes, a tragic past and few or no character flaws. There was no out-and-out romance in this book (which is a bit of a departure from the others in the series) but it was irritating that eligible males kept getting thrust in Sookie’s direction. There’s Marley, the chauffeur for Amelia’s father, who is described as attractive and kind; Amelia’s father, Copley, hints that he’s interested in Sookie; Bill shows interest again (which drove me crazy — we dealt with that angst for several books already); the Fabulous Vegas Vamps think she’s hot to trot; about the only new characters that aren’t at least alluded to being potential love interests are Bob the cat after he’s uncatted, and Niall (although some of the descriptions of him/his actions are mildly squick-inducing). Of course, Sam and Eric are still interested in Sookie, and they’re the primary love interests in this book. The others are more there for the what-if and potential.

As far as Sam and Eric go, I have to say that this book does exceptionally dealing with the complicated nature of their relationships with Sookie. I’m a bit of a Sam/Sookie shipper myself, so this book was full of long-awaited squee. They don’t go all the way, of course, but we get to see Sookie analyzing what she really wants, and realizing who in her life can give her that. She has lost a lot of her initial love for vampires, for one thing, and she realizes she wants kids. But mostly, she wants a bit of peace and quiet. She and Sam end up bonding quite a bit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their relationship takes the front seat in the next book. Of course, Eric is always the obstacle, but he gives Sookie a lot to dislike this time around, from knocking her cellphone out of her hand to refusing to respect her wishes.

While I have my issues with the world setting itself — there seem to be far too many types of magical critters for us humans not to notice — the problems that plague it are pretty common in the genre as a whole. The book itself is well-written, with engaging characters and a plot that keeps you turning the page, wanting to know what happens next. The writing style is humorous and keeps the book from being too dark. For the first time in a few books, it seems like there actually might be a Happily Ever After out there for Sookie, which is a breath of fresh air. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment, and you can bet your butt that I’ll be one of the first to check it out from my local library!

Twilight: The Review: Part the Second

Well, I’ve now finished reading Twilight and all I have to say is WHAT THE F#&%! Between the poorly-executed lovey-dovey crap (“I love you more!” “No I love you more because I’m being selfish and putting your life at risk just because I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!!!”), Edward’s abusive behavior (calling her stupid constantly? Flinging her around like a backpack? Stalking her in her sleep? Bella, get thee to a shelter! Your dad’s a cop, you should know better!), the absolutely ludicrous fight scene (Ok, so you don’t even try to fight back, Bella? You’re not brave, you’re suicidal), the hackneyed and poorly crafted plot (Bella-obsessed vampires of the world, unite!), vampire prom (seriously, Bella, I would have loved to have had someone take me to the prom when I was a teenager), and the two or three chapter long, unresolved argument over whether or not Bella should become Queen of Darkness (a completely immature argument, too, I might add — no attempt at compromise at all), I just want to throw the book at the wall.

One note: for all the utter crappiness of the book from page 280 or so onwards (a really steep dive, too, by the way, and it just got worse after the plot showed up on page 378), it could have been saved at the end. If, say, Edward hadn’t sucked out the venom, it could have made an interesting ending, with Bella starting out her new life. Or if she and Edward just agreed that she wouldn’t be changed until she turned 18 or 21 or something, and then if she still wanted it she could be, then that would have been a suitable conclusion. But the book didn’t end, it just stopped. The epilogue darn near seemed extraneous, just rambling on without adding to the conclusion of the book.

Another note: Edward breaking up with Tyler for Bella, without consulting her? Seriously, this guy is beyond controlling! If Edward is Stephanie Meyers’ ideal man, then I shudder to think what her family life is like.

Also: I don’t think I’ve seen a book swandive that quickly, ever. It wasn’t great, but it descended to hideous depths really rapidly.

Last note: In a vampire novel, you do not wait until page 414 to explain how vamps are made. The whole fabric of what a vampire is rests on that simple piece of information. You don’t hold out on it — it just weakens the backbone of your story.

Twilight: The Review: Part the First

So I finally decided to see what all the buzz was about and read Twilight by Stephanie Meyers. So far — I’ve only gotten to the meadow scene, or about 280 pages in — it seems to be fairly well alright. The story seems to flow ok, however, the lack of plot at this point is becoming kind of frustrating. Even in Jane Austen and Bronte sister novels, which deal almost exclusively with the relationship between the protagonist/antagonist-who-becomes-protagonist or protagonist/protagonist, there is some sort of plot, some kind of major obstacle for their love that is evident from shortly into the novel. For example, in Pride and Prejudice the obstacle at first is Darcy’s seeming dislike for Elizabeth, and her returned dislike. Then, as they grow closer together, Elizabeth’s rather embarrassing family and both her and Darcy’s views about them drive them apart, and eventually, through significant character development and individual growth, they realize that their love is more important than how they are perceived. Similarly, in Mannsfield Park, Fanny Price is from a poor family, and though she loves her cousin Edmund dearly, her own self-esteem, a cruel care-taker, her cousin’s feelings for another woman, and Henry’s feelings for her all get in the way of true love. Over the course of the story, Fanny goes from being weak-willed and self-degrading to getting the internal strength to stand up for what she believes in, and enough self-worth to feel justified in doing so. In that way, even though it is predominantly a love story, it is more of a coming-of-age tale than anything.

However, Twilight, though ostensibly about the relationship between Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, seems to lack the inherent character development necessary to make such a story grand, as well as lacking the essential obstacles to provide conflict. The situation that Bella is in — she just moved to a new town, is living with her father rather than her mother, and is generally unhappy about the situation — could provide the basis for a strong plot based on taking the city girl and showing her that there’s more to life than your environs; she could slowly realize that the people who she at first decided were boring were actually as interesting as her friends from the city, that the Pacific Northwest in all its greenery has charms unique from those of the Mojave Desert, that her father, as busy as he is, loves her dearly and wishes her only the best. In that regard, one would expect that by the end of the book, Bella would, instead of moping about her situation, be happy where she is, value her own self-worth a little more, and have a better relationship with her father. And Edward, initially rude to Bella, and seemingly aloof, would, by associating with her, realize that there’s more to life than he used to believe, becoming kinder and more connected with the community around him. His vampirism would serve as plot point, a fulcrum on which their respective character growth could tilt. However, so far as I can tell (and I’m halfway through the book), there is little to no character growth on either character’s part. Bella is still as unhappy about the weather as ever, has yet to even attempt to connect with her father — intentionally or accidentally, and is now considering her “friends” even more boring than before. Similarly, Edward, who we initially see as aloof, is now controlling and sometimes cruel, seemingly more selfish than he was before. Any obstacles to their relationship — so far, only Edward’s vampirism is offered as an obstacle — are brushed aside so carelessly as to not provide any sort of conflict for the plot. Some obvious obstacles have not come up — a conflict for Edward’s attention, Charlie’s dislike of Edward, the Cullens’ dislike of Bella. So, we are left with a book that appears to have no plot. From what I understand, the plot shows up a few chapters ahead of where I am right now, but in my opinion, that’s a literary Hail-Mary pass. If you’ve gotten 280 pages into a book with no hint of plot yet, then anything that follows is just a rushed grasping at straws.

Now, I’m not saying that Twilight is a bad book. In fact, so far I’ve been enjoying it. I’m just saying that it seems to not quite be up to the literary standards people are comparing it to. I’ve also had some other issues with it — like that scene where Edward grabs Bella’s jacket and forces her to ride home with him — but I think most of them could be boiled down to mistakes made by a first-time author that were inexplicably let through by her editor. I think the tone of several of the almost-abusive-Edward scenes was miscommunicated, and what was meant to be a playful scene comes across as something mothers warn their daughters about. Similarly, the Mary Sueishness of Bella (all the boys fall in love with her even though she’s plain and so, so suicidally clumsy and so on and so on) is a mistake made by rookie writers. Heck, I’ve written plenty of Mary Sues in the past. But now I don’t anymore, because I’ve learned how to write better characters, mainly by reading a lot (especially the classics) and writing more. In short, Twilight is appealing to readers because it is the kind of story they would have written when they were Bella’s age, making it the kind of thing they want to read. It’s good, but I think I’ll like the movie more, and I think I’ll like Stephanie Meyers as an author when I’ve read something she writes unrelated to the series a few years from now.

Published in: on February 11, 2009 at 9:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mary Sue: As Bad as We Think?

The Mary Sue is a concept that is extending its fingers from the realm of fan fiction and into that of original fiction. Original characters in original world-settings are now being described as Mary Sues or Gary Stus; this is even, at times, extending into the world of published fiction. This begs the questions: Why is Mary Sue so bad? and How much Sue-ness is too much?

Before we begin discussing the answers to these questions, we must first explain exactly what a Mary Sue is. Wikipedia defines the Mary Sue as follows:

Mary Sue, sometimes shortened simply to Sue, is a pejorative term used to describe a fictional character who plays a major role in the plot and is particularly characterized by overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as “Mary Sues” is that they are too ostentatious for the audience’s taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the “Mary Sue” character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an “author’s pet”.

Television Tropes and Idioms gives a slightly lengthier and more detailed definition:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of wish fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing. She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her into their nakama, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if anyone doesn’t love her, the character who dislikes her will get an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

Now, as Pat Pflieger describes in her article 150 Years of Mary Sue, Mary Sues are nothing new to the land of literature; rather, they are commonly the creation of young or inexperienced authors. In order to help these young and inexperienced authors avoid the pitfalls of Suethorship, there are several Mary Sue Litmus Tests available, including The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test and The Original Character Mary Sue Litmus Test.

The major downfall of these tests is that they can scare a young author away from writing a character that, while well-rounded and appropriately flawed, has several Sue-like characteristics. It could be argued that some characters from popular fiction can be classified as Mary Sues, if judging them solely on this criterion. (For the sake of this article, I will not discuss certain characters in published fiction that have been determined to actually BE Mary Sues.) For example, Sherlock Holmes could be considered to be Gary Stu-esque. He is unbelievably intelligent, always holds the key to solving a mystery, is an accomplished violinist, and so on and so forth. Similarly, Nathaniel/John Mandrake from The Bartimaeus Trilogy could be considered a Gary Stu. He is exceptionally talented for his age, attractive to the opposite gender, has a tragic past, and heroically saves the day repeatedly. However, all this is made up for by his genuine character flaws – pride, arrogance, and so on.

So this begs the question, Why is Mary Sue so bad? Well, Mary Sue is bad when the reader is jolted out of the story or finds the story laughable because of the character’s Sue-ness. More important than any litmus test is the readability test – when a friend or a cohort online reads your story, what is their reaction? Is the story enjoyable, despite the main character’s Sue-ness? And if not, what is it about her that needs to be changed? The best way to correct any Sue-related problems is to listen to critique and take it to heart.

So, then, if not all Mary Sue characteristics are bad, How much Sue-ness is too much? Readers of your typical adventure-genre stories (fantasy, sci fi, horror; we’ll ignore contemporary fiction for the moment, and romance falls under a different set of rules entirely) won’t be interested in reading about an absolutely average or sub-par character. If nothing else, your character has to be able to survive in the situations the plot throws at them. An interesting way to look at this is to think about it like character creation for Dungeons and Dragons. The Player Handbook describes stats of 10 as being average — for adventurers. Commoners fall more closely into the 8 or so range. This higher base stat is what allows the adventurers to survive attacks by goblins, bugbears and so on that they face during the course of a story. Now, if you were to have a character with stats of 18 across the board, people would think you cheated, and you would stray into the Land of the Sue. While higher abilities and exceptional skills across the board are something that makes a character a Sue, having some exceptional skill or higher ability is all but necessary to keep the reader interested. Who wants to read about Joe the Farmer and Nothing Particularly Exciting? People want to read about Joe the Barbarian and the Angry Bugbear Hordes. They just don’t want Joe the Barbarian to also be an accomplished bard and wizard.

The main point of this article is to open the doors to conversation on this topic. Mary Sues are typically derided, and while generally it’s deserved, more good can come of encouraging young and inexperienced writers to improve their characters instead of scaring them away from writing certain character types.

Hello World!

Welcome to Fools Errant, a blog for those of you who enjoy the art of writing and the pleasure of reading. This blog will feature reviews of books in just about every genre, discussions of important writing techniques, and anything interesting I pick up along the way and want to share with you. If you want to read some of my writing, you can check me out at Scribophile, and if you’re interested in my art, check out my gallery.

Published in: on February 11, 2009 at 8:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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