On Fandoms

The other day, while watching Bones and NCIS, I got to thinking about Rule 34 of the internet. For those of you who don’t know, Rule 34 states that if it exists, somewhere on the internet there is porn of it. Dual thoughts struck me: first, that somewhere out there there’s a Duckie/Gibbs slash fic and I really don’t want to find it, and that the idea of there being a fandom for either Bones or NCIS seemed really strange. The only thing stranger would be a fandom for Law and Order. There probably are plenty of fan shrines to all of the aforementioned shows and their characters out there, but they aren’t exactly fandom material. When contrasting Bones, NCIS and the various reincarnations of Law and Order with other shows and comics and books that have huge, thriving fandoms, I discovered several key points that appear to be necessary to the creation of a strong fandom.

1. The world setting and plot must be epic in scope. Look at Star Wars, Star Trek, the Harry Potter series, the X-men universe, the Naruto universe, and the Bleach universe. Each of those series is set in a world is at stake if the hero(es) doesn’t succeed and where there are many, many ancillary characters that pass through over the course of the story. This makes it easy for fans to come up with their own characters and relatively smoothly introduce them to the cannon characters without really changing the overall plot. If you look at Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, however, the stories are more episodic in nature with the occasional overarching plot, and the cast of characters are fairly small and tightly-knit. In order to create and introduce a fan character into one of these settings, you would have to change either the cannon setting or characters.

2. The world setting is lush and unique. Star Wars, Star Trek, Naruto, etc, all take place in a world that is not like our own in some key way. Even Bleach and Harry Potter, which take place partially in a world almost identical to ours, depart from reality in significant ways. This allows the fan some creative freedom in their fanworks. Contrast this with Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, which all take place pretty much in the real world and in a very rule-bound portion of it. It puts far more of a limit on the fan creations.

3. Characters have special powers. What’s more appealing to the reader/viewer than the idea that they are special in some way? In the series/books/etc with the strongest, largest fandoms, characters have or develop special powers or talents above the norm. Fans who create their own characters can give them special powers as well and therefore feel special vicariously. In Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, there are no special powers (unless you consider being a genius a special power; and for a fan to create a genius character requires some specialized knowledge on their part, therefore making it far more difficult).

4. The cannon characters follow archetypes. This appeals to us because we love seeing the noble hero, the tortured hero, the wise old man (or Vulcan), and so on. In Bones/NCIS/L&O the archetypes are more subtle because the characters are supposed to be “real” people.

5. Additional plot is easily worked in, as in a “quest” style plot or an epic in scope plot. This comes back to the creativity of the fan. Also, Bones/NCIS/L&O are all mystery series, and it is quite complicated to come up with new and intriguing mysteries for the characters to solve. Not that fans can’t, but it is far more of a challenge.

In any case, I’m not a sociologist or English lit prof or psychologist or any of that, so take my musings with a grain of salt. I also don’t think fandoms are necessarily a bad thing, although sometimes they do get crazy. But it is interesting to examine them and try to figure out just why they are so special.

Review: His Lady Mistress

His Lady MistressDownload the book for free at eHarlequin.com

Dear Harlequin:

I want my money back.

Yes, I know I got His Lady Mistress by Elizabeth Rolls for free as part of your 60th Anniversary celebration, but I still feel that somehow I was cheated in this deal.

Not that this is a poorly written book. In fact, I commend Ms. Rolls’ writing for drawing me in and keeping me reading even as part of me cringed and another part of me wanted to fling the book against the wall (which I didn’t do, seeing as I was reading this on my phone, and it was definitely not free). The prose flowed nicely and was unobtrusive — by which I mean that I didn’t see any glaring errors or awkward phrases that jolted me out of the story. The only time the prose got purple was during coitus, which is pretty well par for the course. Although the reoccurring comparison of her hair to “cool fire” or “cool silken fire” was a little paradoxical.

When Verity Scott was fifteen, her father killed himself. He is not allowed a proper burial due to the nature of his death and conventions of the time, so Verity tries her best to do what she can for him. A kind stranger named Max, who served under her father’s command, swoops in to help her honor her father and wins a place in her heart. For the next five years she is treated like dirt by her aunt, uncle, and female cousin and accosted by her cousin Godfrey Farringdon. She is forced to pretend her name is “Selina.” Mysterious and aloof Lord Blakehurst shows up to visit and protects “Selina” from Godfrey. She recognizes Lord Blakehurst as Max, and when he offers “Selina” a chance to be his mistress, she accepts.

Max came to the Farringdon’s to check up on Verity Scott, who he considers his responsibility (although he didn’t bother checking up on her for five years, which seems contradictory, but I digress). To his dismay, the Farringdons tell him that Verity is dead. Seeing a chance to make up for his failure to protect Verity, he offers “Selina” a chance to become his mistress (not at all because she makes him hornypants, no no). Then, of course, he finds out she’s really Verity, and has to marry her.

My problems with this book stem mainly from the number of tropes present. Not only do we have a heroine with Cinderella Syndrome, but she also has a Molesting Cousin (who Harms Animals!). The whole initial premise of the plot is a Big Misunderstanding, and just when you think they’ll start being smart and talking, another Big Misunderstanding rears its ugly head. A couple times the characters seemed to be forced to act a certain way just to fit in another BM. Almeria (Max’s aunt) seems to show up just in time to say something to set off another BM, and then disappears again. Verity is a martyr to end all martyrs and at times TSTL, not to mention a virgin. There’s Punishing Kisses. And for crying out loud, there’s even a Secret Baby tossed in for good measure.

All of that would have been tolerable — almost enjoyable, even, in a campy sort of way — if it weren’t for Max. Max is not an Alpha hero, he is an asshat. He calls Verity a bitch and a whore, insults her repeatedly, sees that he’s hurting her emotionally, and doesn’t stop. That right there is emotional abuse, folks, and it ruined the happy ending for me. I couldn’t help but feel that the abuse cycle would repeat itself sometime after the book ends. Plus, there was not nearly enough grovelling on Max’s part to even close to make up for what he said (bitch and whore? That’s damn near unforgivable when you consider the circumstances). Also, the age difference is never really addressed but it is hinted at that Max is older than 27. Verity is 20. That’s a heck of a gap and would probably have been an issue.

If I had borrowed this book from the library, sure I would be miffed that it was a waste of my time to read and yes I would be upset by the content. But what really bugs me is that this is part of the free eBook giveaway you are running for your 60th anniversary. I am a relatively new inductee into the romantic fold (yuck yuck) and I have to say that I’m lucky I read Bet Me and The Bride Thief before I read this. If this had been the first romance I read, I might never pick one up again. It not only propagates but encourages the negative stereotypes of the genres. A free eBook promotion is a great way to get new readers hooked on the genre and to attract readers who would never have thought to pick up a romance novel before. It seems like it would make more sense to offer some of your best and most stereotype-breaking books if you want to use the full potential of the promotion. But instead you offer us this trope tripe and readers get exactly what they expect — and not in a good way.

Well, Harlequin, I’ll give you one more chance, since even though this book had many (many) issues, it was very well-written. I’ve downloaded Crime Scene at Cardwell Ranch and hopefully it will surpass this offering in enjoyability. Overall Grade: D+

Sincerely,

Dee

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.