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.

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.