Back to previous post: Decluttering

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: The 12 Days of Kitschmas

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

December 4, 2003

Namarie Sue
Posted by Teresa at 01:55 PM * 340 comments

The Game of the Gods is a sustained act of literary criticism that also happens to be a multipart fanfic. Constance Cochrane turned me on to it. In the frame tale, Varda and Morgoth* play at chess. Varda’s pieces and moves assert reality. Morgoth’s gambits are the different varieties of Mary Sues that turn up in Lord of the Rings fanfic. The play of their game consists of Morgoth telling that particular Mary Sue’s tale, while Varda tries to counter it by invoking logic, common sense, and the narrative integrity of Tolkien’s universe.

From the sound of things, LOTR fanfic readers have had their patience sorely tried. For those who haven’t had their patience tried nearly enough, Deleterius & cronies have been collecting LOTR and Harry Potter Mary Sues.

Further words on the Matter of Mary Sue, and related issues:

A Mary Sue story is the literary equivalent of opening a package that you thought would be the new jacket you ordered on eBay, only it turns out to contain a poorly-constructed fairy princess costume made of some lurid and sleazy material. It’s tailored to fit a human-size Barbie doll, not you; and when you hold it up to the light, you can see the picked-out stitchmarks where someone else’s name used to be embroidered across the bodice. The dress has been used but not cleaned, and appears to have last been worn during a rather sloppy romantic interlude …

More formally:

MARY SUE (n.): 1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment. 2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author. 3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories. 4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it’s so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as “self-insertion.”

As it says on The Official Mary Sue Society Avatar Appreciation Site, Mary Sue
…is created to serve one purpose: wish fulfillment. … She did not receive her current name until the early 1970s. The original was Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”) as immortalized in Paula Smith’s “A Trekkie’s Tale,” which she wrote and published in her 1974 fanzine Menagerie #2.
Mary Sue, as this archetype became known, was generally a brilliant, beautiful, multi-talented girl Starfleet officer who joined the Enterprise crew and usually either made off with a main male canon character’s heart (or several of them!), or died dramatically in his arms. I’m sure anyone in any fandom out there who’s read fanfiction can make a similar analogy within their own experiences. Mary Sues exist in every fanficdom:
— the pretty new Immortal who stumbles into MacLeod’s (or Methos’) arms
— the uberpowered kid who joins Generation X
— the female bronzerider with her firelizard flock
— the kitchen-drudge-cum-HeraldMage out on her first circuit
— the notorious Marrissa Amber Flores Picard Gordon…
Or, obviously, Galadriel’s secret love-child (Aragorn’s unacknowledged daughter) who runs off to join the Company of the Ring, sorts out Boromir’s problems, out-magics Gandalf, out-fights Aragorn during the melodramatic scene in which she reveals her true identity, demonstrates herself to be so spiritually elevated that the Ring has no effect on her, and wins Legolas’ heart forever. (See also the classic Nine Men and a Little Lady).

Mary Sue literary theory has changed my professional life. Before, when discussing manuscripts with my colleagues, I had to say things “You know, one of those books that keeps telling you how wonderful and talented and perfect the main character is and how much everyone loves her, but aside from that there’s nothing at stake and nothing really happens? No logic, no causality, no narrative development, just that character being wonderful every barfy step of the way?”

Generally they knew what I meant; we see a lot of books like that. But those conversations have gotten much easier now that I can say things like “See if the author will agree to rewrite it from another character’s point of view—that main character is a screaming Mary Sue.” Or: “I sent it back. The agent was all excited about how the author’s ‘expanding into a new genre’, but it’s just a Mary Sue with jousting scenes pasted in.”

So yay for the fanfic universe for putting a name to that. They came up with the idea of formalizing the role of the beta reader, too, which is another piece of really useful literature-generating technology. If that surprises you, recollect that the primary characteristic of fanfic isn’t that it’s amateurish or derivative; it’s that it’s legally unpublishable. Some very smart people read and/or write fanfic.

(Someday, not today, I’ll tell the story of how, years ago, Joanna Russ and I used Star Trek fanfic as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decipher recurrent themes and motifs in fantasy and SF written by women. It’s often easier to see underlying patterns and mechanisms in amateur fiction than in slicker commercial work. This started when Joanna identified and described some recurrent narrative motifs she’d spotted in the Trek slash of the day, of which the inverse relationship between incidence of explicit sex and liebestod denouements was the most obvious and least important. There was much more to it. She laid out her entire description; and I, considering it, said “Which is not to say that The Left Hand of Darkness is a specimen of Star Trek slash fiction.” Joanna’s jaw dropped, and we stared at each other in wild surmise. The patterns not only fitted; they explained some otherwise inexplicable plot twists in that novel. We were on to something. And—hey! What about thus-and-such story by Zenna Henderson? And that one by Leigh Brackett? And so forth and so on, ever onward. For the next few weeks we were stoned on literary theory and the codebreaker’s buzz of seeing a seemingly knotty puzzle resolve into plaintext.)

Trek fanfic writers may have identified Mary Sue and her brother Gary Stu, but they didn’t invent them. I imagine that tales have been told of Mary Sue since storytelling was invented. The folk process tends to exclude her (nothing so unattractive as using someone else’s Mary Sue), as does stern editing; but the minute you have single-author vanity publishing, lo! There she is!

Seminal fan articles on Mary Sue-ism include Dr. Merlin’s Guide to Fan Fiction, with its equally influential accompanying Original Mary Sue Litmus Test, both by Melissa Wilson; and Sebastian’s Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism. For a longer view, try Pat Pflieger’s Too Good to be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue, or Writers’ University’s startlingly accurate Fan Fiction Historical Timeline.

Caches of Mary Sue-related resources can be found at The Official Mary Sue Society Avatar Appreciation Site, with its extensive links page; at Writers’ University, which has either the largest or second-largest collection of Mary Sue litmus test variants on the web; and on the website of that wicked child Mary Sue Whipple, author of The Night the Ship Exploded and Everyone “Did It”.

If you don’t have time to read all this stuff, but want to grok Mary Sue in fullness via the quick immersion method, some notably sharp-tongued and inventive Hunchback of Notre Dame fans put together a superior Hunchback of Notre Dame Mary Sue Litmus Test, plus their original Create your own gypsy character generator, complete with plot outline and important details!

Mystery Science Freezer, a site for MST3K fans, has developed a useful vocabulary of additional terms for the ways stories go wrong. See their Who Is Mary Sue? and its accompanying glossary. I particularly liked “Aura of Smooth,” which they define as “The proverbial energy field self-inserted characters generate to bend the regular cast to their wills—i.e., trusting and/or falling in love with them for no stated reason.”

Shameless Setteis and Mary Sues, a candid, thoughtful, and unsettling article, discusses “head stories,” and Japanese manga and anime’s shamelessly enthusiastic use of all the cheesiest wish-fulfillment and poor-me cliches.

In Whatever happened to Mary Sue?, Eshva argues that Mary Sues have undergone defensive diversification in reaction to the fanfic community’s greater sophistication.

If you’re a writer and are now feeling painfully self-conscious about the possibility that you could be writing Mary Sues, Meet Sarah has some good commentary on how such things get written, and B5 Help for Mary Sues has pithy advice for getting in touch with your inner Mary Sue and viciously mugging her. Alternately, just read How to Write a Mary Sue Fic in Seven Easy Steps and check to make sure you’re not following its advice.

If you’d rather just make fun of the whole thing, start by reading The Netiquette of Badfic to keep yourself in the paths of righteousness. After that you might try The Godawful Fanfic Message Board, or possibly Melvin’s Mauve Mansion of Manlove. I don’t guarantee that those sites will have the best fanfic parodies on the web, but they definitely have the best names.

Addenda: PiscusFiche, in the comments thread, has contributed a splendid link to a five-page cartoon about the metaphysical effects of having too many Mary Sues converge at one spot: Hogwarts.

Also: At least one reader has reported being puzzled at my reaction to The Game of the Gods, which he described as an inconclusive episode that’s only about one page long. He’d fallen afoul of Fanfiction.net’s visually inobvious navigation links. If you’ve had the same problem, look for the pulldown menu in the upper-right and lower-right corners of the page. If you prefer, just to the right of the pulldown menu there’s also a button marked with a tiny forward arrow. Either one of them will enable you to access all the episodes, of which there are thirty-five total.

____________________
*I was going to explain who Varda and Morgoth are, but it occurs to me that if you don’t already know that, you aren’t going to understand the rest of the frame tale anyway. Just ignore it and enjoy the parodies.

(Admit it. You thought I’d forgotten about that footnote marker.)

Comments on Namarie Sue:
#1 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 09:10 PM:

Darn you, Teresa! Did you have to link to the Badfic site? I could be here all NIGHT.

(Very fun write-up on the topic, though. Number 2 reason I don't read fanfic unless directed to something someone vouches for. Or I'm really bored.)

#2 ::: Wednesday White ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 09:10 PM:

Sigh. And yet, no guide to Mary Sues and Marty Stus in Jack Chick tracts. (The household gag about The Bible Series usually involved talk of "Mary Sue-Bob.")

#3 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 09:20 PM:

Specifically on the topic of Lord of the Rings fan fiction, I found this page quite amusing; the conceit is that it's the character's job to get rid of the Sues and restore things to the purity of canon.

Though they use 'Marty Sam' for the male version.

#4 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 09:34 PM:

re Nine Men and a Little Lady:
oh ... my ... god.
I haven't seen anything so appalling since Mike's Bertie-at-Minas-Miglie ("Mirkwoad", I'm told it's called). Somebody's imagination is in gross violation of the leash laws....
Must read this again when I'm awake; I might actually be able to follow some of the litcrit.

#5 ::: Lis ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 09:41 PM:

I consider the Aeneid to be (the earliest?) Mary Sue (well, Gary Stu) story still extant.

I mean, come on, Virgil takes this minor little background character from Homer's Iliad and gives him amazing adventures derivative of yet surpassing Homer's Odyssey.

Am I wrong?

#6 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 09:41 PM:

This topic needs a "do not read on a full stomach" warning.

Urgh.

#7 ::: Darkhawk ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 10:02 PM:

About half an hour ago I was exposed to a Harry Potter/LotR fanfic which I shall not specify the horror of because I know Jo Walton might come through here and read this comment and I don't want to give her an aneurysm.

This has left me with an urge to write a Legolas-gets-married fanfic that's actually consistent with how I understand the canon, which is terribly, terribly peculiar as an impulse for me, as I haven't written fanfic since I was five or six and that involved Smurfs.

#8 ::: Isabeau ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 10:29 PM:

Maybe one of you can explain this to me. On the one hand, we have authors of utter drivel who pay to have their work published. On the other, we have some very talented writers who choose to write fanfic that can92t be published.

Why would someone with taste and talent—and many fanfic writers have both—choose to plant their roses in someone else92s garden (lousy metaphor, but it92s late and I92m tired)?

#9 ::: Darkhawk ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 10:32 PM:

My guess would be "Because those are the stories they want to tell."

#10 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 10:36 PM:

Something I've never quite understood: How is it that characters like Vlad Taltos and King Mob aren't considered some variety of Mary Sue? (Or are they, and I just have lousy taste in literary heroes?)

In any case, "Mary Sue" is a term that's started to get thrown around so much in some writing communities that it's begun to have some of its meaning diluted; it's becoming, like "pretentious," an easy curse to throw at someone who has a higher opinion of the coolness of their work than you do. Which is a shame, because it is a great and useful term. (I'm guilty myself of this; I recently said that one of the things I liked about Hellboy was "the knowledge that you can write a hero who's a big indefuckingstructible Mary Sue and, if you play your cards right, make him [or her] so much fun that nobody gives a damn.")

Nonetheless, I find it... worrisome that it's starting to be defined, at least in some circles, as "any extraordinarily capable, likable, multitalented hero(ine) who's anything at all like their author." Because if that's the case, forget anything I've mentioned in recent threads about my literary aspirations, because I am so busted.

#11 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 10:51 PM:

I don't know if anybody has posted this yet--a cartoon explaining what happens when you have too many Mary Sues converge upon a universe...in this case, the Harry Potter universe. I was tres amused.

http://piratemonkeysinc.com/ms1.htm

#12 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 10:51 PM:

Okay, Vlad and Steve share an ethnicity. Sorta. But, uh... I really think that if there's a Mary Sue-ism in the Taltos books, it's Loiosh.

*peers around* Steve doesn't read this, does he?

(Luckily, he doesn't know where I live.)

(Of course, he knows people who do...)

More seriously... really, it is possible for me to be serious...

I think the difference between a true Mary-Sue and something that shares things with the author is twofold: degree of similarity, and degree of idealisation.

Look at Vlad, since we're on that topic. Yeah, he's good at what he does. He's very good at what he does. And he has a hobby he's very good at. But he's not good at everything, and in fact there are some things he downright sucks at, and he messes his life up but good on a regular basis. I don't think you could really call him an "idealized" Steve by any stretch of the imagination, even if you can point to some similarities.

And that's the rest of it: some similarities. The ethnicity, albeit warped a bit for the books, sure. The tendency to crack wise, also sure (though I still, in all seriousness, think that Loiosh's sense of humor may be even closer at times). The love of good food, again, also sure. But most characters, at least most major characters, are going to draw some things from their authors... or from their author's friends.

It's when it becomes "Hey, I want this nearly-perfect version of me, whose flaws are all Tragic Angstful Flaws, to have these adventures, and always win" that it really becomes a big steaming pile of Mary Sue. When it's All About The Character, and not, say, about the stuff going on around the character, except as supports it being All About the Character. If you see what I mean.

Or, put another way: Taltos books? Plots. I see 'em. Major other characters, some of which are just as Important in their own way. Mary Sue stories? Poor, if any plot. Only other characters are there to worship Mary Sue or do vile things to her so she can come out of it shining and adored. Etc.

It's sort of like the difference between pr0n and erotica.

In my humble opinion, and all that.

(I do have humility, too. Honest!)

#13 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 10:52 PM:

This Mary Sue definition is unbelievably good. If it is yours to offer, may I post it in the P&E definitions with attribution?

#14 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 11:00 PM:

Vlad Taltos lacks the love life of a Mary Sue. And there are other people in the setting who are more powerful than he is; there92s never any implication that Vlad could beat Morrolan, Aleira, or Sethra in a fair fight, and a Mary Sue could, easily. (Though who knows where things may go, now that, um, some people haven92t read Issola, so no more about that.)

Same for King Mob. The story92s about more than just him.

Teresa, thanks. This topic, these links, might turn out to be very useful to me. Or they might cause me to put off starting my comic strip even longer as I muck about with the ideas.

#15 ::: Elizabeth Bear ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 11:04 PM:

Random comments on a fascinating, funny thread:

Isabeau--

Because getting to be a pro writer is very hard, and very unrewarding, and a good fanfic writer may well have a good job and enjoy writing for fun, as a hobby, because s/he loves it, because s/he can get instant gratification from other fans, because s/he loves those characters or those stories--and not want to get into the kind of hardcore work that going pro--including writing scripts or media tie ins--would take?

That's my guess, anyway.

Dan--

I would say that, for example, many Heinlein protags are total Mary Sues.

Vlad Taltos isn't really, I think, because he's flawed, he makes mistakes, he takes emotional damage, and he consistently gets himself deeper into trouble rather than conveniently resolving his own and everybody else's problems.

#16 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 11:22 PM:

Is the recurring character that James Blish dubbed "Heinlein Son of Heinlein" a variety of Mary Sue? He certainly often enough has an exciting sex life ...

#17 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 11:22 PM:

As I view it, writing a Mary Sue or Gary Stu is more than just having a character being an escapist-fantasy version of the author with amazing superhuman powers (Luke Skywalker, Gandalf, Lara Croft). It's a matter of having absolutely no tension and no plot beyond an excuse to have every beloved and amazingly powerful character in the entire fiction universe gather together and kiss up to Mary Sue.

The ultimate Mary Sue gag-fest, in my opinion, was written by L. Frank Baum, in "The Road to Oz."

A brief sample (with link):

Then a door draped with royal green opened, and in came the fair and girlish Princess Ozma, who now greeted her guests in person for the first time.

As she stood by her throne at the head of the banquet table every eye was turned eagerly upon the lovely Princess, who was as dignified as she was bewitching, and who smiled upon all her old and new friends in a way that touched their hearts and brought an answering smile to every face.

Each guest had been served with a crystal goblet filled with lacasa, which is a sort of nectar famous in Oz and nicer to drink than soda-water or lemonade. Santa now made a pretty speech in verse, congratulating Ozma on having a birthday, and asking every one present to drink to the health and happiness of their dearly beloved hostess. This was done with great enthusiasm by those who were made so they could drink at all, and those who could not drink politely touched the rims of their goblets to their lips. All seated themselves at the tables and the servants of the Princess began serving the feast.

Baum writes fanfic for his own universe as every pleasant denizen of it kisses up to Ozma/Mary Sue. The only scene in published literature that prompts anything near this gag reflex is the part in "Prince Caspian" where CS Lewis has every greco-roman wood nymph and forest sprite imaginable come out to kiss up to Aslan, who may be Jesus in a lion suit, but sounds an awful lot more like CS Lewis in theology mode.

#18 ::: anna ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2003, 11:59 PM:

Elizabeth:

Yes to all of those reasons. Plus one other that is actually the number one reason I have heard from fanfic writers:

They want the characters to do things that simply will not happen in the canon. Either because it's not the direction the author is taking them with the overall story arc, or because the two heroes can't fall in love/lust on primetime network television, or because the ending was just so very wrong... Etc. The list goes on forever. Almost every fanfic writer (especially television/movie fic writers, since the "subtext" there can be even subjective than in literature) has a reason based on wanting to twist the canon subtly to see what happens, or wanting to twist the canon blatantly because that's what "should have been done in the first place."

Of course, that doesn't explain RPS writers. (Or does it? I suppose they could view, say, Elijah Wood's actual life choices as his canon, and therefore by writing a story in which he's dating Orlando Bloom, they are twisting his canon to have him make the "right" choices.)

#19 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 12:20 AM:

> Something I've never quite understood: How is it
> that characters like Vlad Taltos and King Mob
> aren't considered some variety of Mary Sue?

I would nominate Cordelia Vorkosigan as a Mary-Sue. The key characteristic is that we know she is wonderful largely because the author *says* she is wonderful. Also, we usually get a report on what she's wearing that day.

To my mind, that tops Miles, even though he always wins.

I love Bujold's SF and think it's brilliantly constructed, but I can also see exactly how it will go bad if the Brain Eater ever really sinks it's fangs into her.

#20 ::: Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 12:24 AM:

Hmm. Is The Scarlet Pimpernel a Mary Sue? I've just re-read it, and what a painful experience that was. I remember loving this book, when I was a kid.

#21 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 08:08 AM:

Dave, sure, go ahead and use it.

Kevin, you've got to cut Ozma some slack. She starts off as a scruffy boy who has adventures, who in dubious reward for all his efforts has to undergo a nearly-on-screen sex change procedure for which he/she has no natural enthusiasm. That had a lot of resonance for me, back when I was a scruffy girl with no natural enthusiasm for the impending transformations of young ladyhood.

Y'all: "Mary Sue" is a distinctive subset of "author identification character." Gandalf, Vlad Taltos, Billy Clyde Puckett, and Heinlein son of Heinlein could all pass a Mary Sue litmus test with ease. Calantha, Ozma, and Leonie de Saint-Vire would have a little more trouble. Morgoth's Sues could not, and show why the term and the litmus test were invented in the first place.

#22 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 08:15 AM:

I would guess that there are many published books that at first were Mary Sues, but the author realized the importance of subtlety: making the protagonist's progress less unimpeded, decreasing the number of subordinate characters praising the protagonist, limiting the protagonist's abilities. I've always wanted to believe that Paul Linebarger was the patient in The Fifty-Minute Hour: First he wrote a Mary Sue and filled in a background, but eventually he got healthier and used the background stuff for better stories.

#23 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 08:16 AM:

RPS = Real People Slash? (Good Lord!)

I've recognized myself in some of the stories I've written over the years, but it's usually after the writing is done, and usually the character is a wretch.

I should dig out that sole piece of K/S I wrote many years ago, and see if it still holds up. (It was set at Kirk & Spock's court-martial on morals charges.)

#24 ::: Abby ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 08:18 AM:

See, this is why I should remember to bookmark this page every time my computer dies. *applauds*

#25 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 08:38 AM:

Chip -- "Mirkwode." Nobody in it is blue. Of course, it only covers half the first volume. Heck, Gollum hasn't arrived yet. ("I could go into spectacular detail on the origins of that particular old school title, but I have before me two most eloquent solicitor's letters, one from Golly's and one from the frog's.")

At least if you write from Bertram's viewpoint, nobody is likely to hurl accusations of Mary Soosterism. Must ask Jeeves about that once the old gray matter clears.

#26 ::: Bill ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 08:45 AM:

Wow, thank you so much for writing this all up.

So, is Ender Wiggin (brooding loner genius wunderkind) a Mary Sue?

#27 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 09:28 AM:

“Aura of Smooth” is a cool superpower.

What’s a beta reader?

#28 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 09:36 AM:

Teresa: "The dress has been used but not cleaned, and appears to have last been worn during a rather sloppy romantic interlude 85" involving only one person.

Kevin: My reaction to Tip/Ozma, when I read the book in 6th grade, was utter betrayal. It's certainly one of the more left-field bits in kiddie lit.

H. Allen Smith did some Mary Sue-ing in one or more of the Rhubarb books (Rhubarb, Son of Rhubarb, and The View from Chivo) with a character he called "H. Allen Smith." This "Smith" shows up in a climactic courtroom scene and tells everybody what's what. He is described as having incredibly good looks, and everyone harkens eagerly to his wise words.

I'm thinking Clavell had a Mary Sue in one or more of his books -- King Rat and Noble House, if fading memory still serves. It's been a couple of decades now, but wasn't there this heroic writer who would sometimes explain things to the other characters?

#29 ::: anna ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 09:54 AM:

David:

The term "beta reader" is applied to anyone the author of a fanfic sends the fanfic to before the fic is released for general consumption (usually to a livejournal, an archive, or a mailing list). In effect, the editor(s).

Helpful glossary of general fanfic terminology:
http://expressions.populli.net/dictionary.html

Slightly OT: While searching for the above link, I found the Science Fiction FanSpeak Dictionary:
http://stilyagi.org/fanspeak.html

Granted, I am not an SF fandom authority, but some of these just look weird. I've never heard, for example, the word "skiffy" used as anything but an endearment for the geekier stuff in fandom, or SMOF used instead of BNF. Or "blog" used to describe punch. Is this because I am in NY and not Ann Arbor (the AASFA compiled this dictionary)? Or is this because this dictionary is just weird or out of date?

SF folks, please enlighten me!

#30 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:13 AM:

Thanks, Anna.

I really should be going to work, but I just ran across this passage in C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, and it’s too nearly relevant not to quote:

“I doubt if [the medieval authors] would have understood our demand for originality or valued those works in their own age which were original any the more on that account. If you had asked Lazamon or Chaucer ‘Why do you not make up a brand-new story of your own?’ I think they might have replied (in effect) ‘Surely we are not yet reduced to that?’ Spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve? The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty.”

#31 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:23 AM:

The first usage of "skiffy" that I recall (which may or may not mean anything significant) was in a comment by damon knight (my, aren't we being multiple-a fannish?), something about sci-fi*, with the footnote reading *pronounced "skiffy." At the time, "sci-fi" was mainly used by people who had never actually read any of the stuff but wanted to disparage it anyway, so the misreading became an ironic reference to bad attempts at genre by people like, oh, Glen A. Larson and Herman Wouk. (That is not a joke.)

Now, "sci-fi" has been more-or-less assimilated, mostly through its heavy-to-exclusive use by people who weren't around (in the most literal sense -- of "hi-fi" they know not) during those days, grew up with it, and (often on first encounters with older fans) became defensive-to-angry at being told that it was insulting; it wasn't insulting to -them.- I suspect, but am too busy quarrelling with my brother Sherlock to investigate, that "sci-fi" is now accepted, if sometimes wincingly, provided it is used in an affectionate fashion, and "skiffy" gets used in tighter company to refer to the kind of stuff that got the word its bad rep to start, including but not limited to big-bug movies, novels "written" by former starship captains, and TV series about cops with inexpensive mental powers.

John Clute's job is certainly safe, isn't it?

#32 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:33 AM:

Teresa,

I do cut Ozma some slack, but in other books and other scenes. Those three "Birthday Party" chapters really drag, which is why Ruth Plumly Thompson uses another of Ozma's birthday parties to start "The Wishing Horse of Oz" with a wonderful mystery twist of Ozma disappearing and no one but Dorothy realizing reality has just been warped.

Now here's a question: Is Buckaroo Banzai a Gary Stu? Half Caucasian/Half Japanese brain surgeon/transdimensional physicist/race-car driver/rockstar? Or does this not count, because everything in the movie is meant to be over-the-top and silly?

#33 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:44 AM:

In any case, "Mary Sue" is a term that's started to get thrown around so much in some writing communities that it's begun to have some of its meaning diluted

Here's an interesting LiveJournal thread on this topic, with specific reference to Harry Potter fandom, by the author of _Lust Over Pendle_, a fanfic previously mentioned favorably here:

Is It Time For A Moratorium On Mary-Sue Hunting?

(I've not yet looked at the links in T.'s post, being at work, but your comment strongly reminded me of that thread, so--)

#34 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:47 AM:

I know the definition has gotten very loose, but to me marysues have to be, at least in root, autotuckerizations. Banzai is an omnicompetent superhero obviously modeled on Doc Savage (who was not modeled on any of the Kenneth Robesons) -- in fact, the novelization is written in an almost unreadable parody of the Robeson style, and the writer clearly doesn't have any kind of personal commitment to his hero. Or to anything else, really.

#35 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:51 AM:

Tip changing to Ozma was one of those things which squicked me right out when I was a child. I think that was the last Oz book I read, so I never really got very far in the series.

These days I think I might regard it with dubiousness for other reasons--it smacks of "It was all just a dream". Tip is NOT Ozma. He never acts like Ozma before his change and once he changes to Ozma, he never really acts like Tip again, except that his friendships remain intact. It's like he had the Ozma lobotomy. Poof! Good-bye, Tip!

#36 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:55 AM:

. . . and in fact, by mousing over "legally unpublishable", I see that they're links to A.J. Hall's _LOP_ and sequel (novel-length both). Should've done that before, sorry.

#37 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:57 AM:

Lis: I suspect that my best friend, a Homer scholar, would agree with you. And then we get _Son of Gary Stu: Virgil vs. Dante_.

#38 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:57 AM:

A good distinction; but I'll agree with Anna that "skiffy" is an affectionate term, and "sci fi" is not.

#39 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:01 AM:

That Stilyagi Air Corps page of "fan slang" is by and large okay. There seem to be a few idiosyncratic local terms. My basic problem with these lexicons is that they provide a distorted picture of what the SF fandom subculture is actually like--as if people sit around saying Gafia Pub Smof Harry Warner Jr. to one another constantly. In fact, SF fans emit copious quantities of gibberish, but it's not mostly this gibberish.

A very dated but highly authoritative encyclopedia of primeval fandom is Richard Eney's Fancyclopedia 2, originally published in the year I was born. Like Harry Warner's magisterial history of 1940s SF fandom, All Our Yesterdays, it actually gets across the atmosphere better than any list of slangy terms.

#40 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:02 AM:

Villette is somewhere on the list of my favourite novels (when I had to pack up my entire library bar ten books and pack it away in boxes for several years my May Sarton edition of Villette was one of the ten) and I've read a good deal about the novel, because, well, when you like a novel and people write about it you read what they write. Or I do.

Lucy Snowe is a Mary Sue. She's just a perfect example of how a Mary Sue can be written exceedingly well... ;-)

#41 ::: Pat ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:04 AM:

Interesting discussion on the topic. I thought that Ardath Rekha had some good insights in "Thoughts on Good Ol' Mary Sue":
http://www.livejournal.com/users/ardath_rekha/16091.html

#42 ::: Meredith ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:06 AM:

Thanks for this, by far the most comprehensive and funniest explanation of Mary Sue I've seen in a long time.

As to Isabeau's question: maybe for the same reason people are still retelling Cinderella, Gone With the Wind, King Arthur, etc.? Because storytelling is a conversation, and while making the new is an important part, especially in SF, talking back is a big piece too.

My favorite quote to explain the appeal of fanfic wasn't about fanfic at all. Gregory Macguire said it in The Green Man: Tales From the Mythic Forest.

"The appetite to retell stories, to ring changes on them, is a huge and unslakable one. On either side of any story 97 including the personal narrative of one's own life 97 looms the uncharted terrain of the unknown. I think that writers revisit favorite material and embellish what the canonical text has reported in order to distract themselves from that urge to see on either side of their own blinkered existence, an urge that can never be satisfied."

#43 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:16 AM:

Query: Is sci-fi really such an offensive term? I've been using it forever, and nobody has ever corrected me or taken offense. I use it and SF frequently and interchangeably. Would it be best to use some other term? *curious*

(For a second, I had this picture of me writing in to Miss Manners about the proper way to discuss speculative fiction. Miss Manners would reply, "Gentle reader, Miss Manners is delighted to hear that nobody has thus so far embarrassed you publicly by revealing your faux pas, but...")

#44 ::: Sherwood ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:25 AM:

Teresa, has anyone told you you are wonderful?

#45 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:28 AM:

On the other, we have some very talented writers who choose to write fanfic that can92t be published. Why would someone with taste and talent97and many fanfic writers have both97choose to plant their roses in someone else92s garden?

Because there are times when one can't let the story go.

Peter David refers to this as "Useless Stories", ideas that come up because ideas happen to writers even when they don't want them to (quoting "City of Angels").

For all writers (well, almost all) there are stories which literally write themselves-- that spring full-blown into one's mind with a kind of "Eureka" finality, there-it-is, game-set-and-match.

But the simple act of writing a story down isn't sufficient, because the purpose of writing is communication. Putting the story down is only one half of a writer's job-- the rest is to get it out to an audience, to share the ideas.

So you have to find a marketplace or a means by which to get the story to readers. In my case, I have a number of directions I can explore-- comics, novels, short stories, screenplays-- all of these are avenues I can pursue, with varying degrees of success, in getting stories told. And every so often, I come up with a Useless Story. This is a story which, by its very nature, cannot possibly appear in any of the media stated above. It doesn't mean it's a bad story. It's just that no one could possibly buy it. But if it's a story that I like enough, it sits in my head and shouts at me, and I can't shut it up until I tell it to someone.

This is a big problem for anybody who writes tie-in work and who comes up with stories that are bounced by the powers that be-- Teresa has praised my take on the Marvel Universe before. A non-negligible percentage of fan fiction is written by pros under other names.

There is a considerable amount of "Fools! Look at me! I'll show you how to fix your puny universe! Ah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah!" in these works, precisely because the editor took it in a different direction. And there's a large hunk of trying to unjump-the-shark as well, sometimes requiring you to bring in other characters from other places to fix the problem-- Dr. Sam Beckett gets a lot of work doing this, as seen here:

Al was busily tapping into the computer back at the Quantum Leap project. He studied the readout on the hand unit. "According to Ziggy," he said briskly, "there was a series of slayings in Manhattan in the late '80s-- you're in 1989, by the way-- that involved various underworld types being ripped to shreds by something like a wild beast."

"Wild beast," murmured Sam. He stared at his claws in the mirror.

"Newspapers drew a link between those killings to a woman in the D.A.'s office named Catherine Chandler. The problem is, she was eventually found dead, as well."

Sam felt his gorge rising. "Ripped apart?"

"Poisoned," said Al. "Found in her apartment, poisoned. According to Ziggy, that's apparently why you're here. There's a 97% probability," Al looked up, "that you're supposed to save Catherine Chandler."

Me, I'm waiting for the day when Christopher Walken takes a shot at President Bartlett...

#46 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:30 AM:

Pray do not assume that pro writers do not themselves write fanfic, for all that Ray Feist rages.

Without even mentioning the professionally-published works which make A Lot More Sense if you do a global search-and-replace to put "Spock," "Kirk," and "Enterprise" or "Starbuck," "Apollo," and "Commander Cain" back in, others even now have recent Star Trek (classic Trek, dammit!)/ Holmes crossovers in various archives under very deep pseudonyms.

(Note: Using the holodeck in order to make Tasha Yar fall in love with the protagonist for Just One Night is cheating. Tasha has to do it all on her own because I'm just plain loveable. Alas! It can never be consummated, for I am sworn to another. There, there, dry your tears.)

#47 ::: anna ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:35 AM:

Meredith: I like that, both the quote and the thought that storytelling is a conversation. There's always a different direction to take the characters, etc. I found myself musing on this very thing a few weeks ago while browsing through Harry Potter fan fiction. I thought to myself, "Haven't all the stories one could possibly tell about these characters already been told?" and then I realized that of course they have, but that won't stop them from being told again and again in different (okay, sometimes the same, but sometimes different) ways by different people -- just like the Arthurian stories, etc.

Patrick: Thank you for the link (and the conversation in your office).

Kate: I think that asking for a moratorium on Mary Sue hunting is kind of like asking for a moratorium on using the period to mark the end of the sentence; it may work sometimes, and some people may be able to overlook it, but it will always cause pain to the Tor editorial department slush readers. The thread makes a lot of good points, but ultimately when a character is called Naramanthiza, has naturally curly (but never frizzy) pink and purple streaked hair and color-changing eyes, is good at everything, can communicate with animals using only the powers of her heart, and immediately causes Kirk, Harry, Picard, Neo, Draco, Giles, Spike, and King Arthur to all fall in love with her, everyone familiar with the term will point and said "Eeeeeew, Mary Sue!" in almost automatic reflex -- whether it's fanfic, a manuscript from the slush pile, or the newest novel by A Big Name Author.

Teresa: I love the word skiffy; it's possibly my favorite word that I have been introduced to so far in my (one month short of) four years at Tor. Therefore I will automatically come down on the side of using it affectionately, just so I can say it and not feel bad.

#48 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:47 AM:

Kevin Andrew Murphy: Gandalf is "an escapist-fantasy version of the author with amazing superhuman powers"? Oh, my. Especially as Gandalf spends most of his time hiding his powers, something Tolkien imitators haven't quite figured out.

Also, if a Mary Sue requires "having absolutely no tension and no plot beyond an excuse to have every beloved and amazingly powerful character in the entire fiction universe gather together and kiss up to Mary Sue," then Ozma doesn't qualify either, because there's lots of other good stuff in the Ozma books, although more in -Land of Oz- than -Road-.

But in that case, there are definitely some Mary Sues in Heinlein.

#49 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:50 AM:

Anna: I suspect that hunting Mary Sues in the Tor slush pile is a different thing that a fanfic fandom hunting them, which is more what that link was about. I agree that in its more restrictive sense, the term is too useful to do without--but it's accumulating a lot of baggage and unpleasant overtones in fandoms.

#50 ::: anna ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 11:59 AM:

Kate: I'm on the fringes of several fandoms, and I have indeed noticed this. I think what fandoms are overlooking is that (a) a lot of things criticized as being Mary Sue are, in fact, Mary Sue -- although perhaps a higher level of it than your most base "The Night the Ship Blew Up and They All Did It" sort of thing, and (b) criticizing something as Mary Sue is an easy way to get out of actually having to think about the story critically -- which is something many readers don't want to take the time to do.

Also: To assume that a story set in a specific fandom with an OC is automatically a Mary Sue is a failing of the readers -- and of fan fiction "purists" (said with tongue only slightly in cheek, as I do take fandoms and fan fiction quite seriously) who would rather see the tertiary characters (i.e., Seamus or Dean in Harry Potter) brought into fuller focus than see the fanon/canon/fandom diluted by OC.

I both agree and disagree with what's in that thread, and I do think that people are too quick to point the Mary Sue finger at times -- but I also think that fandom in general needs to loosen up.

#51 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 12:34 PM:

And then there's the Well-Versed Skiffy movement ("Good stories, good meter, good speculative fiction" is, I think, the current tag-line).

---L.

#52 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 12:41 PM:

Here's an interesting LiveJournal thread on this topic, with specific reference to Harry Potter fandom, by the author of _Lust Over Pendle_, a fanfic previously mentioned favorably here:

Is It Time For A Moratorium On Mary-Sue Hunting?

Great discussion. The two points that really hit home for me were the reminder that characters in genre fiction get superpowers because that's fun (*sound of palm striking forehead*), and that now beginning authors of all stripes are starting to worry more about not writing Mary Sues than just being plain good, and that's sort of a shame.

Y'all: "Mary Sue" is a distinctive subset of "author identification character." Gandalf, Vlad Taltos, Billy Clyde Puckett, and Heinlein son of Heinlein could all pass a Mary Sue litmus test with ease. Calantha, Ozma, and Leonie de Saint-Vire would have a little more trouble. Morgoth's Sues could not, and show why the term and the litmus test were invented in the first place.

Which is pretty much what I thought, in regards to my question upthread. Sadly, lots of self-appointed critics have not bothered to learn this distinction, and will more or less assert that Author ID Character + Kewl Powers = Mary Sue = Cardinal Sin of Fiction, and I start to feel that I should just stick to poetry and folksongs and save myself the trouble.

(I mentioned Vlad Taltos in particular because I recall reading that Steve Brust deliberately made him a kind of dark-reflection wish-fulfillment character - he grew up being liked but not respected and thought it would be fun to write a character who was just the opposite. That could be apocryphal, of course. And the point that this all by itself isn't a Mary Sue qualification is well made.)

Anyway, it's a subject that's on my mind from time to time, as I contemplate some work-in-progress or other, and find my quasidivine urban mage heroine being given the secrets of lost Atlantis by the Comte de Saint-Germain, and I hear the voice of Jim Carrey as the Riddler in the back of my head, saying "Was that over the top? I can never tell."

#53 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 12:49 PM:

Howdy, Piscus. As you wrote:

Query: Is sci-fi really such an offensive term? I've been using it forever, and nobody has ever corrected me or taken offense. I use it and SF frequently and interchangeably. Would it be best to use some other term? *curious*

If you say "sci-fi" around Harlan Ellison, he takes a baby seal out of his pocket and beats it to death while forcing you to watch. He keeps a little club chained to his belt for just this purpose.

I don't know anyone personally who gets livid at the use of "sci-fi;" but I think Teresa's right about the relatively more genial connotation/origin of "skiffy;" it hasn't yet been "befouled" by non-Slan appropriation. Also, I do know a great many people who vomit blood at the very mention of the Sci-Fi Channel.

K.A.M, I think Buckaroo Banzai (like Hiro Protagonist) is so gratuitously over the top that Mary Sue-ism can be ruled out; for a character to qualify as a proper Mary Sue, the author has to take the wonderfulness/awesomeness/sexiness/etc. of the character so seriously that their feelings leak out onto the page, unguardedly and ham-fistedly enough that they get in the way of everything else.

I had a long conversation on this subject with a guy at this year's Convergence (though I didn't know the term "Mary Sue" then and he didn't use it); he said that as a rule of thumb, a story is in trouble if the main character spends more pages being praised for his actions than he previously spent taking those actions.

Cheers,

SL

P.S. "Heinlein, Son of Heinlein" is hilarious.

#54 ::: Neotoma ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 01:04 PM:

What about when a series character turns *into* a Mary Sue? I'm thinking of Laurell Hamilton's 'Anita Blake, Vampire Executioner' novels. They started off as rather nifty fantasy/mystery novels, and have degraded to where every male character either is in love with the heroine or is killed by her?

The editorial process failed, but why? Was the author too popular for the editors to have any control, or what?

#55 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 01:12 PM:

If you say “sci-fi” around Harlan Ellison, he takes a baby seal out of his pocket and beats it to death while forcing you to watch. He keeps a little club chained to his belt for just this purpose.

Keep in mind, however, that Mr. Ellison has been known to do things like this for all sorts of reasons, and just because he doesn’t like what you’re doing doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop.

#56 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 01:15 PM:

I read Herman Wouk's attempt at skiffy. Made me want to commit unlubricated auto-insertion just to end the pain.

#57 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 01:17 PM:

A stopped clock is right twice a day, David. In this case, Ellison is right: "sci-fi" is regarded as offensive in the SF community.

#58 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 01:34 PM:

I second PiscusFiche: Is 'sci fi' really offensive?

I have heard both my husband and father who read science fiction, refer to it as such. And I think the guy at the bookstore does so as well. (In fact, I believe the handwritten sign over the used section says "Sci-Fi/Fantasy")

How did I miss this?

#59 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 01:42 PM:

I think "sci fi" is old-guard offensive, but we've got a new generation coming up seeing all the cool "I am Sci Fi" commercials on the Sci Fi channel before they read the classics or even encounter fandom. Teaching people to view a term as offensive when they've grown up using it in a non-pejorative sense? Difficult, and ultimately pointless.

#60 ::: Connie ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 01:55 PM:

I suppose the "sci fi" battle was lost with the inauguration of the Sci Fi Channel.

This year I was innocently reading along in a LiveJournal essay about what and what doesn't constitute a Mary Sue story, when much to my amazement (and pleasure) an old fanfic story of mine was specifically cited as an example of an original character viewpoint story (set in the X-Men universe) where the character has many of the attributes of a Mary Sue without indeed being one. In some ways that gave me more pleasure than any sale I've ever made.

#61 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 01:56 PM:

I'm going to chime in as "new guard," then. I've been involved pretty heavily in one of SF fandom's sub-groups for about a decade, now, and until I saw mention of it on this site recently, never heard of "Sci-Fi" as being pejorative. Ever.

Mind you, Texas' little fandom population is sort of isolated, and jargon like this tends towards the regional in its implications and usage...but still...

#62 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 01:58 PM:

David Moles wrote:

and just because he doesn92t like what you92re doing doesn92t necessarily mean you should stop.

Hey, I love Harlan (and his work), but I never said he was the framer of my philosophical constitution. It's just that he's the most vocal member of the "Sci-Fi Is An Insult" faction I could think of.

Neotoma wrote:

The editorial process failed, but why? Was the author too popular for the editors to have any control, or what?

That's a great question... I've often wondered about Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, in that respect. The Hunt For Red October was an excellent thriller in general, but its highlight I thought, was Ryan... an anti-Bond, and an anti-Dirk Pitt, a bookish fortysomething with a thickening waistline, a competent but ordinary married guy who just wants to accomplish his mission so he can bring his daughter her Christmas present.

Later, he became a Shining Symbol of Fundamental American Goodness, Dammit. When that happened, his uniqueness was sent to sleep with the fishes.

I think Teresa can shed more light (no pun intended, honestly) on this subject, though I'm sure circumstances must differ from author to author. And the thing we have to remember is that if the books keep selling well, removing "Mary Sue" tropes might not exactly be very high on any editorial list of priorities. Editors have a duty to bring saleable work to press even if they have an inclination toward highfalutin' literary standards; in some cases, a bit of Mary Sue-ism might just be part of a reader-winning formula.

#63 ::: Elizabeth Bear ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 02:15 PM:

It seems to me that the very essence of literature is fanfiction, of a sort.

Wait, bear with me. (Groan) By which I mean, I'm not sure it's possible to discuss genre (or Lit'ra'CHUR, for that matter) without also discussing the folk process and what I've heard referred to as the 'genre conversation.'

Fanfiction is just a more obviously tightly linked (and unpaid) sort of dialogue--but it's not all that different in type from Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" vs. Ralegh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" vs. Donne's "The Bait."

Or, you know, some of the great, ongoing SFF conversations--the canonical one being the Earthling Space War Vs. The Incomprehensible Aliens (usually Buggy Things, But Not Always).

#64 ::: Elizabeth F ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 02:58 PM:

I find this discussion fascinating. My dad adores the Dirk Pitt books, which I find unspeakably Mary Sueish (do they still have pictures with the author and Dirk's car on the back, I wonder?). Are some kinds of Mary Sues appreciable by others? Or is Dirk not really Mary Sue like?

#65 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 02:59 PM:

I've always equated "sci-fi" vs "SF" (and lately "skiffy") as parallel to "Trekkie" vs "Trekker" -- it's offensive to a significant subset of the group, but not all. But to those whom it offends, it indicates ignorance and arrogant disregard along the lines of using a nickname one has been asked to avoid.

I think also that there are those who grow past this distinction, and some who hold tightly to it as a reminder of a time when fandom really was a smaller, tightly knit group of which they were a part (while having not fit anywhere else). My opinion, alone, of course, based solely on the folks I know and converse with. I'd be interested in more datapoints, of course.

#66 ::: Pepper ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 03:01 PM:

That was one of the most interesting blog posts I've ever read. I've never gotten such a strong thrill of recognition. I feel like I know myself better because now I understand all those crazy stories I create!! Long live Marty Stus!

Thanks, Theresa.

#67 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 03:01 PM:

Thinking about this over lunch, I realized I've developed a sure-fire mechanism for blocking self-insertion as a character: self-insertion as omniscient narrator. Well, sure-fire for me.

ObCurrentReading: Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell by Pat Murphy, for a (loopy) example of non-Mary-Sue self-insertion.

---L.

#68 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 03:05 PM:

I love Ellison's writing, but I think he's bugfuck. "Sci-fi" simply sounds better than, and is easier to say, than "ess eff", or "spec fic" or "science fiction" or "speculative fiction" or any other variation I've ever heard. (I've been around long enough for the nod to "hi-fi" to make sense, too.) If "sci-fi" was at one time mainly used by those wishing to disparage the genre, and acquired thus the animus of the old guard, what were the old guard calling it amongst themselves at the time? Surely the first thing anyone ever did, when coming across the term "science fiction", was to abbreviate it mentally to "sci-fi"?

#69 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 03:06 PM:

I realized I've developed a sure-fire mechanism for blocking self-insertion as a character: self-insertion as omniscient narrator.

I *love* it.

#70 ::: PZ Myers ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 03:07 PM:

Laurell Hamilton! I'd seen those books all over the place, so I actually picked one up a few weeks ago...and read the first couple of chapters, in which the characters never got out of a motel room, and the heroine spent most of her time languidly admiring the muscular young men (or elves or something) lying about in her bed. I bailed when the cute cuddly baby-talking goblin started feeling her up.

This "Mary Sue" concept is a wonderfully powerful tool that neatly crystallizes what I was thinking.

I also thought that Laurell Hamilton reminded me of someone else: John Norman. The Gor stories. I could never stomach those enough to get more than a chapter or two in, either. And I had the same feeling that I was getting more of a look into the author's seamy daydreams than I wanted.

#71 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 03:26 PM:

Dan's got a point related to the one I was about to make. When I was working on my dissertation, moaning about some particularly wretched modern Arthuriana where various characters become the authors' Mary Sues, Manny Jacobowitz noted that this works so badly because Arthur -is- a Mary Sue, the kid who's really a king. He added that Kirk is also a Mary Sue.

Mary Sue qua Mary Sue may not necessarily make for a bad piece of fiction, at least, given good writing. But you can only have so many in one work. So, sure, Vlad Taltos may have started out as a Mary Sue, but he's not bumping into more Mary Sues with each book.

OTOH, in the Arthurian cannon, there is a tradition of each new knight being added to the saga kicking the ass of the previous top guy.

OTOH, this didn't stop those books I gagged on from being crap.

-Lisa

#72 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 03:44 PM:

This whole discussion is great, because while as a sometime reader of slush I recognize the concept, I never had a name for it.

What about when a series character turns *into* a Mary Sue?

I think what sometimes happens when an author writes a popular series over decades, when he or she never initially envisioned such a gigantic undertaking, or especially when h/s atempts to link up complex sagas and fill in previous gaps, is that what results is a sort of auto-fanfic, if you will. Clancy and Card have been mentioned, Cetainly the later Heinlein has aspects of this, as do the later Perry Mason books. And thus Mary Sue rears her lovely, talented, charming, multilingual, witty, and deeply caring head.

#73 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 03:53 PM:

Also, I do know a great many people who vomit blood at the very mention of the Sci-Fi Channel.

I'm thinking of writing them with a rebranding proposal. No, not that it's current ownership/management should be burned with hot irons, much as that idea has merit. Just a little name change.

They should call themselves "The Dumbass Horror Movie Channel."

Much more accurate, and more likely to attract the kind of audience they appear to be courting. They still have Stargate SG1 (a guilty pleasure of mine, despite the fact that even their MATH doesn't work), or I'd never watch them at all.

I'd really like to see someone start a Science Fiction channel with an HBO- or Showtime-like business model. Fans are older now, and more of us can afford to pay directly for our entertainment. More Farscape, less Tremors. And classic movies like Forbidden Planet, hello.

#74 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 04:02 PM:

A stopped clock is right twice a day, David. In this case, Ellison is right: “sci-fi” is regarded as offensive in the SF community.

This is one of those times when I’m reminded that being an SF writer, a lifelong SF reader and the child of two lifelong SF readers doesn’t automatically make you part of the SF community. Bit like being a second-generation expatriate forcibly repatriated to your ancestral homeland, I expect.

But I’ll try not to use “sci-fi” around you, Alan.

I do think that it’s about time the SF community reclaimed the word, though.

#75 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 04:16 PM:

The office is closing early on account of snow, so I'll write a bit now and maybe more later. You're getting the abbreviated version.

Failures of the editorial process are hard to diagnose from a distance. They get even more inscrutable when you're talking about a bestselling series. When the sales numbers go up with each new title, it's hard to tell the author they're doing something wrong. Meanwhile, no editor wants to be fingered as the ogre whose mishandling caused Lotta Lucrative to look for a new publisher.

There's also the problem of delivery times. This isn't a universal thing, but increasingly successful authors have a tendency to deliver their books later and later. This is especially evident when they're writing a very popular series, where the sales campaign may have gone into motion months before the manuscript was due to be delivered. If a little book by a beginning author runs late, it'll get bumped to a later month or moved to the next season. If the author runs late on a tremendously important book that's expected to bring in a significant fraction of the house's annual income, editorial and production time get cut short in order to make the original pubdate -- and production's claims on the remaining time have built-in non-negotiable minimums.

Consider also that the fifth book in a very popular series has a different audience than the first one. When they read the first book, the readers wanted to hear a good story. By the fifth book, they have more tolerance or desire for non-plot-driven time spent hanging around with familiar characters in familiar settings -- though it's way too easy to overdo this, IMO.

Finally, it may be getting harder for the author to write the books. Not every author has an infinite number of stories to tell, and not every series can accommodate an infinite number of episodes. The characters, situations, plot mechanics, and language may just be getting ground down. It's like the teeth wearing away on gears, only what gets worn down is story logic and causality. True Mary Sue writers omit to demonstrate why their character is *wonderful* because to them it's self-evident. Series novels that are suffering causal collapse may have similar omissions, but it's more a matter of fatigue than culpable obliviousness.

#76 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 04:19 PM:

Well, I once wrote some fan-fic, and the Mary Sues were around then and seemed pretty obvious, but if I'd wanted to write one I could have written a Trek story with Kirk as PoV character. The boundaries are fuzzy, but I reckon the female fanfic writers have to be more obvious because there are still few strong female characters who can kick ass and get laid.

On the other hand, in the pro-published stuff I've read, some writers do get close to the edge. Maybe it's a bad idea to have a cover illo were the female lead could be plausibly played by the author in a convention masquerade?

#77 ::: Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 04:32 PM:

Surely the first thing anyone ever did, when coming across the term "science fiction", was to abbreviate it mentally to "sci-fi"?

Not as I understand our history. I believe that Forrey Ackerman coined the phrase. How it came to be a pejorative, I don't know, but I would guess that there's a fan feud in there, or at very least fannish politics. 4E was very involved in Hollywood, and I don't know how that played out with LA fandom, or the rest of the world, come to think of it.

I hit fandom in 1980, at the age of 18. I was firmly told that sci fi was a rude term, and that people 'round here preferred sf. I'd never heard the abbreviation sf before, but I also had zero interest in offending anyone, so I just started saying sf. No huhu.

This is one of those times when I'm reminded that being an SF writer, a lifelong SF reader and the child of two lifelong SF readers doesn?t automatically make you part of the SF community. Bit like being a second-generation expatriate forcibly repatriated to your ancestral homeland, I expect.

Of course, the biggest problem with this conversation is that there isn't, and probably hasn't ever been, a single SF community. Fandom is built of lots of overlapping and connected communities. There's a lump of them over there that really, really prefer SF to sci fi. They don't have a monopoly on fandom, and life would be much easier if people who aren't part of that lot stopped acting like they did. Oh, it'd be useful if the bunch that hate the word sci fi didn't have occasional buttheads that make ridiculous assertions about Trufandom, I agree. As far as that goes, it'd be nice if the sci fi people didn't have buttheads that sound forth on occasion about how anyone who hates the word sci fi obviously is an elitist snob and hates all good fen everywhere.

I wonder what would happen if we could trade buttheads. Trufen screaming about people who watch television and movies and like to game are trying to exclude readers, and sci fi enthusiasts denouncing anyone who isn't intimately familiar with every movie and tv series that has been called sci fi as hopelessly ignorant and obviously not a true fan? Hell, I can think of examples of both already. Nevermind. Buttheads are buttheads wherever you go.

#78 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 04:47 PM:

They don't have a monopoly on fandom, and life would be much easier if people who aren't part of that lot stopped acting like they did.

I’m sorry — I think I got lost trying to dereference a pronoun. People who aren’t part of which lot?

#79 ::: Stef ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 04:53 PM:

Excellent post. I'd never heard the term Mary Sue before, but I've long noticed the wish-fulfillment aspect of fiction. The first time it really hit me was while reading John Fowles's Mantissa.

I'm suspecting some sexism in some applications of this concept, because it seems to me that there's a fine and mighty tradition of male authors writing heroic characters who influence the world beyond what seems likely for most people, and people seem to accept that as normal. But now that we have women writing such things (e.g., Laurell Hamilton), it's a bit more eyebrow-raising, eh? (I'm not suggesting that's the only angle on the Mary Sue phenomenon, but...)

#80 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 04:55 PM:

When I was working on my dissertation, moaning about some particularly wretched modern Arthuriana where various characters become the authors' Mary Sues, Manny Jacobowitz noted that this works so badly because Arthur -is- a Mary Sue, the kid who's really a king. He added that Kirk is also a Mary Sue.

Well, there it is, isn't it? That's why she stands out so painfully in fanfic - she has to out-Arthur Arthur, and the town, as they say, ain't big enough.

But at the same time, we fans of adventure fiction come to the table in expectation of seeing extraordinary people doing outrageous things. The leap from your common or garden variety superhero to Mary Sue is all too brief. It's like the difference between Motley Crue and Spinal Tap - a tiny adjustment in the direction of outrageous is enough to send it over the edge to ridiculous. (With the notable difference, of course, that Spinal Tap know they're Spinal Tap.)

See, it's fun to watch Odysseus outsmart and utterly destroy his enemies; to see Legolas and his bow-fu take out a legion of Uruks; to know that John Constantine's going to beat the devil every time. This is one of the reasons we love this stuff. It's simply the leap ahead to assume that it must threfore be fun to watch a character beat everyone at absolutely everything that makes it fail - but it's all too easy a trap to fall into.

Mary Sue qua Mary Sue may not necessarily make for a bad piece of fiction, at least, given good writing. But you can only have so many in one work. So, sure, Vlad Taltos may have started out as a Mary Sue, but he's not bumping into more Mary Sues with each book.

Oh, I don't know; part of what makes that series fun is that it's full of characters who are over-the-top powerful. (Just imagine what an overeager crossover-writer would make of, say, Sethra Lavode at Hogwarts...)

#81 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 05:02 PM:

Here I plug Mary Sue Whipple's Harry Potter and the Horrid Pain of the Artiste, which, along with many other virtues, is a meta-fiction on fan fiction.

#82 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 05:21 PM:

Trouble is, there are so many different physical body types that certain individuals are going to look like somebody's Mary Sue or Marty Stu.

I remember one of the most flattering, enlightening and somewhat disturbing moments I had in college when I joined my roommate's weekly champions game. I walked into a room and was introduced to six other guys, all of whom were 5'7" or under. Everyone described their characters, and with the exception of the beautiful red-haired sorceress, all the descriptions were the same: young, handsome, male, 6'4", with rich chestnut brown hair.

Then came me. I, myself, am 6'4", with dark brown hair of the shade I'd describe as chestnut, and had done some modeling in high school. "Umm...well, my guy has also got brown hair, is slightly better than average looking, but not particularly, and is 5'10 but says he's 5'11"..."

The game ended up being fun, but there was still a deeply weird and awkward first half-hour during which I talked mostly with the player of the beautiful titian-haired sorceress.

On a related note, I played a vampire game recently where the storyteller said, "and in walks an ordinary, unremarkable guy, kind of like me" at which point I broke character and said, "Daven, you're six-foot-six with blue hair."

Sometimes the Mary Sue physical trait of the character looking like the author's slightly prettier sister or brother is a quick way to not have to rethink viewpoint and descriptions. I have to rewind my mind back to junior high to remember what it was like to walk through a crowd and be looking other guys in the chest, and someone's who's short writing a tall character doesn't even have that memory and has to extrapolate, and very often gets it wrong.

I remember reading one of Carole Nelson Douglas's books where her 6'10" male lead has this line of description: "As a tall man, he was not accustomed to ducking." Pause. Blink. Um, he's a heck of a lot more accustomed to it than short guys are.

When I met the author, she was quite short herself.

#83 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 05:34 PM:

Heh.

The Litmus Tests are kind of neat, but they don't tell you if your Mary Sue fic sucks or not. I've read Mary Sues that I really liked. There are exceptions to every "rule", and it seems to me that the most egregious offender would assume s/he was the exception.

Do you remember role-playing as a kid - before RPGs with 17-sided dice and hit-points, and endless parades of expensive Modules? You know, getting together with a bunch of other neighborhood kids and trying to be the first to call out "Han Solo", where adventures were always improvised by common consent, and how there was always one Wilma Deering/Starbuck/Daisy Duke/Miss Piggy/ who constantly was the one who Found Things/ Did Things/ Saved Things? That Deus Ex Machina in WonderWoman Underoos. I hate that kid.

That's my Mary Sue Litmus Test.

#84 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 05:49 PM:

David, I think what Lydia is saying in the sentence you quoted is that the pro-"sci-fi" faction have no more claim to represent the whole of fandom than the anti-"sci-fi" folks. After that, though, I got lost too. I am not sure, but I may have just been called a butthead. :-)

Lydia, I'm not really pro or anti (and I've never been part of fandom per se, although I'm a lifelong fan of the genre, whatever we call it). I just like the sound of "sci-fi", and Ellisonoids who call me an idiot without explaining howandwhy the term fell out of favour get up my nose. I am sorry, though, if I got up yours.

Melisa Michaels of the SFWA has an article on this issue here, and Google allows one to take a poll from Eternal Night interviews. I'm tallying that up right now...

#85 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 05:58 PM:

Stef-

That's a good point about the possible sexism of Mary Sue accusations. And if I may talk out of my butt for a minute, I'll give you my Theory (which is completely non-scientific, and fully reliant on my own narrow observations):

It seems to me that Mary Sue recognition started within Fanfic, which I've observed to be awfully Female-Centric, being overwhelmingly authored by those who identify themselves as female (not to get into the transgender debate!). When we expand Mary Sue Identification to Pro-fic, I think everyone's observations are more gender-neutral.

For instance, I think James Bond has a whiff of the Mary Sue about him, and I have gotten 20 pages into numerous High Fantasy Quest (written by men) and tossed them aside as soon as I realize the Young Man Who Does Not Realize His Own Wondrous Destiny is not going to get any more interesting.

I appreciate Kevin's observations from RPGs, which is probably where you find more male Mary Sues.

As far as Laurell K Hamilton, I am currently reading the 3rd in her series, and while I understand they get progressively lamer, I'm still finding her Anita Blake a far more entertaining Mary Sue than I found Jane Austen's Emma.

#86 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 05:59 PM:

My dad adores the Dirk Pitt books, which I find unspeakably Mary Sueish

Oh, fart. I forgot about those. I think those could properly be categorized as being beyond the Mary Sue horizon... we need an all-new term for a series in which the author repeatedly has himself show up to pull his hero out of a jam.

I mean, damn. That's chutzpah.

#87 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 06:01 PM:

I don't mind switching to SF or skiffy, particularly as I don't want to unnecessarily alienate anybody, but here's a few thoughts on some statements made:

I think "sci fi" is old-guard offensive, but we've got a new generation coming up seeing all the cool "I am Sci Fi" commercials on the Sci Fi channel before they read the classics or even encounter fandom.

*wince wince wince*

Why brand all the new generation with that tar brush? I was using "sci-fi" long before I ever heard of the Sci-Fi channel. My parents STILL don't have cable. They had it once a long time ago, and we had TNT, the Disney Channel, and a handful of others, but really didn't get along with the TV too well. I use sci-fi because that's what it says in bookstores I frequented or what I've heard other people say. (Blame the parents again.)

Secondly, I think you aren't taking into account that until the somewhat recent interweb boom, that a lot of the younger fandom was hopelessly disconnected from the professional and more serious fans. We READ the classics--we just didn't have the money or the wherewithall to attend conventions. (Even though Life, The Universe, and Everything seems to happen a lot at BYU, I never seemed to have the money to go.)

If you say "sci-fi" around Harlan Ellison, he takes a baby seal out of his pocket and beats it to death while forcing you to watch. He keeps a little club chained to his belt for just this purpose.

*wide-eyed*

Is that what you might call a skiffy fit?

*ducks and runs*

-----

I guess I'll go with skiffy--it sounds more like a me-sort-of-word. And SF always just sticks a little when I try to say it. Typing or writing--not a problem, but my tongue tends trip up when I go with SF.

#88 ::: Jim Flannery ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 06:10 PM:

Sci-fi:

I don't think I've ever really thought of it as an insult so much as a marker of outsiderness, in the manner of "sibboleth" to the Gileadites or "Frisco" the the Bayareans; a sign that the person using it is either "not one of us" or needs to be immediately corrected. When did people stop reflexively correcting people?

#89 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 06:13 PM:

I'd forgotten about Frisco. But since I always call San Francisco San Fran or SF, that's probably the reason why I trip on using SF for science fiction.

#90 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 06:14 PM:

According to my highly scientific poll of 32 published authors (a statistically significant sample if ever there was one):

Sci-Fi: 5
SF: 8
speculative fiction: 1
doesn't matter: 18

Two responses in particular seem worth noting. Lazette Gifford said "The term SF is not going to turn anyone away. The term sci fi will" and James D. MacDonald said "SF. It matters to the people who care, and why should we go out of our way to offend people who care?".

#91 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 06:24 PM:

If you say "sci-fi" around Harlan Ellison, he takes a baby seal out of his pocket and beats it to death while forcing you to watch. He keeps a little club chained to his belt for just this purpose.

*wide-eyed*

Is that what you might call a skiffy fit?

Not at all. He does it so often, it's losing its shock value. You might almost say it's becoming pinnipedestrian.

#92 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 06:54 PM:

David, I think what Lydia is saying in the sentence you quoted is that the pro-"sci-fi" faction have no more claim to represent the whole of fandom than the anti-"sci-fi" folks.

Fair enough. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been as bothered if Alan had just said “fandom”, since I know I’m at best a very recent immigrant there.

It’s not that I actually use the term “sci-fi” myself, anyway, so much as that I don’t particularly want to develop an aversion to it. Most of my life is still spent around people outside of even a broad-church definition of the SF community, and I’d rather not find myself wincing or fighting down the urge to lecture every time my aunt, say, asks an innocent and well-intentioned question about my writing career.

#93 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 06:55 PM:

Scott, I am going to start using the word pinnepedestrian at every opportunity.

#94 ::: Darkhawk ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 07:44 PM:

Completely oblique from the ongoing discussion, I started reading "The Game of the Gods" last night. I finished some time after Kevin's alarm first went off so he could go to class, because could . . . not . . . stop . . . reading. So funny.

However, I wrote over a thousand words yesterday before getting distracted by the shiny object, so I can't feel -too- guilty about that couple of hours.

#95 ::: Geoffrey Brent ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 07:48 PM:

The first 'professional' Mary Sue I ever read, and still the most cringeworthy, was "Clan of the Cave Bear".

Child raised by different race, thinks she's ugly but really she's beautiful, treated with scorn but adopted by the shaman, personally chosen by the Cave Lion totem ("But she's a woman!"), tames miscellaneous wild animals, invents/discovers half a dozen important things, impresses everybody with all the wisdom she's learnt from her adoptive tribe, gets the guy, etc etc etc...

Oh God. I can't believe I only just realised now that the character's name even *sounds* like the author's surname!

#96 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 09:07 PM:

Well, just about every Anne McCaffrey "Dragonflight" sequel is a Mary Sue. "The female [dragonrider] with her firelizard flock" isn't from fanfic, unfortunately ...

#97 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 09:17 PM:

Yikes.

For some reason I find it terribly depressing that people get so uptight about what a reading genre is called.

I don't want people to mock me for not knowing the lingo, or feel an outsider for using the wrong terms. I just want to talk about books that I love, and I'm not sure why one needs to use the right term to do so.

I've never been to a convention of any sort, and from what I'm reading here, I don't think I'd want to. I have had enough alienation in my life, that I don't think I need to be aliented by people who supposedly love the same things I do.

Maybe I'm getting the wrong impression, and if so, please correct me. But all in all this just makes me sad.

#98 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 09:22 PM:

I don't think I've ever really thought of it as an insult so much as a marker of outsiderness, in the manner of "sibboleth" to the Gileadites or "Frisco" the the Bayareans; a sign that the person using it is either "not one of us" or needs to be immediately corrected. When did people stop reflexively correcting people?

"Just think, an APE-a for sky-fie fanzaines, right here in..."

#99 ::: FMguru ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 09:49 PM:

I think what distinguishes "Mary Sue" from plain old ordinary powerful and sympathetic main characters is the clumsiness of their execution. MS stories revolve around the insertion-character and their wonderfulness. Take that away, and there's nothing left. This is different from stories like DUNE and STAR WARS which have a main character rise from humble beginnings to save the universe and get the girl. Luke Skywalker might be a thinly-masked projection of George Lucas (Lucas=Luke, duh), a young boy trapped in a dusty agricultural backwater who messes with hot rods as a way to escape his overly-strict parents, but STAR WARS is so full of other stuff - history, aliens, robots, exotic settings, other characters, villains, spaceships, close escapes, valiant sacrifices, and so on - that the MSness of the protagonist doesn't really intrude on the movie. DUNE is the same way - Paul is overly-blessed is many ways (he's the long-prophesied messiah of how many cultures? He has Fremen, Bene Gesseit *and* Mentat training?), but that's easy to ignore amidst all the history and plot and characters and politics and all the other stuff that has hade DUNE such a classic.

Whereas a story about the gorgeous half-betazoid/half-vulcan Ensign C'sandra who saves the Enterprise three times, personally negotiates a permanent peace treaty between the Federation and Romulans, teaches the Borg how to love and laugh for the first time so they stop assimilating worlds, and then marries Picard is a MS because when you take away Ensign Wonderful, there's literally nothing left of the story.

Having a powerful, overly-capable protagonist is a long-standing feature of escapist fiction, but that doesn't make Arthur, James Bond, Doc Savage, the Stainless Steel Rat, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Horatio Hornblower MS characters. They're written that way as a way to involve the reader in the story - as the reader identifies with the character.

#100 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 09:49 PM:

Michelle, the percentage of people who make an issue over the term 'sci-fi' is very small, I promise. There are much more interesting reasons to avoid going to conventions than that one.

Wait. That wasn't encouraging, was it?

There will be, at any given convention, probably no more than four or five people who will corner you and give you definitions of How Fandom Should Be, ignoring the fact that it's neither how fandom is nor was it ever how fandom was. These people are easy enough to identify and avoid. If you can't avoid, nod quietly while they talk, then excuse yourself, avoiding the weirdo who keeps staring at your breasts, the dozen teens who are only there hoping to sneak into parties, the three guys with no social skill whatsoever, the woman who thinks she is the most attractive person on the planet but has a laugh like a dentist's drill and a personality to match, and the person with dubious personal hygeine, and go find the couple hundred cool people.

The reason I have heard most for the dislike of the term, by the way, is that it was used "condescendingly" by non-fen in some period of time no one seems to be able to identify for me. Just to add another datapoint. In any event, it's easier to type SF (or SFF) so I pretty much just do; in voice conversation, I don't tend to abbreviate at all.

#101 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:24 PM:

Now I've started reading Game of the Gods. Omighowd.

Okay, another key to what makes a Mary Sue, which folks have been talking about, was also described by Stephen King. I'm probably misquoting, but IIRC, he said that good stories have people who have power, lose it, and fight to get it back. Bad stories have people who "have power and use it and never lose it". Or, as folks have said, people who always win with no real challenge. This is, well, boring.

-Lisa

#102 ::: J Greely ::: (view all by) ::: December 05, 2003, 10:48 PM:

Is the world ready for Mary Sue, Bride of Cthulhu?

-j

#103 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 12:21 AM:

wrt "Mary Sue" being sexist -- most of the pertinent points have been made, but the impression I get is that not only does Mary Sue win everything, but everybody loves her while she's doing it. Even Gordon R. Dickson characters (around whom the sun turns, in at least one case literally) have to cope with being misunderstood. (Not misunderstood because they're "just a girl/kid/Terran/human/...", but because they're so far out in front that people don't instantly say "What a great idea that was!") Being improbably liked, not just improbably successful, is the key marker.

Of course, not having to make the character likeable gives much more room for making him super-capable. "Marty Stu" doesn't sound nearly brazen enough for such a character; is there some other label for power--wish-fulfillment? (Back when I still had to be driven to the library, I came back with a copy of Necromancer; my mother read a chapter or two and said it read like a small man trying to imagine himself big. I never figured out Dickson -- such a personable type himself, was he a reflection of "The Ant and the Eye" or did he just never learn not to take Campbell seriously?)

wrt "sci fi" -- a common explanation of the term comes from a debatable story almost 40 years old; allegedly, a CBS executive said to Roddenbery "We don't need another sci-fi series; we've got Lost in Space." (cf comments above about it showing cluelessness.) And there's the infamous "Ah wan' all yew sah-fah fayans tuh know we got wonnerful hotels fo yoh convention, an' we got a grayut city foh yoh wahves to shop in too!" (A mundane New Orleans type making a final presentation for the 1976 Worldcon bid; this is so repeated that it may have accreted "sci-fi" as detested induhviduals can accrete anything detestable just by hearsay.)

Mike: I sit corrected (after picking myself and my chair off the floor...).

#104 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 02:49 AM:

"... that [sci-fi] was used 'condescendingly' by non-fen in some time period no one seems to be able to identify for me."

It was coined in the late Fifties, canonically by Forry Ackerman (at least, he took credit for it). The comparison was, of course, to "hi-fi," which was a term used as stereo recordings were coming in, by makers of mono phonographs who wanted to hang on to market by claiming they were "high fidelity," to what no man can say.

I don't think it was that it was "used condescendingly by non-fen." I believe that it was the term of choice for non-fen, mostly in published opinons of What Rubbish This All Was, who meant to condescend no matter what term they used. Since "sci-fi" had not broadly caught on in fandom -- there were people still saying "stf," as indeed they do unto the Third Age, and "speculative fiction" hadn't quite shown up -- there was a reactive tendency to classify "sci-fi" as The Word Outsiders Use, identify anyone who used it as hostile, and avoid it in internal communication. (The fact that a great many of them -were- hostile didn't hurt this process.) So this period starts in the late Fifties -- the Scarlet Emerald Age of cheap alien-invasion movies, which -were- the public face of Whatsitsgenre at the time, and starts to fade, oh, about the time George Lucas made enough money on a determinedly -sci-fi- movie that some reconsideration started to take place.

At any moment now I expect to see a celestial vision of Claude Degler, wearing a cheap suit of white samite, appearing to throw me out of First Fandom.

#105 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 03:46 AM:

Geoffrey Brent: I've stood up for Jean Auel before, and shall again. She was a single housewife with 5 kids when she started writing what she thought was a short story. Maybe it even started as a Mary Sue. But she researched, and haunted the libraries, and ordered books, and studied, and then began real serious research: making her own arrowheads, getting an elephant hide and tanning it... By the time the book was done, it was deeply thought through, and really about the days when Neanderthal and Cro Magnon lived side by side, not just about the central character. At an Orycon, many years ago, she came quietly into the SFWA suite. She listened in on a few conversations. Then she asked where she could get a form to join SFWA. Some professional fool blurted out: "But you don't write science fiction!" I defended her then, as I do now. And I gave her the address by which she could join SFWA. That woman WORKED to write a real novel, and then more. How hard did you work to validate or verify her research?

I agree with John M. Ford about "Sci-fi." BTW, at Loscon 29, last year, Forry Ackerman was led in by the con's Guest Liaison people, to the Burbank Hilton restaurant. They left him there at the the entrance, with his cane and asian nurse, only recently out of his wheelchair, he was.

My wife and I came over and brought him to our table, and dined with him yet again, and mostly listened to his stories, even those we'd heard before. As he was nearly done, I ran to the other building, where the Masquerade was about to commence, and alterted Con Liaison that they should come get him to his front row seat.

After that favor we did, saving the con's face, a badged con worker told me "don't you try to sneak into the masquerade!" My wife gave him quite a little lecture on manners. But, true, all my emails to Loscon about the 25 to 30 panels I'd done for them before, and offering to fit into programming, had gone unanswered for weeks, and Programming Head Ed Green said that I "wasn't needed." He said that I could surely be on programming at Loscon 30, "next year", and told me that Arlene Satin was heading programming.

At Loscon 30, the theme was "Navigating the Worlds of Science Fiction", and that tied the space program, and Science Fiction together. Since I worked in the space program for a couple of decades, got awards from 4 successive heads of NASA, and [as I said on another thread here tonight] was on the NBC-TV Today Show live to 10,000,000 viewers (with my pal Isaac Asimov] on precisely the connection between Science Fiction and the real space program; and am a professional SF author, and Astronomy adjunct professor, and had all those Loscon panels past, I emailed and emailed Arlene Satin. No dice. No panels. The first panel I went to was chaired by Robert Cesarone, an actual NASA-employed Interstellar Navigator, with whom I worked when we made Voyager II go the right way past Uranus, rings, and moons. He said that he'd specifically requested that the con let me be on at least one of his panels. Well, said Arlene, "maybe next year."

So, IMHO, it is not outsiders to SF that are derogatory about "sci-fi" -- it's in-their-own-minds Big Name Fans who are derogatory to professionals. Where was Ed or Arlene when my father worked with Hugo Gernsback, or published H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick, and so many others? The problem in never unbelievers. It is ignorant heretics. Or so the Ayatollahs tell us, anyway.

Anyway, in any genre, are we not all trying to understand the genre conventions -- be they Western, Mystery, Romance, Fantasy, or whatever -- and then go deeper, into Literature? The human heart divided against itself?

Vladimir Nabokov, when teaching at Cornell, (I paraphrase), said that there were 3 levels of readers. The lowest level reads to imagine themselves in the story [Mary Sue]; the next level reads knowing something about the goals and methods of literature, as such [critically-aware sophisticated readers]; and the highest level tries to focus on EACH WORD as chosen and crafted by that writer, which must be there for some reason.

Shall we not pity the lowest-level readers, and be glad that they at least have the chance to shine a little light into their lives with a book, however much more light is still between the covers?

Whenever I condescended to anyone about books or ideas, as a child, my mother [B.A., English Lit., Magna Cum Laude, Northwestern University] wisely chided me: "For all you know, they might have rich interior lives."

Don't rain on the parade of those others' lives. You have the choice of whether or not to glimpse their "rich interior lives" if they fumbling try to reveal them in print...

#106 ::: catie murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 03:54 AM:

I had, in fact, thought you'd forgotten about that footnote marker. I only noticed it on my second time through the post, and had to go see if you'd actually remembered to put the footnote in. *laugh*

#107 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 04:55 AM:

I wouldn't class Anne McCaffery characters as Mary Sues--they have far too many well rounded enemies and adversaries for that.

Take Menolly from the Harper Hall trilogy. Yes, incredibly talented. Firelizards up the wazoo. Directly sponsored by both Petiron and Master Harper Robinton. Lots of friends.

Lots of enemies also, and ones who don't just crumple like paper tigers because she says, "Girls can too be Harpers. So there." That's the Master Harper's job and line, and she's there because he's decided to bend the rules. And it's not as if he isn't taking flack.

She gets the firelizards via accident, kindness and bravery--not because they were attracted to her inherent goodness. She's suffered a lot for her art, and the Harper Hall is decidedly not a cakewalk, even for a talented student.

Besides which, she doesn't have all the perks, just some of them. She can't speak to all dragons, like Miri. She doesn't have her own private white dragon. She doesn't, in short, have the lack of limitations which is the hallmark of a Mary Sue.

Mary Sues are continually singing a solo of "Anything you can do, I can do better," including suffering pain and torment, where their's is always worse than anyone else's ever has been.

Menolly may have had a sucky childhood, but not the worst in the whole of Pern.

No one ever gets to outshine a Mary Sue.

The one popular character, who started out as merely very very good at everything, but evolved into a male Mary Sue, paragon of every virtue, is Fonzie. After jumping the shark--and showing up the champion water skier, despite the fact that Fonzie had just learned skiing--folk lost interest. Having the very very competent hero beat challenges he can logically have a chance of winning is fun. Having the character achieve instant mastery in a skill that takes years to master and beat the master through something other than luck? Unsatisfying and unbelievable.

In the Game of the Gods, Fonzie Sue would have been eaten by the shark.

#108 ::: Steve Davies ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 08:00 AM:

I would have said that the definitive Anne McCaffrey Mary Sue has to be Crystal Singer. The heroine suffers a very minor setback in her desire to be a singer, throws a snit and decamps to the Crystal Planet whereupon she becomes infinitely successful at everything, and everybody worships the ground she walks on (including the mandatory older man love interest).

Curiously enough, I believe Crystal Singer was originally 3 linked novellas which were not really Mary Sues, It was only the process of combining them into a novel that hollowed out all the interesting bits and left an unsatisfying shell behind.

#109 ::: dossier ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 09:38 AM:

I just finished reading Jeri Taylor's novel about the genesis of Captain Janeway,"Mosiac". When I closed the back cover I thought "How nice that she can have all the resources of the official Trekverse. How sad that all she could come up with was a Mary Sue". I didn't enjoy the book on so many levels. the characters were all fairly wooden, there were no surprises (even the 'surprise') and all in all, I've read much better ST tales by fans.

the thing is, I love a good Mary Sue. Sometimes it's a very tongue in cheek thing, sometimes its so unwitting that you have to howl with the pain. I just hate having to pay for the privilege!

#110 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 09:47 AM:

Vladimir Nabokov, when teaching at Cornell, (I paraphrase), said that there were 3 levels of readers. The lowest level reads to imagine themselves in the story [Mary Sue]; the next level reads knowing something about the goals and methods of literature, as such [critically-aware sophisticated readers]; and the highest level tries to focus on EACH WORD as chosen and crafted by that writer, which must be there for some reason.

This is definitely tangential to the whole Mary Sue thread, not to mention the "sf vs. sci-fi" distraction -- but I just have to say that Nabokov's categorization of the three levels of readers has always struck me as the kind of wrongheaded nonsense that almost has to be the product of a highly intelligent person who's spent most of his time reading stuff in languages that are not the tongue of his native country.

#111 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 10:35 AM:

Steve - "Crystal Singer" was originally \four/ linked novelettes, in a four-book set from Roger Elwood; in the last one she dies, IIRC vaguely triumphant in a ]crystal storm[. Making McCaffrey wrap up the story might be Elwood's One Good Deed.

McCaffrey is an extreme example of what happens way too often in SF; somebody runs low on real ideas and tries to compensate by loading more and more powers onto characters. She's also the only non-recent author I can point to as having written ]gothic[/romance novels under her own name; the approaches seem to me to bleed together over time. (That still doesn't automatically lead to Mary Sues; IMO (from a minimal knowledge of the genre), successful romances can't do that because the lead has to be balanced enough that readers can insert themselves.)

Which leads back to the suggestion that Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan is a Mary Sue. The Miles books are romances -- some of them stickier than others, some of them just too obviously using a formula (A Civil Campaign is blatant Regency), but Cordelia doesn't fit that mold; she doesn't ever have sole control of center stage, and she doesn't have implausible successes cascading around her; she had the advantage of growing up in an egalitarian, high-tech society that believes in education, but she had to work to get where she was when she met Aral.

#112 ::: Isabeau ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 10:42 AM:

Citing Nabokov is especially ironic, considering Van Veen in Ada is a particularly repulsive Mary Sue.

I can sympathize with the fanfic impulse a little, because it seems to me that Kirk and Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker are the modern equivalent of Hercules or Theseus. Disney, Lucasfilms, and the rest take our common mythopoetic impulses, put brand names on them, then sue us when we infringe on their copyright on our dreams. I want an alternative to this, and I think it should come from the fanfic writers.

<humming>And the man in the suit has just bought a new car with the profit he made on your dreams . . .

#113 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 11:48 AM:

Teresa writes above: "Consider also that the fifth book in a very popular series has a different audience than the first one. When they read the first book, the readers wanted to hear a good story. By the fifth book, they have more tolerance or desire for non-plot-driven time spent hanging around with familiar characters in familiar settings -- though it's way too easy to overdo this, IMO."

I can't help but feel this is the exact situation with Michelle West's "The Riven Shield." She writes in the author's note that the final book, "The Sun Sword" had grown to 1,700 manuscript pages (or thereabouts) and saw 2,000 staring at her, so they broke it up while she was still writing it.

George RR Martin is a great writer, and I hope he can rein it in finally and keep A Song of Ice and Fire at =7= books.

I gave up on Jordan years ago, for this very reason.

#114 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 11:58 AM:

Scott --

On the basis of what Michelle was grousing about while she was writing the thing, that's not the case.

You know how, when you're doing project management, you get eighty percent of the effort devoted to the first eighty percent of the of the project, and eighty percent of the effort devoted to the last twenty percent?

That happens with novels, too, only substitute 'word count' for 'effort' and it remains true. (Not that it isn't true about the effort part.) One doesn't always see the whole of the story from where you're starting out.

#115 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 12:22 PM:

I find myself agreeing with Kevin Andrew Murphy on the matter of Anne McCaffrey as not a MarySueogen. Annie did all of us a huge favor by (correct me if I'm wrong) becoming the first modern author to hit the New York Times Bestseller List with a science fiction novel, I believe "White Dragon." Soon thereafter, Clarke, Asimov. Heinlein et al. were able to achieve the same ranking. She paved the way for all SF authors to make more money by reaching a wider audience. Garnted, much of that audience is looking for simpler wish fullfillment fiction.

Debra Doyle makes an interesting point in saying "Nabokov's categorization of the three levels of readers has always struck me as the kind of wrongheaded nonsense that almost has to be the product of a highly intelligent person who's spent most of his time reading stuff in languages that are not the tongue of his native country." But Nabokov gave several examples in his classes and textbook, which give flesh to the bones of the categorization. True, his native country spoke Russian, but his class of Russians spoke French, then the international language of Diplomacy, since, after all, his father was part of the Kerensky government, and his dad's assassination moved the Communists a step closer to their revolution. Vladimir also had to speak German -- it was then the international language of Science. He was a scientist, given his formal publications on lepidoptera. A scientist who wrote fiction? Means we should at least wonder if he sometimes wrote Science Fiction. I think so. That he wrote some novels in Russian, some in English, some in German, some in French -- how does that diminish his insight? When I was a keynote speaker at a Sci-Fi Movie Convention in Munich, people politely spoke behjind my back that I had "das languageproblem" -- not being able to speak any of the half-dozen languages that my grandparents and great-grandparents spoke. Am I wrong to think that my worldview and writing may suffer from my single-tongued brain?

Also, I thought I was on topic in entering the discourse of Genre, and the wider view of Literature, without which the interesting discussion of a certain writing pathology lacks context. Good thread!

So, why is (say) Odysseus not a Mary Sue, using myth and history worlds already exceeding well-known, however consummate a work of literature? Ummmm, of course not composed in writing...


#116 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 01:16 PM:

Jonathan, if you can ask that question, you need to go re-read the initial critical articles about Mary Sue-ism. It's something far more specific than re-using older materials.

Also, as I'm not the first person in this discussion to point out, before the invention of printing, it was normal to borrow earlier materials and rework them. Nobody thought ill of it. I still don't, though that may be my medievalist streak showing. To my mind, there's more originality in a transformational reworking of an earlier story than there is in the forty-'leventh only-technically-novel story that's been awkwardly constructed out of old stale ingredients.

Reworking isn't imitation. If you want to be astonished by how much new energy and insight a real artist can get out of materials you'd have sworn were the very definition of "overworked", try Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Or just read it for its own sake; everybody should.

#117 ::: Jason ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 01:44 PM:

"Am I wrong to think that my worldview and writing may suffer from my single-tongued brain?"

Not at all, Jonathon. But keep in mind that that's only "may." A better way to put it might be that you don't benefit from being multilingual rather than suffering by being monolingual.

But having multiple languages of fluency knocking about your head does generally alter the way you think about things, at least when those languages have different bases (i.e. not all Romance languages). There's a different mode of thinking, a different set of logic that comes with each one.

That's how you end up with statements like Nabokov's. It's not that he didn't understand a language well enough (as a native Russian speaker reading books in English, for example), but rather that his multilingualism put him in a frame of mind to think of things in the way he did, a way which didn't necessarily account for a monolinguistic reader.

#118 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 01:59 PM:

Theresa, I may have misundersatood when I "re-read the initial critical articles about Mary Sue-ism. It's something far more specific than re-using older materials."

My point being that, per the formal definition:

"MARY SUE (n.): 1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment. 2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author. 3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories. 4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it92s so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as self-insertion.'"

(1) didn't Homer self-insert into the Trojan War and sequelae in a personal wish-fulfillment way?

(2) Isn't Odysseus always having heroic AND romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular stories/poems/songs?

(3) Wasn't Odysseus an an idealized version of the author, valorizing Greek chacarter and idealized self-image?

I partly agree with Debra Doyle about Nabokov, but (correct me if I mis-remember) I was at a panel she gave at Comic-Con, where she explained at length how there were only 3 fundamental structures of a novel. She gracefully accepted my countercalim that Nabokov's "Pal Fire" was a perfect example of a 4th type, which I referred to as a "Did you read this other book" type, common in parody and now in hypertext.

Okay, my wife wants to use this PC now. But thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

#119 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 02:18 PM:

Odysseus was not a Mary Sue because Homer was a good writer and gave his hero real challenges, real temptations, and actual hard decisions, rather than absolute and rampant wish-fulfillment at every encounter.

If Odysseus had been written as a Mary Sue, the following encounters would have happened this way:

Calypso's Isle

There would have been the wonderful shore leave, as described, but when faced with the choice between staying with the beautiful nymph Calypso and going back to sea, in hopes of one day seeing Penelope again, Calypso would have offered to come with Odysseus instead, using her nymphly powers to serve up a luau each evening and transforming the ship into a tropical party boat.


Circe's Isle

Rather than Odysseus getting turned into a stag and having to have a Deus-ex-Machina of Hermes appearing to give him the moly and bail him out (and reinforce the idea that sometimes even the greatest heroes are going to need someone to save their asses), Odysseus would have gotten the moly from Calypso back on the boat (who, a flower nymph, could be assumed to have more easy access than Hermes), and once Circe had failed to turn him into a pig, she would be intrigued and take him back to her bed. The amazing power of his lovemaking would transform her instantly into a good woman and she would turn the pigs back into crewmen while taking Odysseus as her apprentice and going with him on the party boat. She and Calyspo with have small spats, but Odysseus would always be able to break them up with the prospect of a threesome. I mean, a nymph and a repentant bad girl sorceress--how much better can it get?

Scylla and Charybdis

When they get to the arm monster and the whirlpool monster, Circe reveals that she once turned the nymph Charybdis into the whirlpool monster because "she sucked" but has now repented this act, so breaks the spell, bringing Charybdis aboard and apologizing. Charybdis isn't particularly convinced until Circe offers to share Odysseus and Odysseus seduces Charybdis, who after that much practice can put Monica Lewinsky to shame. Circe also mentions that Scylla is another enchanted nymph, but since she wasn't the one who placed that spell, she's not able to break it--but she thinks that Odysseus, who has more magical talent than she does, could easily break it. It's not that easy, but Odysseus succeeds where Circe could not, turning Scylla into a beautiful nymph who as might be expected lives to give backrubs. As before, few men can escape the pair, but "caught between Scylla and Charybdis" takes on a whole new meaning. I mean, what guy would say no to that?

Crew morale is amazing.


The Crashing Rocks

Odysseus has gotten the hang of the magical transformation powers Circe has taught him. He transforms the crashing rocks into ordinary pebbles and they sail on through unimpeded. Circe and the nymphs gaze at him adoringly, and then there's a bit more crashing of rocks, but Odysseus's this time.


The Sirens

The crew plug their ears with wax, as per the original, but Circe is the one who lashes Odysseus to the mast with a velvet rope and stands around with her suede lash because, hey, she's a bad-girl sorceress, right? Scylla and Charybdis do what they do so well, since it's not like being lashed to a mast will interfere with that, and it will indeed add to Odysseus's enjoyment of the concert, while Calypso dances for Odysseus's pleasure. The sirens, seeing this, finally realize that the party's not coming to them, so fly on over. Circe unlashes Odysseus and he gets it on with the sirens because triplets? What man doesn't want some of that action? And with the wings and the singing, it's amazing. The Sirens hit high notes they've never hit before, and as usual, join Odysseus's party boat.


The Underworld

Sailing to the underworld is usally a downer, but the Sirens singing brightens things up a lot, as does Calypso's luau. More than that, however, Persephone realizes her husband is not only a dud, but a rapist and kidnapper, and so begs Odysseus to help her overthow Hades, which he of course does, using his mighty powers of sword and magic to whip the ass of the King of the Underworld. They use Circe's velvet rope and ball gag to tie up Hades, then add insult to injury by having Odysseus do Persephone while Hades is forced to watch. Persephone bids Odysseus a tearful goodbye, but explains that she'll come and visit him in six months, but in the meantime, she's got an underworld to run. As thanks, she gives him Hade's helm of invisibility, which of course he doesn't really need because of his amazing magical powers, but he accepts anyway so as to not hurt the poor girl's feelings.

Persephone, new Ruler of Underworld, declares that everyone who wants to leave with Odysseus can, except the real hard cases like Sisyphus and Tantallus. Hot chicks like Eurydice join up with the party boat, but Odysseus is a gentleman and just drops her off with Orpheus instead. Actually, no, Orpheus joins the party boat, in thanks to the great hero who accomplished the quest he failed in, and give Odysseus music lessons. Combined with singing lessons from the Sirens, Odysseus soon outstrips all of them.


The Reunion with Penelope

Odysseus finally sails back with his party boat, to where Penelope has been putting off suitors for years. He sneaks around invisibly with Hades Helm, then comes up with a cunning plan to disguise himself as a new suitor and woo Penelope all over again. He almost succeeds, but the virtuous (and slightly dim) Penelope has sworn to remain true to her husband, no matter what an amazing swordsman, sorcerer and bard her new suitor may be. So Odysseus plays his last card of "Surprise, honey! I'm home!" and Penelope shrieks in joy and they are at last reuinited. Penelope realizes she can't keep such an amazing man all to herself, however, so Calypso, Circe, Scylla, Charybdis, and the Sirens all move into the palace, with an extra room set up for Persephone when she visits every six months. She brings Demeter with her, because they have that whole Gilmore Girls mother-daughter thing going, and Odysseus hasn't had any of that action yet, and Demeter blackmails Zeus with the whole endless winter thing unless he makes Odysseus a god.

Odysseus's first action as a god is to do Hera, who declares him ten-times the lover Zeus ever was. Zeus, shamed, abdicates his throne to Odysseus, because he's already heard how he whupped the ass of Hades, his brother, and asks if he could just be Odysseus's second cup-bearer, along with Ganymede. Odysseus says yes, especially since Zeus is good at turning into all sorts of forms, and that gives endless variety to possible Odysseus/Zeus slash fiction.

That's how you do the Odyssey as a Mary Sue.

#120 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 02:27 PM:

JVP: the true nature of Mary Sue-ism is revealed in the first link, _The Game of the Gods_--which even has a plot (wait for it). If it doesn't make you cringe that much, then it can't be a Mary Sue.

#121 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 03:01 PM:

I partly agree with Debra Doyle about Nabokov, but (correct me if I mis-remember) I was at a panel she gave at Comic-Con, where she explained at length how there were only 3 fundamental structures of a novel

I'm gratified that Jonathan partly agrees with me -- but whoever it is he discussed fiction with at Comic-Con had to have been someone else, because I've never been to that particular convention. (I also wouldn't be so loopy as to argue that there were only 3 basic novel structures, either, but that's beside the point.)

#122 ::: karen r. ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 03:58 PM:

Okay, is there any reason for the category of "Gary Stu" (or similar)? Is it a historical feature of fanfic that women did it first, or do the male versions tend to focus on something other than sexual desirability? Is it particularly useful for editors? Or is this just a legacy of the custom that things gendered female can't refer to males?

I don't mean that to be snarky, by the way, it's a real question because nothing in Theresa's excellent explanation made me think it would be exclusively a female trait.

Then, of course, the MS-Odyssey brought the question into relief. (Gosh that was brilliant! Not sure whether that or the Harlan Ellison quip is my favorite - I'll remember 'em both for a long time.)

#123 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 05:01 PM:

Is it a historical feature of fanfic that women did it first, or do the male versions tend to focus on something other than sexual desirability?

I think that you have several things working together, here:

First, Mary Sue was first identified in the wild in her female form, and her name provides an umbrella term for the whole category. If a reader says of a male character, "He's just another damned Mary Sue," a listener familiar with the terminology will have no trouble figuring out what the problem with that character is.

Second, fanfic was historically (and still remains) heavily though not exclusively a female activity -- it's one of the few areas of endeavor that I know of where the default pronoun is in fact "she" -- so the Mary Sues that show up in it are more likely to be female on that account.

And third, male characters in popular fiction are more or less expected to be larger than life; nothing cultural is transgressed against when that happens. On the other hand, watch out for those sensitive, quiet, intellectual male characters, especially those of artistic bent. When looked at carefully, they often bear an uncanny resemblance to, if not the author, at least the author's much nicer second cousin.

#124 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 05:05 PM:

RE: The Crystal Singer series - I like the second book for its sheer escapism. Honestly. Yes, Killashandra is a bit of a diva, and yes, perhaps she Mary-Sues her way through the series, but she does have some obstacles and some people who dislike her. And her diva attitude does get her in trouble.

I gave up on Jordan years ago, for this very reason.

Robert Jordan has a different problem, I think. I think he has too much story to tell, and can't decide which story he wants to focus on. I enjoy following the characters around, but I think there can be too much of anything. I've heard some writers advocate the marble block approach to writing a story: take a marble block and remove anything that doesn't look like an elephant. I think Robert Jordan just keeps quarrying marble blocks and chipping out only tiny bits.

#125 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 05:06 PM:

Re Jonathan Vos Post's defense of Jean Auel, I don't think the definition of Mary Sues is dependent on how much research the author did. I heard Jean Auel speak before Clan of the Care Bears, er Cave Bear, was published: I was quite enthusiastic. Then I read the book. It's a Mary Sue, all right. The sequels are worse.

Your average Star Trek Mary Sue author may well know the Enterprise better than Roddenberry did. Brilliant research. That doesn't mean they're not Mary Sues.

By the way, if I were choosing speakers for a convention panel, I'd set a limit on the amount of self-aggrandizement and general obnoxiousness displayed, but maybe that's just me.

Teresa wrote, "True Mary Sue writers omit to demonstrate why their character is *wonderful* because to them it's self-evident."

You know, it was never entirely clear to me what Mr. Darcy found so unquenchably fascinating about Elizabeth Bennett. It seemed to be a given that she could not get rid of him. But I would not claim any of the other characteristics of a Mary Sue for this case.

#126 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 05:10 PM:

Debra Doyle wrote, "On the other hand, watch out for those sensitive, quiet, intellectual male characters, especially those of artistic bent. When looked at carefully, they often bear an uncanny resemblance to, if not the author, at least the author's much nicer second cousin."

Isn't there a whole genre of fiction whose protagonists are sensitive, middle-aged writers whose wives don't understand them, and who get laid frequently and improbably?

#127 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 05:49 PM:

Thank you, Kevin. Very thorough, though at moments it veered in the direction of another branch of literature I happen to be familiar with ...

JVP, what you're doing there is comparing a severely reduced and abstracted description of Mary Sue stories with a severely reduced and abstracted description of the Iliad and Odyssey, and concluding that they must represent the same thing. It doesn't work. Mapping one map onto another map doesn't map their territories upon each other -- especially not at that level of abstraction. Sometimes the maps are similar because the territories are similar, but that's a property of the territories, not the maps.

Debra: Beautiful. I hadn't spotted that as a pattern, but I'll confirm that I've met lots of sensitive, artistic male characters, in mss. and in print, who had a strong family resemblance to their author.

Simon, that idea is so attractive it's almost scary. Let me think about it a bit.

#128 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 05:50 PM:

Thinking. Still scared.

#129 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 06:13 PM:

Kevin Andrew Murphy: thank you. That Odysseus MarySuization was both funny and illuminating.

Kate Nepveu: one person's cringeworthiness is another's ectasy, unfortunately. Can this be made objective, or will "Robert Cringely" decline the challenge?

Debra Doyle: apologies for my confusing you with someone professional but less wise. Darn, where are my contemporaneous notes?

Simon: If the research is good enough, is that a redeeming value? Can one cringe at a Mary Sue but use it to study for an exam? Does early space opera now read as Mary Sue, even though it met the standards of the day (i.e. Doc Smith)?
Also, for convention panels, I confess to self-aggrandizement but not general obnoxiousness. I was actually a very shy boy, and found that some self-promotion was useful (up to a point). At Loscon and those Westercons mostly run by Loscon perps, I am as careful as possible to be both very polite and very self-promoting, because I am trying to overcome the harm from 15 years of defamation against me by a small handful of malignant fans who cost me $2,000,000 plus 15 years litigation plus serious reputation damage. I "give good panel" and have done so over 220 times on four continents, a third of the time as moderator. But here, close to home, I am denied free panel-giving access (and forced to pay for myself, wife, son, friends) because of those malignant fans, whom I shall not name here, who were incidentally insane, drug addict liars, spouse abusers, and national security risks who contributed to the failure of the space shuttle. In my opinion. But that's another story. I am willing to be on a panel with anyone. Many people of the highest reputation ask for me specifically to be on panels with them. How would you deal with the need to counter-brain-wash ignorant con runners who only know me by the defamation, and not by my professional standings or copious publications? In deference to their rights, the con is formally considered a large private partry, and the con committe does have the right to invite or disinvite anyone. I decline to crash parties. But I do have professional need to be at certain hotels at certain times to meet colleagues, editors, agents, and the like. SFWA knows all about this but, for good reasons, will never even insist on their President or other officer being invited to any con. They'll only intervene if an offer is made by a con and THEN arbitrarily revoked. Though that has happened too, and SFWA sometimes cannot fix the problem.

My hurt feelings dfo not constitute "damages" in the legal sense. But $2,000,000 does. And I did collect smaller sums (such as $7,000) from one of the fans from an earlier but related incident. And won a $43,000 judgment against another. But, you see, winning in court does NOT convince anyone that I was right, and innocent.

This makes me aware of the need to understand politeness, and this blog does help clarify some points for me.

Thank you for your cringing atention.

#130 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 06:14 PM:

"...it has never been clear to me what Mr. Darcy found so unquenchably fascinating about Elizabeth Bennett."

"But my dear, your magnificent verse, the horrid home life that I hope someday to take you away from . . ."
"Darcy, that's Elizabeth Barrett, and she's not even around yet."
"Oh, crap."

#131 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 07:32 PM:

My, what a fascinating post and discussion.

When a writer writes about a protagonist who is an idealized version of himself, the result can be extremely effective fiction anyway. Sometimes, writers fictionalize people they admire, or once admired: "Huckleberry Finn," for instance.

The Mary Sue part comes in when the protagonist triumphs too easily, and when all the other characters spend too much time applauding the protagonist.

When that happens in fanfic, we call it a Mary Sue story. When that happens in professional series fiction, we say that the writer has fallen in love with his or her character."

And even so, a good Mary Sue novel can be entertaining anyway. I'm a fan of the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker. The first books in the series were as good as any hard-boiled tough-guy fiction I've read. Parker hit on a winning formula: he started with a hard-boiled tough-guy detective fiction, removed the misognyny and the worst of the cynicism, and the result was very nice indeed. I ate up those novels in the 80s, while at the same time thinking through some issues about masculinity and manhood as relates to my personal life.

If anyone is interested, I particular recommend "Mortal Stakes" and "Looking for Rachel Wallace." In the latter book, Parker sets up an interesting dialogue: his detective protagonist, Spenser, is an ex-cop who is quick with his fists, a gun, and is also a self-taught intellectual. He is hired to protect Rachel Wallace, a radical feminist lesbian pacifist who has been receiving death threats.

In the hands of another writer this could have been perfectly AWFUL, where Spenser kills all the people threatening Rachel Wallace and then teaches her what man-lovin' is all about.

But Parker respects both Spenser and Rachel Wallace, and the book becomes an effective dialogue between the two mutually exclusive philosophies.

Ultimately, I don't think the book is successful, because the author has Spenser winning the debate with Rachel Wallace. I don't think I'm particuarly giving anything away when I say that the book ends by Spenser identifying the bad guys who are out to get Rachel Wallace, and saving the day in a blaze of gunfire. And yet I give Parker an "A" for effort here; he has set up a situation where either Rachel Wallace or Spenser had to win, and well, this being a series of detective novels, of course Spenser's going to be the winner. But Rachel Wallace doesn't simply surrender and admit to Spenser that she was wrong and tumble into his muscular manly arms, she simply concedes that she has come to respect him a great deal and he has given her a lot to think about.

The later Spenser novels descended into Mary Sue-ness, but even there, I've continued reading and enjoying every one, because Parker has a light-footed and witty writing style. Moreover, while Spenser and the rest of the major characters are doing their somewhat repetitive dances in the foreground, there's all kinds of interesting things going on in the background. Parker does a really nice job of creating the characters of Spenser's clients, the people around those clients, and the villains. He also writes a hell of a fight scene.

Parker's career is similar to Heinlein's as regards Mary Sue-ness. In his later career, Heinlein increasingly seemed to lack the energy or desire to tell an interesting story anymore, and his protagonists became Mary Sues (or, in the case of his female characters, Heinlein seemed to be writing down the fantasies he masturbated to). And yet Heinlein's prose remained as musical as ever, and he was as skilled as he ever was at worldbuilding.

For instance, I really need to re-read "Friday." Friday herself seems to bear a strong resemblence to the current crop of hard-fighting heroines of TV, from Buffy to Sydney Bristow on "Alias." There's a bit in Friday about the ridiculous elections of California that seems to resonate with the recent gubernatorial election.

And ... well, I'm young enough to have been taught science fiction in a couple of high schoool and college classes, and one of the things we were taught was that Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll," written in 1940 or so, anticipated the Teamster's Strike of about a quarter-century later. The TECHNOLOGY was different: instead of giant conveyer-belt roads, we had long-haul trucks -- but the result was the same: a small group of people who operated vital long-haul transportation machinery were able to bring the country to a stop when they went on strike.

I think the Shipstone Corporation of "Friday" is similarly analogous to Microsoft of today. Both companies make ubiquitous technologies that the economy depends on, both companies are heavily criticized as monopolies, and both companies simply flip the bird to their critics and go on doing what they are doing.

I would by no means say that Heinlein wrote many Mary Sues. He wrote at most some, and those were at the end of his career.

Lazarus Long became one big huge honking Mary Sue, starting with "The Number of the Beast." Which is a shame, because Heinlein's earlier Lazarus Long stoiries, "Methuselah's Children" and "Time Enough for Love" are two of my favorite of Heinlein's works.

Isaac Asimov did a sort of reverse-Mary Sue in "Murder at the ABA." Asimov is a minor character in his own book, all the other characters think he's kind of obnoxious. There are some cool metafictional thingies in that novel. The hero of "Murder at the ABA" is a made-up writer named Darius Just; Asimov based the character of Just on Harlan Ellison. Inside the novel, Just encounters the fictionalized Asimov; the fictionalized Asimov is a witness to the murder Just is trying to solve. The fictional Asimov agrees to write a novel based on the murder mystery, and says he will write the novel in the first person from Just's point of view, and supposedly the novel we are reading is the result of that collaboration. The novel is salted with a few footnotes purporting to be back-and-forth discussion between the fictionalized Asimov and "Darius Just"; at one point, the fictionalize Asimov even remarks on the resemblence of Darius Just to Harlan Ellison, and Just responds that he doesn't see it.

I have read the first two Anita Blake novels, and enjoyed them a good deal. So far, Blake is by no means a Mary Sue. She may well be an idealized version of the author, sure, but, as TNH points out, that's perfectly respectable. She has superpowers, but also limitations. She is a powerful sorceress, but that's her job, with a boss whom she doesn't really like. She is a skilled fighter and marksman, but she's also a mortal woman -- a very SMALL mortal woman -- and is at disadvantage because she associates with big, violent men, some of whom have super strength. I'm in no rush to read the later Anita Blake novels; they've been pretty universally panned by fans.

#132 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 08:20 PM:

JVP, if people in convention programming circles had been maligning you for the last fifteen years, I would have heard about it, and I haven't. Shall I regret or rejoice to inform you that I haven't heard you talked about much at all?

#133 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 08:48 PM:

Lazarus Long became one big huge honking Mary Sue, starting with "The Number of the Beast."

The Number of the Beast comes about as close to having an all-Mary Sue cast as anything I can remember. At least, if it’s possible to get closer, I hope I never see it.

I thought it was swell when I was about fifteen, though.

#134 ::: Joanthan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 09:30 PM:

Mitch Wagner: Isaac Asimov told me that Murder at the A.B.A. was actually his favorite of all his novels, just as "The Final Questions" was his favorite of his stories. You are clever indeed as to its reverse Mary Sue nature. Should that be called a Eus Yram?

Dear Teresa,
Thank you for your reply. Truth is, I've had no problems ever doing panels at Worldcons, Baycons, Orycons, Norwescons, NASFICs, cons in San Diego, cons in Arizona, or Westercons except those Westercons with certain Loscon people high on committees.

The problem is specific to those few recipients of defamation. There is a complicating factor in that one of the people I sued and won against was an old friend of Jerry Pournelle's, at whose home LASFS used to meet before it bouht its current clubhouse; and Jerry supported him rather than myself, who'd only known Jerry for 25 years, and was close enought that Jerry offered to be my son's godfather. I admire many things about Dr. Pournelle, including his writing. I give him credit for loyalty, albeit based on seniority in some Southern way I'm vague on, and for standing by even those friends with whom he disagrees politically, such as Harlan Ellison. The Loscon folks might be defending the criminals who defamed me and thinking that they are doing their piller of community Dr.Pournelle a favor. But my beef is not with Pournelle, or even most Loscon officers.

For instance, Bruce Pelz was difficult to me for a while, as he defended by name the prime defamer, but sweetly reconciled and we had a wonderful 45 or 60 minute conversation only a few weeks before his sad passing away. His wife Elayne to this day seems baffled that when she harasses me, as she did at the Green Room at a Westercon where I think you were also present, demanding that I pay membership, that I not only had the receipt that I'd paid, but also spoke movingly about that reconciliation with her late husband. My wife is also harassed by the same coterie, although my wife was completely unrelated to the defamation, and has her independent reputation based on her own SF publications and Professorship.

A particular many-times Hugo winning fanzine writer screamed at me at a Locus Awards event, that he would not add me to a panel, even though the moderator and all panelists agreed thatat they wanted me on, not 10 feet from that con's Guest of Honor, my former Caltech Classmate Harry Turtledove, who ever since has looked at me askew. Said Hugo-dude then strangely unreddened and asked "so how's your family?" But he admitted that his formal enmity was because of what he referred to as "your fan fued with ________", naming the defamer wo is a fan, but with whom I am not in a Fan Feud, as I am not a fan (but a 2nd-generation pro), and a 15 year law suit is something of another category. So thanks for re-confirming that the problem is local contamination, and not pandemic.

The problem is also with the FBI, Dan Quayle's office, the NASA Inspector General's Office, the defamer's buddy Buzz Aldrin, and others in the aerospace community, but (except for my recommending to Buzz that he co-author with John Barnes) unrelated to Science Fiction, and thus off-topic here.

#135 ::: Ide Cyan ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 10:15 PM:

Mary Sue is one thing: a cuckoo.

It lays its eggs in other birds' nests. The egg sits there, oversized and invading, until it hatches and the chick, being noisiest and largest of the clutch, receives more attention from the parents than their true offspring do, to their detriment in every respect.

Annoying canon characters can be like Mary Sues, in their outsized, misplaced, effulgent distortion of the narrative, but they are not invading someone else's universe, and, as such, have a legitimacy as plain old badly written characters that Mary Sues do not.

More on this question of legitimacy.

#136 ::: Ide Cyan ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 10:20 PM:

Oh, and by the way: I'd love to read the story of "how, years ago, Joanna Russ and [you] used Star Trek fanfic as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decipher recurrent themes and motifs in fantasy and SF written by women". In detail. *g*

#137 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 10:25 PM:

This may sound like an odd question, but...how attractive is it okay to make a protagonist without edging into Mary Sue-ism? Is it the level of attractiveness or merely the number of adjectives that make the difference? Or is it how people respond to the character?

Even the most drop-dead gorgeous woman I've ever met was nervous about asking her now-husband on their first date, and the whole world doesn't fall to its knees in mingled lust and awe at her very presence. She knows some people who think she's fairly plain and others who just don't like her as a person, so she *seems* like she'd make a poor Mary Sue...maybe...? But on the other hand, "beautiful" in the authorial voice is telling-not-showing.

#138 ::: Geoffrey Brent ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2003, 11:24 PM:

JVP: You appear to have got the impression I was accusing CotCB of being poorly researched. I assure you I was not.

However, "seriously researched" and "Mary Sue" are not mutually exclusive. Not even when you add in "hard work". If I were to look hard enough, I could probably find Mary Sues whose authors have worked equally hard at researching their backgrounds in Tolkien, Star Wars, or Star Trek canon. (I might consider RL prehistory to be a more worthwhile field of pursuit than these fantasies; I might not. Either way, it's not the point.)

Thinking about it, one of the key traits of a Mary Sue - and the one that irritates me most - is that she has no real flaws. What 'flaws' she does have are either of the "...with one hand tied behind my back" variety, or flaws of niceness (too naive, too trusting... the sort of thing people like to answer when asked to name their own flaws).

It's been quite some time since I read Auel, and I only made it halfway through 'Mammoth Hunters', so perhaps I've missed something. But I'm racking my brains trying to think of any flaws Ayla displays.

She's not as strong as the Neanderthals... but she becomes the One Woman allowed to take part in the hunt. She doesn't have their extraordinary powers of memory... but she still becomes Creb's apprentice. "With one hand tied behind my back."

She is naive, and that leads to romantic misunderstandings... but only because she doesn't know the rules, never because she has a moment of weakness or selfishness.

My wife, who knows the books better than I do, has just leant over my shoulder and added "But she can't sing. Er, that's all I can think of."


And yes, her author may well have a wonderfully rich inner life... but that has no bearing on this. Last I looked, making a critical judgement on somebody's writing was not at all the same thing as making a critical judgement on the author as a person. I can think of several awful people who were wonderful writers, and several wonderful people who were awful writers :-)

#139 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 12:25 AM:

I don't think this is complicated. Mary Sues happen when the writers become so besotted with their characters that they're incapable of noticing that others don't find them nearly so engaging. They credits them with all possible graces and virtues (or at least the ones they values at the moment), and make smooth the plotty path lest their characters become frustrated or distressed. They write about how all the other characters adore their magic character because that's the way they feel about them. In short, the writers are infatuated.

This would be embarrassing under any circumstances. It's more embarrassing that the objects of their infatuation are so transparently themselves. But what makes it truly obnoxious is that their text is constantly telling us to adore these creatures. If it weren't for that, we might conceivably have liked them. Being pushed is what makes it intolerable.

Note that this has nothing to do with whether or not the writers did a lot of research, or whether they're writing in other writers' universes. The first Mary Sue stories I ever read were full-scale original novels. Really, it's the self-regard that makes does it; the inadequately transformed personal fantasy masquerading as a story told to another, separate human being. You, the reader, are a separate human being, and you can tell when you read the thing that it isn't being written for you.

#140 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 12:36 AM:

Nabokov wrote in Russian, then in English. He also wrote some short pieces in French. but though he lived in Germany quite a while and spoke the language reasonably well, he seems to have had little fondness for it, and as far as I know never wrote in it at all.

#141 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 12:58 AM:

Attractiveness factors into Mary Sue-dom in that Mary Sues are wish-fulfillment characters, and wish fulfillment characters are rarely if ever ugly. At best, you get the Cinderella-in-need-of-a-makeover look.

The difference is that Mary Sue never suffers for her beauty. The only time she might get hit on by someone inappropriate for being too attractive is when they are the evil sexist scum (TM) placed there for the Amazon feminist warrior to beat on.

Mary Sue, as a defining character trait, has no deep-seated insecurities, or even everyday nervousness. If she wonders whether her date will like her dress, she's not fearing that he'll hate it or think it makes her look like a fat hooker or anything like that; she's just mildly curious if he will compliment her on it or instead praise some other facet of the wonder that is her. Even the underdog/outcast Mary Sue has lines like "Her stepmother said she was ugly, but she knew she was beautiful."

It's fine to have attractive characters, but even the prettiest people will obsess about self-perceived flaws, or even the unpleasant reality that their particular bodytype, stellar though it may be, is not going to be everyone's taste. In reality, the leggy blond with the centerfold-quality breasts finds that the guy she likes has a thing for petite waifish brunettes, and won't give her a second glance because he perceives her as out of his league and not his cup of tea anyway.

Mary Sue, whatever she may look like, has the amazing quality of always being flavor of the month in a world of faddists.

#142 ::: Tara O'Shea ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 02:09 AM:

I've been hearing about this blog entry all day from everyone I know. Wow. I had no idea the terminology had travelled to the pros... (and you can blame me--and my viciously evil Disney's Gargoyles fiction from 8 or so years back in part, for Missy writing the first Mary Sue Litmus Test online. She gets all the credit; I only accept the blame.)

Just some links to yet more Mary Sue (and Harry Stu):

Fan Fiction FAQ (scroll to mary Sue section)
Star Trek Mary Sue Litmus test
When is a Mary Sue Not a Mary Sue?

As for folks asking about "Harry Stu" and Steve's Taltos novels (which, for the record, I personally don't really think of as Harry Stus)--in the male version, I generally don't think it revolves around the romantic life of the character. But when you look at some fairly universally recognised (yet still enjoyable--least PAD come kick my ass, which I'm sure by now he'd love to anyway...) Harry Stus such as Peter David's Stone in Rock and a Hard Place and Captain Mackenzie Calhoun (and to some extent, Sir Apropos), I think the "Harrys" tend to be more maverick than maverick, swashing, buckling, and generally follow a more, well... male ideal.

To paint it in broad stereotypes--girls and women have their own agenda in wish-fulfillment fiction, so do boys and men. And that's one of the big differences from Mary to Harry. So the Harrys are not so much about finding true love, as being The Coolest Dude In The 'Verse.

#143 ::: Tara O'Shea ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 02:31 AM:

Had another thought--then I promise I'll shut up.

Easiest way to ID Mary Sue?

It's all about scale. Seriously. Everything is an extreme--and it's about the number of extreme traits, in combination, rather than the individual traits themselves. Hence my version of Missy's test including ways to difuse each individual explosive charge.

Basically? She (or he) goes to 11. A lot.

#144 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 04:03 AM:

Also, it's probably worth repeating that not every story featuring a Mary Sue is bad. Sometimes it works.

Or go re-read Tara's last link there.

Also, for anyone who is currently in the midst of deconstructing their favorite, well-liked books (or their least-favorite book that everyone else seems to like) looking for the Mary-Sue-isms, pointing out marginal-at-best examples of same, I direct you to this horrifying site and banish you to the Marissa archives.

Or, if your masochism meter is already full, you could try this version instead.

#145 ::: Neotoma ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 04:08 AM:

I'd certainly like to hear about your conversation with Joanna Russ. What were your conclusions.

Marty-Sues do wind up being the 'Coolest Guy' in the universe, and often get every desirable woman they care to notice. I'd say Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan went from okay character to MartySue in fairly short order.

I think Campbell called it the change from Hero with a Thousand Face to Emperor of Everything. The Emperor is quite boring to read about, though he makes an okay villian. But MartySues are never written as villians...

#146 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 04:19 AM:

KAM -- I too loved your version of the Odyssey. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

JVP -- lighten up, dude! In a Buddhist sense, your putting energy into those folks continues to give them power over you. It's not easy to let go when you think someone's slandered you (I have some experience here, which is not worth explicating) but letting go is, in the long run, a lot easier on you. I know it's been easier on me. Would you rather be right, or happy? (Hint -- this is not a simple question!) From what you're posting here, I think you'd rather be right.

All on this thread -- read, enjoyed, sitting in the back of my mind for sharing.

Cheers,
Tom

#147 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 08:54 AM:

Mris -

I think you've got it; the point is not how attractive someone is, it's how they themselves treat their own attractiveness. (There are been any number of non-Mary Sue spectacularly beautiful women in fiction. Raederle from Riddle comes to mind, the second most beautiful woman in the three portions of An, and this is not what you remember first about her.)

Arwen Evenstar isn't a particularly good example (because she's not on stage very often, even if you read "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen"), but she's one of the three most beautiful women who will ever live, so much so that even the hobbits notice. You don't end up feeling that this is the most important thing about her, though, nor that she is unjustly advantaged.

I've known at least one person who was attractive enough that conversations tended to stop when she walked into a room; she was (and is) entirely oblivious to this in a fashion so obviously unfeigned that it has been known to drive female acquaintances into a fury.

It's when the character knows everyone wants them, and treats this as an axiomatically appropriate state of affairs, that you're into Mary Sue territory.

My head seems to be full of Lord of the Rings examples this morning; consider Galadriel's "All shall love me and despair". The Ring would have turned her into a Mary Sue, someone who thought that outcome was a good thing.

#148 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 09:43 AM:

Raederle is a good example of a character who really is beautiful, and it isn't the focus of her life or of how people react to her.

Graydon, if your friend were a Mary Sue, her female acquaintances would think it entirely meet and proper for conversation to stop when she entered the room.

#149 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 10:25 AM:

Vicki --

Ah, but of course. That makes it a much better example. Thank you!

#150 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 11:02 AM:

1)
"Scylla and Charybdis

"When they get to the arm monster and the whirlpool monster, Circe reveals that she once turned the nymph Charybdis into the whirlpool monster because "she sucked" but has now repented this act, so breaks the spell, bringing Charybdis aboard and apologizing. Charybdis isn't particularly convinced until Circe offers to share Odysseus and Odysseus seduces Charybdis, who after that much practice can put Monica Lewinsky to shame..."

Monica wasn't famous for quality, just for 'doing it.' If you want to put in a comparison, how about the practitioner who gave "the best ... in Hollywood"? Her name was Nancy, and she spent a lot of time in the Oval Office too.

2)
Time Enough For Love wasn't a Mary Sue? You could have fooled me. Shpould've called it The Mary Sutra.

#151 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 11:32 AM:

Teresa: Yes. (About "pushing" the reader to love Mary Sue.) A great authorial sin is open manipulation. The writer who can manipulate the reader's emotions without the reader feeling manipulated is a writer of great skill.

Jonathan Vos Post: Funny. In your earlier post, your brush-off was due to the program heads being self-appointed Ayatollahs, and to their not being sufficiently impressed by how many names your father could drop. Now it's about your being defamed by other persons unidentified. This certainly does not make science fiction circles sound very enticing places, so I'm sorry that your professional obligations require you to associate with them.

#152 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 11:33 AM:

It's when the character knows everyone wants them, and treats this as an axiomatically appropriate state of affairs, that you're into Mary Sue territory.

Which is probably one thing that saves Carrot Ironfoundersson from absolute Mary Sueism - though I suspect a lot of his MS qualities were deliberately written as such. (Not to mention that satire and Mary Sue are probably mutually exclusive forces anyway.)

#153 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 11:34 AM:

Great stuff -- I've been following this luscious tangle of threads for days!

Speaking of Tolkien, as some of you recently were, today's fascinating NYT Movies section on LOTR (http://www.nytimes.com/ref/movies/07LOTR-REF.html)has an interview with Viggo Mortensson that makes him sound like the ultimate ANTI-Harry Stu; and the original W.H. Auden reviews of books 1 and 3, plus Kathryn K. on Tolkien's style (bravo!) are also a pleasure to read.

#154 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 11:44 AM:

Utterly Frivolous PS: The latest NASA site photo - http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap031207.html -is gorgeous, but I couldn't help thinking of it as the Eye of Sauron developing a cataract.

#155 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 01:12 PM:

Just read most of this thread all at once, so I have a few remarks on older posts.

I quite like Meredith Schwartz's observation that "storytelling is a conversation, and while making the new is an important part, especially in SF, talking back is a big piece too." Any passerby who thinks this thread is about disparaging the impulse toward fan fiction should keep that in mind.

Glenn Hauman observes that "There is a considerable amount of 'Fools! Look at me! I'll show you how to fix your puny universe! Ah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah!' in these works." A comment that could have easily gone into the thread about Mormonism, really.

Dan Layman-Kennedy writes that "I mentioned Vlad Taltos in particular because I recall reading that Steve Brust deliberately made him a kind of dark-reflection wish-fulfillment character--he grew up being liked but not respected and thought it would be fun to write a character who was just the opposite. That could be apocryphal, of course." I don't know if it's apocryphal, but I do note that Steve has elsewhere displayed an interest in techniques of reversal, if you will. In writing the epistolary novel Freedom and Necessity with Emma Bull, Steve--the Marxist materialist--wrote all of the religious and mystical characters; whereas Emma, whose outlook is very different, wrote the hardcore materialists.

Alan Bostick said "A stopped clock is right twice a day, David. In this case, Ellison is right: 'sci-fi' is regarded as offensive in the SF community." Alan and I are of roughly the same vintage in the SF world, but it's my sense that people are finally giving up on this. I certainly hope so. It's not the term I would have picked for Our Beloved Storytelling Flavor, but the fact is that whole generations of readers and viewers have grown up thinking of themselves as devoted to "sci-fi", and one of their commonest first-contact experiences with the actual SF subculture entails them getting dealt a big superiority-dance about how awful the term is. It is not one of our lovelier traits as a community, and I'll be just as happy to see it fade.


#156 ::: Rachael HD ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 02:50 PM:

Gracious goodness. I too have just read all above in one big lump. I have a number of responses, most of them said well by others or personal and boring. I am pondering the fact that many books I really enjoyed were listed as examples of pro level Mary Sues... wondering what awfull thing that says about me. I am also pondering the SF vs. sci-fi thing, I am too old to be a neo-fan, too young to be old guard, and too unconnected to my local branch of fandom to be considered a fan, I guess. I got the "big superiority-dance" about "sci-fi" on my first encounter with local fandom and although I attended the local convention for years I never really became a part of the local community. I have in the intervening decades grown to know and love much about fandom, but I think on some level that initial slap-down has kept me seperate. In that respect I think that Patrick is correct, the sooner that distinction and it's related litmus-tests of insider status fade the better. If a community is to continue it needs a method of welcoming new-comers.

#157 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 03:14 PM:

Debra said (after other cogent points): And third, male characters in popular fiction are more or less expected to be larger than life; nothing cultural is transgressed against when that happens. On the other hand, watch out for those sensitive, quiet, intellectual male characters, especially those of artistic bent. When looked at carefully, they often bear an uncanny resemblance to, if not the author, at least the author's much nicer second cousin.

My immediate reaction to this was "You mean, like Ruy Jacques in Harness's "The Rose"? That's not quite fair -- in An Ornament to His Profession (Harness short-fiction omnibus) he says Ruy was modeled on his much-admired 9-years-older brother (who died of a brain tumor at 26, so Harness had only upward-looking memories) -- but there's a quality of omnipotence and omniscience in Ruy that is relieved by little more than his love's dieing at the end of the story (not for him, but to save the entire artistic quarter from a government-sponsored Mad Scientist).

wrt Spenser: I think it's become not Mary Sue (beyond the wish fulfillment that it always was) but simply stale with repetion -- and possibly unbelievable, as some of Spenser's character and formative experience depend on people old enough that their proteges wouldn't still be winning fistfights and satisfying sexy shrinks. He's started two new characters that depend more on their self-driven determination (one not unlike the semi--self-portrait in Love and Glory) that seem fresher.

And yes, that was a very effective demonstration of the difference between the Odyssey and a Mary Sue.

#158 ::: Ray ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 03:19 PM:

The female protagonist of "Lost in Translation" is as nasty an example as I've suffered through on film: a Mary Sue with enough money and industry clout to hire the *real Captain Kirk* for her script.

#159 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 04:10 PM:

Time Enough for Love isn't a Marty Stu (unlike the subsequent Lazarus Long books) because Lazarus Long actually suffers in it. His despair at the start of the book is entirely realistic, and death of Dora is one of the most affecting scenes in all Heinlein's novels. Also, I'd note very few Marty Stus (or is that Stues?) wet their pants while landing airplanes.

#160 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 04:26 PM:

Dear Teresa,

My apologies for being unclear. Especially as you have been so helpful. I was making a self-deprecating comment of Ayatollahs in the literal sense, when I recognized that I was being morally inflexible, and then tried harder to see the other side's point of view. Con Committee chairs tend to be very good at what they do.

You reasonably posted: "Funny. In your earlier post, your brush-off was due to the program heads being self-appointed Ayatollahs, and to their not being sufficiently impressed by how many names your father could drop. Now it's about your being defamed by other persons unidentified. This certainly does not make science fiction circles sound very enticing places, so I'm sorry that your professional obligations require you to associate with them."

My "brush off"(s) are part of a pattern and practice that have severely hurt both my employment and my time available to write fiction. The issue is not name dropping (admittedly something that I do) but that my family has a 50-year tradition of professional collaboration with major authors. I admit that I should not be judged on my father (or vice versa), but that is a footnote as to my depth of experience, even vicariously.

I am happy to identify culprits, but NOT openly on your blog. That would be very impolite. Technically, recent precedent indemnifies you to damages for defamation on your blog (assuming the courts see the relationship between blog and ISP), but I dare not risk your being legally harassed by the very deep-pockets attorneys for the perps. I can tell you off line if you care (and it is probably not worth your time).

Science fiction circles are indeed very enticing places. Since the 1970s, these are some of the places where I have been most cordially welcomed, protected, informed, flattered, facilitated in publishing, given a chance to interact with like-minded people, granted an opportunity to make friends, and even given the chance to meet the woman whom I subsequently married. Hence I am sensitive to even a few blots on the singular record of wonder.

The defamation is corroborated by almost 10,000 pages of evidence. It lost me a job over a decade ago that paid (corrected for inflation) $120,000 per year, with very big benefits. It is still being disseminated, and thus the few con problems show that the bell is not only unrung, but being re-rung. It confirms why I continue to again and again have multiple rounds of interview for very senior jobs that suddenly end, after I am one of as few as 2 finalists, in my being dropped from further consideration, just as the potential employer does a final background check and contacts someone in the circle of republished defamation.

I do like being even a part-time professor. It pays a small fraction of what I made in aerospace. Academe is almost as enticing as science fiction circles, albeit with different standards of publication, differently skewed politics, less-clear language, and infighting more directly related to promotion/pay. However, I should still like to have a six-figure income again, and be a writer in my re-expanded discretionary time.

I am not a bad writer. I am published. I have won awards, and been nominated for others. I'd like to have the luxury of writing more. I'm tired of writing legal briefs, even though that gets me $30/hour. I prefer SF, Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Mystery, Espionage, Westerns, Poetry, almost any other writing.

I tremendously admire authors such as Jean Auel who wrote while working and raising children, or Tom Clancy (he phoned me and discussed the same), or Harry Turtledove (who achieved his first few books while working full-time very near where I did, and being a good dad). Oddly, I find it easier to write while more-than-full-time employed rather than when less-than-full-time employed.

What blindsided me was that malign SF fans could damage me in venues where I thought my accomplishments had securely established me, such as in designing Moon Bases, programming space shuttles, mission planning planetary spacecraft, testifying to governmental bodies, acting as an elected poltical officer, and even buying rights for science fiction in projects where I am a team member.

Tom Whitmore has plausibly advised me to "get over it" or "lighten up", I think, on another thread of your superb blog. I'd love to. I have run out of cheeks to turn, and am trying to make peace and move forward. I was was advised by an expert: "The problem is, you aren't paranoid enough." Whew. Given the uncredentialed private eye work I do, and the law enforcement assistance I've rendered, related to several crooked cops now jailed for drug-related money-laundering crimes, I thought I was rather jaundiced. But I do need occasional checking as to exactly who is defaming me now. Technically, that allows reopening the 15 years of lawsuits. Except, as I say, I am weary beyong description thereof.

Again, thank you for your kindness, clarity, and clear-eyed skpticism.

#161 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 04:26 PM:

Dear Teresa,

My apologies for being unclear. Especially as you have been so helpful. I was making a self-deprecating comment of Ayatollahs in the literal sense, when I recognized that I was being morally inflexible, and then tried harder to see the other side's point of view. Con Committee chairs tend to be very good at what they do.

You reasonably posted: "Funny. In your earlier post, your brush-off was due to the program heads being self-appointed Ayatollahs, and to their not being sufficiently impressed by how many names your father could drop. Now it's about your being defamed by other persons unidentified. This certainly does not make science fiction circles sound very enticing places, so I'm sorry that your professional obligations require you to associate with them."

My "brush off"(s) are part of a pattern and practice that have severely hurt both my employment and my time available to write fiction. The issue is not name dropping (admittedly something that I do) but that my family has a 50-year tradition of professional collaboration with major authors. I admit that I should not be judged on my father (or vice versa), but that is a footnote as to my depth of experience, even vicariously.

I am happy to identify culprits, but NOT openly on your blog. That would be very impolite. Technically, recent precedent indemnifies you to damages for defamation on your blog (assuming the courts see the relationship between blog and ISP), but I dare not risk your being legally harassed by the very deep-pockets attorneys for the perps. I can tell you off line if you care (and it is probably not worth your time).

Science fiction circles are indeed very enticing places. Since the 1970s, these are some of the places where I have been most cordially welcomed, protected, informed, flattered, facilitated in publishing, given a chance to interact with like-minded people, granted an opportunity to make friends, and even given the chance to meet the woman whom I subsequently married. Hence I am sensitive to even a few blots on the singular record of wonder.

The defamation is corroborated by almost 10,000 pages of evidence. It lost me a job over a decade ago that paid (corrected for inflation) $120,000 per year, with very big benefits. It is still being disseminated, and thus the few con problems show that the bell is not only unrung, but being re-rung. It confirms why I continue to again and again have multiple rounds of interview for very senior jobs that suddenly end, after I am one of as few as 2 finalists, in my being dropped from further consideration, just as the potential employer does a final background check and contacts someone in the circle of republished defamation.

I do like being even a part-time professor. It pays a small fraction of what I made in aerospace. Academe is almost as enticing as science fiction circles, albeit with different standards of publication, differently skewed politics, less-clear language, and infighting more directly related to promotion/pay. However, I should still like to have a six-figure income again, and be a writer in my re-expanded discretionary time.

I am not a bad writer. I am published. I have won awards, and been nominated for others. I'd like to have the luxury of writing more. I'm tired of writing legal briefs, even though that gets me $30/hour. I prefer SF, Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Mystery, Espionage, Westerns, Poetry, almost any other writing.

I tremendously admire authors such as Jean Auel who wrote while working and raising children, or Tom Clancy (he phoned me and discussed the same), or Harry Turtledove (who achieved his first few books while working full-time very near where I did, and being a good dad). Oddly, I find it easier to write while more-than-full-time employed rather than when less-than-full-time employed.

What blindsided me was that malign SF fans could damage me in venues where I thought my accomplishments had securely established me, such as in designing Moon Bases, programming space shuttles, mission planning planetary spacecraft, testifying to governmental bodies, acting as an elected poltical officer, and even buying rights for science fiction in projects where I am a team member.

Tom Whitmore has plausibly advised me to "get over it" or "lighten up", I think, on another thread of your superb blog. I'd love to. I have run out of cheeks to turn, and am trying to make peace and move forward. I was was advised by an expert: "The problem is, you aren't paranoid enough." Whew. Given the uncredentialed private eye work I do, and the law enforcement assistance I've rendered, related to several crooked cops now jailed for drug-related money-laundering crimes, I thought I was rather jaundiced. But I do need occasional checking as to exactly who is defaming me now. Technically, that allows reopening the 15 years of lawsuits. Except, as I say, I am weary beyong description thereof.

Again, thank you for your kindness, clarity, and clear-eyed skpticism.

#162 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 04:43 PM:

CHip: "wrt Spenser: I think it's become not Mary Sue (beyond the wish fulfillment that it always was) but simply stale with repetion -- and possibly unbelievable, as some of Spenser's character and formative experience depend on people old enough that their proteges wouldn't still be winning fistfights and satisfying sexy shrinks. He's started two new characters that depend more on their self-driven determination (one not unlike the semi--self-portrait in Love and Glory) that seem fresher."

"Stale with repetition," yes. I expect Parker knows what his reader wants, and is to some extent cranking out a formula to satisfy those readers. Still, if Spenser is not Marty Stu he resembles one.

Parker has said Spenser is aging, but not in realtime. You'll notice in the later books, Parker has retconned some of Spenser's personal history. In the earlier books, Spenser was a Korean War veteran, now his military service is no longer mentioned. In the early books, the highlight of Spenser's brief, inglorious boxing career was that he fought, and was beaten by, Jersey Joe Wollcott. Now he no longe mentions that.

It's only in the latest book that Spenser once again has his personal history fixed way in the past. He's investigating a crime that occurred in 1974, and it's clear that he was an adult then. He mentions having quit smoking in 1963. It's jarring. You say to yourself: he quit smoking in 1963. OK, let's say he was 25 then. That makes him 65 years old today. Is he really going to be winning street brawls and satisfying sexy shrinks at the age of 65?

The answer is yes, for some people at least. Spenser doesn't really brawl anymore, although there are a couple of pretty good gunfights in the latest novel. Even 200 years ago, before the advent of modern medicine and nutritional knowledge, there were people who were active well into their Senior Citizen years; a 70+ German general fought at the Battle of Waterloo and had a horse or two shot out from under him too. And as to satisfying the sexy shrinks: they make these little blue pills, ya know....

One of the things that has always interested me is how writers of longtime series characters handle the aging of their characters. Some, like Rex Stout don't age their characters at all: the world of each Nero Wolfe novel is up-to-the-minute contemporary with the world at the time Stout wrote the novel, but Nero and Archie are always in their 40s nd 30s, respectively.

In the Time Patrol series, Poul Anderson didn't have that problem. When he wrote the stories around 1950, his hero was a World War II veteran, apparently in his 20s, recruited by the Time Patrol. "The Shield of Time," set in the 1980s, the hero could STILL be a World War II veteran apparently in his 20s because he was a time traveler.

adamsj Time Enough for Love isn't a Marty Stu (unlike the subsequent Lazarus Long books) because Lazarus Long actually suffers in it. His despair at the start of the book is entirely realistic, and death of Dora is one of the most affecting scenes in all Heinlein's novels. Also, I'd note very few Marty Stus (or is that Stues?) wet their pants while landing airplanes.

Lazarus Long isn't a Mary Sue in TEFL, but he is similar to one. He is the most respected man in the universe, all the women (and men too) want to have sex with him. He gets to live in Heinlein's perfect house, and pilot a spaceship, too.

But, as you say, he isn't JUST a Marty Stu. There's a lot more going on there, a hell of a lot more.

Hmm... I think I see myself rereading a couple of Heinlein novels in the near future....

#163 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 08:18 PM:

Ray, are you talking about the “Lost in Translation” I think you’re talking about? If so, you not liking Sofia Coppola doesn’t make Scarlett Johansson’s character a Mary Sue. She has flaws; she doesn’t come close to getting everything she wants; and it’s not All About Her — it’s as much, if not more, about Bill Murray’s character as it is about hers.

#164 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 09:03 PM:

(I believe The Steel Bonnets cites a Border Marches lord who fought well into his nineties. )

I slice the milder cases of Mary Sue-ism by, as has been said above, how much the narrator assumes the M.S. should be loved by the reader and everyone else. That's where I think the later McCaffrey and Cordelia Vorkosigan lose me; frequently I'm thinking "What a smug thing to do" while the narration is announcing either that everyone wuvs her or that anyone who doesn't is a big meanie.

The midlife-crises-adultery genre has a preposterous number of English professors. Ars Poetica and Small World and The Mind-Body Problem are good novels anyway.

#165 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 10:01 PM:

Thank you for the link to "The Game of the Gods" and the interesting discussion both. Good ways to spend a day holed up recovering from a cold. :-)

#166 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 10:22 PM:

I'm amused to find that according to the Lord of the Rings Mary Sue Litmus Test, Arwen and Eowyn both fall under the category of "Borderline Mary-Sue. Story can still be salvaged."

These things don't apply to characters who are themselves thoroughly cannonical, of course. But it does imply a certain danger in trying to apply any one set of standards to figure out what is a Mary Sue, and what isn't.

#167 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2003, 11:32 PM:

>>I would nominate Cordelia Vorkosigan as a Mary-Sue.

I would guess that Cordelia Naysmith started out as a M*r* S**, but rapidly became much much more. But I would also guess that Miles Vorkosigan has ended up as a M*r* S**, and that this poses powerful problems for LMB's future story arc in that series (even though it has been a great ride throughout).

Just my HO, of course. I'm probably wrong.

#168 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 12:18 AM:

I don't know if it's apocryphal, but I do note that Steve has elsewhere displayed an interest in techniques of reversal, if you will. In writing the epistolary novel Freedom and Necessity with Emma Bull, Steve--the Marxist materialist--wrote all of the religious and mystical characters; whereas Emma, whose outlook is very different, wrote the hardcore materialists.

D'you know, I think that makes a thing or two about Teckla a lot clearer as well.

#169 ::: Ide Cyan ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 12:28 AM:

Cordelia Naismith might have started off as a Mary Sue, but even aside from the complexity of her character and LMB's great talent blurring the line between original character and Mary Sue, she became a heroine in her own right when she got her own universe to exist in, instead of being limited by the nest of Star Trek fan fiction.

#170 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 12:31 AM:

I just re-read Teresa's original description of a Mary Sue as someone "who runs off to join the Company of the Ring, sorts out Boromir’s problems, out-magics Gandalf, out-fights Aragorn during the melodramatic scene in which she reveals her true identity, demonstrates herself to be so spiritually elevated that the Ring has no effect on her, and wins Legolas’ heart forever."

Which reminds me to urge you all to read the quite amusing proto-Mary Sue parody, in a default Arthurian setting, in the "What Happened to Katharine" chapter of Edward Eager's immortal -Half Magic-. In which Katharine learns that you can achieve a lot of heroic deeds like unto the above list, but it won't make you or anybody else happy.

And it's a lot funnier and more pointed, in my opinion, than anything in "The Game of the Gods."

#171 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 01:26 AM:

JVP: From what I've seen, the bad stuff that happens because people have undeservedly taken a dislike to you tends to be balanced by the good stuff that happens because people have undeservedly taken a liking to you. I think everyone has been the victim of behind-the-scenes backstabbing and recipient of behind-the-scenes nepotism, and when you come right down to it, it's probably a wash. Besides which, aside from the karmic benefits of turning the other cheek, there are also a few social ones that even Machiavelli would approve of: Consider the PR of Jesus vs. the PR of Lazarus. "Dude, you stabbed this poor guy who was already nailed to a cross? You suck."

If Jesus had been insulting Lazarus's bathing habits and the sexual proclivities of his mother, before or after the stabbing, public opionion might be a bit different.

#172 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 04:02 AM:

I think Campbell called it the change from Hero with a Thousand Faces to Emperor of Everything. The Emperor is quite boring to read about, though he makes an okay villian.

Actually it was Norman Spinrad who called it that.

One of the things that has always interested me is how writers of longtime series characters handle the aging of their characters. Some, like Rex Stout don't age their characters at all: the world of each Nero Wolfe novel is up-to-the-minute contemporary with the world at the time Stout wrote the novel, but Nero and Archie are always in their 40s nd 30s, respectively.

I haven't read that series myself, but I've heard that there's a minor character who's a teenager in one book, and has a teenage son in another book set a number of years later. Nero and Archie have remained unaging throughout, of course!

#173 ::: John Kozak ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 07:28 AM:

Marie Correlli must be mentioned here, especially "The Sorrows of
Satan", which has to be the most shameless MS I've ever read
(self-introjected character is called "Mavis Clare" - dig those
initials!).

Someone claimed that the Sherlock Holmes stories weren't MSs. I
disagree: but the MS character is, of course, Watson (pragmatic,
efficient; always putting SH back on the rails; gets the girl).
Watson's much more self-effacing than the exemplars presented here,
and he's not the superbrain either: but both of those qualities are
wholly consistent with the ideal type of the time.

"Snowcrash" is entirely MS, of course.

#174 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 08:48 AM:

David Goldfarb --
Emperor of Everything ... "Actually it was Norman Spinrad who called it that."

Well, Norm first used the phrase in print, in an editorial of the same name.

I actually coined the phrase.

This was, I believe, before he moved to Paris.

I'd compiled a list roughly 100 entries in length, of Astro-Royalty, such as:

Viscount of Venus
Maharajah of Mars
Nabob of Neptune
Prince of Pluto
...

and I ended the list with "Emperor of Everything."

I showed the list to Norman -- it might have conceivably been the last time he slept over at my home in Altadena, California, while he was at an Eaton Conference.

He correctly thought it was silly, but exclaimed that he loved the final phrase.

And, for heaven's sake, nobody can copyright a title. But I somewhat wish he'd mentioned in the essay that he'd gotten the phrase from me, just as I wish that Vernor Vinge'd credited me with "smart matter" and its synonym "programmable matter" which I'd told him about in discussion, when he was still teaching Math in San Diego.

It may be part of my reputation among friends that I'm forever coining cute phrases, and tossing them into public domain. There is an inexhuastible supply, after all.

Sometimes I do get mentioned in the acknowledgments of books by such friends, as has happened in many of David Brin's first novels, with myself and my wife both being named characters in Greg Bear's "Forge of God", Robert Heinlein citing me by name and quoting a single sentence from one of my Omni cover articles, in his afterword to his article on Antimatter in his collection "Expanded Universe", and the like.

A recent twist on this is the referencing of web pages of mine in the bibliography of books. For instance, Gina Ross' "Beyond the Trauma Vortex: the Media's Role in Healing Fear, Terror, & Violence" [Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2003] lists on p.206 my page "Open Questions on the Correlation Between Television and Violence" at
http://magicdragon.com/EmeraldCity/Nonfiction/socphil.html

while Douglas R. Hofstadter quotes me approvingly for a single sentence in "Metamagical Themas" [paperback, March 1996, p.26]

Sometimes it even pays. For instance, my short story "Raymond Chandler's Hamlet" -- which had been Honorable Mention in the International Imitation Raymond Chandler Competition one year, was up on my web site and spotted by an editor who phoned me (rare event!) asking permission to include it in an anthology of modernized Shakespeare for High School and College audiences. I negotiated terms, had that confirmed by fax, and then received the magical check by snailmail. One term was that I get some specific number of copies of the textbook on publications, and the publisher foolishly tried FedExing to my P.O. Box, so I never got the copies for my own library, about 12 shelf-feet of which has a partial sample of magazines and books with artciles, stories, poems of mine embedded.

This brings us back around the Mary Sues being, by nature, unpublishable. The strange exception being that one can, thanks to the web, even get published without submitting!

Is that a real danger for the cringeworthy Mary Sue? Outside my area of expertise. Although maybe my cosmic egotism caused me to even come up with the supremely grandiose title, "Emperor of Everything." Unconcerned lies the head that wears the crown.

Come, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad Mary Sues about the slight discomfort of Kings, how some got hangnails while conquering pushover foes, and others slightly inconvenienced while bedding buxom babes...

#175 ::: Pete Darby ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 09:49 AM:

Ah well... no mention anywhere of worst Mary Sue ever...

http://www.hitentertainment.com/thomasthetankengine/magic/home.html

If you ever wondered what happens when a Mary Sue writer gets hold of the rights to a setting... no, not even then. I only had to watch the damn thing because of my 4 year old son.

Suffice it to say, the Island of Sodor is saved by a new engine called Lady, who is voiced by the writer/director/producer/owner of the rights to thomas the tank engine.

#176 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 10:15 AM:

Quickly back to Michelle West: I'm having problems with the fifth book. She, like Jordan, has a huge story to tell, but to suddenly create entire sub-plots in book five that take up a huge amount of pages? Yes, it's helping forward the story -- a bit -- but not enough to warrant their inclusion.

Jordan needs tighter editing, but then, he has since about the fifth book. Someone needs to slap him up'side the head and tell him to just finish the bloody thing.

#177 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 10:19 AM:

One of the things that has always interested me is how writers of longtime series characters handle the aging of their characters. Some, like Rex Stout don't age their characters at all: the world of each Nero Wolfe novel is up-to-the-minute contemporary with the world at the time Stout wrote the novel, but Nero and Archie are always in their 40s nd 30s, respectively.

Two others that come to mind are Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books, and Diane Duane's Young Wizards series--the characters are aging in story time, at most, but the technology quietly updates itself in the background, with no fuss (well, except for Dortmunder distrusting the gadgets that Kelp tries to foist off on him). The difference between this and the Wolfe books is that _all_ of the characters are held in this little bubble of time that wafts them forward, not just Wolfe and Goodwin--surely _A Right to Die_ is one of the more surreal moments in literary history for just that reason.

#178 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 10:59 AM:

I feel that Fritz Leiber did a splendid job of aging Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Definitive sword & sorcery. On the other hand, Tolkien is making a point in having Gandalf and various Elves appear not to age at all, from the standpoint of Hobbits or Men.

And, hey, Superboy grew up to be Superman, right?

What is that list that Harlan Ellison likes to trot out about the recurring series fictional characters of the past century or two whom everybody in the woirld knows? Something like:

Sherlock Holmes
Superman
Batman
James Bond
...

And how well do those on the list age?

#179 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 11:06 AM:

Just as a small sidebar to this discussion, Teresa and I have been (thanks to the kindness of friends who loaned us the DVDs) watching the entirety of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, and it struck Teresa last night that the episode "Superstar," in which reality is inexplicably altered so that class nerd Jonathan becomes the town hero, is arguably a sly commentary on the whole Mary Sue thing. Jonathan's fantasy, which he manages to temporarily inflict on everyone, has that Mary Sue-ish quality of no restraint--he's a sports hero and a Nobel-winning scientist and a world-famous pop musician and he (of course) fights crime.

#180 ::: Tara O'Shea ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 11:45 AM:

Yep--Jane Espenson is a sly one :) (And Jonathan and that episode are mentioned in the Buffy/Angel Mary Sue Litmus Test and Fanfic FAQL) That's one of the reasons Superstar is a fan-fave, actually. The ME folks know their audience (and our self-mocking sense of humour).

The one part of the Mary Sue phenomenon that's very common to Buffy fandom is what fans have taken to calling the "Willow Sue" (the Smallville version is "Chloe Sue"), where an author basically takes over that character (because she's the character the predominantly adult female core audience identifies with the most) and she becomes the author's mouthpiece/surrogate.

#181 ::: Tara O'Shea ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 11:49 AM:

Oh! and The Random Buffy Mary Sue Generator might amuse the masses, as well...

#182 ::: genibee ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 12:59 PM:

John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee was a series character that had the same sort of issues that Spencer seems to have (I must pick up the Spencer books, I think). After a while, his military experience is only referred to, whereas I think in the earlier books, it's specifically Korea. Sue Grafton has explicitly kept her heroine Kinsey Millhone in booktime, and doesn't push her forward. No internet for Kinsey, alas.

#183 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 02:05 PM:

What is that list that Harlan Ellison likes to trot out about the recurring series fictional characters of the past century or two whom everybody in the woirld knows?

The version I've read, in his delightfully dippy introduction to my American printings of a bunch of old Doctor Who novelizations, lists Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and Tarzan.

#184 ::: Neotoma ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 02:57 PM:

Don't forget Mickey Mouse, who probably tops that list.

#185 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 04:11 PM:

McGee's jump with a lucky stone experience strikes me as likely drawn from life as is the tree clearing by machine gun of Green Ripper but the unannounced move toward Vietnam allowed MacDonald to use Chindit style experience that might not have played for Korea.

I always pictured more of an age difference for Wolfe and Goodwin, such that the Baring-Gould (Nero Wolfe of West 34th St.) described archness of "did you know I'm a father" did not seem absurd.

Paul Giacomon and Pearl both age - the last NYT book review for Spenser (with an s like the poet?) talked interestingly about this skewing of age.

#186 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 06:31 PM:

Now that I think of it, the Internet does not seem to exist in the Spenser novels, either. There's no indication that any of the major characters even have computers.

#187 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 06:36 PM:

Now that I think of it, the Internet does not seem to exist in the Spenser novels, either. There's no indication that any of the major characters even have computers.

#188 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 07:41 PM:

An old detective favorite of mine, Emma Lathen's banker John Putnam Thatcher, started in the late 50s and was still appearing in the 90s, but by then they had stopped mentioning his service in World War I.

#189 ::: Neil Gaiman ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 08:03 PM:

Speaking of which, I once read the The Aspern Papers by Henry James, and it left me with a slight migrane. I'm not claiming any supernatural forces were at work, but could probably attribute it to a bad vowel on page 52 of the Puffin edition. I certainly never slept with the bay window curtains wrapped around me after that!

------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial interpolation from PNH:

This comment, posted from IP address 195.92.168.177, isn't actually from Neil Gaiman, as the real Neil Gaiman points out downthread.

Everybody: Don't do this.

#190 ::: Arthur C Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 08:05 PM:

Actually, it's 'migraine', mister Neil. :/

#191 ::: Moira Russell ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 08:43 PM:

That's how you do the Odyssey as a Mary Sue

Ohmigod, I have a cold, and I had trouble breathing already -- laughed till I choked.

#192 ::: Alison Faye ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2003, 11:57 PM:

Having only seen fanfic from a distance (except, now that I think about it, for an Orson Scott Card story, which I read a long time ago, that was set in the Foundation universe), I found this whole concept new and fascinating.

Even after I realized it applied to all my idle daydreams about what I would do in this world or that world ... and started blushing as I discovered that my inner self is a Mary Sue!

But my reason for posting is to bump the question about Ender Wiggin (based on popularity, I'm guessing he isn't a Mary Sue, but I don't remember him handling many things badly other than people management).

#193 ::: Alison Faye ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 12:06 AM:

I guess that means I should call myself Ali Faye.

Anyway, the story is called "The Originist" and is found in a collection called Flux (and, based on the things I've read while occasionally lurking, I am guessing that most of you already knew that. But I try to be helpful).

#194 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 12:14 AM:

For someone who aged his detectives in interesting ways, may I point to Peter Dickinson's Inspector Pibble books? He gets fired, and in the last book (so far at least), ONE FOOT AND THE GRAVE, he's in an old-folks'-home and coping with not having any short-term memory. One can also look at the princess in KING AND JOKER and SKELETON-IN-WAITING.

But then, Dickinson is probably the best author I know of for writing books from the point of view of the viewpoint character. Too many folks write from their own point of view and pretend it's the character's (a subtle form of Mary-Sue?). And in the Pibble mysteries he manages to write from the changing point of view of an aging character, keeping him consistent but making the different versions obviously different.

This is why I think he's one of the unsung heros of 20th century literature.

Cheers,
Tom

#195 ::: Kielle ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 01:56 AM:

Whoa. Just wanted to say thank you very much for the quote -- I'm enjoying the conversation with my ears burning a bit at how severely a certain Mary Sue Avatar site needs to be dusted off and updated. I have a feeling my original quick explanation is no longer sufficient! *blush*

Much amused,
.-=K=-.
("Nine Men")

#196 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 02:02 AM:

Emperor of Everything ... "Actually it was Norman Spinrad who called it that."

Well, Norm first used the phrase in print, in an editorial of the same name.

I actually coined the phrase.

I did not know that. Cool. It was a book review column in Asimov's, however, rather than an editorial.

#197 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 08:09 AM:

Westlake's Dortmunder, Kelp, etc. are pretty much ageless, thoguh their environment isn't. In fact, more than a bit of the humor comes from the gang's encounters with increasingly sophisticated technology, while they remain the same old old-school crooks.
Westlake's Parker, on the other hand, is at least once mentioned as being in England during World War II, yet he's still robbing and killing in style.
My favorite phrase in "The Aspern Papers" occurs when the narrator wonders what the sisters do in their apartment for so many hours at a time--what "mystic rites of ennui" did they celebrate?

#198 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 08:23 AM:

I was startled to read "The Originist" and walk away thinking that someone other than Asimov may have written the best Foundation story ever--it shows how the form formerly known as fanfic can work.

Having recently read Ender's Game for the first time, I say it's not a Mary Sue. Of course, Clark in Podkayne of Mars isn't one either, which doesn't keep him from being impossible.

#199 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 09:52 AM:

Speaking of Homer and Mary Sues, there's always Samuel Bulter's theory that the author of the Odyssey did a self-insertion — as Nausicaa. Not that she's on-stage enough to count as a Mary Sue (though she does get looked at appreciatively by the hero).

Butler was, natch, Robert Grave's mentor in classical crackpottery. Wonderful resources for fiction writers, but use as cautiously as habañero powder.

---L.

#200 ::: Kass Fireborn ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 10:31 AM:

Dan Layman-Kennedy/Kate Nepveu/anna/etc/etc--
(I can't believe I read the whole page.)

Actually, this raises an interesting point I see brought up too seldom, and that is something along the lines of 'the pendulum has swung the other way'. A prime example of this would be the way one of the biggest discussions on the SF/F section of this years NaNoWriMo forums was pages and pages of people agonizing over somehow not writing a Mary Sue in their stories--because, as we all should know by now, it's such a very easy thing to do, and those cursed evil Mary Sues are just lurking out of sight, waiting to creep into your writing as soon as your female character turns out to be the best at anything at all or wins a true victory. As far as I could tell, the result of all this was at least half of them ended up with characters who were a lot less interesting than the people they started out as. In fact, as I work my way down the page of comments, I'm starting to see the issue crop of here as well.

A better article on the negative impacts of anti-Mary-Sue actions on fandom would probably Rhiannon Shaw's In Defense of Original Characters, where she comes up with what I think is the most useable definition of a Mary Sue: "What a Mary Sue is, folks, is bad writing." Which isn't to say you can't have a well-written author self-insertion character--but if you do, nobody is really going to care that much. The point of calling something a Mary Sue isn't so much that she's got all that power and everybody loves her--it's that reading her gives most people an "Ew" feeling. There's no quick and easy fix for that, either, no, "If you make the character this pretty she's a Mary Sue but if she's only this pretty, she's fine." It's all a matter of writing well enough to sell your characters (sell them to the reader, that is).


"If you say "sci-fi" around Harlan Ellison, he takes a baby seal out of his pocket and beats it to death while forcing you to watch. He keeps a little club chained to his belt for just this purpose."

I just narrowly avoided a spittake. I suppose repeatedly exposing my nasal passages to them is one way to get off sugared, carbonated beverages....

#201 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 11:15 AM:

Demonstrating the interconnectivity of the universe, Scott Card's story "The Originist" originally appeared in Foundation's Friends: Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov ed. Martin H. Greenberg, which was (1) the first hardcover I handled as a Tor editor, and (2) the occasion of a Great Adventure by the proprietor of this weblog.

#202 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 11:30 AM:

Kass Fireborn: (I can't believe I read the whole page.)

Indeed, you deserve an award for getting through all of that.

Which isn't to say you can't have a well-written author self-insertion character--but if you do, nobody is really going to care that much.

Precisely.

I'm trying to think now if there's *anything* that can't be forgiven if the writing's good enough.

#203 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 11:48 AM:

A prime example of this would be the way one of the biggest discussions on the SF/F section of this years NaNoWriMo forums was pages and pages of people agonizing over somehow not writing a Mary Sue in their stories...

I had that discussion very much in mind when I posted here. (Busted. But quite nice to see yet another NaNoer hereabouts.)

As far as I could tell, the result of all this was at least half of them ended up with characters who were a lot less interesting than the people they started out as.

I agree. To go back to the examples I brought up, Vlad, King Mob and Corporal Carrot wouldn't be nearly as much fun if they got "powered down" out of some sense of self-conscious reflexive Mary Sue-avoidance. But they're also all characters that the author approaches with "Okay, you're a superhero - now what?" A Mary Sue fails to address that question in a meaningful way (in other words: bad writing).

The "Ew" feeling is probably a better MS litmus test than any other, and, unfortunately, the hardest to self-administer.

#204 ::: Phil Armstrong ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 12:26 PM:

My other half on seeing this coments thread said I should point out the Fan Fiction University of Middle Earth.

She also added:
"'Game of the Gods' is kind of cute,
but gets samey after a while (I haven't
finished it); I'd rate Nine Men and
a Little Lady
, and the Protectors of the
Plot Continuum
, higher myself."

So there you go.

Phil (who doesn't write fanfic but knows far too many people who do...)

#205 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 12:40 PM:

The "now what" is one of the things that keeps a better-than-the-average-bear/best-there-is-at-what-I-do character from being a Mary Sue. Being able to bounce bullets off your chest or stake vampires blindfolded does not get you a date to the prom. And having a great destiny does not mean than you deal with it well--Clark and Buffy have both run away from home, only to find they couldn't leave their problems/destiny behind.

You never see a Mary Sue unhappy about being a Mary Sue. There's never a moment of "all your marvelous powers will not solve X" unless X is the death of some redshirt who was brought onstage so that Mary Sue would have a chance to cry without her makeup running and wear her new black dress.

#206 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 01:59 PM:

...Foundation's Friends: Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov ed. Martin H. Greenberg, which was...the occasion of a Great Adventure by the proprietor of this weblog.

Pray relate the tale, one or the other of you...ideally both simultaneously, for comparison.

"Skazivai, Skazivai! Skazivai, slushayu!"

#207 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 03:00 PM:

Earlier in this thread, I said I was going to re-read "Friday," and now I have.

Until now, I would have ranked "Friday" as maybe the least bad of Heinlein's bad novels. Now, I have to completely change that assessment. "Friday" kicks ass. both the character and the novel.

And the story serves as a lesson on what is and isn't a Mary Sue, and what is permissible wish fulfillment for an author.

There is no question that the character of Friday is an example of wish-fulfillment. She is a beautiful genius, a deadly superspy who loves babies and kittens, AND she is promiscous and will have sex with any man or woman who has good character and good hygiene.

So what? Isn't that one of the reasons we read genre literature, to project ourselves into the identiy of someone who's tougher, smarter, faster, more interesting and more well-adjusted than we are?

And yet Friday has limitations. Perhaps the largest one is this: she comes from a culture that practices genetic engineering on a grand scale. "Artificial persons" are gengineered beings that look like humans. Friday is one of them, that's how she gets her super-intelligence and superfast reflexes. Most of the people in her society believe that artificial persons are not human -- no, they don't just believe it, they KNOW it, the way you or I know that a chair or a cow isn't human. And Friday has internalized those beliefs -- she herself believes that she is simply a well-made machine, and not entitled to the same rights and respect as a human being.

In other words, she has extreme self-esteem issues.

Her other big flaw is that all she's ever done for a living is be a spy -- actually, a "combat courier," is what Heinlein calls it -- she can change her identity and appearance in minutes, she can kill an armed man bare-handed in a crowded transit station without drawing anyone's attention -- but she doesn't know how to look for a job, or manage her personal finances or cook a meal.

#208 ::: Neil Gaiman ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 03:19 PM:

Er, bizarrely, the previous "Neil Gaiman" post in this thread wasn't by me. Possibly it was by someone who wants to be me. But it's certainly not one of mine. (Puzzles over someone who'd imagine a Puffin edition of a Henry James book.)

#209 ::: genibee ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 03:38 PM:

Even after I realized it applied to all my idle daydreams about what I would do in this world or that world ... and started blushing as I discovered that my inner self is a Mary Sue!

Hey, join the club! Well, I don't admit to wanting eyes that change color with my every mood, or silver hair down to my ass, but I do mentally self-insert myself into a lot of universes. I've caught myself pondering how one could treat arrow-wounds in the middle of the wilderness, because Sean Bean's Boromir just brought out all these...um...tingly feelings.

I've perpetuated only two fanfics (well, two and a half, and I'm not including all the MacGyver stuff a friend and I wrote in tenth grade). The first one was in the Anita Blake universe, and I think the story came out fairly well. The second one was in the much more populated Harry Potter universe, and I got called on Mary-Sue-itis big time. One of the big red flags for a Mary Sue in the HPverse is having your main character as an American (although it wasn't exactly a major plot point - I just wanted to avoid having to look up Britishisms). That trope is apparently so frequent in the HPverse that many readers, upon seeing it, will simply hit the back button. Serves me right for writing something when I'm not part of the fandom, I suppose. There does seem to be a big difference between being a fan of something and being part of the fandom, and I've managed the first but not the second.

#210 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 03:42 PM:

Mitch, good point on Friday.

Another way to keep a Mary Sue from being a Mary Sue if viewpoint. Consider Mary "Practically Perfect in Every Way" Poppins, especially the P.L. Travers incarnation. She is the star of her own books, and just about godlike in the scope of her powers, but the story is not told from her viewpoint, it's told from the viewpoint of the kids, for whom she's a great source of wonder and mystery.

#211 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 04:08 PM:

As a reader and wannabe fiction writer myself, I hate to think of up-and-coming writers who might be scared off of writing idealized versions of themselves because they're afraid of committing Mary Sue.

#212 ::: Terry LJ ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 04:13 PM:

So, where can I find "Mirkwode"?

#213 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 05:08 PM:

Excuse me, please: all this Mary Sue spotting has blown several fuses in my mind, and I find myself contemplating the ghastly possibility that Susan Matthews' Jurisdiction novels ("An Exchange of Hostages" and sequels) might have started life as Trek BDSM/slash.

"Paging Dr McCoy, the subject in sick bay berth four is ready for interrogation ..."

(I need to go and lie down now.)

#214 ::: Merlin Missy ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 05:33 PM:

*reads page* *blinks* Wow.

I've had this disussion and watched this discussion over and over ever since I got online; it's weird to see old Mary trotted out and debated among The Pros.

Back when I wrote my little rant(s) about Mary Sues, it was partially to let off some steam, and mostly in the hope that a few pointers of the "Don't Do This" variety might make for better stories to read. As Rhiannon Shaw said, it's bad writing. So people who read the rants and took them to heart found brand new (sort of) ways of writing badly.

*raises a toast to creativity*

Thanks for the plug! :)

#215 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 06:51 PM:

I think that beginning writers are sometimes stifled by too much criticism early on. I think the Turkey City Lexicon is very entertaining and can be useful, but beginning writers should be carded before they read it, and anybody who hasn't written at least 21 stories should only be allowed to read it with adult supervision.

The best two pieces of advice I've seen for beginning writers came from Joe Haldeman: write it as if you are the only person who is ever going to read it and bear in mind that nobody's ever been hurt by bad fiction.

Here's my boilerplate disclaimer for when I give out writing advice: I have been a professional writer for a few months short of 20 years now, it's all been journalism, not fiction, and the overwhelming majority of it has been specialized journalism about computer technology for computer technologists. When it comes to fiction writing I am as much of a beginner as, well, I am as much of a beginner as a teen-age girl writing her first Mary Sue story. I have lacked the discipline to write much fiction, although I often think about it.

On the other hand, I have been hanging around in fandom with writers and editors for 10 years, and I am an avid reader, and all that contact has given me opinions.

(TWENTY YEARS?! CRIMONY!)

#216 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 06:59 PM:

Patrick,

That's a heck of a good anthology--do tell the story!

Mitch,

I keep telling people that Friday is, with the possible exception of Job, the best of Heinlein's novels, but hardly anyone (other than my beautiful and talented wife, who inexplicably fails to like Job) agrees with me.

Among its many virtues is the first (and I guess only) appearance of a disastrously failed--that is to say, all too human--polygamous marriage in his books.

Yet another way in which Friday fails as wish fulfillment--sure, she ends up in a happy group at the end, but look at the misery she goes through to get there.

The obvious back-reference in Friday is to "Gulf", but I wonder--did Heinlein decide that "Jerry Was A Man" hadn't (to be kind) aged well, and that the theme should be revisited?

#217 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 07:09 PM:

I just had a thought. Lady Penelope.

#218 ::: Rachael HD ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 08:29 PM:

"...Foundation's Friends: Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov ed. Martin H. Greenberg, which was...the occasion of a Great Adventure by the proprietor of this weblog.

Pray relate the tale, one or the other of you...ideally both simultaneously, for comparison."

Well, Xopher said it nicer, but c'mon you guys give! You can't just throw out a teaser like that and leave us all hanging.

"Friday," good grief, yet another of my guilty-favorite books as a possible Mary Sue. Genibee I'm with you, I think my inner soul is a Mary Sue, I identify with all of the over idealized characters mentioned above. (At least I have gotten over having waist length hair, and I never wanted violet eyes, so I guess that's okay.)

#219 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 09:19 PM:

Characters in novels are about as idealized as the cast of your average WB teen drama. How many times have you read a novel where the young hero and main love interest has a bald spot? How many bald or balding men do you see in reality? Heck, think about how many bald authors you know, then check to see whether their main hero has a full head of hair.

I don't think it's a Mary Suism that we describe our characters in novels the same way that studios cast actors with an eye towards the pretty and the societal idea of beauty, since the audience likes to identify with a pretty. And even when you get some actor with a trait that does not fit into the societal idea of beautiful (Camryn Manheim: fat; Vin Diesel: bald), they have so many other classically gorgeous features (Camryn: waist-length hair; Vin: huge muscles; both: great eyes, sexy voice, flawless skin, Mary-Sue-quality distinctive names) that it's played as a distinction, to separate them from the other pretty people.

#220 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2003, 09:30 PM:

The problem with Mary Sue writers, perhaps, is that the writers are atrociously bad critics of their own writing.

To quote from
"Opinionated – and proud to admit it"
by Stephen Bayley
telegraph.co.uk
(Filed: 01/12/2003)
perhaps excerpted from hios book
A Dictionary of Idiocy by Stephen Bayley [Gibson Square Books, UK, 2003]

"The academic and literary critic George Steiner is also a man of strong opinions. Explaining why he knew his subject better than others, Steiner wrote a bravura sentence designed to lose him what few friends he might have had among the legions of limp, multicultural relativists who inhabit Britain's universities:
'The difference between the judgment of a great critic and that of a semi-literate censorious fool lies in its range of inferred or cited reference, in the lucidity and rhetorical strength of articulation or in the accidental addendum which is that of a critic who is a creator in his own right.'"

#221 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 01:24 AM:

"...Foundation's Friends: Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov ed. Martin H. Greenberg, which was...the occasion of a Great Adventure by the proprietor of this weblog.
Pray relate the tale, one or the other of you...ideally both simultaneously, for comparison."
Well, Xopher said it nicer, but c'mon you guys give! You can't just throw out a teaser like that and leave us all hanging.

Sure they can. I'd tell my version of it, but I think it's best to let it lie. Or perhaps, as John Ford would say (not John M. Ford [though perhaps he would too], but the filmmaker), print the legend.

#222 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 02:47 AM:

Is it time to Call the Question? Do we need to ask if there's consensus that we'd all like to hear the story, at least the Good Parts version, of the Asimov Anthology That Dare Not Speak Its Name? I know it'll probably end up being a disappointment, but I'd like to see a canonical (and safe, missing any egregious names) version of the story myself....

Cheers,
Tom

#223 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 03:22 AM:

I haven't read that series myself, but I've heard that there's a minor character who's a teenager in one book, and has a teenage son in another book set a number of years later.

That would be Too Many Cooks and A Right to Die. And he can hardly be said to be minor. In the first, where he is a young man, he gives Wolfe information he needs to solve the crime. In the second, he is the father of a young man suspected of murder and so becomes Wolfe's client. I'd recommend them to you, but, um, as you've probably noticed I seem to have committed them to memory and so discard my recommendation for obvious bias.

MKK--I've been reading the Stout books since I was 10 and I still love them.

#224 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 03:53 AM:

Kevin Andrew Murphy: Characters in novels are about as idealized as the cast of your average WB teen drama. How many times have you read a novel where the young hero and main love interest has a bald spot? How many bald or balding men do you see in reality? Heck, think about how many bald authors you know, then check to see whether their main hero has a full head of hair.

And then there is the appeal of "loser lit" -- stories about highly talented and articulate screwups: "Wonder Boys" by Michael Chabon, most of the works of Richard Russo, "The Water-Method Man," by, um, that Garp guy, and a great little novel called "Fishers Hornpipe" (speaking of things to re-read).

The only loser lit novel I can think of in sf is "Narabedla Ltd.," by Frederik Pohl.

I don't think it's a Mary Suism that we describe our characters in novels the same way that studios cast actors with an eye towards the pretty and the societal idea of beauty, since the audience likes to identify with a pretty. And even when you get some actor with a trait that does not fit into the societal idea of beautiful (Camryn Manheim: fat; Vin Diesel: bald), they have so many other classically gorgeous features (Camryn: waist-length hair; Vin: huge muscles; both: great eyes, sexy voice, flawless skin, Mary-Sue-quality distinctive names) that it's played as a distinction, to separate them from the other pretty people.

Okay, Mr. Smart Guy, now explain Dennis Franz.

Bald is sexy these days -- although Vin Diesel drove partially, the trend was under way before he became a star, I think.

Bald is also mainstream for men, shaving one's head is not particularly a big deal, so much so that I'm thinking of doing it myself. Whereas I remember the first time I heard someone had shaved his head, in the 90s, I was like, all, "He did what?"

We have a columnist with a ponytail and got a firm e-mail from a reader who insisted that the columnist should either shave it off or at least get a picture taken that hid it -- we stared at that e-mail in awe and wonderment. I mean, this is 2003 here, people, not 1967, the worst you can say about a man with a neat, well-groomed ponytail is that he is unfashionable, like having feathered hair or a big woolly 'fro.

#225 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 03:55 AM:

Another good in-genre loser lit occurs to me: "Neverwhere," by one of the two Neil Gaimans.

#226 ::: Pete Darby ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 04:39 AM:

Hmm, Richard in Neverwhere, who Neil outed as based on Richard Curtis, who infamously uses Hugh Grant as his Marty Stu in his movies...

#227 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 04:48 AM:

Dennis Franz: Character actor. Same as Ed Asner or Jason Alexander. They provide contrast so the pretty characters look prettier.

But shaved head is a hair style, which avoids being balding, which is something you very rarely see on tv.

#228 ::: Neil Gaiman ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 08:07 AM:

"Richard Curtis, who infamously uses Hugh Grant as his Marty Stu in his movies..."

Not at all; Hugh Grant plays the lead character as Richard Curtis in those movies, helped by the fact that Dick tends to write lead characters based on himself, most interestingly in "The Tall Guy",in which Jeff Goldblum didn't try to imitate him in it at all.

("Notting Hill" was based on something that happened to a friend of Richard's, who found himself in a releationship with A Star.)

Hugh may look more like a movie star than Richard Curtis does, but beautiful, brilliant, funny women threw themselves routinely at Dick's feet until he found Emma Freud, and he is every bit as nice as the version of him Hugh Grant played in "Four Weddings...", if rather harder-working, and more talented.

Which I only mention, because just because a lead character is smart, good-looking or whatever doesn't mean that s/he's a Mary Sue. And a character who's obviously based on the author in some way, or uses chunks of the author's life, isn't necessarily (or even ordinarily) a Mary Sue either. That's where you get fiction from...

...

Articulate, talented losers and screwups -- I thought they were all over SF... there's more or less the complete works of Robert Sheckley, not to mention Mike Moorcock, M. John Harrison (well, less-articulate, or less vocal), huge swatches of Brian Aldiss and Chris Priest and Bob Shaw...

#229 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 10:47 AM:

...not to mention Mike Moorcock...

Talented losers aside, Moorcock's work is the definitive corrective to the Mary Sue impulse - the "now what" question taken to its tragic extreme. "A hero, you say? Near-godlike power, you say? Oh, man, you are so fucked."

#230 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 12:09 PM:

I guess I'm not reading the right sf, then.

#231 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 03:03 PM:

Hmm. Elric as Marty Stu. (I just call him the whiny teenaged adolescent angst incarnation of the Eternal Whatever)

MKK

#232 ::: Elizabeth Bear ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 04:32 PM:

Charlie Stross:

I will now be having nightmares about that image for the next seven years.

Please look forward to a misidentified Gaiman clone by postage-due mail as, er, a sort of thank you. He would rather not be Neil. He does, however, have a migra(i)ne.

(**Wanders off, contemplating the possibility that perhaps Charlie--or Neil--is somebody else's Mary Sue character.**)

#233 ::: eleanor rowe ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 05:16 PM:

I promise I am not a Neil Gaiman impersonator (is there any money in that? I'm looking for a new job) but I do have a copy of 'Daisy Miller' and 'The Turn of the Screw' in one volumn published by Scholistic which I bought through the school book club when I was about nine. So Henry James in Puffin is not so sureal. Just, you know, really quite sureal.

#234 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 06:50 PM:

Some Neil Gaiman or other: [Richard Curtis] is every bit as nice as the version of him Hugh Grant played in "Four Weddings...", if rather harder-working, and more talented.

Either you and I simply aren't thinking about the same movie, or that's the classiest damnation-through-faint-praise that I've read in a very long time.

#235 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 09:38 PM:

Narabedla Ltd. the only Loser Lit in SF? What about Gateway, just to point at something by the same author? Or Silverberg in the 1960's? (e.g., Dying Inside.)

I don't think SF has produced its own A Confederacy of Dunces (but don't quote me on that, as there is a lot of Moorcock, Aldiss, et sim. I've never read). Kingsley Amis might have argued it can't; he argued that if Brave New World were genre fiction it wouldn't have had a completely down ending. (IIRC -- I would have sworn it was Amis but don't find the remark in his introductions to Spectrum 3-5.) I will be just as happy if it never does; I found it pointless not solely because the character wasn't redeemed but because IMO he was irredeemable. (De gustibus....)

#236 ::: Nagaina ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2003, 11:55 PM:

Hello! I'm a regular poster from the Godawful Fanfiction Board. Some of us found your definition of a Mary Sue quite amusing and the mention of our board flattering.

#237 ::: Elusis ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 11:01 AM:

Reading this thread put me in a dangerously sarcastic frame of mind regarding the character of Elizabeth Swan in "Pirates of the Caribbean."

#238 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 11:01 AM:

I've thought of a fix for how Dortmunder and crew don't age while the world speeds past them. (This could be fanfic, but it won't. I want Westlake to write it.)

There's a one-way fast-forward time machine, and they steal it. They steal it several times.

The story would be all about the plans they make, in the different decades, for the heist of this time machine, only whenever they manage to get together with the thing they're in a different era, without noticing, and something stops them removing it and they're back making another plan.

This is an example of something that has to be fanfic -- it's only necessary to fix a problem within one universe, and it needs the characters from that universe to be worth bothering with.

I also have in my head a better end for Friday. It's been there a long long time, and it's staying there.

#239 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 11:18 AM:

It’s hard to imagine an alternate ending for Friday that wouldn’t be better.

(It could probably be done, but I don’t want to taint my soul by doing it.)

#240 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 03:06 PM:

Elizabeth Swan is the classic "plucky heroinne," written to be as feminist as she possibly could be given the timeframe, but she's not a Mary Sue. She is not the best sword fighter, but she is resourceful, brave and a good liar--all good things in a swashbuckler.

All of the characters in Pirates are a larger than life, but that doesn't make them Mary Sues.

#241 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 03:14 PM:

Let's see... she stands in for the author, she sets things right... is "Mary Rosh" a Mary Sue?

#242 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 09:30 PM:

Coming back to this late, but back on December 5, Lisa Padol wrote Manny Jacobowitz noted that this works so badly because Arthur -is- a Mary Sue, the kid who's really a king.

Actually, Arthur is the "Emperor of Everything"
In a 1988 issue of IASFM, Norman Spinrad described how many popular books and films boil down to very similar plot: Luke Skywalker/King Arthur/Garion (David Eddings) about the lowly little orphan from the middle of nowhere who is actually destined to be, well, the Emperor of Everything.
I don't know whether these are a subset of Mary Sues, or their circles overlap on the Venn diagram, but it's not quite the same thing.

#243 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 11:44 PM:

Jo Walton - What'll it take to pry the alternate ending to "Friday" out of your head?

David Moles - I thought the ending to "Friday" was fine. What didn't you like about it?

#244 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 05:23 AM:

Mitch:

I do think Friday is the best of Heinlein's novels, but the ending?

That Friday would both suborn her guards and coincidentally find her all previous lovers, all on the same starship, going to the same place, where Friday and her guards make their escape?

That they would then all settle down into a polygamous marriage? (If one of the Five Geek Social Fallacies is that friendship is transitive, why should all Friday's lovers marry each other?)

It's a bit of a stretch, don't you think?

Not that an Earth wracked by plague and the Empress of Everything not being informed of that fact by her mother is all to the bad. It would've made for a nice sequel.

Heinlein somehow makes this clearly unbelievable ending believable--a heck of a writer, he was--but he does the best job (heh) of the Happy Ending in Job, which is also the better book.

(Funny thing about that--I do love Job, but can't ever for the life of me remember the protagonist's name. Started with an A, I think, with a last name like Hersheihmer, but longer.

(I'm noted for an uncanny memory for detailia, so this little gap is either telling or senility.)

#245 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 06:24 AM:

Alexander Hergesheimer. (This is the sort of useless trivia that I have cluttering up my brain. I have gotten some chocolate out of it, at least.)

#246 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 08:53 AM:

Friday is a really good book right up to the point where Boss dies... and then it becomes a series of random encounters and unlikely coincidences, instead of a plot that was heading somewhere.

In fact, I posted my thoughts on a better end for it on rec.arts.sf.written in 1995. They can be found on Google groups by asking it to look for me, Friday, Heinlein and Olympia.

#248 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 01:33 PM:

I can't imagine how anyone who has read Double Star would think thatFriday was the best of Heinlein's novels.

#249 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 01:52 PM:

Lis,

That's "The Hero's Journey," made famous by Joseph Campbell, used by George Lucas as the framework for Star Wars, but originally written up as a checklist by Lord Ragnall sometime in the late 19th century. Ragnall used the stories of Moses and Oedipus to discuss the "orphan who goes on to become emperor" trope, being too polite to mention Jesus but leaving the dots easy for anyone with a brain to connect.

Will in "Pirates" fits this mold--the orphan with the destiny who ends up as emperor-in-training in that he gets the blessing to marry the governor's daughter.

The Hero is common and popular, but isn't a Mary Sue.

#250 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 01:55 PM:

Correction, make that "Lord Ragland."

#251 ::: Merlin Missy ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 03:09 PM:

Lord Raglan's Scale summarized.

Go forth and score.

I love Friday, both the book and the character. Job amused and scared me because I happened to read it for the first time at both the same time and location as parts of the book were set.

#252 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 03:24 PM:

Merlin, Missy? Aren't you the one who started all this?

#253 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 04:14 PM:

Alan,

You have a point--I guess I underrate Double Star to keep from overrating it, as it was my first Heinlein and the last sign of Heinlein the liberal--but Job is the best of his novels.

I should've/would've/could've said one of his best--Bad typist! Bad typist!

#254 ::: Jonathan Edelstein ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 08:03 PM:

the most intriguing thing about the Mary Sue Society site is that there's apparently Les Miz fanfic out there.

#255 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2003, 10:49 PM:

Re Lord Raglan's list: so that's where that came from! I remember seeing Willow with someone who was audibly counting off from a list of ritual events happening to the title character.

#256 ::: cd ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 04:59 AM:

Jonathan: Even worse, there's Anne Frank's Diary fanfic out there...

#257 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 07:56 AM:

Not only is there Les Miserables fanfic out there, there's published fanfic in which it turns out that Javert did not die after all, but had a change of heart and now watches over Cosette and Marius under an assumed name.
Victor Hugo's family aren't happy about it, understandably, but can't do a thing because the original novel's in the public domain.


Back on topic:
I find myself wondering if author-insertion is, in fact, a necessary condition of Mary-Sue-ness.

If I read a novel in which the precocious loved-by-all girl protagonist catches a terrible and apparently incurable disease which turns out to be more of an asset than a liability, because it opens many doors that would otherwise have remained closed and leads to her finding true love (and in the end, having gained professional success and wealth in addition to true love, she pumps money into medical research and consequently gets to have her cake and eat it too)
...where was I? oh, yes...
I have no idea if the girl is based on the author, and I think she probably isn't, but she still hits the buttons that make Mary Sue so annoying.

Author-insertions are more likely to become Mary Sues, because there's the obvious temptation to make one's self more good-looking, proficient, and well-liked - and on the other side of the coin, it's easy to assume that as the explanation for any unusually good-looking, proficient, and well-liked character one encounters - but does that make them the only characters that can become Mary Sues?

#258 ::: Kass Fireborn ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 10:19 AM:

Kate Nepveu: I'm trying to think now if there's *anything* that can't be forgiven if the writing's good enough.

Pairing stripes and spots? Or the writerly equivalent thereof?


Dan Layman-Kennedy: (Busted. But quite nice to see yet another NaNoer hereabouts.)

It's rapidly becoming impossible to encounter a fairly large body of prospective writers without tripping over at least one WriMo. And it's still spreading; I'm faintly fascinated to see how far it can go, both in terms of population and spin-offs, like WriYe.


Kevin Andrew Murphy: Another way to keep a Mary Sue from being a Mary Sue if viewpoint. Consider Mary "Practically Perfect in Every Way" Poppins, especially the P.L. Travers incarnation. She is the star of her own books, and just about godlike in the scope of her powers, but the story is not told from her viewpoint, it's told from the viewpoint of the kids, for whom she's a great source of wonder and mystery.

I really do believe there's no quick and easy way to keep a Mary Sue from being a Mary Sue. This method might work some of the time, but I can think of plenty of examples where the POV isn't from the Mary Sue but from a normal character--but this doesn't make the character any less of a Mary Sue. In some cases, really, it only accentuates it--if you've got a character who is in other ways sane and sensible gushing over the uberwonderfulness of this one character, isn't that going to just make matters worse?

The reason Mary Poppins works has more to do with the nature of the world and characters set up around her--in other words, she's not a Mary Sue because the writing isn't bad.


Mitch Wagner: As a reader and wannabe fiction writer myself, I hate to think of up-and-coming writers who might be scared off of writing idealized versions of themselves because they're afraid of committing Mary Sue.

Unfortunately, I gather it's so: Writing the Non-Mary-Sue Female Protagonist. There are five pages there discussing the problem of, well, writing the Non-Mary-Sue female protagonist, and that's just one of the threads which bring the concern up--and these days, NaNoWriMo is a broad enough cross-spectrum of future writers so you can figure if it's got that much of a discussion there, it's a problem elsewhere, as well.

I have no idea if other genres besides sf/f/h have a problem with it, but I suspect they don't; it does seem to be an issue more of a problem with those particular genres than anything else. It's not to say you can't have a Mary Sue in, say, a mystery, but I'd just guess they're less common there.. The article I linked to by Rhiannon Shaw points out one of the issues it's causing in fanfiction, as less and less people write original characters for fear of getting accused of Mary Sue-ing, and given that writing original characters is a good way to transition from fanfiction to original fiction, we can assume the issue spreads forward that way.


Merlin Missy: So people who read the rants and took them to heart found brand new (sort of) ways of writing badly.

I have noticed that, and thought about it. Really, the worst Mary Sue offenders simply don't give a damn. No matter how many tests you make, no matter how many rants there are, no matter how much fun you poke at their stories afterwards, they aren't going to care, because they believe utterly and completely in the sanctity of their painful character(s). At best, with fanfiction, you might get an "I'm doing this for fun, so why should I care?"

So what you get, basically, is an effect on two kinds of people. One group contains people who, yes, might have written a Mary Sue if they hadn't seen this sort of thing, and went back and rethought their characters and as a result got something with better depth. The other group is full of people who wouldn't have written a Mary Sue--but they think they could have. They also think of not for grammar guides they'd have misused a semicolon, and if not for a class on plot structure they'd have had a novel that went nowhere. And so they go back and rethink their characters too, and start carefully sanding away certain bits of them, because they'd hate to give offense or do something as horrible as writing a Mary Sue. (That's one reason I love the Mary Sue Appreciation Society; they help take away some of the horror, by rightly pointing out that so long as you know you’re self-inserting, it really is all in fun.) If this sanding gets taken to extremes, what they end up with is, I suppose, a sort of anti-Mary Sue--a character so unremarkable you can't care about her at all.

(I wonder what would happen if you combined the Anti-Mary Sue and the Mary Sue in one story? Would they just cancel each other out, or would they explode?)

Now mind you, all of this is not to say I am in favor of Mary Sues--I just think matters concerning them are a bit out of balance right now.


Mitch Wagner: beginning writers should be carded before they read it, and anybody who hasn't written at least 21 stories should only be allowed to read it with adult supervision.

I've had the same thought regarding the 'three golden rules' of writing. It would make a lot more sense if we only gave beginning writers one rule: write well. How you get there is up to you.

The best two pieces of advice I've seen for beginning writers came from Joe Haldeman: write it as if you are the only person who is ever going to read it and bear in mind that nobody's ever been hurt by bad fiction.

Those work, too. I’m going to have to pass them on.


Mary Kay (on Nero Wolfe): I'd recommend them to you, but, um, as you've probably noticed I seem to have committed them to memory and so discard my recommendation for obvious bias.

I only started reading them last year and my recommendation is probably biased too. I recommend them anyway. Although, if you start with the first book and dislike it, don't necessarily judge the others by that; Fer-de-Lance is one of the ones that shows its age the most.


Paul A.: Author-insertions are more likely to become Mary Sues, because there's the obvious temptation to make one's self more good-looking, proficient, and well-liked - and on the other side of the coin, it's easy to assume that as the explanation for any unusually good-looking, proficient, and well-liked character one encounters - but does that make them the only characters that can become Mary Sues?

Well, going back to the definition the Blogmistress used before the term Mary Sue came along....

"You know, one of those books that keeps telling you how wonderful and talented and perfect the main character is and how much everyone loves her, but aside from that there’s nothing at stake and nothing really happens? No logic, no causality, no narrative development, just that character being wonderful every barfy step of the way?"

That doesn't specify in the slightest that it has to be an author self-insertion. And given that you can have self-insertions that aren't really Mary Sues (there's an interesting example of one in a Star Trek fic who actually tells the regular characters she's the author's stand in, which gets a lot of blank stares), probably you can have a Mary Sue who isn't a self-insertion. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck....

#259 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 11:26 AM:

And you can have authorial self-insertions that are not Mary Sues. There's a really good writer from back home in Arkansaw, Jack Butler, who wrote himself into Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, so he and the protagonist could shoot pool and discuss science fiction. (The omnipotent character is the narrator, none other than the Holy Ghost.)

Butler is a hellaciously good writer, though his one SF novel, Nightshade isn't as good as his more mainstream fiction--try his Jujitsu for Christ, a wonderful coming-of-age novel.

Speaking of authorial insertions, it was Donald Harington who introduced me to Butler, and no discussion of such insertions and Arkansaw authors would be complete without mentioning Harington.

Harington puts himself into most all his novels, sometimes with mild self-mockery (as in Some Other Place. The Right Place), other times as a figure of downright ridicule--I'm thinking of his remarkable appearance in Ekaterina, a retelling of Lolita with a sympathetic female Humbert, in which authorial self-insertion nearly gets a whole new meaning.

There's a more-than-healthy dose of authorial self-mockery in both these authors' work. That's a standard ingredient in any recipe for Mary un-Suitability.

(Although,,,does anyone else remember the appearance of writers Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin in the yearly JLA/JSA crossover? I mean, really!)

#260 ::: Jonathan Edelstein ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 01:17 PM:

CD, would an Anne Frank's Diary story be fanfic or simply historical fiction? The essence of fanfic (at least as I understand it) is borrowing someone else's world; Anne Frank, unfortunately, lived in our own. Diaries have been used as source material in plenty of historical fiction, and I'm not sure that Anne Frank having a published diary is sufficient to turn derivative works into fanfic.

#261 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2003, 03:54 PM:

I said: "I'm trying to think now if there's *anything* that can't be forgiven if the writing's good enough."

Kass Fireborn said: "Pairing stripes and spots? Or the writerly equivalent thereof?"

Hmmm, shifting gears abruptly might be one thing; trying to merge disparate elements might be another--I think the second would be easier to get away with by good writing. Can't think of anything that manages the first well right now, though.

#262 ::: Dawn ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2003, 06:28 AM:

Which Zenna Henderson story?

Lexa Reiss, I think it was, described two Mary Sue traits so precisely as to exclude most non-MS characters. One of them has been mentioned frequently in this thread, the other less so. I hate to paraphrase a perfectionist, but I can't recall the original:

1) The total absence of any decent sentient being who just doesn't much like Mary Sue.

2) The careless abandon with which the author cuts the canon characters off at the knees to make Mary Sue look taller.

#263 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2003, 08:32 PM:

adamsj - Oh, sure, the ending to "Friday" was an outrageous coincidence, but I don't have any problem with that.

However, you the novel doesn't have much of a story -- or plot (I'm told there's a difference between the two, but I can't remember what the difference is). Basically, Friday wanders around the Earth for a while, doing this and that and eventually she leaves and goes to an agricultural colony. The end.

Jo Walton - Having read the post Kate Nepveu points to, I think you're right on all your points, and yet I don't share in your frustration. I like the novel for what it is, and I don't feel much disappointment that it doesn't go anywhere.

#264 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2003, 08:39 PM:

Mitch, you're kidding about the difference between story and plot, I assume. What blog is this?

#265 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2003, 09:24 PM:

Mitch,

Is that Friday, or Candide? I never couldd tell them apart.

That Terry Southern, he's a heck of a writer.

#266 ::: ananke ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2003, 06:05 AM:

wow. Big thread.

WRT the Ender character, I'm leaning towards non-MS. He's is persecuted a whole lot, pretty much continually. He has no real friends except his little sister. He ends up having to kill someone and suffers through that. His good points are his weaknesses. His intelligence and reflexs alienate him SEVERLY from his comrades. He is used, well aware of that use and powerless to stop it. IMO Bean is far more of a MS, although he has his own sets of drawbacks.

I'd lean towards Cordelia Naismith not being a MS either. Again she suffers for her choice and the consequences of her actions are not always for the best. Her relationship causes an almost irreversible rift between Aral and his father. Her virtues are again her weaknesses. I think those things are shown in such vibrancy to hammer home how much she has lost, and WHY there are so few women like her. But LMB also shows a different side of Barrayar with Alys, and shows how Cordelia's power and clout are not always effective.

Ayla (Clan of the Cave Bear) becomes a MS. I mean she invents THE NEEDLE for crying out loud! Yet none of this is truly terrible until the sequels. While Ayla is smart, beautiful and string, she also has no self-esteem, is repeatedly raped, loses her child and lacks even the most basic skills to form a friendship. While she is universally beloved she rarely forms friendships (the shamans of various clans are the exception I think)

Laurell K Hamilton has degenerated into porn. The first few, up to 9 I'd say (although thats just out of sheer love for Edward) do OK but as soon as sex is involved into Anita's character soemthing is lost. While Anita remains emotionally crippled, it loses it effect. She no longer suffers for the stupid/impetuous choices she makes out of emotional immaturity, instead she can either break stuff, or fuck stuff, and it works out. I'm guess the Merry Gentry series had somewhat to do with it. Those stories are far better IMO, simply because the sex is introduced as part of the character and with consequence rather than the reasonless screwing in Anita's stories.

MarySues never suffer through the consequences of their actions. Instead the consequences are always what they want. They get away with things when they need to, and get thrown in jail to meet the local badass who will become their slave. There is no other way, they pay nothing out.

#267 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2003, 08:59 PM:

Xopher: Mitch, you're kidding about the difference between story and plot, I assume. What blog is this?

Actually, not kidding at all -- and your what-blog-is-this joke went right over my head. Explain, please?

#268 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2003, 11:36 PM:

Go around telling James Nicoll how English acquires loan words do you?

#269 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2003, 11:53 PM:

Can't really be a viable paradise without put and take bird hunting no matter how relevant the plot and story travel mug

#270 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 02:33 PM:

I know that it's tacky to explain someone else's jokes, but this needs to be said. All together now, everyone:

93Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.94

#271 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2003, 03:34 PM:

The what-blog-is-this joke has been explained to me in e-mail.

For my next trick, I will spend an hour looking for my eyeglasses, which will be perched on top of my head at the time.

"Friday" is, actually, a good example of the difference between plot and story. The plot of "Friday" is broken. Heinlein reportedly worked without outlining or planning ahead, and it shows in this novel.

The protagonist is what Heinlein calls a "combat courier" -- think of her as a James Bond type international spy who specializes in delivering packages, usually when armed and powerful people don't want those packages to get through. On the way back to headquarters after completing a mission she is captured, tortured and raped brutally. She is rescued, rehabilitated and leaves the United States to return to her home in New Zealand for some R&R. After a short time there, she leaves home to return back to headquarters and back to work -- but finds her way blocked by organized attacks by worldwide terrorist conspiracies against every significant government in the world. Borders are closed, martial law is declared, non-citizens are rounded up and put in interment camps.

So the story consists of Friday's attemps to avoid being arrested as a non-citizen, and to slip over the closed border to return to headquarters.

Moreover, there are hints dropped that the attacks directed against Friday are part of this global consipiracy against national governments.

At this point, another writer would have spent the remainder of the novel wrapping up the plot. Not Heinlein, though. He apparently lost interest in the plot, and spent most of the rest of the novel in a travelogue of the future Earth, and also dealing with the main themes of the novel: humanity, race prejudice and belonging -- as in, finding some family or tribe to belong to. Friday is genetically augmented, and she lives in a society where genetically augmented people -- Artificial Persons -- are viewed as not human. They are property. Friday has had her background falsified, complete with false records of her birth. She has been "passing" for regular human, and the bulk of the last part of the novel deals with her making connections with her fellow Artificial Persons and accepting in her heart what she has always known intellectually: that she is, indeed, a person, no more or less valuable than a natural person.

There's also lots of sex in this novel. Heinlein was clumsy at writing about sex, and yet he did a lot of it in his later novels, and it fatally destroyed some of those novels. But the clumsy sex scenes don't sink "Friday" as they did so many other of his late novels.

Then, near the end of the novel, Heinlein wakes up, and, during his morning coffee, he says to himself, "Holy crap! There was this whole storyline about a worldwide terrorist conspiracy against national governments! I forgot about that!" So he wraps all that stuff up in a few pages.

The novel has some pretty bad flaws -- but the stuff that works, works so well that the flaws don't matter.

#272 ::: LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 12:57 PM:

The flaws sure mattered for me, Mitch. Heinlein's take on women of childbearing years was so infuriatingly distorted, it used to make me nuts. She married her rapist, for Christ's sake! Despite all the book's strengths, I was furious.

As I've matured, I've been better able to overlook those kinds of flaws, and numerous of his works are among my favorites.

But for young women like myself in the 70s, it was harder to swallow Heinlein's female characters -- who were powerful, fascinating characters, except for this fatal need to be impregnated and settle down in a traditional female role at any cost -- than it was to read the stick-figure (so to speak) female stereotypes in the hands of other, less skilled writers.

Go figure.


-l.

#273 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 01:42 PM:

Heinlein changed his characterization of women at the very end of his career. When he began to go into full-on lecture mode in the 1970s, he was all nutty about the idea that women were more important than men because women could have children, and therefore they must be protected, and a true woman was desperate to have babies.

Still later, he changed that view and Friday is the result of that change. She's still desperate to have babies but it's part of her drive to belong -- to have a family, a tribe, to be considered fully human.

I've KNOWN women who had that drive -- professional single women in their 20s and 30s who were hungry to chuck it all and get married and become full-time housewives.

Since I had so much fun re-reading "Friday," I've been re-reading a couple of more Heinlein novels since then (as well as reading the newly discovered one, an unpublished novel which he completed in 1938, before he'd published any fiction at all). One of the things I'm enjoying doing is putting the novels in the context of Heinlein's life as he was writing them.

When Heinlein was writing about all those women who were eager to be baby-factories, he himself was in his 50s and childless. Was he expressing his own personal regrets? Don't know.

Likewise, when Heinlein wrote "Time Enough for Love," about the immortal and eternally youthful Lazarus Long, he himself was in his 60s. He had been active all his life, while he also had chronic health problems, stemming in part from a severe bout of tuberculosis when he was a young adult.

And yes, the bit where Friday married her rapist is difficult to justify. I'm not going to say that you're wrong for being offended by it.

However, there are mitigating factors working in Heinlein's favor on that one:

-- Perhaps chief among them is that the rapist felt remorse. Great remorse. In Friday's first encounter with the rapist after the rape, she takes him prisoner. He comes right out and says that she'd be justified in killing him for what he'd done -- he even offers to kill himself in front of her, so that his death would look like suicide and she wouldn't get in trouble for it.

-- Both the rapist and the victim were Artificial Persons. Their society had raised them to believe that they were not people, that they were things, property. Both of them believed that about themselves deep in their hearts.

-- Both of them were professional spies. Friday had contempt for her rapists and torturers because they were unprofessional; she was a professional. Rape and torture will work on civilians (she said) but not on a professional like herself, and a true professional wouldn't know that.

-- Other than the rape, the rapist was the one person in Friday's group of captors who treated her decently as a prisoner. He brushed his teeth and bathed, and he let her go to the bathroom unaccompanied.

-- The rape was in a professional context. Like the Abe Vigoda character said in "The Godfather" -- just business, nothing personal.

Note that I'm not actually DEFENDING that bit, just laying out some possible mitigating factors in an effort to continue the discussion. I'm really quite frankly not sure whether it works or not. It doesn't reduce my enjoyment of the novel, but then again I'm not a woman. If I were Heinlein's editor I might have strongly recommended that he rewrite that bit, because I don't think removing it would have done any harm.

#274 ::: LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 02:43 PM:

Mitch, thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully and at such length.

I've KNOWN women who had that drive -- professional single women in their 20s and 30s who were hungry to chuck it all and get married and become full-time housewives.

Sure. And if they want to read Heinlein and it validates their idea of womanhood, more power to them. But it sure didn't work for me -- nor for many other young women I knew and know.

Like young men, we too wanted the universe on a clam shell. We wanted to go off and have adventures and have an impact on society. Not get pigeonholed into a very confining, traditional role with no voice in larger society and no opportunity to stretch our creative and intellectual wings.

Hey, I'm a mom and it's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. But I've paid a big price for it. And if someone told me it was all I could do--that childrearing was the only fact of my existence that mattered to society at large--I'd scream bloody murder.

I need my intellectual and creative pursuits. I need to be able to contribute to society at large. In FRIDAY, Heinlein was asking me to identify with a woman who was trying to escape into a very confining mindset that I and most women I knew were trying to get out of -- or at the very least, redefine in a more equitable way.

He had a man's fantasy view of what a woman's life was like. He seemed blind to the psychic costs a woman incurs when she takes on a traditional role in our culture. (If you don't believe me, check out the stats on, e.g., domestic violence and personal net worth after divorce for men and women.)

Once a woman has kids, she is very much at the mercy of the man in the relationship -- if he leaves her, especially when the kids are young, she is often screwed. Raising kids is a huge effort, and women's professional careers nearly always suffer. There is great joy in having kids, but there is a cost.

If his multitude of women characters with this baby-and-man-jones had at least reflected on how vulnerable they were making themselves, and/or the tradeoffs they were having to make in order to achieve their desire to have children, it would have been easier to swallow.

Re Friday and her rapist and all the mitigating factors, sorry, I just don't buy it. She never felt any rage at him. Rape is one of the most violent and violating of criminal acts, precisely because it is so intimate.

People who in real life have suffered the torture she underwent are deeply scarred, often for life; I don't care how professional they are. I didn't buy her blase detachment for one minute. I could see it having been a defense mechanism, but there would have been hell to pay afterwards, emotionally, and there wasn't.

In short, her reaction was completely unbelievable to me.

fwiw.


-l.

#275 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 05:07 PM:

As to the rape bits, I think Heinlein might have defended them by saying that part of Friday's genetic engineering was that she was engineered to be highly emotionally and psychologically stable.

And she does not give up her status and contributing to society in order to have kids. She does not only marry the rapist, she is in a group marriage, with about a half-dozen other men and women. She is not living in our society at all -- she is living in an agricultural colony world, on a frontier. In addition to being a wife and mother, she is active in the community -- president of the PTA, secretary of the town council, active in Girl Scouts, and on the planning committee for a new community college. (I'll concede that three out of four of these activities are traditionally women's activities, and undervalued by American society. She's not president of the town council, she's secretary.)

Throughout Heinlein's career, he wrote about strong women who dominated most men -- except for the hero, who "tamed" her -- but she often got her way with the hero anyway. Those are unevolved views, but then again, Heinlein was born just five years into the Edwardian Era.

#276 ::: eleanor rowe ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 06:18 PM:

Friday's rape is very, very, odd.

I think the deal is supposed to be that at the start of the story she doesn't identify as human, and so that she doesn't react to it the way a 'real' woman would. For her, it's just part of the job, & she wants to do her job well.

(quote: 'I hear it's worse for males')

And; she thinks it's part of her job; and the (nice!?) rapist thinks it's part of his. And he doesn't think he's a person either.

So, the kindest interpretation would be that the book moves Friday (and 'Pete') from 'passing' as human to actually being people - in fact taking responsibility for their own actions. And admitting their own humanity.

I agree with most of what Mitch says about the structure of the book above. The plot is.....umm, there's a plot? Heinlein writes women really badly, but I let him off because he lets us kick some ass.

#277 ::: LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 08:56 PM:

Mitch, re the rape, I'm sure Heinlein had a justification for Friday's reaction. But a book is written in the context of its society. When somebody writes a rape scene, I don't care if it's set on the fifth planet of Planet Boomfuck eight hundred years hence, we as readers are going to relate to it as who we are right now.

Anybody who writes a scene in which a woman gets raped and decides it's all right with her, iow, is not connected with the reality of rape, I don't care what his justification is.

Now, your points about the ending of FRIDAY are valid -- and they are exactly why certain of his female characters infuriate me so. Because so often his female protags almost -- but not quite -- reach escape velocity. So when they crash and burn, the crater is that much bigger.

He was able to envision so much, but he could not seem to get inside the head of a woman.

eleanor, in my mind, he was doling out permission to ass-kick with one hand, and handcuffing them with the other.

All in all, the book had some very interesting things to say about race and class status. It just doesn't diminish my frustration with his attitude toward child-bearing females.

But this has all been rehashed many times before, and I have amply had my say, so (barring a reply I'm unable to resist responding to :) , I'll give it a rest now.


-l.

#278 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 10:23 PM:

It's early on in Candide when Cunegonde "was disemboweled by Bulgarian soldiers after being raped as much as anyone can be", and it doesn't seem to bother her much when she re-appears later on.

#279 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 10:48 PM:

All of this discussion has caused me to review many of the characters I have created in my own writing. A few come close to being Mary Sues, but (thankfully) something usually turns out to be beyond their ability. Also, they're not always liked by everyone on their side. Still, I'm glad I've learned about this from so many other articulate writers because now I know a little bit more about writing good characters. Thanks, everyone.

#280 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 03:07 AM:

Laura - As you say, this subject has been rehashed many times. I like your turn of phrase: "so often his female protags almost -- but not quite -- reach escape velocity. So when they crash and burn, the crater is that much bigger."

I used to be infuriated by Heinlein's portrayal of women too, but now I simply note it as a flaw in his writing and move on. Where there are other virtues in the novel, I appreciate them. Where there are no others, well, I don't re-read those books.

Maybe I'm mellowing with age -- or maybe it's because Heinlein's been dead 15 years now, he had his best writing period 50 years ago, and I'm starting to view his work in historical context. The blatant anti-semitism in "Oliver Twist" doesn't bother me much either, for the same reasons only moreso.

Heinlein came a long way during his own lifetime. I remember a line in "Red Planet," when the boy hero's father holds a town meeting after the Martian colony has declared a revolution. The father says the boys must be considered men now, because any boy who can fire a gun must be considered a man -- and any girl who can cook and tend babies must be considered a woman, too.

Wasn't just Heinlein either -- I just started re-reading "The Past Through Tomorrow," Heinlein's fat collection of Future History stories. In the introduction, Damon Knight makes the point that the people in Heinlein's stories are everyday people, who live lives that people today can relate to. "People are still people: they read Time magazine, are worried bout money, smoke Luckies, argue with their wives," Damon wrote in 1967. "Wives"? I didn't realize Heinlein's stories were populated entirely by heterosexual men and lesbians.

In "Methuselah's Children," Heinlein introduces a character, Mary Sperling, who is supposed to be the oldest member of the Howard Families, an organization of people dedicated to life extension. As oldest member (until Lazarus Long comes along) she is chairman of the Families, which I suppose was pretty progressive for its day (the story was initially published in 1941, revised in 1958), but then Heinlein introduces ANOTHER character, named Zaccur Barstow, to serve as chief executive of the Families. To a modern eye, Barstow seems entirely unnecessary in a very short novel where there's already a lot going on. Mary Sperling doesn't seem to have enough time onstage, either. My modern eye says: let's solve both problems at once -- cut Barstow out of the novel, give his business to Mary Sperling, make HER chairman AND chief executive. But perhaps that wasn't a solution that would have occurred to someone writing at the time Heinlein did, perhaps he figured it's okay to have a woman bang the gavel and preside over meetings, but a woman couldn't actually, y'know, RUN things.

#281 ::: Rich Rostrom ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 04:12 AM:

Mitch Wagner:
When Heinlein was writing about all those women who were eager to be baby-factories, he himself was in his 50s and childless. Was he expressing his own personal regrets?
If not his own regrets, then Virginia's. In the afterword to _Inside Intourist_, RAH wrote that Ginny interrogated every Russian she met about how many children they had, and made it tactful by saying "Gospodin Heinlein and I... have no children athough we wanted them."

As for Friday: I think RAH consciously decided on that plot structure. In at least twenty of his books, the protagonist or his associates are key players in Great Events: they Save the World, or close to it. This is a common vice of science fiction, and I think RAH chose to go against it. Friday is entangled in Great Events, but even though she has superpowers, she's like a mouse amid battling elephants. That is more realistic: for every John Lyle, Oscar Gordon, or Archie Fraser, there are thousands or millions of spear carriers. RAH also went against the convention of Good Guys vs Bad Guys. Friday can't tell who the Good Guys are, or even if there are Good Guys (RAH's late-in-life cynicism). Her personal victory condition is to get her personal ass out of the line of fire, to somewhere she can be safe and free. That's what she does, instead of risking her life to provide the reader with satisfying explanations and a neat ending.

#282 ::: Rich Rostrom ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 04:24 AM:

Mitch Wagner:
Throughout Heinlein's career, he wrote about strong women who dominated most men -- except for the hero, who "tamed" her...

I didn't notice that Star, or Sister Magdalen, or Mimi Davis, or First Officer Krausa were 'tamed'.

#283 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 09:21 AM:

Is there a Godwin's Law about threads about science fiction tending toward discussions of Robert Heinlein as the thread length increases? And if there isn't, why not?

#284 ::: Aahz ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 10:41 AM:

Crown of Slaves is a Mary Sue written by Miles Vorkosigan.

(I don't do blogs, generally speaking, so if you want to discuss this, see the thread with Subject: "Slavish devotion" in rec.arts.sf.written or alt.books.david-weber.)

#285 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 12:04 PM:

Amazing! I didn't know Lynx could handle forms, let alone cascading style sheets.

#286 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 03:28 PM:

If I see a consensus that the Heinlein discussion should be moved elsewhere, I'll be happy to do so -- likewise, of course, if either of the NHs would rather -- just say the woid.

Rich Rostrom: John Lyle, Oscar Gordon, or Archie Fraser, there are thousands or millions of spear carriers.

I'm not familiar with all the details of all those stories anymore -- it's been a few years since I read all of them -- but if I recall correctly, none of the three examples you cited are people who actually saved the universe. I think that Archie Fraser was the protagonist of "Magic, Inc.," and it was the witch who actually saved the universe there. Likewise for Oscar Gordon in "Glory Road" -- wasn't it Star who actually saved the universe?

If John Lyle was the hero of "If This Goes On," then his case is even more clear-cut: he didn't lead the revolution, he was an officer, and a staff officer at that.

I didn't notice that Star, or Sister Magdalen, or Mimi Davis, or First Officer Krausa were 'tamed'.

It's a complicated thing. I overgeneralized.

Star could not be tamed, and that's why Oscar left her.

I forgot who Mimi Davis was.

As for First Officer Krausa -- she's actually a great exampel fo the point I was making. Yes, she certainly was a powerful female character, and yes, she certainly was AS powerful -- if not moreso -- than her son, the captain, was -- but notice who was the captain and who was the first officer.

I'm not saying that the women in Heinlein were chattels or stupid -- merely that their power conformed to the middle-20th-Century progressive notion of what would be the appropriate kind of power for a woman to have. This kind of thing is actually easier to see in Tracy/Hepburn movies than it is in Heinlein's work. And note that this attitude is halfway evolved toward feminism already.

#287 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 10:35 PM:

Heck, Mitch, I love talking about Heinlein--and my brilliant and talented wife (did I mention she's beautiful?) is better at it than I am--but find it funny that SF discussions tend toward him.

What John Lyle, Oscar Gordon, and Archie Fraser have in common is not that they were the most important figures in events which made up their tales--Star and Mrs. Jennings play that part in those stories, and if there's a single important figure in "If This Goes On--", it's the Cabal--but that at critical moments they come through:

Oscar gets the Egg, John Lyle keeps command at a pivotal moment, Archie--well, we don't know why Archie is picked to help sniff out the demon, but he is.

All three are protagonists, and spearcarriers as well--but spearcarriers given a heroic moment.

As to those women--they're executives, eh?

Mimi runs the Davis Family and related enterprises, Star runs the universe, First Officer Krausa runs Sisu and as Grandmother runs the Krausa family.

Maggie is...well, okay, a staff sergeant in an organization that seems made up of nothing but commissioned officers. She's the exception there, I suppose.

Note also: If you take Mimi or Krausa and twist her just a bit, you get Friday's Anita. And Star, who has only Rufo for family, is not a particularly happy woman.

The only executive that Heinlein gives us as an unalloyed positive figure is Johann Smith. Bonforte would be, as would Thorby, but we don't ever see them in that role. More often, the executives are the bad guys--Miles (as tempted by Belle) screws Danny, Dixon thwarts Harriman, Weems and Bruder do in Thorby's parents. Slayton Ford is a good guy, but also a bit pathetic.

(Let's leave Foster and Douglas out of this. God and Jerry Farnsworth, too.)

There's something wistful in Heinlein's description in The Day After Tomorrow:

"The first trouble shooter turned out sour. He was a high-pressure man, who had run his own business much along the lines which Ardmore had been using up to then... But in time several placid and unhurried men were located who knew instinctively and through practice the principal of doctrinal administration."

Mostly, Heinlein's businessman-heroes are like that first guy--Archie, Hugh Farnham, Felix. Even Harriman spends his time wheeling and dealing rather than administering--he's got Strong for that. More often, his adult heroes whom we see at work are professionals--Waldo, Jubal, Danny, Manny, Lorenzo, Pinero--especially when one includes soldiers and sailors in that class.

Probably this all adds up to something, and if I didn't have to get to sleep, I'd figure out what.

#288 ::: Rich Rostrom ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 12:01 AM:

Mitch Wagner: none of the three examples you cited are people who actually saved the universe...

What I wrote was "the protagonist or his associates... Save the World..." John Lyle, Oscar Gordon, and Archie Fraser don't Save the World by themselves, but they are key members of the groups that do. As are Kip Russell, Lorenzo Smythe, Don Harvey, Manny Davis, the crew of Galileo, Sam Nivens, Mr. Kiku, Max Jones, Jim Marlowe, Whitey Ardmore... Friday is not. She begins as a member of a potential such group, but it dissolves; thereafter her only motive is looking out for Number One and her chosen friends. Very different, and deliberately so.

#289 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 03:16 AM:

Adamsj - "Mimi runs the Davis Family and related enterprises, Star runs the universe, First Officer Krausa runs Sisu and as Grandmother runs the Krausa family."

As I recall, First Officer Krausa runs the family but her son, the captain, runs the Sisu.

Mimi, First Officer Krausa and Anita run their families. In other words, they have traditional women's roles.

Rich Rostrom - We don't really know what Heinlein's intentions were in writing "Friday" - to my knowledge, he didn't leave any working notes or letters or talk to anyone about his plans while writing the book. Still, it appears to me that the book took a different course than the direction Heinlein intended at the beginning of the novel, for the reasons I outlined above. Heinlein spends a great deal of verbiage describing the conspiracy against national governments, then as soon as Friday leaves the home of her new Canadian family, the novel drops the subject, and doesn't pick it up again until just before the end, when he disposes of it quickly, in a few pages. The novel started out being about one thing: a superspy caught up in a global conspiracy -- and ended up being about another thing -- a superspy looking to get out of the superspy business.

#290 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 07:52 AM:

Mitch,

Mimi, Krausa, and Anita all run their families and related enterprises. Star doesn't. She's just got the universe, and she's not particularly happy. Alice Douglas comes to mind.

I guess I'm suggesting that Heinlein was showing us women without families as unhappy, and women with families as both fulfilled and capable of running major enterprises.

(I may be misinterpreting both Krausa and Star--especially Star--here.)

As to the "plot" of Friday, I'm not sure there is one, any more than there is one in I Will Fear No Evil. The stories are just about the lead characters--the rest is background.

It's a shame about I Will Fear No Evil. There's a really good book in there.

#291 ::: LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 11:39 AM:

What struck me about many of his longer works was that he was a brilliant writer, who greatly benefited from being edited. The initial release of his STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, for instance, was substantially better than the re-release of the "pre-edited" version.

But man, what he could do with an idea or two. Jesus.


-l.

#292 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 11:49 AM:

The blatant anti-semitism in "Oliver Twist" doesn't bother me much either, for the same reasons only moreso.

How about the blatant racism in The Lord of the Rings? Not particularly in the movie, I'm happy to say.

#293 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 11:54 AM:

Adamsj said: Maggie is...well, okay, a staff sergeant in an organization that seems made up of nothing but commissioned officers. She's the exception there, I suppose.

Heinlein's noncoms run the army, much as mothers run their families. So it's not strange that the only staff sgt would be a woman, or that that woman would be like Maggie.

I haven't read _Glory Road_ in years, so take this with a grain of salt. But it's pretty clear to me that Oscar's a young, naive, unreliable narrator for most of the book, and I don't especially trust his perceptions of Star. If anybody made her unhappy, it was her Hero and his parochial views. (I don't remember why Star broke off with her family, but if the ruler of the Forty Universes wanted to see her grandkids, I'm sure it could be arranged somehow.)

#294 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 11:59 AM:

Xopher: How about the blatant racism in The Lord of the Rings? Not particularly in the movie, I'm happy to say.

Ummm ..... orcs?

#295 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 12:44 PM:


Star is an exception to Heinlein's usual characterization of women -- and you'll note that Oscar leaves her in the end.

I'm right now re-reading "If This Goes On" -- I haven't gotten to this point yet, but I'm positive there's a scene where Maggie says she is not worthy of John Lyle, she'll sleep with him and be his friend but (she says) she's not fit to be his wife.

Heinlein loved that shit, it's a recurring theme in his novels, of women weeping and begging to be allowed into the hero's bed -- or (as in the case of "If This Goes On" and "Friday" -- I can't think of any other examples of the top of my head) saying they're happy to have sex with a man but they're not worthy of any emotional commitment.

The phrase "breaking a spirited animal comes to mind."

Xopher - When I'm talking about blatant anti-Semitism in "Oliver Twist," I mean what I say. This is not a metaphor, with orcs and hobbits. In the novel "Oliver Twist," Fagin is far more villainous than in the play and movie -- in the play and movie he is sort of avuncular and comical, but in the novel it is clear that he is exploiting those children, they are property to him, he doesn't care about them the slightest little bit. And in the novel he is a Jew, he is explicitly identified as a Jew, and it is stated that his evil nature is innate to his race. Later on, he encounters another villainous Jew and they immediately fall together and commence to conspiring. Fagin is far more villainous than Bill Sikes -- Sikes is a violent, angry brute but at least he's an Englishman.

The novel "Oliver Twist" would go over big in Egypt today.

#296 ::: clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 01:27 PM:

There is some argument - leaving aside the use of idiot as a technical term - that at the time of writing Friday Mr. Heinlein had come to seriously consider that big government of any sort was incompatible with other ideals and that the necessary but not sufficient condition for a free society was a fractured society [Kettle Belly gives up trying to hold things together?] that is free society could exist only here and there rather than globally - [see also Dr. Pournelle]. Draw a line through Double Star - winning party splinters [cf Shipstone fights itself] - Moon is Harsh Mistress - saves the revolution and lights out for the territories - Friday goes off to tend her sheep compare with Big Government in Beyond This Horizon - If This Goes On... Space Cadet -

#297 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 02:28 PM:

OK, Tolkien's racism is blatant but not explicit, like the anti-Semitism you cite in OT.

In LOTR, anyone with dark or swarthy skin is automatically evil. Also the "squint-eyed" or "slant-eyed." Also East is the direction of evil, but that's more dubious.

The orcs are dark-skinned AND slant-eyed. But I'm more concerned about the "swarthy men."

#298 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 07:02 PM:

"Star could not be tamed, and that's why Oscar left her."

No. Oscar could not be tamed, which is why he left; he had \nothing/ to do (including shtupping Star, as he notes) that someone else couldn't do better. Arguably it should be possible for a man to be happy in such a ]marriage[ (by parallel to the female characters shown as such), but someone who would be satisfied with that wouldn't have been an adequate Hero. (Note that even a possible counterexample, the servitors in Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, have the potential for action when needed; Oscar in Central is useless and knows it.)

"The only executive that Heinlein gives us as an unalloyed positive figure is Johann Smith. Bonforte would be, as would Thorby, but we don't ever see them in that role."

I'd say Smythe-as-Bonforte is shown positively in an executive role; he takes advice where necessary, stands on principle when called for, and doesn't run in a crunch. I could be overreading his role because Heinlein didn't show any other top people positively (in SiaSL the executive is managed by his wife, Kiku is a career vice working for an appointed idiot, ...) but I don't think so.

#299 ::: Jasuka ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 09:53 PM:

*Laughs uncontrollably* Thank you so very much for all these wonderful links! Nothing amuses more than a Mary Sue. This article is simply amazing. I'm going to have to sit down and go through it again just to absorb it all.

#300 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2003, 11:56 PM:

Adamsj, I believe that tendency has been observed, but I'm not sure it's been properly formulated.

#301 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2003, 12:43 AM:

"The only executive that Heinlein gives us as an unalloyed positive figure is Johann Smith. Bonforte would be, as would Thorby, but we don't ever see them in that role."

Nope. I missed this one too until after I'd finished the Heinlein Women panel at Philcon two weeks back, but the unnamed president in "Over The Rainbow" is wonderful. Except for some reason, nowadays I see her in my mind as Oprah Winfrey.

#302 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2003, 01:20 AM:

I'm almost certain I read somewhere that Heinlein intended that president to be Nichelle Nichols.

#303 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2003, 07:36 AM:

Teresa,

While my beautiful wife (she of the twin copies of Robert A. Heinlein: The Reader's Companion) and I are home for the holidays, we'll work on a correct formulation.

Glenn,

I cheerfully defend Heinlein's stories against charges of being preaching dressed up as fiction. I'm not going to do the same for "Over the Rainbow", because the charge is true. It's a piece of didactery tacked onto an essay in which a very slightly veneered Heinlein speaks directly to the audience--it's in no sense a story, just a speech written in a sequence of scenes.

Besides, we no more see her as an executive than we do Bonforte. She doesn't do business, she has meetings and makes declarations. We don't see her deal with the consequences of her actions.

CHip,

Bonforte, you'll notice, is only shown before coming back into power, in his intimate relations with his staff and one close friend. I believe he delegates one action during the entire novel--we see him at a press conference, but not any governing activity. I don't believe we ever see him as an executive, just as a politician out of power trying to get back in.

I will admit the Secretary General in The Star Beast--and Have Space Suit, Will Travel--to be positive portrayals of executives, but they're very minor characters.

(I'm probably pushing it with Johann Smith, but someone has to find something nice to say about I Will Fear No Evil--and I do like the book, despite its many, many failings.)

This is how Heinlein thought--he was a shopkeeper, a professional (including soldier), a small businessman at heart. (On that scale, libertarianism makes a lot more sense.) Those are his heroes. Tricky business, but I'll claim John Lyle is expressing Heinlein's feelings when he says, "I think what I really want is simply to sit under my own vine and my own fig tree."

Anne,

I re-read the sections of Glory Road that seemed appropriate, and while it's never stated explicitly, I guess Star just outlived her family, except Rufo, who could afford Long Life treatment.

Mitch,

If we're going to give Friday's reaction to rape a pass on the grounds that she's an artificial being at the start of the story in which she learns to become a human being, then I think we have to give the same pass to Maggie. She'd been one of the Prophet's concubines--it's believable she'd lead off with, "I'm a fallen woman," and end up marrying the man anyway.

I've long been rankled by Friday's reaction to her rape and yet not found it so unbelieveable as to toss the book. Your particular interpretation of it I read here makes sense.

clark,

Yet Heinlein never shows us a single family divided by revolution--money, yes, but never politics. He mentions a few, but never puts one on stage. It's another case where the consequences of his ideas never get fully worked out. Poul Anderson succeeds in this in (for instance) "No Truce for Kings". So does Gregory Benford, if you grant the New Sons as a politcal movement.


All,

It occurs to me that, even today, Double Star could be filmed believeably. All one has to do is take the interpretation that Lorenzo is Bonforte's neurotic fiction and you're done.

Yeah, me either.

#304 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2003, 07:41 AM:

It only now occurs to me:

Madame President in "Over the Rainbow" is the definitive Mary Sue Heinlein.

#305 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2003, 02:36 PM:

adamsj - "'Tricky business, but I'll claim John Lyle is expressing Heinlein's feelings when he says, 'I think what I really want is simply to sit under my own vine and my own fig tree.'"

... and why not roll out a couple of bolts of cloth while you're there?

I love that little sub-plot of in "If This Goes On-- " it serves a number of purposes. First off, it's a cute bit of business in its own right, the idea that John Lyle, professional supersoldier, should have the ambition of becoming a traveling fabric salesman.

Also: I'm reminded of something said by a professor in a literature class I took in college, that a good novel appears to be a snapshot of a larger period of life. "Snapshot" was a catchy word, but not quite on-target -- still, you get a sense of what he meant to say, which is that when you're reading a good novel, you have the perception that the characters are real people, with lives before the novel starts, and lives that will continue after the novel ends.

John (and Maggie's) conversations about what they'll do at the end of the Revolution serve that purpose -- they remind us, as readers, that the Revolution will end. Whatever else the Cabal is, it is also a group of people who are working very, very hard to make themselvse unemployed.

And, finally, it's an expression of one of the things that's best about the American spirit -- the principle of Cincinnatus, much admired by our Founding Fathers and carried forward to this day. That's the idea that America should be a country with a small standing army during peacetime, a small force of professional soldiers, whose ranks would be bolstered as needed by corps of citizen-solders whose highest ambition would be to get the job done so they could be done with this dirty stinking war and get on with their real lives, whatever those lives might entail.

If we're going to give Friday's reaction to rape a pass on the grounds that she's an artificial being at the start of the story in which she learns to become a human being, then I think we have to give the same pass to Maggie. She'd been one of the Prophet's concubines--it's believable she'd lead off with, "I'm a fallen woman," and end up marrying the man anyway.

I've long been rankled by Friday's reaction to her rape and yet not found it so unbelieveable as to toss the book. Your particular interpretation of it I read here makes sense.

My reaction to Friday's rape is about the same as yours, I don't think that bit quite works, whatever Heinlein might have intended.

As to giving Maggie a pass -- I don't think she needs one. I think she's one of Heinlein's best characters.

Since I last posted, I re-read the scene in question and see what Maggie is really saying -- she's not saying that she is a fallen woman, but rather that she belies John Lyle will view her that way. It's actually a very believable romance

(I found myself thinking of Russell Baker's description of his romance with his wife in his memoir "Growing Up." "If This Goes On" is copyright 1940, and many of the attitudes in that book come from that period. Baker was in his 20s in the 1940s [I'm not sure why he wasn't in the war.] His wife-to-be was, if I recall correct, slightly older than he -- late 20s to his early 20s -- she either lived alone or with a roommate, she wore a lot of makeup -- put it all together, and she was not quite respectable by the standards of the day.)

#306 ::: Karen Junker ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2003, 05:15 PM:

adamsj- rape affects people differently, tho. It's a huge fantasy (tip hat to MS)with tons of literary precedent -Ygraine & Uther come to mind, plus the popularity in Heinlein's time of cartoon strips wherein women were often clubbed and dragged off into caves. I mean, Shulamith Firestone wasn't even freakin' born yet. Not condoning, just placing the work in context.

#307 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2003, 06:56 PM:

Karen Junker - "placing the work in context" is somewhat complicated -- the world you describe is the world Heinlein grew up in, but the world that "Friday" was published in was the world of 1982.

I was doing some Googling to look up ANOTHER Heinlein question -- are the pariahs in "If This Goes On" Jews? -- and I didn't find an answer to that question, but I did find these interesting links that appear to be relevant to the ongoing Heinlein discussion here.


Heinlein's Women:
Role Model Characters in the Heinlein Juveniles

by D. A. Houdek
Looking at the wealth of strong female role model characters in the Heinlein juveniles

Heinlein?s Women: Strong Women Characters in Early Heinlein
By G. E. Rule
The strong women characters in the early Heinlein works.

#308 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 25, 2003, 11:43 AM:

Something off to one side of the Mary Sue:

Elf Sternberg, in his LiveJournal (username "elf2") has just admitted to writing Tron slash-fic.

#309 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 25, 2003, 02:31 PM:

You know, I always thought myself above the impulse to write fanfic -- "Don't get me wrong," I'd sniff, "I'm not looking down on fanfict -- it's fine for the kind of people who write that kind of thing -- but not for me."

But then I started watching "Deep Space Nine" in reruns -- TNG was such a turnoff for me that I never got into any other Treks, even though fans kept urging me to watch DS9, saying that it's not like other Treks at all.

And when I finally watched it, I found they were right, it's a fine show, occasionally great. They even managed to wring some good stories out of that hoary old dumb idea of the holodeck program becoming real. I particuarly liked the character of Vic Fontaine, who turned up in the last couple of seasons; I love that old Rat Pack shtick, and the idea of a Rat Packer being a regular on Star Trek, well.

Then I watched Voyager and found that it was the most uneven of the Treks -- the overall quality was pretty low, but they did some fine episodes too. I particularly liked the character of the doctor.

And then I thought to myself: Hey, what if the Doctor and Vic Fontaine had to go on a mission together.

#310 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: December 25, 2003, 06:07 PM:

Elf Sternberg's LiveJournal userid is "elfs", not "elf2".

The paragraph of Tron/Sark slash can be found at http://www.livejournal.com/users/elfs/108475.html.

#311 ::: Lis ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2004, 11:41 PM:

I just noticed you'll be speaking on this topic at Boskone, so want to provide two further tidbits of information for your perusal.

First of all, in a Boskone panel several years back brainstorming the worst, most trite plots and finding ways where they were done well (this was one of Burstein and DeCandido's panels), it was pointed out that the "Superstar" episode of Buffy was a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) done well.

Secondly, Janis Cortese wrote an excellent essay differentiating good Mary Sues from bad ones. In briefest, it's the difference between inclusivity and exclusivity, between being a reader-insert and an author-insert. And that may be the difference between, some of Heinlein's characters or the Emperors of Everything and the bad characters we groan upon seeing.

So it's not just a binary "Mary Sue" == bad, but there are nuances to Mary Sues.

Just food for thought.

#312 ::: Sam B ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2004, 09:37 AM:

I think Mary Sues are probably an aspect of all writing, not just fanfiction. Everybody projects something of themselves onto their characters. It's just that when those characters happen to be somebody else's that we have this phenomenon. It's not really a deliberate subversion, it's just huuman nature.

#313 ::: Joe Spagnola ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2004, 04:44 PM:

sorry to dredge up the SF vs Sci fi thing again but it reminded me of a poem I read, can't remember where...

Gentle reader, you may wonder,
whats the difference 'tween SF and sci fi?
Well you see there's a fine line,
'tween Robert Heinlein...
and "Son of the Two Headed Fly"

#314 ::: Jeremy Leader finds comment spam ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 04:01 PM:

Interesting (but failed) attempt to be on-topic by the comment spammer above.

#315 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2004, 05:13 PM:

Joe Spagnola:

I'd slightly edit this, for rhyme and meter, to:

Gentle reader, you may suffer and sigh,
from the difference twixt SF and Sci-Fi.
.....You see there's a fine line,
.....between Robert Heinlein...
and "Son of the Two Headed Fly."

#316 ::: Cactus Wren ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2004, 12:30 AM:

I was only directed to this thread today, but I'm just sticking my head up to say how pleased and flattered I am that someone *outside* of _Hunchback of Notre Dame_ fandom noticed and enjoyed my HoND Mary Sue Litmus Test. (Even if it is no longer available online.)

Cactus Wren, aka Coquirie

#317 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2004, 10:57 AM:

I'm at the worldcon. Today I'm supposed to do an hour-long solo program item about Mary Sue. I'm not sure there's that much juice left in the subject, so I've given formal notice that the latter part of the hour may instead consist of me talking about some of the misinformation about publishing and writing that's currently available on the net.

#318 ::: Mouse ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2005, 05:32 PM:

Ooops! The "Nine Men and a Little Lady" link is broken. I looked around and found the story's official home at http://www.subreality.com/ring12/stories/nmaall.htm - there's a Fanfiction.net link too ( http://www.fanfiction.net/s/536905/1/ ). Hope that helps!

#319 ::: Sandy Schoen ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2005, 09:14 PM:

Haven't read all the comments -- I'm amazed at the number and detail -- but one I do have to answer.

Why do authors who could be making money write stuff they can't legally sell?

Sometimes it's because they want to keep it fun. If they write stuff they can't sell, there's no rejection letter, and no pressure to actually make that sale.

But the bigger reason is the community.

We start out playing in a universe we love and want more of, filling in holes, telling more about our favourite characters (and, yes, doing the Mary Sue thing).

Along the way we meet other fans, some of whom write. We discuss Mary Sues and the true purpose of beta readers and should we be bother to read authors who don't use standard English.

We pass along links and favourite episodes and help with details of the canon. We mention when the baby is due, or how work is going. We become friends.

Some fanfic authors go on to write stuff that can be sold, but many of them keep coming back to their old friends -- literary and real.

At least that's how I see it.

#320 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2005, 08:51 PM:

just read through a bunch of the links. Funny funny stuff. Thanks!

#321 ::: Andrew Willett ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2005, 10:57 PM:

Oh man, I'd forgotten about this thread. TNH, I went to re-read "The Game of the Gods" and found that its URL had changed since you first posted it. Here's the new link to The Game of the Gods at fanfiction.net.

#322 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2005, 11:49 PM:

Resolved Silverlock is fanfic and garysue.

#323 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2005, 11:52 PM:

Clark E Myers:

"Resolved Silverlock is fanfic and garysue."

Stipulated; and also postmodernist metafiction.

#324 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 12:46 AM:

No, dammit, it's not Gary Stu! Shandon is an ass for most of the book, and very slowly learns better. It's not wish fulfilment for the author, but something much more interesting. Shandon is totally incompetent to survive on his own for a minute in The Commonwealth, and Myers makes that clear from the very first sentence, my favorite narrative hook ever:

"If I had cared to live, I would have died."

If Myers wrote himself in, he wrote in a really warty and stupid version of himself, which is the opposite of what Mary Sue/Gary Stu is all about. Shandon survives through luck and finding good companions. Silverlock is a classic "Man who learned better novel -- and it's hard to make a "man who learned better" into a Gary Stu.

Fanfic, yes. Gary Stu, no. I'll argue that for a very long time.

#325 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 10:04 PM:

Tom -- not only that, but he learns better (leading up to the wedding chapel) and \still/ screws up afterwards -- because he expects to be befriended and supported (if not outright admired) the way a Gary Stu always is.

Clark, what were you smoking?

#326 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2005, 08:46 PM:

Let's see--whenver Philip K. Dick wrote himself into a novel, he was most definitely not a Gary Stu. Any others? I can come up with some very good examples from Arkansaw writers with borderline SF connections, but I'll save those for later.

#327 ::: Anton Sherwood ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2005, 01:15 PM:

Mary Sue can be the writer's wife rather than the writer; see The Misfits, written by Arthur Miller, in which Clark Gable and, er, the other guy spend at least the first forty minutes going on about how wonderful Marilyn Monroe is.

#328 ::: Cat Prickett ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2006, 11:45 PM:

An essay that relates to this is "Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists" by George Eliot. Judging from this, Mary Sue preceded modern science fiction and fantasy by quite a bit.

Also, someone had expressed horror at the idea of real-person slash, or RPS. Well, that was my first reaction when I heard of such a thing, and I tend to avoid it even now as well. However, someone whose LJ I read on occasion has done some very good RPS -- for one example in particular, all that would be needed is a few slight changes to complete the transformation from RPS with characters inspired by, but clearly not intended to be believable depictions of, present-day celebrities into science-fiction/horror/homoerotica original fiction. I asked the author why she hadn't simply completed the transformation, and she answered that to her, having the characters kinda-sorta based on real people was a sort of "mental shorthand" which made the stories easier to write.

#329 ::: fidelio spots numerous shamesless instances of comment spam, all at once ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2006, 07:13 PM:

Spam, spam, spam, spam and spam. For real.

#332 ::: Jon Meltzer sees an ongoing comment spam attack ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2006, 12:06 PM:

Several other threads, too...

#334 ::: sbkar ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2007, 12:00 AM:

I had to look up the definition of "Mary Sue" and found this via Google.com.

I have to agree with so much here, since I've read far too many fan fictions as well as some published authors "Mary Sue/Gary Stu" stories. This is spot on and still relevant four years later.

Thanks for having this up!

#335 ::: P J Evans see spam ::: (view all by) ::: November 03, 2008, 04:19 PM:

non-sequitur comment spam

#336 ::: TexAnne sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: May 13, 2011, 11:58 PM:

Blah-de-blah.

#337 ::: janetl see spam ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2011, 10:52 PM:

#340

#338 ::: kata gombalan ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2012, 02:26 PM:

I would like to say thanks for the tips for this useful information. I am currently looking for ways in that I could enhance my knowledge in this specific said topic you have posted here. It does help me a lot learning that you have contributed this information here freely. I really like the way the individuals here have interaction and shared their viewpoints too. I might love to track your upcoming posts pertaining to the said topic we are able to read.

#339 ::: Stefan Jones sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: July 20, 2012, 11:29 PM:

Nakedly peddling ceramic figures.

#340 ::: Ludens sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2014, 11:27 AM:

At #338

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Jim Macdonald, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

If you are a spammer, your fate is in the hands of Jim Macdonald, and your foot shall slide in due time.

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="http://www.url.com">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.















(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.