27 April 2010

Still Trying to Pin Down Mary Sues

Liz B. at the Tea Cozy pointed me to Laura Miller’s interesting Slate essay on the danger of “Mary Sue” characters. Along with the usual warnings about how annoying such characters can be, Miller writes:

Because genre fiction tends to trade in wish fulfillment to begin with, you’re far more likely to find shameless Mary Sues in mediocre mysteries, science fiction and romance novels. Even in the most routine series fiction, however, there’s a distinction between the kind of character who embodies the fantasies of readers—Nancy Drew, for example—and a character who’s really only working for the author.
The focus on literary wish-fulfillment does indeed help to explain where Mary Sues congregate. And genre fiction does offer easier wish-fulfillment since it tends to offer clearer stakes and resolutions: solving the mystery, finding true love, winning the big game, escaping the zombie,…

At the same time, if the acid test is reader response, that means that no character is a Mary Sue until the story is published and read. And then it’s too late. Miller’s definition seems tautological:
The Mary Sues of literary fiction are seldom as flat-out perfect as the ones found in fan or genre fiction, but they do share the defining quality of Mary Sues everywhere: They irritate readers. Not all readers, maybe, but most of them, which is why there are so few true Mary Sues in literary classics; great writers don’t do Mary Sues.
So characters that irritate most readers are Mary Sues, and Mary Sues are bad because they irritate readers. Literary authors can create stand-in or autobiographical characters because they’re such great writers that they don’t irritate most readers.

So how do folks feel about Levin in Anna Karenina?

And are there genre writers getting their jollies through their characters but skilled enough not to irritate their readers?


rahkan said...

Sure, plenty of genre writers seem to be able to pull it off pretty well. People seem to enjoy Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, but Jubal Harshaw is pretty Mary Sueish.

Richard said...

I'd say Dorothy Sayers using herself as the model for Harriet Vane in the Lord Peter Wimsey books is an example of a genre author writing herself in as a character successfully.

(Though I'm not really comfortable with calling her a "Mary Sue" because, for me at least, the term connotes a lack of insight and self-awareness; the author has written him or herself as a character purely for self-gratification rather than for effect on an audience.)

In the genre of hard SF, I've seen an awful lot of authors with pet recurring lead characters who always guess right the first time while everyone else around them is blinkered by their stuffy preconceptions and inability to accept Hard Truths, who enjoy much more fulfilling sex lives than anyone else in the book, and who ultimately save the day to the humiliation and disgrace of those who Just Wouldn't Listen. Even the best writers in SF have fallen victim to this…with an added bonus that judicious doses of boosterspice, or proximity to the event horizon of a black hole, allows their Mary Sues to live forever.

J. L. Bell said...

The comment about Harriet Vane reminded me of an article in Murderess Ink, an anthology about female mystery writers, detectives, characters, etc. published years ago.

An artist set out to create a Harriet paper doll. She drew on Sayers’s descriptions in the books, and came out with a rather dowdy middle-aged woman. Other fans she showed it to told her, “Lord Peter would never marry that woman!”

So the artist decided to illustrate how she pictured Harriet. The result was a not conventionally attractive but vibrant woman, looking at least ten years younger. And the fans loved it.

The artist ended up converting her original sketch of Harriet Vane into a portrait of…Dorothy L. Sayers.

So I think RAB’s right that Sayers created Harriet in her own self-image, but the character took on a life of her own in fans’ minds, and may even have come to reflect their self-image.