Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Watson Report: Whose Afraid of Mary Sue?

by I.A. "Ian Sue" Watson

In 1973, Paula Smith published “A Trekkie’s Tale”, a parody of fan-written stories. In it, Mary-Sue, “the youngest lieutenant in Starfleet – only fifteen and a half”, joins the crew of the USS Enterprise, and proves to be essential to the survival of the ship, demonstrating a remarkable competence and claiming a place in the hearts of Kirk, McCoy, and even Spock. The wish-fulfilment character represents the fantasy of a series enthusiast entering and interacting with the series they love.

Since that time, “Mary-Sue” has become a byword for non-satirical author-inserted characters who seem to be fulfilling the writer’s own fantasies, often but not always in an ongoing series that did not originate with them. This character often speaks with the author’s voice, correcting what the author feels are problems with the ongoing story, addressing long term situations and earning the gratitude of regular characters, and even displacing romantic leads to win the heart of a favourite cast member.

We see the phenomena in books and comics. For example, Brian Bendis has faced “Mary-Sue” accusations for his use of Jessica Jones, retconned into Avengers history as a “dear old friend” who has now become an essential staple of the series and romances an established “cool” character.

Other authors write their own primary character as a “Mary-Sue”. This criticism is sometimes aimed at Ian Fleming, for example. James Bond, whom “men want to be and women want”, might be an idealised version of his own younger self. There are many omni-competent and always-right characters in adventure and pulp fiction of whom a similar charge might be made.

But are “Mary-Sues” always a bad thing? Dorothy L. Sayers tended to write versions of herself into her stories. Early Lord Peter Wimsey stories occasionally feature Marjorie Phelps, a young independent woman living a Bohemian life in Chelsea, who occasionally assists Lord Peter with his investigations. Sayers herself had lived a similar life. The strong-willed Oxford graduate Miss Meteyard from “Murder Must Advertise” works at an advertising agency just as Sayers herself did for a decade. Meteyard penetrates Wimsey’s cover and solves the murder before him, but says nothing because “it’s none of her business”. In “The Nine Tailors” fifteen year-old Hilary Thorpe wants to study at Oxford and become a writer. She is “striking looking rather than beautiful”, whip-smart in helping solve the case, and by the end of the novel Lord Peter is her trustee.

Of course, all these pale into insignificance against Miss Harriet Vane, a detective novelist graduated from Oxford, who lived with a poet who claimed he did not believe in marriage then left him when he offered her marriage anyway “like a good-conduct badge”. Sayers herself graduated from Oxford, lived with a poet, and broke from him for the same reasons. Of course, Sayers’ ex-lover was not found murdered in the same way as the victim of her latest book, but Mary-Sues must be allowed some wish fulfilment. Miss Vane’s former inamoratas did perish in such a way, leaving her facing death by hanging unless rescued by Lord Peter Wimsey – who falls desperately in love with her.

Miss Vane appears in four of the Wimsey books. Her debut in “Strong Poison” leaves a powerful impression, but her “screen-time” is limited because she is behind bars. Her second appearance begins with her actually discovering the body in the case. “Have His Carcase” is mostly told from her point of view. “Gaudy Night”, her third appearance, might properly be described as a Harriet Vane mystery with Lord Peter Wimsey appearances. The narrative follows her throughout, with the detective overseas on government work for two-thirds of the book. “Busman’s Honeymoon” describes the discovery of a corpse on the morning after Wimsey marries Harriet, and was described by Sayers herself as “a romance story with detective interruptions”.

From these summaries, a reader not familiar with the Wimsey corpus might conclude that the appearance of Miss Vane wrecked the series, robbing the central hero of the spotlight in favour of an idealised ego-trip character. But this is simply not true; hence my citing it in such detail as an example of Why Mary-Sues Don’t Necessarily Have To Be Bad.

In fact the Vane/Wimsey novels take on a fresh life. It’s clear that Sayers was far more engaged with them than some others she wrote merely to fulfil a publisher’s contract. Even Wimsey’s absence helps the story. We get impressions of him from other cast and his eventual appearance comes with added impact. Harriet is fleshed out in all her tormented complicatedness, and if based on Sayers must have been painful to write. “What does pain matter if it makes a good story?” Wimsey asks Vane at one point. If there’s wish-fulfilment in Harriet’s eventual happy ending with Sayers’ greatest literary creation then it’s paid for in the author’s naked analysis of herself to tell a powerful narrative.

Writers are often advised to “write what you know”. What does a writer know better than themselves? Are not many of our characters drawn from some exaggerated aspect of ourselves, or of whom we would like to be? Who would not like to believe that the best of our personal traits should win us success, love, or acclaim? Which of us does not have personal tragedies that we could mine for story material if only it did not hurt too much?

So, while “Mary-Sue” characters are typically seen as juvenile, amateur, or series-spoiling, I wonder if there is a role for such personally-invested creations in their proper context. Can and should an author project themselves so fully into a character – and what happens then?