Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Redeeming Little Miss Mary Sue: Proper Focus

For the last four weeks I've been talking about what makes Mary Sue characters intolerable.  This week, I'll begin explaining ways to "redeem" a Mary Sue into a character people would actually enjoy.

Little Miss Mary Sue is a badly-constructed and shallow thing that no one (outside her creator and maybe some like-minded fans) likes reading about, but that doesn’t mean she deserves to be thrown away entirely.  More often than not, Mary Sue characters come about through inexperience with writing and too narrow of focus on the author’s part.  Inexperience is something that be overcome with practise and guidance, and guidance is what I will focus on for the next few articles, but first I want to explain what I mean by “too narrow of focus.”
When an author writes a story in such a way that a particular character holds an inappropriate amount of the story’s attention and both people and scenarios need to bend over backward to favor the spotlighted character, that character may be a Mary Sue.  Whether or not they actually get that label depends on the story’s readers.  I’ve said previously that Mary Sue is a subjective concept - meaning what one person calls a Mary Sue isn’t always a Sue to someone else - but the truth is that all story writing is subjective; successful writing depends on positive responses from the target audience.  It is the audience who determines whether or not a story is “acceptable,” and what things within that story work or don’t.  Little Miss Mary Sue emerges when the author’s field of focus does not include considering how the readers will respond to the half-Vulcan, quarter-Klingon, youngest-Chief-Engineer-ever who suddenly takes Scotty’s place on the Enterprise without explanation.  Mary Sue creators typically, whether intentionally or not, write stories entirely for themselves, not for the readership of a given fandom.  
Too-narrow focus applies within a piece of writing as well as to the author/writer relationship.  Mary Sue emerges when the author is so focused on Mary’s character that everything else going on suffers.  The author runs the risk of turning a story into a shrine to their original character or their favorite from the canon.  Mary Sue gets far more words devoted to describing her than anyone else gets.  Other characters treat Mary Sue in ways that don’t match up with how she actually acts: they may praise her for skills and bravery not actually demonstrated in the story, ignore her constant jerkish behavior (or even love her despite it!), or sympathize with her angsting over the past in degrees out of proportion to whatever mistake or tragedy caused that angst.  As I’ve pointed out previously, a Mary Sue can become like a black hole for attention because the author is too focused on her to allow any other characters to share the spotlight for long.

Overcoming a too-narrow focus can be difficult, but not impossible.  Starting on the external level - the author/reader relationship - is the best starting point, because that leads to getting help for the internal focus and other Mary Sue problems.  One must acknowledge the fact that posting one’s fan-fiction or original stories on the internet carries an implied agreement that other people will read those stories and form opinions about them.  Sharing stories with others is something I think most writers desire on an instinctive level, so I won’t belabor the point.  The next step is to acknowledge that not everyone will like what you’ve written, and if the platform allows it they will let you know.  Separating the comments that offer detailed constructive criticism from the mass of one-line “yays” and “nays” and the flagrant insults will give you a good idea of what your readers were and were not able to accept.  This is called the “willing suspension of disbelief:” a measure of what unreal elements of a fictional universe people are willing to go along with.  Suspension of Disbelief varies from franchise to franchise.  What is acceptable in, say, Dragon Ball Z probably won’t fly in Lord of the Rings, and vice-versa.  The willing suspension of disbelief gives you a solid, but somewhat flexible, foundation to base your own story and original characters on.
To clarify: Willing Suspension of Disbelief is flexible because no two people read a story with the exact same expectations, so some people will let you get away with things that will annoy others.  Willing Suspension of Disbelief is also flexible in that an author who has earned a reader’s trust gains some leeway in stretching the bounds of what is plausible within a story’s world, and the more skill and respect you get, the more you can stretch credibility.  Be warned, though: even the best authors can only stretch things so far before the reader’s Willing Suspension of Disbelief snaps.

Fixing one’s too-narrow focus within a story is more difficult because it will require you to accept that your original character, the potential Mary Sue, is not the center of the universe and will need to be hurt - badly - or fail at something if the story is going to be any good.  You’re not always required to literally “kill your darlings,” but they can’t emerge from the depths of Mount Doom unburned and in spotless attire.  Your character can’t always be the most important person in the room; in fact, if you’re writing a fanfiction they shouldn’t upstage the main characters more than a couple times (and that only with great care) and never when it would invalidate the hero’s personal destiny.  Readers can be very helpful in widening your focus within a story because they aren’t as close to the story as you are and have a more objective view on what your writing is conveying.

Next week, I’ll start looking at how to fix the Mary Sue character herself.

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