Category Archives: Strong Female Characters

Reading Roundup!

I spend a lot of time talking about fiction on this blog but it’s just occurred to me that I don’t actually say much about what I’m reading.

Time to fix that!

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That’ll do it. (image: giphy.com)

A quick note about my reading habits before we jump in. As some of you may know I work in publishing, so I end up having to read a lot of books and submissions as a part of my job. Sometimes this feels like work, and sometimes it doesn’t. I read during my commute (public transport FTW), evenings and weekends, but I also listen to audiobooks a lot too, so I’m often following the thread of a story while I’m cleaning, cooking or writing up my Russian notes. I’ll read most kinds of fiction but for non-fiction, I tend to stick to popular history.

Basically, I eat books.

So here’s a short list of some books that have really stuck with me over the past few months. There’s no real timeframe because I’m a dangerous maverick. Here’s what I’ve been eating recently:

 

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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image: waterstones.com

Set in Medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, a young girl who can see the creatures of Russian folklore. A couple of strange figures watch over her as she grows up, and while she gets into a few scrapes this is by and large fine until a priest shows up. With a sinister being in the forest starting to wake up, and with the priest telling the villagers not to believe in superstition, the tension ratchets up until it all comes crashing together.

Holy Hell, do I love this book.

The scene-setting is fantastic. There’s so many little details that bring the setting to life, from the food the characters eat to the names they call each other. It’s a retelling of a traditional Russian fairy tale which pulls off a very difficult balancing act: keeping the elements of a fairy tale while giving its characters distinct personality. Also, it has some really interesting stuff to say about gender roles and the clash between traditional beliefs and organised religion, and I am 100% here for all of them. I’ve also read the sequel, but as that only came out at the end of last month I’m trying not to spoil it, even though I’m holding in a lot of feelings and a really excellent joke.

 

The Good People by Hannah Kent

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image: panmacmillan.com

This one is set in pre-Famine Ireland, and it tells the story of three women in a remote Irish village who is suspected of being a changeling. There’s Nora, the child’s recently-widowed grandmother, who can’t come to terms with her husband’s recent death or her grandson’s behaviour. There’s Mary, a young maidservant very far from home. And there’s Nance, a wise woman who lives at the edge of the woods, who the villagers believe can cure illness and perform magic.

Now I haven’t finished this one yet, but I absolutely love it. Again, the scene-setting is great – Kent does an excellent job of modifying her characters’ speech patterns to make it clear that they’re speaking Irish, not English. Apparently it’s also based on a true story, but I haven’t looked this up yet because I’m trying to avoid two hundred-year-old spoilers. It’s brilliantly creepy and very well-written – just what you want on a cold winter’s night.

 

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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image: goodreads.com

If We Were Villains kicks off when a former theatre kid – Oliver Marks – is released from prison, after serving time for a murder he might or might not have committed. We then flash back to Oliver’s time at an elite university, where we meet his theatre kid friends, including the one who’s eventually going to get murdered. Tensions rise and there’s a mysterious incident that leaves one of Oliver’s friends dead. Only one question remains – was it murder?

I’m not sure if this one is technically cheating because this is something I had to read for work BUT I LOVE IT YOU GUYS. It’s just great. I love the way the author incorporates plays into the text and the characterisation is excellent. I didn’t go to a fancy theatre school but I’m pretty sure that I’ve met every single one of Oliver’s theatre crew. I’ve read this book three times now and it won’t be long before the fourth.

 

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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image: amazon.com

This is another one I had to read for work but damn is it good. Set in a fictional analogue of Weimar-era Germany, the plot follows three people – Cyril, a spy, Ari, a nightclub singer/smuggler and Cordelia, a stripper – as they try to navigate their way through life amidst the rise of what are basically Nazis. The rising tide of fascism threatens to engulf them all (particularly Ari and Cyril, who are in a gay relationship) and each character is forced to make a difficult choice – co-operation or sabotage.

This one took a while to get going. For the first half to two-thirds I was enjoying it, but not raving about it to all my friends. Then the last one hundred pages happened and I was swept away on a tide of feelings because I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY DAMMIT and now I’m counting off the days until the sequel is released. Also, it was really refreshing to read a novel where homosexual and polyamorous relationships are just an ordinary feature of life, rather than A Thing That Must Be Explained To The Reader.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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image: goodreads.com

What can I say about The Power that hasn’t already been said? Not much. It’s great. Since this book has been everywhere for most of last year I won’t go into detail on the plot, but for those of you that haven’t read it it’s set in a world where women suddenly develop the power to electrocute people.

This is a really excellent book. I could not put it down and there were some moments where I meant that literally. There was more than one moment where I was reading on a platform and ended up missing a train. It’s very well-written, has all kinds of interesting stuff to say about gender and all the characters have distinct voices. A couple of plot points really stuck with me. I read one scene and went to bed, thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, woke up at 3am thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, and was still thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’ the next morning. It was incredible.

 

And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve read recently that has stayed with me for one reason or another. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. I’m only halfway through The Good People.

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Why Everyone Should Read Terry Pratchett

So it’s 2018! Hooraayyyyy. Now that we’re done commemorating the inevitable march of time, let’s get back to business.

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Enough of this. (image: reactiongifs.com)

As some of you may already know, I absolutely love Terry Pratchett. I looked at three of his characters for my Strong Female Characters series, and because I am totally and completely unbiased, they all passed with full marks. He was a giant of British fantasy, largely thanks to his Discworld series – a series that spanned forty-one novels, several short stories, four ‘mapps’, and a wide range of non-fiction books including diaries, trivia collections, cookbooks and picture books. Pratchett was nominated for several awards and was eventually knighted – and in the most fantasy author move ever, made himself a sword out of meteorite iron to celebrate. He died at the age of sixty-six, after battling Alzheimer’s disease for almost a decade.

Hands down, the Discworld series is Sir Terry’s best-known work. The name comes from the shape of the planet – it’s a giant disc, supported by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space. At forty-one books (not counting the supplementary texts), this can look like an intimidating series from the outside. But it’s a series in quite a loose sense of the word. Most of the books can be read as standalone novels, and there are a few mini-series dealing with specific recurring characters:

  • Rincewind, the cowardly wizard constantly being strong-armed into saving the world
  • The Lancre witches, (later joined by Tiffany Aching) who shun magic as much as possible and steal all the sandwiches
  • The Ankh-Morpork City Watch, a police force in a city that has regulated begging, prostitution, theft and assassinations via various guilds
  • Unseen University, a university of wizards who unleash eldritch horrors when they aren’t trying to kill each other
  • Moist von Lipwig, an unfortunately-named con artist who finds himself in control of various public institutions
  • Death, i.e. the Grim Reaper, who TALKS LIKE THIS and has a fondness for cats.
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As all sensible people, and anthropomorphic personifications of difficult-to-understand forces, do. (image: pinterest.com)

On the surface the set-ups for these novels don’t look very different from other fantasy books. The basic elements are all there: wizards, witches, the long-lost heir to the throne, dragons, the undead, trolls, dwarves, goblins. I could go on. But what makes Discworld stand out amongst other fantasy series is the way in which these elements are treated.

Pratchett took delight on turning clichés on their heads. In Discworld, witches aren’t wicked: they’re usually overworked midwives, healers and occasional guardians against the nastier elements of the supernatural, fuelled by sweet tea. The long-lost heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork has no interest in reclaiming it; he’s pretty happy with the way things are being run. Dwarfs aren’t just gruff and bearded miners: they keep their gender secret from everyone but their families, and presenting themselves as openly female is a radical act that has led to deep divides in the dwarfish community. This is typical of Pratchett’s treatment of fantasy clichés. He has a real knack for drawing out certain aspects of fantasy tropes and turning them on their heads, without losing their connection with the original. He does this for pretty much every fantasy race we see in the Discworld series, with the result that Pratchett’s dwarfs, trolls, goblins and elves feel unique, distinct and fleshed-out. It’s a real skill.

But for me, what really lifts the Discworld series above over fantasy books is that it’s not static. It’s not just the characters that develop with every book. Their actions and decisions have a direct impact on the setting, and that changes accordingly. Technological advancements and societal changes all happen over the course of the series and are explored thoroughly, which isn’t something that we see very often in fantasy novels.

Let’s look for a moment at the character of Cheery Littlebottom.

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Heh heh heh. (image: giphy.com)

Cheery is a dwarf in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. When we first meet Cheery she dresses like all the other dwarfs in the series – i.e. like a short, beardy man. Before this, all dwarfs are described as male – there’s only one gender pronoun in the dwarfish language, and humans have translated this to ‘he’ thanks to their beards and such. But Cheery is female, and decides that she wants to look female, too. She doesn’t shave her beard (she is a dwarf, after all), but she starts wearing make-up and dresses and glitter in the first book she appears in. This causes something of a stir – some dwarfs want to copy her, some dwarfs find her attractive, and some see her as immoral. This is all in her first appearance. Over the course of the series Cheery’s decision starts a trend, and other dwarfs start dressing as women too, particularly in Ankh-Morpork. This causes a schism in dwarfish society between Ankh-Morpork liberals and more conservative dwarfs from the mountains, ultimately causing political factions and extremist splinter groups, all with complex motivations and goals of their own.

And that’s just the dwarfs.

This is reflective of Pratchett’s development as a writer. While Pratchett had always been noted for his comic fantasy, his earlier books tended to fall into some of the same traps as more straight-laced fantasy fiction. They’re funny and well-written, but it’s really as the series gets going that Pratchett comes into his own.

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Like this, but with words. (image: giphy.com)

The later books in the Discworld series are where Pratchett starts to establish himself as one of the greats. Having satirised a lot of explicitly fantasy clichés, Pratchett started to take aim at a much wider range of topics. He certainly hit his targets. He took on extreme nationalism in Jingo. He examined gender expectations and warfare in Monstrous Regiment. He picked apart the nature of death, belief, hysteria, good and evil and he did it all with tact and grace.

This is reflected in the complexity of his characters. Sam Vimes – the leader of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch – was obviously inspired by the stereotype of the bitter, alcoholic detective often seen in noir fiction. Pratchett manages to subvert this cliché by exploring it to its fullest extent, going into detail about Vimes’s experience as a recovering alcoholic and eventual teetotaller. This frank look at Vimes’s alcohol addiction and his efforts to distance himself from it are what lifts him away from the stereotype, making him a much more believable character. And, of course, this is by no means limited to one character. Pratchett’s female characters are, quite simply, brilliant. Monstrous Regiment is one of the best depictions of gender and warfare in fantasy fiction – its female characters are so tangibly real that I am always amazed they were written by a male writer. When he wrote Tiffany Aching, the young witch protagonist of his YA Discworld novels, Pratchett was made an honorary Brownie for writing such a realistic little girl as a protagonist. Incidentally, this was what earned him his ‘Writer’ and ‘Booklover’ badges.

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I’ve just got something in my eye… (image: giphy.com)

This is a huge part of the reason why I find Discworld so appealing. Pratchett’s fantasy setting doesn’t stop him from dealing with real-world issues like alcoholism, prejudice and systemic abuse, but his characters aren’t constrained by them. The world and its characters feel real because these bigger-than-fantasy problems are neither swept under the rug nor made the only markers of a character’s personality. His characters feel like real people, even when they aren’t people at all.

For me, this is what makes Discworld so compelling. I’ve always found high fantasy a bit too exclusive for my tastes. Characters from high fantasy have never seemed like real people to me; they’re so poised, well-spoken and noble that they seem worlds above us grubby normal people. This goes double for the female characters, who tend to be fair, perfect, and steeped in a lot of gendered stereotypes that I could really do without.

But Discworld is a different place. Its female characters face prejudice, but they overcome it. They aren’t forced to fit into very narrow boxes. They develop, they fight, they make mistakes. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: it’s welcoming. It feels like a place where I, as someone who attempts things with more enthusiasm than skill, could actually live. More than any other series I’ve read – and this goes for all books, ever – I have seen myself reflected in Pratchett’s characters. I connect with Tiffany Aching way more than with Hermione Granger, although lately, I’m more like Granny Weatherwax.

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If I ever say I feel like Nanny Ogg, you should all probably run for cover. (image: lspace.org)

Reading a Discworld novel is like coming home. I’ve had such a strong attachment to these books that it’s lasted for half my life, and I know it’s only going to continue. I’ve read them all so many times I’ve lost count. Apart from The Shepherd’s Crown, which I’ve only read once. No matter how much time passes, it’s always going to feel a bit too soon.

Mary Sue: So Bad It’s Good

Quick roundup of what we’ve learned so far. We’ve talked about what a Sue is and how to recognise one, including a short list of the different types. We’ve also discussed why Sues as character types are problems: a potted summary is that their lack of characterisation distorts the story around them and glosses over serious issues. But last time I raised the issue of gender criticisms of Mary Sues – namely, that a lot of the flak they get tends to be couched in all these weird gender connotations. From a purely literary perspective, some of the criticism is justified: Mary Sues are bad characters. But some of it isn’t, and that’s usually where the gender stuff comes into play.

Which leads me to ask the question: can Mary Sues ever be a good thing?

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Thank you, Mr Jackson. (image: giphy.com)

Everybody loves to make fun of Mary Sues. They’re silly, over-the-top sparkly little messes, and pointing out just how stupid they can get is certainly this nerd’s idea of a good time. But the thing that everybody tends to forget is that Mary Sues are often the hallmark of young or inexperienced writers. The kind of mistakes that Sues embody – such as a lack of flaws, a lack of consequences for their actions, or a 360-degree panorama of adoration from every other character – are the sort of things you tend to see from writers who haven’t quite got to grips with their craft yet. They’re not exactly a finished product.

For me, this is where Sues come into their own. They’re a problem that a writer tends to encounter at the beginning of their journey, much like one-dimensional villains, or scene-setting which makes the reader think all the action happens in a plain, white room. The more you write, the easier it becomes to avoid this kind of pitfall. A solid awareness of what constitutes a well-written character is one of the best tools a new writer can have, and being aware of Sues as a potential writing problem is a part of that. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what the problem is.

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That’ll do it. (image: giphy.com)

Here’s a short list of questions you can ask to see if your main character is a Mary Sue:

  • Does everyone love her?
  • Does she ever find anything difficult?
  • Do other characters care about stuff that doesn’t directly relate to her?
  • How much time are you spending talking about her appearance, her heritage, or her incredibly cool powers?
  • Does she change over the course of the story? How?

The ideal answers should be: no, yes, yes, not much, yes + explanation. But this is a very brief guide: there are plenty of excellent resources out there which will help with character building. There’s an extremely comprehensive Mary Sue litmus test floating around, plenty of writers’ resources, and there’s also my own ten-question test I used in the Strong Female Characters series. The bottom line is once you’ve identified your Sue it’s not the end of the world. There are plenty of tools to help you fix it, and in doing so you’ll become a better writer.

But Sues are still useful in their own right. Aside from being a test of skill for every writer they can also help writers bridge the gap between fanfiction and original fiction. It’s not uncommon for people to start out writing fanfiction, develop some confidence, and then start trying out some of their own original ideas and characters. Of course, this isn’t always a good thing.

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NAMING NO NAMES. (image: coolspotters.com)

But that’s not the only benefit of Mary Sues. They can actually be pretty empowering, particularly for young girls. Even though we have been getting more stories where women can actually do stuff instead of waiting to be rescued, there’s still a strong cultural narrative that places women firmly in a passive position. Films like Wonder Woman and books like The Hunger Games help, but they’re a drop in the ocean. Writing a Mary Sues in fanfiction can be a way for teenage girls to make their mark on a story that they already love.

Picture this. You’re a fourteen-year-old girl feeling overlooked. There’s a lot of big and important things going on around you but you don’t feel ready to meet any of them. You’ve got advertisements on all sides telling you to look a certain way, and maybe there’s people in positions of power telling you to act a certain way, too. Things which once seemed simple are suddenly incredibly complicated – sex, growing up, and all the weird expectations that come along with them. And you really love Harry Potter.

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I mean, who doesn’t? (image: justanotheranimefan.wordpress.com)

This is really where we can see the appeal of Mary Sues. In that situation, why wouldn’t you want to make a space for yourself in a fictional world you already love? And, to make things better, it’s a world where you can look the way you want, where you can be the most important person in the universe, where you can do whatever you want and where all the messy parts about growing up and falling in love will unfold in exactly the way you want them to.

Frankly, I’m the last person to judge teenage girls for writing Mary Sues. I’ve done it myself and I can understand why they do it. It’s escapism, it’s a creative outlet, and it’s safe – I completely get it. It can be a very positive force for the people who actually write them.

Confession time: I wrote several Mary Sues throughout my teenage years and every single one of them was jaw-droppingly bad. I actually found a brief snippet of something I wrote when I was thirteen on my computer and it was so awful I could feel myself shrivelling up. It was about this girl called Sofia who went to Hogwarts, had a mysterious past and was really good at drawing, and if I remember right there was a love triangle with Harry and Draco and then Voldemort wanted to steal her soul for some reason? The point is, it was terrible. Like, really, really bad. And that wasn’t the only one: I also wrote some Phantom of the Opera stuff, more Harry Potter but this time with the Marauders, and possibly also some Pirates of the Caribbean stuff as well. I really can’t remember. Fortunately for me, Quizilla, which was where it was all posted (for some reason, not really sure why I put fanfiction on a quiz site) got taken down a while ago. Hopefully they’re dead and buried.

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No no no NO NO NO NO (image: tumblr.com)

But it was what got me interested in writing as a whole – not just actually making stuff but the mechanics of how it all works together. I got feedback, which admittedly wasn’t always helpful, but it encouraged me to go and get more. Once I got bored of fanfiction I had more confidence to move into writing my own stuff, because I’d tried out a lot of the basics in an environment I was comfortable in. And once I was getting proper criticism that got me interested in the mechanics of writing, which led to editorial gigs at university and eventually working in publishing. Now, I can look back on all the stuff I wrote in my teens and cringe-laugh, but I can also look at the stuff I’m working on now and see a tangible improvement. Writing is something I’ve really had to work at and without my legions of terrible Mary Sues I definitely wouldn’t have developed half the critical skills I have now.

So there you have it: my long-winded, slightly-TMI view of Mary Sues. There’s no denying that they are bad characters. They’re poorly written, poorly plotted and warp everything else to fit themselves. But a lot of the criticism they get isn’t justified, particularly when it starts straying into some of the weird gendered stuff. And they do actually have some benefits: learning to navigate characterisation is an important part of any writer’s journey, and they can provide an important outlet for teenage girls.

Are Sues stupid? Hell yes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their uses. It’s like putting stabilisers on a bike. They’re there when you need them, but sooner or later they have to come off.

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You’ll get there eventually. (image: buzzfeed.com)

Mary Sue: It’s a Girl Thing

It’s time for more Mary Sues. So far we’ve talked about what Sues are and why they’re bad. Feel free to refresh your memory of the previous two posts, but it boils down to this: Mary Sues are disgustingly perfect characters who, because of their own perfection, tend to ruin the stories around them. Most of the time you can’t really have a well-written story with believable characters if there’s a Sue involved, and it can also lead to dismissing some very serious real-life problems.

As you might have guessed, most Mary Sues are female. The character is set up to be female by default – if you want to talk about the male equivalent you have to be more specific and talk about Gary Stus instead. But from the moment the term was first used, it was set up specifically to talk about female characters. It was first used in the 1970s to parody a particular trend in fanfiction: a female (often teenage) original character falling in love with an established male character from an already published work. Paula Smith, who came up with the name, used it to talk about Star Trek self-inserts and unrealistic characters, but the fact that she chose ‘Mary Sue’ is significant. It explicitly signals that this is a problem seen with female characters. The clue is in the name.

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I feel like I really shouldn’t have to explain this one. (image: giphy.com)

The most notorious Mary Sues are female characters. Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, Jenna Silverblade, Atlantiana Rebekah Loren – these are all young female characters who were created to fall in love with male characters from Harry Potter, the Zelda games and Twilight respectively. A quick websearch will show you that most readers believe Mary Sues are female as well. All the artwork, fiction and writer resources relating to Mary Sues assume that the character in question is female.

But is this really fair? Perfection is hardly something that women have a monopoly on, no matter what the poets say. Part of the definition of a Mary Sue is that they are perfect, attractive, powerful and loved by all. These are not uniquely female traits and never have been. The other part is that their lack of flaws and central position in the story warp other characters’ reactions to them and, in the worst cases, the setting and plot as well. These aren’t uniquely female traits either. So why is it that Mary Sues are seen as a female phenomenon?

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We don’t have a monopoly on sparkling, either. (image: tumblr.com)

Let’s take a brief moment to look at Gary Stus. Gary Stu, sometimes called Marty Stu, is the male version of his character. That’s what defines him. Other Mary Sues are defined by what they do: Villain Sues, Twagic Sues, Jerk Sues are all identified by their actions, appearance and the way they treat other characters. Gary Stu is identified by his gender alone. They’re much less common but there do tend to be a few differences: Gary Stus tend to be a lot more active and less prone to getting kidnapped.

But these are surface differences. When you get right down to it, there’s no real difference between the male and female counterparts. Both Mary Sues and Gary Stus are disgustingly attractive, practically perfect in every way, and warp the plot around them just by their presence. Much like Mary Sues, the antecedents go back much longer than you might think: if Mary Sue is Cinderella, then Gary Stu is Prince Charming. We’ve seen archetypes of perfect male characters since storytelling became a thing, just as we have with women. What we haven’t seen is male characters getting called out on this.

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Oh I wonder why that could be?? (image: giphy.com)

Part of this is probably down to the differing ideals of male and female perfection. Bear with me, because I’m about to make several sweeping generalisations. Broadly speaking, the ‘ideal man’ in historical storytelling is strong, decisive and heroic. He’s a problem-solver who wins battles and can make great speeches. Contrast this with the ‘ideal woman’ in historical storytelling, who is passive, pretty and quiet. She doesn’t make speeches; you’ll be lucky if she says anything at all. In recent years women’s roles, both in fiction and in real life, have moved away from this. Unfortunately men haven’t been so lucky. In some areas we still expect the same things from masculinity as we did decades ago and as you might suspect, this can be really damaging. It could be that part of the reason we don’t see as much backlash against Gary Stus is because they still fit with predominant ideas about what a man should be.

Allow me to illustrate my point. There’s this character you’ve all heard of. She’s so unbelievably cool and always has the latest tech. She always looks good no matter what she’s doing. She speaks several languages, drives amazing cars, is trained in more weapons than you can even name and she’s a total badass who could kick the Incredible Hulk into next week. She can get with any guy she wants, and they all want her. She’s been all over the world and has saved it more than once. She knows about fine wine, poker, and always has a quip handy even if she’s just jumped out of a plane. She can talk her way into anything and fight her way back out again, never lets the bad guys get away with it, and does it all for Queen and Country.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s James Bond.

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IT COULD HAPPEN LET ME HAVE THIS (image: Radio Times)

James Bond is one of the most popular characters in fiction. Millions of people turn out to see the Bond films whenever a new one is released. But when you get right down to it, Bond falls into a lot of the same characters as a Mary Sue does. He’s unrealistically cool, can have any woman he wants and doesn’t have any flaws that hold him back. He’s not an exception, either. Tarzan, Batman, Luke Skywalker and Zorro have all been described as Stus too, but on them this isn’t really a label that sticks.

So why have Mary Sues manifested themselves as a female problem? I expect that part of it is because of the rise of fanfiction, which is often written by women rather than men. Obviously it’s difficult to dig up statistics confirming this, but those we have available (which are, of course, limited by online anonymity) suggest that this is the case. According to this survey, three-quarters of all users on fanfiction.net are listed as female when their gender has been made public. The vast majority are also in the 13-17 age bracket. So if the vast majority of fanfic is written by teenage girls, we can expect to see a lot of fanfic about teenage girls. This may also account for some issues with characterisation and quality, too. I know the stuff I was writing when I was a teenager was really awful, at any rate.

But if Mary Sues aren’t a uniquely female problem, they certainly aren’t one that’s unique to fanfic either. There have been Mary Sues since storytelling began. Unrealistically perfect women have been cropping up in stories since the Dark Ages, and they don’t show many signs of stopping. Two of the most notorious Mary Sues of recent years are Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele – both of whom are characters from original fiction.

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Fun fact: they’re also my nemeses. (image: fanpop.com)

So why is this ‘a girl thing’? Is it just that more women write Mary Sues, or that more female characters tend to get called Mary Sues? I’m not sure. Getting into why people write Mary Sues is always going to be a tricky question. It could just be that more women are into reading and writing as a hobby. This has some basis in fact: most surveys agree that women read more than men, something which appears to have its roots in childhood. It could be that more women write Mary Sues because they don’t see enough characters they want to emulate in already published fiction. It could be escapism. We’ll probably never know for sure.

What we can confirm is that there does tend to be a much stronger backlash against female characters than male. Look at the Ghostbusters remake, whose stars were harassed online. Look at Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy, who’s been called a Mary Sue when she’s actually following Luke Skywalker’s role pretty closely. Look at Twilight. Bella is a Mary Sue, there’s no question of that, but the sheer amount of hate the series generated was astounding. The one thing these have in common is that they’re are all female characters at the forefront of their stories. I can’t remember the last time I saw backlash on that scale against a male character. Perhaps the reason why Mary Sues are so exclusively seen as ‘a girl thing’ is that there’s still a lot of underlying sexism in the way we talk about fiction, and what’s seen as a problem for female characters is glossed over when talking about male ones.

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DO IT FOR FEMINISM (image: tumblr.com)

So is Mary Sue an explicitly gendered term? I think so. The male equivalent doesn’t receive anywhere near as much attention or backlash, and I think people’s attitudes to women definitely play a part in that. Mary Sues do cause problems, but it’s not because they’re female characters. Gary Stus cause problems too, but far less people talk about it.

But despite all the problems that Mary Sues can cause, are they really all that bad? Next time, I’ll talk about that despite all their drawbacks, Mary Sues can actually be…a good thing.

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Dun dun DUUUUHHHH. (image: giphy.com)

Mary Sue: B-B-Bad to the Bone

So! Before I got distracted by the Game of Thrones finale, I was ranting on about Mary Sues. Quick recap: a Mary Sue is a character (usually female) who stands at the centre of the fictional universe. Their flaws never cause them problems, they’re multi-talented, they always get the guy (or girl) of their choice, and they’re disgustingly attractive. They’re more of an ideal than an actual character, and this is usually what causes the bulk of the problems. Feel free to refresh your memory in the previous post.

I’m slightly late to the party when it comes to ranting about Mary Sues. A quick Google will tell you that I’m not the only one who sees an issue with them. There’s countless articles listing the worst Mary Sues in fiction, cartoons showing them being defeated in cartoonishly bloody ways, and tests to show writers how to avoid them. It’s an entertaining rabbit hole to go down.

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Wheeeeeeeee! (image: giphy.com)

Mary Sues are characters whose reputations precede them. The label is enough to cast serious doubt on any character it’s applied to. One of the most common criticisms about Ginny Weasley, for example, is that she’s a Mary Sue, and this is something that’s often said by people who wish Harry and Hermione had got together. The label was also hastily applied to Rey, the mysterious ingénue at the centre of the new Star Wars trilogy, but whether she is one or not still remains to be seen. (Come on guys, at least wait until her character arc is finished before you judge.) Mary Sues have become so reviled that labelling a character as such can be quite an insult – and no wonder, when it puts the work in the same category as My Immortal.

Let’s be real. While the term can just be used as an insult, Mary Sues are badly written characters, and the term is a useful piece of shorthand for summing up the flaws in both a character and a work that this kind of writing can lead to. In my last post I talked briefly about the kind of problems that Mary Sues can cause, but I’ll go into more detail here.

First, let’s look at character. A Mary Sue’s biggest problem is that they do not have flaws – or if they do, they never actually have consequences for the character in the way that real flaws do. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue has a hot temper – she can say whatever she likes to Professor Snape and she won’t get in trouble for it. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is clumsy – she can stumble off the edge of a ravine and Edward Cullen will be there to catch her. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is shy – this won’t affect her ability to date Draco Malfoy, the Phantom of the Opera, or that one hot dwarf from The Hobbit.

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He’s just so pretty. (image: hollywood.com)

There are two ways that this lack of flaws can go. The first is the demonstration of informed attributes. I talked about this a bit in my Strong Female Characters series, so I’ll ty to be brief. Essentially, this is when readers are told that a character is angry, blunt or cowardly without seeing them exhibit any anger, bluntness or cowardice. In this instance, characters will talk about how angry our Mary Sue is, but she won’t actually express any anger. The second is the opposite. Our Mary Sue will demonstrate anger, bluntness or cowardice, but none of the other characters will act as if that’s what she’s done. Her flaws, if she demonstrates them, do not have consequences.

Effectively, this means that a Mary Sue doesn’t have flaws – if a tree falls in a forest, etc. She cannot be described as clumsy if we don’t see her fall over. She cannot be said to have anger issues if they don’t cause problems for her. She cannot be treated as a being with flaws, because flawed characters fail, and get spots, and grow old and eewwww, who wants to read about that?

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Yes. (image: community.ew.com)

This leads me nicely into the second issue I want to talk about: how Mary Sues affect the world around them. Mary Sues are not only flawless, perfect characters. Everyone else has to acknowledge that they are perfect and flawless, including the author. Mary Sues are by definition perfect, and that means they are also the best, most important, attractivest and greatest character evah, you guys!

What this means is that Mary Sues are essentially black holes. It’s not that they exist in all their perfection – that’s not the problem. The problem is that their perfection bends the rest of the universe around them, until they are at the centre of the story. Everything is warped to fit around them, including setting, mythology and other characters. This is where the other side of a Mary Sue’s flawlessness comes into play. If she does actually demonstrate something that could be construed as a flaw, other characters will not change their perception of her because of that. The classic example of this is Anastasia Steele. She’s actually an incredibly bitchy character, and both her internal monologue and the things she actually says are peppered with extremely nasty comments about women. However, nobody ever calls her out on this. She doesn’t even get a raised eyebrow. No-one, literally no-one, thinks that anything she says is unkind. Throughout the series all the other characters treat her as if she’s the kindest, most precious little darling that you ever did see – even if what she actually says or does directly contradicts that.

This is where people really get irritated at Mary Sues, particularly in fanfiction. At their very worst, Mary Sues can completely change the fabric of a story just by existing in it. Take, for example, the popular Harry Potter fanfiction cliché – Harry Potter’s secret (and better) sibling. If you’ve read any fanfiction it’s likely that you’ve come across this before, but the basic premise is this. Harry Potter has a sibling (usually a sister) who also got a lightning scar from Voldemort. They were then separated and only re-united when she arrives at Hogwarts, where she proceeds to live out the entire series but just, you know, better. This premise completely undermines the basic plot of the series. Pretty much everything Harry went through was affected by the fact that he was the only one to survive the killing curse. Having more than one person survive smashes all that to pieces. And it’s not just Harry that plotline affects – the entire wizarding world was also affected by Harry’s survival, and developed accordingly. Having another survivor doesn’t just ruin Harry’s backstory, it also disassembles a huge amount of worldbuilding. The idea of there being a ‘Chosen One’ doesn’t really work when you’ve got a spare handy.

But this isn’t the only reason why Mary Sues should be avoided. Let’s look at another hallmark of the Mary Sue: the tragic past.

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I feel like I’m going to get a lot of use out of this gif. (image: giphy.com)

Not all Sues have a tragic backstory, but the vast majority do. This comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be anything – from being catapulted into space as a baby and being stranded on Earth, or at the darker end of the scale, child abuse, rape and murder.

These are serious subjects that should be handled with tact and care. But that’s not what happens with Mary Sues. A Mary Sue’s tragic past does not function in the same way as it would for another character. It does not leave claw marks in her personality; there are no scars in her psyche. A Mary Sue’s tragic past exists for her to share it, tearfully, with her love interest, and then never talk about it again.

It goes without saying that this is incredibly disrespectful. While being blasted into space as a child isn’t exactly common, unfortunately abuse is. According to the NSPCC, one in fourteen children were subjected to physical abuse in 2016 – a rate that was three times higher for disabled children. And it’s likely that the real number is much higher, because a substantial amount of abuse cases go unreported. It goes without saying that something like this cannot be brushed aside as easily as the Mary Sues make it look: it’s something that will affect everything about a person for the rest of their life.

Personally, I’d like to believe that the reason why Mary Sues gloss over their terrible pasts in favour of making out is because most of them are written by authors who might not understand the full implications of what they’re saying. This could be for any number of reasons, including age and inexperience, but it rarely comes from a bad place. It is hard to write tactfully and thoughtfully about subjects as difficult as these at the best of times, but a lack of understanding is only ever going to make it worse.

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That was hard to write. Let’s have kittens LOOK AT HIS FACE (image: pinterest.com)

But good intentions aside, I worry about how this kind of portrayal would affect people dealing with such issues in real life. Take My Immortal – the infamous Harry Potter fanfic drenched in black eyeliner. The main character, Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way (no, I’m not making that up) is one of the most ridiculous characters in fiction. She is a self-proclaimed goth who dresses like a music video and gives all her friends stupid nicknames: Ron Weasley becomes Diablo, Hermione Granger becomes B’loody Mary Smith. She also self-harms. As you might expect, this isn’t treated as gently as it should be, and it becomes another thing for readers to laugh at. I’m in no position to comment about how this might have made self-harmers feel, but I don’t think it would’ve helped.

The term Mary Sue covers a multitude of sins. I’ve touched on some of them, but not all. A poorly-written Mary Sue isn’t just a bad character: she can completely derail an entire fictional universe, and trivialise the effects of a whole host of problems with a stroke of the pen. I hope I’ve given a decent summary of the kind of problems that a Mary Sue can cause.

But have you noticed how all through this post, I’ve been talking about girls? For the next post, I’ll be talking about gender. Bring lipstick.

Game of Thrones Season Seven: Prediction Tally

Time for a brief intermission before I go back to talking about Mary Sues. Know why?

So Game of Thrones series seven has come to an end and I’m still reeling. Before the series started I made ten predictions (plus one wild card) about how the series would go. Let’s see how my fortune-telling skills measure up.

 

  1. Stark family reunion

I’m counting this one as it’s been confirmed that Jon isn’t a Stark. As I suspected this season held the reunion of the surviving Stark children and, despite the fact that Bran is a tree now, it was pretty great. This one was fairly obvious though, so I won’t gloat too much.

 

  1. Daenerys will lose a dragon

MY HEART.

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I’ve just got something in my eye… (image: giphy.com)

This didn’t happen in the way I expected as my money was on Euron Greyjoy and his magical horn (stop sniggering). But I wasn’t disappointed, mainly because of THAT ENDING. My God.

 

  1. Jaime will break with Cersei

I feel like I can’t really take too much credit for getting this one right as it has already happened in the books. However, I’m still smug. I have to say I’m surprised it still happened after Cersei told Jaime she’s pregnant, but this one’s been a long time coming.

 

  1. Jorah will die of greyscale

Unexpectedly not! What a nice reprieve for everyone’s favourite chocolatey-voiced third wheel. I don’t think he’s got much to look forward to, though. Aside from watching Jon and Dany mooning over each other he’s got an army of zombies to contend with.

 

  1. The Wall will be compromised

’Nuff said.

 

  1. Sam will find an important secret about the White Walkers in the Great Library, but die before he can deliver the information to Jon

I was really expecting Sam to die this season, but I’m so glad that he didn’t. Game of Thrones is at the point where it needs to start trimming down the cast so all that delicious final-series drama can be properly savoured. I’m really glad that Sam wasn’t on this season’s hit list as I’ve got a real soft spot for his and Gilly’s little family.

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I just want them to settle down on a little farm and make jam together. (image: wikiofthrones.com)

That said, he did discover quite a few important secrets in the Great Library – the dragonglass mines on Dragonstone, and, thanks to Gilly, the proof that Jon is the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne. All these secrets will come to fruition next season. I can’t imagine Jon’s Aunty Girlfriend is going to be all that pleased.

 

  1. Littlefinger will die

…and it was GREAT. Sansa came into her own, the Starks all banded together and everything was awesome. I did think it was all a little on the convenient side, though. The Starks had no real proof of their accusations against Littlefinger and he didn’t really try and defend himself. I’ve no doubt that if this scene had happened in the books it would’ve played out very differently. But I’m willing to forgive all of that because LOOK AT HOW BADASS SANSA IS:

SHE’S COME SO FAR YOU GUYS SHE’S GROWN SO MUCH AND LEARNED FROM HER MISTAKES AND I’M SO PROUD

 

  1. Bran will possess a wight

Unfortunately this one didn’t happen, which is a shame because it would’ve been really cool. Perhaps in season eight. I did appreciate the insights we got into how wights work though. The showrunners went for the classic ‘Dracula’ monster structure: kill off the creator and all its minions (createes? Not sure if there’s a word) will die too. They’ve written in an easy kill-switch, but hopefully this will lead to a killer duel with the Night’s King. We’ve never really seen him fight, just stand around being scary, so I’m hoping this will mean we’ll get an opportunity to see what he can do.

 

  1. Daenerys will begin exhibiting signs of her father’s madness

Daenerys set two people on fire when she didn’t need to: Randall Tarly and his son, Dickon.

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Heh heh heh.  (image: giphy.com)

This was a hallmark of her father, the Mad King, who took a weird and creepy pleasure in killing his enemies by setting them on fire in various horrible ways. While this could have simply been a demonstration of her power, the show then included a scene where Varys and Tyrion discussed the implications of their own role in witnessing these kinds of executions.

This is quite clearly intended as foreshadowing. The writers want viewers to make the connection between Dany’s actions and her father’s, and consider the implications this may have for her rule. I’m not surprised that this comparison is being drawn. As I mentioned in my original post, Daenerys hasn’t really suffered a storyline-changing setback. All the other characters have. While you could put the loss of Viserion in this category, I’m not sure it would really count, as it hasn’t really dented her resolve to ascend the Iron Throne. She hasn’t had to radically re-assess her goals and beliefs in the way that many other characters have done so far. I think this means she’s in for a strong dose of the Targaryen madness, and I doubt she’s going to take the Iron Throne at all.

 

  1. Cleganebowl

There was no hype. Maybe next season, though.

 

WILD CARD: Jorah’s greyscale has already been passed to Daenerys. She and her court get infected by the disease

Haha yeah, this didn’t happen. I’m glad, though – this would’ve been a lame way for the series to end.

 

SMUGNESS LEVELS: 6/10 

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Gloating all day every day. (image: giphy.com)

 

And there you have it! Sixty percent of the time, it worked every time. Probably not quite fortune-teller standard just yet, but there’s always season eight.

Mary Sue: What the Hell are you talking about, Jo

It’s time for me to talk about Mary Sues.

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Hold me, Aragorn! Or Tom. You know, whoever’s free. (image: giphy.com)

I’ve mentioned them on the blog before, mainly when I was doing my Strong Female Characters series. The term ‘Mary Sue’ has become a great piece of critical shorthand, so it often came in handy. I spent quite a lot of time trying to work out whether certain characters were Mary Sues, but often didn’t really have the time to go into a huge amount of detail.

GET READY FOR HUGE AMOUNTS OF DETAIL, GUYS!

Briefly put, a Mary Sue is a certain type of poorly-written character. Often (but not exclusively) seen in fanfiction, what really makes these characters stand out is that they’re just so perfect. They never have any flaws – or if they do, their flaws only make them more appealing, and never actually cause any real problems for them. They’re often physically attractive. They’re usually teenage girls, often with more than one love interest (or villain) passionately declaring their love before the story’s over. They’ll have a dark and tragic past, but the consequences of this are never fully explored – it’s just a secret our Sue can reveal when she wants sympathy. She never fails. She’s always an expert in everything she does, whether it’s speaking alien languages or mastering ancient martial arts. All the good guys love her, all the bad guys want her to give in and join the dark side, and she always saves the day.

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Seems the day needs some saving expertise. (image: uproxx.wordpress.com)

Essentially, they’re really, really annoying.

When you get right down to it, Mary Sues aren’t really proper characters. Most fictional characters (and yes, I am about to make a sweeping generalisation here) are intended to reflect real people. A well-written character should seem human, with all the messiness that being human entails. Mary Sues don’t have that messiness.

This isn’t all that uncommon in characters, though. Mary Sue is a pretty modern term, but the flawless and ideal character the term describes goes back centuries. If you look at most classic fairy tales – such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White – most of these characters could be described as Mary Sues. The original stories just don’t focus on the mechanics of their characters, so they’re often described in very broad strokes. They are kind, and good, and meek, and that’s all they are. A lot of this comes down to the purpose that fairy tales fulfilled. While on some level, they are told for sheer enjoyment of the story, a lot of them were also told as a way of showing people how to behave. Charles Perrault, in his seminal collection of fairy tales, made this explicit by adding a few lines to the end of each story that explained the moral in no uncertain terms.

The invention of the novel as a story-telling format didn’t kill off Mary Sues, either. (You can’t kill off a Sue, they’re too perfect.) The moralising Sue is a staple of nineteenth-century literature, particularly literature aimed at children and young girls. Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Princess, Heidi – all of these books are children’s classics, but all of them are based around characters that are so perfect that they don’t seem like real children. This is because they were never meant to. Heidi, Sara and Cedric are ideals, not accurate portrayals of children. Every flaw has been ironed out. They’re good, obedient, cheerful, resilient, and say their prayers every night, just as the ideal nineteenth-century child was supposed to. Overworked governesses probably found them very useful.

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Along with a few other things. (image: pinterest.com)

The other form a Mary Sue can take is a self-insert. This is exactly what it sounds like: an author living out an adventure by writing themselves an avatar in the story. This is the form more modern Mary Sues take, and this too has its roots in nineteenth-century literature. It carried on all the way up to the 1970s, when Paula Smith first coined the term in ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’, a short parody about the adventures of Lieutenant Mary Sue, youngest officer in the star fleet, that was published in a fanzine.

Since then, the term has blossomed, like a beautiful and perfect sparkle-flower. Readers have become much sharper when it comes to spotting Sues, so now the term ‘Mary Sue’ is more like a big sparkly umbrella that encompasses lots of smaller categories. Here are some of them:

  • Classic Sue: practically perfect in every way. Beautiful, cheerful and sickeningly sweet.
  • Marty Stu: the same, but a guy. Surprisingly rare, for reasons I’ll talk about in another post.
  • Jerk Sue: angry, sometimes violent, always wearing a ton of black eyeliner. For some reason everyone loves her.
  • Twagic Sue: basically exists to have terrible things happen to her and then die meaningfully. The definition of a lost little lamb.
  • Villain Sue: the most successful cape-wearing villain ever. Also she’s really hot.
  • Relationship Sue: exists only to date the author’s character of choice.

There are more. Thousands more. Fortunately, I found this handy-dandy chart.

Chances are you’ve come across some of these characters before, and hopefully at least got a good laugh out of them. Who can forget Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, the most goffik student Hogwarts has ever known? What about Jenna Silverblade, Link’s one true love, secret elemental, and tireless nymphomaniac? Or how about Atlantiana “Tia” Rebekah Loren, Edward Cullen’s infinitely more gothic soulmate? They’re overpowered, they’re ridiculous, and they’ve got all the boys wrapped around their finger – but you could probably sneak off in the time it takes for them to say their full name. And that’s not even counting the Mary Sues who are in books that were actually published.

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NAMING NO NAMES. (image: wikimedia.org)

I’ve got a lot to say, so here’s what I’m going to do. This post will be the first of a short mini-series where I talk about Sues until I’m blue in the face. Why are Mary Sues so reviled (apart from the fact that they’re really annoying)? Where does gender come into all of this? Is there a way that Mary Sues can be a good thing? These are some of the questions I will try and answer, before I get sidetracked and start laughing about their stupid names.

So choose a ten-syllable name, grab your pet unicorn and prepare your tragic backstory. It’s about to get perfect up in here.