1

How Characters Can “Taste” the Same

I was thinking about something I said in my last post, and it caught in my brain a little. Namely, that all of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely/Ink Exchange characters feel the same. First I started wondering how someone would argue the point with me. That would invariably involved that person saying something like:

“Aislinn grew up able to see fairies, and she’s more conservative about sex than Leslie.”

And that kind of thing. It’s not wrong. …I actually had a lot of trouble coming up with even that much of a “defence” for the characters. It does not help that those two girls’ opinions on sex are largely informed. They also end up acting pretty much the same when sex actually comes up, never mind what either of them says or thinks to the reader.

This helped me a bit along my thought process of this issue. When characters are nominally different, but a wary reader sees no redeeming distinction. It happens more in an isolated work (All of the characters in this book are the same!) than across works (Ranma and Inuyasha are the same guy!), and that helps in definition too.

It’s not just the name, the basic background, or even the personality as the author has explained it. These characters have the same “taste”. Think about two characters from something everyone is supposed to have read. Say… Bilbo Baggins and Humbert Humbert. They’re fairly singular within their books. And they are not remotely similar, beyond being male.

Bilbo is:

  • Fussy
  • Eager
  • Curious

Humbert Humbert is:

  • Poetic
  • Self-deluding
  • Well-educated

All of these show through in their actions, motivations, and dialogue. That is bolded because I think dialogue is what’s most often going wrong with casts turning out entirely alike.

Dialogue is where a lot of characters in modern fiction espouse their views (be they political or simple food preferences), and dialogue is where they most often contradict what the narrative wants readers to believe. It’s also a noted difficulty, particularly in genre fiction. If the characters are all talking the same way, then how varied do they really look?

I have heard it said from a gushing fan that Joss Whedon has a limited amount of character voices and yet he manages to make all of his characters distinct and nuanced. I could not possibly disagree more fiercely. Try what I call the Whedon Character Litmus Test. Think of a line written by Joss Whedon for an original character (nothing in the Avengers film, for example) and see if you can imagine any of his characters not saying it. Be honest. I’ve seriously heard someone try this test and insist that he had found a line, when everyone else disagreed with him. And it doesn’t count if they wouldn’t say it because of the setting.

On another note, having a different motivation for the same trait is not enough variation. For example:

Aislinn:

  • Nervous
    • …because she has grown up seeing fairies and knowing them to be dangerous
  • Reluctant to date
    • …because she is afraid of losing a friend

Leslie:

  • Nervous
    • …because she lives with a drunk dad and druggie brother
  • Reluctant to date
    • …because the guy she likes is made off-limits by Aislinn

Remove those reasons and you still have the same list. And I only chose two because it’s not that easy to code nested unordered lists in the WordPress Editor.

1

The Good Side of Miss Mary Sue

Yup, there is one. At least a single benefit to the practise of writing Mary Sues, Self Inserts, Author Avatars, whatever you want to call them. It isn’t for the reader, of course, but then I don’t think anyone would expect this self-indulgent habit to be good for anyone but the writer.

Once again while talking to my hubby (he’s so good for making my brain work), I had a thought. This time we were talking about bad behaviour and arguments that arises from one party not having a clear sense of identity. For some reason, that made me think of Mary Sues and their long lists of skills, be they informed or legitimately utilised.

Think about it. As annoying as it is to be subjected to someone’s idealised version of herself, at least this person has something to which she aspires. Her Sue is a gorgeous singer who plays the guitar to perfection? At the very least, we have a thirteen-year-old girl who wishes she could play the guitar or sing. A kid with an interest in music. The habit of writing self-indulgent fiction and whining like a master when people criticise the poor writing is worthy of scorn. The fact that this person desires accomplishment? That’s something to praise, not kick down.

It’s far closer to a sense of identity than someone who will argue any subject or try to “win” at everything. Especially stupid things, like who is the bigger fan of whatever, or who has more beat-up shoes. People who do things like that don’t even have anything they want to be. They just want to stand out, and can’t even be arsed to figure out what they want to stand out as.

I really don’t think it matters what specific thing a person does that makes him or her special. Spinning plates. Collecting anything. Knowing lots of words. It doesn’t even have to be productive, or something that others like. Shoot, they don’t even have to be good at it. It just has to matter to the person who does it.

It doesn’t really vindicate Mary Sues or anything related, but it does add a perspective. Self-indulgence is still obnoxious to other people. But at least there is a self to indulge.

Of course, that’s not always the case, either. There’s a reason that Mary Sue is deceptively difficult to codify. There is a pool of common traits and such that seem almost inherent to the phenomenon. Seriously, if you see enough, it can start to look like a twisted sort of genre.

msue

Take a look at any Mary Sue Litmus Test. Once I think I saw someone judge those against each other, and I laughed myself sick (oh, self-justification), but that’s another topic upon which I shall probably never elaborate.

1

Too Many Brothers!

Today, Dither and I were discussing a story I want to write in order to remove myself from my foggy doldrums. The last thing snagging me before starting is the first (possibly only) viewpoint character and her backstory. I was going to start at a later point in her history, but then I thought that it’d be more interesting to begin before she came into a position of power.

This required me to come up with a more extensive and rather different backstory for her than I had initially. The problem with that is that her new beginning is rife with pitfalls that I complain about when I read them. All the time. Not that I would do something that annoys me and then play an outright hypocrite (although this is totally a human thing to do) but I might fall into one and then get lost trying to fix an inherently crap or dead-horse trope and end up wasting a lot of time and even more energy.

The biggest one is what I’ll call the orphan trap. Fiction of all genres are absolutely teeming with orphans, and they carry with them some dreadfully tired tropes. Such as (because I love lists lately):

I said I’d give her some surrogate parents while beginning this topic, and then realised that this would solve almost all of the problems I had begun to consider. Mary Sue avoidance immediately worried me less. Then I decided to give her a (-n also surrogate) brother, and said as much. Well, first I said brothers, then edited it down to just one brother, aloud.

Dither thought on this for a moment and then told me that I should be sure to keep it down to one. Simply because of a tendency in works of fiction for multiple siblings of the same gender to become victims of amalgamisation. Or rather, of being lumped into a collective that serves the same function as a single character, but somehow receives less depth. (his point and my words, he’s not as flouncy and spendthrift with his word choice as I am)

To illustrate his point, he mentioned the three younger brothers in Brave. They are practically an animal mascot. (never mind the plot, they are presented in this manner from beginning to end) No dialogue. No individual character. They are a single character with three bodies. I compared this to Sokka, in that he is a single brother–and although flanderised, an individual character and legitimate member of the main cast.

Given that, it’s better to have one brother-character hanging about. The better to affect the plot. He also wouldn’t have to compete with anyone for the reader’s attention. He could go on to become a major player, or simply fade away as the adventure sparks. That’s up to me and how things go. I have less to worry about now.

0

The More You Know

…the less you can tolerate.

When I was at the tail-end of high school, I read fanfiction for the first time. It was mostly uninteresting, except when someone I respected (and probably still would, if we’d kept in touch, so that’s saying something) recommended a Harry Potter fic to me. Although thinking on it now, it had a lot of things I ought not to have liked, it was incredibly well-written and managed to make things like Ron the Death Eater work in a story. Which is actually pretty funny since I like Ron much, much better than Harry.

Anywho. I thought since I had liked that, I should try other things in the same vein. The very second HP fanfic I ever read was something that these days probably would have made me turn up my nose and walk away with bored disdain. At the time, I was fascinated with how little it delivered in the name of the author’s self-indulgence. It was a rather new concept for me at the time.

It had a songfic element in it, a homeless American female author insert, and a confrontation with Draco Malfoy that was simultaneously taken nearly verbatim from the book and a clear indication that the fic writer had not understood the scene. I still find this curious and a little funny, rather than irritating.

Finding fanfics irritating came later.

I found pottersues in the early days–pretty much all of this went on during the long wait for The Order of the Phoenix. This was where I learned the term “spork” in its connotation of riffing or otherwise ranting about a work, as well as “pepper jack cheese”. Basically a bunch of Mary Sue rant/reviews in the Harry Potter fanfic universe. I actually got tired of Harry Potter during this wait period and moved on to other things. Like my own work. And Dune.

But that introduction to Mary Sues and the treatment thereof stayed with me. A formative experience, one might say. I also love MST3K, so you’d think I’d always be in for a good riffing/sporking.

I’m so not.

It’s… Just being angry at a work and going on and on about how dumb it is… I’m sorry, but that’s boring. Think of your favourite MST3K quotes. Are any of them just declarations that the movie sucks? I’m willing to bet they aren’t. None of mine are. My favourite quotes are things like, “Why is there a picture of a hamburger on my wall?” and “Would you–another nice day!”

So why are all the online sporkings of anything (especially written work) just illiterate angry people? No type of writing is easy to do well, I guess. These are so unfulfilling, though. They aren’t funny, they’re just lines like:

  • Oh my gosh my eyes are bleeding
  • [quote from fic] *kills with hammer*
  • SEEK THERAPY
  • [expletives with little to no purpose]
  • This is gonna be a long sporking. How shall I ever survive?

The last one is actually annoying. It’s so far from amusing that it takes you out of whatever reason you might have to read a spork attempt. We all know that the writer chose to write this. Complaining about it like it’s some evil chore from hell that they are under some geis to complete. What even is this? A call for sympathy? An attempt at some kind of humour? It isn’t funny. It just sounds stupid.

I should think that the point of sporking a fanfic is to provide some insight in a humorous way. This doesn’t include pointing out the bad spelling and grammar–we can tell they made mistakes, and unless they happened upon an inadvertently funny typo or misused word, there’s no joke in saying “this is spelled wrong huuuurrrrr”.

I dunno. I’ve seen so many of these sporkings, riffs, “MSTing”s, what-have-you that have a fair idea of quality between them. This happens through getting tonnes of anything in your system. I don’t really seek them out, so I’m not actively adding to it. After being linked to one yesterday, I might start turning them down.

Although I still like pottersues. The community has shrunk considerably, but it’s all still going on. Harry Potter fanfiction is a load of insanity in any case.

6

What Happens When I Book Shop

I was breezing through Amazon, looking for free books that aren’t terrible–which we all know to be nigh impossible–and I found a gem.

Not a gem in the traditional sense, as in a book that is well-written and interesting. But it put me in mind of Mary Sues. This was of particular interest, as this last Monday, I was part of an impromptu consortium formed to explain the term to someone who did not know it.

The book is called Threads That Bind, and for those who are familiar with what a Mary Sue is, the symptoms glare through just from reading the summary. Which I shall provide.

“At 16, Madison has accepted herself for who she is: smart and witty, but overweight with thick glasses and the social life of a Tibetan monk. Everything changes the summer before her junior year of high school when her eyesight inexplicably corrects itself, and she begins to rapidly lose weight. However, her new look comes with an unexpectedly expensive price. Madison’s first kiss with the boy she has had a crush on for years triggers powers she can’t control, almost killing him.

She discovers she is a Berserker, a powerful being chosen to guard the world from the Havocs, ancient creatures brought into our world by magic thousands of years ago. They cause destruction and death, but cannot be killed. Only the Berserkers’ life-blood can bind – and free – the Havocs. One Havoc is free and wants Madison’s blood to free another. Instead of enjoying her new look and popularity at school, Madison must now work with the Berserkers to master her powers and bind the Havoc before it kills her.

Oh, and if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out she is the first female Berserker since, well – ever.”

Not only does this read like a recipe for Mary Sue, it also raises a lot of questions that, with what information has been provided, makes me seriously doubt that the book answers them adequately.

  • What is the link between her shift to meet conventional/contemporary Western standards of beauty and the powers of a “Berserker”?
  • This isn’t another X-Men rip-off, is it? Because I know about how crap Jenny Pox is.
    • (the first kiss nearly killing someone, I mean)
  • How many berserkers are there, how are they chosen, why does bleeding on the enemy defeat them… I could go on forever about that. I really, really do not expect to be satisfied with what exposition berserkers get.
  • The language is unclear, suggesting that either the Berserkers or the Havocs may be the ones that “cause destruction and death”. Which one of them is it?
  • If there is only one Havoc free, then why imply that there is more than one Berserker?
  • …why is being female worse than “bad enough”?

That last one actually kind of pissed me off. I’m not usually the type to get all puffed up about the portrayal of genders, but that’s just… stupid. “If that wasn’t bad enough, she’s also a GIRL”. Had there been some kind of explanation given, I wouldn’t care. Do female berserkers have some disadvantageous difference from male berserkers? Or is it just another boring girl who has to prove herself to the boys subplot?

Anywho, I shared this summary with my hubby, and he wondered, “…how much more interesting a story about a near-sighted, overweight teenager fighting the forces of Chaos…” could be.

So I thought about it, and came up with this:

“Sadie Yang wears a lot of hats. She’s the president of the student council, an active member in the anime club, and works part-time to help support her grandmother and little brothers. She doesn’t have time to eat healthy or exercise, and can’t see a place for make-up in the budget. Then one day, she is kidnapped by burly men in ill-fitting suits, who use an ancient artefact to imbue her with supernatural powers. They demand that she fight the forces of evil alongside other kidnap victims her age. Eventually, she learns that it’s all the maniacal machinations of a crazed director turned wizard who wants to make the ultimate comic book movie. Even if he has to work his ‘actors’ to death.”

I ended up “buying” the book (it’s free right now), although I might not read it. The style is not bad–which is much more than I can say about the Grimm Diaries prequels. The puns make my eyes bleed.

(Grimm Reaper and deadtime, in the same paragraph. owie. there are even italics.)

0

Ordinary?

Maybe I’ve just seen too much anime and read too many YA novels, but I’m starting to get tired of so-called “ordinary” protagonists.

Although the first reason that comes to mind is that ordinary can too easily mean boring, it isn’t one of my reasons at all. My biggest reason for being sick of this and all its related tropes, is that the description itself is off-base.

The last one I came across was an ordinary guy who has no memory of the past. How on earth is that ordinary? Then there are the ones who are “ordinary high school students”–except for being the orphaned grandson of a woman who collected the names of demons. Just being an orphan kills the ordinary tag. It is not rare, no, but it isn’t what the general idea of ordinary is.

I guess it happens because writers think that the perfect foil for the crazy world they want to unfold (happens most often in anime) is a completely normal person. There’s also the appeal of providing a DIY Mary Sue for fans.

In a way, the thing that bothers me about the ordinary guy (or girl, I don’t differentiate) who isn’t actually ordinary probably saves me from a more irritating issue. A boring character.

Ordinary doesn’t have to mean boring, but people tend to think it does. But writers want the effect of the mundane foil or reader-insert. They just don’t seem to think that anything is interesting about ordinary people unless they can do something big or have some kind of tragedy.

Guess what? Talented people can be ordinary. And vice versa. I used to glare at USA network’s commercials when they ran those stupid “character” things. As if people who make hats out of string are somehow more worth knowing than your soccer mom neighbour. But that’s another rant.

Being an orphan is not ordinary. Having amnesia is not ordinary (or original). Dealing with a divorce is not ordinary–but it’s closer. Usually what seems to be meant by “ordinary” is featureless. Right smack in the middle of the census stats.

Being well-read is ordinary. Liking sports is ordinary. Disliking sisters is ordinary. For heaven’s sake, Arthur is almost the perfect example of an ordinary character who is interesting, as long as you ignore the fact that he’s an aardvark. And that’s even normal for his world.

There is often something remarkable about them, and sometimes the writer is actually aware enough to make the ordinariness largely part of the protagonist’s self image. When this doesn’t work, it just ends up the same.

In case anyone else has read The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy, he is a good example of–well, of being awesome. And completely breaking my point.

Ordinary Boy lives in a very compact world where literally everyone but him has super powers. Despite the fact that in such a society, this should make him literally anything but ordinary. He manages to be the ordinary interesting person that I talked about–he’s smart, but not a genius, and he’s a well-behaved, sociable kid who gets into trends like any other.

As the series goes on, his ordinary specialness (for once, I use that word sincerely) starts making you think he might actually be like everyone else. Just not quite the same way.

So yeah. I want more of that. I think I just managed to happy myself right the heck out of a rant. Which I find immensely funny. Happy and laughing, I can rant no more.

By the way, can anyone else listen to rap while writing? It’s an unnerving talent to have.

0

Can one really “re-imagine” Twilight?

Full question: “Can one really ‘re-imagine’ Twilight with respect for the original work?

Personally, I think that the requirements for such an endeavour could be somewhat contradictory. You’d have to have that respect, but dislike it enough to want it changed. But it clearly needed the attention of an editor who did not adore filibuster, so maybe that’s all that’s needed.

It almost counts as old and mouldy enough to be written over again. (thinking of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) I know I’m bored at myself whenever I think of it. I’m such a dull person.

Anywho, I can also understand the appeal of rewriting. It’s successful, so there has to be something in there–but of course, that’s close to my reason. I have friends whom I respect for their taste and intelligence in addition to other fine qualities, and they like Twilight, either a little or a lot, in varying cases. There must be something to enjoy under the dreck that I perceive. I’d rather like to find it, even though it’s not even a relevant cultural phenomenon anymore.

Others see something irritatingly bad that is crying out to be repaired. I can see that too, but it’s so much less pretty a reason, haha.

I would love to get a red pen and a copy to mark up, make edits and attach my own rewrites. But for that, I’d need a hard copy. I don’t really want to buy one. And I still haven’t finished my last red pen book. (it’s also done in black pen and grey pencil).

Another problem is that I have my own list of ills, and quite a lot of them are in the beginning, which would be the place to start in a re-imagining.

  • I am a Phoenix native, and have spent a good chunk of my life in Oregon and Washington. All of the weather crap is clearly from the perspective of someone who has neither of these experiences to draw on. 75 degrees in Phoenix is considered COLD. I find it hard to believe that someone who has lived there for a number of years would find the seasonal drop from 120 to 75 as merely less warm.
  • Bella’s mother is described as looking just like Bella…before Bella is described.
  • The main character is wantonly hateful without provocation, often citing equally baseless embarrassment as justification.
  • The reason this girl has for moving house makes no sense at all. …You know, this one counts as a bullet point, but it’s such a big topic, I’m going to break the list to expand on it.

When I talked about angry parodies before, something I noticed about both of the fanfictions I mentioned is that although both had the object of improving the main character’s sense and mental capacity, neither actually questioned her reason for moving to Spatulas. I mean, Forks.

Think about it. A seventeen-year-old girl paints a tedious but rather passionate picture of hate for this town, a picture that she embellishes with unfounded hatred throughout the book. The reason given is not only weak, but it demands that readers believe in some kind of selflessness that this character is clearly not capable of.

For those lucky people who don’t know the stupid reason: Mother remarried to man with travel-required job. Daughter decided to move in with (cuckolded-ish) Father so that Mother may travel with New Husband.

There are only two explanations that really make this situation realistic.

One is that her mother, a scatterbrain who was selfish enough to leave her first husband just because she was bored with their home, is a manipulator who made her daughter believe that she had to remove herself so that her mother could be happy with her new husband.

The other is that this girl needs to create perceptions of unhappiness in her life because she is a perfectly normal moody teenager with nothing specific to accuse of causing her unhappiness.

Of course for my list, there is also the Mary-Sue nature of the main character, the stupid (and failed) allusion to Dracula in three boys asking the same girl TO A GIRL’S CHOICE DANCE, and the heartless romance based on psychotic dependence, emotional abuse, and purely physical attraction.

But that stuff about the weather is clearly far more irritating to me.

In order for me to write a re-imagined work with respect for the original, I would have to take my list of ills and remove those things that are simple annoyances, as well as redefining the serious issues with a mind towards editing rather than “fixing”.

As a literary exercise, I would really like to see someone take such a blank character and add flaws and depth without insertion of self. Apparently, once a Mary Sue, always a Mary Sue. Bella must have some kind of Jedi power. None shall cast off their ego whilst writing Bella Swan.

For some reason, I feel an evil laugh coming on.