Friday, October 17, 2008

First Ever Burning Zeppelin Rant: Raw Mary Sewage and Lazy, Lazy Writing

I just finished the last installment of a fantasy trilogy, and boy am I pissed. I'll try to avoid any blatant spoilers, but don't expect me to tread too carefully.

The books are Poison Study, Magic Study, and Fire Study by Maria V. Snyder. The premise of the first is fairly simple: Yelena a young woman in a fantasy world is sentenced to die for murder is given a choice, to die by hanging, or to gain a temporary reprieve as the food taster for her country's autocratic military dictator. She must survive threats from her past, an ambiguous relationship with her boss, the military dictator's chief spy, and living with the fact that every meal might well be her last. And there's a nifty plot where Yelena has been poisoned by her boss and needs to be given an antidote every morning or die in agony.

There's some good. The idea of a military dictatorship rising to replace a standard fantasy mage-king is a novel one, and the magic system is interesting, though I find Snyder's word-choices to be a little stilted. There's a slow, clever romance plot. The first book is definitely better than the latter two, and possibly worth reading all by itself. The series doesn't really sink into it's failings until Magic Study and Fire Study.

But when it does, oh boy, watch out!

The series has a number of lesser problems that I don't want to go into right now. I find the pacing a little rushed. I think the language is stilted. Some of the dialog seems anachronistic - I don't want my fantasy novels to be full of thees and thous, but there's something to be said for the language just sounding right, and these books don't. What I want to talk about is a bad case of blatantly lazy writing and the presence of a clear Mary Sue.

I'll tackle these in reverse order. According to Wikipedia (ah, Wikipedia, what would I ever do without you?):
[a] Mary Sue... is a fictional character who plays a major role in the plot and is particularly characterized by overly idealized and clich├ęd mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors...
The term originally comes from the world of fan-fiction, but it has been co-opted by geeks across the world. Yelena is definitely, enthusiastically a Mary Sue. She's beautiful, talented, inspires love and loyalty in everyone she meets, and has access to a rare and unusual form of magic that at first seems morally ambiguous (necromancer) but later turns out to be completely innocuous (soul guide). Even animals love her!

In this series, the Mary Sue problem pales before (and is probably related to) a larger problem with blatantly lazy writing. Specifically, morally lazy writing. What do I mean by that?

In fiction, especially in fantastic fiction, there is a temptation to make the opposition very, very bad so that the heroes can be so very, very good. However, this is lazy. No one is purely good or bad. Everyone has reasons for doing what they do, and those reasons are never universally noble or despicable. Most people imagine that they are doing the right thing, no matter how horrible their actions. People who do terrible things in one area of their life aren't necessarily terrible in every arena; more importantly it's more interesting, from a narrative perspective, if they aren't. Finally and most importantly, people who are 'good' don't automatically hate people who are 'bad,' and they don't automatically love each other.

Not so in the world of Yelena, however.

In these books, everyone who opposes Yelena and her interests turns out to be an utterly despicable person with a taste for rape, domination, torture, rape, murder, and rape (note the repetition of 'rape'). With one exception, everyone who takes a disliking for Yelena turns out to be in league with the villains. And finally, all the villains are more or less in league with each other. Their agenda is nothing more than an increase in their personal power, and they are willing to murder, torture, brainwash, and rape (again) to get it.

It's not that I have anything against absolutes. Sometimes in fiction, especially in fantasy fiction, it's fun to have a villain you can really hate. Sometimes a fantasy story needs the black evil from beyond the walls of the world, a science fiction story needs an alien, and a conventional fiction needs a war, or a plague, or a faceless bureaucracy to wear the mask of wickedness. But when it's a real person that wears that narrative mask, I start to get a little twitchy. Real people are infinitely more complicated than that, and it's doing a disservice to humanity at large to characterize them so simplistically. More importantly, it's boring.

In defense of absolutes, take the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The ultimate villain of the piece is Sauron, a twisted being of near-total evil, and his tribes of degenerate, born-bad slaves. And yet, all is not peace and cooperation in the camp of the heroes. There are disagreements, arguments, and shades of gray. There are good people who do bad things and regret it. Even against a backdrop of the final battle against absolute evil, Tolkien manages to express more moral complexity than Snyder.

I like to think I live my convictions in what I write. In A Knight of the Land, the faction-defining characters are a broken shard of a god lodged inside the body of a dead woman, and three people trying to do what they think is best. The only trouble is that one of them is the leader of a tribe of nonhuman creatures struggling with a call to wipe out humanity for the sake of the land, the other is a human eco-warrior trying to balance the needs of the land with his human nature, and the last is a young king trying to ensure his people's safety. With the possible exception of the goddess-shard (who is really more sick than evil), none of them is clearly a villain. All of them are the heroes of their own stories.

The challenge of a writer is to continually think critically about what we are creating. Both Mary Sue characters and moral laziness come from the same, overly simplistic way of thinking. It's easy to get emotionally invested in someone who is perfect, we think, easy to like him. It's easy to hate someone who does horrible things, easy to hate her, to want to watch her fail. It's harder - but more rewarding - to write ambiguous heroes and villains who nonetheless capture the hearts of our audience.

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Question time! Don't forget, this is how I know you exist. Stand up and be heard. Speak up and be counted. Comment on my blog!
  • Where have you encountered Mary Sue's, in your writing and in the writing of others?
  • When you find yourself writing a character who seems too good to be true, what do you do about it?
  • What is your take on moral complexity?
  • Where have you found books that did a particularly good job of it, and where have you found books that did a particularly bad job?
  • When have you written black and white or shades of gray in your work?

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