Star Wars, John Wick and Mary Sue

“Mary Sue” is a derogatory term for the protagonist of a work of fanfiction. Fan fiction, for those who don’t know, is a story about characters from a work of published fiction, TV, movies or comics. written by a fan rather than the people who produce that work. Any fan who has ever written down a new adventure for the crew of the Starship Enterprise has written fanfiction. It has no standards for publishing or quality, it just has to be written down by a fan of the work in question.

Generally a Mary Sue is a character of either gender (but typically female, probably because fan fiction authors tend towards the female – sometimes male characters are referred to as Gary Stu) who represents the author in a fanfiction. The label has grown in many ways generally it refers to any character who gets to live out a fantasy without effort, risk or negative consequences, as this tends to be the way fanfiction authors write themselves into stories. Early critiques of the Mary Sue archetype refer to the character as “perfect” within their own narrative but that’s not a meaningful qualifier, as it’s quite subjective when applied to characters in a story.

There’s a certain amount of jealousy inherent in the “perfect” critique, the kind of jealousy that you typically find when people see a singer on American Idol and figure they made it to the finals because she’s pretty or he’s handsome. It ignores the hard work and effort the person has put in to reach the place they’re in and yes, maybe there were some elements in there that weren’t “fair” like being born with a certain amount of natural talent or good looks but there has to have been more to it than that. But when we’re talking about characters it gets a little more complex.

I think Mary Sues provoke a strong reaction from people because they tickle that same jealousy vibe in our mind. But, at the same time, we want to see characters in fiction who are extraordinary. Otherwise they wouldn’t be anymore entertaining than our own circle of friends and we’d just spend our time with real people rather than these shadows and phantasms. So a good writer gives us characters who are more perfect than us but also gives those characters situations far beyond anything we could realistically tackle, situations that push those characters to the very utmost limits of their abilities.

I’ve said time and again in this space that the point of a writer is to provoke emotions from their audience. Mary Sues provoke contempt because they seem to achieve things safely and effortlessly when we know that, in real life, things are typically achieved through effort and peril. A competent writer avoids this by creating in us a certain admiration for the character as they overcome adversity, allowing us to experience the rush of empowerment while the character overcomes challenges that only a person of their skill could possibly accomplish. A poor writer doesn’t show this adversity, or shows it poorly, and earns our contempt as a person who wrote a Mary Sue.

When people complain about Mary Sues I think they frequently mean characters who get to live out a fantasy without facing any difficulties. Without risk, effort or consequences the character comes off as flat, dull and uninteresting.

Let’s examine a character who is a Mary Sue by the traditional definition – which is to say, he’s pretty much perfect. The character John Wick, from the movie of the same name, is considered the perfect hit man. From the very beginning we see people in the Russian mob who know what he’s capable of deferring to him. When he finally snaps and destroys a team sent to kill him with little trouble we start to realize just how deadly he is. For the whole rest of the movie the Russian boss is terrified of this force of nature who is coming for him and anyone who can get out of John’s way does.

However John Wick still has his problems. His wife was ill and died at the beginning of the film. He’s injured during a botched attempt to kill the son of the mob boss and takes refuge in a hotel for assassins where, in theory, no business is conducted. But there’s enough money on John’s head to persuade someone to break the rules and try to kill him in the hotel. John survives because an old friend helps but suffers more injuries in the process. His next move against the mob results in his being captured and, again, he escapes only with help.

Finally he offs the boss’s son but his friend is discovered and killed in retaliation. John finally finds the boss and wipes out his bodyguards in one last confrontation that ends with a brutal grapple between John and his nemesis that John barely wins. He staggers away in the rain, barely able to remain upright.

While John could easily be classified as a Mary Sue by the traditional definition, given his hyper competent fighting prowess and obvious wealth on display through the film, most people don’t consider him one because the amount of difficulty he endures throughout the film makes us feel admiration for his endurance, determination and single mindedness.

Unless, of course, you deplore violent movies in general and that ruins the experience for you. Because that movie… pretty violent.

But to the point – the fact that no one seriously considers John Wick a Mary Sue is one of the reasons I tend to use my own definition of the term. Because John does show us the power fantasy of being able to take revenge on the powerful, wealthy and downright criminal creeps who feel free to occasionally make our life miserable. But the price he pays for it is horrendous, the kind of price only a fictional character could pay. The risk of his own life was made apparent during every fight, the effort comes with every grunt of exertion and every moment of pain, the consequences made clear more and more people turn against John.

Now to the final point of this post. By this point I hope you’ve all seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens because we’re going to talk about it a bit in a spoilery way. And by “it” I mean Rey.

There’s been a lot of talk on the internet about how Rey may or may not be a Mary Sue. By the traditional definition she’s not – straight up. She flat out runs from the lightsaber – and by proxy the Force – when it’s first offered to her and she makes a number of fairly minor mistakes along the way, enough that no one would consider her perfect.

But given the reasons I think people react badly to Mary Sues I think I know why people see her as one.

Rey clearly represents three fantasies fulfilled. First, the fantasy of finding a place of belonging after being an outcast. She finds a home for herself by leaving Jakku and joining BB-8, Finn, Han, Chewie, Leia and the rest of the resistance. She risks leaving Jakku and possibly never meeting those who left her there again. While facing the reality that no one’s coming back for her isn’t necessarily a huge risk it undoubtedly cost a lot of effort – enough that I’m willing to let the ease with which the rest of the cast accepts her slide. Han did want to ditch her at first and Finn kind of needed her there for a couple of obvious reasons. The movie wasn’t focused on intense character developments so lack of further effort to live out this first, very character driven fantasy is fine. That the responsibility of finding Luke and bringing him back into the fold falls to Rey also makes it clear her living out this fantasy is going to have consequences for her in the future. While responsibility isn’t always a negative consequence it frequently can cause problems and is definitely a consequence.

The second fantasy Rey lives out is the fantasy of being very good at a number of mundane tasks like flying, fixing and fighting. The risks there are pretty obvious, every time she does these things she’s taking her life in her own hands. The biggest example of this when she take the Millenium Falcon into the air the first time. There’s a lot of good piloting in there but a fair bit of bad piloting as well. She could very easily kill herself and Finn doing this but she manages not to and I’m willing to give her this one on sheer audacity. The effort in this is set up in the opening montage as we see Rei’s life on Jakku – it’s clearly hard and difficult and will have equipped her to do all of the things we see her do in order to survive – except maybe pilot a starship but again. A pass for the audacity. I like that kind of thing, in moderation. There aren’t that many consequences for this but only because the consequences you’d expect from this kind of hypercompetency are overshadowed by the next bit.

The third fantasy Rey lives out is the fantasy of power beyond the lot of mortals.

Or, y’know, she can use the Force if you want it to sound mundane.

Point is, Rey has supernatural powers. She doesn’t start with them, not in any noticeable way, in fact the movie spends a little time hinting the powers might actually belong to Finn, not her, so these are new things to her character. She uses the Force in four cases. They are:

When she repels Kylo’s mental attack and counter reads him. Rey doesn’t run any risks here, failure doesn’t leave her any worse off and success is all up side, but it clearly costs her something and it has the consequence of making him angry and her drawing the attention of the big bad as a potential resource – just like any skilled person would be, only more so. Not a particularly Mary Sue event.

When she forces a guard to let her out of her restraints and leave his weapon behind. Again, failure doesn’t leave her worse off – well, maybe strapped down a little tighter – and success is pure profit. She does have to work at it, Rey tries three times before succeeding. While Kylo gets angry again and puts the guards on Rey this is still pure profit over where she was with no noticeable consequences. But this kind of surprising move twice in a row starts to raise eyebrows, especially because we know this isn’t the kind of thing a person can pull of without a lot of training.

When she uses telekinesis to rip the lightsaber from Kylo. A third time, this is a situation with no risk. She wouldn’t be any more weaponless if she hadn’t tried this. Worse, it’s apparently effortless as she overwhelms Kylo without a struggle and again this doesn’t bring her any negative consequences. Pure Mary Sue.

When she channels the Force during her lightsaber duel and defeats Kylo Ren. You’re probably tired of hearing this but her situation literally can’t get any worse when Rey tries using Force combat so she wasn’t really risking anything. Worse, as soon as Rey opens her eyes she’s in an unstoppable battle trance and proceeds to demolish Kylo. She even avoids negative consequences like guilt over killing him when the earth splits in two and conveniently separates them. That last bit is really bothersome.

In short, Rey’s Force abilities mostly got her out of sticky situations in a rather convenient fashion without much rebounding on her. Seems to fit the bill, doesn’t it?

So Rey is a little bit of a Mary Sue, or at least the way she’s written could easily provoke the same kind of reaction from people. There was definitely some poor writing at work in there. But saying that Rey had a touch of the Mary Sue identifies the symptom – what was the problem? Why did Mary Sueisms work their way into Rey’s character arc and what steps can be taken to shore up the weak writing in the future? Or at least in stories we write where characters explore similar themes?

Well, I think that’s a post for next week. Hope you’ll join me then!

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A Word for the Ladies

I’ve kind of gotten in the habit if writing something for Valentine’s Day but this year, with the one-post-a-week thing going and the way The Antisocial Network fell out, I wasn’t able to get the post in before the day itself. So what to write about? Especially with a post that will be going up the week after the day itself?

Well, I’ve never written about the traditional stuff so I decided to do something a little more “traditional” this year. So, this year a message for the ladies, with a few suggestions for relationships. This may seem a bit curious coming from a fellow who has never dated and probably never will, but I’ve seen a lot of relationships that failed and a few that worked and I have the advantage of a man’s point of view. Which, let’s face it, women don’t have (even though sometimes they think they do). Now this is not advice for finding a guy nor is it advice for telling if he’s a good match for you or not. This is advice for people who have gotten past these basic steps and are trying to keep a relationship working.

You see, most relationships I’ve seen don’t die out because he was Mister Wrong or because the partners weren’t well matched. They fail… well, for a lot of reasons. While each case has its individual quirks and bad decisions in it there are some broad themes I’ve seen in failed relationships and this year I thought I would share some of them with the womenfolk. Particularly because, while I’ve seen the failings of men addressed in ways I find accurate many places before, I’ve rarely if ever seen the failings of women addressed in ways that jive with what I’ve seen.

Most relationships I’ve seen fail long before they actually fall apart, not because women (or men) were doing something wrong but because they weren’t doing needful things. So what do I think you need to do to keep your relationship healthy?

  1. Learn how your partner communicates. A lot of people who are a lot smarter than me have written about the differences in the ways people communicate, especially the way people communicate affection. The biggest perk of reading about communication styles is your mind is opened to the possibilities. The problem is no one conforms very well to the models I’ve seen put forward. The better way to understanding them is to get to know your gentleman’s family. Friends can do as a substitute in a pinch but family has known him longer and (hopefully) better. Comparing notes with them is probably the fastest way to get to know your beau’s ways of communicating, whether in terms of affection or otherwise.
  2. Expect communication to change over time. One thing that I hear a lot of complaints about is that men stop pursuing women after the relationship has gone on for a while. Sometimes that’s true. But frequently what’s happened is that more general displays of affection have become more personal. Instead of bringing a rose, he cleans out your car. Instead of taking you to dinner he does your taxes. Men try and know the best ways to address specific needs. Sure, all women like roses and dinners but eventually he wants to do something for you specifically so the generic “romantic” ways men show their affection for women tend to get squeezed out over time. If you’re tuning in to the ways your partner communicates affection then hopefully you’ll catch on to these changes quickly. Of course, he needs to be in tune with your communication frequencies as well, so if you’re not feeling the affection it’s okay to talk to him about it. But there needs to be a balance between his style of affection and yours. Furthermore, if the ways you communicate with your partner aren’t changing over time then your relationship is probably in more trouble than otherwise.
  3. Pursue him. This may sound like a silly thing but you’d be amazed how many women I see not doing this. In today’s society it feels like the entire responsibility of showing desire is on men. Men show up with gifts, write notes and take women to dinner and the simple presence and good favor of women is all that they can expect in return. That’s unhealthy. Be invested in your partner. Dig into his goals and ambitions. Show up in his life at unexpected times. Show that you desire him, because that is almost always the thing men question most in a relationship. Again, how you do that is specific to who you’re together with. But if you get points 1 and 2 down this one should follow naturally.
  4. Work together. Don’t settle for just spending time together. Movies and dinners are all fine and good. But working in the yard, in volunteer positions, even in personal businesses is a great way to get to know your partner and build solid bonds. Many relationships can’t manage this kind of thing and may fall apart in the attempt. The intimacy you build is different from what you get from anything else and you don’t always like what you see when you work together with someone. But without that kind of insight your relationship is going to be very shallow and is much more likely to fall apart.

Doing these things is not a magic formula for keeping your relationship together. But they make you active and invested in your relationships and they’re the things I see women in successful relationships doing. They require a lot of effort, a lot of personal investment and it leaves you open to a lot of pain. But if you want the relationship to work then its what needs to happen. At least, that’s my advice for ladies this February. Enjoy!

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Sixteen

“I hate hospitals. How did you stand being in here so long?”

Rachada shrugged. “When you’re comatose it doesn’t bother you as much. Besides, my dad is a surgeon. I got used to hospitals a long time ago.”

“Rough break.” Eric paced around the room, which admittedly was bigger than most hospital rooms he’d been in, trying to ignore the prickly feeling of illness he always got when he visited a sickbed. “What did the doctors say?”

“Clean bill of health.” She tapped the side of her head. “It was all up here and the CAT scans didn’t find anything wrong. They’re going to do another MRI later to see if there are any signs of nerve damage but I doubt that I would have regain consciousness so quickly after you corrected the nerve blockage if there was. I owe you a favor.”

“I wouldn’t have known how to fix it if Vent hadn’t shown me. You probably could have done it yourself if you knew how.”

“But you’re the one who went out of your way to find out how to reverse it and make sure I got the solution.” Rachada smiled and settled herself into a more comfortable sitting position on the bed. “I think that makes you the one I owe the favor to.”

Eric flung himself into one of the rooms overstuffed chairs as if sitting more emphatically would make him more comfortable there. “If that’s the way you feel.”

“I guess that’s settled then.” Rachada folded her hands in her lap and gave him a searching look. “Eric, how sure are you that you’ve really prevented the Network from launching another brainworm?”

“Preventing it from ever happening again is probably impossible. After all, he’s still a smart guy and he’s got a lot telepaths backing him up. So it could happen again, but not any time soon. You guys,” Eric gestured around to encompass Rachada’s coworkers scattered through the rest of the building, “need to look into a way to eradicate dangerous brainworms if you want to make them impractical as a weapon in the future.”

Rachada gave him a curious look. “I thought you said the First Telepath didn’t intend his brainworm as destructive.”

“He didn’t. But that doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t build one that way. And if he builds another one odds are it’ll wind up just as dangerous as the first one.”

She treated Eric to another one of her small, mysterious smiles. “Are you sure you don’t want to work for the FBI? Dr. Thorwald is pretty sure he’s going to get a full taskforce funded in the next month and we could certainly use the help.”

For a moment Eric seemed to think about it, glancing around the room from under half-lidded eyes. “I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem like my kind of thing.”

“Going back to the theater, then?”

“No.” The answer came immediately that time. “I’m not even sure it’s possible for a telepath to do live theater ethically. There’s so many things you do on stage that wind up leaking into headspace. Maybe some day Vent and I can work out some way to safeguard against it but in the mean time… I’d rather not worry about mesmerizing the audience in the wrong way. And I’d rather not have to fight the temptation to psychic my through an audition.”

“This is why you belong in the FBI, Eric. You’re worrying about the right things.” She sighed. “But if you don’t want to stay and work at least try to stay in touch.”

Eric pushed himself up out of the chair and stepped over to the side of the bed. “Count on it, Cherrywood. I’m pretty sure the FBI didn’t hound me into jail because of you so if there’s any owing favors going on it’s from me to you.” He patted her on the hand and smiled. “Stay safe. Make your parents proud.”

“Thanks. And I’ll pray your parents will have understanding . Unless you’re planning to study medicine? The law?”

Eric laughed. “I’m thinking of becoming the first Doctor of Telepathy.”

“That will do the trick, I’m sure.”

He slipped out of Rachada’s room, burying himself in layers of anonymity. No one Eric passed in the halls gave him a second glance save for the tall, white haired man with the intense beard who’s name tag proclaimed him to be Rachada’s direct superior. But Dr. Thorwald didn’t do more than glance at Eric as they passed, a brief moment of confusion that passed as the two men parted ways.

The FBI probably needed to think up a way to deal with people who could just walk in and out of their buildings at will, too. Of course, the trick wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t gotten into the building with other employees but that hadn’t been too difficult. And he clearly wasn’t the only one who’d pulled it off.

At first he wasn’t sure what was waiting for him in the small lobby outside the building’s medical ward wasn’t a meme. It had all the trappings of the First Telepath, the worn flannel shirt, near-skeletal proportions and distant odor of stale booze, but he was looking through a magazine when Eric approached. When the First tossed it down on a nearby table it made a realistic thump and the other magazines on the table fluttered in response. The magazine was real enough, so there must have been a real hand underneath. And, once he was looking for it, he could pick up on the gentle way the First Teep was nudging people’s attention away from them.

“Hello, Echoes.”

“FT.” Eric had settled on Vent’s way of talking about the First as the least pretentious. “To what do I owe this honor?”

“I know you took something from me.” Eric backed slowly away as the First advanced, radiating hostility. “I want it back.”

Eric placed himself strategically next to a wall with a door to one side and a hallway to the other . “Sorry, FT. I know a good way to forget things and what I got from you wasn’t worth remembering.”

The tension in the air slipped a bit, then redoubled. “Not worth remembering? I am the Network, Echoes. You’re very name means imitation, who are you to judge me?”

“The funny thing about echoes is they don’t have to explain themselves to other people. An echo is a reflection of you.” Eric gave the First a cocky grin he wasn’t really feeling. “You made me because you thought it was fair to look into other people’s minds without permission. Why complain when your echo does it to you?”

The First Telepath hesitated, a wary feeling tinging his memetic projection. “Return what’s mine, Echoes, or the Network will be closed to you.”

“Fine. Take your Network, I don’t really care.” The brass ring popped out of his right hand, spinning quietly and ready to scrounge for thoughts again. “Just keep in mind that if you cause trouble I can keep digging through your head until we sort out what your real problem is. I’m not a shrink like Rachada or Vent, so I’m not about to do it for charity or money, but if it’s what it takes to get you off my back I’m sure we can work something out.”

They stood for a moment, the tension teetering on the brink of something nasty, then the First Telepath turned away. “Fine. Do as you want, Echoes. But whatever you’re hoping to accomplish, without the Network there’s no way it will work out.”

Eric watched the other man leave, people nervously moving to the sides of the hallway as he stalked away, avoiding his radiating anger even as he kept them from fully noticing he was there. Once the coast was clear Eric went out by the back entrance, just in case Tails or Hugo had tagged along with the First as backup. He didn’t want another brush with them. Maybe the First Telepath was right. Maybe he couldn’t accomplish what he wanted without them.

But for the time being he didn’t have anything he wanted to do. And that was okay with him. It was time to go home, get his bearing and work out a plan.

Then maybe he would talk to Vent. After all, there had to be some use for his new talents. It was just a matter of finding them.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Fifteen

After a experiencing short term memory loss in an entirely new way – all while under attack by a semisentient mental disorder – getting thrown off the top of a building wasn’t quite as upsetting as Eric would have expected. Some part of his brain had figured out that he wasn’t really in that much danger here. Hubris, possibly, since all the experts seemed to think things happening in headspace could still hurt him, but it was a gamble he was willing to take. The building rushed by at an incredible speed and most of Eric’s attention was drawn to the man who was holding him but Eric was able to see around the First Telepath just enough to see their reflection in the windows of the building just beyond.

Or rather, their lack of a reflection.

The blurred silhouette of a diving bird was the only thing Eric could see in the glass as they rushed downwards. For a second he was confused but then he remembered what Vent had said about his personal headspace being based on what his body was seeing and manic grin split his face. “A bird. We’re seeing through the eyes of a bird. That’s so cool!”

“Perceptive, aren’t we?” The First’s eyes narrowed. “And remarkably possessed. Let’s find your limits, shall we?”

There was a wrenching sensation and suddenly Eric found himself flat on the ground. Everything looked big for some reason and the First Telepath was little more than a receding sensation in the back of his mind. He looked around in confusion, then panic hit him for some reason. He looked up on instinct just in time to see the falcon swoop down, talons outstretched, and grab him.

There were some really uncomfortable sensations that compounded his already throbbing headache and then he was back in empty headspace with the First Teep approaching him in a rather unfriendly manner. Head in one hand Eric asked, “What happened?”

“You just enjoyed a rat getting eaten by a peregrine falcon. I apologize if you found it unpleasant but you were the one who intruded here.” The First picked Eric up by the scruff of the neck, pulling his shirt tight under his arms. Eric had just started wondering if he could make his shirt vanish, since his meme was really just a projection or something, when the other man clamped one hand to his head and pushed.

Not in the literal sense, of course. Like most of the things Eric had experienced since becoming a telepath the sensation seemed to start at the back of his head near the joint with the neck but it quickly spread to encompass his entire skull. Headspace blurred again and suddenly Eric found his life flashing in front of his eyes. From the way the First Telepath watched the proceedings he could apparently see it too.

Most of the scenes that flashed by were from the last few years as he tried to go from being a med school student to a working actor. There were a lot of glimpses of life back stage – although more often as stage crew than an actor. Scattered throughout were the occasional quiet, forceful discussion that passed for an argument with his parents about how he was misusing his gifts. Those would eventual stop the First got to memories from the last year, after he’d stopped talking to them.

Not that Eric really wanted a total stranger poking through his memories, no matter how depressed they were likely to make him. He tried to push back but couldn’t find the strength to make any headway. He tried kicking at the other meme’s legs but that didn’t help any either. In a last ditch effort he grabbed at the First Telepath’s head and tried to dig into his memories.

At first he couldn’t make any headway, every attempt to push into the mind behind the First Teep’s meme was easily pushed back. But as Eric got a firmer grip on his opposition he heard a click and a whir and the metal ring from the rogue brainworm emerged from his hand and wrapped itself around the other meme’s arm.

The smell of stale beer and cigarettes, a constant undercurrent through the entire encounter, suddenly became so strong Eric could taste it. Headspace wavered and bent, his own memories fading and morphing into an unfamiliar office. Men in police uniforms hustled past the door as two men argued in a way that would have been considered downright uncivilized in the Han household.

Hours spent in a police cruiser before the promotion to detective. Weeks trying to crack cases obstructed just because people wouldn’t trust the cops enough to talk to them. A wild gunshot from a strung out drug dealer. Physical therapy. Psychiatrists.

A long descent into alcohol and nicotine. Nearly loosing his job. Antidepressants.

And then the breakthrough. The ability to read minds. A hundred ideas for new ways to do his job. But just one person who could read minds wouldn’t be enough. He’d need more. Lots and lots of mind readers who would help him out. Like snitches. An information network that would let him get any information, find any person, crack any case just by skimming other people’s thoughts.

And then there was Vent with his nifty brainworms and-

With a jolt Eric came back to himself. For a few seconds – or maybe hours – he’d lost himself in the flood of memories. But with Vent came memories of the brainworm and, with a sharp snapping sensation, Eric found himself holding the metal band again. There was a weird tangle of brass wires and delicate looking pipes wrapped up in the center of it.

Headspace around them had turned blank once more and the First Telepath was sitting on his haunches, his meme staring aimlessly off into the distance. Eric turned over the mess in his hands and got glimpses of the First building a brainworm and discussing the details with Vent. The First Teep’s meme twitched once and Eric took it as his cue to exit. It was time to get back to his own body.

And he was away, as quick as thought.