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Sue checklists, cliché watches, etc - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Sue checklists, cliché watches, etc
I'm a devoted hater of Mary Sues and hackneyed, badly written stories loaded with obviously derivative nonsense and painful clichés.

I don't think a single one of those things is easily quantifiable by means of checklists, amusing as they may be. (Hey, I like the Evil Overlord rules as much as the next girl, but as a joke.)

Let's see... Mary Sue is a character's relative, or has special powers, or is the Chosen One, or is an outsider transferring in or...

Stop.

The vast majority of characters have relatives somewhere who are not involved in the main story (if you're writing fanfic) or who aren't present in the opening scenes (if you're writing original fic). These people are legitimate new characters, both for fanfic authors and original authors. The problem with Snape's illegitimate daughter Serenity isn't that she's Snape's illegitimate daughter. It's what she tends to do when she arrives on the scene.

Some people have special talents or powers. Deal with it. It bothers me when this is blithely assigned as a "Sue trait," especially on the original characters of canon--for heaven's sake, in their case, their special talent is often why they happen to be in the story. Sherlock Holmes would not have a whole series of books if he bumbled around like the Sunnydale Police. Original characters in fanfic or in later episodes of a series may also have powers, provided that they don't overshadow those of the central character. Powers become irritating mainly when they are central to the plot and have no cost whatsoever. (In fact, the benefit should generally be balanced by the cost, but that's another topic, sort of.)

The Chosen One... well, generally, that's going to be the central character. That's why you're telling his or her story. 'Cause you know who's doing the choosing, who is playing the role of all three fates, the Force, and Sybil Trelawney all rolled into one? The writer. And you chose your central character. He's, by definition, chosen. You presumably have a reason why this character and not a different one must accomplish the story's task. Whether you give him/her an ancient prophecy or not, whether s/he goes on a vast mystical quest to defeat evil or finally comes to grip with the deep nihilism of modern urban life, s/he's the person who's been chosen to do it, and other characters will arrange themselves around him or her in their various roles. Stories are about someone, and that someone is always going to be lifted up and, well, chosen by the very act of telling stories about him or her.

The problem with Mary Sue isn't that she falls into some arbitrary category, but that s/he's cheap and easy. S/he expects readers to love her without any effort at being loveable; s/he expects sympathy just because s/he happens to be there. S/he's the character who becomes cloying because s/he never does anything wrong, either morally or logically. In fact, the very fact that s/he does a thing makes it the right thing to do, and the text leaves no room to question this judgment. (That's you I'm squinting significantly at, Alvin Maker.) In fanfic, s/he (I'm really getting sick of that slash) also outshines canon characters on their own turf and twists the story's gravitational center in his/her own direction. Now, s/he may or may not have half a dozen traits off of the checklist, but none are necessary, and none are definitive. S/he can have every single trait off the Mary Sue checklist and not be a Mary Sue if those traits do not, in fact, cause her to warp the story and surrounding characters.

Moving on to clichés, see "The Chosen One" above for my opinions on that. Of course there's a chosen one.

Finding an artifact is supposed to be too cliché to attempt? Too Tolkien-based? Hello? Let's see, where might Tolkien have gotten the idea? Something about a Golden Fleece is coming to mind, and of course--it's just at the tip of my tongue--something about a cup? The quest is a major, major literary vein, but suddenly it's off limits?

Saving the world! Shrug. It depends on the genre. If you're writing space opera or epic fantasy, then the world is always at stake, because that's the scale that you're dealing with. And you know what? Even in other genres, it's always the world, because the world is whatever your setting needs it to be. Is your story about a little girl trying to bring a garden back to life, and with it her cousin and uncle? Then the garden and the manor become the world, and the Craven family all of humanity. Are you writing about magical Britain? Then magical Britain is the world, from the reader's point of view. Conversely, if you're writing about the entire GFFA, then the destruction of Alderaan is horrible... but clearly, not the end of the world, as the story keeps going after it has been destroyed. The concept of "the world" is entirely dependent on which world your story inhabits--what the scope of your story is--and all stories eventually save the world, just as all stakes are ultimately life and death, no matter how metaphorical in nature.

Maybe the argument is with stories that have a large scope? I don't know. Matter of taste, I guess. For myself, I like a bigger scope, though I enjoy focusing on the smaller battles in the circle of it.

Sigh.

Clichés become clichés because they are written a lot, and one of the reasons they tend to be written a lot is that they are, well, common narrative thought patterns. That's all.
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honorh From: honorh Date: October 14th, 2005 05:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Amen. I get so aggravated every time someone new shows up in a TV show or a book--or a discrete movie, for cryin' out loud!--and is immediately pegged with the Sue label. Generally, the character may have one or two "Sue traits" (whatever the hell those are), so someone immediately cries "Sue!" and wank usually commences, if all goes according to plan.

Point is, though, if that character didn't have something unique and compelling about herself (ever notice how female characters get this twice as much as any male?), the author wouldn't have introduced her. Stories aren't told about Plain Jane with the boring life; they're told about Plain Jane when her life becomes less boring, or about Super!Jane whose life never will be boring.

Anyway, thanks for giving me the opportunity to rant a bit.
eir_de_scania From: eir_de_scania Date: October 14th, 2005 05:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very well said, Fern! *applauds*
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sophonax From: sophonax Date: October 14th, 2005 05:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree with you generally, but there's just one thing I wanted to comment on specifically: HOW IN THE WORLD did people decide that character's relative=Sue? Bringing in someone who has some sort of connection with another character is one of the most realistic ways to introduce an OC--a character is MORE likely to be Sueish if there's absolutely no reason that anyone should care about him/her--and yet people care deeply anyway. If you introduce, say, Remus Lupin's sister, there's *already a reason* for him--and anyone close to him--to care about her, so those interactions don't feel as unrealistic and forced.

The exception, of course, is introducing the relative of a character who in canon is very firmly established as having no relatives besides the ones we've already met. I really don't think it's possible to have a Harry's Long-Lost Sister who isn't a Sue.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 14th, 2005 06:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it mostly hits "secret" relatives--usually illegitimate children or long-lost twins separated at birth... things that ultimately go back to questions about how the universe operates and what the characters are likely to do. (Eg, is it really likely that Mrs. Black, obsessed with bloodlines as she is, would hide a secret sister of Sirius and Regulus off in a Muggle convent, only to reappear when the story requires someone with the "right blood" but a different upbringing to save the day?)

That said, yes, of course that's the most logical way to introduce new characters! I don't get the anti-relative bias at all.
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erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: October 14th, 2005 07:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
word! Iread stories for stories anyway. if i' mdrawn in i wont'evne take ared pe nadn go thorughal the suposed 'faults' and undones of fic writing. as for caracters, I hat ethe pickiness-in0general. the big how to create' esays wiht logn charters tha eopel are suposed to draw u pbefore they start t owrite. I can't work wit hstuff liek that. Peple pop out and sometimes they'll tell me the news they have when i'm halfway into writing something. HTere wasa gal in one of my fics who got clsoe t oharry .She was SO blody much liek tonsk that it scaredme but for some reason i had to keep her in.
I jstu don't get all the criteria, litmus tests, rules and so forth.
darreldoomvomit From: darreldoomvomit Date: October 14th, 2005 08:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
the problem is that the sue usurps the place of the chosen one, becomes the chosen one. its unnnatural, because you can't have two chosen ones. there's only one. hence the oneness.
gershwhen From: gershwhen Date: October 15th, 2005 01:21 am (UTC) (Link)
THANK YOU.

In most fandoms, we already HAVE a chosen one. Fanfic readers tend to want to read about the existing characters. And if I want to read about Harry and the gang, there is enough going on that I don't need Harry's muggle neighbor coming to school, being a surprise witch, getting sorted into Slytherin, having a unicorn patronus and a phoneix animagus form all while telling Harry what to do and taking over the story. I think in most fandoms, there are enough characters to create a story around -- so if you introduce some stellar one-off, the natural reader is going to start smelling "Sue" pretty quickly. Shoot in HP, we don't need anymore Sues, we've already got Ginny Weasley.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: October 14th, 2005 08:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
*applauds*

I've always hated those litmus tests, because characteristics don't make a Sue, the story does. A character can be a drop-dead gorgeous Animagus who shags Remus AND Snape and not be a Sue; likewise, a character can be a mousy Squib who is the world's oldest virgin and still be a Sue if she warps the canon around her. A Sue reaks havoc with canon and makes the canon characters OOC. Violet eyes are just incidental.
From: andra_dodger Date: October 15th, 2005 12:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
A character can be a drop-dead gorgeous Animagus who shags Remus AND Snape and not be a Sue.
I would bet good internet money that you can't find a character meeting that description that isn't a sue. Good, good internet money.

veryshortlist From: veryshortlist Date: October 14th, 2005 08:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Amen. You keep mentioning 'The Chosen One' which makes me think of Buffy, who could be connsidered a Sue, as she's a girl with superpowers. And yet the show works because she doesn't do Sueish things.

Anyway, I do agree with your rant.
olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: October 14th, 2005 09:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hey, how could Buffy possibly be a Sue? She's the star of her own *original* series... doesn't that pretty much rule Sue-ness allegations out? (Interesting aside: are those who make allegations known as alligators?)

I could write an original story about a girl called Cahmyrrha Estarionella who has (to quote somebody whose LJ name I forget) butterflies coming out of her eyes, flower-petals for feet and twinkling stars instead of hair; she could be a princess but secretly the daughter of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe; she could have the powers of all the people in her universe combined - and she still wouldn't be a Sue. Stupid character, sure, but not a Sue.
author_by_night From: author_by_night Date: October 14th, 2005 10:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Something that ticks me off about the "special powers" one is that in the case of Harry Potter - it is a book about people with magic powers, some more unique than others. Hello?

I think the relatives/lover thing really stems from bad angst fics, and/or Harry's-missing-sister fics. And romance never wins anyway, because even Giant Squid/Hedwig is probably offensive to a ship somewhere in fandom.
mtgat From: mtgat Date: October 14th, 2005 10:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Mary Sue is a character's relative, or has special powers, or is the Chosen One, or is an outsider transferring in or...

Actually, the reason for the checklists isn't the "or," it's the "and." Specifically, she is the character's heretofore unknown relative AND has special singing powers AND is the Chosen One AND is the outsider transferring in. That's why there are lists. It's not "OMG, this character has one trait on this list, she's a Mary Sue" (even though some of the stupider people out there do this regardless); it's "This character reads like a laundry list of cliches and we're only in the second paragraph."

I concur that "warping the universe around herself" is a major defining point as to the badness of a character, although I generally prefer to think of it as "the author is so enamoured of this character that he or she chooses to warp the universe." Same idea, though. Unfortunately, the only way to recognize one's character as "universe-warping" tends to be in hindsight. A checklist, while not foolproof by any means, is a quick (?) way to look at a character and try to see if one has piled too many traits on one person. And if the writer in question has enough know-how to pull that off properly, then she or he isn't going to take the word of a quiz on the Internet regardless.

It's not meant to be an end-all be-all. It's meant to be a goad to think more about one's writing during the process.
valis2 From: valis2 Date: October 14th, 2005 11:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
One of the biggest things that bothers me about Sue characters is the lack of tension. Because the characters start off as "complete"/"round" already, they don't grow and/or change in the story, and therefore there is little or no tension. They're already everything---and more---that they need to be, and because of this, little excitement is transferred to the serious reader.

Oh, and a cliché isn't a bad thing in the hands of a good writer, I agree with you completely.
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From: andra_dodger Date: October 14th, 2005 11:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think you're right, genrally speaking. A good writer can write a character who is the chosen one (Harry) or a self-insert (Hermione) or beautiful (Cho) without that person being a Sue, but when all of those elements are present in the same person, I invariably find the character insufferable. Also, any time the author spends a whoe paragraph describing the character's amazing hair / eyes / clothes etc. you can pretty safely peg the character as a Sue.

As for female OCs being accused of sue-dom more than male OCs, I think part of that is 1) At least in HP, there are a LOT more female OCs and 2) most fic authors are female, so most of the characters who serve no other purpose than authorial wish-fulfillment are female as well.

alixtii From: alixtii Date: October 14th, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't use respond to meta posts with "Word" or "Amen" but: Word. Amen.

What annoys me about those lists (besides the fact that the Buffycentric ones are never revised to take into account "Chosen," which is a rather particular complaint) is names. They always act as if giving a character with an unusual spelling, or belongs to the "other" gender, or is exotic, is a sure sign of Sues. I just laugh and move on, because I'm creating an OC, I'm sure as hell not going to name him Bob and then throw him in among people with interesting names like Willow, Xander, Gunn, and (Wini)Fred for people to forget him. I'm going to name him Beth or Marcus.

And there are people who act as if villians can be Mary Sues, which makes no sense at all. The villain is supposed to be more powerful than the heroes, or at least potentially so. The villian is supposed to interupt the normal flow of events and make the plot revolve around hir. That's what villains do.

*sigh*
alyndra From: alyndra Date: October 15th, 2005 04:16 am (UTC) (Link)
The villian is supposed to interupt the normal flow of events and make the plot revolve around hir. That's what villains do.

I think I love this quote. *g*
inkpenpaper From: inkpenpaper Date: October 14th, 2005 11:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
What annoys me is that people go "Tonks is related to Sirius, she's a SUE!!!" But I have never heard anyone say "Grawp is Hagrid's long- lost half- brother! He's a Stu!!!"

Obviously characters are Sues only when it provedes a convenient reason to hate them.
From: andra_dodger Date: October 14th, 2005 11:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Some people accused Tonks of being a sue because they were angry about R/S being sunk, but she does have many more "Sue qualities" than Grawp.
1) The main characters all like her. (Except Snape, but he doesn't like anyone).
2) She has a special power (Metamorphmagus).
3) She is a beloved characters' love interest.
I don't think she's a Sue, because she doesn't take over the story, but I think someone can accuse her of being a Sue and not Grawp without being a hypocrite.
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melora98 From: melora98 Date: October 15th, 2005 12:03 am (UTC) (Link)
All I have to say is, I read fanfic because I like the characters from the book/tv show/movie/whatever. I read it to learn more about THEM, and to see them interact with each other more.

Whenever someone introduces an OC into the mix, it annoys the hell outta me. If it's a background character to move the plot along, fine. But, in my opinion, sticking an original character as a MAIN character in the story completely defies the whole reason I'm reading the fanfic. I want to know more about Snape. About Harry. Not some unknown multiple-animagus, more-powerful-than-Voldemort ditz who decides to bear their love-child.

People can write OC's all they want. I will simply keep avoiding them like the plague, and stick to the stories that play with canon characters ONLY. 'Cause that's all I'm interested in learning more about.

In the end, it's all about preferences. It just seems to me that if you want to write an OC, you should write an original story to go with it.

saeva From: saeva Date: October 15th, 2005 12:41 am (UTC) (Link)
But you're *not* learning more about the characters. You're learning more about a particular person's original interpretation of the characters another person originally authored.

I'm sorry, but that position doesn't make sense to me at all. Wouldn't re-reading the books, to catch everything, be a far more accurate way of learning more about the characters given that X fan author's interpretation of Harry, or Snape, or Millicent Bulstrode is nothing but (sometimes educated) speculation?

I write OCs because I want to explore my interpretation of the world and the characters. I read them because I want to explore other people's interpretations of the world and the characters. OCs are not independant of themselves and any interaction they have with canon characters (and how canon is canon? Does a name count? Does that make all the girl!Blaise fics out there learning more about the character? Do we have to have one more detail? Two? Etc) tells you more about the author's interpretation of the canon characters.

Or wouldn't Snape interacting with a sister as he grew up tell you more about Snape, if that's what you're interested in. Wouldn't one of Harry's teachers from primary give you insight into Harry (or a fan author's interpretation of Harry rather, etc)? Wouldn't an unknown Ravenclaw in Harry's year be able to get a perspective on Hermione? Or another Slytherin say something about Draco Malfoy?

I'm not trying to win you over because it's probably best you don't read what you're not interested in, but what you use to justify that lack of interest just... baffles me.

OCs clarify our views on the canon world, on the canon characters, in a lot of cases, and if most OCs are superpeople (like your very unrealistic example and I'd be suprised if you were able to find a story with that sort of OC on any reputable archive -- ff.net does not count) then it's because most fanfic is OOC and poorly written. And most likely if you do find a multiple-animagus, more-powerful-than-Voldemort ditz who decides to bear their love-child the author will be calling that character "Lily Potter".

- Andrea.
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