Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Praise of Mary Sue -- Learning To See Stories From the Inside

So yesterday I introduced you to Mary Sue, the bane of fan writing, and explained how it was the bane of literary writing as well. I also introduced why I thought it is useful to explore the instinct we have to write Mary Sue stories. (Check that post out if you don't know about Mary Sue and you want to know what I'm talking about.)

Today I'm going to talk about the "fan fiction" side of Mary Sue, and take a look back at my own early imaginings:

When I was a kid I often "played" the stories I read, or saw on TV or heard in songs. Looking back, I realize I was creating fan fiction. I just never wrote it down. (And I would have been horrified at the idea of writing it down -- it was personal! Besides it was an activity, not a work of art.) This probably started with Harold and His Purple Crayon, and Gilligan's Island, but earliest I actually remember were a "mash up" stories I created out of the TV show High Chaparral, and whatever songs I happened to be listening to at the time.

I never appeared in these stories, nor did any character I would recognize as me. Instead I injected characters based on the songs I was listening to. Given that this was the late sixties, the wild west experienced an awful lot of angry, angsty troubadour-outlaws singing songs of rebellion, with occasional psychedelic ballads about love for all mankind thrown in. (I had a couple of Donovan albums among the Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle and Beatles.)

The stories were classic Mary Sue in that they often consisted of the characters from the TV show standing around as an audience for the troubadour and his horse. Sometimes the characters would be in conflict with the troubadour, but they would be semi-passive because they were just reacting to the actions of the "guest character."

Hold that thought about guest characters in your head for a minute, (it's important) because just now I had a flashback to a different fanfic/daydream I used to have. The TV show Emergency! was a favorite of mine, and I often played plots from that too. But in those dreams, there were no guest characters. I was always in the head of the main characters. Usually Johnny Gage, but sometimes any of the others. There was no passivity in those stories. No one stood around and admired. It was all rescuing and climbing and digging people out of collapsed buildings and defusing bombs and fighting fires while saving lives.

But that's what that show was about, so it makes sense.

So why the passive stuff on High Chaparral? Wouldn't it make sense for a little kid to play adventure stories the same way? Actually no, because the storytelling style of the shows themselves were different. High Chaparral was a real horse opera -- as in it was like a soap opera. It was about character development and interpersonal conflict. Sure there was usually an Apache attack (or a negotiation with the Apaches), or a bank robbery, or a bar-fight, but these were just ways to turn up the heat on the interpersonal stuff. Also, High Chaparral had a tendency to focus on a particular character or pair of characters in each episode, and let the other characters react, or observe.

So yeah, that whole thing about standing around and letting one character dominate the stage was an actual storytelling technique. And for an ensemble cast it was a great thing, so that everybody got a chance to chew the scenery.

Furthermore, when I think about it, nearly every long-run TV show in history (and in the old days, they used to last longer than now) would start using "guest star" plots after a while. After a few years of developing the character arcs of the main players, you'd reach a kind of status quo. Then you need something to shake it up, make it fresh. Enter the guest star. He or she would come in and disrupt things and give the main characters something to react to. Plus they'd often get a big star and it would be an opportunity to chew the scenery and steal the show from everybody, while the main players took a rest by just reacting.

In a western (or other dramatic type show) this would often be the "hostage" show -- where the guest star would take some of the main characters hostage, and thereby turn them into a passive audience. Sometimes the hostage taker would be a real villain, sometimes an innocent person driven to crime in desperation. Sometimes it would be the comic relief (those were my favorites -- bumbling wannabe outlaws). Sometimes it wouldn't even be a crime story -- the "hostage taker" would be a guest whom the main characters couldn't get rid of. A troublesome orphan child dumped on the household, a mischievous old conman who comes to visit, a grand dame whose carriage broke down and who won't leave until it's fixed.

And in all of these kinds of stories, the main characters went into reaction mode while all attention was put on the guest star.

Just like a Mary Sue story.

When I look back at all of those stories I played out in Mary Sue style -- whether it was Bob Dylan holding John and Victoria Cannon hostage, or Johnny Gage bravely keeping a trapped patient calm while the fire burned closer and closer to the bomb -- I was practicing storytelling technique, the way a toddler practices walking. I was taking things that worked for me as a viewer, and playing with them to see how they worked. My goal at the time was to keep the magic of the experience going, but in the process I learned to tell a story.

And over the years, I find bits of those old stories come back to me and mash up with new things. I still learn from that.

Tomorrow I'll talk about a different element of Mary Sue -- the part about injecting yourself into a story. Only in this case, I like to inject elements of a story into my life. It can be very therapeutic. It can also do amazing things to develop a character or setting.


K. A. Jordan said...

Good points here, too.

Learning to tell a good story is a process that takes time and years of practice. The younger we are when we get started, the better stories we tell as we mature.

At one point I wrote Andre Norton fan fiction. Lot's of wandering heros falling into trouble with ancient magic. Don't know if I kept anything from those days.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yes, and the thing I keep coming back to in my realization is my motive for playing the stories:

I wasn't trying to write a story. I was just trying to make the great experience of the story last. That desire to keep it going is the exact motivation which drive me to learn to tell my own stories.

K. A. Jordan said...

I understand completely.