Saturday, March 26, 2011

In Praise of Gary Stu, or If Wishes Were Horses

(This is the final in the series of posts about Mary Sue and Gary Stu. See the beginning here: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

When I was a kid I was disappointed in the movie National Velvet. Nothing against Elizabeth Taylor or Micky Rooney. I loved them, and I loved the horse, and the racing and riding sequences were great. But I felt the filmmakers had missed the whole point of the book.

You see, in the book, Velvet not only wins The Pie in a drawing, she also inherits a BUNCH of horses. She has horses coming out of her ears. All sorts of horses. Ponies, and hacks and of course, The Pie himself.

How could Hollywood possibly have missed the wonder of so many horses?

There isn't a kid who loves horses who didn't, at one time or other, have an imaginary herd, and probably a shelf of toys to go with them. All named and with personalities and everything. One horse is never enough. There may be one main horse, one special horse, but if you're a horse person, you need a string. You really do.

My favorite horse book was King Of The Wind, which was about one special horse, but the book was chock full of other horses. There were horse characters left and right. The darn thing starts out with the sultan's stable where there are hundreds. And a gift from the sultan to Louis XIV of like a dozen horses which are each the finest of a particular color.

I give you wish fulfillment. It's a powerful tool in any story.

I think, in our quest to be sophisticated, the writing culture has lost touch with this core aspect of storytelling. With anything worth doing, our first try tends to be pretty bad. So yes, beginning writers, and unsophisticated writers, tend to write wish fulfillment stories badly. They also do a lot of other things badly. It's easy to make a self-fulfilling prophesy out of that. Beginning writers make a certain mistake all the time, so you swear not to do that ever, in order to prove you're not a beginner any more.

But as a writer you can end up in creative handcuffs.

I'll give you another example of why wish-fulfillment is important to literature, and not just kids' stories: Jane Eyre.

In the comments on the first post in this series, Mary posted a link to an essay by George Eliot called "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." She describes the classic Mary Sue romance, as written (and read and loved) even to this day. She did not have had Jane Eyre in mind when she wrote it, but she sure described the plot of it to a T.

But let's assume she was talking about the silliest trashy knock-offs of Jane Eyre. Even there, I have to disagree with her. Those books serve a purpose to their readers. They are not a mistake. The oh-too-perfect heroine has oh-too-perfect problems in deciding among her herd of suitors (Should she chose the palomino or the bay or the chestnut...?) but no matter how empty headed the writer or the reader of such a story is, the story serves its purpose if it gives satisfaction.

And that's a part of the difference between a child's game and a story. The difference is not that one has wish fulfillment, and a character who is a star and a stand in for the writer. Both may have all those things. The difference is that the child simply has a string of wishes. The story has two other things:

One is that a story throws problems in the path of those wishes. I mentioned earlier that imagination is one way we explore the world -- it's how we learn. Well, we don't just learn to avoid danger that way. We also learn how to succeed.

So James Bond (THE classic "Gary Stu" character) may be everything the audience wants to be... but he isn't actually perfect. He is subject to the laws of physics. He bleeds. He can die. He's just tough enough and smart enough to survive, and that's what makes him vital. We want to survive, we want to be heroic. By watching James Bond, we rehearse what it's like having nerves of steel.

The point of reading about the silly heroines of the female novelists is that through them the reader practices the aplomb of the successful court female. Aplomb is critical in social situations -- even to this day, teens can die of embarrassment. So it doesn't even matter if the story is about the perfectly successful heroine or the failure. They are both about learning to not die of embarrassment. Jane Eyre, in that way, is just like James Bond -- she teaches us to have those nerves of steel.

The other element that turns a dream into a story is that the star is a stand in for the reader, not the writer.

The difference between playing and writing is responsibility. And responsibility takes maturity. Writing is communication. It's all about the experience you create for the reader. This involves understanding the reader, and the reader's reactions. Including the reader's wishes and hopes and dreams. The reader is like one of those horses. He grants you trust and control. You don't betray that trust and make it all about you. And if you don't care to accept that responsibility, you should at least consider the fact that a reader has no problem bucking you off. You don't have a bit or spurs or whip or even a saddle. All you've got is your wits and an understanding of the reader.

This is why the Mary Sue/Gary Stu pattern has such a bad reputation -- because immature writers don't take the responsibility of creating a good story for the reader. They're too wrapped up in themselves. And that's not a flaw of their writing. No critique will fix that. They've got to work through those stories until they reach a higher level of maturity.

Now, as for the horses....

What is the purpose of the surplus of horses in National Velvet? What lesson do you learn? What do you gain from reading something like that?

The key there is that it's a transitional story. A dream is "I want to win the lottery - oh look I won!" A story is "I won the lottery, now what?"

The wish fulfillment in National Velvet isn't at the end, it's at the beginning. The story is about dealing with it. She wins a stable full of horses -- so she and her family and friends have to manage that stable. Who will ride which horse? Who will care for and groom and feed them? Then she wins The Pie -- a horse with so much heart she can't just play with him and take care of him. She and her family have to devote their all to seeing The Pie reaches his maximum potential.

In some ways, the story of The Pie is a metaphor for writing. Velvet is the writer, and she has to stop fooling around with just her own dreams and take it to the next level. You could say she has to go from playing Mary Sue, to turning The Pie into an equine James Bond.

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.

It's our job to turn wishes into real flesh and blood horses.


A.M. Kuska said...

When I read your twitter quip, I have to admit my mind did not go to National Velvet. Great post!

The Daring Novelist said...

Well, out of context it's not obvious at all. But I thought it might make a decent teaser....

Mary said...

She may not have had Jane Eyre in mind when she wrote it

Probably not. Since she does say in the same essay:

By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman's talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point. Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell [alias Charlotte Bronte], and Mrs. Gaskell have been treated as cavalierly as if they had been men.

The Daring Novelist said...

But she was still criticizing the "Mary Sue" elements that are common to Jane Eyre and to the trashier fiction she was talking about.