Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Praise of Mary Sue 2 - Mary Sue Goes To College

(This is a series about how the "Mary Sue" story can be useful to the writer. You can read Part 1 - Mary Sue - Bane of Fan Fic or A Literary Genius? and Part 2 - In Praise of Mary Sue - Learning To See Stories From The Inside. And part 4 - Gary Stu, or If Wishes Were Horses)

Injecting story into real life.

A lot of people use fiction as therapy. If you have an experience you can't let go of, or some issues you're stewing about, you can fictionalize them and reprocess them that way.

This is, of course, not a recommended way to create a story, at least not for publication. Even if you are writing "glorified real life" stories as for literary classes, you want to write the real story after you've processed your issues with the subject. This is something I first learned in college, and I consider it a great bit of wisdom: Write about whatever you want in your journal, but when you're writing for other people (i.e. for publication) do NOT write about things you've just recently been through. You don't understand them yet.

On the other hand, writing in your journal about them (or daydreaming through them) can be a way to gain that understanding. So, you should write about them, just don't write formal stories.

Me? I don't need the excuse of a difficult psychological issue to inject stories into my real life. If I'm doing the dishes, I imagine my characters doing dishes. If I'm shopping, I imagine what kind of decisions my characters would make about what to buy. (I sometimes have to go and put a product back on the shelf when I realize that I don't want it. It was the character who wanted it. It's like having a toddler in your cart sometimes....)

Ahem.... but I find that sometimes, when I am stewing over something, or I feel the need for some pretend justice, or just want to rewrite life, playing with reality can be good for your writing as well as for you self -- particularly when it comes to character development.

Case in point: That instructor I mentioned in the intro post to this series. He had some valuable things to offer now and then, but he also had some bizarre ego issues. His classes were like psychological experiments in mind control. Every term he spent the first class period feeling out the students for vulnerabilities. He sorted the alpha dogs from those who could be manipulated...

And then for the rest of the course, if you were an alpha dog (i.e. someone who resisted the mind games) you got the grades you wanted and a minimum of pleasant, neutral feedback. For everybody else, he'd spend all his time pushing their buttons, bullying, and manipulating. I was an alpha dog, as were several other of the advanced students. Which meant we sat and watched the show, and made constant decisions on whether to intervene and defend the puppies. Whenever one of us did, the teacher would back off immediately. But many of those puppies really wanted his approval, and they didn't want to be defended. So an awful lot of the class was like watching a really bad movie, and not being allowed to get up and walk out.

At some point, out of boredom or annoyance, I started putting characters into that class. I had to modify the character of the professor, of course, because the real guy would never ever have gone into conflict with anyone who wasn't a puppy. I toned him down, because after all nearly every creative writing group (literary or not) has interesting interpersonal dynamics going on. Sometimes I even made him a generic professor, a good guy even. (Lately, he has been a care-worn Richard Dreyfus, facing a class full of unprepared and disinterested freshmen....)

But in the first version, I used the real life dynamics of that particular class. And just out of sheer peevishness, I put my antagonist from a YA fantasy story in that class. He was an acerbic boy genius, who not only liked to write fantasy stories, but secretly, in his spare time, he lived those adventures. You know, adventures with real magic. So it was the giant ego of the manipulative college professor who sneers at fantasy fiction vs. the giant ego of an only slightly reformed wannabe super villain (complete with magic powers he would love to use, but has sworn not to), who also hates authority figures.

This was a source of great amusement, until I saw what this was doing for the character. A writing class is a GREAT place for character development!

Seriously, in a writing class people have to behave themselves, and they also have to reveal their stories -- their dreams! And most important of all, they have to respond to the dreams of others. And again, with the protocol of a writing class, they have to behave.

And oh, my, that was the key to Stan the Wannabe Supervillain. He didn't reveal much in what he wrote (he wouldn't), but the interesting stuff was how he reacted to the stories the other students wrote, and to the instructor -- especially how he treated those other students. Even though Stan was already well developed, I was surprised by the stuff he'd come up with on those stories. (I used real stories from the class in order to give some substance to the scenes.) I knew he identified with the underdog, but he was obnoxious, and so I did not realize until I ran this scene just how fiercely he felt about underdogs. And he himself, being young, and also trying not to turn into a supervillain, seemed to be learning and maturing before my eyes. He started figuring things out...

Which helped me see what he didn't understand before. In the end, he split off into another character -- the actual villain in a different YA fantasy (which I hope to publish late summer or early fall). I had to "regress" the maturity he gained in the scenes, but I came to understand him so well, he became very easy to write.

So with that success I started to put other characters in creative writing classes -- not dysfunctional ones, just regular writing classes. Some characters were not writers, and so I had to figure out what would make them take the class, and also figure out what they would write. Some of them would tell stories from their lives, which is a great way to develop a character -- not only what small incidents have happened in their lives, but what do they think about it and how do they present the story to strangers?

The problem with this technique is that it can be great fun. I can actually sit there and daydream them forever. (One way to limit how much time you spend on them is to write it in a journal. You notice more the volume of what you're doing that way.)

I still do the writing class schtick sometimes, although these days I've added a new story to that development pot: over the past ten years or so my day job has often become dysfunctional in an almost surreal way. So every now and then, I'll appoint one of my characters as temporary head of our department or division, and see how they handle THAT mess of personalities.

This fantasy is sometimes satisfying, but not as fruitful, because you can't always let your characters do what they really would do. I did have to explain to Mick and Casey that the appropriate response to someone canceling the wrong class was not to shoot them. Still, I'm having more fun with George, the title character in my w.i.p. The Man Who Did Too Much, who is something of a wannabe Simon Templar. His obsessive-compulsive need to take care of things makes him a much better manager than I expected (although I did have to explain that blackmail and breaking and entering were not acceptable either. He just smiled and said "absolutely!" I don't trust him when he does that.) I think I'm going to have to put him in charge of something further along in the series.

And George brings me to the next and last installment of the uses of Mary Sue. Tomorrow we will be talking about James Bond and other actual real professional writing examples of the wish-fulfillment fantasy. (In which we will meet Mary Sue's brother, Gary Stu -- because even if Daniel Craig does look good in drag, we should give a little time to the male side of the picture....)

Check out Part 4 - Gary Stu, or If Wishes Were Horses


Mary said...

Some real life characters you can't use in fiction because no one would believe them

The Daring Novelist said...

Ain't that the truth!

(But you can always make them an alien. Or put them in a very "non-realistic" story.)

Marian Allen said...

My husband and I were just talking about that this morning! We know a couple of people who are unbelievable. I said that, if I put them in a story, they'd be everybody's favorite characters because they're so awful everybody would say, "I LOVE those guys! They're so AWEFUL!"

Marian Allen

The Daring Novelist said...

Marian: they might be everyone's favorite characters, but you'd have to worry about the real people recognizing themselves and making a stink.

(Thanks for the link to this series btw!)