I love SF/F, but about a decade ago, back before my academic studies kept me from being the voracious reader I used to be (and back before YA became a thing – yes, I’m that old), I was finding that I was getting exhausted with it. It was the same thing over, and over, and over again.
I mean, I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but just look at all those white men. I can’t tell them apart from far away. It’s the same with video game protagonists lately. Two decades ago there was more diversity. Now it’s all vaguely tanned, scruffy brunette soldier guys.
So much in media – and especially in SF/F – we see female characters who are simply not complexly written. The character exists to be the pursued love interest a.k.a the princess in the tower, with very little deep-down characterization and motivation beyond Looking Pretty For The Hero. Or, they exist only for the sake of a plot point – if they come to harm, it’s to further the hero’s emotional journey or to spur him to action. If they step out of this mould, it’s because they’re crazy, or rebellious, or crazy villains (because only the crazy ones wouldn’t desire to please the hero, right?).
This is all my very long way of saying – as a woman reading the classic epic fantasy novels of my youth, it left a faintly bitter taste in my mouth whenever the heroes met a female character. These books told me, time and again, that I as a woman was only good for those things. And as a woman, I had no right to any further development, or complex desires.
It’s exhausting. It’s no fun being told you are worthless.
(As an aside – thank god and praise be to the wonderful and diverse YA writers who populate the shelves now. I wish I’d had you around when I was a teenager.)
As I was contemplating whether I really wanted to write a fantasy book in the classic tradition – or how I ever could – the buzz for this new TV show started to fill the air: Game of Thrones. I’d never heard of George R.R. Martin, or read his books, prior to the series coming out. But it sounded right up my alley, so I watched.
It gave me a lot of ideas about how I’d like to build my fantasy world, and what sorts of characters to create to inhabit it, but mostly what it really sparked in me was a kind of low-level resentment. It wasn’t aimed at the show, but at the guy friend I was watching it with. We had an argument about intended audience, and I couldn’t get him to understand how much it sucks to not be the center, to not be the target or the intended. I mean, I literally couldn’t get him to understand that Game of Thrones, while not horrible, was not made for me, but for people like him: White. Male. Straight.
I was so angry I went off to my office and wrote a scene where a female character yells at the hero of a standard fantasy series just to get all the frustration out in the open. The next morning I reread it and thought: “I think there’s something in this. This frustration at always being on the edge. This awareness that you are present but forced to be silent.”
And I really liked the idea of a main character that was that self aware. Who could yell back at the book. I wrote my MA thesis on Mary Sue fan fiction, and why Mary Sues are important to fandom and are an important stage in the evolution of a writer.
Mary Sues are the first literary impulse of children who have grown out of elastic imaginative play on the jungle gym, shouting “I’m a Ninja Turtle and you’re a G.I. Joe, and I’m a special girl turtle because turtles can be girls too!”
At the risk of generalizing, I would even say that Mary Sues are the way we all enter fandom. We enter that world of play by imagining ourselves there. As children we do it by running around the yard with toy lightsabers and My Little Ponies.
Then as fannish youths, we make up elaborate stories – sometimes only in our own heads – about what we would do if we were friends with (or romantic interests to) the heroes we adore. I know as a teenager I so desperately wanted to be a Sailor Scout that I carried around a glass jewel that I had fallen off a chandelier in the hopes that it would turn out to be a Power Crystal if I just wished hard enough.
Later, if this sort of fannishness leads us to fanfiction and we choose to write, then we develop those imagination games into our first tentative written words. So it makes sense that the first literary impulse should be to include ourselves – or rather, an idealized version of ourselves, because we all would prefer to be our idealized selves – into the worlds that we love. It absolutely makes sense that overwhelmingly new fanfiction author’s first works are Mary Sue fic.
It is only later that, as writers, we develop the skills and ability to tell stories about characters who are not ourselves. We learn by writing other people’s well-rounded original fictional characters. Then still later, if the fanfiction author decides to move to profic (and many don’t, preferring to keep writing a beloved hobby), then we use those skills we honed to create our own well-rounded original fictional characters.
And I think this is a lot of why Mary Sues are derided; they remind readers of our own first, embarrassing, coltish forays into story-telling. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to want to distance yourself from something mortifying that you did by mocking it.
But I think we need to stop coming down so hard on Mary Sues. They are important. You don’t yell at a child for failing to colour within the lines. We shouldn’t yell at writers about Mary Sues.
Meta Sues – Mary Sues written with a conscious and deliberate hand, by an author aware of all that a Mary Sue is and utilizing the powers of the trope to bend the narrative of their tale in interesting ways – are fascinating.
Like taking Selfies, consciously writing Meta Mary Sues is an intensely, defiantly feminist act.
It is a way of saying I am here, and I am worth celebrating. And as aware, mature writers consciously choosing to write Mary Sues, we are forcing space for ourselves and people like us in media texts and literary traditions that otherwise marginalize or silence voices like ours. We are deliberately making space for ourselves and people like us.
And it occurred to me then that this was the perfect way to marry that academic discourse with my love of fantasy. So I created Lucy Piper, a Meta Sue.
This is not, of course, the only way to write a feminist novel. It is simply the way I chose to write one, and why. And so dismissing Pip as simply a Mary Sue in the pejorative sense is missing the point.
I laboured to create a strongly written female character (as opposed to a strong violent female character), with motivations and desires that yeah, sometimes are at odds with themselves, like they are in real life. She’s not violent, she can’t fight back.
Yes, she is harmed for the sake of the plot. Yes, she is, in fact, rescued. If you’re going to write a novel about those tropes, you must first enact them. The book features sexual assault, yes, but not for titillation. It exists to be confronted, starkly, and discussed. If I had left it out, I feel like it would have been a glaring error, because it would have been an obvious avoidance of the typical fate of female characters in fantasy. Worse, it would have been cowardly.
Pip is a highly intelligent woman, too. I gave another character my childhood nervous stutter, but I gave Pip my current speech patterns. She, like my friends and I, speaks in essays and academic discourse. This is how PhD candidates communicate. And anyone who says that Pip’s rants and outbursts are contrived and awkward clearly hasn’t spent any time in a university grad lounge during happy hour. 😉
Pip’s strength comes from embracing the tropes that fantasy literature imposes on her simply because she is a woman, and using them to her own advantage and power. Pip is a strong female character because of her wit, her intellect, and from that very thing that makes all female fantasy readers powerful – her fannishness. There is power in being a fangirl, and there is a complexity there to, in loving the problematic.
Also, Pip is not white. I wanted to write a story that not only was different than what was normally told, but points out why diversity in the types of characters included is important. That not only contains this diversity, but also discusses it. I wanted to write a book that makes the readers intensely aware that it is a book. And yet still be entertaining. I hope I’ve succeeded.
And that brings us to Forsyth.
Like the rest of my oeuvre, I made a point of choosing the least likely narrator I could for the story. I love to tell stories from a perspective that is just on the rim of the action. History is written by the victors, they say, which has always made me wonder how the losers would tell it. Or the victor’s personal assistant or dog-walker. How is the same tale told when it’s being related by someone who isn’t in the center of it? Someone who isn’t the hero?
For me, for the personal choices I made, and for the way that I wanted to approach a feminist fantasy novel (not the only way, but the way that I prefer to approach it) it had to be first person from the POV of this outsider, because then we had access to his personal thoughts on the action.
Forsyth is a Mary Sue, too. And that is feminist as well.
Forsyth is a genuinely good man who’s just never had a break. He is whip-smart, but he’s been overshadowed by his hero big brother his whole life. He is physically normal, and he feels, intensely, the pressure to be an alpha-hero man’s man. He is, in essence, the geek everyman.
Compared to his fantasy-hero-brother he could even be derided for being “girly”, though that might be a narrow, patriarchical view of a male character whose power lies in realms outside of violence and upholding toxic masculinity ideas of what it means to be “a man”. I personally believe that it’s misogynistic to declare that a man is not allowed to enjoy things that have been coded as traditionally feminine, like reading and dancing.
Even when, especially when, Pip falls into the trap of deriding traditionally female pursuits as girlie herself. Pip is not written to be the perfect feminist (for there is, unfortunately, no such thing, no matter how hard I may try), and she has to spend part of the book learning what that means, even as she teaches it to Forsyth.
Forsyth finds his own power through being a geek. He doesn’t transform into a muscle-bound sword-waving hero. Instead he finds his own heroism in his own strengths, in his own way. He doesn’t transform so much as finally begins to fill his own skin. He is the fact-gathering, body-conscious, socially anxious nerdboy that we all know and love, and that is the source of his heroism and power.
His other strength is in how he doesn’t see the women around him as lesser, especially the women of colour.
And of course, it was also important to me to fashion Forsyth as being human. Characters are allowed to have sexual thoughts and attractions – Forsyth muses often on how desirable he finds Pip. Human beings desire. That’s normal. We look at each other and think, yeah, I’d like to jump that. Yum. Sex, and sexual desire, is allowed.
But his strength of character comes from how he handles those desires. He doesn’t force them on Pip. He doesn’t feel entitled to have her just because he wants her. He doesn’t moan about friendzones. He asks.
He is, I suppose, like any good Mary Sue (Marty Stu?) the idealized version of a geek everyman. And not so unrealistic for all that – I know Forsyth Turns IRL. They exist. But he is, in many ways, also my perfect fantasy book boyfriend. I will admit to have maybe making him a little too romantic. 😀
The Accidental Turn Series was not created to attack the works of Tolkien, Jordan, Brooks, or Martin, but rather to converse with them. These great classic fantasy books, they gave us what it means to write modern western fantasy, and what it means to be a fantasy writer. With each generation, it’s the artist’s responsibility to enter into a dialogue with what came before. That’s how you get expressionism and cubism out of the work of the romantics. This is my reply to what came before me. This is the next phrase in the dialogue. The next evolution of the genre. Ambitious? Probably. But you might as well shoot for the moon, right?
I hope the book will really resonate with readers like me, readers who love fantasy books but are frustrated at never seeing themselves in the books (or, if they are, as villains, exotic “others”, or savages). I mean, it’s no wonder the weird kids always fall in love with monsters, and bad guys, and mutant characters – it’s the only place we see ourselves.
My two main heroes – Pip and the narrator character Forsyth – start the book damaged by the demands of what their respective gender roles force on them in the world of Fantasy. They are the Mary Sues, the stand in for the readers. But by the end, they find power in that very Mary Suishness that they inhabit. They find the power in doing their best to be feminist, being outside of the norm, and being fans.
J.M. Frey is a voice actor, SF/F author, cosplayer, and fanthropologist. The Untold Tale, book one of the Accidental Turn series, is now available from all major online and IRL retailers.