Don’t Blame Wil Wheaton

I wanted to be Julie Barnes.  What thirteen year old girl wouldn’t?  I mean, she had the long, straight blond hair, the model-slim figure, the beautiful face, add all that to a sad, checkered past, all the right clothes (for the era, oy) and, last but definitely not least, two strong, handsome defenders who would give their lives for her.  So, if I wrote The Mod Squad fanfic where Julie acted bravely and selflessly, was placed in Mortal Peril and still managed to Thwart the Bad Guys, well, sue me.  Living vicariously through fictional characters has been going on since Gilgamesh.  I did mention that I was thirteen at the time.

And there, my friend, in the primordial ooze of the murky hormones of teen-age wish fulfillment and fantasy is where Mary Sues are born.

Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, we aim to be gender fair, here) is a shameless self-insertion character who is so blindingly beautiful/perfect/intelligent/empathetic/talented that she grates on the nerves of readers and turns any story into Twi – er, a simpering teenage romance. 

Star Trek – Episode Mine

Act I, sc i:  A plucky young Starfleet lieutenant with violet eyes, long thick dark curls, and impressive physical attributes is posted to the Enterprise.  Her careful attention to duty and logical mind – for a human – immediately catches the eye of a certain stoic Science Officer. 

Act III, sc iv:  Said plucky lieutenant saves said Science Officer from the alien of the week.

“And the curtains close on a kiss, God knows…”

That is a painfully honest description of my first Star Trek fanfic, written in blue Bic and hidden within the pages of my vocabulary composition book.  Unfortunately, that same plucky/courageous woman also showed up as a crime victim in Starsky and Hutch, saving Paramedic Johnny Gage in Emergency!, and being stalked by Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows.  (Oh, look, we’re back to Twi – er, teenage romance again!)

When Gene Roddenberry and all the good prayers and hopes and thoughts of the Universe brought Star Trek back to the small screen in The Next Generation, a Mary Sue for the ages was along for the ride.  Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher – brilliant, insightful, this kid knew how every ship’s system worked and could figure out an engineering problem at warp speed – all that wrapped up in articulate and cute and adorably innocent, with a dead hero father and a beautiful CMO mother.  And the fanfic community rolled its collective eyes and gnashed its few remaining teeth.

Just how many times did annoying-Wesley save the day?  I’m sure there’s a count out there in cyberland somewhere, just like there’s a count of Daniel Jackson’s deaths and how many babes Captain Kirk boinked.  The veteran officers of the Enterprise couldn’t get along without him.

But, don’t blame Wil Wheaton.  It’s not his fault his character was a painful attempt to draw ‘a younger audience.’  Or that Wesley’s ‘journey’ in the seven-year run of the series could never fully redeem the character from his MarySue-ish beginnings.  @wilw on twitter, Wil Wheaton is undoubtedly one of the most self-effacing, generous, and personable celebrities that I’ve met (at D*C, Wil, if you’re reading this).  His stint as a serial killer on Criminal Minds and his recurring appearances on The Big Bang Theory display his talent, and prove that he is not, himself, a Mary Sue at all.

But, after all that, my point – yes, I have a point! – is that if the late great Gene Roddenberry could use a Mary Sue, then I am in some stellar company indeed.

Hopefully, I’ve learned something about realistic, well-rounded characters since the 9th grade – at least how to spot a self-insertion character from light years away.  And I’ve learned it from reading – and watching – some of the greatest scifi and fantasy writers out there.

Thanks, Gene Roddenberry.  And Joss Whedon.  And all the other truly great television, comic, and novel writers out there, for teaching me about character.  And to Wil Wheaton and the other talented actors who brought those characters to life, the viewers couldn’t have come to love – or hate – them without you.

Until next time …

(For the first noted send-up of a Mary Sue, please see Paula Smith’s 1973 parody, “A Trekkie’s Tale.”)

Character Matters

I am lured in by character.  A fantastic scenario will tickle my imagination, a new civilization will prick my interest, an awe-inspiring setting will catch my eye, but if I don’t connect with the characters, I will be on to the next thing faster than a toddler with an – oh, look! A chicken!

That’s why Avatar will never make my top movie list.  It was a beautiful film, a leap forward in movie technology, but the characters were hollow and trite and done a million times before – done better a million times before.  That’s also why the well-known Thomas Covenant Chronicles by Stephen R. Donaldson leave me cold.  Very purposefully, and with great skill, Mr. Donaldson has written Mr. Covenant as a self-involved jerk.  Strangely, I don’t like self-involved jerks.  And I don’t want to spend my free time with them.

But, if the character is right, if he or she has wit and angst and full frontal realism, it doesn’t take me long to fall in love.

Paul Atreides.  Mr. Spock.  Miles Vorkosigan.  Dr. Daniel Jackson.  Julie Barnes.  Cal Leandros.  Dr. Spencer Reid.  Johnny Gage.  Eponine.  Menolly and Piemur of Pern.  Ianto Jones.

Intriguing.  Many-layered.  Heroic in their own unique way.  The back-story and emotional depth of these characters made me want to know them better, to read the next book, tune in to the next episode, and, more than anything, to find out what happened between the episodes, or after I’d turned the last page of the novel.  I couldn’t always find it.  Sometimes the show had been cancelled years ago.  The author had died.  My favorite character’s story was over.

Or was it?

One day I decided that, if the tv or novel writers wouldn’t help me out, I could darn well make it up for myself.

These characters, these well-loved, well-rounded men and women could live on in my pages – they could walk and talk, interact with their cohorts, have a home life, get injured or kidnapped or placed in mortal peril (my favorite!) only to be rescued – or to save the day – over and over again.  I could play with characters already formed, already created and breathed into life by writers who knew what they were doing.

So, with all those characters looking over my shoulder and giving me encouraging pats and nods, it should be duck soup to create my own balanced, cohesive, compelling characters to interact with them, or to fill out an original story all by themselves, right?  Right?

If only…

Next time, an introduction to Mary Sues I have known and loved.

My humblish origins

Creativity is a spark.  Its fuel can be something you see, hear, smell, remember, or imagine.  It blooms in the soul, engages the mind, and shreds down the nerves like a snowboarder on six inch powder.  It makes your fingers itch to grab that brush, that clay, that camera, or that laptop.  A chef’s knife.  The perfect fabric.  A blowtorch.  A blow-dryer.

Creativity is not limited by medium – that is one of its most beautiful aspects.  I’ve worked in wire, in clay, in plaster of paris.  I’ve sculpted wood, painted in watercolor, woven on a hand-made loom, drawn in pencil and ink, designed digitally, and written very bad, very angsty teen-age poetry.  (Thankfully, that was long before the internet age and those tear-jerking epics will never again see the light of day.)

I loved all those mediums – even if what was created was not exactly museum quality, (My awesome sister still displays some of my earlier efforts – she’s a saint, what can I tell you?)  I loved every minute.  I can’t believe the opportunities I’ve had to play around in the arts.  It helped me recognize a moment of inspiration when it wafted by, even if everyone around me was wondering what the heck I was staring at.  It labeled me an ‘artist-type’ – and how terrific is THAT?  That label allowed me to be quirky, weird, ‘original,’ sometimes flaky, and awesomely free.  I’m fairly sure that my ‘smart’ daughter and ‘techer’ brother don’t have that kind of freedom. (Don’t know what a ‘techer’ is?  Apparently some of you weren’t lucky enough to be raised in Western Pennsylvania. Go Steelers!)

One of my first, most exciting, exhilirating early chases down that creative mountain (thought – is creativity chasing me or am I chasing it?) was sitting in front of my television and watching my favorite shows.  And then, later in bed, thinking of how I would have written it – how I would have ended that scene, how that dialogue should have gone, how they’d forgotten about that.  Star Trek.  The Mod Squad.  Dark Shadows.  Starsky and Hutch.

And a fanfic writer was born.

Funny that it took 40 some odd years (ahem) for me to wade through the everyday stuff of life – marriage and kids, soccer games and refinancing, aging parents and church socials – to run into myself again in the Stargate fandom.

To all the fanfic writers out there – and you know who you are – what a great ride it has been.

Inspiration.  Creativity.  Characters.  Plot.  Dialogue.  POV. (Don’t get me started.) Hurt/Comfort.  Pacing.  Angst.  Friendship.  I’ve learned a lot since my first Uhura/Sulu story. (Yep, I went there.)

From my earliest Mary Sues to my attempts at cartooning, er, I mean Graphic Novels, in middle school, from lyrics to fantasy to essays, this journey has been a long strange trip.

Next stop – original fiction, I hope.

~Maryel