This article is posted in Brain2Page.
I was once
an insufferable little prat a teenager, discovering a lot about myself and the world around me in that clumsy way all teens have. I found out that women made me feel funny inside; that I didn’t really like slapstick comedy very much; that there was more than a surface level in books, movies, television, video games, and in people. I found that what I loved as a little boy (reading) wasn’t something a lot of people did (at least a lot of people I would come to know).
I also discovered that it takes a writer to make something a reader can read.
The very first time I can remember having written something that I genuinely enjoyed the process of writing it as opposed to reading the outcome was when I was in sixth grade, before 12-year-olds were considered junior high schoolers. My teacher was Mrs. Gardner, and we were given the assignment to write a short story about our lives thirty years in the future. Specifically we were told to imagine some technologies that might exist thirty years in the future, and to describe who we were as people in this crazy future world.
I wrote a small story (that I sincerely wish I still had just so I could cringe at it) that talked of hover cars, daily space shuttles to the moon colony, advanced medical technologies and procedures that I had invented and utilized to cure every known kind of cancer, because I was a millionaire doctor and I had a beautiful wife with seven kids and all the time in the world to spend with them while still revolutionizing the medical industry.
It was my doctor phase, but more importantly, it was a story all about how great I would be in the future, aka classic wish fulfillment.
Now before I go into the purpose of this article, let me say this: I may have written fan fiction about myself when I was twelve years old, but it was an important lesson for an entirely different reason. My teacher, Mrs. Gardner, singled my story out from the 90 or so students in my grade that year (smallish school) and read it aloud to my entire class, citing that I was the only student in the entire grade who followed instructions and wrote an entertaining story about a future world and a future me.
I don’t know what everyone else wrote, but I do know that everyone else had to rewrite theirs and mine got an A+. The lesson here was not “I’M AWESOME” though I did kinda feel like that for a while, but rather “Whoa, I got a good grade for doing something I really liked doing.” And just like that I became a writer.
It would be another four years before I began to actively express that creativity outside of schoolwork, and in a wholly different medium (RPG Maker for Playstation 1). It would be another four years before I began my first novel. It would be even longer than that before I finished a novel. And it wasn’t until I was 25 that I let anyone read a novel and consider seriously trying to get it published.
The road was long and twisted, but I got there in the end, and that’s all that matters, right?
My Brain is a Genie That
Grants Everyone Wishes
Wish Fulfillment. What is it? I turn to Harry Potter to help me explain it. If you don’t know what Harry Potter is, then uh… what the hell? Even if you haven’t read or watched, you should know what it is.
Wish Fulfillment is the concept of self-insertion. It is the realm of fan fiction (generally). It is the playground of Mary Sues everywhere. Take a perfect or near-perfect individual, use them as a faceless avatar to insert yourself into the story, and live through the awesomeness that is their lives. It’s rampant, it’s everywhere, it’s awful storytelling and writing, but it’s so damned compelling to the adolescent mind, which is why so many popular preteen and teen fictions have as main characters the classic Mary Sue.
Harry Potter in the first few books. Bella Swan in all of Twilight. Luke Skywalker in A New Hope. I think those about cover my point.
So what’s wrong with a Mary Sue, if three of the most iconic characters in the history of popular (and profitable) entertainment are basic wish fulfillment characters?
You don’t need them, for one thing. Give them flaws and give them something to strive for and you’ll still have your incredibly entertaining fiction; you’ll also have a much more compelling main character. The Chosen One, The Prophecy Foretold Her, The Only Hope. These are buzzwords of lazy storytelling that allow a story to be told without innovation.
For another thing: You. Don’t. Need. Them. Seriously.
It can be very tempting (or natural) to author self-insertion characters. It’s fun, and it’s relatively innocent, to imagine yourself in the place of the main character experiencing all kinds of neat stuff. Hell, my favorite video game of all time (Shining Force II), has at its heart an almost completely silent protagonist, the better to imagine you’re in his place. But I wish he wasn’t a mute freak. I wish he had character traits and flaws that made him his own person, because I’d rather see what it’s like inside someone else’s head, to experience a unique journey from their perspective, than to have myself inserted into it.
Perhaps my brain has (since I was twelve years old) rewired itself a bit so that I’m not out looking to live vicariously through tentpole main characters who only exist to make me feel like I’m in their place doing awesome things no one else can do. Perhaps I might be better served if I was still of that escapist fiction mindset.
But I’m not. I read stories because I like to see the world (and other fantastical worlds) through the lens of its (imperfect) inhabitants, and thus understand them and their world better. I write stories that contain characters whom are flawed, judgmental, stubborn, prideful, kind, giving, resourceful, stupid, and so on, because those are real people.
Once you realize that, why would you ever want a Mary Sue in the captain’s seat?
Sound off with other Mary Sues, or your own reasonings to enjoy or despise those wish-fulfilling tentpoles.