“Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome

And we’re back. Hopefully everyone had a good weekend! Let’s start this week with a quick pop quiz:

Q: What is wrong with this sentence?

The golden sun rose as a burning orb from the emerald green that carpeted the horizon into the azure blue sky.”

A: Well, perhaps there are a couple of things wrong, but the main one I’d hope people caught is the purple prose.

Again, like much of what I talk about on this blog, purple prose is a term that’s relatively well known in the writing community, but for those who don’t know, I believe this man (calling himself Bob Dole interestingly…) might have put it best, “I’d say that purple prose is a passage that is so needlessly ornate and wordy that it takes away from the meaning of the passage.

I think anyone who’s read enough has probably come across at least one example of purple prose. The sun can’t rise, it’s a golden orb lifting magnificently. A woman can’t have red hair, she has hair the color of a burning ember that flows like torrents over her shoulders.

Now, of course, we’re writers, we want to describe things vividly. After all, it’s a good thing to help readers see what we’re seeing while writing. But as our good friend Bob says, “The more wordy the passage gets, the harder it is to get the point across.” And that’s always a bad thing. I might be old fashioned, but isn’t part of being a good writer, I don’t know, writing things that people understand? Sometimes you can get away with borderline purple prose, but more often than not, it just obscures what you’re talking about in the first place.

Think about it, if the sun is a golden orb, rather than “the sun” and your main character’s eyes are “emerald orbs” rather than green eyes (people writing purple prose have an odd attachment to the word “orb” for some reason I find more than often) all of a sudden, the readers is having to work to keep track of what orbs are floating where and what they’re supposed to represent.

“But don’t we want the reader to think about our story?” someone may be asking. The keyword there is “story”. Having a reader engage with your story, having them want to read more, is a good thing. Having a reader confused with what you’re saying is the exact opposite. No one wants to be focusing on trying to understand the wording when they should be focusing on the characters and plot. And, truly, which is easier for you to understand/picture? Her green eyes, or her emerald orbs? At least for me, the first I’m picturing, well, green eyes, and the second I’m picturing her holding glass balls that are dark green. It doesn’t make for a powerful image. It makes for an overly poetic, confusing one.

Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t, but having just read a book for review where my main complaint is that the language takes away from an otherwise touching story, I feel completely safe in saying that purple prose not only obscures what the author is trying to say, but it makes it look like they really don’t know what they’re doing.

And thus, that is why I almost always personally refer to purple prose as “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome. Though this is one thing I never had a problem with in my early writing (unlike all the other problems I’ve more than willing to admit to) it seems far too often that people who have just started writing feel the need to prove they’re a real writer, and so what do they do? Prove that they are amazing wordsmiths of course. Anyone can write about someone’s green eyes, real writers obviously can embellish to the point where the person reading will weep picturing the detailed world they have created. That’s how they prove they’re a real writer. Right?

Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know exactly how I feel about this idea that there are “real” writers and, I don’t know, fake writers(?) but purple prose nearly always seems like an extension of that idea, at least to me. You might be new to writing, but you are a “real” writer, dagnabit, and a good, nay, great one at that. Look how skillfully you craft descriptive words. All those fake writers out there can’t do that.

I don’t know first hand, but I imagine that that isn’t even a conscious thought. You aren’t sitting at your computer or there with a pen thinking, “I’ll show them all. I’m a writer!” but from what I’ve seen, that is the motivation for “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome. And that’s why it has the exact opposite effect. It doesn’t make you look like a good (or “real” writer) it makes you look like someone who has no idea what they’re doing trying too hard. If you look at the definition of “prose” (courtesy of Wikipedia), “Prose is the most typical form of language, applying ordinary grammatical structure and natural flow of speech rather than rhythmic structure (as in traditional poetry).”

What I want to focus on there is “natural flow of speech.” I don’t know about anyone else out there, but I have never heard any of my friends refer to eyes as X orbs (X=chocolate, emerald, cerulean, lilac, etc.) I’ve never heard someone talk about the golden orb rising into an azure sky.

Of course, as writers we have some leeway when it comes to discriptive language, I’m not saying to be bland with your writing either, but still, being a good writer isn’t about obscuring your story with flamboyant prose. It’s about making the normal interesting. A good writer is someone who can maintain a rhythm in their writing that not only reads well, but is completely natural. A good writer can produce beautiful, beautiful prose to the point where casual readers don’t even notice how good it really is.

And so, please, new or established writers, resist the urge try to prove something with your writing and don’t throw so many frills on your prose that it’s hard to even keep straight what you’re talking about. It doesn’t make you look like a good writer, it makes you look like a bad writer who’s trying too hard.

Especially if you’re sending me a book to review, because I will call you out on it.

Mary Sues

All right, here’s a controversial topic around the writing community. Speaking about Twilight yesterday got one of my friends talking about what a Mary Sue Bella is.

Most people who have hung around a writing community for any amount of time have heard of Mary Sues (especially Fan Fiction sites). For those who haven’t, as TV Tropes puts it, “Mary Sue is a derogatory term…[used] to describe a particular type of character. This much everyone can agree on. What that character type is, exactly, differs wildly from circle to circle, and often from person to person” (if interested you can read the entire article here, but standard TV Trope warning: it’s addictive).

Still, for not having a set definition, there’s plenty of talk about Mary Sues in literary circles. You can find “litmus tests” to see if characters you are writing are straying too close to Mary-Sue Territory (like the ones here and here) and it seems that just about everyone can agree that writing a Mary Sue is a bad thing.

In my favorite haunts, the NaNoWriMo forums, you often find threads similar to this:

Now I know there are tests and quizzes on the net for this kind of thing, but I’d like your opinions.

“Her name is XXXX. She’s an auntie to a two month old boy ; loves him more than anything, just like she did her brother before a hoarde of zombies killed him (her brother). She’s in love with one of the guys in her renegade, although she has issues with being close to him as she is afraid she will lose him like she lost her brother. She tried to kill herself because she was depressed after her brothers death. She’s an orphan (her parents were turned into zombies and she killed them) and she’s seventeen. She has brown hair, is a little over average height (just enough for it to be noticeable and look a little odd, not quite enough to make her look like a freak), has blue eyes and her weapon of choice is a .45 pistol and a wooden broom handle. ”

Now, of course it’s nearly impossible to tell someone if their character is a Mary Sue (or at least Sue-like) from a list of characteristics (after all it really tends not to be the character, but how you use them), but going back to TV Tropes:

“The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

“She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series. (See Common Mary Sue Traits for more details on any of these clichés.)”

There’s of course some wiggle room on these traits, but the general consensus seems to be summed up in this NaNoWriMo forum post:

I’m not personally opposed to Sue-like characters (many beloved characters, from James Kirk to Harry Potter, score high on the litmus test), but they have to be done carefully not to be off-putting.”

And what did all this Mary Sue talk lead me to think about? Editing of course. While I assure everyone that I will never name names about books I have worked on (1. It’s unprofessional 2. It’s just rude) the main character of a recent book I was contracted on has slowly left me feeling like she’s more and more Sueish. On one of the above litmus tests she scores about a 54 (most likely stemming from a combination of “tragic back story” “unbelievably beautiful/all men want her” and “mouthpiece for authors beliefs”) which is marked as: “36-55 points: Mary-Sue. Your character needs some work in order to be believable. But despair not; you should still be able to salvage her with a little effort. Don’t give up.” A couple more points and you’re into Uber-Sue territory.

Now, this particular character is definitely not inherently unlikable as some characters I have heard discribed as Sueish are. It took about half the story before I started getting especially annoyed with her. And I’m definitely not attacking the author. Believe me, if someone dug out that first novel I wrote in high school, one of the characters would score at least that high on a Mary Sue test. I would be the first to admit to the new-author trap that is Mary Sue creation. I think, like many problems in novels, Mary Sues fade as you write more and more. When you start out, your Main Character (MC) is your baby, your perfect creation. It makes sense that people like her, and those that don’t are jealous. She’s just that awesome. More characters you write, the less you’re going to attach yourself so completely to one MC and fall into the “Wish Fulfillment” trap.

In this certain novel, however, the main unlikability of the MC is the fact that the work is so black and white around her. All the male characters are only interested in sleeping with her (or at least want to sleep with her on top of being her friend), the female characters are either “good” characters, and completely enthralled with her or “bad” characters who don’t like her because they’re jealous. There is even a line that goes along the lines of “I didn’t believe he wasn’t attracted to me” after the first male character ever says he isn’t. While there are times this line could work–in first person, it’s possible that the character is just really vain. That’s a completely valid personality flaw–in this case, though, it’s probably a completely truthful observation because, well, every male character is attracted to her. And she wouldn’t be as awful to be vain. Not like she has flaws. This man even then goes on to say she’s beautiful in pretty much the same breath.

In the same vein, when Miss Sue goes off on one of the many tirades she does on topics the author obviously finds important, the other characters either completely agree with her–even though they have no reason to as far as their upbringing/personal beliefs/etc.–meet her rather valid, thought out points with something along the lines of “uh, I never thought of that” or “uh, you’re wrong, just because, uh, you’re wrong,” or they’re just bad, bigoted people you aren’t supposed to like in the first place. And this happens over and over and over again.

And in essence, that final point makes for my definition of a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue–while often has many of the traits listed in the TV Tropes–is ultimately a character that bends the story around them. It doesn’t matter what other characters would realistically do, they react to the Mary Sue because that’s obviously the way all characters would react to her. She’s perfect and beautiful and…perfect. No matter how she acts, people have to love her. If they don’t, it’s because they’re jealous of how perfect she is. Things that happen to her in the story happen because she’s who she is. There’s no random happenstance, no logical progression, just “Oh, another guy. He’s going to want to get with her. No, it doesn’t matter he’s married. No, nothing will stop her amazing awesomeness.”

And that’s what’s annoying about them. As nice as it might be for an author to be able to write a character they wish they were, or someone who is able to say everything they’ve ever wanted to say, they’re at best boring to read about and more often just annoying. Even agreeing with at least a good share of this Sue’s points, I don’t want to hear them, especially not when it’s another tirade at another character that is so obviously unenlightened that they need this character to yell at them and change their entire way of thinking.

It’s not impossible to get a book published with a Mary Sue for a main character. It’s not even impossible to have a best seller with a MC Mary Sue (cough, Bella Swan, cough). It just isn’t interesting to read. Give me a character that has flaws, give me a character that has things happen to her just because she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, heck, give me a character that lectures, but against competent debate partners. To me, those are all preferable to a perfect character and a black and white world.