What People Don't Like Are Poorly-Done Versions Of Tropes or: In Defense of Mary Sues

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Someone on my Twitter feed posted this in-depth analysis, revealing the shocking fact that Patrick Rothfuss’s bestselling series The Kingkiller Chronicles features – *gasp!* – a Mary Sue in its lead role.  And if you’ve ever been enspelled by Kvothe’s endless ramblings, you’ll find this list to be both simultaneously accurate and not at all useful.
Because of course Kvothe is supremely talented at everything, handsome, spat upon by jealous superiors and beloved by his underlings, the dream-lover of literally Gods.  And reduced to a cold analysis, yes, the book must be as terrible as the thousands of other unreadable Mary-Sue-laced fanfics.
Except.  Except.
For every one of of Kvothe’s obvious failures in character design, Patrick Rothfuss also manages to infuse him with a sympathetic humanity that thousands of people have responded to.  Unlike most Mary Sues, the Kingkiller Chronicles have a feeling of constant tension – yes, Kvothe is supremely talented, but he’s also prone to hubristic flights of ego, and often self-sabotages.  There’s a sense that yes, he could fail, even though in practice he never does.
In the hands of a lesser author, yes, Kvothe would be a Mary Sue and the book would be tripe.  But thanks to Rothfuss’s skill, Kvothe is a Mary Sue and the book still has narrative interest.  And that in turn leverages a potent fantasy that people want to live – while people hate an unbelievable Mary Sue, they fucking adore a competently done one, because when they step into Kvothe’s perfectly-polished boots they become the baddest, sexiest motherfucker alive.
Now, clearly, that interest doesn’t work for everyone… For example, Boye, the person who wrote the essay.  Boye practically sneers at the idea of popularity, “Look!  The Kingkiller Chronicles is like Left Behind, a patently terrible other book, so it too is terrible!”  And forgetting that millions of people have not only read, but clasped those books to their chest and said, “I want more of this” – a talent that few can accomplish.  As much as we spit on our Mary Sues in theory, too many popular books have Mary Sue-perfect protagonists to write off as “TERRIBUL TECHNIQUE.”
The problem I have with this essay is that while it’s a perfectly-true analysis, ultimately its argument boils down to, “If Kvothe is a Mary Sue, then the book is bad!”  And the entire essay seems like one huge ground axe, spitting sparks and going, “Yeah!  Look!  This bestselling, beloved book I disliked is totally not following the rules!  And therefore it’s objectively awful!”
The problem is, books don’t work like that.  Ask any number of successful Madison Avenue retirees who decided they knew the formula to writing a bestselling tome, and failed miserable.  It’s a comforting thought, thinking that writing a good book is as simple as a programming task – all you have to do is ask, DOES BOOK CONTAIN X, Y, OR Z?  THEN BOOK == BAD.
The reaction here feels like terror.  Like “Oh my God, if tripe like this can be popular, what does this say about my fiction?  I’d better start finding some rules to follow!”  (Though to be fair, I don’t know that Boye is a writer.)
But fiction, ever mysterious, simply doesn’t work like that.  And maybe you think that “bestselling” doesn’t equal “good” – which, no, it certainly doesn’t.  But it’s also not true that “bestselling” equals “awful.”  For all of the flaws James Patterson books have, there is something buried in that lifeless prose and wooden characters that has appealed to people, getting them to come back like crack-addicted monkeys.  And I think that rather than sneering that accomplishment off as, “Well, that’s just books for the masses,” we’re better served as writers by asking the more terrifying question of, “So if it’s bad on every level we deem quality, what’s actually working?”
If, as scientists, we found an engine that broke every rule we knew about physics and still produced electricity, we’d start asking, “Whoah!  Clearly, something we know is wrong!”  But as writers, we go, “Well, that’s really crappy electricity, and only the poorer homes run it,” and walk away feeling the problem is solved.
Because the central truth is, Mary Sues are not bad.  Poorly-executed Mary Sues are bad.  And I think that rather than spending your time devising a long checklist proving the Mary Sue nature of Kvothe is not nearly as valuable as, say, breaking down why Kvothe’s Mary Sue nature actually works where others have failed, and trying to learn a lesson that will improve your writing.
Because writing is about learning where the rules are, and how to break them.  The more interesting the broken rule, the more interesting the lesson to be learned.  And yeah, while on many levels Kvothe fails miserably, I’d rather know what the hell Rothfuss did to make such a terrible, unworkable, self-centered Mary Sue of a character and still make us want to follow him around.

6 Comments

  1. Wendy Wagner
    Mar 18, 2013

    I know that I am terribly addicted to Preston & Child’s books about Agent Pendergast–an over-the-top Mary Sue if ever there was one. What makes him work is that the more we discover about him, the more mysterious he becomes, so you can’t help but keep reading the books! They might not be literary art, but I hope P&C keep cranking out sequels.

  2. Lyn Belzer-Tonnessen
    Mar 18, 2013

    Soooo….
    When are you going to tackle why Kvothe works? 🙂 *duck*

  3. Margaret Y.
    Mar 22, 2013

    Excellent! A friend pointed me to this post and I’m so glad she did. For too long, I’ve been reading novels with my “writer glasses” on. I need to step back and read like a reader.

  4. Jcar
    Sep 29, 2013

    Interesting counter-point, but I don’t actually think Kvothe is a well done example of a Mary Sue that “works.” I do think he works much, much, better in the first book just because the author takes great pains to sometimes undercut his awesomeness at times (like, for example, when he gains admittance to the school and impresses the teachers by cheating and listening to the answers before hand rather than just relying on his own expert knowledge. That was a great example of a sort of Mary Sue character using his supreme intelligence in a way that was believable and creative. It was a great moment as you could really get behind a scrappy kid using his street smarts to get ahead). But too often in the second book, Kvothe is just straight forward awesome in a very boring and not very creative way. And nearly all of his flaws end up being “secret” virtues.
    I mean, I was following the book when Kvothe created a super awesome arrow blocking device that no one else had thought of before. And I bought it when Kvothe used his super awesome magic skills to defeat a bunch of bandits by calling lightening from heaven. But the book started to lose me at the part where Kvothe not only loses his virginity to a sex fairy, but also performs so well that she begs him to stay in her realm so he can continue to sex her with his awesome sex powers for all eternity (and, seriously, at the point where Kvothe actually said, “Women are like musical instruments. You need to learn just the right way to play each one and make them sing” I nearly tossed the book away in disgust). Then when he was inducted into a super secret awesome Ninja society and learned to be an awesome ninja warrior (all while totally banging his super hot female ninja instructor), I actually started to wonder if the author was messing with us or something.
    The second book reads like the the ecstatic, wish fullfilment, wet dreams of a bullied 12 year old. Sure there is value in a great Mary Sue story when done well, but I don’t think Kvothe is a well done Mary Sue. I couldn’t take anything he said or did seriously enough for him to provide me any sort of vicarious enjoyment. He ends up being pretty boring as a character by the end of the second book and his constant obsession over Dena doesn’t help him any (mostly because his obsession with her is never really explained or developed much….he’s just kind of obsessed with her because she’s the first girl who ever talked with him, I guess? She she herself is about as developed as his obsession with her, which makes for boring reading).
    All that said, though, I do think the series’ book ends is a ray of hope that could ultimately redeem the series in someway. Obviously, the Kvothe that is telling the stories is a total washed up has been. He’s no longer the super awesome Mary Sue in his tales. And, honestly, the Mary Sue-isms in Kvothe’s own tale are often soooooo over the top that I sometimes wonder if the author might be setting up some sort of big reveal that Kvothe is completely exaggerating everything he’s saying or is some kind of unreliable narrator. That’s still a possibility, although I don’t think anything in the books thus far suggests that Kvothe’s stories are anything but true.

  5. Jcar
    Sep 29, 2013

    All that said, though, I think a good deal about the books do work. The fantasy anthropological stuff is well done (i.e. the descriptions of various cultures, their languages, and beliefs) and much of the divergent stories and lore of the universe that are told at various points are very good. Likewise the magical system (kind of a combination of physics and post-structuralism) is really interesting. So I don’t think they are outright awful books or anything and just the bare technical aspects of the writing is way better than you’d find in most fantasy novels. I’ll probably read the third, even though I don’t think Kvothe himself is that interesting of a character.
    I actually read an interview with the author where he said he wrote the entire series when he was much younger, then went back and rewrote them (adding stuff and changing the language) much later. Which makes sense, honestly, given that the broad outlines of Kvothe as a character as well as the book’s basic plot points (which, conceivably, would have been written earlier) are usually way less interesting than the series’ smaller, incidental, details.

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