Dec 24 2015

The Problem of the Mary Sue

In my extended commentary about Episode VII, I said I’d bring up the charge of Rey being a Mary Sue in a later post. This is that post. There will be some light spoilers, but nothing you can’t conclude from the trailers. Without further ado, let’s begin.

I’ll grant that Rey is a little too perfect. She’s not flawless, but she comes pretty dang close. Her only real “offense” is initially rejecting the call to adventure. I postulated in the previous post that they had to make her so good at just about everything to both sell her to an audience (actually or merely imagined to be) skeptical of a female lead. That only addresses one extreme. On the other end, if you have a female lead show weakness, it could open up charges of sexism. Personally, I thought it would’ve been funny in one scene where Rey’s struggling to move a floor grate for the Falcon if she had to get Finn to move it for her. Better yet, if she asked in a somewhat tsundere manner to protect her pride. That of course didn’t happen and if it had, Tumblr would’ve been alight with complaints. Basically, Rey’s characterization plays it safe to shield her from the ire from both sides of the fence. She suffers a little in depth as an individual for it, but I still like her all the same. PC wrangling is a sad but true fact of life.

Compare Rey with Finn. Finn certainly has his virtues but he’s also deeply flawed. While he can be brave, he’s reasonably scared of the First Order and tries to run from it until his back is up against the wall and he finds his true priorities (primarily Rey). He’s by no means an imbecile, but his knowledge is limited, as you’d expect from a rank-and-file Stormtrooper. Though he was apparently in the top percent of his batch of trainees, he had the indignity of being assigned to sanitation at Starkiller Base. None of this demeans him as a person. A lot of it’s played for comedy but I certainly never thought less of him as a character. You don’t get anything like that with Rey and I believe fear is a large component of that. Even Luke, her closest analog in the Original Trilogy (and likely her father), had plenty of weaknesses, being prone to whining, shooting from the hip, and fumbling his way through training until he matured both as a person and as a budding Jedi. Again, these didn’t make him any less of a person. These flaws gave him something to overcome on his journey. There’s still a chance as Rey begins her formal training that she’ll actually have to struggle more and there’s potential for her character on that note. Similarly, her anger at Kylo Ren can provide a dangerous lure to the Dark Side for her to struggle with, much as Luke had to do before her.

Now, let’s take a step back and look at what a Mary Sue actually is. I’m a stickler for precision in language. People who pretend that terms can’t be precisely defined are obfuscating. There are other sources that can more accurately and comprehensively define what a Mary Sue is, but I’ll be using my own approach that should capture the essence sufficiently. A Mary Sue is “perfect” and I use air quotes because the definition of perfection is often rather bent. “Ideal” is perhaps a better description and that ideal depends on the author, which will likely be at odds with a significant portion of the audience. The Mary Sue serves the purpose of wish fulfillment, by the author, for the audience or both. This is why the Mary Sue is often an author insert character. The Mary Sue receives frequent validation and any opposition is crafted as strawmen (even if the strawmen actually have a point). Related to this validation is the romantic factor. Expect multiple love interests to trip over themselves to win the Mary Sue’s affection. This will be particularly galling if these love interests are actually comparatively well-written and appealing characters throwing their lives away on the reprehensible Sue.

Perhaps the most notorious Mary Sue in recent history is Bella Swann of Twilight fame (“infamy” would be more apt). She’s presented as this special little snowflake from the start, so special in fact that her blood draws the vampires like no other. She is pursued by both the vampire Edward and the werewolf Jacob, who are at her heels the whole time no matter how much she manipulates them and otherwise treats them like crap. Naturally, any opposition to her constant demonstration of what a terrible human being she is never amounts to anything. She certainly doesn’t learn a thing from it. She serves as an avatar for bored housewives and clueless preteens to live out their fantasies. Taking this into consideration, how does Rey stack up as a Mary Sue? Well, she’s a mechanical genius, a competent martial artist, a promising pilot, and she’s got a strong connection to the Force that allows her to tap into significant powers without any real training. This all starts to sound rather Sueish, but mechanical proficiency comes with being a scavenger, the martial arts proficiency a necessity for surviving alone in the harsh world, and the piloting is part of a practical skillset. If I’m right about her lineage, she stands to have a Force potential that could rival Yoda. It’s entirely possible that if she’s indeed Luke’s daughter, she received some rudimentary training before she was deposited on Jakku, but even without factoring in that, it’s been established that the Force can exert a measure of control over people (something I mentioned in the previous post) and given how much Snoke’s plot is warping the Force, whatever sapience it has would have an interest in taking a firmer hand guiding Rey to operate as its agent against Kylo Ren. All these considerations diminish the Sue factor. Also, she isn’t constantly being praised by everyone around her. There’s mutual congratulations exchanges between her and Finn when they escape Jakku and Han gives her acknowledgment (though entirely justified by her performance), but this isn’t the same as the constant ego rubbing you see with a typical Mary Sue. Also, as of yet, there’s not much of a romantic factor. Rey and Finn have a thing, yes, but it could just as easily remain platonic as it could go romantic. Now, if you had Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren, Chewie, Threepio, and Admiral Akbar all forming a clumsy harem for her, then we might be getting into serious Sue territory. Love triangles, even love decadohedrons, don’t necessarily make a Sue, but when it’s not particularly justified and serves the purpose of wish fulfillment, then there’s a problem.

If you want a Sue from the Star Wars universe, look no further than Starkiller of The Force Unleashed, a ridiculous Marty Stu who snatches away Vader’s lightsaber as a toddler, can bring down Star Destroyers, and somehow becomes an inspiration for the Rebel Alliance all while having all the personality of a bowl of rice gruel. And let’s not forget the tacked-on love interest too. Ugh… Seriously, if anyone still feels like complaining about Rey, look back at that rubbish and realize it isn’t so bad.

I may do another post at a later date regarding the challenge of writing a flawed female character that doesn’t undermine the character or come across as sexist. In the meantime, hopefully I’ve made something resembling a case to refute the accusation of Rey as a Mary Sue. Until next time. Stay tuned.

Dec 24 2015

Character Spotlight: Ophis Python

My head’s been so full of Star Wars that I very nearly forgot to give Ophis Python his due now that he’s left the stage. If I’m not mistaken, he dated back to the lost prototype of the story. If you’ve seen the cover of Life Force (Salamander in Japan) for the NES, you can see the image that was the inspiration for what Python is supposed to look like. My love of classical mythology factors in heavily with Python’s backstory, which also provides a connection to Arachne.

I’ve commented before about the challenge of writing nonhuman characters, particularly ones that aren’t humanoid. The further you distance yourself from the character, the greatly the challenge to portray them. Python mourning the loss of his family and the decline of his tribe are relatable enough, but there isn’t that much else to his character. I’ll admit that he’s pretty weak as a lead and if I had to do it again, I might consider replacing him with the Herakles Queen Basilissa.

It doesn’t feel like I’m giving him much of a fair shake and if I as the author don’t have much investment in him, that doesn’t bode well for the reader’s reception. Well, so it goes. I’ll have more to say when Xorgoth’s turn comes up, so look forward to that. Stay tuned.

Dec 22 2015

Musings on The Force Awakens

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Don’t read ahead unless you’ve already seen the movie.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of buzz going on in the wake of Episode VII and in an effort to get some of it out of my head, I’m committing it to the page. I can’t guarantee that there’s going to be that much order to this, though, but I’ll try to keep it a step or two above pure stream of consciousness.

First, let’s start with my predictions before I saw the movie. I figured that Rey was Han and Leia’s daughter and then half-jokingly made the leap that Kylo Ren was Luke’s son so we could have a “No, I am your cousin” moment. Well, seems like I got it flipped. It hasn’t been confirmed yet, but it seems pretty clear that Rey is Luke’s daughter. Han certainly seemed to recognize who she was (and may even have been the one to leave her on Jakku on Luke’s behalf) and there’s the chain of succession with Luke/Anakin’s lightsaber. Some people hope that it isn’t that obvious, but it’s tidier for storytelling purposes and feels consistent with the series’ mythos. I mean, it’s still possible that she’s another of Han and Leia’s children, which would provide a closer connection to Kylo Ren and align more with Jacen and Jaina from the old EU, but I don’t think Han and Leia would’ve played keepaway with her if that was the case. Also, as undisciplined as Kylo Ren is, I think he would’ve been able to intuit she was his sister if that was the case.

Some people don’t like how Kylo Ren is tantrum throwing deranged fanboy, but I absolutely love it. Character flaws–when executed well–make strong characters. In fact, in many ways, Ren strikes me as more of what Anakin was supposed to be in the Prequel Trilogy. As one commentator had said, it was a canny move for the filmmakers to make their copy Vader a deliberate copy. It’s part of the larger sense of self-awareness that makes you buy a lot of the elements some people count as flaws.

Speaking of which, a common complain is that this is just a rehash of Episode IV. I honestly don’t mind in the slightest. Episode IV is an archetypal story and using that as a framework for kicking off the Sequel Trilogy isn’t a bad thing. This is, after all, Star Wars for a new generation and the parallelism works for me. In particular, people think Starkiller Base was a little too much of same old. same old. I didn’t mind because Starkiller Base is just a continuation of Imperial policy. If the original Death Star was a one and done, I might’ve had more of an objection, but as the Death Star II was a scaled-up model, Starkiller Base represents the next stage in the program of imposing the Tarkin Doctrine as a means of rule. (So, ironically, for me, the fact that this is effectively the third Death Star makes it more acceptable than less.) I’ve heard some people say that it would’ve been better if Starkiller Base remained a persistent threat throughout the ST and I can agree with that, but we got what we got. Now, if we see Starkiller Base II in Episode IX, then I’ll join the chorus. ^_^;

On the subject of the subsequent films, I’m hoping that Episode VIII features Rey and Kylo Ren’s training in parallel, but I have a feeling that we’ll see Rey’s training and Ren will be kept under wraps until their next confrontation. (It would be a little too much of ESB redux for her to have her lose the next match, but that would help set things up for a final confrontation in Episode IX.) Presumably the B plot will have a newly awakened Finn joined Poe on some mission, possibly have them on the run when the First Order strikes at Resistance HQ (but this too would be a little too much of ESB redux). Maybe it does say something of the parallelisms that I’m essentially recreating the OT in my predictions for Episodes VIII and IX.

A lot of people saw Han’s death being telegraphed, but I didn’t realize he was done for until Ren refused to let go of his lightsaber after offering it to Han. I knew either he or Chewie (or both) was likely to bite it when they went in to set the explosives. Actually, until Chewie showed up in the Falcon to pick up Rey and Finn, I thought he killed himself when he hit the detonator. Anyway, going back to that moment, part of me actually wondered if Ren would go with Han. It could’ve set up an interesting plot in Episode VIII where he’s trying to overcome his addiction to the Dark Side and atone for his many crimes while being pursued by the First Order. Having him as the token evil teammate could’ve been interesting. At this point, I have a hard time seeing a redemption arc working for him (unless he decides to be just like Grandpa and chuck Snoke into a hole), but we’ll see. However, when I thought about it, parricide is only one of his many crimes. Just because Han is the character we care about shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Ren’s a multiple murderer. Han’s death shouldn’t objectively be any heavier than any of the others who died at Ren’s hand (or his order), so my initial willingness to see him cross back over when that carrot was dangled there isn’t justified, at least not in a larger sense. It’ll be interesting to see how his struggle continues over the next two films.

Some people have been calling Rey a Mary Sue. I disagree, but I’ll get into the details in another post. I will agree that she’s a little too good at what she does, but there are more elements to making a Sue than hypercompetence. Force sensitivity allows you to handwave a lot and her background justifies her mechanical proficiency and core competency at piloting. Her detractors complain about her becoming an instant Jedi, but she really doesn’t. She’s got a lot of raw potential and she’s receptive to the Force’s guidance. This was established in Episode IV, after all, that the Force can exert an influence over people. If Rey’s been selected as the Force’s agent for balance, then it stands to reason that it’s going to guide her more overtly. Also, it’s worth noting that her lightsaber combat isn’t that of a seasoned duelist. She already has a fair bit of martial arts ability and adapts as well as she can against a wounded and mentally unstable Kylo Ren. Going back to how she seems a little too perfect, I have a feeling that the filmmakers were afraid of putting too many flaws in her character. As I noted before, character flaws make for interesting characters but only if it’s well-executed. It’s a shame, but having a female lead is seen as a dicey prospect and it’s a bit of a tightrope act. Consider Sidney Poitier’s character from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The filmmakers knew that they were going to be catching flak for featuring an interracial couple, so they had to make Poitier’s character about as perfect as he could possibly be to leave you with almost nothing to object to besides the race factor. From a storytelling point of view, a more flawed character is more interesting, but when you’re walking into a potential minefield, you don’t want to take chances. I mean, a female lead in a science fantasy shouldn’t be objectionable, but some people are dumb about that sort of thing. Whatever my personal biases, speaking for myself, so long as the character is compelling, that’s all I need. I enjoy Rey’s character, but the fact that her only really noticeable flaw is her temporary refusal of the call does somewhat hamper her depth. However, I’m willing to see where she goes in the next couple movies but even if it’s more of the same, I certainly wouldn’t mind.

I’ve also heard people muttering about confusion regarding the political situation in the galaxy (with a nontrivial subset not minding at all as the larger situation is secondary to the characters). I’m not the only one who was able to connect the dots to form a reasonable picture of where things stand. Following the Empire’s defeat, the First Order arose as the predominate Imperial remnant. It’s entirely possible that there are other remnant factions with their own territories. (After all, with the dissolution of the Imperial Senate, power was concentrated under the regional governors, which is a natural succession in the event of the Empire’s collapse.) The New Republic seems to have set itself up in the Core Worlds. I was one of the people who thought it was Coruscant that was targeted by Starkiller Base, but upon further research and subsequent viewings, I realize it’s the Hosnian System where the new Senate is based. Basically, the New Republic and the First Order seem to have reached some sort of nonaggression pact to head off open warfare (possibly used as a pretext for the First Order to sink more resources into Starkiller Base’s completion), but the Republic covertly sponsors the Resistance, which in turn is used as a casus belli by the First Order. It’s little surprise that veterans of the Rebel Alliance like Leia and Admiral Akbar would devote their experience to the Resistance rather than mire themselves in the bureaucracy of Republic politics. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Leia started out as a senator in the New Republic, only to cross over to the Resistance after Ben went evil.) It would seem that the Republic Fleet was concentrated in the Hosnian System, possibly as a condition of the nonaggression pact with the First Order. There are certainly other military forces of the Republic, but space assets may be largely limited to orbital guard. This greatly limits the support the Resistance will have in the next movie (but if there’s a deal with the devil with some rival Imperial remnant faction, that could be interesting). While the First Order’s been significantly hobbled by the loss of Starkiller Base, I imagine they have considerable space assets and may have secretly been building more warships during the nonaggression phase. The Republic certainly isn’t dead. I imagine they’re going to be in a similar situation as the Empire at the end of Episode VI. Regional governors are going to act with relative autonomy while a provisional government is formed to try to pull things back together. (We may even see the Republic taken over by a military junta that turns on the Resistance, leaving our heroes hemmed in on both sides.) I can be counted as one of the people who’s glad to see the politics take a back seat, but I can understand people who wish the situation was a little more clear-cut.

I think we’ll close with some speculation on Luke’s motivations. On the surface, it seems like a cowardly move to just go into hiding when things go wrong (though on that note, it would be in keeping with the fine Jedi tradition). My defense of Luke’s actions (which may not be the case) goes like this: Because Snoke and Kylo Ren are obsessed with hunting down Luke, the First Order is devoting tons of resources to the hunt, resources that could be otherwise be used to expand their territory and oppress a wider range of the galactic population. Yes, they still commit atrocities along the way, but it’s less entrenched and systematic. For one person, that’s not a bad bit of work. More than he could do from the cockpit of an X-Wing or swinging around a lightsaber, I imagine. Also, if the whole first Jedi Temple thing is real, perhaps Luke’s going back to the source in an attempt to find a way to overcome the challenge of the Dark Side. Obviously something went dramatically wrong in his attempt to restore the Jedi Order. Regarding Rey, if she is indeed his daughter, I only jokingly lay out Luke’s thought process at this: “Well, I grew up on a desert planet and I turned out alright. Maybe it’ll work out the same way for my kid.” More seriously, though, keeping Rey with him would’ve had a more concentrated Force presence to seek out and I imagine Luke figured he was a bigger target and keeping her away was the best choice for her safety. Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow’s character) may well have been on Jakku with all those Resistance fighters as her secret guardians, waiting for the day when either she matured enough for her powers to be cultivated or to draw the First Order’s attention. It’s even possible that it was intended for her to live out her life without ever getting involved, but this seems unlikely given Luke’s prescience (limited though it may be).

Well, that’s enough for now, I think. It’ll be interesting to see how things shape up for Episode VIII. I just looked an saw that it’s being written and directed by Rian Johnson of Looper fame. That’s promising. One of the things I was worried about is whether or not the writing can continue at the same level, but I think we should be okay. We’ll see. Stay tuned.

Dec 15 2015

WIP Update – 14 Dec 15

I made a little headway in Garm’s Chapter 1 of TTWC3. Under par, but enough to justify a post about it.

Followers of my Twitter feed have probably noted that I’ve started up Log Horizon. While I’d heard a lot of negativity about SAO, LH was deemed even worse, but, honestly, five eps in and I think it’s decent enough. I’m starting to think that the supposition that I have low standards may in fact be correct. ^_^; Well, I suppose there are worse things to be than easy to please.

Dec 14 2015

WIP Update – 12-13 Dec 15

I made some progress on Chapter 17 of EM. Now it’s time to switch over to TTWC3. We’ll see how far I can get into Garm’s section before the week’s out. Stay tuned.

Dec 13 2015

WIP Update – 11 Dec 15

I managed to wrap Chapter 16 of EM. Been a lot going on, so I haven’t gotten as much writing done as I’d like. (Also, I just marathoned my way through Nanatsu no Taizai.) Ironically, now that I’m done for the semester, I may actually wind up getting less work done over the break instead of more, but we’ll see. Stay tuned.

Dec 10 2015

WIP Update – 09 Dec 15

I made some more progress on Chapter 16 of EM, pretty well wrapping up the dialog for the chapter. I just need to fill in the narrative and I can move on. I could’ve gone farther, but I got wrapped up in the peripheral materials. I can’t believe I hadn’t started an encyclopedia and timeline for the series. Stay tuned.

Dec 09 2015

WIP Update – 07-08 Dec 15

I managed to wrap up Chapter 15 of EM and make some progress into Chapter 16. It’s possible that I could get as far as Chapter 18 before the weekend’s out, but we’ll see. Stay tuned.

Dec 07 2015

A Suikoden Story

I was first introduced to the Suikoden series with Suikoden II when it came out in the States in 1999. I enjoyed it quite a bit and it was only by a chance encounter at a Toys R’ Us that I got my hands on the first game. I learned about the transfer bonus for saves, so once I played through the first game, I did another playthrough of the second. And that was where I left the series until I came back from the Army.

Some readers may not be familiar with G4. It was a video games-based cable channel that eventually lost its way, modeling itself as a sort of Spike Jr. before finally folding and being replaced by the Esquire Channel. Well, when I first came back from the Army, the channel was at its purest, a quirky little niche channel. One of its shows was called Cinematech, which would should of game intros and such, sometimes of fairly obscure titles. It was on this show that I saw the animated intro to Suikoden III. I was hooked. The only problem was that I didn’t have a PS2. This was in 2003. Somewhere between late 2005 and early 2006, I first started to import Japanese games, in particular a number of PS2 games, Suiko3 among them. However, those games would sit untouched until I bought a Japanese PS2 before returning to the States from Japan in 2008. (I was toying with the idea of getting a PS3, but due to backwards compatibility being taken out of later models, I decided to just get a PS2 instead.) Well, one of the first things I intended to do with my new PS2 was play Suiko3, but then it asked for a save game from Suikogaiden, Vol.2. Not wanting to miss out on the save game bonus, I went back to Suikogaiden, Vol. 1. (I imported the two Suikogaiden games around the same time as Suiko3, if I recall correctly.) Well, it asked me for a Suikoden II save. Wanting the full effect, I waited rather than just start things up there. Then comes 2011, when I managed to find both Suikoden and Suikoden II at a Book Off while in Japan. I didn’t actually start playing the Japanese version of the first game until 2012, though. I beat it and started on Suiko2, but didn’t get very far. It wasn’t until late 2014, when a venture of mine foundered that I resumed the playthrough, then went through the two visual novels and finally started Suiko3. I only got a few chapters in before straying from the game once more and only this year as I was coming to a bit of a dead end with Fire Emblem if did I pick things up once more and play through to the end. So, yes, a 12-year journey all for a single game, all because of the strength of the intro movie.

I’d actually intended to end my Suikoden story with Suiko3, as I’d heard mixed things about the fourth and fifth games, but once I beat Suiko3, I decided to keep going and play the series to its conclusion. So be on the lookout next year for reviews of IV and V. Stay tuned.

Dec 07 2015

WIP Update – 05 Dec 15

It was under par, but I made some headway on Chapter 15 of JJ. Probably won’t finish it before I switch over. Stay tuned.