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Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Real Life Mary Sues

[Credit where it's due, this post is an expansion of something sparked off by a comment on Slacktivist...]

Many of us are familiar with the term 'Mary Sue', but for those who aren't, a brief explanation. Mary Sue is a character type generally written by incompetent authors, who, rather than being a three-dimensional person in a world of other three-dimensional people, is an overly perfect paragon to whom all other characters show improbable devotion. Bad characters may hate her, but they hate her with a passion and find themselves equally unable to stop thinking about her: nobody can be indifferent. Someone quoted a Mary Sue character as being one who 'commands love' from all, a person whose very self overshadows everyone else and places them in the background.

It's commonly remarked that such a character is completely implausible. And indeed, this may be the case to some extent. But lately, I've been starting to wonder - because I and other people I know have encountered people who are, in some ways, real life Mary Sues. They're just not quite the way they appear in fiction.

I've blogged previously about a famous literary character, Jimmy Porter of Look Back In Anger, who fulfils a lot of the criteria for a Mary Sue; a Mary Sue rendered with above-average literary skill, but a Mary Sue nonetheless. He's generally acknowledged as a portrait of his creator, John Osborne. And here's the thing: Osborne was a pretty nasty piece of work, but he was, based on the evidence, undeniably attractive. He married five times, for instance; while burning through that many marriages does not speak well to your qualities as a husband, it does indicate a degree of magnetism. Osborne had friends, lovers, admirers aplenty. He had charisma.

Charisma is a curious quality, more easily recognised than defined and quite separate from likeability. Many of us have met charismatic people, and they are, by their nature, fascinating. They can also be complicated.

At the simplest level, charisma can be a kind of grace. I once met a woman who had saved several Jewish people from a concentration camp at great risk to herself, and she had - there's no other phrase for it - an inner light. I don't think it was just the knowledge of her heroism that made me see this: she glowed, she was tranquil and joyous and at ease. Perhaps the knowledge she had been tested and proved righteous put her at ease; perhaps to take such a risk required an exceptional person to begin with. Either way, had she given me a piece of advice, I believe I would have accepted it without question.

I've known other people like that to a greater or lesser extent. I recently attended the funeral of a great-aunt who died at the age of a hundred, whose love and interest in others and deep-down niceness shone out of her. She wasn't possessed of magical powers, but she was rather remarkable, had had an adventurous life, and struck everyone with her charm and sense of fun. I wasn't particularly close to her - she was the mother of an aunt by marriage and lived far away, so I only saw her at family gatherings - but even so, when I heard of her death I felt the world a little poorer for her absence. She was that uncommon thing: a person everybody loved.

So people who are generally loved do exist. They tend to be sparky rather than bland - my great-aunt was kind, but she was also a tough old thing and had a wicked sense of humour - and writing one such would take considerable skill. This, though, is slightly different from the idea of a person who 'commands love', and even draws the devoted fascination of those who, for reasons of personal disturbance, hate them.

The thing is, I think the other kind of person, the compelling personality, is a real thing too. I and people I know have met some. It's just that the quality of commanding love is, in reality, rather a complicated one.

There's no one kind of person when it comes to charisma like this. I can think of one individual who's a hugely powerful and wealthy businessman; another who was in her way something of a mystic. On the face of it they had nothing in common, but they and others like them did have a family resemblance.

These were people who liked to tell stories about themselves and who never feared they were boring their listeners. The stories could be anecdotal or they could be epic, but they were almost always stories of philosophy. You could categorise them: the story of How I Reached My Present State of Understanding, the story of How My Worldview Was Proved Right, the story of How I Have Yet To Show Others The Way. All tend to revolve around the fundamental story of What Makes Me Me. These categories sound derogatory, but the stories themselves tend to be interesting: a charismatic person is, in some ways, the novelist of their own life. If most of us live in a soap opera, charismatic people live in a bildungsroman.

We all are the stars of our own stories, of course, but some people magnify this effect. They may be highly aware of how others react to them, but they are less prone to wondering whether a negative reaction calls their values into question. Most of us have a basic set of principles by which we live, but charismatic people tend to have a quest: something is the ultimate goal, be it power, insight, glory, spiritual experience, fun, justice or anything else - and such a goal is considered not just the best way for this particular person to live, but the ultimate aim of all life. Someone who disagrees is seen as missing the point, as naive or corrupt or bewilderingly dull.

Such an attitude tends to provoke love-or-hate responses. The reaction may partly depend on the chosen ideal and how well it overlaps with your own personality: someone for whom success is everything will get a more positive response from an aspirational friend than from a believer in altruism and humility, for instance. It's not entirely a question of agreement and disagreement, of course; both the aspirer and the altruist may be fond of the success-guru in their different ways. Charisma isn't the whole of a person, it's a quality they possess, and you can relate to the person inside the charisma - or at least try to, depending on how hard they push for their particular goal to dominate the conversation.

Which is where the issue of 'commanding love' comes in. A person who's the star of their own narrative may not expect you to love them, but they do expect you to be interested in them; after all, they have insights that should be useful to everyone. There is an expectation that you will respond to them on their terms, in their own framework.

If you do, then love has been successfully commanded. But it's a command that can be disobeyed. The difference is that disobeying the command takes greater energy than indifference would.

Have you ever known a person who you don't like but end up spending a lot of time talking or thinking about why you dislike them even if they haven't really done anything wrong? A person with a strong charismatic ideal driving them can have this effect. In essence, the force of their worldview is powerful enough that it exerts some gravitational pull: when you are around them, so compelling is their narrative that it's easy to fall into it, to start seeing things their way. To avoid this happening, you have to lean back, to remind yourself that you see things differently and that this doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. It takes effort. Dismissing their opinions occupies your thoughts. Psychology Today remarks: "Synchrony is a marker of rapport; if two people click, they unconsciously adjust their posture and speech rate to each other. Bernieri strongly suspects that charismatic people are natural "attractors" who get others to synchronize to them." If you don't want to fall into synchrony with someone like that, you have to pay some attention to avoiding it.

This, I think, is the real-life equivalent to the Mary Sue who is either loved by nice people or hated by people with issues. The 'issues' in real life may be actual neuroses or they may simply be a different worldview - but for at least some charismatic people, a different worldview is in itself something of a neurotic thing to possess.

Hence, if you want to hold on to your different worldview, you do to some extent have to fight, at least in your own mind - not necessarily because you hate the person but simply because the force of their personality is such that if you want space for your own way of seeing you have to push for it because they won't automatically make room. Most of us constantly measure our own judgement against that of others, and if somebody seems to think we're naive or materialistic we do a quick cross-check of them-versus-us to see if they have a point. Charismatic people tend to do that less, which, through no deliberate intention, puts more pressure on our own cross-checking system. Two cross-checkers, averaging out against each other, will end up somewhere in the middle, but if you average with someone charismatic you'll wind up closer to their way of thinking without them moving any closer to yours. If you don't want to end up thinking like them, you can end up feeling threatened even when the charismatic person hasn't done anything except be themselves.

(None of which is any excuse to be unpleasant to the person, of course, and neither does it mean that if somebody vigorously disagrees with or dislikes you it must mean you're charismatic; you could just be a pain in the butt.)

However, when it comes to writing, there's an interesting angle here. Nobody is good at everything in the way a Mary Sue is traditionally written, but the idea of having a personality that by its nature tends to exert a strong influence and that provokes fascination even in those who dislike you is not confined to fiction. You might say a Mary Sue story, which casts the haters as driven by their own personal failures, is a rendering of charisma from inside the charismatic viewpoint. In daily life, after all, most of us have to get by with manners because we're too aware that we don't control reality and that other people's viewpoints are just as likely to be correct as our own, but writing a story means you do get control of a fictional reality and your say on what is and isn't correct is final. Mary Sue may be a written rendering of the inner charismatic that most of us lack the social skills and confidence to pull off in our regular existence.

The real problem with such Mary Sues comes, I think, from the fact that charisma and greatness don't inevitably go together. Charismatic people are very often damaged.

My great-aunt was a sturdy-minded sort and had a talent for creating her own happiness, but I wouldn't class her as charismatic in the sense of being the star of her own story. She was simply a charming person who was widely loved; it was, in fact, difficult to get her to talk about herself because she was more interested in other people. The other people were more complicated: the business mogul was feared as much as he was liked, the mystic was in a cult. People famous for their charisma are often famous for being problematic. Winston Churchill managed to drag Britain through a hideous war and retain the nation's loyalty even when promising it 'blood, toil, tears and sweat,' for instance; he also suffered from lifelong depression. So did Abraham Lincoln, come to that. Life knocks us about, and building up a fierce ideal can be a way of trying to repair the damage, of putting a self back together. Damage can hang about, though, however bravely we cope with it, and the damage we carry ourselves affects those around us as well - and developing a personal ideology is not necessarily the best way of dealing with our problems. It can be a healing strategy, even a heroic resolution never to let others suffer as you have, but it can also be a compensatory strategy, a quest as distraction - and people compensating aren't always the easiest to get along with, because they can be unreasonably attached to their ideas even when it isn't appropriate.

A charismatic person may command love, but actually loving them may mean you're going to have to brace yourself. This is where the divergence from fictional Mary Sues comes: rather than being the perfect solution to all your problems, a charismatic person is, like anybody else, a mixture of good and bad - and the bigger the personality, the bigger both the virtues and the problems. A charismatic person can be a hero, or they can be a Jim Jones, or they can just be a lot to cope with.

That said, I do think it's worth pointing out that, while an incompetently written character is never plausible, Mary Sue or not, it simply isn't true to assume that there's no such thing as a person who has an unusual influence, whether deliberate or not, over the emotions of others. Such people are rare, but you do come across them. Perhaps a problem with them is that while charisma can be a compelling force when encountered in person it very seldom survives translation into print: reading Helter Skelter does not really let you know what it was like to know Charles Manson.

A charismatic person can do with their own life what a skilled writer can do with a fictional life: translate it into a compelling story with highs, lows, revelations and lessons to be learned. To create a convincing portrait of someone like that, you need to tell a story about a storyteller - and that's an extremely difficult thing to do. You can't write a better writer than yourself; issues of ego, wish-fulfilment and personal gripes tend to creep in, and so do structural problems if they're telling a story at the same time as you. To portray a genuinely charismatic person means portraying a self-mythologiser, and to do that you need to balance their charm and force with a writer's perspective that nobody's more than human; you have to be able to show them overshadowing other viewpoints without letting them overshadow other characters. It's a horribly difficult task to set yourself.

Of course, writing a Mary Sue isn't likely to be a deliberate attempt to write about the complexities of charisma. As I said, it's more likely to be an attempt to experience the benefits of charisma from within. In real life, charisma is a difficult trick to pull off and requires intense self-belief; in fiction, the easiest method is not solely to dial up the power of your Mary Sue but - which is easier - to reduce the power of everyone else. (As I point out in the essay on Jimmy Porter, you can see Osborne doing it.) This, of course, tends to lead to a weaker story, which is one of the reasons why Mary Sue is an unpopular character: her presence renders those around her boring.

As, of course, is any story that isn't well done. The more I think of it, the more I incline to the view that Mary Sue is less a problem because there's nobody like that, and more a problem because she's an inaccurate portrait of people like that.

"In real life, charisma is a difficult trick to pull off and requires intense self-belief; in fiction, the easiest method is not solely to dial up the power of your Mary Sue but - which is easier - to reduce the power of everyone else. (As I point out in the essay on Jimmy Porter, you can see Osborne doing it.)"
The same thing happens in theater: One actor is giving a much bigger/more intense/more colorful performance than anyone else, so the director tells the actor to dial it down, when pushing everyone to the same level usually works better (but it's harder).
An interesting take on Mary Sues. I would argue that a major difference between a Mary Sue and a person with a great deal of charisma is this: when faced with a challenge, a Mary Sue almost always solves it with relative ease. On the other hand, a person with charisma will have difficulty and failures, even if that person doesn't acknowledge or recognize them. An unreliable narrator would cover this difference, but I think it's one of the defining characteristics of a Mary Sue, and a realistically depicted super-charistmatic-dude/ette wouldn't have that.
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