[You can make a case for any of these characters being “Mary Sues”. From left: Robert Pattinson as Edward from Twilight, Miranda Lawson from Mass Effect 2, Sean Connery as James Bond, and Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. All images via respective Wiki pages and re-used under ‘fair use”]

First, let me begin by defining terms. Or more accurately, letting Wikipedia do it for me:

A Mary Sue (if female) or Marty Stu (if male) is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character…

The term “Mary Sue” comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973… The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”), and satirized unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction.

“Mary Sue” is now a shorthand for an unrealistically capable character, with no flaws or foibles. It’s the mark of an amateurish writer, too lazy to flesh out their characters.

Naturally, there’s a discussion to be had here about the use of the term’s sexist connotations, and whether the pejorative “Mary Sue” is now used by lazy critics to put down any female protagonist. It’s a very interesting issue, but it’s not the thing about Mary Sues I want to discuss here.

What I want to address is the motivation for creating such characters in the first place. Often, critics assume that the reason is wish-fulfillment; that authors imagine themselves to be these characters, and make them perfect as a result. (Critics usually assume that everyone is as conceited as they are.)

But perfect–or at least, incredibly highly-skilled–characters are actually very tempting for reasons of plot, especially in a science-fiction or fantasy setting. Simply put; when your plot takes place in a big, complicated universe, you want your character to be able to participate in every aspect of that universe.

If I’m writing a sprawling epic with, say, a league of heroic knights who go around fighting dragons, it’s a bit of a letdown if I say “But sadly, Bob the protagonist was an archer who knew nothing about horsemanship or swordsmanship, and so could never be a knight.” By the same token, if Bob is a knight, then it’s a real shame if he can’t be in any archery attacks.

When you’re writing a story, you generally want your protagonist to be able to participate in most of the action. Having them figure out and solve the central conflict makes a better story than: “Bob found out a lot of interesting information about dragons. So he gave it to the experts who handle that sort of thing. 8 months later, he read in the newspaper about how the dragon issue had been solved. ‘Huh,’ he said. ‘So that’s how that all played out.’ The End.”

Now sure, you can have lots of characters with different skill sets, and still have the protagonist be involved in every step. This is relatively easy to do if your setting is the present day or recent past. For example, in a mystery novel, Ted the Brooding Detective With The Dark Past can take the evidence to Jill the Wisecracking Forensics Expert With The Rebellious Streak. (And if they fall in love, then you’ve almost got all the characterization you need.)

But this gets harder to do the more exotic your setting is, because then you have to make up a bunch of skill sets for people This is especially true in science fiction. So, there’s the girl who flies the ships, there’s the guy who fixes the ships, there’s the other guy who fixes the robots, there’s some alien who mines the raw materials for building both the ships and the robots…

It can be done, don’t get me wrong. But it’s tough to do it, and very, very tempting to the novice writer to just say, “We need to get this plot moving! We haven’t got time to meet the guy who waxes the floors. It’s faster to just make the protagonist do it.”

i can do better

I’m working on a new novel. It’s an idea I’ve had for a while, but I just recently started writing it down. (I’ve hinted about it a few times already on Twitter.)

I’m about 19,000 words in, and I recently wrote a scene that bothered me a little because it reminded me of a passage in my novella The Start of the Majestic World.

There’s a scene in Majestic World where Agent Maynard has a verbal confrontation with the main villain, Colonel Preston, a handsome army colonel who tries to intimidate her into following his orders even though she’s not under his command.

Here’s a bit of it:

The Colonel stood up, and walked around the desk so that he was very close to Maynard—so close, and in such a posture, that Maynard felt he was trying to brush aside the barriers of rank and agency, and underscore primarily the difference in sex between them. 

I don’t want to give away too much about the new book, but the scene in it has some very similar elements. The female protagonist is in a meeting with a handsome male colonel, and he is trying to get her to do something that may violate protocol. (It’s deliberately ambiguous in the scene, but she feels uneasy about it.) And there’s some uncomfortable sexual tension–it’s less overt than in the above, but there’s some suggestion he might be trying to seduce her.

Now, there are also some big differences, involving both the setting and the characters. But as I was sketching out the scene in my mind, I was thinking, Gosh that’s awfully similar to the Maynard/Preston scene.

So, right now you’re thinking: “Well, dummy; you’re the writer–don’t write it that way, then!”

True, that’s one option. But there are a couple reasons I hate to remove or alter the scene. First, it’s a very natural way for things to play out in the story–it works well in context, both in terms of plot pacing and characterization. I hate to lose scenes like that.

And second, it’s a much better execution of the concept than in Majestic World. The dialogue is more natural, the characters are more nuanced and less caricatured. This is encouraging to me–it’s good to know I’ve improved as a writer since writing the Maynard/Preston scene over three years ago.

The great film director John Huston once said about movie remakes: “There is a wilful, lemming-like persistence in remaking past successes time after time… Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures… and make them good?” That’s sort of how I feel about this–sure, I tried this basic concept once, but now that I’ve improved as a writer, why not prove that I can do it better?

At the same time, I could see somebody who read Majestic World reading the new book and saying “Yawn! Another Colonel behaving inappropriately towards the protagonist. Give us something new, Berthold!”

But I can guarantee it won’t be the same thing over again. Trust me.

What do you think? Should an author revisit a concept similar to one they’ve written before, if they feel like they can write it better this time, or is it best to try to break new ground?

There’s an interesting article by Prof. Julia Azari at FiveThirtyEight that argues Trump is more like a 19th-century President. What’s really good about the article is that it’s about more than just Trump–it illustrates how the Presidency has expanded in power in the century:

“Modern presidents have exercised considerable influence over the nation’s policy agenda and the legislation Congress considers and passes. They also communicate with the nation about their policy priorities — we see this, for instance, in the evolution of the State of the Union, which started as a written message to Congress and has become a nationally televised speech. But when the Constitution was written, it wasn’t necessarily designed to give presidents this kind of sway over domestic affairs. The tools for policy influence that presidents now have, such as the Office of Management and Budget, didn’t used to exist.”

And what’s more, this expansion of the Executive’s power came at the expense of Legislative power–which, as I discussed here, is actually in the interest of both branches. (Though perhaps not the nation itself.)

This gradual erosion of the Legislative branch–with its consent!–is a major reason why the government is so dysfunctional.

[I’m going off of this CNN transcript. My comments in red italics.]
TRUMP [Responding to a question about why it took him two days to denounce the alt-right protesters in Charlottesville]: I didn’t wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts. And it’s a very, very important process to me. And it’s a very important statement. [Get all the facts.  Very important.  Remember he said this.]
So, I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts. If you go back to my…
TRUMP: I brought it. I brought it. I brought it. [He brought a copy of his remarks from Saturday]
QUESTION: What did you (inaudible)?
TRUMP: As I said on — remember this — Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America. And when I went on from there.
Now, here’s the thing. As to — excuse me — excuse me — take it nice and easy.
Here’s the thing. When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts. This event just happened. In fact, a lot of the event didn’t even happen yet, as we were speaking. This event just happened. Before I make a statement, I need the facts.
So I don’t want to rush into a statement. So making the statement when I made it was excellent. In fact, the young woman who I hear is a fantastic young women, and it was on NBC, her mother wrote me and said through, I guess, Twitter, social media, the nicest things and I very much appreciate that.
I hear she was a fine, a really — actually, an incredible young woman. But her mother on Twitter thanked me for what I said. And honestly, if the press were not fake and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice. [This is unbecoming of the President. But we’re used to that.] But unlike you and unlike — excuse me — unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.
TRUMP: I didn’t know David Duke was there. [Well, he was. Missed that during all your fact-finding, eh?] I wanted to see the facts. And the facts as they started coming out were very well stated. In fact, everybody said his statement was beautiful; if he would have made it sooner, that would have been good. I couldn’t have made it sooner because I didn’t know all of the facts.
Frankly, people still don’t know all of the facts. [Would you mind telling us, since you apparently think you do?] It was very important that — excuse me, excuse me — it was very important to me to get the facts out and correctly. Because if I would have made a fast statement, and the first statement was made without knowing much other than what we were seeing.
The second statement was made after — with knowledge, with great knowledge. There are still things — excuse me — there are still things that people don’t know. I want to make a statement with knowledge. I wanted to know the facts.
QUESTION: Was it — two questions. Was it terrorism? And can you tell us what you’re feeling about your…
TRUMP: Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and his country. And that is — you can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That’s what I’d call it. Because there is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics. [Unusual to hear him use the word “semantics”]
The driver of the car is a murderer. And what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.
QUESTION: Can you tell us how you’re feeling about your chief strategist, Mr. Bannon? Can you talk about that?
TRUMP: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I would echo Maggie’s (ph) question. Steve Bannon…
TRUMP: I never spoke to Mr. Bannon about it.
QUESTION: But can you tell us broadly what you’re — do you still have confidence in Steve (ph)?
TRUMP: Well, we see (ph) — and look, look. I like Mr. Bannon. He’s a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late, you know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that, and I like him. He’s a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He’s a good person. He actually gets a very unfair press in that regard.
But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon, but he’s a good person, and I think the press treats him, frankly, very unfairly. [Sounds like he plans to make Bannon the fall guy.]
QUESTION: Senator McCain said that the alt-right is behind these attacks, and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville.
TRUMP: Well, I don’t know — I can’t tell you. I’m sure Senator McCain must know what he’s talking about. But when you say the “alt- right,” define “alt-right” to me. You define it, go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, I think that (ph)…
TRUMP: No, define it for me, come on. Let’s go. Define it for me.
QUESTION: Senator McCain defined them as the same group… [Trump should really specify that on this game show, you only have 5 seconds to give your answer. I would have defined them as “tech-savvy ultra-nationalists”.]
TRUMP: OK, what about the alt-left that came charging them (ph)? Excuse me. What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? [“Semblance” is an unusual word for him to use. Also, I have not seen any video of the counter-demonstrators charging. I’ve seen one of some of the surrounded by the torch-wielding alt-right people. Are there any videos of a charge like Trump describes?]
QUESTION: Mr. Trump…
TRUMP: Let me ask you this. What about the fact they came charging — that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? [Did this happen?] Do they have any problem? I think they do.
TRUMP: As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.
Wait a minute, I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day…
TRUMP: I will tell you something. I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you have — you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group — you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent. [Does anyone have figures on how many injuries were reported, and on which sides?  Are these the much-ballyhooed “facts’ that Trump claims to know about? Could we get them? And if the counter-protesters were so violent, why was the only death that of a counter-protester at the hands of an alt-right sympathizer?]
TRUMP: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you think that the — what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?
TRUMP: Those people — all of those people — excuse me. I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. [Often without hesitation.] But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were White Supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.
So — excuse me. And you take a look at some of the groups and you see — and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not, but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. [Everyone knew that.]
So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. [I suspect Bannon talked to him shortly before this and gave him a quick history lesson. I doubt he knew who Stonewall Jackson was until yesterday.] I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? [Indeed, there have previously been calls for the removal of monuments to Jefferson on college campuses.]
You know, you all — you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop? But they were there to protest — excuse me. You take a look, the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. [Either no one asked or he didn’t answer any questions about why so many people were carrying the Nazi flag in order to do that.]
Infrastructure question, go ahead.
QUESTION: Should the statue of Robert E. Lee stay up?
TRUMP: I would say that’s up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located. [Least helpful answer imaginable.]
QUESTION: Are you against the Confederacy? [I really wish he’d replied to this. It would have been fascinating.]
QUESTION: Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?
TRUMP: I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. [There are no moral planes in Trump’s world.] What I’m saying is this. You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch.
But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.
(CROSSTALK) TRUMP: Excuse me, excuse me. (inaudible) themselves (inaudible) and you have some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group — excuse me, excuse me — I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name. [You can see just how deeply he researched this.]
QUESTION: George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same (inaudible)…
TRUMP: George Washington was a slave-owner. Was George Washington a slave-owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down — are we going to take down statues to George Washington?
TRUMP: How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? [No. He seems cold and distant.]
TRUMP: OK. Good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave-owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And you had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. [How can we tell which is which, though?]
OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. [That sounds like the police, but…] You’ve got — you had a lot of bad — you had a lot of bad people in the other group…
QUESTION: … treated unfairly (inaudible) you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? (inaudible) understand what you’re saying.
TRUMP: No, no. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people — neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them.
But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know — I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit.
So, I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country (sic). [“There are two sides to the country”. While inadvertent, this is a great summary of Trump’s worldview. Compare with then-Senator Obama’s quote from 2004: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America.”]

Possibly the worst movie poster in history.
Poster for “Waterloo”

In the days before CGI, epic war films were massive and costly undertakings. You wanted a shot of 10,000 guys marching across a field in full battle uniform? Well, you had to get them! You couldn’t just have Johnny the Computer Whiz draw them in after the fact.

As in actual warfare, there are innumerable logistical difficulties with re-creating these battles. You’ve got to have men in position, knowing how to use their equipment, and then film them as they maneuver in the field.

All that’s quite hard enough.  But when you are making a film for wide release, you have to have all that plus a story the audience can follow, structured so as to play out in a coherent and satisfying way over the course of two hours.

It’s this last bit that’s really tricky, because while history offers plenty of incredible and compelling stories, they rarely fit into neat three-act schemes that can be concisely portrayed in a couple of hours.

Waterloo starts out well, showing Napoleon’s abdication to Elba in 1814 and subsequent return in 1815.  Especially memorable is the moment when the Emperor walks alone to face his former soldiers, now under orders to kill him, and through sheer bravery and charisma wins them back over to his side. This is one part of the Napoleonic legend that seems made for the movies, and it certainly is a high point of the film.

After that, however, problems arise in this dramatization of the final chapter of Bonaparte’s career.  There are unnecessary voice-overs in which Napoleon (Rod Steiger) thinks in exposition for the benefit of the audience.  Many lines of dialogue uttered by officers on both sides seem like they were lifted from history books and changed to the present tense.

An inordinate amount of time is spent on Wellington’s staff at the Ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond.   This scene also includes the introduction of a totally fictional and pointless love story that goes nowhere.  The only upside is the chemistry between Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and the Duchess (Virginia McKenna).

Wellington and the Duchess
“Old Boney’s advancing on Quatre-Bras… IF you know what I mean.”

The film dwells on things like this, Napoleon’s illness, and some peculiar episode involving a British soldier stealing a pig, and yet glosses over incidents like the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny with a couple lines of dialogue.

It’s not that the film is inaccurate–indeed, they seem to have gone to some lengths to describe things in historically correct fashion. (Except for the romance and a reminiscence about Major-General Ponsonby’s father) The problem is that the film depicts these events in a strange and sometimes incoherent manner.

The biggest technical flaw is probably the mud.  The battle was famously delayed by wet ground after a rainy night, and indeed the film states this correctly. Where it falls down is the fact that the ground we see on screen is demonstrably dry, as evidenced by the huge clouds of dust kicked up by the columns of cavalry and infantry.

The end result is the comical visual of a frustrated Napoleon sinking in an obviously artificial mud puddle while all around him is a vast expanse of dry land. The fundamental historical fact is correctly depicted, but not in a dramatically effective way.

There are lots of issues like this.  After Marshal Ney’s ill-fated cavalry charge against the famous infantry squares, Napoleon rushes back to the field from his sickbed, crying, “What is he doing?  Everyone knows not to make a cavalry charge without infantry support!”

While completely factually accurate, this seems unlikely to be what Napoleon actually said at the time. It comes across as a line delivered for the benefit of audience members who aren’t familiar with the battle of Waterloo.

And this is the other difficult thing about making historical movies: balancing the history lesson aspect with the need to depict real characters, as opposed to instructional puppets designed to illustrate a historical lecture.

Chances are, if someone is watching the movie Waterloo, they are already a Napoleonic history fan. Sure, there might be the occasional viewer who is an ardent follower of Rod Steiger or Christopher Plummer, but if I were overseeing the production, I would make the executive decision that any viewer who doesn’t already know how the battle went is just going to have to piece it together as best they can–no reason the script should go out of its way to help them out.

Waterloo_1970_06Despite all of that, the movie isn’t horrible.  As an instructional device, it is not bad, and there is something inherently impressive about seeing huge lines of soldiers and horses advancing across a smoky field.  It gives you some vague hint of what it might have felt like to be in the battle.

It’s just that the film lacks a dramatic narrative.  Napoleon and Wellington don’t “come alive”; they just repeat their famous quotes and stoically watch the battle.  Because of this, it feels more like a recording of an elaborate re-enactment rather than a truly epic historical drama.

51lvbVGJfzLThe Seneca Scourge is a medical thriller with science-fiction elements.  It follows Dr. Sydney McKnight as she finds herself in the midst of a seemingly incurable influenza pandemic. Aiding the staff at her hospital is the mysterious Dr. Casper Jones. As the pandemic spreads, Dr. McKnight notices Dr. Jones behaving oddly.

As she investigates in between treating the ever-growing patient population, Dr. McKnight gradually uncovers the shocking truth about Dr. Jones.

That’s the spoiler-free synopsis. If you don’t want to know the plot twist, don’t read after the asterisks below. My spoiler-free review is that it is a very well-paced thriller that successfully combines fairly plausible depictions of medicine and viruses in the first half with science-fiction elements in the second half. If you like either medical thrillers or science-fiction (and especially if you like both) I recommend it highly.

Now, if you want to know more detail, with spoilers, read on.