Just Say No To Mary Sue
I don’t read a lot of typical contemporary fantasy novels. Indeed, I tend to actively avoid the usual post-Tolkien stuff as much as I can. I think my distaste for this fare dates to my studied rejection of the “Thomas Covenant” series and the wretched “Sword of Shannara” all the way back in the ’70s. The pre-Tolkien stuff Lin Carter and others excavated? Si se puede! The more modern stuff? Please spare me.
I ran into an ex-boss of mine in a local sci-fi bookshop and he raved about The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. He practically thrust it into my hands and, his enthusiasm being what it was, I didn’t feel I could refuse. I read books in the bathtub each night in the following order: Straight fiction (non-genre) -> fantasy -> mystery -> horror/ science fiction… and then repeat the cycle. So, when I finished my non-genre novel (Her Infinite Variety by the always rewarding Louis Auchincloss) I slotted in the Rothfuss book – figuring that a) it was awhile since I tried a post 1960 fantasy novel (Jack Vance NOT included, since… well, come on!) and b) I could – at least – steal ideas for my D&D game from it.
Sadly, Rothfuss’s first novel was a big disappointment. The book, I started to feel early on, was one huge, 700+ page… “Mary Sue” story. This categorization was made famous in fan fic circles for stories that are over-the-top wish fulfillment pieces written by naive and oblivious authors. There’s more on them all over the Internet.
I would spend a lot of time providing the rationale for my dismissal of the novel along these lines, but someone else has already beaten me to the punch and done the work – see here and here. I found these reviews by plugging in “Mary Sue” and the title of the book into Google. There was, as it happens, no shortage of hits. I actually strongly suspect that Rothfuss is seeking to settle old scores in his novel by having his protagonist do things he wishes he could have done in thinly disguised situations.
Still, one could ask, was there stuff in the novel worth stealing for D&D? No. But the book did serve to draw my attention to perils in D&D I want to avoid. First, D&D can have its own “Mary Sue” problems. Unless the DMs stay on top of it, player characters can become their own little “Sues” quite quickly. What are all the feats and skills there for – in the latter editions – but to help “Sue” up the players? In OD&D the characters can’t be “Mary Sue” because they can be stuck with not-so-hot ability scores and are usually going to run into plenty of uneven matches. It’s hard to be a “Sue” when you are getting your ass kicked by vastly superior opponents on a regular basis. When players take over the game, they inevitably move towards incipient or outright “Sue-ism.” My campaign, rooted as closely to the OSR spirit as I can get it, discourages this tendency mightily.
Second, while Rothfuss tries for that kind of “generic medieval flavor” he doesn’t have the ability or the sense of discipline to pull it off. Where is all the food coming from in the giant city his character stays in? We never know. If the wizards in the book have such an advanced grasp of science, medicine, and chemistry, then where’s their industrial applications? I do not understand how the wizards know as much science as they do – they are aware of advanced chemical compositions and germs – while their society remains so fundamentally backwards. This kind of inconsistency indicates that the author can’t make the connection between experiments and deep scientific knowledge, technology, and social changes. It’s lazy and stupid. This kind of thing is exactly what I want to avoid ever have cropping up in my D&D games.
Third, how many times can people rip off Joseph Campbell? And do little winks to the reader legitimize that stealing in any sense? No. No, they do not. This is just more laziness at work. Tweaking Campbell’s ideas a little is not creative enough – although we can see why the author of a “Mary Sue” might conclude that it was. Peggy told me that she had heard that the main character was “conflicted,” “flawed,” and “had a dark side.” This might seem true if you are, like, fifteen. To any adult, the lack of complexity in the characters is painful – and that pain is compounded by all the “Mary Sue” details that the other reviewer enumerates. The OSR, thank the gods, is more about Jack Vance than it is about George Lucas.
The really odd thing about this book (to me) is how people with otherwise reasonable literary tastes will defend it. My husband, sister, and brother-in-law are all huge fans. What is it that blinds people to its flaws?
I think the transference of the term “Mary Sue” to gaming is a bit problematic. Games aren’t novels. “Mary Sues” in they’re original definition were bad in fiction because they upstage the rightful protagonists and in the ever-widening to the point of absurdity definition they’re presumably bad because it strikes people as bad writing. But how are competent (even ultra-competent) PCs bad in a game? Presuming, of course, no one PC is outshining the others.
I think the “Monty Haul” DMs and later editions encourage player characters that suffer all the problems of the “Mary Sue.” A true “Mary Sue” isn’t just “competent” remember.
I think the enjoyment of Rothfuss stems from the same sort of tastes that made me immensely enjoy Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”. If Rothfuss’s protagonist (or indeed Rothfuss himself as many see AS the protagonist) is simply viewed as “passing through a slice of life” I think the novel gains a great deal more merit. I think the main character’s doubts and uncertainties about his own ability (particularly in dealing with the fairer sex) create a great deal of empathy for the character. The side story of telling the story to the chronicler makes for good pacing. Is Rothfuss equal to Scott Lynch? Hardly. Is he good? I have to say yes.
I’d be more inclined to look sympathetically at your POV if the world that was being described was interesting. Is it? It isn’t. It’s too generic. He hasn’t put enough thought into it – and this could be due to the way it used only as a stage for his Mary Sue,.
I am not fond of any of Spike Lee’s films either.
Finally someone who agrees with me. Now I feel less crazy about hating this book so much. It was awful. I finished it mostly so that I would be prepared to have informed arguments about how bad it was. What does everyone else see in this boring, derivative, misogynist novel?