Monthly Archives: June 2011

Kvothe: A Mary-Sue Case Study

I’ve finished The Name of the Wind, and my opinion of it in general and the protagonist in particular has shifted from mild disinterest to hearty dislike.  Kvothe is not a good character.  In my previous post, I labeled him a Mary Sue; I can now confidently state that he nails virtually every defining Mary Sue characteristic as if it was a contest.  Even with conservative scoring, he gets a 70 on the Mary Sue Litmus Test, where anything over 50 is “scrap it and start over.”

But before I get into that, yes, The Name of the Wind does pass the Bechdel Test!  On page 467, Auri offers Mora an apple.  That’s it.  Granted, the fact that the rest of the Auri/Mora conversation is disqualified because it’s about Kvothe doesn’t mean anything about gender–there’s scarcely a conversation in the entire book that is neither with nor about Kvothe.  That’s one of his Sue traits.  So, without further ado*: The Mary-Sue traits of Kvothe.  If this post is long, only Patrick Rothfuss is to blame. Continue reading

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A Pride Day to Be Proud Of

It is rare that an ideological day falls in such thoroughly appropriate circumstances, but here it is: Pride Day following, with much celebration, right on the heels of New York’s historic vote to legalize gay marriage.  Neil Patrick Harris is taking advantage of it, as are a number of other celebrities and, of course, countless LGBT couples–some in New York, others flying in from around the country.

And we found some new heroes.  It’s about time!

State Senator Diane Savino gave this hard-hitting argument as she voted aye.  But the Internet’s viral star was Roy McDonald, one of the four New York Senate Republicans who broke ranks and voted in favor of the bill, who announced his decision in these immortal words:

Well, fuck it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.

If only he spoke for all our politicians.  I think this Pride Day, gay-marriage advocates should get a chance to sit back and, well, be proud.  They deserve it.

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Oddity of the Week

Here’s another fun bit of old stuff: Just as movie theaters now require their patrons to turn off their cell phones, women were once required to take off their hats so they wouldn’t block other peoples’ views.  And just as movies are now preceded by a short, often humorous video reminding you to turn off your phone, here’s a short film reminding women to remove their hats.

Director D.W. Griffith made countless shorts of this sort; it also stars a prolific silent-film actress with the wonderful name of Florence Lawrence.

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Review: The Name of the Wind

Normally, on this blog, I review things that I like a great deal, because those are the sorts of things I enjoy talking about, but this time I want to take a stab at a book that, for me, moved from good to okay to “whatever, I don’t care anymore” in short order.  In the interests of full disclosure, I’m about 1/3 of the way through (on which grounds I’ll assume that nothing I say counts as a spoiler). Jordan loves this book; I don’t understand what everyone likes so much.

First, the positives.  The writing is a cut above most fantasy; it’s fluent and sometimes even lyrical in a genre where even excellent books, like A Song of Ice and Fire, have only serviceable writing.  The beginning is tremendous, providing enough momentum to carry the reader through…maybe 100 or 200 pages.  Too bad it’s a 700-page doorstopper.

On to the problems.

“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak during the day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.”

This, I have the misfortune of telling you, is not only the opening of the main part of the story, but also the blurb on the back.  Why would anyone read a story whose narrator describes himself like this?  I react the same way I do to people like this in real life: “You don’t need me to like you.  You already like yourself enough for both of us.”

In fiction-writing circles, we call this character type a “Mary Sue” (the male variant is a Marty or Gary Stu).  The author thinks Kvothe is the awesomest thing ever and loads him up with awesome traits so you’ll think he’s awesome.  There is nothing awesome that he doesn’t do, and nothing awesome is done except by him.  He’s so awesome that all the other characters willingly acknowledge it and accept secondary places revolving around his awesomeness.  The plot, and indeed practically the entire world, also revolves around him.

Mary Sue is a bit of a catch-all term, but there are some common traits that Kvothe (the narrator) demonstrates:

  • Dead parents.  Mary Sues often have tragic backstories to give them apparent depth.
  • Exceptionally good at everything.  A Mary Sue is virtually always either far and away the best at one thing, or exceptionally good at everything, or both, and usually also picks up new abilities unusually fast and without much effort:

“[Y]our young Kvothe is rather bright…As a matter of fact, ‘bright’ doesn’t begin to cover it, not by half…He does everything that way, quick as a whip, hardly ever makes mistakes…It’s not just memorization though.  He understands.  Half the things I’ve been meaning to show him he’s already figured out for himself…Have you ever known a boy his age who talks the way he does?…I’ve had older students that would have loved to do half as well…If I had his hands, and one quarter his wit, I’d be eating off silver plates inside a year.” (pp. 86-88)

This is often a shorthand way to give the character abilities, so that after one training montage they’ll be ready to face the big bad, but that explanation doesn’t work in a book this long.  Instead, it’s the classic mistake of loading characters with talent to make them interesting.  This doesn’t work, of course: Characters without flaws or weaknesses are not interesting at all, and the reader can’t empathize with someone who accomplishes everything effortlessly*.

  • Liked, praised, and followed by everyone, except obvious villains.  Also notice how willingly other legitimately powerful and interesting characters, like Bast and especially Chronicler, accept their place in orbit around him.  It’s as if they know that they’re in his story, he’s important, and they’re not.
  • Is responsible for every important event in the plot.  This one is sketchy since Kvothe’s childhood backstory isn’t of great worldwide import, but consider the fight with the spiders where Chronicler is injured.  Why does the powerful magic worker who’s a match for Bast suddenly become useless?  Because if he did anything, he’d be diminishing Kvothe’s awesomeness.

The biggest weakness of all is the pacing.  The Name of the Wind is proverbial for not advancing the overarching plot…at all…in 700 pages; the mysterious demonic creatures who killed his parents and hinted at devious overarching purposes quickly go from compelling to peripheral to forgotten, as do a number of other characters and details that seem like they might be of importance but are mentioned so offhandly and in such isolation as to be pointless (such as specifically mentioning that Lady Lackless is a real person, p. 78).

Rothfuss also constantly violates the cardinal rule of storytelling: that every scene should either build character or advance the plot.  This book is full of bits that do neither.  For instance, there’s a scene where Kvothe, living on the streets of Tarbean, tries begging in the rich part of town during the winter celebration, gets beaten up by a town guard, and gets helped by two people in costumes who give him money.  We never see the guard or the costumed people again, he never goes begging in that part of town again (just as he hadn’t before), the money doesn’t get used for anything interesting, his injuries heal uneventfully, and Kvothe doesn’t act any differently than he did before.  Unless something later in the book connects back brilliantly to this moment, which I doubt, this scene belongs on the metaphorical cutting room floor**.

In terms of character development, entire sections of the book fail to build on each other.  “Bard/ranger/wizard: Worst multiclass ever,” I joked to Jordan, but it’s true in a way.  Like a bad multiclass, one thing he learns has no influence on the next.  I kept wondering why, as a street child, he doesn’t use the magic he knows to steal or keep himself safe or perform or any of its myriad possible uses; or, for that matter, why he doesn’t try being a street performer or seeking out another group of Edema Ruh actors (the answer is that the story is plot-driven: Kvothe is too awesomely awesome to be realistically victimized, but Rothfuss wants him to have his woobie moment, so he just fails to try any of the countless skills at his disposal).  In fact, Kvothe the street child acts as though his early life never happened.  His brief time alone in the forest is also not influenced by his earlier time learning magic, and it in turn has no influence on his actions in Tarbean (you don’t even need to ask whether it influences the overarching plot).

The last pacing issue is simply that Rothfuss seems to have no sense of what’s interesting and what isn’t.  We cut from a fight between a demon and a member of the Arcanum (six pages) to riding in the caravan reiterating exposition (nine pages).  The framing device is, at least theoretically, perfectly valid, but it falls apart if you’re always waiting for the main story to stop so you can get back to the framing events.

My final problem is the complete dearth of female characters.  By around page 50, I’d begun wondering why there are no women in this village.  The breakdown of female characters so far is:

  • Page 58 (That’s longer than an entire novella): First female character introduced. There are two, but the other one doesn’t have a speaking role.
  • Page 113: They both die. (That is, they have fewer pages total than preceded their introduction.)
  • Page 175: A female character without a speaking role is mentioned in a story.
  • Page 178: She dies.

Notice that they all die offscreen (or rather off-page).  This is a phenomenon called “stuffed in the fridge:” when a female character is killed off solely to provide character development for a male character***.  This virtually never happens in reverse; male characters are much more likely to die heroically, with the story still focused on them rather than on the people around them.  True, Kvothe’s father and some other male characters die too, but there are still plenty of living male characters, whereas, as of page 185, literally every female character has died.

Jordan assures me that it gets better.  He promises that there are not one, but multiple female characters who manage to not die (but do they talk to each other?).  He tells me that the Tarbean sequence is the slowest part of the book and that it picks up once Kvothe gets to the university.  I’m skeptical.  After all, “adventures at a magical school” is no less cliché than dead parents and could easily be just as disconnected and poorly paced as the story so far.  Rothfuss has squandered so much potential.  Why use shortcuts like dead parents and preternaturally brilliant protagonists in a book long enough to develop things properly?  Why introduce interesting characters like Bast and Chronicler and then consign them to sit around listening to Kvothe talk?  Why even have an overarching plot if it’s just going to be forgotten by both the reader and, apparently, the author?

All that’s left is the good writing, but good writing can’t carry a weak story.

See my reaction to the remainder of the book here.

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*Note that the opposite tack, which is used even more frequently–making the main character a hapless everyman with no skills or interesting traits at all–is also a mistake.  A character who can’t propel the plot at all is just as uninteresting as a character who has sole control over the plot.

**Jordan has validly pointed out that the scene introduces the Midwinter Pageantry and immediately precedes the scene where we hear the story behind it, which is a nice bit of organization.  Still, Kvothe didn’t need to find and lose and find money and get beat up for the umpteenth time.

***This concept was coined, originally in reference to comic books, by Gail Simone in 1999.  You can learn more at her website, Women in Refrigerators.  It doesn’t always require death; when women in fiction go through any sort of horrible trauma, the focus is often on the surrounding male characters and how they react, whereas with a man, it’s more logically on the man himself and how he changes and develops in response.

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High Culture (part I)

As I said previously,  I do not believe in high culture.  That is to say, in contrast to John Stuart Mill and his followers (not to mention Miss Manners), I do not believe that there are some types of culture that are inherently higher and better pursuits than others simply because of the category they belong to.  Instead, I believe that everything ought to compete on a level playing field based on its own individual merits.  That’s how I judge things.

Miss Manners’ defense of high culture’s superiority is earmarked with the latent, and often unnoticed, idiosyncrasies of the position:

[S]urely we’re getting over the snobbery of pretending that it is undemocratic to recognize any hierarchy of culture, as if both low and high can’t be appreciated, often be the same people… A chocolate bar is a marvelous sweet that does not need to pretend to be a chocolate soufflé; musical comedies are wonderful entertainment without trying to compete with opera; blue jeans are a perfect garment that shouldn’t be compared with haute couture. There are times when you would much rather have a really good hot dog than any steak, but you can still recognize that one is junk food and the other isn’t.

And that’s the extent of it.  She doesn’t, in fact, give any justification, but simply relies on the examples being obviously true.  The last one is the most compelling.  All hot dogs, it can be argued, are inferior to all steaks because the former are made of ambiguously meat-like substance glued together with nitrates, and the latter are made of actual meat.  Hot dogs are bad for you; steaks are…probably also bad for you, but in a natural way.  Okay.

Chocolate bars and soufflés are more ambiguous.  I assume she’s thinking of a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, which is undoubtedly inferior to just about anything with which it might be compared, but that’s what true chocolate lovers refer to as “mockolate,” not the real thing.  Good chocolate bars are a world away from Hershey’s.  Dagoba and Theo are the best made in the States; imported chocolates like Valrhona are better still, and, I’ve been told, the Swiss and Belgian chocolates that aren’t imported to the United States are the best of all.

Chocolate bars, unlike hot dogs, have a culture.  Good chocolate is made slowly by old-fashioned processes out of high-quality ingredients, and many countries stringently regulate what may be labeled “chocolate,” or what may be imported and sold at all.  There are chocolate-wine pairings.  Connoisseurs like this one use vocabulary reminiscent of wine tasting: “A single square, if given sufficient mouth time, will slowly, smoothly melt, revealing floral, nutty, and coffee notes.”  And a good chocolate bar should never, ever be eaten quickly.

Can soufflés compete?  Probably, but it’s a competition now.  Each has strengths and weaknesses.  Personal taste is likely to be the deciding factor.  The soufflé cannot claim superiority simply for being a soufflé.

And then there’s the clothing example.  Here Miss Manners steps onto thin ice, completely oblivious.  Because the difference between jeans and haute couture is entirely unlike the difference between one food and another.  Take a look at these haute couture pictures and think about them for a moment.  In particular, think about what it would be like to actually wear them.

Fashion has dark undercurrents.  Women have starved themselves to appear fashionable; they have destroyed their feet and distorted their bodies into grotesque shapes.  Why?  Because they could.  They did not need the strong bodies and sensible outfits of peasant women.  They did not work.  People could help them in and out of carriages and outfits.  They could pause and rest on a couch halfway up the stairs if their shrunken lungs couldn’t make it all the way at once.

And haute couture, along with all modern fashion, is heir to that.  High heels and hiking boots are similarly priced and made with similar care and quality.  The difference?  One is useful and the other is useless.  The uselessness is the point.  Because fashion exists to divide us from them, those who can wear high heels from those who need sensible shoes, those who go to the opera from those who go to musicals.  It’s a construct supporting the narrative that some people–those who engage in high culture–are better than others.

I don’t believe that some people are better than others.  And therefore, I don’t believe in high culture.

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Images from Wikimedia Commons.

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Oddity of the Week

Here’s another bit of arcana I love:  The 1980 review of The Empire Strikes Back by Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners.

Any contemporary review of a future classic is sure to demonstrate an amusing lack of perspective, but one by the last bastion of an increasingly defunct cultural order  is particularly charming.  She likes the movie, but is uneasy about liking it, and feels the need to defend the position that it is not and cannot be really good because, after all, it’s only a science fiction film:

But when light entertainment is done well, someone is bound to make extravagant and unsupportable claims for its being great art. You will hear that this sequel to “Star Wars” is part of a vast new mythology, as if it were the Oresteia. Its originator, George Lucas, has revealed that the two pictures are actually parts four and five of a nine-part sage, as if audiences will some day receive the total the way devotees now go to Seattle for a week of immersion in Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle.

Ah, the delicious sound of irony.  Take a moment with me and estimate how many people have seen the entirety of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, versus how many have done a Star Wars marathon.  I haven’t done either, since college plans for a Star Wars marathon fell through, but I have done a marathon of another bit of, no doubt, low culture of Wagner-worthy epic scale, which coincidentally also involves a ring.

I, however, can do so without acting defensive about it, because I don’t believe in high culture.  I don’t think that Star Wars or anything else need be placed on the back seat so that Wagner can reign without threat; if Wagner is so weak as to be threatened, then perhaps it deserves to be dethroned.  More on this later.

Image from Wookieepedia.

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Bromance

The great thing about having a blog is that I can write about whatever I feel like, regardless of whether it’s important or relevant or, indeed, whether there’s any good reason at all to write about it.  Such as, for instance, homosexual subtext.

Fandom calls this “ho yay” or “bromance,” and it’s everywhere.  Movies, TV shows, cartoons, you name it–and, of course, famously throughout the Batman franchise.  (It shows up less in print, a medium less conducive to reading a lot into meaningful glances, though it’s still far from absent.)

Of course this post was inspired by X-Men: First Class.  If you haven’t seen it, you should; it’s a great movie, and I think it competes strongly for X2 as best in the franchise, mostly due to the strength of the acting and the cool 60s setting.  And yes, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy have a tremendous amount of, well, magnetism; their relationship overwhelms the bits of hetero romance, which is probably for the best, given the watered-down rendition of Mystique’s character.

In this case, it turns out, it’s totally intentional.  The gay-rights allegory is a major theme in all the modern X-Men incarnations; in X2, Iceman tells his parents about his power in a coming-out scene that includes the line “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”  One of the film’s writers has confirmed this in relation to the new movie.  The actors are completely aware, too; McAvoy states that he thinks it’s a tragedy that the two don’t actually hook up.

So sometimes it’s there and proud.  Other times it’s a complete fan fabrication.  But (this is the part where I pull Serious Cultural Issues out of this apparently pointless post) why are so many works affected by Ho Yay?  And why is it essentially always a male/male phenomenon, with no real female/female counterpart?

If your response was “fangirls are female so they only notice it with guys” or, worse, “you’re female so you only notice it with guys,” you may come over to receive your obligatory smack on the head.  True, Jordan didn’t notice any subtext in the Charles/Erik relationship, but take a moment and try to think of a movie, TV show, or even book where two strong female leads have a friendship that could be non-canonically construed to be romantic.  I’ll wait.

If you named Fried Green Tomatoes, that’s canon and so it doesn’t count.  If you named anything else, let me know, because I didn’t.

The primary factor at work here is quite simply the Bechdel Test.  There are any number of works focused on the relationship between two male leads, but almost none about two female leads.  Any stories that do have multiple female leads are probably chick flicks that have at least as much interest in the male love interests.  They’re also more likely to have a group of female friends (usually one lead and a bunch of supporters), rather than just two who have a close relationship.

Additionally and more subtlely, Hollywood just treats male friendship with more respect than female friendship.  There’s  triviality to how female relationships are treated: It’s all shoes and boys and shopping and gossip; there’s not really anything there.  According to filmmakers, only men are capable of forming the sort of deep, meaningful friendships that lead to fan speculation.

But unlike most of Hollywood’s gender issues, I don’t feel any desire to complain about this one.

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And the other thing that bothers me: When Erik is trying to stop the submarine, why doesn’t he just bend the propeller?

If you’re wondering why comic book franchises seem particularly affected by bromance, I think the principal reason is just that comic books often center around one male character and his interactions with everyone else, making all the male supporting cast members potential slash targets.  Other factors are the silly costumes that make for easy accusations of gayness, the questionable young same-gendered sidekicks, and the general golden-age lack of self-awareness that allowed writers to create panels like the top one without, apparently, realizing the implications.

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