Friday, December 19, 2008

On being a hack

Just a short post today because I was listening to a podcast and heard something that raised my hackles. Or would have, if that weren't a cliche.

The comment in question was that including eye color in fiction makes one a hack.

One of the first things I learned about Scarlett O'Hara in middle school is that she has green eyes. Am I going to call Margaret Mitchell a hack? Not on your life (another cliché! kill it!).

As with anything, eye color can be over-used. If you find that it's the first thing you turn to when you're writing a character description, maybe you need to think about your technique a little more. But some people do notice eye color, and some people do have noticeable eye color. And that should be reflected in your writing.

I don't think a single thing can make you a hack, not even using -ly adverbs. Elmore Leonard had a character in one of his books where every single dialogue tag had an adverb attached. Perhaps he was being ironic; perhaps it was a joke; perhaps he wanted to see whether anyone would notice. Two things to note: it was ONE character, and it worked.

Making guidelines for yourself is fine. Knowing when to break guidelines others have created is better. However, don't make a guideline for an arbitrary reason and expect everyone else to follow it. They're not hacks just because they don't follow a rule you just made up.

In the comments, list any signs you can think of that point to being a hack. Or tell me what rules you think are applied too broadly and need to be checked.


Elizabeth said...

I think the whole Mary Sue witch hunt is way overdone. First, there are just too many definitions that different people use for "Mary Sue," and then those same people apply the term without explaining how they are using it. Not only that, but I think the majority of times it is an issue, it is not only the character that is an issue. There are likely plot and setting issues as well, which can get ignored by someone seeing that someone else thinks their character is a Mary Sue. Not only that, but it's possible that changing the setting and/or plot might actually *solve* the entire so-called "Mary Sue" problem. Therefore, using the term diverts attention away from the real problem (some kind of discrepancy between the character and the world/plot) toward just one manifestation of it (the character on the whole is bad).

Finally, I've noticed that, despite there being male alternatives (Gary Stu, etc.), people are far more likely to point to female characters who show signs - even miniscule ones - of "Mary Sue-ism" than to judge male characters in the same way.

When using the term as it was originally conceived (an original character in a *fan fiction* story who renders the canon characters irrelevant), I think it's fine. But it's gotten way out of control, especially in discussions about fantasy.

E. Hartshorn said...

@ Elizabeth: Ah, yes, I wrote a real Mary Sue long before I knew the term existed -- in Star Trek fanfic. I blush to remember her, though it was fun to do.

It's true that we should have exceptional characters, and assuming that one who stands out is authorial self-insertion (which is what I understand the point of the fanfic Mary Sue to be) might well be ignoring other issues.

Thanks for commenting!

Diane said...

I think it's possible to write a quest without being a hack.

E. Hartshorn said...

@Diane: I sure hope so!