Twilight’s Mary-Sue: Inspired or Insipid?
Among the many notable things that my favorite show Star Trek brought into the world comes from a 1973 fanfiction in which the young lieutenant Mary-Sue appears on the enterprise and saves the day with a hairpin, then dies surrounded by all the weeping main characters. From these ignoble beginning we have the literary term Mary-Sue, a somewhat derogatory term for a character meant to favorably project the author (or audience) into the story.
Mary-Sues are characterized by one or more characteristics that set them apart from every one else. In practice, these are things such as a superior mental abilities, an intoxicating smell, irresistible beauty, unparalleled genius, notable grace or klutziness, or a resistance to a fatal disease. However, the most defining characteristic is Mary-Sue’s importance within the fictional world; without her, chaos would surely reign and life would have no meaning. For a checklist of many typical features of a Mary-Sue, click here!
It’s only natural to put a character that represents a better version of you at the center of your fictional world; I’m most certainly the centre of my own world. Stephanie Meyer, the creator of the Twilight saga, finds parallels with Bella in her own life:
Bella’s positive reception at her new school in Forks, particularly her popularity with male characters, was modelled after Meyer’s real life move from high school to college. Comparing her transitional experience to Bella’s, Meyer noted that after her own move to college her “stock went through the roof,” commenting that “beauty is a lot more subjective than you might think.” -Source: Wikipedia
Write what you know- it’s practically the writers first rule. The second rule would be writing characters your audience will relate to, and once again, Meyer has succeeded. What I find interesting, and a bit troubling, is the method in which Meyer achieved her success in writing. In general, especially in the type of multi-tomed epics like Twilight, I’d expect to have well-developed characters with believable motives acting in a consistent way. At the very least a physical description that allows us to create a picture of them in our minds eye. But what I get, notably when it comes to Bella is this:
Bella is very fair-skinned, with long, straight, dark brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. Her face is heart-shaped—a wide forehead with a widow’s peak, large, wide-spaced eyes, prominent cheekbones, and then a thin nose and a narrow jaw with a pointed chin. Her lips are a little out of proportion, a bit too full for her jaw line. Her eyebrows are darker than her hair and more straight than they are arched. She’s five foot four inches tall, slender but not at all muscular, and weighs about 115 pounds. She has stubby fingernails because she has a nervous habit of biting them. And there’s your very detailed description.
This description, skeletal as it may be, doesn’t even appear in the novels. That’s from Stephanie Meyer’s website . Her explanation as to why even that was too much to include in some of the bestselling books of recent memory? “So that the reader could more easily step into her shoes”. Stephanie Meyer herself perfectly fits the physical description of Bella, (I’d be willing to bet that she chews her nails, too)! Even the author accepts the premise that Bella was created to serve as an unobjectionable stand in for the audience, but it is obvious that Stephanie Meyer’s Bella simply represents Stephanie Meyer in the series.
In other words, Bella is a Mary-Sue.
This is troubling when you consider the content of the series. The big premise of the whole thing is two indescribably gorgeous and studly hunks of men fighting endlessly over Stephanie Meyer Bella. The series looks less and less like a love story, and more like wish fulfillment. I’ve written before about how Twilight is anti-feminist, but is wish fulfillment necessarily a bad thing?
Not at all! However, we must accept that wish fulfillment hasn’t exactly created the best literature, especially not when it comes to romance. Make no mistake, we have whole genres of books that fill this exact niche in society: You find them next to the tubs of ice creme and tissues at the grocery store, and they sell for about 3 bucks. I wouldn’t dare compare Twilight to a Harlequin romance novel though; that would be insulting to the genre of standalone works of fiction that at least have believable (if really trashy) characters.
In fact, Twilight has lots in common with another genre: Porn. Let’s take your quintessential porn plot. An average guy (probably a pizza guy) finds himself at a house filled with improbably attractive women, who, despite all the reasons against, must shtup the pizza guy, who turns out to have a huge dick! They might even fight about it, although I’d imagine that the fighting about it would take up less then four movies of terrible dialogue and eventually end with (spoilers) one of the buxom women falling in love with the infant child of the pizza guy. In both, there is an obsession with penetration, except porn usually gets that over within five minutes. Most tellingly, the pizza guy (the Mary-Sue) is who the audience is meant to relate to, and the cameras usually concentrate on the beautiful women while the pizza guy, face offscreen if at all possible, gets all his needs taken care of.
Thing about porn is, it sells. Boy, oh boy does it sell. Billions of dollars worldwide, and a full third (to be conservative) of the internet is devoted to it. It is cheap to make, and it requires very little creativity, with an explicit focus on superficial features at the expense of any characterization whatsoever. I’m not at all surprised that Stephanie Meyer and the Twilight saga have done so well: She’s combined the worst parts of fan fiction with the lazy writing and unrealistic superficiality of porn, and marketed it to average people (read: middle aged cat ladies) who want to get off on hunky supernatural teens with nice abs.