Problems with Mary Sues: Part Two
Dropped Into Middle Earth…When Reality Intervenes
Middle-earth has been compared to Earth in the Dark Ages before, with varying degrees of success. This is a somewhat useful comparison, if not entirely accurate; there are some fundamental differences, but the nitty-gritty details of life are basically the same.
Let’s examine life at that time up close: there was an extraordinarily low literacy rate; a very high infant mortality rate; barely any organized medicine; water was considered unsanitary and generally not drunk; preservatives and additives in food (with the exception of salt) had not been discovered yet; there was no indoor plumbing; and traveling was VERY difficult and fraught with peril.
Think about this, carefully. Then examine the life of a teenager on
1. Food and Drink
Over time, the people of Middle-earth have developed a VERY high tolerance for alcohol. They largely don’t drink water, remember, and for good reason: without filtering, the rivers and lakes contained huge amounts of bacteria, and could cause dysentery, cholera, and a host of other ailments. (This was an age without antibiotics; even things like strep and the flu were fatal more often than not.) So the logical alternatives were ale, beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages, because (since the fermentation process gets out most of the bacteria) they don’t kill you.
Unless your character is a heavy drinker already, and most of them aren’t, there’s no way she could cope with drinking as much as she’d have to in almost any Middle-earth location.
Most 21st century food is processed to rid it of bacteria and dangerous
chemicals; FDA inspectors examine the meat and cheese you eat to ensure
their sanitation. There is nothing like that in Middle-earth! Your typical
weak-immune-system Earth teenager would probably die, or at least get very
ill for a long time.
2. Interaction with People
One thing that is crucial to understand is that the people of Middle-earth are not speaking English.
There are at least seven known M-e languages: Westron, Quenya, Sindarin, Adunaic, Rohirric, the Black Speech or Black Tongue of Mordor, and Orkish. None of them are English.
For example, if your OC drops into a Gondorrim or hobbit settlement (the Shire, Bree, Archet, Minas Tirith, pretty much anywhere along the Anduin), the language will be Westron, the Common Tongue, which is- not to belabor a point- NOT ENGLISH. Merry (Meriadoc)’s actual Westron name is Kalimac Brandagamba; Tolkien ‘translated’ this into English and came up with Meriadoc.
So, when Lilliana tumbles into Bilbo’s birthday party or the Prancing Pony, she won’t actually understand a word anyone is saying! This is the equivalent of being dropped into a foreign country, without modern facilities, without a way back home and where you don’t speak the language. Not exactly fun!
If you manage to explain away the language barrier (which is quite plausible; a trans-dimensional hop is weird enough that a little thing like language could pretty easily be taken care of), there’s still a lot of sociology- or rather common sense- to take into account.
If your OC is plunked into the War of the Ring, and most of them are, keep in mind that they are in the middle of a very dark time; everyone is suspicious of everyone else; because the Dark Lord is so nefarious and treacherous that anyone could be a spy. The WWII analogy is pretty useful here, again: in a US coastal town just after Pearl Harbor, a mysterious woman appears who seems deeply foreign, doesn’t know local customs, is dressed outlandishly, and has uncanny knowledge of things she shouldn’t. What do you think would happen?
In a time when the danger of annihilation lurks on the horizon, any stranger would be suspicious, especially someone who seems like she’s from far away. In all likelihood, she’d be arrested and held as a spy, right? It’s only common sense…
And if the local population of anywhere, at that point, would suspect
her, how much more so the Council of Elrond! Imagine an unauthorized stranger
with no clearance and no adequate explanations appearing in the middle
of Winston Churchill’s most important top-secret strategy meeting with
Allied captains, upon which hinges the war against Hitler!
3. And What About Her?
One of the most aggravating things about ‘Sues is the fact that they are wasting a fascinating reservoir of a topic! Can you imagine the shock- the horror- any normal person would feel when suddenly uprooted into a situation for which they have no training, no skills, no experience to fall back on? How would she cope? How would she eat? Drink? Would the populace be hostile, or helpful?
What an opportunity! The audience can readily sympathize with a regular Joe, like you and me, who is completely overwhelmed by the sheer unbelievability of her situation!
But who can possibly identify with Lilliana PrettySilverHair, who drops in, handles everything, is accepted smoothly without a glitch, and steals the spotlight from our favorite characters? We're left with the sour taste of incredulity in our mouths: yeah right, it'd never happen like that, that's impossible, I don't believe this...
The thing about Tolkien is that, while he bends the rules of reality (Elves, Dwarves, Balrogs, and Trolls, anyone?) he leaves enough of them around to let us get a foothold. When the hobbits get tired and hungry, we can sympathize: we've all been there. When the Rohirrim face impossible odds at Helm's Deep we're ready to cry and cheer, because bravery and nobility are things we know about. The world may be very different, but human nature is fundamentally unchanged, and that is the key: we go back to Tolkien not just because of the battles and creatures and descriptions, but because we care about Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin and Aragorn and Legolas, and all their fellows: we've come to love them, and feel for them. That's what separates good writing from bad: when an audience is swept up by drama and moved by pathos and joyful with the happiness they read about.
So make us love Lilliana! Before you talk about her hair, and her snogging of Legolas, talk about her loneliness, her fear, her alienation- her humanity. Let us feel like we're there with her, shivering in the unfamiliar territory of another universe that feels so different when you're just watching the movie...
And that takes work. It does. Scrawling some words on the back of your math notebook in five minutes on the bus isn't going to cut it. For we readers to make the effort to bridge the gap between the page and our hearts requires effort on the part of the author, too: research! Learn about the world you're going to write of! Fanfiction isn't to get unquestionable praise for something not particularly praiseworthy, nor is it necessarily practice for something better. Fanfiction is also an art, and deserves respect as such. So respect the reader, respect Tolkien's universe, and respect yourself: don't write things that don't live up to your potential- make everything you write the best it can possibly be.