“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.” Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Spoiler Alert: If you have not read Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, there might be some minor spoilers here. Also, you should read it (seriously), maybe even before you read my book.
Critics have always struggled with genre fiction. The know when to clap loudly and vigorously when some due comes along and breaks formula in an interesting fashion, to point out when a writer pushes sexism or one of the many other -isms out there, and to expose exceptionally bad writing. Other than that critics run into the huge wall of fandom that often really, truly love the things that critics hate most about genre fiction, namely the tropes. Fantasy tropes include magic, elves, dwarves, magic swords, castles, and dragons. Tropes can also include common plots and storytelling devices, like quests and prophecies. Readers who love the genre, tend to enjoy the tropes, no matter how well worn they get. I suspect that in many cases it is only after prolonged exposure to critical opinion that readers begin to view the tropes as a bad thing. After all, when I got bored of Fantasy for a bit in the 90s, I simply moved on and read history and literature for a while and then returned with fresh eyes.
I”ll get to Kvothe in a minute.
Most forms of literature suffer tremendously when they become ridden by convention and formula. The great critics are those who have perceived and broken this sort of blockages, acting like a cleanser of the collective literary bowels. They seek the original and the fresh. Reviewers seek to emulate these great critics and often try to adopt their terminology and methodology. Genre Fiction however is based on tropes and formula, which makes it very difficult to criticize in this fashion. As formula breaking as A Song of Ice and Fire is, it still has magic, dragons, knights, and children seeking vengeance for their fallen Father. When I grabbed Game of Thrones off the shelves many years ago I picked it up because of the tropes, not in spite of them. In fact, Fantasy Fans who love George RR Martin, often love him more because with a deeper understanding of genre tropes and formula they can understand the changes he makes. At least up until book four 😉
Because of the difficulty of criticizing originality in genre fiction, fantasy reviewers are often reduced to attacking specific tropes. They’re tired of elves, or shining heroes, too much grimdark, etc etc. One of the most common criticisms in Fantasy is that the protagonist is simply too skilled, too powerful, and lacking in weakness. This is usually referred to as Mary Sue in fantasy discussion shorthand. Having just Name of the Wind, and Wise Man’s Fear, enjoying them immensely I am particularly interested in discussions of the books. A frequent criticism of Rothfuss’ creation is that Kvothe, the main character, is unabashedly Mary Sue. I have no problem with people disliking the book, or Kvothe, but I do have an issue with people labeling the character as Mary Sue as a criticism. Use of this term acts as a warning sign to certain readers, and will turn them off or prejudice them against the book. Here are five reasons why it is wrong to label Kvothe as Mary Sue. Bear in mind that these contain spoilers.
1) Kvothe is narrating his own story: The structure of the book is based around Kvothe recounting the story of his life to the Chronicler. He skips the boring parts. We always have his perspective and insight into events, which has obviously been polished by hindsight, and possibly embellished. The autobiographical nature of the account is key here.
2) Kvothe notes that he inflates his own reputation: Kvothe is a legend in the world he inhabits. Within the world he is definitely seen as a sort of Mary Sue figure, and often has powers and deeds falsely attributed to him. Part of the reason he is a legend is that he purposefully crafted a reputation for himself. Rothfuss delves fairly deep into the idea of how great men and women often owe much of their fame to the stories that grow around them, perhaps even becoming trapped within them. He definitely plays with the idea of the Mary Sue trope, but breaks it frequently.
3) Kvothe is frequently outclassed: Kvothe has the crap kicked out of him by a ten year old. He is beaten in a mystical contest of wills by a moneylender. He is frequently outwitted and outclassed by Ambrose, who uses money and influence to overcome Kvothe’s natural talent and skill. Even in music, he has rivals. He often outright fails, and while does eventually succeed at most things he tries, he certainly struggles.
4) Kvothe is an epic character with epic enemies: Kvothe is certainly very skilled. He picks up languages very easily. He charms a faerie queen (which is hardly unique… read some books people!). He survives distasters, He is a good fighter, magic user, and a brilliant musician. But he’s not better than everyone else. His foes are insanely powerful creatures of legend who carefully destroy any real trace of their existence. Who do you expect to go after the Chandrian? It would be rather worse than Mary Sue to have villains of that magnitude defeated by someone less than impressive.
5) No one who is worse with romance than I am is Mary Sue: Kvothe has many weaknesses. Denna is a prime example. Kvothe loves her and she seems to feel the same, but he falls for the same traps that we all do in romantic relationships instead of sweeping her off her feet. Seriously anyone who messes up basic relationships that badly is pretty human in my books.
So yeah, Kvothe is not really a Mary Sue character. I think confusion arises because the author is playing with the trope more than anything and it is a low hanging fruit for people who don’t like the book to grasp at.
Fantasy is also an expanding genre. This has led to another pet peeve of mine, although it has more to do with categorization than criticism. Urban Fantasy. I would categorize Urban Fantasy as any part of the genre that deals with elements of the fantastic and urban issues and environments. From Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser to Perdido Street Station to the Dresden Files. But the term seems confused and vague these days, and people often argue what counts as urban fantasy. Of course an astute reader will note that Steampunk, Paranormal Fantasy, and Flintlock Fantasy often deal with urban issues as well. Arg. It often annoys me because people throw these categories around a pejoratives or assign meaning to them beyond just helpful comparison. Criticism of any of these categories as a whole seems deeply suspicious to me.
On the other hand, I’m pretty happy to have these gripes. The world of literature outside of genre fiction is often dominated by experts who are into ideas that are opaque to the average reader. New writers are often savaged by these alpha critics unless they bow to the established structure. In Fantasy and other genre fiction, the less formal critical structure and the accessible nature of a form based on tropes, ensures that authors are more likely to write to the readers instead of to the critics.