Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly: Part VII. Or why I hate Jon Snow.
It has been a while since I took a pot shot at genre clichés, but today the stars are right, and I find myself looking for an excuse to rant.
Today’s rant is about Mary Sues. Specifically their male incarnation, the Gary Stu. And even more specifically, about Jon Snow, so spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire.
Why am I focusing on Gary over Mary? Is not Mary Sue the far better-known character trope, one that has been hovering over fanfiction for a good forty years? Well, yes. Which is precisely the point: while the female variation has been discussed to death, it is rarer for someone to talk about Gary. If I am going to attack a cliché, it ought to be rather more than flogging a dead equine. I am also more interested in criticising actual published texts than in hacking apart some hapless teenager’s fanfiction – Mary Sue may be famously common in the latter, but Gary Stu is more common in the former.
(My hypothesis: fanfiction is generally written by women, while male authors make up a much greater share of published fantasy. As I have said before, I think there is an unconscious tendency for people to identify more closely with characters of their own gender, so women will tend to produce Mary Sues, and men will tend to produce Gary Stus. Which means you will find more Marys than Garys in fanfiction, and more Garys than Marys in published texts).
So what is a Mary Sue/Gary Stu? There are various descriptive definitions floating around, all of which come back to the same basic idea. Authorial wish-fulfilment/self-insertion, a character without flaws whose overwhelming perfection destroys tension and annoys the reader… these are generally considered the hallmarks of Suedom. It’s a fair enough definition too, but I think it runs into the problem that this sort of character can still be written well, whereas a genuine Gary Stu is inherently damaging to a story. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Bilbo Baggins, in the original Hobbit, is clearly a wish-fulfilment character. He’s a bored, middle-aged, middle-class man, who would like nothing more than some dwarves from Norse myth to sweep him away on an adventure – much like his author, in fact. Bonus points if you recall that Bilbo’s maternal grandfather was the Old Took, who lived to a great age and had three daughters, and that Tolkien’s maternal grandfather was John Suffield, who lived to a great age and had three daughters. Is Bilbo a Gary Stu? If one were simply going by wish-fulfilment criteria, then probably. But Bilbo also happens to have his limits: he’s no fighter, no predestined hero who gets the girl (c.f. my issues with the 1966 Hobbit movie), and he complains a lot. The character growth he experiences does not turn him into a fighter or hero either: it’s his resourcefulness and moral choices that win the day. In short, Tolkien’s wish-fulfilment does not create something which is annoyingly idealised, and the entire point is that the character remains grounded. It would not be stretching things to see The Hobbit as a literary ancestor of self-insert fantasy deconstructions.
More awkward is Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Here we find a character who isn’t just wish-fulfilment, but idealised wish-fulfilment. He’s strong, an excellent fighter, doesn’t take any shit from anyone, and has women falling all over him (once he’s rescued them from the Mad Wizard of the Week anyway). In contrast to more modern stereotypes, he’s not a muscle-bound idiot either, but actually highly intelligent, with a gift for languages. Is Conan a Gary Stu? Much online ink has been spilled over this, with misplaced attempts to invoke Mary Sue Tests – as though one can somehow quantify fiction by numbers. In reality, I would say that the debate misses the point – which is that if Conan is a Gary Stu, he is not a problematic one. Of all the things a modern reader might question about Robert E. Howard’s stories, Conan being annoyingly perfect is not one of them. The reason for this is twofold:
(1) Conan stories are plot-driven, not character-driven. One reads them for the action and adventure, not for Conan’s inner thoughts.
(2) More importantly: the world does not twist itself to suit Conan.
This second point gets to the heart of why a Mary Sue/Gary Stu is annoying in the first place: stories require tension and conflict. We read to see how tension and conflict will get resolved, so a fictional universe that contorts itself in order to favour a particular character is literally the author cheating the reader. An author can get away with this as a special, one-off event – I am thinking of Harry Potter surviving Voldemort’s Killing Curse as a baby – but once the internal rules are in place, they generally have to be adhered to. Gary Stus don’t follow the internal logic of the setting, which is why they and their Mary Sue sisters are such a problem. Fortunately, whatever else one may say of Howard, he does not rig the game to suit his protagonist, no matter how perfect Conan may be.
This gives us a working definition of a Gary Stu: a character who warps the story from within. Whatever their associated levels of authorial wish-fulfilment, neither Bilbo nor Conan qualify. But I mentioned Gary Stus existing in other published texts – perhaps we could look at some examples?
An often-cited one is Kvothe, from Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller books. Kvothe is a multi-talented genius and musician, naturally adept at anything he puts his mind to. He twists the reality of Rothfuss’ world to a spectacular degree, culminating with him sexually impressing a millennia-old goddess as a sixteen year-old virgin. Now Rothfuss’ method for dealing with his Gary Stu is to basically make it part of Kvothe’s unreliable narration: our protagonist is telling his own story, so of course he is going to be a bit self-aggrandising (and we know from the framing story that Kvothe ends up a washed-up bar-keeper, so things didn’t quite go as planned). However, in the absence of Rothfuss’ concluding volume, it is rather hard to judge the level of unreliable narration, and even if Kvothe is spinning us a yarn, it is the internal logic of his story we actually have to deal with. We are either reading a Gary Stu, or we are reading a story where the narrator makes himself a Gary Stu – and while, as a reader, I like Rothfuss’ worldbuilding and his prose, I can’t stand Kvothe for this very reason. It is actually why I think Rothfuss’ best book is The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Kvothe isn’t in it.
Then there is Jon Snow, from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a character who I genuinely do believe betrays the internal logic of the story. I am fully aware that much of what follows is contentious, so that’s why I am now going to drop any pretence of objectivity, and go into full-scale lengthy rant mode. I’m a reader – I can do that.
(Please note that I am only specifying the book character here – I am perfectly fine with the TV version).
Jon Snow, I would suggest, is the one gaping hole in a series populated by a fascinating collection of flawed human beings. He is a walking cliché who time and again gets unearned reward while facing straw-man opponents, and if he ends up anywhere near the throne at the end of the series, I shall scream very loudly.
In the very first chapter, Jon is established as a deeply perceptive character, when we see him making all sorts of commentary on the royal visit to Winterfell. Now this, in itself, is not a problem: Tyrion is also very perceptive, and we are similarly treated to various character judgements through his eyes. But Tyrion is established as highly intelligent, educated, and politically savvy fellow; Jon is a 14 year old who has little experience or knowledge of politics. And whereas Tyrion’s flaws are there for all to see, Jon is emphatically not ugly and crippled and afflicted with a seriously warped family environment. Jon, it seems, is just gifted.
Then Jon winds up on the Wall. And sulks a lot. He makes a enemy of a cartoonish villain (Thorne), and courtesy of being in the right place at the right time, ends up getting his hands on a Valyrian Steel Blade. Bearing in mind that Longclaw has been in the Mormont family for centuries, and that Tywin Lannister would have killed to get his hands on Valyrian Steel. If the Wall really is this tough, unyielding place, Jon should have received polite thanks, and perhaps a few nods from the old hands. A 14 year old non-Mormont has no business running around with that sort of sword, but Jon gets a cool blade to go with his cool wolf. This is why I read him as a Gary Stu.
Jon also angsts about being allocated to the Stewards. In a series where Arya and Sansa are dealing with psychopaths, and where Ned is getting his head cut off, Jon’s whinge is that he hasn’t got into his desired class. And even that turns out to be a silver lining, since Jon ‘gets-everything-on-a-silver-platter’ Snow is being groomed for the Lord Commandership (which, of course, is supposed to be a democracy. Mormont could groom him all he likes, but it’s the Watch’s decision, not his. Except that Snow is now destined…).
Oh yes, and Jon gets prosthetic wit courtesy of hanging out with Dolorous Ed, which sets the general precedent for the rest of the series: the character and action in Jon’s storyline comes from the supporting cast, not the hero. Jon himself is a passive reactor to events, but hey, he’s probably the hidden son of Rhaegar, and he’s earned it all with his excellent choice of parents.
Finally, the book presents us with the first of Jon Snow’s patented dilemmas. Which in pretty much every case are actually choices between making a right or wrong decision. Other characters may be faced with scenarios where every choice is bad, but as we’ll see in future books, if Jon ends up in such a situation, a deus ex machina rides to the rescue to get him out. In this case it’s a choice between deserting and riding to help Robb, or staying true to his vows. Which isn’t really a dilemma at all in this context, though fortunately for Jon, he’s protected from the consequences of his actions through the timely intervention of the supporting cast (Lord Commander Mormont is also very forgiving). A shame we couldn’t have had Robb beheading Jon as a deserter. Damn you, Sam…
We’ve got Jon singled out for a dangerous mission under Qhorin Halfhand. Now bearing in mind that Qhorin had far more experienced rangers at his disposal, and that all Jon Snow has going for him is the fact that he’s got a nifty sword, a cool wolf, and the author’s favour. I’ll be a bit forgiving here, and acknowledge that Jon had to go on an expedition some time, but when viewed in terms of the overall story, it’s a clear contrivance to get Jon into the clutches of the Wildings (put yourself in Qhorin’s shoes: would you have taken Jon?).
More serious though is Jon letting Ygritte go. Ygritte is an enemy to the Watch, and will let the the Wildings know where the rangers are: in this life or death situation, Jon should have been severely reprimanded. But instead, Qhorin waves it away as a ‘test of character’. Ugh. If one’s honour means no more than one’s life, so long as the realm is safe (as Qhorin says later), besmirching one’s honour by killing Ygritte takes precedence over letting her inform the realm’s enemies. But Jon is never called up on it.
Recall that Jon, having been picked by Qhorin, was forced by Qhorin to kill Qhorin, because god forbid Jon Snow actually show some agency on his own accord. Well, in A Storm of Swords we have Jon similarly being pushed along his storyline by other characters.
First off, there’s Ygritte. Who obligingly bails him out in front of Mance. So far so good, except that she puts Our Hero into one of his patented dilemmas. To help the Watch, obey Qhorin’s orders, and have sex with the hot Wilding chick, or to get his head sliced off and help no-one? It is, of course, no choice at all, and meanwhile Ygritte provides Jon with a prosthetic penis in much the same way as Sam and Edd constitute prosthetic brain and wit: she temporarily obscures Jon’s mind-numbing blandness and ensures he isn’t a virgin when he hooks up with Daenerys, because a virgin guy just isn’t Man Enough to save the world in this story. Then she dies, thereby solving the pesky problems of a potential pregnancy (a death that is fortunately anonymously-caused – we can’t have Jon killing his own lover, can we?).
Then there’s Stannis’ contribution. Slynt and Thorne, post-graduate students of the Snidely Whiplash School of Moustache-Twirling Villainy, actually manage to put Jon in a genuine dilemma: to kill Mance or not to kill Mance? Honour clashes with orders, and there’s no clear way out for Our Hero. But not to worry. Before Jon has the chance to resolve things, Stannis Baratheon conveniently turns up just at the right moment, and solves everything. Once again, we see the world of ASOIAF warping itself to suit Jon Snow, the defining characteristic of the Gary Stu trope.
But this is a mere entrée of cliché, an appetizer for the main course, before Jon’s passive, dull, bland nature comes to full flower. I refer of course to the Lord Commandership. The backstory is bad enough. Lord Commander Mormont takes leave of his senses. deciding to take all his other potential successors with him on a suicide mission, and to no-one’s surprise gets them (and himself) killed. Then the two leading replacement candidates are oh-so-conveniently at such loggerheads they can’t possibly put aside their rivalry for the good of the Watch, and are oh-so-conveniently stupid, they can’t be bothered to check the veracity of Sam’s story. But at least Sam is trying. Which is more than Jon is doing.
But let’s run with this. You’re the Night’s Watch. You’ve lost your Lord Commander and most of the elite men, and there’s a deadlocked election. Winter is coming on, and the Wall faces its greatest ever threat. What do you do? Well, if you want a compromise candidate, you pick someone non-controversial, someone who sort-of makes everyone happy. Someone old enough to act as a reasonable placeholder so everyone can try again in a couple of years (this is what happens in papal elections). You don’t pick someone with desertion charges hanging over their head, someone who is the bastard brother of a wrecked dynasty, someone who will piss off the most powerful man in the realm before he actually does anything. You don’t pick a teenager, who, if they’re ultimately incompetent, will nevertheless be ruling the Watch for the next sixty years, without the back-up of a friendly Winterfell. You don’t pick Jon Snow.
But who am I kidding. Neither common sense nor internal rules apply to Gary Stus.
N/A (Jon is not a point of view character in A Feast for Crows).
The great cliff-hanger, of course (resolved in the TV series, but as yet unresolved in the books) -Jon Snow, stabbed in the back by his own men, after he resolves to march south to Winterfell with Wilding support. No-one actually believes that Jon will stay dead in a series that specialises in fake deaths, but a highly memorable moment nonetheless.
How do we fit Bowen Marsh stabbing Jon into this analytic rant?
On one hand, after all that has gone before with Jon, this is a nice change of pace: at long last, Jon actually has to face the consequences of his actions. He spends his time as Lord Commander alienating that faction of his men who (justifiably) dislike the Wildings, while simultaneously sending his allies away. Then he decides to break the Night Watch’s convention of neutrality by attacking Ramsay – which provokes the attempted murder. The internal logic of the world has finally reasserted itself. Does this mean that we can acquit Jon of Gary Stuism?
Unfortunately, no: as mentioned before, Jon will not stay dead. Death has become rather cheap in Martin’s world of late, and there is no reason to think the Gary Stu won’t similarly benefit. Bowen Marsh, treated in-story as a figure of ridicule (I prefer to read him as a hero) will be punished, and Jon will be free to hook up with Daenerys and save the world. In fact, by “dying” in this manner, Jon escapes the letter of the Watch’s Oath: it arguably frees him up to assume the throne and marry his aunt completely free of guilt. This would explain why Martin has Jon bizarrely throw away thousands of pages of character development by deciding to attack Ramsay at all (recall his attempted desertion back in the first book?). If so, ugh: we have a Gary Stu who benefits from (temporary) death.
So, yes. Returning from the lengthy side-tangent about Jon Snow, Gary Stus are very real in published fantasy, even if they rarely receive the attention the more fanfiction-centred Mary Sues get. Part of the reason for this double standard, I think, is that published fantasy tends to be better quality than fanfiction (it is, after all, edited), which means readers can overlook the flaws in a way that would not be an option in fanfiction. I myself may dislike Kvothe and Jon Snow, but I enjoy Rothfuss’ prose and Martin’s characterisation of Tyrion, Theon, and Stannis. Potentially though – and here we get into seriously murky waters – there may also be an issue of gender expectations among the readership. One wonders whether Kvotha and Joanna Snow, as written by Patricia Rothfuss and Georgina Martin, would have been taken as seriously as their male equivalents. Is it harder for people to spot a Gary Stu than a Mary Sue? I don’t know. I really don’t.