Mindy Newell: Who’s The Real You When You’re Writing?
“Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness then I send forth Myself.”
—Lord Krishna to Prince Arjuna,[[[The Bhagavadgita]]] (Song of God)
Sanskrit in origin, and a central principle of the Hindu religion, an avatar is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form to counteract an evil in the world. A central principle of Hinduism, it usually refers to 10 appearances of Vishnu, including an incarnation as the Buddha Gautama and the Buddha yet to come, called Kalkin.”
In the 21st century, it has also come to mean that little picture that represents the user, blogger, columnist, commentator, gamer, or fan on the Internet, and (usually) will tell you something about that person, whether it is whom that user, blogger, columnist, commentator, gamer, or fan admires or identifies with, or even their sense of humor about themselves. (See my avatar on my Facebook page, for instance, which is from the artwork of Anne Taintor and reads “I plead insanity.”)
James Cameron’s [[[Avatar]]] blended the two definitions in his hero, Jake Sully—Jake is both the “user” behind his genetically engineered Na’vi body (Jake’s avatar) and the “incarnation” of the savior of the Na’vi civilization.
Writers can also use avatars. (Sometimes the name is the writer’s own, other times not.) Vietnam War veteran Tim O’ Brien did it brilliantly in his [[[The Things They Carried]]], which the main character is named Tim O’Brien. Kurt Vonnegut also used the device in [[[Breakfast Of Champions]]] and [[[Slaughterhouse Five]]]—and not only were the protagonists, Kilgore Trout (a play on the iconic science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, btw) and Billy Pilgrim thinly veiled versions of Vonnegut, but Kurt Vonnegut appears in both novels as a character—and some speculate that Robert Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw of [[[Stranger In A Strange Land]]] is a self-insertion, although the late, great, and very missed Julie Schwartz told me that Jubal was Arthur C. Clarke, who actually did live in his own private “Shangri-la” compound on Sri Lanka, nee Ceylon, complete with the three beautiful female secretaries. (I don’t know if Julie was kidding or not about the beautiful secretaries. Sometimes it was hard to tell with Julie.)
Speaking of comics (sort of), probably the most famous example of using an avatar is Grant Morrison’s [[[Animal Man]]], in which Morrison appeared as himself, only the character was called “The Writer.” (Btw, ComixMix’s own John Ostrander later killed “The Writer” in Issue #58 of [[[Suicide Squad]]].) Morrison also “inhabited” the character of King Mob in [[[The Invisibles]]], so much so that it is said that Morrison believes his collapsed lung was due to the fact that he wrote a scene in which Mob is shot in the chest. (You can “Believe it or Not,” as Ripley says. I say anything is possible.)
I think everyone who is a fan of Stephen King realizes his use of avatars. See [[[Misery]]], [[[The Shining]]], [[[The Dark Tower]]] series, and notably, imho, in King’s novella, “The Body”, in which the author’s avatar, Gordie LaChance, appears as both a prepubescent boy and as the story’s “narrator.” If you’re not familiar with “The Body” (which was published in 1982 in King’s collection of short stories and novellas, [[[Different Seasons]]]), you should be familiar with Rob Reiner’s [[[Stand By Me]]], his brilliant film adaptation of the novella starring Wil Wheaton as the young Gordie Lahance, and Richard Dreyfuss as the adult Gordie, although in the credits he is listed as “The Writer.”
And speaking of Wesley Crusher (played by Wil Wheaton on [[[Star Trek: The Next Generation]]]), the character is pretty much an example of how not to insert yourself into a story, otherwise known as Mary Sue-ing.
A “Mary Sue” is a derogatory term used in fan fiction, or “fanfic.” According to Wikipedia:
’Mary Sue’ comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story ‘A Trekkie’s Tale,’ published in her fanzine Menagerie #2. The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (‘the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old’), and satirized unrealistic Star Trek fan fiction. Such characters were generally original female adolescents who had romantic liaisons with established canonical adult characters, or in some cases were the younger relatives or protégées of those characters.
Adolescent girls mostly do Mary Sue-ing, and it’s understandable if it’s seen as wish fulfillment or fantasy playing in that age spectrum—part of the maturing process we all go through. It can also be the first foray by a fledgling writer on the path of becoming an accomplished author.
But it can also be a disaster.
Getting back to Wesley Crusher—Star Trek lore says that Gene Roddenberry (creator of the Trek mythos, as I’m sure you know) based Wesley Crusher on himself as a boy. In fact, Roddenberry’s middle name was Wesley. And apparently, he had a very high opinion of himself—obnoxiously high.
Wesley Crusher was pure Mary Sue, as irritating to fans of the show as he was to Captain Jean-Luc Picard when the two first met. Genius-level smart and unbearably smug, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do; I mean, the kid is aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, the flagship of Starfleet. Its senior crew is the best and the brightest, including an android with a positronic brain; anyone who wears the uniform would kill to be posted on the ship. (Remember Shelby from “The Best Of Both Worlds”? I’m sure she had some fantasies about getting rid of Riker.) The only reason Wesley is aboard is because his mother is the senior medical officer on the Enterprise. But within ten minutes (okay, I’m exaggerating…but not by much), the kid is given an honorary rank and a position on the bridge. Not to mention that only Wesley could pull the Enterprise’s ass out of the proverbial fire. Over and over—and over and over and over and over….
Even Wil Wheaton hated the character.
So much so that he asked to leave the show.
He didn’t want to be Roddenberry’s avatar any more.