Monday, March 14, 2016

WRITING 105 - Are you your own Mary Sue?

Have you ever heard of the term "Mary Sue" in writing?  It's a fascinating concept that Wikipedia describes as "a seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities".

It was a phenomenon noticed in fan fiction - where an author creates a character who joins the starship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon, who typically is a kind of embodiment and wish fulfillment of the author.  Everyone tends to immediately fall in love with the character "who is just so awesome".  They can beat either Spock or Chewbacca at chess, they're more wise than Obi Wan, and can out wrestle Captain Kirk.

It's an easy mistake to make in writing - to think "someone being really awesome" makes an interesting character.  It doesn't.  I previously reread some of my old High School stories, and I'm afraid I wrote centrally about a Mary Sue type character who was just devoid of personality.  But that's a sign of just how far I've come.

A "Mary Sue" can be both male and female.  Obvious examples are Wesley from Star Trek The Next Generation (early episodes were typically "Wesley saves the day ... again), and Bella (everyone loves Bella) from Twilight.  I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I feel similar is true about Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy novels.  I used to notice a pattern, anyone who met Jack just took an instant liking to him - except the bad guys.  They liked him to much he became director of the CIA and later the President of the United States - gosh people must have really loved him.

Developing interesting, complex characters

If we know "Mary Sue" = "dull character", then we can use this to really put down a bit of a formula for what can make a good character.  A high achiever isn't really loved - how many times do you hear a character described as "top of their year with honours"?  (I've actually worked with someone who would describe themselves as such about their school academia, even though it was 20 years ago and they went to a pretty small school in the middle of the sticks.  As you'd expect, they had all the personality of a Mary Sue).

People warm to a story with someone they can relate to.  But they have to have a weakness or a vice, that makes them easier to relate to.  But even that can become cliched - did you hear about the brilliant detective with the alcohol problem and two failed marriages, who just keeps taking his work home?  [Pretty much describes most cop shows]

The formula seems to go "make them really smart in one way, but pretty dumb or inhibited in another".  The classic is Robbie Coltrane's Cracker - a brilliant criminal psychologist, who is an alcoholic, chain-smoking, gambling addict who annoys everyone (they really went all out there - and he's very memorable despite being not likable in a lot of ways).

How about the brilliant, but socially awkward scientist - James Stewart's character in No Highway In The Sky was a real hero model for my father (himself a metallurgist).  In the film the awkward widowed character, with a strained relationship with his daughter is convinced that tail end of a type of aircraft will fall off after so many hours of service, and tries to have the fleet grounded.  Ironically my father, like the main character, would end up working at Farnborough on aircraft safety!

Are you blogging as a Mary Sue?

On the way home today, I was thinking of some blogs I've read, especially in light of a few conversations I'd had with fellow testers...

Think back to yesterday's video from Tim Harford about the Koln Concert of  pianist Keith Jarrett.  Keith had turned up for a concert in Koln, and instead of the piano he'd expected, there'd been a mix up.  The piano was badly worn, out of tune, had sticky keys and particularly in the high octaves it sounded tinny.  He tried a bit on it, but decided he could not work with it, and decided he would refuse to do the concert.

Concert organiser Vera Brandes got a piano tuner in to do the best they could with the piano she had, whilst unsuccessfully searching for something more suitable.  The story goes she stood out in the rain, talking to pianist Keith as he sat in the car.  In the end, he relented, and agreed to do the concert "only because it's you".

You can hear the concert here - and it's pretty darn good (sorry, I don't really do Jazz piano folks, but even to my untrained ear, it's good stuff).  The audience loved it, and the album became one of Keith Jarrett's biggest sellers.  What is so extraordinary is he didn't just play his regular set.  He worked out a way of playing the piano, really banging the keys heavily (it was smaller and hence much more quiet that the one he was after), and avoiding the badly worn and tinny upper octaves.  It was less than ideal, but along the way he created something extraordinary.

I think the trap for us, we should be the Vera Brandes of our team as much as possible.  But we can have a tendency to behave a bit like Keith initially done.  Quite often testing feels "an unloved hurdle, an obstacle which gets in the way", and we're often trying to work under less than ideal conditions, with tools which aren't always up to the job.  It's very tempting to say "I'll be in my car, because I'm not playing".

Granted we need to be frank, we need to have some lines on which we won't compromise, and we need to make it clear when we're working in less than ideal conditions.  But as with the Koln Concert every once in a while is a chance to throw away the rulebook, and do something extraordinary.

So are you a Vera or a Keith?

Who did you identify more with above - Vera or Keith?

I think the Mary Sue trap for us blogging about IT, is we can fall into a pattern of only seeing things from either Vera or Keith's point of view, and blogging as such.

Can you imagine Vera's blog, "oh my God!  Pianists are such prima donnas.  I've spend so much time and effort on ticket sales and promotion.  One little mix up with the piano, and the precious artist refuses to play!"

Or Keith's, "they give me the wrong piano, not even in tune, and expect me to play.  I'll be a laughing stock".

When we blog about our problems in IT, we are acting like a Mary Sue when we are only seeing "our problems".  Not the stress and strain others are under.  Hopefully as I've said you sympathise with both Vera and Keith reading that story.

Whenever I blog about problems in software, I always try and understand and put my mind into "the other person".  See what's driving them, and what they understand.  I can fall into the trap of doing a Mary Sue blog once in a while.  And maybe sometimes that's a good thing - some people reacted well to my topic "those darn estimates" where I'm a bit of a Mary Sue "why do project managers pester us about estimates!".

But I was never happy with that article, and it led me to lots of conversations with various managers about estimates.  That's why I revisited it in "returning to test estimation" with more of a sense of what they felt was important.  I've recently refined my model even more, and hoping to write more about it later when I have more information and a better model that I've tried out a bit more.

What the blogspace doesn't need is another Mary Sue on their soapbox of "everyone should listen to me" and "I told you so".  Trying to understand where developers, business analysts or managers are coming from when they're having friction with testing will always allow you to go to a deeper understanding of the problem area, and lead to better possible solutions.

And that pushes our understanding of testing and how to apply it ever forward.  So get writing folks!

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