On Mary Sues

In writing, and fanfic especially, Mary Sue gets thrown around a lot. But what is a Mary Sue? Well, you could go read the TV Tropes page… I’ll wait.

You back? And just as confused as ever? Alright. This is my definition of a Mary Sue (and I’m using it as a gender-neutral term because I don’t see a good reason not to): A Mary Sue is a supposedly supporting character* that warps the story to be about them and how special they are. The story becomes focused on other characters’ reactions to them and relationships with them.

* In  fanfic, unless you’re doing a story that absolutely doesn’t focus on the main characters, any character is eligible to be a Mary Sue.

There are still the usual pointers:

  • Mary Sues are extra special, whether by being extraordinarily beautiful / handsome, the last of their kind, having unusual powers for their type, etc.
  • Their backstories are often more violent or more special than other characters, way out of proportion to anything else in the setting (hybrid of the two most powerful races, parents are dead AND was a slave, etc).
  • They are often previously unknown relatives or lovers of main characters.
  • They are often better, smarter, more powerful, more competent, etc than the other characters.
  • They are often also self-insert characters or characters that the author considers ideal.

A Mary Sue or two (or ten) does not necessarily mean a bad story. It’s can be a symptom, but no character is inherently bad.

Why limit it to supporting characters? Well, the story can’t get warped to be about a main character, because it’s about the main character. Main characters are usually more fleshed out to start with. If the main character is special in some way, it’s more expected. (For example, in a superhero story, you expect the main character to be the strongest or smartest or both. In an historical fiction, if the main character is a super-genius, that’s no big deal.) You expect the other characters to be defined in relationship to the main characters.

So, let’s look at a few of my favorite things with supposed Mary Sues.

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation. Wesley Crusher, super smart kid that has all the answers. Has Gene Roddenberry’s middle name. Related to the doctor, gains the respect of the kid-hating captain, best friends with Geordi… Has several episodes centered around him and how smart he is… Mary Sue? Yeah… (Further analysis here)
  • Hellsing. Alucard. Super-strong vampire, better and older than any other vampire. Mary Sue? Nope, he’s a main character.
  • Dragonball Z. Goku. Super-strong. Better than everybody. Makes everybody his friend. Again, he’s the main character. Not a Sue.
  • Star Wars. … There are so many options. Anakin. Luke. Jacen and Jaina. The other Anakin. Wedge Antilles in the X-wing novels. Sort of every Jedi ever. Okay, I’m just including this to point out, Mary Sues show up. Often. AND that’s not bad.
  • Got more examples?

And a couple of examples from my own works:

  • Clythia. Regenerates, travels into other stories where she meets all my favorite characters and they all like her and often give her gifts (she had a dragon from Pern at one point, a Shi’ar warship, Merlin showed her to a new world…). Brilliant, snarky, knows more than everyone, super-competent… She’s the main character, yes, but also (originally) a self-insert character, and always a Mary Sue. Which is why I stopped working on her stories.
  • June Tind, fire mage. If it involves fire or can be thought of in fire terms she can do it.Travels into other stories where she meets all my favorite characters and they all like her and… Yeah. Yeah. Which is why her stories will never get written down. (And there have been two or three iterations of this character. And they’re all terribly, horribly, overpowered. If it was anything but fantasy it’d be really sad. One of them had a relationship with Darth Maul and taught Klingons to be Jedis to prove that Yoda wrong about the whole anger thing. I have problems.)
  • In my novel, Ostanes. In the second half (which I haven’t posted), Ostanes’ mentor shows up. (Currently a guy, going to be changed to a woman. I’m going to use male pronouns here though). Dusty. Older than dirt. Taught Ostanes and his parents. Knows everything. Snarky and can put everybody in their place. But the story isn’t about him. We know next to nothing about him. Not a Mary Sue (see, I’m getting better… One day, maybe I’ll even be good.)

So what do we learn from that?

The problem is not so much that they’re self-inserts as wish fulfillment characters. And that the wish fulfillment is through them being better than everyone else. Which, in my opinion, is poor characterization. It’s not as much fun for the audience when everything comes easily to a character. We want them to work for it. We want to watch them learn.

Except for those genres where we just want over-the-top adventures and fights. But even then, limits are good things. Limits give them something to struggle with. As an example, one of my favorite characters: The Shadow.

He’s brilliant. He speaks and reads basically every language ever. He has cool gadgets. He’s physically superior – he can climb up walls with his bare hands. He has the best technology. He can disguise himself as anyone. In the radio plays he can read minds (sometimes he basically can in the pulps). BUT, he still gets hurt, he still can’t be in two places at once, he’s still loyal to his agents (who often do poorly-considered things), he can get temporarily out-witted and surprised. If he wasn’t the main character, he’d be a total Mary Sue. Considering he started in the radio plays as the narrator, he could be considered a Mary Sue.

And the stories are awesome.

Let’s talk about Batman for a second. He’s a great example for so many things because he’s had so many versions and so many writers. Batman is over powered. Don’t try to justify it, it doesn’t matter. Batman is a wish fulfillment character and often a proxy for the author’s opinions.

That’s where things get to be a problem. When the author has him smacking around criminals and taking justice into his own hands, instead of working with the police, that can be a problem. When the author Batman spouting misogynistic garbage that can be a problem. (Alternately, when the author has Wonder Woman spouting misandrist garbage that is also a problem). When a character is being bigoted or anti-anything, shown as completely correct – with no shades of grey in there – Batman said it’s bad, everyone else who says it’s right or it’s more complicated is WRONG – that’s a problem.

It’s not a Mary Sue. It’s poor writing. It’s poor characterization. It’s an Author Tract (TV Tropes link redacted) which is a completely different – and much worse – trope (and off-topic for this post).

I have one more thing to talk about. Something that made me sad when I was researching this.

Apparently, any strong, competent, woman character is accused of being a Mary Sue. Because… I don’t know. Actually I do know, and that’s why it makes me sad. I’m going to backtrack a sec and talk about the history of Mary Sues.

It’s named for a character from a Star Trek story from the 1970s (cite) meant to parody something the author was seeing over and over in zines. Now why would a fan genuinely write an over-special female character into Star Trek? Let’s see, they’re amateur writers. They’re new at this. So they haven’t learned how to be skillful in characterization yet (writing OCs is a different skillset from writing canon characters. Canon characters you can let the audience fill in the blanks). This was the original Star Trek, which had all of three named woman on the crew. And most fanfic writers are woman. What if the story doesn’t need a nurse (Chapel), a comm officer (Uhura) or a secretary (Rand)? And let’s be honest, it’s perfectly natural for a writer (of any experience) to write a self-insert character, and for an inexperienced writer to let that character to take over the story.

So, fine, any self-insert character is a Mary Sue. And a female writer is going to make her self-insert character powerful. So, you can see the jump to ‘strong female character written by woman = Mary Sue’ and then, because fans are judgemental, ‘strong female character = Mary Sue = bad’.

I do not agree with this. Actually let me emphasize that more.


Competent characters are good. Competent women are good. Competent queer women of color? Shit, point me to that, okay? I want to read that.

A Mary Sue is not just a competent character. A Mary Sue is not just an overpowered character or a self-insert. A Mary Sue is a character (of any gender) who warps the story from being about what or who it should be about, to being about them and how amazing they are.

This does not mean it won’t be a fun story to read. Or an interesting character.

In summary:

  • Well, Mary Sues are fine for fantasies. It’s in your head, who the hell cares?
  • Mary Sues in fanfic (and for that matter, ANY fanfic or writing) is practice for better things.
  • Everyone writes Mary Sues, from utter beginners to great producers.
  • Mary Sues – and overpowered or wish fulfillment characters –  are not inherently bad. But they are something to watch out for, if the intent is NOT to make the story about them.

In conclusion: Write. Write whatever makes you happy. Then write more. When people give you shit about your writing, weigh what they say. Are they just throwing shit or is there good advice in there? Take the good, ignore the rest. Write more. Read, a lot. All sorts of things. Then write more. Read lots of TV Tropes. Use what you learn to write better things.

(edited June 7th)

Of interest to no one but myself: my recurring themes and tropes

I have a ton of stories and characters that I come up with that I never write down (mostly because, hooo boy, Mary Sue and self-insert ahoy, wow.) I’m including those in these, because, well, I can. It’s my site. ;)

At nothing else, you can use this as a reason to get lost on the TV Tropes site for a few hours. I’ll be adding stuff as I think of it, basically so I can then get it out of my head and preferably stop making the same list over and over again.

  • Villain Protagonist I love writing villains and bad guys, so I tend to write more of them than heroes. It does mean some of my other recurring themes get some Unfortunate Implications because every time I write that kind of character it’s a bad guy.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink, Even Evil Has Loved Ones, Even Evil Has Standards, Blue and Orange Morality. It’s hard to write an absolutely evil character when you’re in his head (although I manage if the situation calls for it). And, well, complicated characters are more fun.
  • Mind Hive. I like to write characters who have a couple of people living in their heads. Unfortunately, this is one of the ones that bugs me, because right now all those characters are bad guys right now. And I do believe in Healthy Multiplicity so I want to fix that (The one good thing is that those characters are generally complicated and are more grey morality than black. So, that helps. Still need to fix it though.)
  • The Sleepless. Several of my characters have weird or irregular sleep schedules that don’t impact them poorly. For some of them it’s to emphasize that they’re odd. Some of the others it’s just the way they are.
  • Tall, thin men in nice suits. Yeah, it’s Author Appeal. Also cat people, barefooting, and a bunch of things that don’t need to be mentioned here.
  • Superpowers. Mutants. Spandex. Yeah, I read too many X-men comics as a kid and now I read too many Batman comics.
  • Hurt / Comfort. Sometimes without the comfort. (aka Whump)
  • Masks and Scars. Partially goes with the superhero stuff. Partially just because masks are cool. Sometimes goes as far as Full Body Disguise, especially for superheroes (I’m not a big fan of the domino mask…)
  • One True Love. Which is silly, because it’s not something I believe in real life. At least when I write it, it doesn’t mean that the relationship will be easy. Usually combined with some sort of soul-link thing (I rarely go as far as telepathy. Because telepathy is highly overrated).
  • Nearly instant language learning or Universal translator. Generally through some sort of telepathy or magic.
  • Older than they look. I keep writing these characters that are practically immortal or have a healing factor that keeps them looking young. (yes, alright, I read too many comic books, okay?)
  • Characters with mental illnesses or personality disorders, usually things that don’t exactly match up with anything real. I did mention too much Batman, right?

Progress Report 1 – Camp Nanowrimo, April 2013

Hey, how about an excerpt? No context necessary.

Many came to visit Conya when she was free, for the witch woman wasn’t needed to heal often. She passed her time preparing herbs and collars, sharing stories with anyone available to listen. When they drank, they were merry. He had seen fights spill into streets in the Empire and the fighters hauled away by armored police. He had seen wealthy men drinking, staring sullenly into their glasses.

This reminded him of home, of drunken warriors holding trials of strength in firelit rooms or dark fields lit with wavering touches. Or of hearing the songs of farmers weaving their way home from the fields and homekeepers singing in front of their homes. The Thurzin were free people, free from the Empire’s laws. The homekeepers and farmers worked long hours and rested equally well, while the warriors fought in the Rajah’s wars to keep them free.

He wanted to go home, to his mother’s warm kitchen, where his grandmothers helped her cook bread-wrapped meat and the thick stews that kept the warriors and farmers working. To the longhouses of the warriors, where it smelled of steel and leather and wool, where there was always the clang of weapons and curses. To the trees where the young warriors would perch to watch the farmers work and trade stories of their training and compare wounds.

He could go home. If he was strong, if he was brave, he could go home. They would conquer this place, sell it to the Rajah or build warrior longhouses and family roundhouses here, and he could go home. Even with no honor, ever if he’d be reduced to a farmer or homekeeper, when the Thurzin conquered here, he could go home.

I reduced my goal to 15k words, but I’d still like to make it to 25k. My current count is 5k, but I have more to get typed up today.

Working Title: Ostanes – Session Ten & Eleven

I’m doing both, because I skipped over a big section while writing each of these so they’re rather short. I’m afraid, they need a lot of work, although they have a couple of good character moments.

I’d be willing to post Chapter 12, which is better, if I get, let’s say, three or more requests. Otherwise, y’all have to wait until I get the whole thing shaped up.

Continue reading “Working Title: Ostanes – Session Ten & Eleven”

Working Title: Ostanes – Session Nine

Alright, I’ve decided I’m only going to post up to chapter 11. I knew it was a bad idea to post unedited stories, but I let my excitement carry me away. Creative types will know what I’m talking about (‘I’m doing this thing! It’s so cool! I must tell EVERYONE.’) But Chapter 11 is a good breaking point, and once I’ve edited it I’ll repost chapters 1-11 and then post the rest.

As always, comments are welcome, whether good or bad.

ETA June 2013: Trigger warning for discussion of Ostanes’ killing people (not much) and child abuse.

Continue reading “Working Title: Ostanes – Session Nine”

Working Title: Ostanes – Session Eight

Nice long chapter, that needs some work (internalization, descriptions – which would clear up the whole ‘talking heads’ thing – better worldbuilding, changing ‘Dochia’ to something not chuckle-worthy – thanks to the person who pointed that out – and some more I can’t think of now. Ostanes’ first name is going to get changed at some point – probably to Michael – and that bit will need smoothing out.

In general, the only editing I’ve done is changing the place names just now, and removing about 2/3rds of the times Ostanes says ‘doc.’ And probably half the times Neill says ‘Ostanes,’ although those didn’t stick out quite so badly (when I’m voice recording I don’t have as clear of a memory of what I’ve said, and I tend to have people address each other by name far more than is necessary. Additionally, I know there’s some stuff I covered in two different chapters, but I think I’ve edited most of that out.)

I’m trying to resist the urge to edit right now – I really need to let it sit for a bit, and work on other things. It’s very tempting though.

Anyway, that’s more than enough rambling from me, now for banter and stuff.

Continue reading “Working Title: Ostanes – Session Eight”

Working Title: Ostanes – Session Six & Seven

I decided I really didn’t like the old working title, so we’re back to basics. I realized I forgot to update Wednesday, so you get two chapters. The first one is short and will get expanded on rewrite. The second one is nice and long and I’m pretty happy with it, although I need to add descriptions and more of Neill’s thoughts. (I also still need to decide what to do about Ostanes’ accent, which shows up a lot more in these chapters)

I’ve been reading through The Other Side of the Story, which seems to be a pretty good writing blog. I’m bookmarking posts on things I need to work on. Mostly I need to stop thinking about this story right now and work on other things…

ETA June 2013: Trigger warnings for discussions of violence/death, corrupt doctors.

Continue reading “Working Title: Ostanes – Session Six & Seven”

Working Title: All Face – Session Five

This chapter is a little short, as are the next two. They’ll get expanded on rewrite. I have to decide what to do with Ostanes’ accent – I haven’t added it to all of his dialogue. I may do italics instead of the doubled letters or I may just drop it (I have a sneaking suspicion an editor would say ‘drop it, add a narrative note if you must’).

ETA June 2013: Content notice for mention of parental death.

Continue reading “Working Title: All Face – Session Five”

Novel news, general plan of the year

The first draft of the novel is finished. Yay! I still have to type up the last couple of chapters and I’ve made some notes of things to fix during rewrite. (I also still need to come up with a title or at least a better working title.) But that won’t be until the end of this year or beginning of next for a couple of reasons.

1) I haven’t ever heard of people recommending editing immediately. It’s good to let it sit for a while so you’re not so close to it (I tend to do some editing while I write anyway). It’s not uncommon to hear of writers letting them sit for a year or more.

2) I have a craft show coming up in October that I need to make a ton of stuff for.

So my plan for the rest of the year is this:

August, September, October: make bookmarks and art / postcards for the Solvang Faeriefest.  I’m really only hoping to make 50 or 100 dollars profit, but since I’m going to be selling everything for less than five bucks, hopefully it’ll be more. But the idea is more to get me crafting and doing artistic stuff again, that isn’t related to other projects (and thus I can show here).

November: Nanowrimo. I’m going to try to finish my other novel and 3 – 8 scripts of the White Knight. Should be totally doable, considering I just wrote a novel in less than 20 days while doing RenFaire and working full-time. November has lots of holidays.

December: possibly edit, probably try to work on the house again. I have a lot of projects I’ve put off and I’ll have more time off.

Anyway, thanks for everybody’s support on the novel. I haven’t decided if I’ll post the whole rough draft here or not. I may just do the first part, but then y’all miss my favorite characters…

Working Title: All Face – Session Three

I got feedback, so that means another chapter! BTW, if you want to say I suck, give some specific reasons, otherwise I’ll just think you’re a troll.

Again, this is a rough draft with next to no editing. This session I was getting into the swing of it, so it’s nice and long (also… well, you’ll see.)

A note on locations: Dochia is approximately equivalent to California. Eillios is Washington DC and Washington, the state, mixed (climate of the state, politics of DC near the capital, more laidback elsewhere). Odede is Oregon. None of them are in the same relative positions as the states. This is set in the AMF, the Anitian Mirevian Federation, which is basically the US, and uses abetaries (a word I’m pretty sure I made up) instead of states.

I still need to make it more therapy and less chatting, but that’s just editing (and getting input from people who know things).

ETA June 2013: Trigger warning for assault. Highlight for specifics >>> (specifically forced undressing and bathing. No actual abuse.) <<<

Edited slightly August 2013.

Continue reading “Working Title: All Face – Session Three”

Working Title: All Face – Session Two

Very rough title. Again, this is a rough draft, with next to no editing. If people like it, I’ll post more (that means you have to comment). At some point I have to get a beta-reader with experience in mental health stuff so these can be more like therapy and less like chatting, but that’ll wait (I have a bunch more research and prepwork to do too, but that’ll also wait).

Continue reading “Working Title: All Face – Session Two”

Working title … is a spoiler. Never mind.

I’ve got this novel that’s consuming me and insisting on coming out. So, in lieu of the Ben-Day Spot commentary I promised, you get an excerpt of the rough draft.

This thing is seriously flowing better out of me than anything has in a long time. Usually I can only write long hand. This one? I can write it on the computer. I can write it long hand. It comes best when I voice record it.

Again, this is a rough draft, with next to no editing. If people like it, I’ll post more (that means you have to comment.)

ETA June 2013: Content notice for this and all other parts: discussions of crime, mental illness, personality disorders. Anything beyond that will have an additional content notice.

Continue reading “Working title … is a spoiler. Never mind.”

Nano progress

(Trigger Warnings: Claustrophobia, horror, injury, mental illness)

I know I said I’d post some writing, and here you go. This is from November when I was trying to mostly work on a comic series called The White Knight.

This was a bit of a character study. Eric Ryddatz, aka Techrat, has some serious mental problems. When I get around to finishing stuff with him, I’ll get an actual computer guy to double check the error messages Eric throws up when he’s freaked out.

Eric frowned, a slight tightening of the corners of his mouth. He could see the key just through the hole in the wall. He was not going to fail HER (they had asked why she was female if he thought women were illogical, but she was mother, lover, guardian. He could make her perfect if he tried hard enough and she could make the world perfect.) His breath was faster, his heartbeat skipping, his palms sweaty, his stomach lurched. Fear. (Alexithymia, they called it, an inability to distinguish emotions, and they made him learn symptoms, like the glitches and error codes he learned to make HER perfect, but he couldn’t remove them, not as long as he was subject to hormones and glands.)

He tried to control his breathing, envisioning neat rows of zeroes and ones. He was afraid. It was nothing; an irrational phobia, but it was just a hole, not one of the cuffs locking down on his wrists, grinding flesh against bone.

Zeroes and ones. Beautiful, logical, perfect.

He stuck his hand through. He could reach the key that would let him out. Let him back to HER.

He did not scream when the wall closed on his wrist. Others would have. He did not curse or struggle wildly, like others, less rational people would have. His eyes widened and he broke into a sweat, his heart pounding like a walking tape drive. He tried to pull his arm free, squeezing his hand as small as he could. He could hear the key drop to the floor over the pounding in his ears. Biology, weak and imperfect.

He made no noise, but his lips were moving, reciting commands like prayers.

System Error. Abort, Retry, Fail? Retry.
I/O Error. Abort, Retry, Fail? Retry.
GPF. Abort, Retry, Fail? Retry.
C-x C-e
Buffer Overflow. Abort, Retry, Fail?

His eyes were burning. Sweat in his eyes. He could feel his skin tearing as he tried to free his hand. Contaminants. Weakness that could fail HER.

Kernel Panic.

The lights went out and the neat white on black letters behind his eyes broke into neon blurs.

He was not like others. He did not scream. He did not swear. If it was because his throat locked down so he could hardly breathe, that was irrelevant. If his methodical attempts to escape had changed to frenzied thrashings that pounded bone against concrete, he did not notice because that was when the sounds began.

Chittering dry sounds, that crackled like static.

He did not scream, but his computer prayers changed to purely human pleas to HER, as he collapsed, his biology too weak to even hold him up.