Ask Correia 8: The Evils of Mary Sue

What’s a Mary Sue, and why is it bad?

Okay, this one is cheating. Nobody actually asked this writing question, but I’ve thought about it a bit in the past, and a bad review I just got reminded me about it. Super Author John Brown and I had a good discussion about this “rule” while we were on book tour as well. This one is actually a sore spot for me, because I swear that every single negative review I’ve ever gotten for MHI has accused me of doing the Mary Sue thing.

Well, maybe. And then that brings up the next thing. Is it bad? And to what degree?

I’m going to go out on a limb here. A “true” Mary Sue would be bad, just because it creates a character that the readers won’t enjoy, but I think the vast majority of the time the term is used incorrectly by a dumbass internet reviewer who has never written anything in their life, that thinks they’re clever because they once read TV Tropes.

First off, what’s a Mary Sue? From the always 100% reliable Wikipedia:

A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as “Mary Sues” is that they are too ostentatious for the audience’s taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the “Mary Sue” character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an “author’s pet”.

The term comes from fan fiction. This is when the author makes up a thinly-veiled version of themselves to stick into their fanfic. Of course, they will be super awesome in every way, and Captain Kirk/Reynolds/Sheridan/Nemo will fall madly in love with them. They’re amazing. They save the day. They’re wish fulfillment in a fictional form.  If it is a boy scoring with Uhura/Kaylee/that chick with the thing on her forehead/ or Mina Harker, then it would be a Marty Stu.

The problem comes in when idiot critics accuse writers of normal fiction of having Mary Sue characters. This is usually done in a manner of smug superiority, as if they’re a brilliant literary big-brains, who’s poop smells like fresh wildflowers, because they’re just so damn intelligent that they caught some foolish author violating a “rule”.

Well, I’ve already stated my opinion on writing rules. If you break a rule, but it works, it doesn’t suck, you can sell it, and entertain your audience, then screw the rule. You can break any rule you want if you can pull it off. This goes double for stupid rules.

My main issue with the wild Sue accusations is that A. They’re often not even true Sues, and B. If it creates an enjoyable character, then who gives a damn?

NOT A SUE

My biggest pet peeve is that if the character shares any, and I mean any traits with the author somebody is going to accuse you of creating a Mary Sue. Author X likes Wheat Thins and her character Y likes Wheat Thins. Both are female humans between 35-50 years old.  MARY SUE!!!! Burn her!

That’s just stupid. One of the other rules, which I happen to actually agree with, is write what you know. So let’s say that before you tried your hand at fiction, you spent the last twenty years as an attorney. You know a lot about the legal profession. You believe you can make it interesting. So you create a character that is also a lawyer. Perhaps you even put that lawyer character in some similar situation that you yourself experienced at some point in time.  Perhaps that time/place/difficulty was very interesting, and makes for compelling reading.  It tends to be easier for males to write males and females to write females, so the character is the same sex as you. Perhaps you are both Caucasians. (and as we’ll see, you don’t even need that much).

Guess what? Some asshole is going to accuse you of creating a Mary Sue. Deal with it. It doesn’t matter if you cut both his legs off in chapter three and horribly disfigure your lawyer with acid. The Sue Card has been played.  Just carry on.

The important thing is to create compelling characters. People who’ve actually written know that there will be some elements of your personality in every single character that you create. That’s how the process works. Even your bad guys are going to have insights from your dark side.

My really scathing negative reviews (I’m talking the One Stars) that I’ve gotten for my first novel (luckily there are very few) all have a few things in common. They didn’t read the whole thing. They feel the need to comment on my personal politics. And they accuse me of writing a Marty Stu.

So let’s analyze this. Not the first two, because really, if they gave a bad review but didn’t even bother to read it, they’re imbeciles. And second, if I went out of my way to post negative reviews for everyone I disagreed with politically, I would be a sad, pathetic, little person (but I’d have posted a lot of reviews of Ben Affleck movies!). Is the main character of MHI, Owen Pitt, a Marty Stu?

First the similarities. Both of us are large and ugly. Both are accountants. Both love guns. The large and ugly came about because most action heroes are too damn pretty. I wanted to write a book that couldn’t star Brad Pitt. Accountant? For the plot I needed the most stereotypically boring job ever. Having worked in that field for a long time, I know how people see accounting. (it is actually way more interesting than you’d think!).  Guns? The book is about killing monsters for profit, and I originally marketed it to internet gun nuts. Duh.  Other than that, we’re born in the same place, because I thought I was being cute. We share a sense of humor. Because I was writing in the first person, and I set out with the goal to interject as much humor as possible. Once again. Duh.

On the dissimilar sides, our backgrounds are nothing alike. Our relationships with family and others are nothing alike. We did not grow up the same way. He’s more Libertarian than I am. We’re not the same religion. We’re not the same ethnicity. And as I write him, he does many things that I would not do. He’s good at things that I’m not, and bad with things that I excel at. Because first and foremost, Owen is a character, who is going to do what I want/need him to do. And if I’m a decent writer, he’s going to grow in the process.

I’ve been accused of letting my personal political biases slip in. (Usually by whiny liberals who probably don’t notice the inherent slant their way in 95% of the rest of the stuff they read). That’s definitely not Mary Sue. If you’ve worked with military contractors, (MHI is kinda like Blackwater for monsters) then you know you can count the number of Obama supporters you’ve met out of that crowd on one hand. That’s realism.

Okay, so Owen has a lot of similarities to his creator. Does he fit the rest of the Mary Sue “rules”? Is he extra perfect? No. Not even close. He makes bad decisions. He’s got a stupid temper. His primary motivation to not murder somebody is based on the fact it is too hot to dig a hole. Do I treat him extra good? You mean when he gets torn to bits in the first chapter? Or when he gets his ass handed to him throughout the book?

The only thing he gets to be above average on is shooting and physical endurance. Shooting, he’s about a GM, which considering his background, isn’t even a stretch. And the toughness is a requirement to write a giant book filled with violence, and have the 1st person narrator actually make it all the way to the end.

But even then, let’s say that Owen Z. Pitt is a Marty Stu.

SO WHO GIVES A DAMN?

Critics. And they take their internets very serious.

Remember that thing about if you can break a rule, but it is better, then screw the rule?  The vast majority of my readers love Owen. They relate to him. I’ve had people say that they could imagine him as a very real person. He’s the kind of guy you could go shooting with or have a conversation while standing in line at the DMV.

“Dur! But Correia broke a rule! He’s bad! Sue! SUE!”

So how did my Marty Stu do? In the last year: Two best seller lists. Four printings. Two books coming out shortly. Deals for four more, including being invited to do a collaboration with one of the top writers in science-fiction.  For a total of three different series sold. All that, and if I really want to piss people off, Julie Shackleford is based on my wife, and she really does look like the Baroness from GI Joe. Yes. It is good to be me.

The reason the Sue Card bugs me is that I want writers to love their characters. If they have to put some of their personal quirks into their characters to accomplish that, then so be it. The important thing is that they entertain their audience. Period. That’s it. I don’t care if the character is based on you, your grandma, or your mailman. Entertain me!

Is Dirk Pitt really Clive Cussler? I don’t know, but he’s sold a bazillion books. I don’t care if Luke Skywalker is George Lucas. Do you think that most of Stephen Kings characters are mopey, drug-addled,  writers from Maine by coincidence? I don’t care if that droopy chick from Twilight is Stephanie Myers’ sexually-frustrated alter ego. She now sleeps on giant piles of money in a house made of gold bars because she’s got a rabid audience that loves her stuff. (not my cup of tea, but I’m a little jealous of the piles of money part).

I’ve actually heard some authors say that they go out of their way to make their characters not like them at all. That way they can’t be accused of being a Sue. That’s ridiculous. You know what that gets you? Flat, boring-ass characters. Booooring. Female authors get accused of these even more than men, so you’ve got some female writers that won’t have a female main character. All because of critics.

Also, to be fair, there is the backwards Sue. This is when the idiot critic assumes that they know something about the true character of the author based upon the behavior of a character. Poor Dan Wells. He writes great books about a sociopathic would-be serial killer and ends up scaring his neighbors and in-laws.

I’m waiting for the inevitable negative reviews of Dead Six, but at least I can’t be accused of Mary Sue because I’m obviously not a five-foot-four snarky, narcissistic super-criminal, or Hard Magic, because I’m not a jaded war-hero, ex-con (oh, wait, Sullivan is big too. I’m screwed). Well, at least I’m not a borderline psychotic teleporting teenage girl… But then again, reviewers are way smarter than writers. So yes, I’m Faye too…

Actually, writers are all their characters. Every one of their characters sprang from their brain. That’s the beauty of what we do. As my mom tells people, I get paid to lie and make crap up. (I love you too, Mom). Aspiring writers, just get used to it. People are going to think you’re weird no matter what you do. Just make the sales, cash the checks, and figure out how to make your audience happy.

WHEN IS IT ACTUALLY BAD?

When it sucks. Earlier I said that if it is awesome, sells, and people love it, do it? Well the opposite is that if it sucks, people hate it, and it doesn’t sell, then don’t do it.

It isn’t just Mary Sue, it is bad characters, period. I’m not talking about bad as in evil, nasty, brutish, mean or any other negative descriptor of the actual character, I mean boring, as in the reader starts to skim looking for the next good part.  Just keep in mind that you can’t make everybody happy all the time. You can have something that a hundred people love and one hates. Well screw that guy. Unless he’s your editor or the publisher you’re trying to sell the book to, then he wins. 

You, the writer, are the ultimate judge of whether something works or not. Don’t limit yourself out of fear of what some hack might say about you.

67 Responses

  1. Bottom line, you do what works for your stories, people associate with and like your characters, and your books are popular. Why give those playing the “Sue Card” on you any credibility at all?

    “Shooting, he’s about a GM, which considering his background, isn’t even a stretch.”
    Acronym Alert: not everybody will know what you mean here. I’m assuming you’re referring to the class of accomplished shooters known as “Grand Masters.”

  2. Great advice Mr. Correia, thanks for your insights on the writing process. Can’t wait for the next book

  3. Funny, thing. As an avid reader I don’t really care who the character is based on as long as it is good. I really just thought it was a good thing to write about things and places you know because you KNOW about them. Same goes with personal experience. But what do I know, I gave MHI 5 stars because it was good, not because I had a list of rules I check off when I read a book. How pathetic can you be? Read a good book and enjoy it for gfoodness

    • I hafta hang with Brian on this one. A good character is a good character, no matter the origins or backstory to the creation of said character. Heck, lots of good authors write characters based on their past experiences and lives.

      Critics will always find something to complain about, it’s what they do. Ignore them and move on, move on I say!

  4. rather like the infamous critics that panned RAH’s Starship Troopers, talking about the “sneering, swaggering boys in leather”.

    I like Owen, Julie reminds me in some ways of my wife, I like Earl, heck, I even want more back story on Agent Franks.

    Those who can, do.
    Those who can’t, complain.

    As for the “critics”. I would suggest, which you already have done, mainly listen to those of us who vote with our hard earned dollars and not the shrill harpies who hope to get paid for complaining. As long as the readers are happy and Toni is showering you with Rich and Famous contracts from Baen, you’ve got it going pretty good. keep it up and I’m waiting for more good stuff. Patiently, damn it.

  5. Ignore them, and keep making money writing things people like to read.

    These “critics” are all failed writers. All of their criticism is a way to belittle writers who can actually make a living at it.

    Good book reviewers do not make a secret of their likes and dislikes, and don’t try to justify them with arcane “rules”.

    Critics spend all of their time nitpicking as an excuse to criticize a work that has exactly one real fault: It was not written by the critic himself.

  6. Rules are meant to be broken. I’ve intentionally broken some of the “rules” in my fiction.

    Is Owen a Marty Stu? From what I know of you sure he is a little. BFD! All authors will put some of themselves in the characters they create. That’s the write what you know. What I do know is if your protagonist is so far removed from who you are they will not be believable.

    So whatever you do Larry please don’t write about a short skinny pacifist girl who can’t do math. Unless she’s a red shirt. ;-)

  7. Awesome post Larry, best advice I’ve read in a long time.

  8. You know, I’d never even heard of a “Mary Sue” before this. I’ve been writing for eight years now and nobody ever pointed out that my teenaged female main character from my first novel is a Mary Sue, or my ex-SEAL hardass from book two, or the computer programmer from the others…

    Man, Larry, every single thing I write is a Mary Sue!!! Argh! Blasphemy! The internets are coming to get me! Critics will call my stuff “crazy” “unimaginative” and “too stupid for words”! Oh, how I fear those Amazon reviews…

    I’m trying not to be a little condescending, but it’s hard. Jackass. Now go write more books and roll around in your gobs of money like Scrooge McDuck. :-)

  9. I couldn’t begin to guess how much your main character is like you, as I read the book before I started reading your blog, but there was certainly nothing in the novel that made me think you were writing wish-fulfillment fantasy.

    I do know that some of my favorite characters bear more than a passing physical resemblance to their authors. Rachel Morgan is a tall, thin redhead, as is Kim Harrison. Anita Blake is a petite, busty, dark-haired woman, as is Laurell K Hamilton. I don’t see how physical resemblance alone pegs a character as a Mary Sue.

    Heck, I happen to think Anita Blake probably is a Mary Sue…but if we’re speaking of authors who sleep on piles of money in houses made of gold, I’m sure LKH’s is shinier than Stephenie Meyer’s. Whether Ms. Hamilton is engaging in wish-fulfillment through Ms Blake or not, she has created a compelling, enduring character, and more or less sparked an entire subgenre through her success: without Anita Blake, there wouldn’t be a Rachel Morgan, Sookie Stackhouse, Kitty Norville, Allie Beckstrom, etc. And my bookshelves would be much emptier. So, long live the Mary Sue.

    Also: if anyone thinks you must be just like your character, that means they think your character is real (be he wish-fulfillment or no), and when last I checked, that means you did your job.

  10. You know, Larry, I love your idea that if it’s awesome and your readers love it but it breaks the rules, then break the rules.

    For the most part, literature that follows the rules bores the hell out of me. If I want to read boring crap, I’ll go back to college where I can at least get a degree to compensate me for my time.

    I read novels to escape from the tedious parts of my life. I want action, adventure, and a good, ripping yarn. I think that’s the main reason I love your writing style. I can’t think of a single part of either MHI, MHV, or Welcome Back, Mr. NIghtcrawler that I wanted to skip over. The boring parts are taken out, leaving only the interesting bits behind.

    Usually with other authors I wind up skipping whole pages at times when I can tell that I’m just going to forget everything I’ve just read, because the author decided to write in pages of junk that doesn’t interest me. Have you tried to read a Dean Koontz’ book lately? Zzzzzzzzzz…

    I think I like Owen Pitt precisely because he is not an infallible action hero in the vein of Dirk Pitt, or MItch Rapp, or even John Rourke. He’s bad with women, he doesn’t have all the answers, and he usually screws up along the way, big time, before heading off to fix his own mistakes. As a reader, I can identify with him, because I’m a lot like that myself.

    Good post, Larry. I’m gonna link to this from now on when I come across any unfair Mary Sue allegation.

  11. You people are all crazy! Without rules everything would be madness! MADNESS I SAY!

    Everybody must colour within the lines or society as we know it will collapse in on itself like a badly stacked pile of fat cheerleaders!

    Characters must conform to stereotypes and every plot must be the same with no deviation, NO DEVIATION, what so ever. Your throwing away the rules and writing things that are exciting and fun to read fills me with a deep foreboding Larry.

    What will the Critics say when they hear of this? As we all know the Critics rarely rise from their dark and gloomy lairs but this will bring them out of their tombs and set them scurrying to their flickering screens, whence they will set forth to bring down this idea and you the mad architect of said madness!

    DOOM! DOOM I SAY!

    So in conclusion, I am intrigued by your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  12. @Panticles: Congratuations, you’ve just delineated the success of Misty Lackey. . . (evil grin)

    @Larry: if you’re Mary Sue-ing, I can’t see it. Yes, there ARE plenty of Mary Sues/ Marty Stus out there. I can think of one author who is notorious for it, and still sells well.

    Screw the critics: selling big numbers is the best revenge. . . .

  13. On the opposite side, people accused David Weber of not really writing the Honor H. novels because “no guy can write a strong female character.” Sheesh.

    So what if a little of the author emerges in a character? As long as its not the horrible whiney part, who gives a rip? Keep writing like you do and I’ll keep buying and reading, o great author person, sir.

  14. Thanks for the interesting articulation of a subject that I’ve never quite been able to put into words, to my satisfaction.

    Your article is encouraging to me and I am going to save it for future reference.

    Thanks again Larry!

  15. Ok, I read the book all the way through, and I definitely griped about the mary sueness of the main character. I’m also not a reviewer.

    However, in the end, I think it is just a trap of the premise, perhaps aggravated by the pitfalls of being a first time novelists.

    The opening fight was awesome. However, as such a fight should in a remotely realistic world, it leaves the hero in the hospital for an extended period of time. So unless you only have one good fight per novel, you kind of have to take a step towards mary sue land. You want to have lots of fights with lots of monsters, make that a big step. Of course that step is even more noticeable because in this story the hero is making the transition from the normal world to the MHI world. You could probably take the same premise, and turn it into a serious supernatural military story. But even if it wasn’t good, it wouldn’t be the fun tongue in cheek action horror cheese the MHI is supposed to be.

    Then you have the things the author could have avoided that don’t help the mary sueness.

    The big bad is revealed through flashbacks and the novel is first person. This means that unless you want lots of exposition, Owen gets stuck being the chosen one. Lots of writers warn against lots of exposition and lots warn against first person narratives. The author dug that hole for themselves, but on the other hand, humor while writing third person is REALLY hard to pull off.

    Then there’s some new writer sloppiness. Owen’s “bad temper” comes off totally tacked on to try and tone down his awesomeness. Just sort of tossed in there when he’s getting too awesome, or an action set piece starts getting painted into a corner. Owen’s brand of social awkwardness, however, comes off as being much better integrated into the character and also helps tone down the awesomeness.

    Then there’s things like Owen ducking to get into a shipping container. Those things are usually about 8′ tall. So Owen is now the tallest man in the world on top of it all. Heck, even if it is the shortest shipping container I can find at 7’2″, he’s stil taller than most of the NBA.

    And of course a LOT of these things hit in a short span in the middle of the book.

    There are few other key things that add to it like the whole time thing (don’t want to be specific about spoilers), which is pretty weak writing and probably the thing you can most blame the author for. At least i can. You rewrite the thing and off a bunch of redshirts and a couple of main but non-critical characters, and it would have been a hell of a lot more satisfying IMO.

    As a first novel though, I’ve read MUCH worse, it was still fun overall, and the sequel won’t have the problems brought on by it being an origin story unless we aren’t sticking with Owen long term. That should tone down some of the deliberate super awesomeness. I also expect the writing will get tighter overall with practice, which should tone down some of the less deliberate super awesomeness.

    What makes Mary Sue-ness unpleasant doesn’t require that the author weakly shove themselves in the story via thinly veiled proxy and make themselves infallible,but just that the character so awesome they are annoying. Larry knows this, that’s where Grant came from.

    • It’s a good thing Robert Heinlein never listened when “lots of writers” said you shouldn’t write books in the first person. LOL

      • Orson Scott Card warned against first person in Characters and Viewpoint. I was rather surprised, but IIRC the book was written in 1993, before the bulk of first person POV urban fantasy novels came about. Of course, Card also apparently thought that you cannot avoid telling your readers about everything the narrator sees, because they’ll get angry when they realize information was withheld in order to create suspense. As that happens pretty much constantly in the books I’ve read & it never occurred to me to be angry over it, I’m thinking Card was in error there.

      • Hey, I didn’t say they were right that you shouldn’t write stories in the first person. There are tons of book in first person I love. But there’s definitely some writer snobbery on the subject. Practically, there is the problem where it can be hard to not have everything happen to your main character.

      • Or Robert B Parker……he had (RIP) no success at all writing 1st person. I guess Im flawed because 3 or my fav authors all write 1st person, and they all have leading folks with wicked humor

    • Also…not to be rude, but how many novels have you published again?

      If the answer is one or more, you have some credibility in discussing “new writer sloppiness” because, presumably, you’ve been there yourself. Larry freely admits that he’s become a better writer since he wrote MHI.

      If the answer is zero…well.

      “I’ve never driven a car, but I ride in cars all the time, so I am in a position to discuss mistakes new drivers make and how they can best be avoided.”

      • I haven’t published any novels, but I’ve been subjected to reviewing a number of first drafts by several new writers. I’ve also been a faithful follower of a number of authors from their first short stories to their latest books. It isn’t like you have to have a PhD to recognize common problems inexperienced writers have. nuanced characters are hard to do right, the middle is hard to not screw up, etc.

        You don’t have to be a writer to discern the quality of writing. After all, books don’t get sold to writers, they get sold to readers, so the opinions of avid readers might count for something.

        As for your driver analogy, you don’t need to have driven to have the crap scared out of you by a bad driver almost creaming the car you are a passenger in.

    • Eh? Big man instinctually duck anytime they enter an unfamiliar and dark opening. Every. Single. Time. You hit your head for most of your adult life, you get into that habit. Of course he isn’t 7’2″. He’s 6’6″, (and for the record, the doors are shorter than the entire height of the container because on the ones I worked on there was about a four or six inch sheet-metal lip at the top).

      • I’m 6’7″, have been since I was 17, I know what tall guys do. If we ducked every single time, we wouldn’t have spent a large portion of our adult life (and especially teenage years) hitting our heads on stuff. ;)

        All the clubs I shoot USPSA events at keep all their gear in shipping containers, I’ve never even considered ducking. But then again, they are all the 8′ kind. I didn’t even know there were short ones until I googled it. Driving past the port of Newark fairly regularly since I was a a kid, They all seemed the same height, just different lengths front to back.

        I didn’t think you really intended him to be 8′ +, but that scene did make me wonder how tall he was really supposed to be. Before it I figured he was between 6’4″ and 6’8″ and didn’t think twice about it. But it’s one of those things you’d have to rely on someone else to catch unless you are REALLY detail oriented. After all, YOU knew what size you imagined the container as, so you wouldn’t even question it.

      • What the hell is the deal with all these tall guys on this damn blog? It’s like there’s a minimum requirement of being at least 6 foot before you can post here!

        As a man of medium height, being the perfect height of 5’9″, which enables me to be a fighter pilot or chopper pilot with no problems and also allows me to walk through doorways without hitting my head on anything, I feel that there are to many tall people around who always look down on me. Literally.

        Plus I can totally do a handstand and a cartwheel, I bet none of you guys can do that without hitting something with your awkwardly long legs or arms!

  16. I loved Owen, especially the fact that he’s ugly. I hate that every action movie stars a handsome A-lister with no scars, who couldn’t handle a gun if their life depended on it.

    As for the Mary Sue archetype I’d have to say Travis S. Taylor may be guilty. He seems like a great, superhuman type of guy but his two standalone novels are kind of laughable.

  17. Just like you say, Larry, all of my characters represent different aspects of myself. I think most authors would need a psychiatric degree and years of experience as a therapist in order to write characters that don’t draw from their own personalities.

    I echo the general sentiment: So what? The majority of people who’ve purchased my first book are strangers to me (or only know me through THR or APS in varying degrees). If you can figure out that Chance Richter is the most like me, then bully for you. I won’t even deny that he’s a Marty Stu, but he doesn’t get enough time in the spotlight to really warrant the label.

    My main characters are best defined as what I’m not, not what I am. One is the leader I wish I could be. One is the scientist I wish I could be. One is the warrior I wish I could be. Et cetera.

    I haven’t met you in real life, so I had no frame of reference for whether or not Owen resembled you beyond the similarities you pointed out yourself from the very beginning. It didn’t matter to me at all. So what if he’s an accountant? He’s only an accountant at the very beginning of the book! Unless you’re claiming that MHI is a true story with the names changed to protect the innocent, then who cares?

    I’ve never read a single word of fan fiction, so I don’t want to malign the entire phenomenon, but it seems to me that if fan fiction is the point of reference from which critics are panning your writing, then you should take them about as seriously as a mosquito fart in a hurricane.

  18. Remember what Spider Robinson said when Ben Bova asked him the difference between a critic and a reviewer:

    “A book critic tells you whether or not it’s Art. A book reviewer tells you whether it’s any damn good.”

    That response land Mr. Robinson a job as a reviewer.

    The only person who would care what a critic says is another critic. It’s amazing to me that so many people pay their bills by participating in such a circle jerk.

  19. My understanding of the definition of a Mary Sue is that it’s less about whether they were based on you, and more about how favored they are. If they are idealized, favored, and never have any problems (almost certainly the result of the writing equivalent of Private Hand Time on the part of the author), they’re a Mary Sue.

    Mary Sues are inherently bad as protagonists. Why? Because being perfect, favored, and in general overdone is boring. It’s a snoozefest. The main character in the movie 9 (aptly named 9), which came out recently (you know, the one with the puppets) is a Sue because he never, ever actually has to do any work to resolve any of the conflicts. This makes the movie boring, no matter how much I want to enjoy Burtonesque puppets waltz around Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare Robot Land set to Welcome Home.

    I didn’t walk out of that movie, but I should have.

    Is Owen a Mary Sue? By definition, he isn’t. Why? Because Owen, despite his awesome guns skillz, is the underdog of MHI. He’s the newbie, the rookie, and while he took on a werewolf all by his lonesome, that doesn’t make him any better at running 10 miles. His trouble getting the girl is enough to create solid suspense for the entire book; once you throw in the ancient slimy former conquistadors and vampires…

    Anyway. There is a Mary Sue in MHI. His name is Grant, and he has perfect abs, perfect looks, and he’s got the perfect girl. Larry also quietly makes fun of him through the entire book, and eventually totally marginalizes him.

    Finally, don’t just trust me, trust a computer!

    http://www.springhole.net/quizzes/marysue.htm

    Let’s plug in Owen, shall we?

    *machine noises*

    Owen rates a 22, which the test says:
    Some definite Sue-like tendancies here. A little polishing might be in order to put original fiction and RPG characters back into the balance, especially if Kirking is involved. Fanfiction characters should probably have some work done.

    However, the final question (Do you view your characters more like tools than friends/children?) is something only Larry can answer, but if I check it, Owen goes down to 21, which the test has this to say about:
    “Probably not a Mary-Sue, although a character can go either way at this point. Fanfiction writers should pay attention to ensure that their characters aren’t getting too Sue-ish. For an RPG or original fiction character, however, you’re probably perfectly fine.”

    • Hmm I plugged him into the test twice. Once being a hardass about the rules, and got an 87.

      Being more lenient on some things, like having more sex than all the other characters combined simply because there isn’t a lot of sex in the book, I still get a 71.

      Being pretty generous (like not ticking off the box for “would other characters die for the hero”, because he isn’t the only one they’d die for even though they wouldn’t sacrifice themselves for just anyone), I get a 58.

      • How on Earth did you get that much for him?

        You know since Owen is an original fiction character you’re not supposed to do the section for fanfic characters or RPG characters, right?

        I thought I was being fairly strenuous with Owen, I’m just baffled how even your generous estimate was more than twice mine.

      • I re-did Owen extra strict, even counting the Old Man as Owen being half mystical being. I got 42. So I guess the Ultimate Question is if Owen is a Mary Sue?
        ;)

        For comparison, I’ll do Harry Potter…

        140

        No kidding.

  20. I used to read Star Trek novels quite a bit. One big downside to them is that due the most of the authors having no overall creative control of that universe the primary characters Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc can’t really have any long term growth. Way back in the eighties though there was one Star Trek novel called “Dreadnaught.” Unlike most of the other Trek books the protagonist wasn’t any of the big name characters. In fact it was an entirely new character just out of the Academy. It was interesting in a lot of ways. The author introduced some small ship types other then shuttles. Put in a lot of info about certain aspects of Vulcan society that I haven’t seen before or since. At the end of the story we actually had some long term development in the protagonist. The “big names” were mostly relegated to support roles. I really liked it. It was only around twenty years later that I learned that the author more or less admitted that it was something of a “Mary Sue” story and that many “fans” looked upon it and the one sequel with disdain. Its been a long time since I read it but the attitude baffled me since it was one of the few trek novels that really stood out in my memory.

  21. The only trouble with adding a bad temper to a character as a flaw is whether or not it really works against them. Take the Sword of Truth series for example: For some reason, Richard’s power comes anger, and he’s pissed off a lot. But every time he loses his temper, he was proven right in the end, even if he THOUGHT he made a mistake and was contrite before ultimately being proven right (and everyone apologizes to him). Richard is practically perfect in every way, and really isn’t any fun to read about at all.

    What about Owen, though? Pretty much everyone could empathize when he punched Whatsisname and threw him over the side of the ship. The worst consequence over that action was getting yelled at. Afterward, Owen quickly became popular at MHI, and the pretty boy was becoming universally disliked almost through sheer force of Owen’s presence.

    So yes, I’d agree that he’s got some Sue traits but he’s still fun to read about. A true Sue by definition isn’t.

  22. I just remembered a web comic short story by Phil & Kaja Foglio that directly addressed the issue of “Mary Sue” stories. The story was called “Fan Fiction” and is set in the Foglio’s “Hetrodyne” universe.

    http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20051212

  23. I’ll just chime in and state that too many writers write to please critics, not readers. Most readers — as Larry astutely points out — are just in it for the fun. Many, many, many writers forget this entirely, however, and make the mistake of disappearing up their own literary assholes as a result. Thus they live in mortal fear of offending the labrynth of rules set down by the literary cognoscenti, and write accordingly. An afflication Larry doesn’t suffer, hence his MHI series is a cash phenomenon I love to point to as a great example of how writing and crowd pleasing are not mutually exclusive — nor should they be.

    • Exactly! It all comes down to what your measure of sucess is. I’ll never be on Oprah and my odds of ever getting a positive review in the New Yorker are slim to zero. But I make my fans happy, so I win.

      Award Winng Author Brad Torgersen nails it. (okay, you’ve got to admit, it is kind of awesome to say award winning now after Writers of the Future, isn’t it?) :)

      • Don’t have a defeatist attitude about Oprah. If you can crash a taping then you will have been on the show, technically… even if the only people who see it are jury members.

      • Robert Heinlein used to say that he was competing for beer money. I actually had to think, a bit, about whether I would buy beer, or your
        book. I ended up buying both. My landlord hates me.

    • If my main character in any given story is NOT a Marty Stu, then I am probably not writing a good story, nor is it likely that I am having any fun. Why would I read speculative fiction if I wasn’t into monster-killing, fireball-hurling, lightspeeding pick-up trucks, or juggernaut-sized spaceships and zombie apocalpyses? Why would I want to write speculative fiction except to play out my daydreams on a limitless, completely personalizable field? Sure, that ice-beaming wizard “isn’t” me, and neither is that star-travelling gun-slinger. But if I had the choice? No contest.

      If you’re not putting yourself into your own story–someway, somehow–then you must be a very bland and sad writer. Three cheers for Marty Stu!

      -bn

  24. 1. I really enjoyed reading the book
    2. I don’t share your politics
    3. I too thought Owen was a Mary Sue Character
    4. Anything past point 1 doesn’t really matter now, does it?

  25. What is a rule other than a requirement to do something the way someone else wants it? Ok, speeding and bank robbery are rules that probably shouldn’t be broken but why else is fiction written than for entertainment and fun? MHI is a hit. The sequel will no doubt be a hit. Same for Hard Magic, same for Dead Six and on and on. When you’ve got it, you’ve got it and Larry Correia has it.

    That being said, I will admit Owen was my least favorite character in MHI. But it had nothing to do with Mary Sue.

  26. I’m rereading the book and I can see Owen as a Sue, but I didn’t when I went through it the first time. However, I did find a Mary Sue somewhere else.
    The Interdimensional Salesman skit that you did awhile back.
    I read that and completely thought it was a Sue, but I was laughing my butt off so it didn’t really matter.
    On that note I issue a challange! One I think you will fail! Write a piece of Mary Sue fiction that we, your fans, will NOT like! XD

  27. Hmmm. Ya know, I had always thought that Sues were more of a fanfiction thing, usually by definition a character, oftentimes a self-insert (as in, the author practically verbatim) but not always, who is more awesome that the original main characters where. The Sue would often times show up, outshine, and in general make a mockery of other characters from the original ‘verse, who seem to have lost the ability to do [i]anything[/I] without the Sue’s help.
    A good example would be the Resident Evil movies, particularly the second one in the scene where Jill Valentine, an established and well liked character by the fandom, tries to blow up some zombies using the old lighter-and-gas routine. She fails miserably, and it falls to Alice, the new original character played by the woman whose boyfriend happens to be [i]directing[/i] this thing, to do a cool action scene bike-plus-dual-wield-mech-pistol entrance, finishing by flicking a cigarette into the gas. Now, that’s a classic Sue scene right there, since it not only went over the top to establish how awesome Alice is, it also showed up an original character from the “normal” continuity.
    Since Owen is a character from his own unique universe, he does not rate anywhere near a Marty Stu in my opinion. The whole “self insert=Sue” is hogwash, anyway. One can argue that all characters are mere reflections of the Author.

    If there was one thing about Owen that kept bugging me was his constantly stating how “normal” he was because he was an accountant. Well, yeah, he’s an accountant. But how many accountants received military-like training as a kid from their Spec-Ops dad, then made a living pounding peoples faces in as a bouncer/underground-fighter before turning pacifist, and even then indulge in a hobby which involves shooting guns? Admittedly one that couldn’t go toe-to-claw with a werewolf, so there is a trade-off. ;)
    Though I’ll admit I only got this impression from reading the 7-chapter preview, since all bookstores in my area seem to be lacking in their stock. I do plan to snag myself a copy sooner or later, though…

    • *Now refilled on caffeine, looks at blog post again*
      Oh, duh. Sorry for rehashing what you already said. My opinion in a nutshell: Mary Sues don’t exist outside of fanfiction. Ergo, Owen isn’t a Marty Stu.

      Though my thought about Owen believing himself “normal” still stands.

  28. I know it must suck when it happens, but a book about an organization that kills monsters was bound to get at least one negative review (i.e. can’t please everyone). However, you wrote one helluva entertaining read and I’m glad you did. Please don’t stop. And Pitt a Mary Sue? Who cares. I love the guy.

  29. Since MHI is obviously completely autobiographical. I propose a new term to replace the original.

    “Larry-Sue”. Keep your multiple personalities in check you big mean Author you.

    Just messin’ with ya Larry.

  30. I read MHI imagining you personally in the lead role. It made for a much richer experience.

  31. Hi! I have a question which has always bothered me when I’m trying to do research for my writing. How do you find the right books/ sources to read for your research? How do you know who can knows their stuff and can actually write about it? And any advice on how poor, pathetic beings who hath offended the Great Gods of the almighty Google in a past life so no matter what we try to put in a Google search, we never find anything that even comes close to what we are researching?

    Sorry about the run on, I get a little too impressed with my not so popular sense of humor.

    Alora Novas
    http://www.iamnovas.wordpress.com

  32. My apologies for the obscurity of the last question. (Note: that is why one should not comment or blog when upset.)
    Please ignore it.

  33. I get this when I write too. People want to know who my characters are based on. My standard answer is every one I’ve ever met.

  34. If anything, Owen reminds me of yet another ugly, yet badassed character: Commander Sam Vimes of Discworld.
    Is Vimes a Sue? Let’s see…
    -Incorruptible? Yes he is.
    -Able to beat up werewolves? Yep.
    -Takes on multiple opponents single handedly and wins? Oh, yeah.
    -Defeated a multidimensional being of enormous power? Indeed he did.

    So Larry is in very good company here.

  35. I’d bet most of the neggings other than Activist Marxies are from Twi-tards who think you’re trying to foment anti-vampire discrimination.

  36. Larry,
    1) I’m a liberal. Sometimes. Enough that the Baen Politics forum regularly gives me hives. I have the occasional libertarian impulse, too.
    2) I bought the Webscription and read your book. All the way through. Twice so far.
    3) I knew Mary Sue. I worked with Mary Sue. You, sir, are no Mary Sue.
    4) Really. Yeah, he’s big and tough. So were Mike Hammer, and anyone John Wayne played, and Travis McGee. If we’re gonna go “Mary Sue”ing anyone who gets the girl in the end and can take a knockin’ and keep on rockin’, we’re going to have to convict the entire detective-noir and cowboy-western genres.
    5) Everybody gets negative reviews, which you already knew. Your *positive* reviews say things like “LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS” and “Pay to the Order of:” and I’m seriously jealous of your ability to get ‘em. I’m stuck doing geek stuff and I suspect you’re having more fun.

    Write on, brother.

    –Phil Sevetson

  37. […] week, Larry Correia talked about the dangers of writing a “Mary Sue”.  I, for one, had no idea what (or […]

  38. Thanks for this, I tend to tie myself in knots wondering if my main character has devolved into a Mary Sue (well, that and other reasons). I just wanted to share this: really, the only time a true Mary Sue is good. : ) http://web.archive.org/web/20080126173448/http://www.subreality.com/marysue/nmaall.htm

  39. Hi Larry,

    This is a new writing question related to character development. Do you get in depth in figuring out your characters personalities, background, strenghs, weaknesses, and histories?

    How much background do you think is enough to start with ‘parts’ and get a solid character off of your metaphorical Frankensteinian table and walking around in your story as a living, breathing ‘person’? What key things do you look for in a good character that you create?

    -Scott

  40. […] hard time parsing out the differences of character mindsets and my own. Oh, I’m not guilty of Mary Sue-ing myself, oh no. But in order to get inside a character’s mind, sometimes I have to try and think like […]

  41. At first I kind of thought Owen was a bit of a Marty Stu, but after reading all of the stuff he went through and how incredibly, insanely, unbelievably hard all of it was, and how often he simply couldn’t handle all of it, I knew that I was dealing with no Marty Stu. That’s just damn talented writing.

  42. I enjoyed reading the four MHI books even though Owen is my least favorite character. He is just boringly perfect, tough and always right. You don’t have to look much further than at how easy he won over the girl to know that we’re definitely dealing with a Mary Sue here.

    Now Earl Harbinger, that’s a great character and probably my favorite discovery of 2012. And I see lots of potential in Grant and Loco who come across as much more human and believable than our protagonist.

    Keep up the good work, Mr. Correia. Greetings from Germany.

  43. You ever seen one of those mary sue tests you can take where ya can see what “score” you get? There’s one, I’d have to look for it, that’s really good because actually, too low a score (like 0-25 I think) means that your protagonist is TOO boring, spice him/her/it up more. But get too high (I think around 50 or 60+) and then you have full on Sueism.

    Of course like all things this can be done good or bad, the big difference I think is that a good, less sueish character can make up for a bad story while a bad, very sueish character can drag down even a nominally decent tale.

    My standard? How much does the universe of the story orbit around the character without any logical reason. For instance there’s a mystery and Sue just happens to guess the right answer with no known clues or reasoning. (this excludes “right but for the wrong reasons” which is often hilarious and endearing for some characters) Or they get away with things that lesser characters are called out for. Every “mistake” the character makes turns out to have been the right thing all along. etc etc Now one or two of these things can be acceptable, but too many? Well just look at Wesley Crusher.

  44. Um, not to be weird, but as I was reading the MHI novels, I had a picture of Julie Shackleford in my mind and it fits the Baroness from G.I. Joe. Just wow.

  45. The worst Mary Sue I’ve ever seen was “Redline the Stars” where P. M. Griffin tried to continue Andre Norton’s Solar Queen series and added the character “Rael Cofort” who was just too perfect for words. It was so bad I never bothered with the other sequels.

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