Reasonably Unscrewed-Up Character ≠ Mary Sue

When Mary and I were doing the Q & A portion of our Borderlands Books appearance, I went off the ranch a bit and kvetched about one of my pet peeves concerning science fiction reviewers, which is the assumption that any main character who is not screwed-up is somehow automatically a Mary Sue wish fulfillment character for the writer… or perhaps more accurately that my main characters are Mary Sues for me. Rather than recreate the kvetch, let me transcribe it here, edited slightly so you don’t get every stutter and “uh”:

Forgive me father, for I have sinned, I have been reading my reviews. And there’s one thing that just always pisses me off, and that it is that when they mention characters, they say, well his main character is fine and blah blah blah but it’s really just a Mary Sue character. And it just drives me insane because it’s in all my reviews: “The main character’s a Mary Sue.” Well, no, the main character is not a Mary Sue, he’s just not incredibly fucked up to begin with!

There’s a difference between having a character that’s, you know, fairly on beam, and having a Mary Sue. Having a Mary Sue would be like, ‘Harry Creek, five foot eight, a little more portly than average but still devastatingly handsome and sexy, stepped in. And they said “Thank God, Harry, you’re here!” And he said, “Why yes, I am, and I will solve that problem for you. Now, now, don’t thank me — this is what I do. I will now go retire and have sex with many people.”‘

So all these things… they’re like John Perry is a Mary Sue, and my immediate response was just because the dude lives in my little town, in my house, and is a writer, doesn’t mean he’s my Mary Sue. Which I understand is unconvincing. But then there’s Harry Creek, he’s a Mary Sue. I wrote something for METAtroplis, and the review was “this is yet another Mary Sue character.” That Mary Sue character was the nineteen year old screw-up who gets a job as a pig farmer and on his first day on the job gets enveloped in shit. I’m like, yeah, I want to be that character! When I was right out of college, which is the equivalent of what this character is, my first job was as a movie critic at a newspaper — I watched movies for a living, and I got to tell people about it. For an egotistical 22-year-old man, it doesn’t get any better than that. This guy is not my Mary Sue, I’m his!

So just because a character is not immediately in pain doesn’t mean he’s not a Mary Sue. He’s just not in pain.

Bear in mind that as I was saying this all, I was in ranty hyperactive mode, playing to an audience, who was laughing with me (as opposed to at me, you can be sure), so I’m a little more strident here than I might be otherwise. On the other hand, I do have a point here, which is I think SF reviewers have gotten into the lazy assumption that any character that’s not immediately laden down with problems and/or is meant to be more competent than usual in a particular skill or skills is a Mary Sue for the author.

Now, maybe that’s the way it works for other authors, but for me, not so much. I make some of my characters more competent than usual because a) non-competent people don’t generally interest me as primary characters and b) from the standpoint of story mechanics, unless the journey to competence is the point of the story, the less time you have spend getting your character up to competence, the more time you have to deal with the story itself. None of this has to do with me having any wish fulfillment, other than the practical wish of keeping my story bubbling along. As for why I don’t make my main characters all fucked-up, well, I suppose it’s because the stories I’ve written so far don’t need them to be. When I need one, I’ll write one. But I’m not going to make a character all fucked-up just because. Seems a mean thing to do to a character, and possibly a bad thing to do to a story. Again, this is less about my own wish fulfillment than practical issues of story construction.

(And as for John Perry, as I’ve noted before (.pdf link), the reason he lives in my town and in my house and is a writer is because I’m lazy, not because he’s me. In the OMW universe, the character most like me is Harry Wilson, who doesn’t get his own star turn in the universe until the short story “After the Coup.” And even then (spoilers!) he gets the crap beat out of him, which doesn’t seem like something you’d let happen to your Mary Sue on a regular basis.)

I’m aware that the term “Mary Sue” is experiencing some definition creep so that aside from meaning “author wish fulfillment character” it’s also come to mean “supercompetent, non-screwed-up main character.” But this seems like critical and linguistic laziness to me — Let “Mary Sue” mean what it’s supposed to mean, and let something else mean that other thing; I vote for “Campbellian Competent,” myself. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize writers on both counts — Campbellian Competent characters can be lazily constructed and boring as hell, just as Mary Sues are painful to read in their own way. I’d just suggest critics actually try to parse the difference. It’d be more useful to readers, and I know it would annoy me less.

133 thoughts on “Reasonably Unscrewed-Up Character ≠ Mary Sue

  1. If you’re going to coin a term, why not have the characters be called, “Scalzinian” ?

    Or, “Billy Bob was an entertaining character, but he had a tendency to be rather scalzish.”

    You could permanently cement your name into the annals of every bad review ever written! Oh… I see.

  2. It’s why I don’t read much inner-life-in-turmoil sf. There has been so much emphasis on making things *different* in sf by editors and agents that the average writer doesn’t have anywhere to go but inward. There is only so much culture mashup / folk tale filching that can be done in fiction before the possibilities get silly (Sino-Scottish dervishes in space, anyone?).

    I’m not against social commentary in the external or internal landscape every now and again. I prefer a good story well told. Reading how fscked up someone is over the death of their pet slug — meh.

  3. Maybe I don’t fully grok the meaning of Mary Sue, but why can’t a screwed up character be a Mary Sue?

    I mean let’s say you wrote the science fiction equivalent of Death Wish. Why couldn’t the Paul Kersey analog be a Mary Sue? The author could want to go out and shoot aliens he deemed “bad” indiscriminately.

    Well, maybe this is a bad example….

    But you get my point.

  4. Another reason I rarely read book reviews. I get information from people I know, whose opinions I trust. Most reviewers, whether book, movie, or otherwise, are more interested in displaying their supposed intellectual superiority than in giving a meaningful description of the book, movie, or whatever.

  5. JJS:

    Well, as someone who’s been a professional critic for years, I would say it’s not always the case; there are plenty of good reviewers/critics out there, and when they have a depth of knowledge in the field their critiques can be really useful. But as with anyone, you need to learn about the reviewer/critic you’re reading, and learn what their quirks are and take your own bearings from there.

  6. Nice. Stephen King is a Mary Sue’n mofo then . . . as are most of the lit fic professorial types who write about . . . middle aged professorial types . . . ugh.

    If it’s any consolation, I didn’t think John Perry was all that much like you . . . . first names excepted and I suspect that was to give him ordinarynormalness.

    Of course, Aynlein Heinrand . . . . she or he is about as Mary MF Sue as it gets . . . .

  7. I’ve made it a project of mine to write about normal, non-dysfunctional characters because I happen to believe that internal dysfunction isn’t necessary for interesting conflict. The world is full of interesting conflict.

    However, I was explaining to another writer once how I tend to give my character normal, happy childhoods (because everyone else tends to give their characters seriously frakked up childhoods and I’m tired of it), and she said to me, “Wow, you really are writing fiction.”

    I had no idea how to respond to that, other than silently thinking what a sad, sad outlook.

  8. I just finished The Android’s Dream (and reviewed it), and I thought Harry Creek was kinda screwed up. I mean, he’s this super computer genius who also happens to be able to kick some serious butt in combat situations, but he totally wastes that being a low-profile low level state department employee because he had bad experiences in the war and feels guilty over the death of his best friend (which was not his fault) and now seems to be attempting to avoid playing the hero (futile attempt – read the book)…ok, stopping to breathe. Anyway, I didn’t think he was a Mary Sue. I haven’t gotten to any of your other books yet so I can’t speak to the other characters.

  9. The POV character of this story is obviously a Mary Sue. Look how many times he has sex! And how many flaws in other characters he points out!

  10. As for why I don’t make my main characters all fucked-up, well, I suppose it’s because the stories I’ve written so far don’t need them to be. When I need one, I’ll write one. But I’m not going to make a character all fucked-up just because. Seems a mean thing to do to a character, and possibly a bad thing to do to a story.

    We’re all of us fucked-up one way or another… for some of us it’s crushing, for others it’s a passing character flaw.

    I find no particular appeal in a lead character who is crushed to begin with. I prefer the crushing to occur in story, to a (more or less) flawed person. Somebody I can identify with… or at least give a damn about. More empathy; less sympathy.

  11. Oh boy, I could go on for days about this topic.

    IMHO the SF&F field has reached the Lit Radius — the point at which the enterprise has become almost terminally freighted with its own past — and now SF&F authors are turning to ‘literary’ mechanisms in order to seem innovative to editors and critics who have, quite frankly, read too much.

    Thus main characters are labeled as Mary Sue or otherwise ‘uninteresting’ unless they are bizarre and/or read like escapees from rehab: abuse victims, addicts, half-crazy in the head, muddled or non-existant morals, etc, etc.

    I thought the John Perry character entirely sympathetic, and he rang with authenticity as a basically nice guy who loved his wife, in spite of everything that had happened to him. But this is a no-no in Lit Radius Land. In order to pass the new litmus, John Perry should have been a) transexual b) addicted to heroine c) a self-centered monster.

    In reality, John Perry is a perfectly American hero, in the classic mold: an ordinary guy who is thrust into extraordinary situations and discovers his own extraordinary potential as a result. For the average reader, this is a winner, and I think the sales figures for OMW back that up.

    Complaints about Mary Sue are groundless and, to my mind, reveal far more about the jaded and saturated mindset of those making the claims, than they do about JS and OMW.

  12. Tom Clancy is the worst offender for Mary Sue. I’d say Clive Cussler, but Clive’s writing high-concept action thrillers. (Well, so’s Clancy), so projecting himself onto Dirk Pitt works.

    Usually, though, I find the Mary Sue accusation in reviewing says more about the reviewer than the author, in that the reviewer is lazy and just a mite pretentious.

    Then again, faced with a deadline, I’ve been known to be a mite pretentious.

  13. My first reaction on reading OMW was that your main character was a bit of a Mary Sue (he didn’t just live in your house and town, he wrote ad copy…didn’t you have that as a job once?), but then, I recalled that old saw about writers writing about ‘what they know’. If I were going to write a book and had to come up with a believable character, yeah, he’d probably be a bit like me, because I don’t read minds either.

  14. Campbellian Competence.

    I can dig it.

    I’m sick and tired of angst ridden characters who are so obviously written to be the anti-mary sue. For example, the entire cast of BSG is the anti-mary sue. There isn’t a single character that isn’t nine kinds of fucked up. One of the main reasons I enjoyed Firefly so much was that despite the baggage they each carried, all the characters were very competent in their own way.

    I spent most of my life surrounded by folks who are supremely competent at many things, and confident in themselves and their own ability to manage the task at hand, whatever it may be. I’m one of them. After more than twenty years in the military, two wars, a dozen deployments, and surviving situations most civilians couldn’t imagine – you tend to be pretty confident in yourself. And a number of my own readers have called me a Mary Sue in jest on more than one occasion. The bastards. ;)

    I suspect that RAH’s characters were written the way they were because Heinlein had a similar background to some extent and knew similar people – and it’s why I enjoy reading his work so much. Same with Pournelle. And Niven. And Laumer. Same with you, Scalzi.

  15. From the bottom of my heart, sir, I thank you!

    I think the vast majority of Mary Sue accusations in recent years are totally unjustified for the very reasons you describe. Not only because “skill” does not equal “Mary Suedom”, but also because it’s always seemed to me that the entire process of writing is about putting little bits of yourself into your characters. All of them. Even the bad guys. Because after all, you have to put yourself into all these people’s heads in order to write the story in the first place.

    Some characters will certainly have more of an author in them than others. And if you really want to work at it, I’m sure that you could make a case for any given character having one or more traditional Mary-Sue-y traits about them. For me as a reader, ultimately, it doesn’t mean much. In the hands of a suitably gifted writer, even characters who are blatant Mary Sues can be awesome. Two words: Harriet Vane.

    And for the record, even though I’ve only read Old Man’s War to date and need to get to Ghost Brigades, I never thought Perry was a Mary Sue to begin with. ;)

  16. A character I’ve used in three novels, Aud Torvingen, is often (oh so very often) called a Mary Sue. Bear in mind she’s Norwegian, six feet tall and –>this<– close to being a psychopath (she kills people often). Just like me. Right. But she’s a woman and a dyke; just like me! We must be the same!

  17. Mary Sueism has officially poisoned my brain. It’s totally been taken too far in application; by most of the litmus tests out there, every single one of my favorite characters in sf are screaming Mary Sues. Understandably, this tends to annoy me.

    Because, maybe they are Sues in a technical sense, but it takes more than the literal definition to make a Sue a Sue, in my opinion. What that quality is, is hard to define (probably because it varies from case to case).

    If you ask me, Mary Sues are just like originality and porn: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

  18. The term has indeed experienced some wicked definition-creep over the years, and not just away from wish fulfillment.

    Mary-Sueism is by definition a kind of bad writing. It’s an error most frequently made by the inexperienced and immature. It’s an example of poor characterization, poor plotting, and a poor grasp on realistic human behavior. There are as many ‘Sues who are written as perfect and flawless as there are ‘Sues who are written as rape, incest, slavery, genocide, and/or addiction survivors (the point in either case is to engender reader support without earning it), but every single one of them is badly-written. That’s the point.

    So when someone says “the main character is fine, but they’re a total Mary-Sue,” that’s like saying “This house is perfectly safe, but it’s about to fall down.” Either it’s a well-written character or it’s a Mary-Sue. It cannot be both.

  19. The best description of a Mary Sue I’ve seen is that they’re like black holes: Insert one into the story, and their presence warps things, so that everything goes around them.

    This applies more readily to fanfic, where Mary Sues originated, than to original fiction, but I think it’s still a good rule-of thumb.

  20. You’ve got good cause to rant. John Perry isn’t totally screwed up, but he’s not totally OK, either. He’s disconnected for much of OMW (as are most of those leaving Earth, I guess). His drill instructor didn’t happen to have a standard gripe that applied to John so he was left standing alone in the end of that scene, but there was nothing admirable about him. (The drill instructor _was_ screwed up for thinking that stupid, insipid jingle John wrote was noteworthy in any way.) John was clumsy and awkward as a school boy when he first approaches Jane. I could go on and on.

    Flaws give characters life. John has them; they are just not blatant. Perhaps your reviewers are not reading carefully?

    I read OMW as an eBook freebee from TOR. I was hooked immediately and bought Ghost Brigade, Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale in quick succession. (Zoe’s Tale is still queued; I ate the others immediately.) I’d like to say that I’m living proof that (a) support of eBooks makes you money, and (b) giving away that first one got you three subsequent sales (so far). I’m a fan. I’m a big fan.

    Thank you.

    — Scott

  21. Great post, Jim Wright!

    I would add that many of us read SF&F not because we need main characters who are every inch as flawed and fucked up as we are in the mortal world, but because we desire larger-than-life people and beings who seem to transcend much of our every day experience and transport us into an altogether larger, fantastic experience.

    To me, this is why Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, etc, work so well. Almost nobody in any of these major franchises is a fucked up wimp in the way so much of our lit crowd now requires all ‘sympathetic’ characters to be fucked up wimps.

    Han Solo and Captain Kirk are not perfect, but they have mettle. Even the bad guys, such as Darth Vader or Khan, have mettle. Few things are more fun than watching an authentically tough good guy go up against an authentically tough bad guy. Who needs angst and navel-gazing?

    Jim, you noted that military folk are often very competent in spite of personal shortcomings, and this is very true in my Army experience as well. I’ve known numerous NCOs and Chiefs who, while not perfect in their personal lives, are amazingly good at their MOS and display a degree of maturity and doggedness in the face of avdersity that is truly inspiring.

    I myself recently got picked up for Warrant Officer school, and will (once again) be putting myself to the test to see if I’ve got what it takes. I know I am loaded with a lot of flaws, but I’ve (so far) managed to rise to the challenges the military has thrown at me. And consider myself a better man for it.

    This, to me, is what I seek in most characters in any fiction: someone who tackles adversity, and whether they want to or not, rises to the occasion and is a stronger, better person on the other end of it.

    I recently read Dick Winters’ autobiography “Beyond Band of Brothers” while en route back from Camp Ederle in Italy, and was astounded at what this real life hero was able to accomplish in his (relatively short) time in uniform. I look at Winters and I want to get a t-shirt for myself that says WUSS across the chest, because the things Winters was able to do — the awesome level of discpline and character he showed — are amazingly humbling.

    If I could wave a wand and have more SF&F characters be like Dick Winters — and less like this week’s Dr. Phil guest — I would do it in a heart beat!

  22. I try to avoid accusing a character of being an “authorial insert” unless there’s a really, really, really good reason for it (i.e., if it’s screamingly obvious). I felt there were elements of a Mary Sueness in John Perry–mainly around the things you yourself cite as being a result of authorial laziness as opposed to authorial wish-fulfillment–but it certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the books at all. And obviously, I didn’t feel the need to mention it in my reviews (I don’t think we managed to review OMW, but I think we did GB and I know TLC and ZT were reviewed).

  23. I don’t know, but it strikes me that if John Perry weren’t pretty damn competent, he wouldn’t have survived the books. I always felt that the situations in the books demanded a competent narrator because the situations were so astoundingly lethal. A less-competent narrator would only have survived through dumb luck, and *that* would have annoyed the crap out of me had I read it.

    Also, I decided that I liked him in the very first scene, when he continues to the old-man thing of trying to make the young woman at the recruiting station laugh, even when he knows he’s just being an irritating ass.

    Annalee@21 was dead on: Mary-Sue means bad writing. John Perry was the narrator the story demanded and was believable and likable in the role– i.e.: well-written.

  24. One thing I have always wanted to know:

    JS, did you name ‘John Perry’ by using your own first name and Steve Perry’s (of “Journey”) last name?

    =^)

  25. Sub-Oden, congratulations on your selection to Warrant, it’s the best damned job in or out of the military, I miss it every day. Warrants are the very definition of Campbellian Competence.

    I also suspect that most of the SciFi written post WWII tends to show very strong, very competent characters specifically because the authors were familiar with folks who persevered against all odds, no matter what. They lived through it, were scarred by it, but put it behind them and used the experience to build the world we live in today.

    Most of the scifi authors writing today seem to be products of the “my child is a superstar at shitforbrain elementary” generation. Not all certainly (our host seems to have plenty of self confidence, hell, his ego has its own twitter feed :), maybe not even a majority. But self confidence seems to be something they don’t really understand or even believe in, other than the bumper-sticker variety.

  26. Having just reread the first three OMW novels, I want to suggest that there are different ways of presenting competence.

    First, you can make the character competent so they don’t get in the way of the story and they get to do more interesting things. Like John Perry. Other examples of the same thing might be Larry Niven’s Rod Blane or Asimov’s Susan Calvin.

    Then there’s *fetishizing* competence. This presents the main character as part of a superior, more worthwhile class of human being (often including their elite family and friends). This can be done humorously, as in the Stainless Steel Rat. Or annoyingly, as in Lazarus Long.

    Creating a character who exhibits extreme competence and is simultaneously beset by common human frailties is much harder. This is one difference between the main characters in the Bladerunner movie and Dick’s novel.

  27. I think there is an additional piece to some Mary Sue characters: the supposed “flaw” that the writer not-so-secretly thinks is actually deeply intriguing.

  28. THANK YOU.

    Oh god, it’s been driving me nuts how quick I see people go “Mary Sue!” when more and more I’m starting to suspect it’s more “a character I can’t relate to, because they aren’t enough like me and more competent”.

    Which is just plain silly. I mean, I dunno, to pull the John Perry example, I rather related to him. And I’m a female in my twenties. In fact, half the reason I read Old Man’s War was my friends were like, “hey it’s about old people, YOU LIKE OLD PEOPLE” because, well, the same plucky young hero has gotten sort of tiresome for me and identity crises have gotten repetitive. Heck, it even makes sense to me that 30+ characters would have more skills than the preteens you typically see heading things. It just takes some finesse or a good premise to pull a fully-formed older character out of their settled life.

    But that tangent aside, I wish some reviewers would just fess up when they don’t relate to something and not attribute it to bad writing right off the bat.

  29. I have always hated books where the main character spends most of the book passively watching things happen around him, doing nothing. Sure, there’s something to be said about a plot with a comically inept character (“Confederacy of Dunces,” say), but for the most part I want a marginally competent character to push the action forward.

    Ender is not a Mary Sue for Orson Scott Card, just because he’s good enough to win. Not every Stephen King writer character is a Mary Sue for King, despite the similarities.

    It’s weird that Sci Fi/Fantasy has this issue, while no one really criticizes, say, Updike for creating characters that come from a similar background. Just because writers are starting from a point that they know personally doesn’t make their heroes Mary Sue’s. That term really has crept all over the place, solely, I think, because it’s a quick shortcut to belittle someone’s story in a way that everyone understands. Like calling someone a wimp.

  30. Man. The Mary Sue is the one topic that makes me want to rant. I’ll try not to. (In essence, I agree with you, Mr. Scalzi, with a slightly different bent.)

    “Mary Sue” is a term that’s used heavily in the fanfiction world. The definition does creep and vary, but it’s generally used for characters in a fanfic that are so good and perfect and talented that it warps the universe the fanfic is set in around them. Basically the presence of the Mary Sue-type character and the fanfiction author’s desire to make their character Really Cool And, Like, Totally The Best! starts to shatter readers’ suspension of disbelief because the character has no balance, no synergy with the world they are set in. This is *such* a common mistake for beginning fanfiction writers that many, many topics and blogs have been written about it, and the fanfiction world has taken to creating ways of “How to Identify A Mary Sue”, as an effort to “help” young, still-learning writers. Lists include “unusual eye color”, “relationship to major canon character”, “all the men/woman/animals/gods falling in twu lurve with her”, “major magical powers or skills”, etc. Wish-fulfillment and Author-Insertion are other “criteria” often listed here.

    The problem is, this “checklist” does not take the author’s skill into account.

    Once you step out of fanfic, and look at the original stories being published by *good* authors, you will find engaging, well-written, and *interesting* characters that technically fulfill half or more of the so-called “criteria” for a fanfic Mary Sue.

    The difference is that a pro writer *has the writing chops* to pull it off. They can give their main character a Larger Than Life destiny. They can make their character The Best at whatever their profession is. This is because they know how to do it well, and make these things have consequences for their characters. They know how to integrate it into their world. Indeed, you almost HAVE to make larger than life characters in the SFF field, because it makes the story interesting. If an author wants to write about Average Joes all the time, they’d go write Lit fic, not SFF. ::rimshot::

    SFF wants and likes its heros.

    I personally think the term “Mary Sue” is utterly invalid for original fiction, particularly original *published* fiction, because of its heavy roots in the fanfic world where it’s used to critique authors that as a whole have no conception of how to write a believable character (any believable character, main, leading character or minor, supporting character). And when I see it used on reviews of original fic, it’s more often twisted and stretched to mean “Well, this character just isn’t to my taste”. Professional authors can certainly have characterization issues, particularly if they’re the type of author that focuses more on, say, the science and ideas in their story, and less upon the characters populating their world and moving the story forward, but even then they generally won’t have anywhere near the same amount of issues a random, crappy fanfic on the web will have. Their characterization issues will be a lot more complex to define and fix then slapping “Mary Sue!” on it.

    Fulfilling the criteria of the nearest googled “Mary Sue Checklist” does not a bad character make. It is all dependant on the skill of the writer. And I absolutely HATE that people run around using the term “Mary Sue” when they mean “I, personally, think this character is boring, but I can’t actually define why I don’t like the character, so I’ll call it a Mary Sue and sound *smrat*.”

    I think I’m starting to devolve into rant, so I’ll stop here.

    ::goes and eats a chocolate brownie to calm down::

  31. What a bunch of crap. I think as a response you should write a short story and have EVERY character named Mary Sue. They could all be clones, so you’d have Mary Sue08, Mary Sue47, etc etc. And ALL of them would be competent. Eff the naysayers cuz they don’t mean a thing.

  32. Male characters who would otherwise be Mary Sues are called Marty Stus.

    Now that you have heard the decree, please obey it.

  33. Mary-Sueism is by definition a kind of bad writing. It’s an error most frequently made by the inexperienced and immature. It’s an example of poor characterization, poor plotting, and a poor grasp on realistic human behavior. There are as many ‘Sues who are written as perfect and flawless as there are ‘Sues who are written as rape, incest, slavery, genocide, and/or addiction survivors (the point in either case is to engender reader support without earning it), but every single one of them is badly-written. That’s the point.

    So when someone says “the main character is fine, but they’re a total Mary-Sue,” that’s like saying “This house is perfectly safe, but it’s about to fall down.”

    This, this THIS!

    Too often nowadays, “Mary Sue” is employed to mean, simply, “female character I don’t like.” (It’s unleashed less often on male characters, though the numbers are creeping up on them too.) It’s fine to be rubbed wrong by a character, but more of us need to understand as readers that it’s entirely possible that that’s entirely our own damage,not the writer’s or character’s.

  34. It seems like an author might want to write a character that is a “Mary Sue” for the prospective reader. Someone who can do the things they’d like to be able to do, look how they’d like to look, and – most importantly – say the things they wish they could say. I love reading about John Perry’s adventures because I’d love to be him (except the gender)! Maybe “Mary Sue” isn’t the right term for that type of character.

    But, it seems logical that perhaps in achieving the goal of giving the reader a good time, the writer also creates a character that’s a good time for the writer.

    I also feel fortunate that I didn’t know what a “Mary Sue” was until this post.

  35. Hrmph, by definition, Xopher, a male Sue should be a cross-dresser, so Mary Sue is the proper term. Technically a transgendered biologically female Sue would be a Gary Stu or something. Wait. Now I’ve gone and confused myself. Nevermind.

  36. My first reaction on reading OMW was that your main character was a bit of a Mary Sue (he didn’t just live in your house and town, he wrote ad copy…didn’t you have that as a job once?)

    I admit that I raised an eyebrow at that too, but as the story went on it was pretty clear that Perry wasn’t Fictional-Scalzi Rules the Universe, so it was all right.

    The ‘black hole’ metaphor is a good one, I think. Mary Sue/Gary Stu isn’t just someone competent or successful; they are a character who can never really be unsuccessful. The fictional world folds itself in unbelievable ways so that MS/GS is always the star of the show.

  37. Come on, have these people never met real-life Sues before? They’re the people who say “Well, someone like me, I run into a lot of trouble with my superiors because they know I’m smarter than them, and it makes them nervous…” That guy? He’s a Sue. They share the same identifying markers in fiction — characters that the author constantly assures you are awesome, misunderstood, etc.

    Non-dysfunctional characters can still have problems to solve, and they can still wrestle with genuine dilemmas without involving prior angst. But I question the veracity of the “normal, happy childhood.” The idea is too subjective. Laura Ingalls Wilder had a “normal” childhood that happened to involve scarlet fever, teen pregnancy, and the systematic annihilation of the native peoples whose land she and her neighbours were homesteading. To her, this was a successful, well-spent youth. To us, it sounds like Thunderdome. The fact that Ms. Wilder emerged psychologically whole has more to do with her tenacity of spirit than the stimuli provided. And I’d rather read about someone who has internalized the darker parts of their history and moved on, than someone who blithely assumes that their life has meaning and purpose without once questioning what they really are.

    Phew. Time for a bacon explosion: http://www.bbqaddicts.com/blog/recipes/bacon-explosion/

  38. I personally take umbrage at the idea that an insert character in which the author lives out their fantasies is inherently bad.

    An insert character has to be handled with skill, like any other character, but there are many Mary Sues I like. George R. R. Martin has, I think, said somewhere that Tyrion is a bit of a self-insert character–and Tyrion is my favorite out of all fifty billion characters in A Song of Ice and Fire.

    (Also, for the record, I assumed John Perry was NOT a Mary Sue just because you gave him your name. Haha!)

  39. Pirate Monkey’s comic on Mary Sue in Harry Potter is a fun browse.

    I’m somewhat reminded of Ellison’s response to complaints of a lack of gay characters in his short fiction. “I write plenty of gay characters, I just don’t mention they’re gay or straight or whatever unless it’s relevant to the story.” If character traits and dysfunctions and psycho-flaws don’t contribute to the story in some way, they’re just baggage.

    I suspect some reviewers simply resent any protagonist that’s not at least as overtly dysfunctional as they are themselves.

  40. Domini @ 35 said I personally think the term “Mary Sue” is utterly invalid for original fiction, particularly original *published* fiction…

    I disagree. The single best example of Mary Sueism in original fiction is the main character in The Girl With the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. Griet is perfect – she inspires Vermeer, figures out what’s wrong with his picture, fixes it; acts as his muse for her portrait; and is so perfect that she has to leave his household.

    I don’t think of John Perry as a Mary Sue, but I did think that Jane Sagan was in TGB, but I changed my mind about mid-book.

  41. Jim Wright,

    I don’t wanna hijack the thread to discuss Warrant Officer school, but I was hoping to ask how your experience with Navy WOCS went?

    Could you mail me?

    sub-odeon(at)comcast.net

  42. Robert Whathisname from Da Vinci Code, now there’s a Gary Stu to end all Gary Stu’s. I am betting even Tom Clancy read that and went “holy balls, I can’t believe they published this shit”. And then there’s Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake, lord did that series descend into the Mary Sue abyss. I just had to give up before one more preternaturally attractive supernatural male being HAD to have sex with the magnetic, pretty, and oh-so powerful Anita. Oh, here’s three dense paragraphs on what Anita is wearing….AAAAAAAAARGH.

  43. Sub-Odeon. Sure, I’d be glad to. Or you can reach me on my own site.

    Cassie, great example and I agree. I do, however, disagree with you about Jane Sagan, frankly she reminded me of my wife from about page one. Then again, if I put my wife into my writing verbatim, I’d probably be accused of creating a Mary Sue of the too beautiful and competent variety – only shorter. Heh.

    This bothers me not at all.

  44. I personally take umbrage at the idea that an insert character in which the author lives out their fantasies is inherently bad.

    Indeed.

    Let’s be honest: Most popular novels are popular precisely because they contain characters–usually protagonists–with which readers identify. Interesting things happen to someone Like Them, and thus the story gives them an outlet to escape from their otherwise-mundane lives.

    Given that, what on Earth is wrong with an author doing the same thing? Don’t authors write in part to live in the universes they create? Even if they don’t have a direct analog to themselves in the story, they’re still, as the story’s Supreme Overlord, deeply enmeshed in everything around their characters, experiencing it all along with them.

    If a story is well-written and compelling, the universe it creates is an alternate reality for both the reader and author. This is the entire purpose of storytelling, no? Or are we now going to pretend that authors are somehow more evolved than their readers and therefore are above such escapism? Do authors and critics really have that much contempt for people who read that they can declare that self-insertion is some sort of base behavior that’s appropriate for readers but not for authors?

    Let us not kid ourselves: The author is present in every story, whether or not they are directly represented by an obvious avatar. They are having intimate and direct relationships with the other characters in the story. They are experiencing every event and adventure first-hand. Writing fiction in itself is an essentially Mary Sue operation, if we really want to be honest about it.

    Now, this is not to say that the other elements of Mary Sue characters–perfect beings with no flaws–should be exempt. That’s just bad writing, and that goes whether the character in question is an author analog or someone else entirely. Unrealistic characters–100% good or evil–make for boring stories. That’s what deserves criticism, IMHO–not the idea of authorial immersion in his or her story.

  45. Ok, I want to see a story about somebody who had a wonderful, well-adjusted childhood, who grows up and discovers they absolutely can’t cope with the way the world really is, and turns into a psychopath.
    (Ok, I’ll go back to work now…)

  46. Given that, what on Earth is wrong with an author doing the same thing?

    What is wrong with an author getting a protagonist out of a tight spot by writing “And then a miracle happened and all the bad guys died”? What is wrong with an author writing a roman a clef where all the people who disagree with him are two-dimension cutouts of Evil Guys?

    The answer, which is the answer to the same question about Mary Sue, is that it’s wrong when it screws up the story. It’s the author jumping onto the page to tell you about his 12th-level Paladin.

    Nobody really cares what the author is secretly thinking unless it barges into the story.

  47. And what, pray tell, is so wrong with jumping into the middle of my story to tell you about my 12th level Paladin?

    (grumph!)

    ;^)

  48. “If a story is well-written and compelling, the universe it creates is an alternate reality for both the reader and author.”

    I totally agree with you, Tal, but I think this is the sticking point because we may very well disagree on what is compelling. You may see the hero, Marcus Aurelius Jones, as a well-rounded character but I can’t see him as anything but a wish-fulfillment mannequin because the story never grabbed me.

    I’ve had this happen with a couple of recent reads and it’s interesting to see these opinions expressed on, say, the Amazon reviews where you can quite literally see people who were wrapped up in the story from the first chapter write about how it’s amazing how this character overcame incredible odds and even got the girl… while the people who didn’t look at the same text and see that the obstacles were made of cardboard and the girl didn’t have much in the way of a personality.

  49. I agree that Mary-Sues are not just limited to fanfiction.

    They tend to stand out more in fanfiction because of the contrast between them and the familiar world they’ve been thrust into, but they exist in original fiction as well. Mostly those stories don’t get published, because they’re as poorly-conceived as the Mary-Sue and made up of sentences that only Salvador Dali could diagram. But they do exist.

    The difference is, with fanfiction, you’re dealing with a familiar world. Even if it’s rendered poorly, readers are going to recognize it. They’re going to see the ways the Mary-Sue is bending and breaking it. In original fiction, especially original genre fiction, the world is built specifically to uphold the weight of the ‘Sue, so the damage is all hidden down in the foundation. Stand inside and you can’t see it; walk across the street, and my but that sucker’s about to collapse.

  50. Someone once posted a theory I’ve always liked about a key difference between genre and lit. In lit, the protag is broken, and the story is about dealing with that; in genre, the SITUATION is broken; the protag generally isn’t, because that’s not the story. Lit readers look at a genre book and go huh? How can there be a story? Protag not broken!

    Personally, I find I’d much rather hang with people who deal with broken situations than broken selves. Angst rapidly becomes annoying; to one of my sisters, anything other than angst is totally irrelevant and any such conversation should be shut down immediately.

    So a lot of what I read, because it involves competent characters, gets slapped with the Mary Sue label. Even when it’s nothing of the sort. It’s all in what you find interesting….

  51. Tal in 53: writing fiction is not innately mary-sue. You can write fiction in which no human appears. Mary-sue is a toxic character concept, a written instantiation of the narcissistic personality disorder fantasy-self insinuated into a story instead of perpetrated on living people. Everything about Mary-sue is designed to shore up the specialness of the character, at the expense of everything and everyone else, in the same way that NPD’d people tend to shore up their own specialness at the expense of everyone around them.

    Meanwhile, back at the branch, in my attempt to get into “Your Hate-Mail Will Be Graded” I insulted John with the declaration that he wrote his wife and daughter into OMW as an act of Mary-Sue-By-Proxy, which still makes a great insult, but isn’t true.

  52. I was wondering how long before Anita Blake got mentioned…

    I certainly wouldn’t put anything I’ve read by Our Gracious Host (did I get that right?) in that category. Although I will admit that I could certainly hear his voice in Zoe’s Tale.

  53. How did this go from a discussion of Mary Sues to how sci fi is, and should be, about escapism? I agree with John’s definition of Mary Sues, and they’re often v annoying. And yes, reviewers seem to be using the term to mean something its not.

    But that doesn’t mean that heroin addicted transsexual can’t be an interesting, compelling main character (has anyone read Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles? Lord Fanny is awesome). Or the drug addicted main character of Steph Swainston’s books. Or the seriously weird charcters in Jeff Vandermeer’s books. Janice Shriek is a drug addict. I don’t know, I think the statement:

    “In reality, John Perry is a perfectly American hero, in the classic mold: an ordinary guy who is thrust into extraordinary situations and discovers his own extraordinary potential as a result. For the average reader, this is a winner, and I think the sales figures for OMW back that up.”

    is really that useful. I like John Perry. I like Old Man’s war (although I like TAD more). But sales figures aren’t a measure of how good a book is (they don’t determine whether its good or bad, they determine whether it’s popular, which is different). And having a main character who isn’t a ‘perfectly American hero’ isn’t necessary for a book to be accessible, particularly for those of us who aren’t American :P.

    In short: Mary Sue = Author insertion persona = usually annoying.

    Strong/Competent Hero = ? Don’t know, will read the book and find out.

    Drug addicted tranny hero = ? Don’t know, will read the book and find out.

  54. I must admit, until I read this post, I don’t think I had ever actually heard the term ‘Mary Sue,’ though I was definitely aware of the concept.

    Regardless – John, I’ve read all of your books, and the fact that the characters aren’t brooding piles of emo-angst is probably why I loved them all. John Perry has his darker moments in OMW and Jared has his issues in TGB, but those are normal reactions to their situations. To call them Mary Sues is to pretty much call the bulk of the population a Mary Sue.

  55. I think there’s a distinct difference between a Mary Sue and a Self Insert that is being eroded more and more as the term gets flung about the Internet. There is a difference between writing autobiographically or semiautobiographically, which can be done well or poorly, and writing an Author’s Darling, which is by definition, bad writing.

    The most telling trait of a Sue is not sharing a job or haircolor with he writer. It’s that no one calls them on their bullshit. They can perform actions that are outright reprehensible, and the narrative — and sometimes even their fellow characters — will laud them for it. Anyone in the text who dislikes them will be proven to be a Bad Person sooner or later, and anything they say, do, or plan will wind up being right and workable, no matter how much distortion of commonly accepted reality is required to make it so. People who should hate, or be angry, or at least protest their treatment at the Mary Sue’s hands will instead fall in love with her — Mary Sue and Gary-Marty Stu (I’ve heard both) obtain whatever they desire, not only without proper effort, but generally without even deserving it. Rudeness is “spunk” or “pluck,” her incompetence, mistakes, stupidity is “cute,” her refusal to listen to the better equipped is “innovation,” and any character protesting this is Just Jellus, or was Evil All Along. Generally in ways that simply DO NOT MAKE SENSE.

    The world warps itself around them — they are not just boring (to some), not just unrelatable (to some), not just a bunch of “been there and done that” (to some) — the Sue and the Stu exist in actual defiance of logic.

    (Personally, I think Beowulf was a big damn Marty Stu, it could be argued — but, you know, oldest surviving literature in the English Language and all that. ;-D)

  56. Well, see, Beowulf-as-Gary-Stu goes back to what John was talking about; the misuse of the term for any likeable, successful main character. Beowulf is arrogant, but to the people who told his story, that arrogance was appropriate for a warrior and a positive quality, not something special that he got to display because, dude, Beowulf.

  57. Huh. This is the second rant against supposed Mary Sues I’ve seen this week. The first was over at Robot 6, a comics blog.

    Indeed, the above blog post was where I first found that many people are using “Mary Sue” to mean a supercompetent main character, which was quite a shock to me as I’d always taken it to mean a case of the author putting themselves in the story and being great at everything, with the self-insertation being a critical part of the definition. Only when I rushed off to Wikipedia, it turns out we’re both wrong. Apparently a Mary Sue is a supercompetent character of any kind; it *may*, on occasion, be the author inserting themself. Curse you, Wikipedia.

  58. Eddie,

    I think OMW’s sales do indicate ‘goodness’ if only because these figures were attained largely word-of-mouth until the press got wind and OMW started getting some hype. Even then, most people who have read OMW have liked it. Especially current and prior service. To my (limited) mind, if you write military SF, there can be no higher praise than that which comes from current and prior service.

    Yes, taste matters. But if OMW was a shitty book — and I have read enough military SF to believe I know what is and is not shitty — then I think JS would currently be trying to dig his way out from under the poor sales numbers, and there would have been no sequels.

    As for the “American Hero” bit, I realize that’s liable to ruffle feathers for non-U.S. readers, but what can I say? John Perry is every inch an American-mold protagonist, right down to his birth origin. The military as described in the OMW universe is populated with Americans. It uses the U.S. rank structure. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing to describe John Perry as ‘All-American’ in his heroism.

    Finally, as to trannies and drug addicts as protags in SF, that’s never been my thing. I almost put down John Varley’s ‘Steel Beach’ for that reason. As stated up-thread, I tend to go for tales about ‘ordinary’ men and women thrust into extraordinary circumstances whereby their own extraordinariness is brought to the surface or otherwise forged. Why do I go for this? Because it’s the mode that rings the most true-to-life for me, based on all the real heroes I have ever heard or read about. I.E: Major Richard Winters, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne, U.S. Army.

    I realize for many SF readers, they seek the bizarre, the uncomfortable, the out-of-bounds. They like stories about weird people doing weird stuff, and yes I am sure I’ll catch flak for using the pejorative ‘weird’ to describe anyone. But what the hell. Some people are weird, and I have a hard time connecting with a protag whose moral, ethical, sexual, and other personal choices stray so far from my own as to make them repugnant or otherwise so alien that I cannot connect, as a reader.

    I almost abandoned the Thomas Covenant novels because Covenant is such a moral asshole. I kept reading because most of the people he allies with are characters I could respect and admire, and I wanted them to teach Covenant to change. Which they eventually do, for the most part.

    Anyway, don’t wanna tie up the thread with a post that goes too far off the path. Just had to throw in some more thoughts, based on Eddie’s response.

  59. The most telling trait of a Sue is not sharing a job or haircolor with he writer. It’s that no one calls them on their bullshit. They can perform actions that are outright reprehensible, and the narrative — and sometimes even their fellow characters — will laud them for it. Anyone in the text who dislikes them will be proven to be a Bad Person sooner or later, and anything they say, do, or plan will wind up being right and workable, no matter how much distortion of commonly accepted reality is required to make it so.

    Agreed. See: Ender’s Game.

  60. “Methinks the [man] doth protest too much.”

    It’s pretty hard to be compared to Heinlein without bringing up the idea of a Mary Sue main character. Virtually every one of his were.

  61. Sub-Odeon:

    Totally agree with you re Thomas Covenant. Though not because he’s immoral. He’s just one of the dickiest characters anyone has ever written ever. There’s a difference between a protagonist being offbeat, and being completely unable to identify with / like / have sympathy for etc.

    Also, fair enough that you identify with a particularly narrow definition of hero – its an entirely reasonable one. But just to offer a small example from the context of my country – I think both Willie Apiata and Georgina Beyer are heroes in different ways.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_Apiata
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgina_Beyer

    And neither would be a Mary Sue if included in a fictional narrative :P

  62. Corporal Apiata should never have to buy his own drinks in any tavern, ever again. Ever. Be it in New Zealand, or the United States.

    Georgina Beyer… Eh. That’s heroic?

    (shrugs)

    I guess I can’t see it.

  63. Well, see, Beowulf-as-Gary-Stu goes back to what John was talking about; the misuse of the term for any likeable, successful main character. Beowulf is arrogant, but to the people who told his story, that arrogance was appropriate for a warrior and a positive quality, not something special that he got to display because, dude, Beowulf.

    @67 — I know, I know. I’ve always been horribly prejudiced when it comes to Beowulf. Comes from being forced to study that thing at age 16 — he just spent so much time talking about how fabulous he was that I did not CARE about cultural context and historical significance, I saw him as a conceited… well. Language, Mac. ;-) Suffice to say, the subculture I grew up in frowned on that sort of thing. So the likable part was not coming across, so much.

    Still — cultural context! And kennings! Kennings are very cool.

  64. Sub-odeon:

    Sometimes surviving and thriving despite significant odds is just as heroic as fighting. In my humble opinion, anyway. You’re entitled to yours, too.

  65. Eddie,

    I suppose it all comes down to how each of us evaluates choice and action. Everything is on a spectrum, and everyone has their own viewpoint. In a certain sense, I think the word “hero” gets thrown around too much and is often misapplied in 21st century western culture, but that’s just me.

  66. [Edited by JS to add: This comment contains big fat spoilers]

    I only read the OMW books (and not yet ZT) in the last few months, and I did so because I started reading this blog last summer after a funny thread was linked somewhere else. So I had some knowledge of John Scalzi as a person and personality before reading the books, but not very much because I’d only read a month or two of blog posts.

    When I started OMW, I did wonder briefly whether Perry would turn into an author-surrogate (I might have mentally used the term Mary Sue, but since I generally avoid fanfic of any sort I don’t use the term much) based on the setting, but my thoughts were more along the lines of why does a futuristic novel with interstellar travel and all that have an American city that’s exactly the same as it is now in so many ways? Did not compute. That was more the question I wanted to see answered, and as it turns out it did get answered, in the form of forced stagnation through ignorance.

    I did sometimes have the feeling that John Perry was improbably successful and lucky, receiving all this attention (both good and bad) while almost everyone else in the story got blown to bits in some way or another. Of course, a first person past-tense narrative does require that the narrator survive, and the other people being killed off fit with the attrition stats given to the recruits; it would have been far more noticeable if all of the Old Farts survived. I was sorry to see Alan in particular go; it seemed no less likely that he would survive than John would, and it did strike me that the first two of the group were the ones who made it through, but that was pretty minor.

    It didn’t seem odd or overly idealistic that Perry came up with various innovations, especially since one of them, the constant contact with the unit via BrainPal, turned out to be SOP. What did cross the line into improbability for me was retrieving the chip or whatever with all the fancy technology at the end of the book, while dealing with an injured person and evacuating a building about to be exploded. (My memory of the details is probably off, but that’s the gist I recall.) Someone comments after that that no one likes an overachiever, so at least this is acknowledged, but it still seems like an unreasonable coincidence.

    The only other case I can recall of the three books I’ve read was not really related to over-idealized characters, just the improbability of the last line of TLC. It just really does not make sense to me that, when even the all-human regular military green bodies were sterile, that the body given Jane after her retirement would not be, especially when “activated” into superhuman mode. More to the point, it a) takes eight years or so for her to notice this and b) it’s supposed to be confirmation or denial of whether she has an artificial BrainPal in her head instead of an organic one? Again, does not compute. The relationship to the topic is not so much whether Jane is inhumanly competent and all as that improbably successful things happen to her.

    (Also a reminder of my irritation about Heinlein females always so eager to reproduce… don’t mind me, I’ve been reading the archives and read the monster comment thread about “the next Heinlein” recently. I couldn’t believe that only one person expressed the particular problem I have with his characterizations. But I realize that Jane’s case is different in that her view of herself as human is a focus of the story and the ability to reproduce is a critical part of the definition of a species.)

    There are probably a dozen comments now that have been posted since I started typing. Hope this one isn’t unwelcome. It got way longer than I intended; I have a hard time gauging length in this box.

  67. The definition for Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters ought to be “The character who sucks the life out of the plot and makes it, and everyone else in it, all about them.”

    Not “The competent character who I don’t like because I don’t like competence.”

    And, sometimes, Mary Sue and Gary Stu can be entertaining. At least when you don’t get the impression that the author (1) adores the character to the point of dry-humping their leg every chance they get and (2) expects you to do likewise and would wank furiously all over you if they found out you didn’t.

  68. I picked up your book when it was recommended (sort of) on another website: Penny Arcade. A long time favorite little spot of mine one of the artists showed his survival supplies for his family visits and your book was on the list. Since I haven’t had anything new to read in a while I picked it up. I’m in the middle of Old Man’s War and I love it. I just wanted to say it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and I can’t wait to finish the rest.

    I don’t think John Perry is a “Mary Sue” at all. Though I identify most with Harry because he’s sarcastic and a bit dark. I’m also a bit of a science geek myself (Biology being my field) so I identify with him on that level too. In my opinion it isn’t a problem that Perry is competent especially considering his settings. If he wasn’t, he’d be dead, period. I enjoy writing my own short stories (for my own amusement I say this with every bit of honesty, they suck) and I make own characters competent, not because of wish fulfillment, but because the story would be boring “Did this today, nothing happened, went to bed”. Something has to happen and when the setting is constant war I think a bit of competence is required. Granted I haven’t finished the book but he seems every bit a normal guy to me. I like that fact a lot. I like he is competent but not perfect. He is good but not a hero. I’m not sure if I’m expressing my opinion coherently but basically I like the guy. He doesn’t bother me. I haven’t yet any Mary Sue related feelings so far. Just my two cents.

    Anyway, my opinion on the Mary Sue thing aside, I did want to say I’ve enjoyed your book a lot and it’s made my commute to school (Cleveland State University. Hooray for Ohio being mentioned in a book, FINALLY, damn you New York and California) very enjoyable. Good luck with the snow; I spent a better part of this morning digging my own car out.

  69. I think that the people who cry ‘Mary-Sue’ at every opportunity don’t realize how common competence and beyond that, heroism, is. i am an obituary-reading fan. It is always amazing how many heroes are just ordinary [competent] folks. They do what they have to do when they have to do it, and then go back to their regular lives.

  70. Possible Mary-Sue characters I don’t care for, according to the definition that the plot _bends_ around them. Miles Vordosigan.
    Most John Ringo main characters.
    Richard Rahl.
    Rand Al’Thor.

    Lots of the S.M. Stirling characters, but he’s so much fun that I forgive him.

  71. I think that one of the reasons the term “Mary Sue” gets tossed around a lot really isn’t directly related to the character’s competence (or super-gorgeousness, or whatever). Rather, I suspect that it’s due to the fact that the reader or reviewer assumes for some reason that the character is “the person that the author wants to be,” rather than “a fictional person created by the author” or even “the person that the author actually is, but in fancy dress.” Now, it’s kind of a cliche that there is something of an author in every character he/she creates, maybe, but only something, so where does this assumption of authorial identity come from? And–which is another issue–what makes it a criticism? The assumption underlying the assumption seems to me to be that the author is a poor, pathetic delusional fool for writing about a character he wishes he were rather than going out and somehow becoming that character or whatever . . . which strikes me as a bit silly, sort of psychoanalyzing the author rather than analyzing the book. But anyway.

    Those who have commented that the Mary Sue character is sheer bad writing do have a good point; those who have commented that the Mary Sue character warps the world–or the plot–have an even better one. “Because it makes a bad story” is really the best reason for complaining about a Mary Sue, in my opinion. However, here’s another question: under what circumstances (or to what extent) do you assume that a protagonist speaks for, or is a stand-in for the author as you read? Never mind whether or not you think this is a Bad Thing or not: do you do it?

    To answer my own question for myself: Yes, I do. Occasionally. Rather more than I realized, actually, before I started reading this thread about the Assumption of Mary Sue-ism . . .

  72. Mary Sue/Marty Stu… where to begin?

    Probably, I think, with damning this too-timely Scalzi entry coinciding with my current project which includes a character named Martin Stuart.

    Yes, John, I agree yet I think you and many of the other posters skimmed a crucial element, which I’ll approach via a reply to one post:

    Eddie @71 — what was RAH supposed to do when he was the smartest kid in his school, who “thought in the 5th dimension, bypassing the 4th” [NB: yearbook quote approximate from memory]; was the only successful US Military Academy appointee by his Congressional rep; who stood 8th in that highly competitive class; who was an intercollegiate saber champion; who was an interservice pistol champion; who was the most successful SF writer of the 20th Century; who had friends and colleague like Isaac Asimov, Lyon Sprague DeCamp, Arthur C. Clarke, Fleet Admiral Ernest King, Rear Admiral Caleb Laning, et alia?

    RAH liked to write about competent people, similar to himself and those he knew. Robert Sheckley and Donald Westlake frequently prefer to write about amiable bumblers. I highly enjoy the works of all three.

    Here’s the crucial elements slighted in the above discussion: is the character, however competent, tasked in the story proportionally to his or her capabilities?

    Steve H @62 and Mac @66 partially imply this MS Disorder’s predilection at the expense of story.

    What if I were to write a story about a country boy who rode motorcycles standing on his head, regularly blew himself up with dynamite, and allowed himself to be dragged behind race cars for a living [while lighting himself on fire to beat the tedium]; a guy friendly with Clark Gable, Walter Brennan, Bud Abbot & Lou Costello, John Carradine, and Elizabeth Taylor?

    Or if I had a character born to immigrant parents within a year of the Great Depression, become a champion varsity 5-letterman in high school and work three jobs [two full-time, one part-time] while completing correspondence school in electrical engineering while he was courting his childhood sweetheart; a guy who would calmly wrestle the short cables in a commercial 240-volt panel with his bare hands as fireworks exploded around him and everyone else headed for the exits or sought cover; a fellow who, as a young minister in the South, successfully opposed the Klan, under threat of violence?

    Improbable Mary Sues?

    Or my very real paternal grandfather and great-uncle.

    In an age of celebrated mediocrity, it’s easy within this fashionable selection fallacy to dismiss everyday competence and the existence of outstanding merit. The military personnel in the responses above remind us of that verity: in this world, there are giants as well as pygmies.

    The valid accusation of Mary-Sueism applies to would-be writers who mistakenly outfit themselves as the sole giants in Munchkinville.

    The misdirected criticism of Mary-Sueism that John identifies is oft wielded by those hornswoggled into the false belief that giants don’t walk among us.

    JJB

  73. It’s the fault of this interconnected life. Once upon a time, most readers wouldn’t have known anything about a writer, and would have been unable to deduce any Mary-Sue-ness about the protagonist. (James Tiptree, anyone?) However, in our hyperconnected society, many readers and reviewers ‘know’ that John Scalzi lives in Ohio, has worked in advertising, and is (obviously) a writer. if we had to wait for your eventual interview in Locus, or for retrospective Best of Scalzi collection, it would make suspecting MS-ness a lot more difficult.

  74. Huh, never heard Mary Sue befor. Could someone explain how a critic would know if a character was a Mary Sue unless they know the author personally?
    Personally I don’t read critics. Or should I say I don’t read critiques since I read Scalzi. Although I haven’t read any of his critiques.
    At anyrate I don’t want to read about some jacked up person, at least not the good guys. A jacked up villian can work, easy motive.

  75. Sub-Odeon @11 and others @too numerous to mention:

    I agree with John that the term ‘Mary Sue’ is overused — it’s annoyed me for a while. I don’t have a diagnosis of the cause to offer, but I do disagree that it’s overused because SF is becoming too “literary” or too focused on characters who are “bizarre and/or read like escapees from rehab”.

    I don’t really want to tell you what to read or what to like — that’s boring; I have better things to do — and I cast no aspersions on your taste in literature — I’ve read and enjoyed The Android’s Dream, and books by Heinlein and other authors you mention. At the same time, I am also glad to see characters in SF who are not “a perfectly American hero, in the classic mold: an ordinary guy who is thrust into extraordinary situations and discovers his own extraordinary potential as a result.”

    Partly because there’s a lot already written, that I’ve already read, with those sorts of characters — Mr. Scalzi’s Campbellian Competents — and anything, no matter how pleasurable, gets old after a while. I think many — though not all — SF readers come to read SF through the classics as much as through modern works, and so, well, often enough, they’ve read that story already. Sometimes this is useful — you can look at, say, The Forever War and Starship Troopers and Old Man’s War and see three very different takes on the same idea with similar highly-competent main characters. This is fine, and enjoyable, and all of these are good books. And if you are or aspire to be a Campbellian Competent, you will likely enjoy seeing yourself reflected there.

    But I also come to SF for exposure to new ideas and ways of thought, new people and situations — I’m a neophile; newness is exciting. And Campbellian Competents are not the only people out there. More to the point, they’re not the only people who read science fiction or who SF readers desire to be. (*)Transsexuals and bisexuals and black people and Asian people and multi-racial people and people from broken homes and people who were abused as children (or children being abused) and people who have gotten over their trauma and people who haven’t and people whose lives are broken or mended in any of a billion different ways, and their friends and their families and their co-workers and their neighbors all read science fiction too. And I challenge you (not in an adversarial sense, but in the sense of setting a hard but hopefully edifying task before you) — I challenge you to imagine, if you were one such person, what it would feel like to see someone like you represented positively in a novel, perhaps even as the main character.

    That matters, and I believe the world is a poorer place if those stories aren’t told. You need neither read them nor enjoy them, but please don’t disparage them.

    (*) I am not at all trying to equate any of these with any other.

  76. Hmm, I should be clear. I agree with Mr. Scalzi that a reasonably unscrewed-up character is not a Mary Sue. I disagree with the implicit value judgment commenters seem to be making about the merit of (un)?reasonably screwed-up characters in SF. And I have no opinion at all about whether SF reviewers erroneously use the term to refer to reasonably unscrewed-up characters, except to say that I try to avoid accusations of Mary Sue-ism across the board in my own reviews. :-)

  77. re: jaq@83

    I don’t think a strong character, or one who changes the world, necessarily is a Mary Sue. Rand al’Thor (just to pick one, oh, not at all randomly) is by definition a plot bending character. That’s part of the plot!

    As I see it, a Mary Sue is an overly wonderful character who bears a strong resemblance to the author, usually physically, but also in personality and character traits. This character would probably mostly be written in the first person.

  78. On the blog I most frequently, er, frequent, I am known for occasionally getting up on a soapbox and ranting a tad bit.

    Clearly, John, I am an amature basking in the ranting glow of a true professional.

    And, for the sake of all, I pray that the critics do in fact lay off your Mary Sue.

  79. I have a friend who is majoring in Creative Writing. After reading this article, he said he wants to take a class from you, John. I don’t suppose you’re planning on going into teaching? :P

  80. Well, world-changing is certainly part of a lot of fantasy plots. With regard to Rand, I eventually got tired of him juggling three women(all of whom worked out some sort of sharing arrangement instead of bothering him with petty jealousy) totally revamping the world magic system through his own studliness, and taking out incredibly long-lived, experienced bad guys over and over again through- I’m not sure how, exactly. So I guess what I mean is that when an author breaks his own established rules for how the world works in order to let his character win, it seems like cheating.
    As for Richard Rahl- take a look at Terry Goodkind’s dust jacket cover and you’ll probably see what I mean.

  81. We like to read stories about the unusual— which is why we so often read stories about heroes.

    Once I read a comment about an author that got me thinking: “Her [high ranked] are all improbably beautiful.” (This was not in fact the case, but hey.) It made me wonder, and then I started thinking that back in the Middle Ages, the nobility would be more likely to be beautiful, given that good nutrition is the foundation of beauty. Hapsburgs aside, a noble would tend to be more beautiful than your average underfed peasant, as well as someone who enjoyed better health.

    Is that where the “beautiful princess” stories come from?

    (I prefer “Mary Sue” to be used only when it’s obvious the author is lazy or incompetent at characterization.)

  82. Could this be partially a case of reviewers not fully understanding the term and still adopting it (which in itself is a slappable offense, if you don’t know for sure what it means say something else)?
    Also, much as I liked Creek I can’t beleive that anyone writing him would want to be him, he may not be all that screwed up but i’m not convinced he’s entirely stable either. I’m not familiar with John Perry yet, i’m playing catch up with the back catalogue.

  83. Peter Hamilton seems to write some sort of sexual wish-fulfillment into all of his books. Fallen Dragon, an interstellar space marine-type book, had a bizzare interlude where the author spends four pages describing hiking in the Scottish mountains with some random chick, and banging her.

    And don’t get me started on Misspent Youth… there’s no plot besides the wish fulfillment of an older man getting to bang younger women.

  84. Long post, long response list, and pretty much on the money all the way.
    I too have had the ‘Mary Sue’ charge thrown at my novels and if anything, it seems more prevelant in commentary if you’re writing tie-in fiction. But I’m with you all the way when you say this slapdash sort of critique is lazy; it’s a symptom of reviewers who don’t have a large enough critical toolbox and/or those who have a narrow-minded and overly fannish mindset.

  85. The thing about John Perry — in Old Man’s War at least — is not just that he has a lot of traits in common with the author, but that he gets nice stuff rained down upon him without doing anything to deserve it. Beautiful women throw themselves at him, in basic training he gets to be platoon leader, in his first battle he gets a commendation for thinking of a tactic that was pretty obvious, enough so that it seemed to be authorial fiat that Perry came up with it first rather than a demonstration of Perry’s competence.

    Things do get better in that regard later on in the book, I’ll admit, and more so in later books.

  86. I just want to throw in a side point (or two) on the mistaken chirality of “flawed/MSue”

    First of all, Mary Sues are often flawed. For instance, clumsy, or slightly overweight, or have too big a nose. As long as it doesn’t ever get in their way. They can be a drug addict, as long as their addiction never leads them to a bad decision. In fact, among Mary Sues, drug addiction is a well known way to avoid bad situations, because drug addicts have be streetwise, right?
    “She knew that the thugs were waiting behind the dumpsters from all those nights spent prowling bad neighborhoods for a fix.”
    The question is not whether they have flaws, but whether or not they have problems.

    Relatedly, total, massive ineptitude doesn’t preclude Mary Sueness… as long as somebody is there to protect them.

    Of course flawless characters can be not-Mary-Sue as well. Especially in the case where they are the Object Of Desire. Incidentally, I haven’t read the Harry Potter books, (only watched the movies) but I definitely get the impression that Dumbledore is not portrayed as meaningfully flawed (he’s old, and he’s not omnipotent, but… flawed?) Hardly a mary sue…

    It’s been said above, but I’ll restate it.
    Does the character adapt to their situation? Or does the world adapt to the character’s wishes/aggrandizement?

    Though, for what it’s worth, one needn’t be a full blown Mary Sue to have the world unrealistically bent to their wishes. This is often the case in romantic comedies. “Wait… why do you like [X]?” “Uhh, he’s the lead of the opposite sex!” “Ahh, gotcha”

  87. Kevin @ #89,

    All very good points.

    I suppose when it comes down to it, I feel like there has been a kind of slow-creep in fiction et al over the last 15 years, such that now if a protag is not several kinds of emotional cripple and/or explicitly different from the WASP heroes of eras past — ergo, minority and/or gay and/or otherwise exotically sexual and/or burdened with addictions and neuroses galore — then somehow the protag has failed to be ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ in the minds of the critics.

    As if being an anti-WASP, anti-“normal” is now the only kind of protag that 21st century critics find interesting?

    I look forward to seeing the critical and editorial pendulum swing back to center, in the fullness of time. It used to be all the way over on the WASP end, and you rarely ever saw a protag who wasn’t a strapping, hetero male WASP. Now it seems like we’re too far in the other direction, and people are in such a big frakking hurry to jettison the Bad Old Days of John Carter WASPloitation SF that they’re intentionally targetting books, protags and authors — not because there is anything wrong with these books or protags — but because these things are failing the new litmus which demands all protags to be disturbed, dysfunctional, and otherwise wholly different from “ordinary” hetero male WASP.

    On a personal note, I’m in an interracial marriage to someone who is herself interracial. So I don’t want it to appear as if I think there is no value in the story told from the perspective of the Other, to borrow a postmodern term. I think the perspective of the Other is what makes SF&F fun a lot of the time.
    But when we enshrine the Other to the point that anyone and anything else is automatically deemed ‘Mary Sue’ and becomes an object of scorn, I think there is something wrong going on.

    JMHO.

  88. Excellent that I tried to degender the sentence “Uhh, he’s the lead of the opposite sex.”

    I R Smrt.

  89. Jon S:

    Well, I’m teaching at viable paradise this year.

    David Goldfarb:

    Re: The beautiful women: It’s not that amazing when you remember that everyone had been made beautiful and that everyone was having sex. I think people forget that part.

  90. What gets you into trouble is that when your anti-Mary Sue characters are actually your true Mary Sue characters. Strangely enough, I found myself identifying with a hard-nosed killer who likes to disembowel people, than with my main character. That can’t be good.

  91. For a very good example of Mary Sue in fantasy, see Elizabeth Haydon’s novel (and accompanying interminable sequels) Rhapsody; the title character never lies, is supernaturally beautiful to the point that she goes about cloaked to avoid drawing unwonted attention, has a magic sword, is immortal, is queen of the elves, is beloved and envied by all (her opponents are driven largely by carnal desire or revenge for being spurned) … I could go on.

    Also Kildar, the book which convinced me that John Ringo wasn’t worth reading; the protagonist goes from super-Ranger to stumbling upon and thwarting an Islamist nuke to feudal lord over an adoring population complete with harem of teenaged Scandinavian sex kittens, while everyone either accepts what he says without question or is rudely corrected by him. Plus Ringo managed to portray cannibalistic retarded space aliens out to conquer Earth as more sympathetic than Chechen rebels, which seems wrong to me.

    As other people have said, the signature of a Mary Sue is the lensing effect as the writing distorts around them; the Mary Sue cannot be wrong, must be adored and respected, has powers beyond the norm for her society or environment, is special or unique. Problems are easily solved and are never their fault; Mary Sues often labour under a burden of guilt (allowing cheap pathos) for something that isn’t actually their fault (so they don’t actually have to have done anything wrong).

    I’ll admit that I find strong elements of the author in John Perry, more so than the protagonists of Scalzi’s other books; but a Mary Sue the man is not.

  92. Addendum to the above; John Perry, while rather like John Scalzi, is also not an authorial insertion; for one of *those*, see Stephen King in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah. That irritated me so much I stopped reading the series then and there.

  93. Oh, thanks for reminding me about Rhapsody.[/sarcasm] I mean, here we have an ex-whore with a heart of gold who learns how to rewrite the universe by taking a correspondence course on singing, and who accidentally (if indirectly) defeats the world’s most dangerous demon. All in the very beginning of the book.

    It goes downhill from there, until she turns herself into a mass of flame and walks through the center of the Earth (which is, oddly, not down, but across). At which point it is a shame that she found herself able to return to her previous form.

    If it hadn’t been for her, I would have thought that original fiction could not support Mary Sue-ism at all. But to be sure, the distorting effect is much more apparent in fan-fic.
    ~~~
    As for John Perry, I don’t consider those coincidences to be even of the sort of thing that end up as Mary-Sue instances, except for the bit about the drill sergeant (and that, slight). When John Perry gets lucky, that’s a very different thing than when other characters act wrong about him.

  94. The more popular and well-known you become as a writer, Scalzi, the more you will be accused by some of hackery and improper aesthetics, like Mary Sue’s, where readers claim to be able to read your psyche. Take it as a compliment.

  95. I think all the Mary Sue Litmus Tests etc. confuse the symptoms for the disease; they compile all the things that frequently go together with Mary Sue-ness and then think that they’ve defined the problem.

    They haven’t tested for false positives. Which means they hit some pretty big ones.

    A true Mary Sue character is a fundamentally unbelievable one for pretty much everyone who reads it. It’s not what they do or what they have—it’s that the story is not told in a way that works for readers. A character can be absolutely freaking perfect and yet believable.

    True Mary Sue-ness should be unachievable for a published writer, since someone had to like the story enough to buy it. I’m sure there are a few cracked story buyers who have bought Mary Sues and published them, but it’s got to be rare; the true test of a Mary Sue is that it’s unbelievably bad writing and only the author thinks it’s good (since it’s their fantasy).

  96. Is it true that one of the main characters in the first Rhapsody novel is named Grunthor?

    I mean… Grunthor. Really?

    (puts head in hands)

  97. Heh, I saw the similarities in OMW to be more of a ‘first-novelism’, i.e. write-what-you-know situation and fill in the character’s life with things the author has done – not modeling the character’s personality after themselves.

    Sort of like saying – forget the little stuff, I’m trying to wrestle a 100,000 word behemoth onto the page.

  98. I’ve never thought of Mary Sues as necessarily not being screwed up. They are often very screwed up.

    My understanding of the definition of a Sue/Stu is that they are the center of the book’s universe.

    The other characters exist solely for their interactions with the Sue. The antagonist is obsessed with foiling the Sue, the love interest is obsessed with getting the Sue’s attention, and everyone else has nothing better to do with their lives than wonder and worry about how the Sue is doing. The Sue has many talents, magical objects, friends, animal companions, toys, gadgets, whatever, that have been bestowed upon her by the Author, not because she would logically have these things.

    All subplots ultimately exist only because of how they relate to the Sue.

    Other characters exist solely for their relationship to the Sue: confidante, foil, antagonist, mentor. They all admire the Sue, except for the people who are jealous of her.

    (Also, the proportion of wangst to actual crisis is usually out of whack. Parents die? Sue cries but goes on. “Best” friend who Sue met a month ago dies? Sue goes berserk and slaughters legions in the name of vengeance.)

    Ultimately, I think it comes down to the sense of whether the Sue’s environment is a real one she happens to move through, or a stage set constructed around her to show her off.

  99. @109
    I mean, here we have an ex-whore with a heart of gold who learns how to rewrite the universe by taking a correspondence course on singing, and who accidentally (if indirectly) defeats the world’s most dangerous demon. All in the very beginning of the book.
    It goes downhill from there, until she turns herself into a mass of flame and walks through the center of the Earth (which is, oddly, not down, but across). At which point it is a shame that she found herself able to return to her previous form.

    This is fantastic. This is seriously wondrous. Theoretically. I don’t know if it’s good writing or not in practice, and don’t know if I’m keen to find out, but I am grinning ear-to-ear reading this, and that’s a good thing. To rewrite the universe via correspondence course? Then to stride flamingly through the earth’s core? (And this was to accomplish what, now?)

    In the right hands that could be GENIUS.

  100. Good Lord, I must be the only one who has never run into the term “Mary Sue” in literary criticism!

    Oh well. Frankly, I also get sick of characters with major, life-defining flaws/quirks/traumatic experiences. Maybe that’s because my own life has been more along the lines of being basically okay with myself (flaws and all), but having to react to various nasty external problems. So, I tend to identify more with characters like me.

    You are all going to laugh at me, but I found Piers Anthony’s characters a lot like that when I was reading his stuff as a teenager.

  101. Sub-Odeon: Yes. Think “half-orc master sergeant with a heart of gold” and you have the entirety of his character. Her other sidekick is Achmed, an inhuman assassin with a heart of gold.

    Mac: It gets better (or worse). Having walked through the core of the Earth unscathed thanks to her singstar sorceress powers, Rhapsody emerges as heart-stoppingly beautiful (and doesn’t realise it for chapters!) and her sidekicks /have been rewritten to match her mental images of them/ – hence the aforementioned hearts of gold (because Rhapsody believes that Everyone Is Good Inside, despite all the evidence). When they finally emerge on the far side of the planet, not only are they immortal, but it’s thousands of years later (apparently not only does crawling through the bowels of the earth for millenia not only not drive you insane from boredom, you /don’t even notice it/). Her sidekick Achmed then kills his way into becoming King of the Orcs, turns them into an instant superpower, and Rhapsody gets a duchy.

    Suffice to say, these are not the right hands.

  102. John 103: Once again, this year, I have failed to get my act together to apply to VP. With better excuses than most years (body parts failing, friends and relatives dying), but still, missing it again this year. Someday, I hope.

    117: I read Anthony’s racist novel Race Against Time when I was a teenager, and it convinced me that I didn’t need to read anything by him ever again. In that sense, it was entirely successful (in that it set me on a good course).

  103. B. Durbin @95 …good nutrition is the foundation of beauty… Is that where the “beautiful princess” stories come from?

    Throw in being the only people with access to cosmetics, jewelry, clothes that flatter colouring and figure; having someone to dress and care for you (and do the heavy lifting); training in deportment, manners, charm and speech from the previous generation of beautiful princesses; and, as they tended to marry young, the lack of what we’d consider the premature aging of a medieval lifestyle and I think we’re there. As long as they avoid any of the many scarring diseases while a child, they’re all set!

    Not forgetting Lèse majesté while we’re at it.

    Handsome knights are more difficult to explain; they should be spending hours every day falling off horses and being bashed with bits of metal. Even if they don’t get crippled and scarred they’ll be covered in bruises and calluses.

  104. I don’t like whiny incompetent characters: we have teenagers in the house.

    I like very competent characters: I read comic books.

    I see why Mary Sues are so annoying: we have teenagers in the house.

    One of the things which I believe helps define a Mary Sue is that they’re not only the center of their Universe, but they’re immune to consequence. In fact most Mary Sue characters remind me very much of a number of teenagers I’ve met; ones who seem to believe cause and effect is broken (if they even think about it).

    Oh, and in the later Anita Blake books she comes across as very much the Mary Sue.

  105. True Mary Sue-ness should be unachievable for a published writer, since someone had to like the story enough to buy it.

    Well, I know of one extraordinarily prominent series in which the two main characters are unquestionably Mary Sues – Left Behind. The characters are horrible people, who are clearly incompetant, and yet they are invariably the Best Ever (the reporter never writes a single story) and everyone adores them oh so very much. And because it’s a “Christian” book, despite the fact that they are complete, disrespectful jerks, they are supposed to be a moral example for the audience. Slacktivist has amazing insight and literary/theological criticism of the series – and the characters – here (http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/left_behind/index.html) so I won’t describe it further. Just read his Left Behind archives! :-)

  106. B. Durbin and Neil W — yes, that pretty much sums up the “beautiful princess” ideal. In the version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (or something like that?) in one of Andrew Lang’s [color] Fairy Books, the hero is a young peasant lad who is really handsome and all the village girls try to get his attention, but he (semi-quote from memory here) thought they were ugly and rather disgusting, with their coarse red hands and sunburned skin, etc. He had heard that somewhere in the world there were creatures called ‘princesses’, with soft, white skin [from staying out of the sun, of course] and delicate features… there may have been something about contrasting the homely manners of the commoners with the gentility of the nobles, too.

    Regarding the knights, my best guess is the muscle needed to manage all that armor, and better nutrition if they’re attached to a well-to-do lord? Of course, a hardworking peasant man would also be muscled. I’d guess it’s more a matter of higher-status = more attractive than anything else.

  107. Fletcher @ 106:

    As other people have said, the signature of a Mary Sue is the lensing effect as the writing distorts around them; the Mary Sue cannot be wrong, must be adored and respected, has powers beyond the norm for her society or environment, is special or unique. Problems are easily solved and are never their fault; Mary Sues often labour under a burden of guilt (allowing cheap pathos) for something that isn’t actually their fault (so they don’t actually have to have done anything wrong).

    It’s interesting how much of this template applies to protags–especially scifi protags–in TV and film. It’s rare to see a protag in media representations of genre and near-genre fiction who isn’t unreasonably competent or unreasonably special.

    Beginning writers will fall easily into the MS trap if they’re basing their ideas on stuff like 24 or, worse, something like Star Trek Voyager.

  108. Dude, John Perry can’t be your Mary Sue! ‘Cos when I read Old Man’s War, he looked and sounded JUST LIKE MORGAN FREEMAN. I swear. No offense, but you don’t look or sound ANYTHING like Morgan Freeman. Them reviewers have their heads screwed backwards.

  109. Fletcher @ #107:

    Interestingly, the King-in-the-books wasn’t a Stu, even though he certainly was an authorial self-insert.

    He was portrayed as someone who’d gotten too successful for his own good too fast (not surprising, since he mapped to that period of King’s life), pretty self-centered and not particularly brave. Roland and Eddie didn’t much like him, IIRC.

  110. Mr. Scalzi, in the interests of parsing the difference between a Mary Sue and other kinds of protagonists from a critical perspective, I’m going to ask you (very politely) an extremely irritating question: has any reviewer ever called Zoe of Zoe’s Tale a Mary Sue? Not that I believe she is–please don’t hurt me!–because I don’t, not remotely; but then, I don’t see Mary Sueism in John Perry, either. It’s just, if there is a gender-of-author component to critical assumptions of Sueism, maybe what we have here is a refinement of the biographical fallacy? Which is sloppy reading, usually–or a sign that what is being read fairly poorly written when focusing on the author’s biography in order to appreciate the story/poem isn’t a fallacy . . .

  111. I made it my mission when I did NaNoWriMo in 2010 to hit every trope on TVTropes.com and be blatantly obvious about it. I think it would have worked, too, if work hadn’t gotten in the way and made me lose focus 2 days in! Anyways, I named my Mary Sue “Mary Sue” just so it would be clear that I was intentionally making her the me I wished I could be! (And no, it’s not possible to read the ten pages I wrote for NaNo’10 unironically.)

  112. The problem with Mary Sueism is that the characters are written to be incredibly one-dimensional. That is what a Mary Sue character is supposed to be. The term has just been blown way out of proportion (though, I think most would agree that Wesley Crusher definitely fits the mold). Characters do need flaws, but they don’t have to be major (and clumsiness does not qualify as a character flaw, no matter what Twilight fans may think). I mean, just look at Marvel Comic’s the Avengers; Iron Man is an Alcoholic and Ant Man has a history of spousal abuse, but Thor and Hercules each only have the flaw of being incredibly prideful. And that’s just one example. I’m sure I could come up with more.

  113. Ok, just wanted to say
    SCREWED UP CHARACTERS CAN BE MARY SUES!!!!
    Even going by Scalzi’s definition of a Mary Sue as a wish fufillment self insert for the author, if the author say makes a Schizophrenic abuse victim who is then saved by this person who nurtures them back to health. This could still be a Mary Sue, given the author would have some serious complexes. Defining wish fufillment as “being competent and good looking and having loads of sex” is just silly because of the amazing number of different people in the world with different wishes. I also don’t see what is inherently wrong with self inserts. A lot of Phillip K. Dick’s characters were basically just bits of his amphetamine rattled brain, and in a more extreme case you’d have to discount a big chunk of Truman Capote’s work (Mr. Fiction Out Of Real Events). Granted, these examples aren’t wish fufillment typically but who’s to say Dick didn’t have x amount of issues that meant that he secretly wanted to be a crazy android bounty hunter who could be an android himself? I don’t even think there is anything wrong with wish fufillment as long as its written well, a huge amount of fiction is just private fantasies that kind of became so overwhelmingly real they had to be written. Anyway, I always thought of mary sue as “badly written flat character which serves a wish fufillment to the author that is UNCOMFORTABLE AND BORING TO READ”. Mary Sue is an insult, lets keep it that way? In writing basically every rule can be broken if the writer is good enough, so “It was a great book even though the character was CLEARLY a Mary Sue” SHOULDN’T make too much sense except in the kind of affectionate insult way like, “even though the character was a complete tosser I still loved him”.

  114. Thank you for writing this. This is one of my pet peeves, too. Anyone who thinks a well written character is a Mary Sue has never read a real Mary Sue story. But it is annoying to see it in reviews.

  115. Don’t be such a prescriptivist, John.

    “Mary Sue” isn’t “experiencing some definition creep.” It has several well-attested usages and has for over a decade!

    At some point it’s time to just cut our losses and put the new definition under a discreet entry in our personal dictionaries. What it means in this now-dominant usage is basically a character that is unconvincing due to its personal perfection. I suspect this usage has something of a flying snowman in it.

    I should say that I don’t disagree. I like the term “Campbellian Competent” and like clarity in language as much as the next bear. You just can’t make popular usages go away by shouting grumpily at them. Believe me, I have tried.

Comments are closed.