Rules of Writing III

3. Thou shalt not make thy characters graven images of thyself

One of the weakest elements in a distressingly large amount of modern fiction is the character as authorial wish fulfillment. While all of the author’s characters spring from either the author’s personal experience, historical research, past reading, or imagination, the character as author’s representative almost always tends to weaken the story as well as the reader’s ability to immerse himself in it.

This can be seen most clearly in the example of the Mary Sue trope, which is described as follows:

The name “Mary Sue” comes from the 1974 Star Trek fanfic A Trekkie’s Tale. Originally written as a parody of the standard Self Insert Fic of the time (as opposed to any particular traits), the name was quickly adopted by the Star Trek fanfiction community…. The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

In other words, the term “Mary Sue” is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

The most important aspect of the Mary Sue is its role as the author’s idealized self-representative in the story.  An example that many of the readers here will recognize is Owen Zastava Pitt in Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International. Now, the character of Pitt works much more effectively than the average Mary Sue because the idealized version of a giant Portuguese man who makes a regular habit of shooting very large guns is both intrinsically interesting and entirely credible when it comes to slaughtering werewolves and other monsters.  Larry can get away with it because he is a literally larger-than-life character himself. The average novelist, being an obese woman or a man of low socio-sexual rank, whose most notable personal characteristics are a moderately high IQ and a preference for snarky wit, cannot.

But even a credible Mary Sue limits the story and tends to render it predictable. This is because we immediately know who is going to win the argument, have the last word, get the girl, and save the day.  We know who the good guys and the bad guys will be on the basis of Mary Sue’s likes and dislikes. That’s not a problem in formulaic genres such as mystery and romance where the experience expected is akin to a literary roller coaster, but doesn’t work as well in other genres, particularly in a series.

Now, because they are drawn from his imagination, most of an author’s characters will reflect some aspect of the author.  A female character might not represent him, but rather, the sort of woman to whom he is attracted. Heinlein’s ubiquitous redheads would be the primary example here. A villainous character might not represent the author, but possess traits that the author dislikes or fears in himself or others.  Jim Butcher has written a guide to writing characters which I found very interesting in that it reveals how he has created characters who are both memorable and irritatingly unrealistic at the same time.

What is (or what makes) an interesting character?  While no one thing can really stake a sole claim, several things consistently make a team contribution: 

Exotic position

I found Butcher’s thoughts on the subject to be fascinating because he has, over time, managed to create some of the most successful but irritating characters outside of the world of Robert Jordan.  But I suspect that the weaker aspects of his characters actually stem from the strength of his approach; the problem appears to be that Butcher often gets the aspects of verisimilitude and empathy wrong due to low socio-sexual rank and a sub-par grasp of human intersexual relations. I suspect that Harry Dresden is somewhat of a Mary Sue due to his arrested psychosexual development that prevents him from pursuing women or even responding to female advances.

(Holding off on banging the little supercop for a book or three in the interest of not devolving into a story about relationships is fine. Serially turning down every sexually interested woman for twenty books indicates either a religious vocation or serious problem.)

I’m not sure about the Exaggeration aspect either. I mean, I can see how it would be effective in the sort of series where one or two characters are considerably more important than the rest, but I think it would be mistake in a series that features more of an ensemble cast.


1. Write down the five chief characteristics of your Mary Sue character using Butcher’s guide. Now write five chief characteristics of a character that has nothing in common with the Mary Sue.  Then write a one-page interaction in which the latter character gets the better of the Mary Sue.  (You can post the Mary Sue characteristics here if you like.  But spare us the second five and the interaction.)

2. Identify which character from ATOB most closely approaches my Mary Sue. Explain why you believe that to be the case.

Rules of Writing II: Thou shalt know how it ends