Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 16: The Anti-Mary Sue Episode

John Brown, debut author of Servant of a Dark God, joins us for this discussion of  the avoidance of self-insertion. In polite company we call this the “Mary Sue,” because it’s difficult to say “self-insertion” in polite company, much less with a straight face.

In broader terms, what we’re covering is voice, and how to make our characters sound like themselves rather than us.

This week’s Writing Excuses is Brought to you by Servant of a Dark God by John Brown.


38 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 16: The Anti-Mary Sue Episode”

  1. All your will reflect an aspect of you, although not necessarily all the characters. In a way my MCs are Marty Stus, especially if I’m writing in the 1st POV (my first novel).

    Question is? Do they have a life beyond my own? Or do they stand on their own as characters within the narrative?

    I think it’s really annoying when people write fanfics for the express purpose of inserting themselves in the existing narrative. It is also annoying when the characters are two-dimensional and exist only as bullhorns for the author’s views (author’s tract).

  2. I don’t know why, but I never considered not worrying much about the dialog sounding like the character until post work. This actually tempts me to try out putting in [Character X says Y to Z] (yes including the []) and just put off trying to write actual dialog at all until I’m ready to focus, then go back and focus on one character at a time and see how that works out.

    Might not work but dealing with trying to make voices distinct has always been something that slows me down a lot in my writing.

  3. @Patrick: Sometimes that’s a great way to move ahead in writing a book. You might want to include the reason that saying Y to Z is important to the story.

    Something like this:

    Bob said [discussion of Bob’s dad — need to point up weak father-figure relationship for Act II reveal of Bob’s dad as MegaGuy]

  4. Ah I see what you mean, yeah adding a bit of why it’s contextually important and not just what sort of thing they would say makes a lot of sense.


    Though I’m not quite ready to start my next project yet so I’ve got a bit of time to consider it (still doing outline work, debating using NaNo to help kick start the writing with a schedule in fact).

  5. Technically this is just a self-inset Sue… Mary-Sues in general refer to ‘perfect’ characters, and Insert!Sues are just some of the most likely types. There’s some really interesting reading material on them if you google it.

    Also just wanted to say I recently managed to catch up to the weekly casts here, when I first found this I went back to Season 1, ep 1 and watched from there. All in all it was kinda addicting, really fun to listen too. :) This is a great series and you guy’s totally deserved that award.

  6. I noticed that Brandon’s portrait has been changed on the site. I think I liked the old one better. This new one makes Brandon look like he’s passing a kidney stone– a really, really big one.

  7. It was a good podcast, but I don’t know that it was about Mary Sues as much as author insertion. The Mary Sue is an insertion but is a completely perfected and idealized version of the author as character and what the character gets from the plot. This character has all the super powers, and is beautiful and everyone wants them and they get the romantic resolutions and when there’s a problem that no one can solve, not even the supposed experts, the Mary Sue knows the answer even when it has nothing to do with their own fields of study. They can break the rules of the universe that no one else can and get away with it.

    So I think full on Mary Sues are much more annoying than simply seeing reflections of the author in their characters. :)


  8. Great post. It was great to hear your voice, John!

    I don’t think I’m at the level to worry about Mary-Sue–far larger and worse things haunt my writing–though I did like the suggestion of writing about awesome person that’s not me: King Julien the Lemur.

    I really should write about that character.

  9. I think I’ll write a story about an author who is nothing like me at all. Rather, that author’s main character is actually a thinly veiled version of myself. The author will be trying to avoid the Mary Sue so much that he’ll actually create a Mary Sue of me instead!

    I think part of my brain just exploded…

  10. I’ve found that in the negative reviews I’ve gotten for my first novel, they’d always accuse me of Mary Sueism. And it royally ticks me off. (yes, I know we’re not supposed to read our bad reviews…) Automatically if you write:

    1. First Person.
    2. The Hero.
    3. The character happens to know/like things you like.

    You will be accused of Sue. Your positive reviews will not notice this, but man, those one star guys will be all over you. :)

  11. Hey guys. This is off-topic, but I wasn’t sure where to post suggestions, so you get it here.

    I’ve been reading about Stacy Whitman’s new press, Tu Publishing, which will promote multicultural speculative fiction, and it’s got me thinking about how I can be more multicultural in my own writing. I think it’s a good cause, and by changing the ethnicity of some of my characters I think I’ll end up with richer worlds/stories.

    The problem is, I’m a middle-class white writer who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and I don’t have a lot of experience with other ethnicities. I’m afraid that by attempting to be more multicultural in my writing, I’ll offend those ethnicities I’m trying to portray, or they won’t take me seriously because I’m white, etc.

    Can you do a ‘cast about writing more multiculturally? How to write other (real world) cultures convincingly, how to research and familiarize ourselves so that it comes off as genuine and sincere, and what kind of fantasy settings might be possible with other cultures than the typical medieval European that we white folks default to?

  12. @Larry, Ah, don’t you hate bad reviews. Though maybe there is something to what they’re saying. Follow the suggestions in the podcast to look through and see if anything sounds like you (particularly the dialog). If you can’t find anything, either just ignore those comments, or find some new reviewers. Just my advice anyways.

    @all, I really liked the suggestion about “casting” your characters. I’m trying to do it in my book, but I have no idea where to find some good pictures to rummage through. I don’t have a ready supply of magazines, so I have to use the internet. Anyone know of some good sites for that purpose? Or at least some good keywords to use in a google image search?

  13. Hello,
    For my first comment here, I have a question for you guys, especially for Brandon. Is there a name for the technique for using small fragments of some writing at the beginning of the chapter, like those journal pieces at the beginning of each Mistborn chapter? How would you make that work?
    It would be great if you guys could make a podcast about it.

    Excellent podcast, by the way.

  14. Great podcast, as usual.

    I generally review dialogue scenes many times, reading them from each character’s point of view to make sure their voice comes out. Saying the dialogue out loud in that character’s voice/accent really helps get me into their head and POV and ensure accuracy.

    Multiculturalism is a great point, as mentioned by Illustar. My current project (epic fantasy) involves multiple kingdoms, but initially they were all very similar. Recently I have expanded and defined the cultural differences, trying to reflect those in appearance, dress, and language. It dramatically enriches the story, and forces me to really focus on each character’s individual voice to ensure their culture is reflected properly.

  15. So Mary Sues are bad – or really annoying, as you guys put it.

    You guys gotta help me out then. I think I’m writing a Mary-Sue.
    I’m writing a book about myself – a testimony of some of the things that have happened to me; and what I learned from them. But it isn’t a straight non-fiction book; my story is played out with a sci-fi/fantasy backdrop; meaning, their are a lots of environments and characters that are totally made up. And certain things may be exaggerated.

    I just want to tell my story, but in a more exciting way. Most people don’t know me and the character won’t look like me visually (this is a graphic novel), nor have my name. But his life will be based off my life. Are you saying this is a no-no in writing books? – that it shouldn’t be done and people don’t like it?

    What kind of book is this called?

    What are your thoughts on what I wrote. All helpful comments are appreciated.

  16. I agree with Illustrar. While it is really important to avoid Mary Sues, I think that it is even more important to be able to write multicuturally. This addresses several things, such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political beliefs, and so on. If you are able to write from multiple perspectives, cultures, and viewpoints, then you will have more diverse characters, and I think that you will probably avoid Mary Sues automatically.

    My thoughts are that you want to learn as much about another culture as you can, and avoid straw men. I would also like to hear from the Writing Escuses team on what they do to write more multicuturally. I know that Brandon’s books frequently deal with people from many different cultures, as do Howards. I haven’t read Dan’s book yet (but am anxiously waiting for its US release date), but from what I have heard, it seems that Dan tries to examine differing perspectives as well. I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

  17. @Chase B

    I guess that would be semi-autobiographical. It IS a recognised literary source of material. I think the only thing that counts is whether the final product is any good.

  18. Andy:
    Those are called epigrams.

    Chase B:
    A great example of what you’re doing is Maus, by Art Spiegelman. Sounds like you’re going for an even looser adaptation than he did, but it’s the same principle and, when done well, can be very good. Maus is generally accepted as one of the best graphic novels of all time (in my opinion one of the best novels of all time, graphic or otherwise).

  19. There’s a lot in this podcast. I have written a character who was a lot like me before, but as he was far from perfect and not very heroic, he hardly qualified as the the sort of Mary Sue that’s usually meant. (In fact, I think the podcast misdefines Mary Sue. An author self-insert is not a Mary Sue in itself, and a Mary Sue does not necessarily resemble the author. For example, Stephen King’s _Dark Tower_ series included himself as a character, but was very harsh on that character.) That said, making the characters a lot like me is not something I make a habit of–characters too much like me just aren’t interesting for me to write.

    When I’m doing characters who are different, one way I try to get characters’ voices right is to read their parts out loud. I don’t intentionally try to mimic their voices when I do, but I find myself altering my voice to try to hear how a character sounds. It helps a lot when just making sure they’re consistent with my vision of them.

    On a vaguely related topic, I’m currently considering an exercise not just in writing but in empathy. I recently met someone who rubs me the wrong way. I’ll probably be seeing a lot of him, and I’m a bit worried about my ability to handle being around him. My solution is to write a story with a character based on him. What’s important is that I make this character the protagonist–that’ll force me to look at the world through his eyes, and to find the positive in how he views things. It also means that rather than being irritated at his antics, I can use them as inspiration. That’s the hope, anyway.

  20. I try to start off each character with a certain trate, one will be aloof and stand offish, another the joker with a serious side, or not depending on what roll he has to fill.
    I try to make my female character’s to not always be DID’s. I find that annoying, but at the same time I don’t want a total Elizabeth Swann character. I think that my women characters are different from my male characters.

    I also like to think of them as real people. That this world they live in is also real, if only in my fantasies. If I beleve that these people are real, I can write them better. I know all of these interesting things about them and its an adventure to figure out their secrets and their motivations in their own stories.

    I just let the character’s do what they want and go where they want. In the first draft its not a big deal because I know that I’ll go in and edit later. So if they steal the show and stuff – its fine – later on I’ll take back some control and edit stuff out if it doesn’t need to be there. Small stuff, like hobbies and things that aren’t important for the reader to get the character.

    I think that plot and story are made richer if you can get down the characterization.

    On Mary Sue – I am a fan fic author as well and I hate those self insert stories. But to us who read and write Fan fic, Mayr Sue means a super woman with a bloody awful long name, special powers, and is very smart and get the main characters of the fandom to all fall in love with her….and its annoying.

    That’s why I stay away from books that have that sort of character. I don’t like to read it in fan fic so why woud I wast my hard earned money on some tripe with bad characterization???

  21. On a completely unrelated note to Mary Sues, I just found a copy of Dan’s book over here in New Zealand, and totally enjoyed it.

    Back on the topic of the podcast: I’m personally of the opinion it’s not enough just to avoid inserting yourself into the book, you’ve got to worry about inserting other people you know directly in, or just using flat stereotypes too.

    You’ve covered the latter in the podcast before, but the former is pretty important to me, too. Back when I was still a teenager and a terrible(r) writer, I tried inserting a few people I knew into a story and it didn’t work well. I knew them too well, and they wanted to go off and do their own thing, but I couldn’t beat them back into the story because it would have been completely unnatural for them to do that. I came to the conclusion that you need to invent a certain amount of each character, just so that they’re actually tailored to the story, so that you can exaggerate certain traits with confidence, etc… At least if they’re going to have a major role, anyway. You could probably get away with a straight insert for a minor character.

    Besides, it can be hard enough to be mean to your characters when they’re just figments of your imagination. I couldn’t put my friends or family through half of the trials I invent for characters. :)

  22. Chase B:

    Another example is “Ruth Hall” by Fanny Fern–a huge hit in its time and still a delight today.

    The ONLY time any technique becomes an issue is when it undermines the effect you’re after as an author. So there’s nothing wrong with writing yourself into a story. Or writing about your past or current situation. Or wish-fulfillment. Or common character types. Or stereotypes. Heck, or even cliches.

    But if your characters begin to bore when they’re supposed to enthrall, if they annoy when they’re supposed to appeal, if they act stupid when they’re supposed to be smart, if they become author puppets in the reader’s eyes instead of real people, that’s when you’ve got problems. As with anything, you have to ask what you’re trying to do first.

    On the creative side, you might have problems writing about yourself because sometimes, SOMEtimes (not alltimes), focusing on just your experience leads you to write smaller stories than you could have otherwise if you had just looked outside your own little world.

    But you don’t want to eschew your world either. That’s just plain stupid. A guy with tons of experience in high finance is going to be able to write business thrillers probably better than someone who thinks debits and credits are types of Visas. Build on what you have. Just inject yourself with new things. Often when you do, that’s when you get electricity.

    FWIW: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Sue

  23. Always so many great words of advice, and tips for us budding writers. I can’t tell you how many times though that I think, WAIT! Stop giving away all of this great advice. Your podcasts are going to create a legion of wonderful writers that will just be more competition to break-in.

    But then I come off of the selfish-horse and realize that that is ok, and I learn as the rest learn and hopefully it will make us all the better for it…accursed competition included.

    By the way congrats to John on the book deal.

    Clifton Hill

  24. I’m working on grinding through my first million words at the moment, and to do so I’m writing an inverse Mary Sue. The two characters are my worst characteristics with few of the redeeming value dealing with the worst possible outcome of the situations I daydream about being in. Maybe by getting those self indulgent fantasies out, stepping onto them, and showing myself what can go horribly wrong I can become skittish of ever creating a Mary Sue ever again.

  25. I think the second biggest Mary Sue-ism is characters that have no flaws. It can be ok to base a character on yourself as long as that character has realistic flaws to work through.

  26. My understanding of the word “Mary Sue” is the character who is perfect. He’s strong, brave, with strong, unwavering virtues who has unexplainable skill in a weapon he’s never used before. She’s clever, likable, beautiful, nice, and is ready and willing to give up her throne and fortune and become a beggar on the streets to help her people.

    I had a really hard time with this in my (absolutely horrible) first attempt at writing. I’m trying to redo that book, but I’m still struggling with making my characters more realistic. A podcast on THAT would be the best thing ever! Still a good one though! Thanks guys!

  27. Pretty much everywhere else I’ve ever read about Mary Sue defines the type of character as being overly idealized, too perfect, without flaws, too knowledgeable, and way too well liked by other characters, who never call him/her on his/her BS even though realistically someone would. This is the only place where it was definied as being a character that is like the author, which might not be such a good thing, but would also fall under something else. If you’re going to try and help new authors try to avoid the dreaded Mary Sue, it might be a good idea to do this podcast over, this time explaining what a Mary Sue actually is, why that’s bad, and how to actually avoid that type of character. Not trying to be a jerk or anything, though, and I’ve found most of your other podcasts helpful in my writing. I also understand that there are a lot of definitions thrown around regarding Mary Sue, and it is one of those terms that CAN be used solely to insult a particular character that people don’t like, but your definition of Mary Sue is just not what it is.

  28. Great stuff.Interesting how writers use real(ish) persons to base their characters on and when you buy the books all have that disclaimer saying “any similarity to real persons is coincidental and unintended”.

  29. I’ve found two techniques for curing writers of Mary Sues (found from my own personal experience). The first is to finish a project within a year, and the second is to have flawed characters.

    There are a lot of Mary Sue characters in a person’s first book, the one that is their precious “golden idea” that will put their name on the map. The writer is far too enamored with the book, and its characters, to be honest. That dishonesty is part of what makes Mary Sue characters to problematic. But even when a writer moves onto a new project, they can grow too attached to a character. One that doesn’t start off as a Mary Sue will become one, eventually. But if the writer finishes the project in 6 months, rather than 6 years, that is far less likely to happen. It’s like a miracle cure! Or, at least, a potent fever reducer. Okay, it’s like aspirin.

    The second common cause of Mary Sue’s, which I’ve noticed in myself and others, is simply making a character too likeable. Not necessarily to the world at large, but to the writer themself. Most people aren’t going to punch their child in the face just because they’re told that the story demands it: and so they won’t punch their Mary Sue character in the face if the story requires it, either. The solution is to make the character slightly unlikeable to the writer. This needs to be at a personal level, though: the author has to dislike the character’s flaw on an emotional level. For example, on the book where I broke my Mary Sue tendencies, I had three main characters: one was an arrogant SOB, another was a money grubbing killjoy, and the third was an inexperienced leader. The first two were memorable for readers (who have been pestering me to revise this book, for the sake of seeing these characters in a good book), the third… well, as you can probably tell from the descriptors, I didn’t have an emotional reaction, and the kindest thing I can say about him was that he was so uninteresting that he ruined the book.

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