Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – Dark Mary Sues

Chess Pieces

NOTE: I am addressing Mary Sues in this column, which often involves questions of definition. As Mary Sues (and the male counterpart Gary Stu) are often a continuum, I wanted to clarify my defintion. My definition is of an “author’s pet” – a character who gets vastly preferential treatment by the author in a way that distorts the story. Thus I am discussing them entirely in the negative.

A Dark Mary Sue? Most people would say that Mary Sues often darken things as it is. They may make works into pandering creations that are hard to enjoy. An author or game creator may be worried that, after so many Mary Sues, a new character idea will be seen as an ego-fulfillment vehicle. Wether they annoy us in literature or gaming or make us worry how others view our works, they’re there, worrying us.

In the worlds we build, we may even be cautious about how we design heroes, heroines, and supporting characters. We take that extra effort to make sure they’re not Mary Sues, or even that they’re not perceived as such. For all people may enjoy a good wish-fulfillment story, there are times they can be quite harsh on other tales (namely ones not fulfilling their fantasies).

So we’re careful with our heroes and our heroines. Perhaps very careful.

But maybe they’re not the ones we should be keeping an eye on.

Through The Looking Glass Darkly

When you’re busy scrutinizing your cast you might miss where else Mary Sues pop up. These authors pet, Mary and Gary are tricky little devils, and maybe you should be looking at the other side of your cast.

Because sometimes they’re the villains. Not in the ruined-my-story-sense but in the fact that real Mary Sues and Gary Stus can be the bad guys. The Villains. The Antagonists. The characters raging at the meddling kids and their pet.

Sometimes they can be even more annoying than Mary Sue heroes. Watching a likable, interesting heroine deal with a well-armed overblown author’s favorite Dark Mary Sue is a great way to kill interest in the story. When the threat is so bad you can’t see anyone realistically coping with it, or so beautiful-powerful-great that you feel like you’re reading ad copy, there goes interest in your tale.

Needless to say if you’re a dedicated worldbuilder, they devastate your setting just as sure as any Mary Sue can. Mary Sues, authors pets, distort the world and make it unbelievable as the author’s blatant biases are more important than an understandable setting. Your suspension of disbelieve flies out the window pretty quick when a Mary Sue makes his/her appearance.

Of course this may be an odd statement – a Dark Mary Sue? Aren’t Mary and Gary supposed to be beautiful, perfect, wonderful, loves, etc.? How do you do that to the character everyone is supposed to root against? How do you Mary Sue-ify them?

Theres something peculiar to many of us writers and worldbuilders, perhaps all of us, in that one time or another we create an author’s pet. Maybe it’s a wish-fulfillment, maybe it’s identification, maybe its a power trip. Mary Sues are powerful, lucky, have it all, and are something we, sadly, get attached to.

But none of these qualities say that Mary Sue or Gary Stu have to be good guys. You’ve probably seen a few of their ilk that were so annoying you wondered why the hell they were the heroes and heroines.

In my experience, a Dark Mary Sue or Gary Stu make it even easier to make their stories a power trip and use of authorial fiat. Consider:

  1. The villain has to be a threat. It might get awful tempting to step into their shoes or make them an author’s pet.
  2. The villain has power. If you’re on a power trip, then it’s going to be awful easy to fall into the trap of Mary Sue-ing them.
  3. Villains are great for angsty backstory and redemption tales, which can be awful tempting to play with a wee bit much.
  4. Villains get a lot of attention, and it’s fun to have attention – and thus one may Mary Sue the villain.
  5. Villains are bad guys and lack moral restraints (in some cases). It can be fun to write a character without inhibitions or to fulfill one’s fantasies.
  6. Marketing. It seems everyone loves a bad guy/girl/woman/robot.

If this starts reminding you of some characters here or there, then you understand what I mean. Ever see a particularly foul character be strangely popular with some people? You get the idea – far more dangerous you may make your own.

Dark Mary Sue’s actually irritate me more than regular Mary Sues – they seem to lean more towards wish fulfillment, provoke even more excuses, and drag the story down – especially if the hero is just someone for the villain to push around.

Things To Watch Out For

So here’s a few signs you have a Dark Mary Sue on your hands:

  1. The hero/heroine are constantly outsmarted by the villain and are basically a punching bag.
  2. The villain is so charming, suave, debonair, and likable they don’t need an Army of Evil – they should just be able to make a good case of why they should rule everyone.
  3. The villain has inexhaustible resources, yet there’s no reason in your world to have said resources.
  4. The villain is so lucky, you figure they should just try and win the world in a game of Poker.
  5. People dislike the villain as they’re too perfect. THe perfection is more annoying than their actual crimes.
  6. The villain is giving voice to things the author thinks a wee bit too much.

See these traits in your villain? Get out the Mary Sue detector and give them a careful examination. YOu may have a Dark Mary Sue on your hands.


A Dark Mary Sue is a real kick in the worldbuilding, as well as just a poor thing to create as an author. It’s also a bit easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.

Have I see these? Oh, yes I have, and they’ve always crawled up my nose. There’s something partially sad to see an author make a bad guy the author’s pet and have it affect their work or misdirect their talent. Also there’s only so often you can hear “He/she is just misunderstood” before you want to say “no, this character is a psychopathic a-hole.”

I also think that Dark Mary Sues can eclipse good villains or morally ambiguous heroes – the areas of really good writing and worldbuilding. I can think of a few characters like that I’m quite fond of, and I’d rather not see their bad names besmirched, if you know what I mean.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.

Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – The Deadly Hero

Death Reaper

So we’e talking heroes and villains. Usually at some point we’re talking conflict and outright violence in this case, even if its not physical. However when it gets physical, I want to address a rather poorly handled archetype which I call The Deadly Hero

The Deadly Hero is that character who is a killing machine who leaves a wake of bodies, but is also considered the hero (if only by the author and fans). Now admittedly if said bodies are soulless killer robots and such, probably no harm no foul, but usually they’re living creatures and sentients. Oddly, in much writing it doesn’t seem to matter.

You know the story. It’s an FPS game come to life as enormous amounts of corpses pile up and the character is still considered the hero, still perhaps considers themselves heroic, still acts the part. After a while however something seems wrong, seems off . . .

It is. The Deadly Hero kills worldbuilding as well as legions of people.

The Crux of The Conflict

So what’s the problem? The good guy kicks backside and wins? That’s how it works? So why does this seem . . . off in our worlds?

Beyond gore, gratuitous action, and so on I think the Deadly Hero who acts without repercussion or affect grates on our senses of continuity. After a while the bodycount is like a videogame score, and there’s just no fallout from it.

The world doesn’t matter, the setting is unreal, and the Hero all the moreso for the contrast.

Just consider the impact of violence in our real world.

  1. Violence is unpredictable. A running battle of spells in a crowded city is going to have civilian casualties – having violence be super-surgical and precise seems wrong, and the more there is the less believable (unless you go out of your way to address that).
  2. Violence produces reactions. I don’t care how heroic you think you are, that huge pile of cadavers might make me wonder if you’re the good guy, and I can’t see their badges that indicate they belong to Evil Inc. until the autopsy.
  3. People assess risks. The violent, even the good, may make us wonder if they’re safe. If you’ve got super battle psychic powers that may be well and good, but the secret organization you work for is going to notice the levels of death and maybe wonder if you’re safe to work with . . .
  4. Violence affects people. Ask anyone who has been in a fight, gone to war, killed. Read a biography. Study PTSD. Violence affects us personally, and the person who commits violence is affected as well.
  5. If you’re not affected, something may be wrong. A character who kills without mental and emotional repercussion may be insanely dangerous -or just insane.
  6. Violence takes effort. I mean if nothing else you have to rest, recharge, and buy bullets.

The Deadly Hero, I think, rubs people wrong as it’s death without repercussion or even lip service. A story without repercussion is a story without a working world, and the hero feels abstract and removed from the setting. At that point it’s just a list of things happening against a meaningless backdrop.

Also the Deadly Hero way too often is just a form of wish-fulfillment. The badass without repercussions is a form of pandering – and a sadly obvious form of pandering at that. Poorly written is bad enough, but outright pandering really means your worldbuilding is for naught, its just setting up targets.

I recall once someone talked lovingly of ‘The Punisher” comic. To which I noticed that, realistically, the character would inevitably kill a lot of innocent people (if only by accident) and that everyone who showed up dead would not necessarily be a known criminal and thus upset the public.

They didn’t get it.

Avoiding The Trap

The Deadly Hero is a trap that’s a bit too easy to fall into, and I’d credit the prevalence of this kind of story in the media. There’s also media that veers into this territory but doesn’t go all the way – but following in the footsteps of said media means you may veer all the way.

But if your world and a realistic setting are important, you want to avoid the trap of the Deadly Hero – and a common one it is. Here’s a few pieces of advice

  1. Make sure violence has appropriate repercussions.
  2. Make sure the hero’s reactions to violence are appropriate.
  3. Make sure other characters in your world react appropriately to violence.
  4. Make sure the cost of weapons, armor, repair, etc. are worked into the story.
  5. Think of what a hero is. If you are wrting an admirable character, you’ll need to explore their reasons and reactions to violence – which is a fascinating experience as a writer. You’re poorer if you don’t – why would someone kill, and for what reasons is a great part of a tale and a world.

In short you avoid the trap by making sure the world works and functions appropriate, diving in to the repercussions and richness of the setting and character. In time, this makes not just a believable story, but a better world and characters.

A Side Note: The UHB is still annoying

When I first wrote this column I noted a character I really was tired of was the Uncaring Heroic Badass or UHB. The UHB is the grim, deadly, antisocial, unlikeable character who is the hero that the author wants us to root for even though they’re an a-hole.

My opinion hasn’t changed. The UHB is really a power trip consisting of:

  1. I’m tough and can defeat anyone. Don’t you want to be me?
  2. I don’t care about anyone or anything. Aren’t I cool for not caring.

Really, the UHB isn’t a hero. They’re a sociopath in a costume, meant for pandering, and still freaking annoying.

Fallout From The Flareup

Writing a violent and deadly hero is totally possible – as long as you understand the repercussions of violence and the character. This requires deep thought – and avoiding tropes.

If anything, I’d say tropes about violence are some of the worst challenges we face in writing (along with sex, religion, and politics). It’s almost like we get invested in them, and we need to overcome them.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.

Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – I’m With The Agency

Wild Dive

So let’s talk Heroes and Villains and your world.

I should note that when I talk Heroes and Villains I’m using that to pretty much mean the same thing as “Protagonist” and “Antagonist.” Why? Because it’s a hell of a lot easier to write “Hero and Villain” and sounds a tad less academic. I’ve got enough trouble going academic as it is.

So for the duration of my digressions, I hope you’ll forgive the simplicity.

But hey you have your main character(s) right? They’re the heroes and villains, correct? They’re the ones you focus on, right? The hero, especially, is the main character, right?

Not necessarily.

You may have a main character but they may not be a Hero. Oh there may be a Hero, but it’s not your main character.

For some writers, this is a problem, and it brings up an important issue in telling the stories of your world.

A Critical Definition

As noted earlier, when you’re writing, your Main character(s) of your story are essentially viewpoints on the world. In a few cases if you use a first-person writing style, quite directly so. But just because the story is from their perspective it may not mean they’re the Hero or Vllain.

When I try and define Hero and Villain, Protagonist and Antagonist, one thing that is critical is that the Heroes and Villains have effect. If your Hero is the main character the story is told from the perspective of someone affecting the setting. A Villain is the same way.

They may be morally different, but both are rather active, even if reluctantly or reactively (in the case of some Anti-Heroes).

In a way, Heroes and Villains are defined by a sense of Agency, of the ability to act and direct and change things. It may not be in a good way, or an effective way, or a competent way. They may fail, but their activity upon the environment is what makes them Heroes and Villains as much as their motivation.

You could be exceedingly evil, but if you’re in a coma due to your last drug binge in your lair of evil, you’re not really an Antagonist. You’re more an After-School Special for supervillains.

You could be exceptionally heroic, but if that results in no direction and activity, then you’re not really the Hero, are you? Yes you may be a nice guy, but you’re not really the Hero, you’re a well-meaning victim of circumstance.

Sense Of Agency, Sense of Story

Thus when you are deciding on your story, if you’re telling a tale of Heroism and/or with villainy, Heroes and Villains require agency, initiative and direction. If they do not act, they are merely acted upon and at best responding, and even then poorly.

This is a critical definition, as a few things happen to those who make tales that can ruin the sense of Agency.

  • We focus so much on worldbuilding, our characters bounce round like pinballs. Ever read a book that seemed to be an exercise in tourism? You get the idea.
  • We conjure up characters to tell the story or have it happen too. The Hero is there so stuff happens and things get done, but they’re not a character, not part of the world. They’re a camera with legs, making your tale the equivalent of a found-footage movie.
  • We spend too much time inside the Hero’s head we forget to make them a person. You don’t notice how unfurnished a room is if you keep looking out a window.

Now in a few cases if your Villain is a phenomena like a plague or something, then the Villain can lack agency in a human sense. Their “agency” comes from pure brute force and circumstance. But if you’re writing from a hero’s point of view and they have no initiative they’re no Hero.

You’ve probably read stories like above. Someone gets all the hero trappings but never does anything, never shows any initiatives. Never does anything. It’s boring – you find yourself wishing for a Mary Sue/Gary Stu because at least they’d do do stupidly overblown stuff.

(And if you can write a story where the Hero is a faceless force and the Villain has a sense of agency, I want to talk to you.)

However sometimes your main character doesn’t always have a sense of agency. In a few cases, this is actually OK.

The Narrative Character

If a main character is not a hero, not a person with a sense of Agency, then in many cases that can be quite lame. It’s not interesting to read about someone bouncing around. It’s annoying to just watch things happen to someone in a world, even if the world is well written.

Except in some cases, I do think this is a valuable form of storytelling – if done consciously.

Sometimes the main character isn’t a Hero, it’s what I call a Narrative Character. A Narrative Character is someone who relates what is happening but has little role in shaping what is going on. That may not sound interesting at the start, but I believe it can be done well if handled properly. Thus, I think in cases where this is deliberately chosen, this is a legitimate form of storytelling.

Now I should note that I think truly Narrative character, the victims of circumstance, are relatively rare. Usually they’re on a scale between Narrative Character and Hero. The exceptions are usually narrative stories, where someone is reiterating what’s going on.

But it’s a legitimate choice if you do it right.

I feel some of the best examples of Narrative Characters are often found in horror stories, especially those about people in the grip of unfathomable evil. Their narrative ability both explains the horror but also communicates their sheer overwhelming sense of being trapped. Lovecraftian tales often do this quite well.

Though I wouldn’t limit the idea of the Narrative Character just to horror.

Make Your Choice and Move On

So when writing and picking perspectives, remember that Heroes and Villains have a sense of Agency. If your main character lacks suck, there’s either a flaw in your choices, or you’re really writing a Narrative Character.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.