Of Mary Sues and Marty Stus

(Here’s another opinion piece brought to you by the always gracious David Herbert.  Enjoy!)



So last week I made an idiot of myself by making a commentary on straw man arguments, while using an inaccurate definition of the term. My apologies. But now we dig into territory that’s a little harder to define since the term tends to be thrown around rather casually, especially on TV Tropes.

By the broadest definition, a Sue/Stu is an idealised version of the author who is universally liked, sometimes even by the antagonists, has powers/abilities far beyond any one else and always comes out on top. However, many protagonists have traits that fall under these categories and yet are never accused of being a Sue/Stu. And there are also many who have these traits but are unfairly labelled as one.

For example, Hermione Granger is a character I feel is unfairly labelled. Now yes, you can point out that JK Rowling has admitted she identifies most with Hermione and we are talking about a witch who can perform magic far beyond what is expected of her, but that doesn’t make her a Sue. (For the record, I’m only going by the books, not the movies). In the first novel, she’s introduced as being somewhat stuck up, a buzz kill, arrogant and these traits have alienated her from the rest of her classmates. She eventually loosens up, but the other characters still find her irritating at times.

The character is shown to be very neurotic; in book 3 she fails a test when the final obstacle, a creature that transforms into a person’s worst fear, appears as the deputy headmistress and informs her she flunked all her exams. She’s also only knowledgeable on textbook subjects, relying on Ron to tell her about wizarding culture as she didn’t grow up with them. And around book 4, she gains some white guilt over the plight of house elves, even going so far as to try and trick them into freeing themselves despite the elves being perfectly happy at Hogwarts, almost in an analogue of Islamic women who hate people campaigning for the banning of burqas. She refuses to accept that though since she’s very narrow minded and is routinely shown as this being a negative quality.

There’s nothing wrong with having a character based on the author, it’s always good to write what you know. And there’s nothing wrong with having a character that can be used as a power fantasy. It really all comes down to, as I said last week, framing and execution. If the character does something bad, are they punished for it? Are we shown or told how great a character is? How do they compare to the people around them?

Let’s take a look at some characters who can be seen as Stu/Sues and see if they fit the bill.



Ethan McManus of Ctrl+Alt+Delete

Now Buckley draws himself and Ethan the same way, so this is a clear author avatar. He’s idealised, to the point of being declared the king of gaming. His friends forgive him for awful things and his pain is usually shown as being of greater concern. However he’s not really supposed to be the superior one, in fact much of the humour comes from his idiocy. But that factor actually strengthens the other claims since he can be that stupid and still that right.

Verdict: Marty Stu


Tom Preston from So… You’re a Cartoonist.

The comic is semi-autobiographical so it’s an author avatar. However he’s not really idealised, he’s never presented as being a great cartoonist, in fact Dobson does mock himself on occasion and people around him tend to not like him. But he usually is presented as being in the right even when he’s being completely arrogant.

Verdict: Designated Hero


Rayne Summers from Least I Could Do

The name is very close to the author’s plus they share the same views and interests. He can pick up any woman he wants and helps run a corporation without any prior qualifications successfully. He wins every argument without allowing the opposition to counter, and is supposedly wise for this. When he does awful things, he’s not the one to blame. His friends tolerate abuse and are shown to find it amusing no matter the subject or even endearing.

Verdict: Marty Stu


Piro from Megatokyo

Named after Fred Gallagher’s username. Not entirely idealised, but is hinted at being a talented artist who doesn’t have enough self-esteem to realise it. Has a teenager fall in love with him. He’s too self-absorbed to realise the bizarre ongoing events around him. However he is called out for being whiny.

Verdict: Designated Hero

I had some more candidates, but it was almost impossible to navigate their archives and find the references I was looking for. Feel free to comment with your own analysis of other characters. I’d love to see what people think of my own characters.

That’s all from me for now. I’ll see you guys in April where we take a look at Sinfest and see if we can determine why people are having issues with it. Take care.


Posted on March 22, 2013, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I think Tom Preston is a “Marty Stu” because it seems to leave the idea that he is a sane man living in a world of morons.

  2. Those pants Ethan is wearing in that above image have to be the most uncomfortable pants in the galaxy.

  3. Heribert you are opening the pandora box

  4. I do indeed find whether a character suffers consequences for their actions to be the litmus test for the Mary Sue, which is why I find the self-deprecating protagonist to still be in the running. It’s kind of how writers, when searching for a flaw so that their character is too perfect, will describe them as “clumsy.” Instead of being an actual flaw, clumsiness, and in the case of many webcomics self-deprecation, is actually treated as an endearing characteristic. Flaws cause conflict and struggle, whereas the Mary Sue suffers from stagnation from the get-go.

    • I meant to type “isn’t too perfect.” Darn.

    • So that’s why whenever I see “clumsiness” as a trait on a character sheet, my palms reflexively shoot up to my face. I never thought of “clumsy” being seen as endearing.

      • It is to the people around you though, who get a good laugh out of it. And it’s certainly not bad in any ethical sense. Hardly a positive, but clumsiness doesn’t make you (or any character) a worse person.

  5. Not all Mary Sues are author inserts. There’s often a lot of overlap, since they’re both fruit from the bad-writing-wish-fulfilment-tree, but you can have someone who writes a character who bears no similarity to themselves (physical or by personality) and is still the end all to be all of a universe. Likewise, you can have someone writing a self-insert who is not a Mary Sue.

    As for Hermione, I don’t see how she can be a Mary sue when her above average abilities weren’t just handed to her; throughout the books she works hard to either improve herself for her own pursuit of knowledge, or busts her ass to help whatever situation has come up. No one spent as much time reading or studying in the library as she did, so any benefits that come from that were earned and not given without reason.

    Lastly, characters like ‘Tom Preston’, while admittedly auto-biographical, can still be Mary Sues, even if they give the ‘appearance’ of being somewhat self-depreciating once in a while. For one thing, in cases where he does make a jab at himself, it’s like the situation where a friend jokes about being overweight; if you concur with them they get offended. Similarly, even when being self-depreciating, it’s usually something mild and the smug is so overwhelming that even though the point is that tom is doing something “wrong”, he ends up on top (for example, bragging about how he uses lower quality tools than other artists).

  6. Of course this was going to rule that Ethan and Rayne are Mary Sues, even if it wasn’t El Santo writing it!

    I said some things about the Mary Sue phenomenon here: There, I mention that Ethan’s tendency to always be in the right is overblown among CAD’s haters, that there are times when he is presented as being in the wrong (and not just boneheadedly stupid), and that while Lucas and Lilah do stick with him through thick and thin, they do recognize when he’s crossed a line, at least flirt with ending their relationships or getting back at him (even if they step back from it in the most maddening ways possible), and at times in the miscarriage-to-reboot period, even acknowledge (and voice their jealousy over) his more Sueish tendencies, all of which suggests that those tendencies, if not intentional on Buckley’s part, are at least acknowledged by him. I get the sense that Ethan is supposed to be a more general geek wish-fulfillment fantasy, and in any case isn’t supposed to be treated as seriously as the haters do (pre-miscarriage, at least).

    • Intention and acknowledging does not a Mary-Sue not make. The problem with Ethan is that even when his flaws are pointed out and he is pointed as wrong, there are no consequences. Everything is solved quickly and neatly and it’s off to the next asinine adventure.

      You also mention that Lilah and Lucas’s decision to back Ethan all the way as something that says more about them than him, but that reeks of one of the most prominent Mary-Sue qualities, that is a plot-sucking gravity field that would put black holes to shame.

      So, to summarize, quoting above: “whether a character suffers consequences for their actions [is] the litmus test for the Mary Sue”.

  7. What, no mention of Dominic Deegan? =p

  8. I’m really enjoying these lesson-like articles, David. I hope you’ll continue to do more.

  9. Good start but ended too abruptly. We need more examples. Favorably characters which are harder to define whether they’re Mary-Sue or not than obvious cases like Dominic Deegan.

    • I originally had a lot more examples, including some that were definitely not Sues, but I had to rush it since this was written the night before a two-week holiday I just got back from.

      I might do a follow up that includes some more non-Sue examples.

  10. A fine Mary Sue tale:
    Right down to the eye.

  11. I thought this was a rather poor article, given the subject. The first part was needless ruminating on a non-comic franchise, and the latter part a list of designated Internet Hate comics. I realize this is a fairly negative comment, but I’m growing tired of people in the internet harping on the same selection of bad comics. It comes off as an attempt to give a Very Important Opinion, without involving any risk. All but one of these characters are even from humour comics, which is a genre where the author insert is a staple. A true Mary Sue is always played completely straight, often involving lots of drama. It’s part of what makes it such an infuriating concept: The reader is asked to suspend their disbelief for the author’s benefit. You can see this clearly with CAD, which only grew to its current notoriety after it moved toward dramatic story arcs.

    A good example of a true Mary Sue, in my opinion, would have been Agatha Heterodyne from Girl Genius. The comic is even called “Girl Genius”. She’s portrayed as desirable and always correct, is the heir to a magical kingdom, has a talking pet, and constantly magics her way out of impossible situations.

    A good example of an author insert/designated hero would have been Jenny Romanchuk from Zombie Hunters. The literal representation of the author, down to the name, the character has evolved on her own. She is portrayed as a gung-ho action girl who beats zombies with a shovel, but is also hotheaded and irresponsible.

    Well, that’s my two cents. Or dollars.

  1. Pingback: Picking A Path | The Webcomic Overlook

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