Call Me Mary Sue

Writers have all heard of a Mary Sue. In truth, these days even non-writers have probably heard of a Mary Sue.

In short, a Mary Sue is a character who doesn’t have to try very hard. She is talented and loved by all without having paid her dues. Mary Sue might be an orphan, but she’s secretly a princess. She’s unusual and beautiful. She seems to inspire love and loyalty for no reason. She never faces the possibility of failure when it comes to the stakes of the story.

And it’s a fine line. One of my favorite novels, Perilous Waif by E. William Brown, seems to be a deliberate send up of the idea of a Mary Sue, complete with the violet eyes, the orphan condition, the inexplicable love and loyalty, and the secret princess. Everything. And yet, the character works because she makes mistakes that have weight and you know that she may fail at the stakes of the story at any point. So the definition of a Mary Sue is not just being overpowered or uncritically loved and beautiful. A Mary Sue is more. But what is she?

Most people know a Mary Sue when they meet her on the page or in a movie. That doesn’t mean that they always know exactly why one character is a Mary Sue and why another character shares the same traits and yet clearly isn’t Mary, or isn’t even her sister.

So what is going on? What is the difference? Essentially, what is going on is that the character as a whole fails to be real. And often, the reason that the character fails to be real is that Mary Sue starts out as a self-insert from the author.

What is a self-insert?

A self-insert is just what it sounds like and it’s not always bad. Many fabulous stories start out in an author’s mind as “this is the adventure that I want to have”. Sometimes the self-insert character is a secondary character and I doubt that it matters much that they have Mary Sue traits since it’s not their choices and actions that are central to the story. A good self-insert main character usually just starts out as the author and quickly goes in a whole new direction.

The self-insert Mary Sue is the one that remains as she started out and, very reasonably, the author wants to protect Mary and to keep her safe, loved, and successful. This protective instinct is why the character is never allowed to be real.

Protective instincts ruin storytelling.

Authors insert themselves into stories in lots of different ways. We insert ourselves as a character. We insert our philosophies and world views and priorities. We insert our religion and faith and values. We insert our politics.

And if we remain protective of those things as we write, they become Mary Sues. They break the world and make it false. They ruin storytelling.

There are many battles fought over complaints about message fiction or check-box fiction and twisted up ideas about just what someone else is complaining about. Most of the time we “know it when we see it” but it’s not often that a person is able to clearly explain the problem and even less often that someone is willing to listen to the explanation.

Obviously, a story with no message is flat. Obviously, politics, ideology and the author’s world view exist in all fiction. So what’s the difference? What’s going on?

The difference happens when the author gives in to their protective instincts.

We don’t solve the problem of a Mary Sue by writing a book with no characters in it, do we? Of course not. We solve the problem of a Mary Sue when we stop protecting her from the prospect of failure. We solve the problem when we let her be real.

Sarah Hoyt, one of my favorite authors, created a libertarian space colony in her book Darkship Thieves called Eden. She could have made it a libertarian paradise. She could have let protective instincts dominate her writing but she didn’t. Eden has got its good points and the people there seem to value their society but it’s also got its weaknesses and its points of potential failure. Those points of failure make it real.

That’s just one example. I’m sure that people can think of many more examples where an author faced and examined stresses or points of failure or character well, and many more where the author let their protective instincts dominate.

The message, the politics, the social issue, whatever it is that an author cares enough about to write about can turn into a self-insert Mary Sue. When an author announces the intention “this story is about a very important thing” people have learned to be wary of that story. Some people may welcome that protective instinct because they will feel protected, but the cost is that the story is comforting rather than good. Meanwhile the message to everyone else is lost because the story fails.

Preaching to the choir saves no souls.

One of the nearly ubiquitous author inserts in fiction these days is Representation. Representation risks (some might argue ensures) that the represented characters will be protected, that they’ll be some level of Mary Sue because they won’t be allowed to fail. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If my identity is represented in a novel I hardly want my self-insert-by-proxie to be unlikeable or to face failure. Would you?

And yet, we don’t solve the problem of a Mary Sue by taking all the characters out. We don’t solve the problem of politics in novels by taking all the politics out. We don’t solve the problem of message fiction by taking all the messages out. We don’t solve the problem of self-insert-by-proxie “Representation” by taking all the diversity out.

We do it by putting on our big girl pants, sitting down at the keyboard, and kicking Mary Sue to the curb.

Traditional by Accident

Can you say yes, if it’s impossible to say no?

The encroaching Solaran empire has gobbled up Svana’s world. Svana fled her planet with the first wave of refugees, swept up with members of a different clan. Space is vast and she finds herself on a space station, alone, waiting hopelessly for her own family to arrive to save her. Thomas is from her world and similarly adrift. He offers to save her, and it’s an offer that Svana can’t refuse, but that doesn’t mean that letting him save her is the right thing to do.

Unless, perhaps, they can somehow save each other.


Now read for free in KU.

Dulcie and Fischer, starry eyed young lovers, jumped at the opportunity to become crew on one of Merchant Shipline’s fleet of starships. To a couple of kids from the sticks “all expenses paid” training was too good to pass up.

But there’s always a catch.

All of Her Fathers

By Julie Pascal

The Ship was all that Malene had ever known and she knew it very well.  As an infant she learned its sounds, the motor hums, droning fans, snaps and pings.  The constant low vibration of the main drive sounded to her as the blood coursing through a mother’s arteries sounds to the unborn.

In toddlerhood she learned the spaces, the nooks and crannies.  She learned the places of safety and the places of danger and what to never touch.

As a small child she learned to read and to understand, to use the computer consoles, to tend the plants and protein vats.  She learned where her fathers went when they left, and she learned where the new fathers came from.  The placard next to the door said, “Cryonics Bay.”

She went there now because she missed her old fathers.  If she stood on her toes she could see their faces through the small window in each plasteel and ceramic cylinder.  She had no memory of the first two fathers, but she’d asked and found out who they were.  Ensign Joshua Davis and Master Sergeant Drew Matthews.  She looked at their stiff cold faces, one and then the other, and tried to imagine them warm and moving and talking to her, holding her in their arms. 

She remembered the next two fathers.  Sergeant Wayne Butter was in the first row next to the door.  He was a stern and unhappy memory, angry words and yelling.  But her other father from that time had been funny and played games with her.  Father Wayne hadn’t liked the games.  So now father Bernie was gone.  She’d found his cylinder, warm and empty.  She passed a sad hand over it and moved on.

Her next two fathers were beside each other toward the back of the long room.  Corporal Ted Butler and Lieutenant Frank Mark.  Father Ted taught her to read and to write.  Father Frank taught her to fight, to kick and to punch.  He taught her about privacy and modesty and the need to be alone sometimes for some things.

Two more warm empty cylinders.  Sergeant Mark Schneider was up in the control room where she had just had a lesson about reading system displays.  Later he’d drill math and astronomy.  He was kind and liked to tell stories.  Sergeant Vlad Jones was waiting for her at hydroponics to explain the cell structure of plants.  She didn’t think father Vlad liked her much, but he was also teaching her more about fighting and she did her best for him.

Soon.  Soon it would be time to get new fathers.  There were six more fathers waiting.  She went from one little window to the next, staring at the gray, frozen faces.  Who would it be?  Would they be nice or stern?  Would they know how to help her through puberty, whatever that was?  She’d heard Vlad say to father Mark that he was glad to have missed that part.  She hadn’t got up the nerve to ask what it was.

Father Mark talked about the cryogenic process and how each cylinder had to be matched with the physiology of the person who would be in it or the person would die.  For the first time she asked why she did not have her own cylinder.  Father Vlad explained that this kind of ship, a military ship, didn’t usually have any children on board and that was why.

She’d been about to ask him why she was on the ship, if military ships didn’t carry children, but his face was closed and cold and she knew not to ask any more.

“Malene, child, there you are.”  Father Vlad’s voice broke through her reverie.  “I should have known where you’d be off to.” 

“Father,” she asked. “Who is going to be next?  And how soon?”  He seemed in a good mood and it made her bold.  “I have so many questions that I want to ask.”

“And you can’t ask me?” he said.

“Well,” she hesitated.  “You sometimes get mad when I ask too many questions.”

He began to frown at her but instead he managed to smile.  “I… you are right.  I’m sorry.  But please ask anyway.  I’m beginning to realize that I’m going to miss your growing up–frozen in here.  So I’ll try, even though I’m not very good at it, Okay?”

“Well, okay.”  She looked at him very seriously.  Her fathers had talked often of where they were going; a green planet called Verdal with millions and millions of people where there were unbelievable wonders around every corner.  “Where did we come from?  Where did this ship start out?”

“It started out at Verdal.” 

“Then, if children aren’t usually taken on military ships, why didn’t you just leave me there?  Why did you take me along with you?” 

“We didn’t take you with us,” Father Vlad said softly.  His eyes looked far away. “We found you. Come with me.”  He held out his hand and she took it.  He looked grimmer and grimmer as they made their way up to the control room until she was frightened and regretted asking him, but too late now.

Father Mark smiled at them when they came into the control room then looked at Father Vlad.  “What is it?  Did something happen?”

“Bring up the remote visual displays Mark, let’s have a look at the cargo frames.”

Father Mark’s head jerked around and he stared at Father Vlad.  Malene stayed very still.  Father Vlad was gripping her hand too hard.  She bit her lip and tried to wiggle her fingers.

The visual display was as tall as she was and twice as wide.  It stretched across the bulkhead above the chairs and consoles of the duty stations.  Father Mark entered the commands and the display became a star field.  Malene picked out the brightest stars and named them to herself.  Then the star field slid in a great blur.  The bright fire of the star drive pushing their ship through space washed the stars away for a moment and then dimmed and she could see the great bulk of the ship itself.  Then the display slid again and she was looking at the cargo frames of the ship, just like the schematic diagrams she had memorized, except that something nestled between them.  Another ship.

Father Vlad finally dropped her hand and she walked over to the controls.  Father Mark moved from the seat and she sank into it.  Her feet almost touched the floor.  Malene pushed the controls without thinking.  It was as natural to her as walking and she flew the remote camera around the little ship examining it from all angles.  Finally she backed away again until she could see the entire cargo frame surrounding it.

“This one isn’t in the data catalog.”  Her clear girl voice spoke into the silence.

Father Mark shot a questioning look toward Father Vlad.  “You are right,” he said.  “We’ve never seen a ship like that before.  We don’t know which colony made it.”

“You found me on this ship?”


“Can I see inside?”

“I’m sure that Father Mark can set that up for you.”  The two men looked at each other for a time in that way that meant they didn’t want to tell her something and then Father Mark nodded.  Father Vlad smiled grimly. “And aren’t you supposed to be showing me what you know about the nutrient uptake of Soybeans just now?”

Malene rose obediently and with a single glance back followed Father Vlad out into the corridor.  After that her lessons included learning as much as she could of the new ship.

A short time later she said good-bye to Fathers Vlad and Mark and watched alongside her new fathers, Captain Chuck Castway and Lt. Otto Sams as the warmth bled from her old father’s faces and the Cryo-tube’s windows acquired a hint of frost.

She cried alone, later.

Father Chuck was the one who ended up having to explain what puberty was and why, though it didn’t actually become an issue until her next set of fathers.  Father Otto liked to set her puzzles to solve and taught her to play chess.  Without knowing he taught her the trick Father Mark had used to limit her explorations of the inside of the strange ship and she discovered the chamber where the bodies lay frozen in neat rows. But the little ship had no Cryonics Bay.  Those frozen people would never wake to take their turn as fathers, and now that she understood reproduction, as mothers.  To ask which of the bodies were her first parents would have given away her secret, so she didn’t ask.

She visited those frozen dead almost as often as she walked through the Cryogenics Bay to run a hand lovingly over the frosty cylinders there.  Her next fathers were Sgt. Axel Trent and Pvt. Robert Strong.  Father Robert liked to play games on the large display.  Sometimes they flew fantastical ships and tried to blow each other up.  Other times they explored enormous virtual worlds filled with strange monsters.  Sometimes they appeared as costumed people who fought hand to hand.  And sometimes Malene even won.

The one time she tried talk about the changes in her body Father Axel became so embarrassed that she determined to rely on Father Chuck’s explanations and the files he’d marked for her in the data catalog, and deal with it on her own.

Her next fathers were Corporal Travis Brownsburrow and Major Albert Jorgenson.  She freely explored the data catalog these days and her fathers only occasionally checked to see that she was studying her Calculus.  She knew more than they did about the hydroponics systems, though Father Travis led her through and made her memorize every part of the ship’s environmental recyclers.  Major Albert was a difficult Father and she mostly avoided him.  Though she admitted avoiding him might be partly due to her second secret.

She had found the visual recordings of the day they had found her on the small ship.  Major Albert had almost caught her looking at them but she switched at random to another visual file that turned out to be a movie of men and women naked together that made Major Albert very angry when he saw it.

“We haven’t allowed you to watch most of the recordings in the library because we didn’t want you to be confused,” he explained when he’d calmed down.  “You don’t have experience to know which parts of them are real and what parts are made up.”

But what she had discovered was most certainly real.  Included in the visual record of that day was Major Jorgenson arguing that they were not equipped to care for her. That whoever stayed awake to care for her would lose irretrievable years of his life. He even suggested that it might be best to let her die. And she would have hated him for that except that some of those who had agreed with him in the recording had been the kindest of fathers and had helped her the most.  She felt a profound sort of insight could be hers if she could find a way to understand why that was so. She watched that part of the record again from time to time.

Her favorite part of the visual recordings, though, were those of a frightened Ensign Joshua Davis sent to secure the passages of the ship.  His voice quavered as he reported each corridor secure, his helmet light shining a beam through the darkness.  When the beam crossed one of the dead crew he would jump and the picture displayed on the screen would jerk around.  It made her laugh.  She counted his steps, that portion of the record memorized, as he came into the cabin where he found her. 

A woman lay dead on the bed and Malene gazed at her with warm affection.  This would be her first mother, who had prepared for her when she’d known help was on the way but would arrive only when there was no air left to breathe. 

Ensign Davis’ step woke the baby within the bubble next to the dead woman on the bed.  That’s me, Malene thought.  The crying was weak.  The visual angle changed as Joshua crouched down for a better look.

“I’ve found someone alive.”  The frightened quaver was gone.  He sounded quite calm and rather awed.  “Do we have the atmosphere check yet?”

A voice came back.  “No pathogens, all clear there.  Not enough oxygen but the pressure is fine.  What are you up to Davis?”

“Tell the Captain I found a baby.”  There was a click and a soft alarm began to beep as he broke the seal on his suit.  A hand slid into the sleeve and glove that were part of the bubble and touched the squalling infant.  Ensign Davis’ hand.  He rummaged around in the blankets and came up with a bottle and popped it into Malene’s open mouth.

Later he would be the one holding her as the other men argued about what they would do.  He was the one who hotly declared that he’d stay awake himself for the whole trip if none others cared to lose years.

When they reached Verdal she would be the same age as Ensign Davis. She realized that Ensign Davis was kind and would certainly be her friend but that he hadn’t spent the last three years falling in love with her as she had with him.  And after a while she even accepted it.

She continued to visit her fathers in their frozen sleep.  She gazed at their faces and touched the windows fondly, tall enough now to do so without stretching.  But when she was done visiting her fathers, she also visited her friend.


Previously published April 2016 at

Everything You Want

Everything You Want

By Julie A. Pascal

“I’m going to give them a piece of my mind!”

Tully, who was peering out the dingy window of their apartment, tore his gaze from the space port that could almost be seen between the looming tenements.  They lived close enough that the entire neighborhood rattled and shook every time a spaceship took off or landed. He sent a worried look toward his sister.  

“Bellit, they have security.  What are you going to do?”

“Something no one else has the stones to do.  What are our elected officials good for? The police? What are they good for? I’m going to tell those thieving monsters that just landed what the people here really think of them.  That’s what I’m going to do.” Bellit stuffed her arms into a ragged jacket to ward off the winter chill and checked the coins in her pockets.  

“They have immunity, Bellit.  They could just shoot you.”

She pushed her brown curls from her face and raised her intense gray eyes to stare defiantly at her brother.

“That’s exactly the problem.”

Tully followed her out of their apartment and waved his hand over the lock to secure the door.  

As they wove their way through the dingy pre-fab hallways of the public highrise Bellit called out to friends and neighbors, “If you’re tired of being taken advantage of,” she shouted in a ringing tone, “come with me!  The Jaholoway merchant ships have landed. They can intimidate our governor but they can’t intimidate us!” She continued the call when they reached the street.

The size of the crowd that Bellit gathered once they’d reached the port proper wasn’t apparent unless one knew the usual patterns of traffic on the dock-side streets.  The number of those following was also disguised by frequent forays down side roads and into shops to search for the alien commander.  

There were Jaholoway crew members in groups of three and four on the sidewalks where they kept tight formation.  Inhuman faces and strange gaits marked them as surely as their identical-except-for-rank ship uniforms. They were not much more than human tall, gray skinned and yellow eyed.  When the human crowd got too close three fingered hands would move to gun butts of the alien weapons that they all wore on belts across their bodies and the humans backed away, more angry than before. 

Neither Bellit nor any of the others following in her wake would recognize the Jaholoway commander by sight, though she’d been prominently featured on the news programs, but they all knew that her uniform would have three starbursts on the collar and gold braid on the cuffs. 

“We need their boss!” Bellit shouted. 

Most of the humans worked at the docks, when they could find work.  All knew their way through the twisted streets.

They found the Jaholoway commander on one of the higher end side streets, naturally, about to enter a pricey restaurant.

“The People,” Bellit shouted in her impressive voice, “have something to say to you!”

The Jaholoway commander turned slowly, one hand raised palm down in a gesture to her bodyguards.  A local fat-cat started toward Bellit before cowing and retreating at a mere glance from the visiting merchant lord.


The oxygen seemed to leave the street.  The pink of the sky burned into Bellit’s memories of the moment.  The crowd that had dogged her steps coalesced around her, blocking traffic.  Everything stopped.

“Indeed.” The commander repeated.  

Bellit gulped and then firmed her shoulders.

“You come to steal from us,” she said, “to steal our labor, our goods. We give. You take. People here need the food that will be loaded onto your ships. Our people are starving and you’ll take what little we have. And you refuse to follow our laws, as if you’re better than us! You’re not better than us.”

“Is that what you think?”

“It’s what I know.” Bellit had reached her stride and pounded her chest on the word know. “They made the announcements so that we would all know the evil deal you forced on our governor and on the port. You could shoot me, kill all of us, and never pay.”

“And yet,” the alien commander purred in perfectly understandable dockside patois, “here you stand.”

“My sister is very brave,” Tully announced.

The commander’s strange yellow eyes turned to rest on him.  He shivered.


“You admit it’s true?  You don’t have to obey our laws?”  Bellit took a step forward and thrust her chin toward the alien.

“That we don’t have to follow your laws?  We have our own laws, child, and I’ll not allow my crew to walk the streets of a strange port defenseless to the whim and caprice of the locals.  Would you? Do you know how many ports would arrest you for what you are doing this moment?”

“They are dictatorships and horrors,” Bellit said with a snap. “We are a free nation that respects the rights of all citizens to speak!”

“But it would seem, not to be educated.” The commander betrayed agitation, or so it seemed to the humans present.  

“We have universal education!  And that is why you can’t deceive us with pretty words about how it’s actually good for us to be stolen from.”

“I have contracts. Cargo to deliver and cargo to load.”

“To line the pockets of fat cats like him?” Bellit sneered and spat the ground in front of the cowering local. “Thieves doing business with thieves. You should all go home!  And he,” Bellit snapped at the human in his fine clothes as she stretched her arm and pointed an accusing finger, “he should actually contribute to the community instead of taking from it. Do you see anyone here dressed as well?  He lines his pockets with other people’s wealth.”

“I see.” 

The alien merchant commander turned to one of her bodyguards and launched into a series of alien words. The bodyguard gave a very human nod and turned away, repeating much the same sounds into a radio. The commander turned back to Bellit and stepped within a few inches of her. One gray hand came up to cup the soft human cheek while yellow eyes searched human gray.

Bellit was as brave as Tully said she was. She didn’t flinch.

“You will receive your wish, though I suspect that even then you’ll blame me for the consequences.”

And then they were gone.

The commander and her entourage melted into the crowds.

“What just happened?” Tully put a hand on his sister’s arm. Bellit blinked a few times.

“I think we won.”

Not an hour later the Jaholoway ship cast off its moorings and thundered into the sky.

Aboard, the commander gave orders to navigation for a large port on a small continent on the other side of the world. She retired to her office for a cup of tea and to wait. The call came in before she had a chance to finish her tea. The human official that appeared on her display was flushed and disordered.

“You can’t mean to default on our agreements on the word of a loudmouthed activist child! We gave you everything you wanted.”

“Of course not,” the Jaholoway commander agreed. “But on our way into port today I reviewed public records other than our own communications. News reports. Your own words. Your own speeches. You seem adept at giving everyone everything they want. I applaud you. However, it makes doing business here impossible.”

“We’ll arrest the girl.”

“I’ve no doubt that you will.”

“Return to port, we can work this out.”


Gray fingers caressed the edge of the tea cup and yellow eyes searched the face of the human governor. 

“You’ll arrest the girl to cover your own failure. You’re the one who gave her an enemy, someone to blame instead of you for the poverty I saw on your streets. You deftly turned her discontent outward in exchange for her vote. You did it for your political position, to put it bluntly. Can I do business with someone who sells the future of his own people in order to win office? You’re a skilled speech giver. The girl is as well. She’ll come out of prison to take your place, eventually.”

“We. Need. Your. Business.” The human leaned forward toward the video pick-up until his nose enlarged and his face distorted. “Those poor people need the goods you brought. They need what trade will bring us. We need the outside capital. You’re making their lives worse. If this port doesn’t become an active trade hub, the whole region will suffer.”


“You’d hurt all of those people out of spite?”

“Ah,” this time the alien actually smiled. “Spite. You should adopt that theme during your next election. I anticipate your success. Good evening, Governor. I have some dirty nasty commerce that requires my attention.”

With the touch of a button the connection closed.

(Previous version published at  Sept 7, 2015)

New Short Fiction: Julie Pascal

Very few humans survive the Obsidian transformation that grants them the ability to pilot between the stars, the ability to slip between. Now both star pilots and humans are trapped on the surface of a primitive world, abandoned to an eternal quarantine. Human refugees and their descendants struggle to build a new civilization and a new life. The immortal star pilots become known as Obsidian Witches.

I’m pretty excited about how the cover turned out. And I’m rather fond of the story, too. What do you think?

C.V. Walter

Home Planet Press is all about Science Fiction and if you like your Science Fiction extra spicy, this novel might be just what you’re looking for. Published by Aphrodite’s Pearl, “The Alien’s Accidental Bride” is a story of First Contact, and love.


“Representation” is a buzz word in publishing and other entertainment media that bothers me and I will explain why.

In other contexts it has different meaning. If someone said, “Do you have representation?” What do you think they mean? Maybe a lawyer? Maybe an agent?

But in publishing “representation” is an odd duck. It sort of means that a person has characters in the book or movie who are like them in some way. Share an identity. Sort of. But not quite.

It doesn’t actually mean that a person has a character in a book or movie they can identify with and enjoy. It truly means, “Are you represented?

“And because of that “representation” is a prescription and limitation on how those representational characters can be written or described. It limits what they can think and how they behave.

In real life people can be anything. No matter your identity you can be serious or funny or good or bad or suave or a dork. You can have an opinion that not a single other person *like you* has.

But do you want a villain representing you? Do you want someone with an odd opinion representing you? Do you want someone with a unique experience quite unlike yours leading people to think that the fictional experience represents and defines your real one?

All fiction is improved by including characters that readers or watchers can identify with in some aspect. But a character that “represents” you, is something else. And it’s bad for creators to chase it.