Monday 7 March 2011

Conan = Mary Sue?

As Robert E. Howard once wrote for his famous Mary Sue character Conan the Barbarian what the best things in life are (to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women). Respectfully, he was wrong and Conan is a chump.
- The Flying Welshman, who doesn't elaborate on how you can respectfully call someone's creation a Mary Sue and a chump
What you said, specifically, dude, was that Conan was the most badass.
That’s not true. Conan is badass for dummies, just a big mary-sue he-man who always wins in some incredibly manly way every time, with lots of screwed princesses and flexing of mighty thews along the way.
- Samuel, during the "Conan vs Harry Dresden" battle at Suvudu.  By the way, Jim Butcher himself commented on the situation, and he himself said that Conan would wipe the floor with Harry - and yet some Dresden fans still protested Conan's eventual victory!
One thing he's not, though, is a "Mary Sue". While apparently he was something of the author's alter-ego, Conan is not the sort of character who is all-powerful, all-knowing, super-keen that makes you want to vomit. He's not Drizzt or Elminster. He's very much human. Tough, yes, to the point of being a bad ass. But not invulnerable, and not insufferable.
 - RPG Net's review of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, because I want to have at least one positive quote

I keep seeing things like this on occasion.  Frankly, I'm getting tired of Mary Sue being used to describe any character who's more capable than other characters.  No, just because a character is awesome in every field and endeavour they undertake doesn't make them a Mary Sue.  Some people are just awesome.

So I've decided to use my considerable and unparalleled Howardian expertise (considerable and unparalleled they are, as there is nobody else currently in my house who could challenge my brobdignagian knowledge) to make the great test: put Conan through the Ultimate Mary Sue Litmus Test.

Why not?  Well one reason is sheer length: what follows is a simply colossal post, where I post the questions and my commentary on them.  I don't know how, but it got to something in the region of 8,000 words.  Why is it I can go on and on with something like this and not other projects...

You have been warned!

1. Is or does your character's name...

a. Your name, variation of your name, nickname, screenname, or any name that has been applied to you? (Spelling it differently or changing it a little counts.)
b. A name you planned on giving one of your children?
c. Any ordinary name spelled or changed so that it's more unusual?
d. A boyish sounding name for a girl character?
e. Involve a noun or verb not usually used as a name, spelled normally or not?
f. If a noun, is it related to nature, a weapon, a gemstone, darkness, or something mystical?
g. Something that your character chose for him/herself?
h. Taken from a character from another fandom that you like?
i. A really unusual-sounding name (unusual in the character's time/place/world) that you made up yourself?
j. Unusual for your character's time, place, and/or ethnicity?
k. Belong to a country or culture your character does not belong to?
l. Chosen specifically because you thought it had a meaning appropriate for your character?

Of all those answers, the only one I think might count was the last one, but then, nothing seems to come of the fact that Conan means "little wolf" in Irish Gaelic.  It seems more serendipitous than design.  No ticks so far.

2. Is your character also known by a cool nickname or unique title/address?

a. More than one?

Amra obviously springs to mind. Conan's also been called The Lion, Throat-Slitter and a few others I can't recall.  This is a fixture for famous people in history, especially ancient history, where some people seemed to collect epithets. 2 ticks.

3. Did you base your character's looks on your own?

Now here I'm undecided: Howard had black hair, blue eyes, a hairy chest and bronzed skin, but does that really mean he based Conan's looks on himself, as opposed to the "Black Irish" phenotype in general? Conan doesn't seem to have the round face or self-described "weak chin" of REH, and he also seems taller, if not by much. Howard never goes into more specific detail with Conan's features like nose, eyebrows and whatnot.  Unlike some authors...

So here I've branched off into two scores: one for a conservative score (as in, from the point of view arguing that Conan is not a Mary Sue), and one for a generous score in parentheses (as in, from the point of view arguing that he is). 2 ticks (3 ticks)

4. Does your character look how you wish you look?

Again, I'm not sure. Conan has a lot of scars, and a "sinister countenance": his appeal seems mostly in his animal magnetism and strength rather than his good looks. If there's an argument for wish fulfillment, it would usually be that Conan is what most men would want to be like, not necessarily look like.  That said, I'd sure like to look like Conan, scars and all, and I'm sure there are plenty out there who would too. 2 ticks (4 ticks)

5. Is your character described, illustrated, and/or shown as exceptionally beautiful, cute, or handsome?

a. Do you find your character attractive enough to date him/her?
b. Does anyone fight or squabble over your character because of his/her looks?
c. Is anyone (including you) jealous of your character's good looks?
d. Do any characters see his/her attractiveness as a threat?

Robert Silverberg, put your hand down!  No, dammit, not down there...

Again, Conan's appearance isn't always the object of desire or aesthetic pleasure, but is physically impressive and imposing, and it would be churlish to ignore the women who swoon over the mere sight of Conan too. I doubt Howard would want to date Conan (Robert Silverberg, keep your mouth shut and your hands where I can see them!) and I don't recall anyone who thought of Conan's attractiveness as a threat, or was jealous either. However, we do see women fighting over Conan in Natala and Thalis. 4 ticks (6 ticks)

6. Do other characters frequently tell your character how sexy or beautiful he/she is?

a. Does your character modestly deny it every time or refuses to believe that he/she is attractive?

"Oh, barbarian, take me and crush me with your love!"

... said Prospero.  (I kid, of course: Prospero's clearly a ladies' man) 4 ticks (6 ticks)

7. Does your character have a great body/physique, which you describe, show, and/or illustrate in detail?

a. Despite the fact that his/her eating and/or excersizing habits decree that he/she should be a stick/blimp?
b. Does your character weigh so little that he/she looks or should be anorexic, but isn't?

Oh ho, here we go. Conan's physique is described more often than his handsomeness, which is natural since he's meant to be a barbarian warrior from a race of barbarian warriors of an Age Undreamed Of. However, his extremely active lifestyle and high-protein diet (he loves his red meat) means that such a physique is attainable and sustainable. 5 ticks (7 ticks)

8. Do you use poetic and/or creative terms to describe your character?

Howard seems to use poetic and/or creative terms to describe every character. Man's a poet. Therefore, it doesn't seem that unusual for Howard to refer to his "black mane" when he refers to most people's hair in similarly colourful terms.  However, for completion's sake, I'll give a tick for generous. 5 ticks (8 ticks)

9. Do you frequently describe your character's beautiful/handsome/cute attributes or points out how sexy your character is?

I'll err on the side of caution and say that Howard's descriptions of Conan's muscles and frame is more indicative of how powerful Conan is, not how sexy.  (Silverberg, I swear to God...) 5 ticks (8 ticks)

10. Conversely, do you go to great lengths describing how your character is not gorgeous?

11. Does your character's description contain anything to the effect of "He/she looks just like [other character/celebrity] except..."

Neither of these seem to apply, since Howard never did suggest any Hollywood actor who could portray Conan.  There is a list of actors he liked the work of, and who could play one of his heroes, but the jury's out on that one.  5 ticks (8 ticks)

12. Do other characters find your character extremely attractive and desirable, even when they should be completely gross and icky? (EG, after battling, getting tortured, going for days without bathing or washing.)

Ask Olivia if she felt like jumping Conan after weeks eating rats on the Zaporaska and butchering a human being into a bloody ruin.  Or Natala after seeing Conan with strips of skin hanging off him following his battle with Thog.  Or Livia when Conan started stalking towards her, drenched in Bamula blood, gripping the gory head of Bajujh in his hand.  5 ticks (8 ticks)

13. Does your character have any of the following?

a. Natural eye coloration that stands out from the norm?
b. Eyes with any other unusual qualities?
c. Natural hair color that stands out from the norm?
d. Unusual feature of any other kind? (Particularly unusual/exotic birthmark, tattoo, etc.) 

Again, whether we're talking about whether his eyes are particularly striking among Cimmerians or among Hyborians in general affects whether he counts.  I don't recall that many other characters in the stories with blue eyes at all, though that's never brought up as being particularly unusual.  Conan's hair isn't that remarkable either: plenty of girls and other warriors with raven locks.  So, once again, I'll split the difference: his eyes are not unusual for Cimmerians or Nordheimr, but unusual for Hyborians. 5 ticks (9 ticks)

14. Does your character have a particularly attractive scent that doesn't come from their perfume or shampoo?

I... don't recall Conan's man cologne ever coming up.   5 ticks (9 ticks)

15. Does your character have a scar or other small flaw that is noticed by someone, but does not actually detract from your character's appearance?

16. Has your character been in a lot of physical fights and/or battles, but doesn't have many noticable scars to show for it?

Far from it: the multitude of scars on Conan's weathered and sun-darkened face actually make him look sinister!  5 ticks (9 ticks)

17. Does your character have a particularly piercing (EG, "can stare straight into your soul"), haunting, captivating, or dazzling gaze?

I'm not sure whether his fierce Cimmerian temper counts here: if sufficiently angry or passionate, I'm sure anyone can burn holes in other people.  Split the difference.  5 ticks (10 ticks)

18. Does your character's personal choice of clothing frequently include...

a. Clothing that you deliberately picked from your own wardrobe?
b. Clothing chosen because you really wished you owned it or could get away with wearing it in public?
c. Clothing chosen because it makes your character look super sexy and/or badass?
d. Clothing that is realistically impractical or improper for the character's situation, but looks cool? 

Hah, I don't think Howard had any qualms about appearing in public in a loincloth!  That said, again, none of these apply.  The only one that might is c, but that's because armour is generally super badass, and Conan only wears what's appropriate for the job at hand: loincloth for thievery, breeks for adventuring in the Black Kingdoms, armour for battle, and whatnot.   5 ticks (10 ticks)

19. Do you describe your character's clothing by the scene or stereotype it is most often associated with? - But ignore if this is because someone in the story is describing the character.

This seems vague and strange: is it like "Dude looks like a viking" or something?  If not, then I dunno. 5 ticks  (10 ticks)

20. Is your character impervious to any of the normal limitations and/or weaknesses of his/her species?

A tricky one: no, Conan is not impervious to the normal limitations and weaknesses of humanity, he's just tough.  And strong.  And fast.  So strictly going by the term impervious, I'd say no: Conan bleeds, he gets knocked out, he gets beaten up, he gets hungry and thirsty.  Not as much as others, but he's still human. 5 ticks (10 ticks)

21. Is your character partially or completely some type of metaphysical/spirit-type being?

a. ...Like a succubus or incubus? 

Heh, what a specific question.  Fraid not.  5 ticks (10 ticks)

22. Is your character some other kind of cool humanoid with powers/abilities beyond human ability?

I'm guessing this means something like an elf or other parahuman being: Cimmerians are awesome, but they're just really awesome humans.  The San and Australian Bushmen can survive in conditions that would kill the average urban human.  The Tarahumara tribe of Mexico can run for hundreds of miles in the space of two days, with only sandals or even barefoot: does that make them "beyond human"?  Cimmerians are like that: just humans who haven't been softened by the civilized lifestyle. 5 ticks (10 ticks)

23. Is your character a cross-breed/hybrid of any kind?

a. In a universe where hybrids are very unusual?
b. A hybrid of more than two species?
c. Does he/she possess the strengths of both species, but none of the weaknesses?
d. Or does your character have all of the weaknesses, but none of the strengths? - Minus 4!
e. Is your character part something furry, yet shows no sign of being anything but human save for a furry tail, animal ears, fangs, and/or claws?
f. If not a cross-breed, then at least cross-cultural? 

The grandson of a Southern Cimmerian who joined a North-Western Cimmerian tribe probably doesn't count to anyone except a Cimmerian, and Conan's "half-blood" status never comes up anywhere but the Miller letter. 5 ticks (10 ticks)

24. Does your character become a genetically, scientifically, cybernetically, or magically altered/enhanced being, possibly with new powers?

a. Is he/she happier this way?
b. Do people like him/her better this way?
c. Do you wish it would happen to you?
d. Was your character kidnapped specifically for some type of experiment or project in order for this to happen? 

Conan, barbarian; a man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Conan will be that man; better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.  5 ticks (10 ticks)

25. Do think of your character as an ideal role-model?

Something tells me Howard didn't intend a character he described as "the damnedest bastard there ever was" as a role model... 5 ticks (10 ticks)

26. Does your character voice political, social, and/or religious opinions which you share?

a. Does he/she convince others that his/her way of thinking is right? 

This is another tricky one.  Is it safe to say that Conan speaks Howard's worldviews in, say, the famous response in "Queen of the Black Coast," or his consideration of the Westermarck situation in "Beyond the Black River"?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  This is one time I'm going to answer for both, and add the second point in the generous parentheses for Balthus. 6 ticks (12 ticks)

27. Does your character express unusally free, enlightened, or "liberated" views on sex and romance for his/her time/place?
a. And does no-one frown upon your character's behaviors or views?
b. Or do only characters who don't matter disapprove, IE, the villain, local idiot, fusty old grandpa, etc?

Conan's views on women are unusual for Hyborians, yes, but not for Cimmerians, who are very egalitarian in comparison.  Therefore I'd say no, but since it's remarked upon in the stories, I'll split.  However, the only person who commented was Amalric in "Black Colossus," who didn't frown upon his views specifically because he was a barbarian, and unused to civilized ways.  6 ticks (13 ticks)

28. If your character has a spitfire personality, sharp wit, or attitude, are the tongue-lashings they give other characters always deserved and justified?

I don't think some of Conan's criticisms of civilized folk were deserved, and I don't think they're really intended to be so either. 6 ticks (13 ticks)

29. If your character is openly defiant or disrespectful toward authority figures, is your character always justified and in the right?

I don't know whether Conan's defiance of authority is necessarily justified, so much as it's part of his independent personality.  Any time he's disrespectful, however, is justified, mostly because he happens to be right.  I guess this is another tick.  7 ticks (14 ticks)

30. Are any other actions that get your character into trouble with authority always justified from your point of view?

Nope: Conan gets in trouble for murder, theft and all manner of misdemeanours, and none are justified.  7 ticks (14 ticks)

31. Do authority figures punish your character more harshly than they would have punished his or her peers under the same circumstances?

32. Do authority figures not punish your character when they probably would have punished his or her peers under the same circumstances?

Neither of these really seem to apply.  Conan is neither excessively punished nor let off lightly, as far as I can see.  7 ticks (14 ticks) 

33. Is your character easily provoked to violence - but only gets into fights with characters who truly deserve the beating they get?

This seems to speak to Conan's man-of-action nature.  Conan's "barbaric courtesy" means he'll only get into fights when pretty strongly provoked.  He didn't even draw a blade when that fat Kothian in "The Tower of the Elephant" pushed him: he only did it when he drew the blade himself. 8 ticks (15 ticks)

34. Are The Rules of the universe bent or broken for your character? (Like joining a group despite being too old or too young.)

Nah.  8 ticks (15 ticks)

35. Does your character have any of the following psychological disorders?

a. Antisocial Personality Disorder - to explain your character's Jerkass Loner personality?
b. Split personality - so your character can do "bad" stuff, yet still have a claim to innocence?
c. Inability to form a solid intimate relationship - so he/she has an excuse to sleep with as many people as you want?

36. Is your character mainly driven by completely-justified revenge?

37 Does your character suffer from amnesia?

a. If/when your character discovers his/her past, will he/she not like it?
b. And/or discover that he/she is actually someone of great importance? 

A great big NOOOOO to all the above.  Especially 36! 8 ticks (15 ticks)

38. Are animals instinctively attracted to your character?

39. How many animal companions does your character keep? (Ordinary, non-magical pets like cats and dogs do not count.)

a. Is said animal a wolf, bird of prey, big cat, or mythical creature? 

If anyone brings up that damn bird from Conan the Adventurer, I'm shooting you out of a cannon.  From a bigger cannon.  That's on a spaceship.  That looks like a cannon. 8 ticks (15 ticks)

40. Does your character habitually share profound wisdom and knowledge?

Rarely, I'd say.  8 ticks (15 ticks)

41. Does your character always have money to spend on frivolities or whatever he/she really wants or needs at the time?

a. For no apparent reason? (Character never works or gives any clue to any source of income.) 

Poor Conan could certainly have used some coin at the beginning of more than a few adventures. 8 ticks (15 ticks)

42. Did you choose your character's occupation and/or hobbies because you think they sound neat, glamorous, prestigious, or exciting?

I think it's hard to deny that being a pirate, wandering adventurer and soldier-of-fortune is pretty neat, glamourous, prestigious and exciting.  9 ticks (16 ticks)

43. Does your character share your favorite types of movies, music, clothes, etc?

Can't say I recall what Conan thought of From Rags to Riches, The Cossacks or What Price Glory.  9 ticks (16 ticks)

44. Is your character unusually accomplished for his/her age, time period, place, occupation, and/or social status?

a. In something that is extremely desirable and/or useful in the story's universe?
b. In something that is extremely difficult for virtually anyone achieve?
c. Is your character unusally accomplished in more than one area? 

Now this question irks me, for surely it's evident that there are plenty of people throughout history who are "unusually accomplished for his/her age, time period, place, occupation, and/or social status"?  Conan is one of those people, like Roy Chapman Andrews, Alexander, Genghis Khan, Theodore Roosevelt, Leonardo and the like.  Polymaths.  Renaissance men. So, begrudgingly, I have to click yes to all four, even though by this logic, real people would have to be considered Mary Sues.  13 ticks (20 ticks)

45. Does your character pick up new skills unusually fast during the course of the story?

a. Like, insanely fast? 

Most of Conan's new skills take place in-between stories, though they're always explained. 13 ticks (20 ticks)

46. Is your character the best or among the best at anything he/she does? One box for each:

a. Is he/she famous/reknowned for any of these? 

Oh Crom.  This question is so vague I don't know how to answer it: does it mean "empirically the best," or simply "considered one of the best"?  What kind of things are we talking about? I'll just answer no for all, and yes for all.  That includes 8 tickboxes!  13 ticks (28 ticks!)

47. Are other characters extremely impressed or astonished at your character's skills and/or virtues? (Does not count if they are easily impressed due to their own inexperience.)

a. Do they impress even the most cynical, jaded, exacting, and/or experienced?
b. Does your character modestly dismiss or deflect well-earned compliments? 

Ask Baal-pteor, professional strangler, what he thinks of Conan's grip. Or Zaporavo what he thinks of Conan's fighting style. 15 ticks (31 ticks)

48. Does your character have Barbie Doll syndrome?

Does Conan having a varied career really count as "Barbie Doll Syndrome"?  It isn't like he was a thief, pirate, kozak, bandit and king at the same time or anything.  Split.  15 ticks (32 ticks)

49. Ah, the sound of music! Does your character...

a. Have an exceptionally beautiful singing voice?
b. Play a musical instrument very well?
c. Is this instrument a guitar, harp, or flute?
d. Can he/she charm others with his/her musical talent?

Um, I think the jury's out on that one. 15 ticks (32 ticks)

50. Does your character use magic in a typically non-magical universe?

51. Does your character fly in a typically groundbound universe?

a. Without wings or other apparent means?

52. Does your character have telepathic and/or telekinetic (Force-like) abilities in a world where this is unusual?

a. Do these powers allow your character to 'see' or just 'know things' without actually being there, allowing him or her to save the day?
b. Do they make up for a disability, such as being blind, deaf, or mute?

53. Does your character have a telepathic/empathic connection or the ability to communicate with any kind of animal?

a. Anything such as horses, wolves, big cats, or mythical creatures? - Bonded creatures do not count, so long as this is within a universe where this is perfectly normal and it is your character's one and only bonded creature.

54. Does your character have the ability to shapeshift?

None of these count.  15 ticks (32 ticks)

55. Does your character possess unusual healing powers?

a. Strong enough to save a character from mortal injury and/or death?

56. Does your character posess power that can take out entire cities/legions of soldiers/general all-around-evil?

57. Does your character end up in a tight spot and discover that he/she has really cool powers that were dormant and/or unknown before?

58. Does your character have any other relatively unique special powers/abilities that come in handy?

None of these count either.  Conan's healing power is just a result of good genes, not any sort of mutant ability.  15 ticks (32 ticks)

59. Not counting his or her first language, how many languages does your character fluently speak? Click one box for every language:

The first time I tried this test, I think I doubled Conan's score on this question alone.  However, I'm using the "not unusual for the rest of the world" clause, since I think most adventurers who travel the world can speak at least a smattering of languages, and Conan speaks fairly fluently in other languages in many stories: Aquilonian, Corinthian and Nemedian come to mind.  We know of other characters like Amalric Valerus and Gault Hagar's Son who speak multiple languages.  This seems perfectly reasonable for a cosmopolitan period like the Hyborian Age, where dozens of peoples and countries are mixing and talking. I'm not even going to split the difference here.  15 ticks (32 ticks)

60. Does your character succeed at virtually everything he/she tries?

Depends on your definition of "success": he usually rises to the top in the local bandit gang or tribe, but he rarely keeps it for long.  He usually ends his thief stories without getting the treasure he's after, and only escapes with his skin.  Still, he's been successful more often than not, so I'll just go with yes.  16 ticks (31 ticks)

61. Do his/her initial plans, strategies, ideas, etc. always (or nearly always) work?

a. But only after everyone else dismisses it and tries everything else first? 

Hmm.  I distinctly remember that some of Conan's ideas do go rather pear-shaped, so I can't click yes in good conscience.  His plan to kill Strom and Zarono goes rather awry, for instance.  16 ticks (33 ticks)

62. On the other hand, if your character does bungle almost everthing, is he/she quickly and easily forgiven for it?

Well, everyone seems to love the loveable freed slave Konahn!  I kid, I kid.  16 ticks (33 ticks)

63. Does your character ever single-handedly take out more armed forces (EG, security guards, soldiers) than you can count on one hand using his/her kick-butt skills?

Hah, do you even have to ask?  17 ticks (34 ticks)

64. Is anyone envious of your character's talents and/or abilities?

a. Because he/she constantly beats them at their own game/games? 

Can't say I recall such a thing ever coming up, actually. 17 ticks (34 ticks)

65. Does your character alone have a weapon that...

a. Was passed down from a parent/trainer?
b. Was given by some kind of spirit/magical being?
c. -Do you often mention that it belonged to someone beforehand?
d. Is magical?
e. Is unusually ornate?
f. Is from a different culture or country than your character? 

Konahn, you're excused.  17 ticks (34 ticks)

66. Does your character use a sword-type weapon in a relatively modern setting for no logical reason?

67. Does your character frequently carry knives, daggers, or other little sharp pointy objects concealed within his/her clothing for no other reason than that they might be come in handy?

Exempt, methinks.  Carrying little sharp pointy objects in only a loincloth is a recipe for ouchies.  Any weapons are carried in a scabbard or thrust into his belt/boot.  17 ticks (34 ticks)

68. Does your character possess a unique trinket that is magical and/or has some special significance?

a. Does this trinket protect your character from some weakness? 

Since things like the Heart of Ahriman, Sword of Epemitreus and Stygian Girdle only appear in single stories, I don't think they count.  17 ticks (34 ticks)

69. Does your character have unfairly restrictive parents/guardians?

70. Alternatively, do your character's parents/guardians let him/her do whatever he/she wants and never really get in the way or ask too many questions?

Since we don't really know anything about Conan's parents, these questions can't really be answered.  17 ticks (34 ticks)

71. Is your character nobility, closely related to a noble, or at least a rough equivalent? (President, governor, etc.)

a. Nobility without knowing it?
b. Adopted by or become a noble at any point? 

"I have no noble blood!  I am a barbarian and the son of a blacksmith!" 17 ticks (34 ticks)

72. Is your character extremely popular or renowned where he/she comes from or frequents?

It's kinda hard not to be extremely popular/renowned when you're a notorious pirate, dangerous brigand, or freaking king.  Even as a young lad, though, Conan's name was repeated around the council fires, or so he says.  So a tick.  18 ticks (35 ticks)

73. Is your character undeservingly despised and/or outcast by most people?

a. Because he/she is unusually talented/attractive/rich?
b. Because of his/her special powers?

(If your character is despised by everyone because he/she gets so much attention, douse yourself with cold water RIGHT NOW.)

I think the scourge of the Black Coast has something of a deserved reputation.  18 ticks (35 ticks)

74. Is your character some kind of 'chosen one' and/or a major part of a prophecy?

Sometimes I wonder if the "Conan the Mary Sue" idea comes from the pastiches, because I notice an awful lot of things I didn't tick for Howard's Conan could easily be ticked for Congor.  18 ticks (35 ticks)

75. Does your character consider his/her talents, special abilities, or good looks to be a curse? (A few moments or an episode of wishful/speculative thinking don't count; it must be a constant or near-constant thing.)

Oh, how hard it is to be a muscular, agile, virile Cimmerian...18 ticks (35 ticks)

76. Does your character manage to become friends with a villain, and through this friendship cause the villain to become reformed?

a. Does the villain revert back to his old ways, but retains some bit of goodness, caused by your character committing a selfless act of some kind? 

The closest I can think of is Nestor, and Nestor's hardly a villain: just an adversary/antagonist.  18 ticks (35 ticks)

77. On the subject of your character and his/her family...

a. Was your character orphaned, abandoned, kicked out, or at least raised by a family/person that was not his/her own family?
b. Was a major villain responsible for the death of the parents or guardians?
c. Was your character responsible for the death of his/her parents/guardians?
d. Did your character witness the death of the parents/guardians?
e. Was he/she adopted by a cruel family or person?
f. Ran away at any point?
g. Raised him/herself?
h. Lived in the streets?
i. The very last or only survivor of anything?
j. Adopted by another species/racial group? 

Crom, so many of these can be applied to Congor and Konahn, to the point where "parents killed by evil sorcerer, home destroyed, enslaved" has become part of popular consciousness for Conan, yet none can be applied to Howard's.  Huh.  18 ticks (35 ticks)

78. What about any of these?

a. Born/raised in extreme poverty?
b. Born/forced into slavery?
c. Banished from anywhere?
d. A member of a despised, outcast, and/or downtrodden race or group?
e. An illegitimate child in a society where this is stigmatized?
f. The parent of an illegitimate child in a society where this is stigmatized?
g. Abused?
h. Raped? 

This one's a bit trickier, since would a hunter-gatherer lifestyle really count as "poverty"?  I say no.  I'm unsure if the Cimmerians are despised so much as feared.  18 ticks (35 ticks)

79. If your character lost her virginity unwillingly, does she find a way to restore it?

O Hai, Red Sonja.  18 ticks (35 ticks)

80. Has your character otherwise lost...

a. A child?
b. Lover?
c. Close friend? 

Hey, we haven't had a tick for a while.  Not sure if Conan's lost any children, but if he has, it isn't chronicled.  I think we all remember the loss of Belit.  Close friend's trickier: was the Gunderman hanged in "Rogues in the House" a close friend?  Conan doesn't seem to be that interested in finding his killer, to the extent he goes to on other raging avengings. 19 ticks (36 ticks)

81. Did anything else remarkably strange or otherwise unusual happen in your character's infancy?

Born on a battlefield, anyone?  There's no way of telling how unusual it was among battle-obsessed cultures like the Cimmerians, but even then I'd have to think the chances of a woman going into labour in the middle of a skirmish are pretty low.  20 ticks (37 ticks)

82. If your character has a torment-ridden, pain-filled past, do you believe it excuses his/her actions?

I really hate being reminded of Konahn and Momoan.   20 ticks (37 ticks)

83. If female, does your character have "rebellious princess syndrome?"

Gah, I know that condition all too well.  20 ticks (37 ticks)

84. Does your character angst about something that he/she did in the past?

a. Death of a main character's family?
b. Death of his/her own family?
c. Does your character eventually learn that it wasn't his/her fault? 

Dammit, what did I just say two questions ago? 20 ticks (37 ticks)

85. If female, does your character ever have to prove that she's just as good as the guys, and in doing so completely pwns them?

Dark Agnes, pwning dudes since the 1930s.  Shame it took 'till the '70s for the rest of the world to know about it.  Ah well, at least we had Red Sonya representing.  20 ticks (37 ticks)

86. If your character is a villain...

a. Did he/she start out good?
b. Does he/she reform by the end of the story?
c. Does he/she reform because of act of kindness on the part of the hero? 

Hmm, could one categorize Conan as a villain?  Let's not open that can of snakes.  20 ticks (37 ticks)

87. Does a major villain have a personal fixation/obsession with your character?

a. For no apparent reason?
b. Something that has to do with your character's family, and not your character him/herself? 

No, people, Thoth-Amon doesn't count.  Get the pastiches out of your mind!  20 ticks (37 ticks)

88. Is your character ever spared by an otherwise-ruthless villain?

a. Despite the fact that he/she has already done massive damage to the villain, the villain's troops, and/or stronghold?
b. Because the villain is attracted to your character? 

Ah, this has become something of a bugbear, of there being otherwise intelligent wizards and sorcerers who make the silly mistake of letting Conan live. Still, the reasons the likes of Xaltotun let Conan live is actually fairly understandable, so it might not count.  I'll go split.  20 ticks (38 ticks)

89. Have you ever wished your character was real so you could be friends or lovers with him/her?

Silverberg, what did I tell you about your Howard/Conan slash fics?  Go home and have a cold shower, ya weirdo. 20 ticks (38 ticks)

90. Have you ever imagined you are this character? - Skip if the only imagining you do is when you write the story.

Thank goodness for that disclaimer!  20 ticks (38 ticks)

91. Do you feel insulted, attacked, or defensive when someone does not like your character?

92. If people don't like your character, do you believe it's just because they don't "get" him or her?

93. Did you feel that this test insulted or attacked you or your character so far?

Howard isn't here to comment, but I don't think he seemed to mind that much when Bloch criticized "Conan the Cluck."  In fact, he had a highly self-deprecating attitude to his fiction, so I surely doubt he would be upset or offended that someone didn't like the character. 20 ticks (38 ticks)

So far, Conan has a rating of 28 from the conservative standpoint (I'm guessing some of the boxes count for 2 points):

Some definite Sue-like tendancies here. A little polishing might be in order to put original fiction and RPG characters back into the balance, especially if Kirking is involved. Fanfiction characters should probably have some work done. 

But a worrisome 37 from the generous standpoint:

Fanfiction authors, you might just want to start over. Role-players and original fiction authors, at this point your characters are likely to provoke eye-rolling and exclaimations of "yeah, right!" from your readers. (Well, at least from me.) Immediate workover is probably in order.

Ouch, not looking good so far.  But there's more.  And it gets worse.

Part 2 - Original Fiction Characters

Only answer these questions if your character is for an original fiction. (For a new character you plan to add to an established original fiction universe, see the Fan-Character Specific Area.)

1. Does your character have markedly more romance in his/her life than any other regular character? (IE, he/she gets all the girls/guys - AKA Kirk Syndrome.)

a. Everyone else combined?
b. Even though there's no good reason why the other characters can't get a date? 

I'm not ticking this.  Why?  Because Conan's the only regular character.  Thus, it can't really be Kirk syndrome without an ensemble cast.  Besides, Conan only gets the girl a percentage of the time, and there are a few stories where the secondary protagonist gets a girl, and Conan doesn't ("A Witch Shall Be Born," The Tombalku Fragment).  So no, not Kirk Syndrome. 20 ticks (38 ticks)

2. Are all of your character's love interests the type of people you'd like to hook up with?

Don't know if Howard would be able to stand Muriela or Natala for more than five minutes, personally.  I think the character's love interests are the type of people everybody would like to hook up with, and thus, it isn't specific to the author. 20 ticks (38 ticks)

3. Is your character well-liked by nearly everyone he/she meets?
a. Do they care for your character more than they care for friends they've known longer?
b. Would anyone die for your character? (Unless, of course, said character would pretty much die for any casual friend/acquaintance.)
c. Even characters that are not known for their friendly, outgoing attitudes? 

Definitely not!  20 ticks (38 ticks)

4. Are most (if not all) characters who don't like your character merely mean, spiteful, and/or jealous of him/her?

Again, no: plenty of nice guys don't like Conan, and plenty of dastards do. 20 ticks (38 ticks)

5. Do characters who criticize or don't like your character from the start like him/her by the end, or at least have a grudging respect?

I can think of a few cases of this happening, but this is hardly a regular occurence.  20 ticks (38 ticks)

6. Does anyone who doesn't like or respect your character by the end of the story end up beaten up, humiliated, and/or dead?

Nope, plenty get off Scott Free.  20 ticks (38 ticks)

7. Does your character have a job or skill that is discouraged, forbidden, or unusual among his/her gender, race, or social status?

Barbarians don't usually become kings, but it does happen.  Still... 21 ticks (39 ticks)

8. Does your character save the day way more often than other main characters?
a. More than the other main characters combined?
b. Even when there's no good reason why another character wouldn't have been just as capable?
c. Magically or mystically?
d. Does your character die in the process? (Any nasty irreversable thing, like getting sent to an inescapable dimension count, too.)
e. By almost dying?
f. Does everyone mourn the death of your character?
g. Is he/she revived by the end of the story?
h. Is he/she revived? 

Would you believe that I'm not going to tick these either?  Again, Conan is the only regular character, but even so, there are characters who get to save the day even in a Conan story: Valeria saves Conan at the end of "Red Nails," Balthus gets a heroic and pivotal moment in "Beyond the Black River," Valerius defeats the villain in "A Witch Shall Be Born," and Conan doesn't even have a direct hand in the final defeat of Xaltotun in The Hour of the Dragon.  21 ticks (39 ticks)

9. Does your character play a major and pivotal role in saving a world, race, or group to which he/she does not belong?
a. Does he/she become one of their leaders? 

Ah, here we go.  22 ticks (40 ticks)

How are we doing now?  Conservative score 30

Fanfiction authors beware - Mary's on the loose. There's still a chance you can save this character with some TLC, though. Role-players and original fiction characters, you should also strongly consider giving your character a workover.

Generous score 84!

Kill it dead. Or make sure you read the instructions properly (some people don't do this, which causes freakishly high scores) and take the test again.

Oh Crom, this isn't good!  But wait, there's still Part 5 to go...

Part 5 - De-Suifiers

Answer for characters of any fiction type. These will subtract from your final score.  (I'm going to subtract clicks in kind)

1. Do you ever poke fun at your character's faults/weaknesses and/or use them as plot devices?

Howard does have some delightful moments where Conan's barbaric nature pokes a little fun at him.  21 ticks (39 ticks)

2. Has your character ever been honestly selfish, petty, lazy, shallow, or pointlessly cruel?

Dude, he's "the damnedest bastard that ever was!"  Selfish, definitely; petty, possibly; lazy, sure; shallow, not that much; pointlessly cruel, not necessarily - excessively cruel, perhaps.  Conan is not always a very nice guy in some stories.  I think it deserves a point.  21 ticks (39 ticks)

3. Is your character really and honestly overweight, and stays overweight throughout the entire story? (A little bit of chubbiness does not count.)

Aside from Elseworlds Conan and King Konahn?  21 ticks (39 ticks)

4. Is your character honestly ugly, and stays ugly throughout the entire story?

Ugly is a matter of perspective: he may have a sinister countenance, but he doesn't seem to have too much trouble with the ladies.  No ticks.  21 ticks (39 ticks)

5. Is your character out of shape, and stays out of shape for the entire story? (Not 'oh, man, I just don't think I can survive this triathlon,' but honestly, hinderingly wimpy?)

If he was, he wouldn't have survived the first story.  21 ticks (39 ticks)

6. Is your character physically disabled, and has nothing to make up for it? (To quote Dr. Merlin, anyone who says "She's so pretty that it's like a disability because everyone hates her or wants to have sex with her" will be summarily keelhauled.)

7. Is he/she truly mentally disabled, IE, retarded, and has no powers because or despite of this?

Accusations of "Conan the Meathead" will be summarily keelhauled.  21 ticks (39 ticks)

8. Is your character human, 40+, and looks his/her age?
a. Older than 60? 

I think Conan is described pretty much as a 40+ barbarian that looks his age.  When he's overcome by melancholy in the draft of "The Phoenix on the Sword," Conan looks "old."  In as much as Chuck Norris looks his age: he's muscular and clearly very fit, but he also looks his age.  I think it counts. 20 ticks (38 ticks)

9. Does your character have a truly debilitating phobia that does not mysteriously disappear at a crucial moment?

Phobias are irrational fears: Conan's fears are entirely rational. 20 ticks (38 ticks)

10. Has your character ever run away from anything simply because he/she was a coward?

The moment where Conan is faced with the vision of a great castle where he knew there to be mere ruins ("The Devil in Iron") fills him with such existential dread that he runs in terror.  I don't think that counts, though: I think most people would be freaked out by such an occurrence. 20 ticks (38 ticks)

11. If your character had a bad past with his/her parents, does he/she reconcile with them at any point?

We don't know, of course.  For all we know, Conan and his parents got along famously. 20 ticks (38 ticks)

12. Has your character ever been in a situation that he/she had no way of overcoming on his/her own?
a. Did he/she give up without trying?
b. Did he/she give up after failing?
c. If he/she eventually found a way of overcoming the problem, was it extremely difficult and/or took a really long time? 

Yes!  Conan was utterly powerless against Xaltotun, and needed the assistance of a witch and a cult of priests to counteract it, not to mention one of the most powerful artefacts in the world.  Conan couldn't escape the Halls of Hell without Pelias, nor get to the capital without his help.  He would've been dead a fair number of times if the damsel of the story hadn't saved his skin!  As for the second part, the search for the Heart was certainly arduous and took weeks, if not months.  Conan never, ever gave up, though.  18 ticks (36 ticks)

13. Does your character ever admit to being wrong, even if he/she doesn't really mean it?

Conan admits that to hold Livia to her bargain would've been the same as raping her, and he realises that wasn't really very nice at all, no sir.  And he meant it.  17 ticks (35 ticks)

14. Has your character ever ignored wrong-doings against him/herself and/or others because he/she simply didn't want to get into trouble?

Conan put up with a lot of nonsense from the Numalian Police in "The God in the Bowl," and some severe provocation in "The Tower of the Elephant."  Conan doesn't want to get into too much trouble if he can avoid it: trouble usually finds him anyway. 16 ticks (34 ticks)

15. If your character is all or partially non-human, does he/she react in very non-human ways or in ways more appropriate to his/her species?

Only if we substitute "non-human" for "barbarian," and that doesn't count.  28 ticks (46 ticks)

16. Does your character act in odd and/or awkward ways that other people find strange and confusing rather than endearing, and these people aren't called or portrayed as foolish/stupid because of it?

Conan's strange barbarian beliefs are usually met with confusion, and it isn't always the case that they're in the "wrong," as it were: Conan's lack of familiarity with civilized mores leads to plenty of problems.  Conan comes off as very naive in "The God in the Bowl" and other thief stories, too. 15 ticks (33 ticks)

17. If your character is vampire, is he/she...
1. A mindless killer?
2. Maybe not mindless, but has no significant moral or emotional issues with killing/murder?
3. Unable to have sex?
4. Unattractive?
5. Unable to overcome his/her dependance on blood? 

How come we have a question on vampires but not werewolves?  This test is anti-lycanthropic! 15 ticks (33 ticks)

18. Do you view your characters more like tools than friends/children? 

Howard seemed to view Conan as more of a meal-ticket than anything else, but he also described him as "forming fully-formed" in his imagination, as if he stepped out of the mists of his mind.  However, he didn't seem overly attached to him, either.  A tricky one, but I'll go with the friends option for conservative, tools the generous.   15 ticks (32 ticks)

 Final Conservative Score: 21

Probably not a Mary-Sue, although a character can go either way at this point. Fanfiction writers should pay attention to ensure that their characters aren't getting too Sue-ish. For an RPG or original fiction character, however, you're probably perfectly fine.

Wow, that De-Suifier section was a lifesaver, wasn't it?  Since I've mentioned some of my misgivings with the nature of the test, I'm going to say that Conan's score may actually be lower.  For example, ticking "dead lover" has double points: considering the high mortality rate of pre-modern societies, especially in childbirth, I think this is unfair, since there's no way to say "yes, but mortality rates are different in each society, and so what might be devastatingly rare in one setting could be tragically commonplace in another." Barbie Doll Syndrome accounts for 5 points!

Hence why I used the "click" method, to show the disparity in the system.  Going purely by the click system, Conan would have a score of 15.

0-16 Points
Most likely Not-Sue. Characters at this level could probably take a little spicing up without hurting them any.

The "generous" score, however...

Final Generous Score: 77

Kill it dead. Or make sure you read the instructions properly (some people don't do this, which causes freakishly high scores) and take the test again. 

You see how crazy this test is? How could there be such a vast difference between 15 and 32 clicks?


Conan is and isn't a Mary Sue, depending on what you think of Conan, and which Conan you're talking about.  Howard's Conan, however, most certainly is not a Mary Sue.

Conan fails as often as he succeeds. He's unsuccessful in attaining the treasure he set out for in "The Tower of the Elephant," "The God in the Bowl" and "The Servants of Bit-Yakin." "Beyond the Black River" ends on a considerable downer, while "The Phoenix on the Sword" has a sobering and unsettling denouement. "Xuthal of the Dusk" ends with Conan literally flayed alive, and in more than a few stories he runs in stark terror from the Eldritch Horror instead of slaying it. There are some where he would flee, such as "The Devil in Iron," but when the girl-of-the-week's in danger, he overcomes the fear. What's more, he comes very close to defeat and death in some battles, with only luck or outside interference saving his skin. Even mere mortals like Ascalante, Aratus and an unnamed Nemedian soldier have come close to ending the saga of Conan.

What about everybody loving/jealous/wanting to be him? That would certainly make his reign as king a heck of a lot easier if he were universally adored, rather than the subject of assassination attempts, baronial revolts and invasions. Every "informed ability" is explained as something he learned from Zamorian philosophers, Pelishti wise men, or Nemedian scribes, and his multiple languages are a result of a keen mind eager to learn in a world where such skills are common. There are plenty of amazing people in history like T E Lawrence, Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Francis Burton who show similar capacity for intellectual subjects combined with great physicality: Conan's just a mythologised version of that breed of man.

As for "author insert", Conan, from Howard's own admission, is based on people he knew. So the man himself says that Conan isn't merely an idealized author insert. Perhaps on some very basic level, maybe, but it isn't as clear cut as many seem to make out.  Conan is not invulnerable, not everybody worships him, not all girls fall at his feet, and he's not an invincible juggernaut in combat.

He's no Sue.


  1. The first two quotes at the very beginning of this awesome post seem to conflate Robert E. Howard's work with the Arnie movie to a disturbing degree. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the fiction knows that REH did not come up with the "What are the best things in life?" riff. I know this popular conflation is something you've expanded on before in regards to the new film. Just grates on my fan-nerves, I guess.

  2. Yeah, I gotta blame the film for a lot of this. I think you did a good job presenting the counter evidence.

  3. The Mary Sue thing annoys me - IMHO a powerful character is not a mary sue if:

    1. They face equally powerful opposition.
    2. People react to them realistically.
    3. Their victories are earned.

  4. i dont know if i would blame the milius film so much either...arnie has his fair share of failures and beatings in that flick too.he loses his family,gets beat up in the pit(at first)gets hurt falling into the cave,barely escapes the snake tower,poorly disguises himself as an acolyte of set, gets his ass kicked by dooms henchmen is crucified and needs the help of a wizard,loses valeria, and when he finally does win at the very he sure doesnt look or feel like a winner.maybe destroyer but even then there an ensemble to help i wouldnt so much blame the movies i thinkits just another false projection thats been built up over the years.-i do think your assessment Al, is spot on and brings out all the things i love about the character though.-mario

  5. The problem with all this Mary Sue silliness is that it was a term created to apply to fan fiction, and it really only works in that context, but people have overused it so that it now refers to any hero that is larger than life and more capable than ordinary protagonists.

    Conan cannot be a Mary Sue because he's just the hero of the story. A Mary Sue would occur if someone wrote a Conan pastiche in which a perky young female character showed up and over the course of the story demonstrated vastly superior combat and tactical prowess compared to Conan, made Conan fall head over heels in love with her (likely also involving a lot of petty jealousy from Valeria, Zenobia, and whatever other lovers Conan has had the author cares to toss in), and probably also single-handedly beaten Thoth-Amon and the Black Circle in a war of magic because she's also the greatest, wisest, most learned wizard of the age (despite being only a naive teenager). She fulfills a prophecy of bringing peace to the Hyborian Age while making Conan perfectly content in a subordinate love interest role. THAT'S a Mary Sue.

  6. As someone who agrees that Mary Sue is an overly and broadly used term, thanks for this post.

  7. ehem Al I think you're a very kindly guy, erudite and very funny and I enjoy a lot your blog but this article must be the silliest? you have wirtten for the blog, the less interesting, I can't pass from question 18, maybe because here in Spain we don't know about that Mary Sue concept

  8. The first two quotes at the very beginning of this awesome post seem to conflate Robert E. Howard's work with the Arnie movie to a disturbing degree.

    Yes, yes indeed. And not even particularly accurately at that.

    Yeah, I gotta blame the film for a lot of this. I think you did a good job presenting the counter evidence.

    I think it's mainly the "doomed hometown/quest for revenge/dead parents" that can be put upon the film, certainly, but even apart from that, Milius' Conan is far from a Mary Sue himself.

    The Mary Sue thing annoys me - IMHO a powerful character is not a mary sue if:

    1. They face equally powerful opposition.
    2. People react to them realistically.
    3. Their victories are earned.

    Definitely a good way of looking at it: Conan applies to all three.

    i dont know if i would blame the milius film so much either...arnie has his fair share of failures and beatings in that flick too.he loses his family,gets beat up in the pit(at first)gets hurt falling into the cave,barely escapes the snake tower,poorly disguises himself as an acolyte of set, gets his ass kicked by dooms henchmen is crucified and needs the help of a wizard,loses valeria, and when he finally does win at the very he sure doesnt look or feel like a winner.maybe destroyer but even then there an ensemble to help i wouldnt so much blame the movies i thinkits just another false projection thats been built up over the years.

    Very true: aside from the aforementioned origin elements, there isn't really that much about Milius-Conan that's Mary Sueish. Surely if that were the case, he wouldn't end up brutalized in gladiatorial combat, or beaten up by a mere two henchmen?

    Conan cannot be a Mary Sue because he's just the hero of the story. A Mary Sue would occur if someone wrote a Conan pastiche in which a perky young female character showed up and over the course of the story demonstrated vastly superior combat and tactical prowess compared to Conan, made Conan fall head over heels in love with her (likely also involving a lot of petty jealousy from Valeria, Zenobia, and whatever other lovers Conan has had the author cares to toss in), and probably also single-handedly beaten Thoth-Amon and the Black Circle in a war of magic because she's also the greatest, wisest, most learned wizard of the age (despite being only a naive teenager). She fulfills a prophecy of bringing peace to the Hyborian Age while making Conan perfectly content in a subordinate love interest role. THAT'S a Mary Sue.

    Excellent point. As an aside, the female character you describe sounds a LOT like a few of the comics characters I've read! Particularly from the Fleisher run.

    As someone who agrees that Mary Sue is an overly and broadly used term, thanks for this post.


    ehem Al I think you're a very kindly guy, erudite and very funny and I enjoy a lot your blog but this article must be the silliest?

    It might well be, yes! Interesting that the Mary Sue isn't really known in Spain: wonder if it's an English language phenomenon. Sorry you didn't enjoy it, though.