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Me & That Mary Sue Character - and Others

There's been a lot of discussion recently about how the concept of the "Mary Sue" (which can be briefly and incompletely summed up as a supremely admirable female character that a female author inserts into a story so that she can vicariously live this remarkable woman's life) has become (or perhaps always has been) an excuse for misogyny and the bashing of female characters. In turn, this has resulted in some discussion of female characters in general, and the lack thereof in many popular fannish works.

This has made me think about my own relationship with these ideas, and I wanted to write some of it down and wave it about, so to speak. I didn't want to pontificate about my own headspace on other people's journals, so I'm doing it here on my own.

Authorial Self-Insertion in Original Fiction

I was wrong about this one. And I was equally wrong on the male side of the equation, for that matter.

OK, if an author wants to insert her- or himself in a story, that's her or his right, and the work needs to be judged on other factors. It doesn't matter, really, on whom a character is based (although if an author uses someone else's characters ... that can be a problem for different reasons), because there's far more to a work of fiction that that.

So I was wrong to sneer about Herald Myste in Exile's Honor (which I have done in the past, although not in this space), and equally wrong to sneer about Morlenden in Gameplayers of Zan, whom I would bet money is a "Gary Stu." (Gameplayers is a quirky work that is an old favorite of mine, more for the characters and atmosphere than for making any remote kind of logical sense.)

A Digression on Why I Like Certain Fictional Works

I've mentioned before that teams, families, and families-by-choice are very important to my appreciation for a work. I like Saiyuki more than Wild Adapter because the main cast is larger. The main cast in Samurai Deeper Kyo is probably too large - and I love it anyway. I like Noel Streatfield's sibling teams in Ballet Shoes and others. I liked Witches of Karres even more when (mild spoiler) Vezzarn and Hulik joined Pausert and Goth.

I'm partial to pairings as well, but I like them better in a larger context of friends and/or family.

If I'm really passionate about a work, then I like the relationships that the author has set up among the characters.

Hold onto that idea, please.

When Fanfiction Breaks the Bonds: What It Means for Me

What happens in a lot of fanfiction that features an original character - especially if the author identifies strongly with that character and is crushing on a canon character - is that the relationships that appeal to me in the story are trampled in the dust.

This particularly bothers me when the characters in canon were close - whether romantically so or not.

If Gojyo in Saiyuki is matched up with someone other than Hakkai - whether it's an original female character or Yaone or, for that matter, Sanzo - what happens to Hakkai?

Does the author come up with some valid substitute for Hakkai's best friend and sanity anchor - or do they just leave Hakkai pottering around on his own, harmless and sterilized and quirky ... and in the back of my mind, eventually going berserk again and slaughtering another thousand?

Likewise, if Hakkai is the one who gets the girl or guy - does Gojyo find someone else to be special in his big heart? Or will I find myself visualizing him once again sliding down into a pool of casual empty sex and booze?

I realize that this is just fiction. But the relationship between these characters is a major part of what I liked about it. So if a story messes with that, and doesn't do something remarkable in terms of making a new reality that's kind to both partners, I am not going to find that story appealing.

Would I care if it were a sexy male character interfering with canon straight or female-female relationship? Yes dammit, I would.

Take Black Lagoon. The author is pointing toward a Rock/Revy relationship. That's indisputable after the most recent published English volume. It may never actually happen, or it may happen just before both of them go down in a hail of bullets, but that's what's building. I like it. The fact that it's tough for both of them to face it makes it even better: if it happens, it will really mean something. Would I enjoy a story that had some sexy male beast showing up and seducing either of them away? Hell, no! Their relationship is one of the things I value in this story.

Likewise Kyo and Yuya in SDK. I admit that I have written a couple of casual sex slash stories with Kyo and Yukimura - but in my heart, I know that (spoiler) Kyo is heading for a lifelong marriage with Yuya, while Yukimura is going back to his arranged marriage and an early grave.

On the other hand, where there is essentially a relationship vacuum? I'd be happy to see a well-written OC. Want to come up with some really kickass person of either sex for Dutch in Black Lagoon? Friend, or lover, or both? I'd love to read that story, as long as Dutch still reads like Dutch.

Female Leads, Male Leads

When I first started thinking about this subject a couple of years ago, I remembered mostly just enjoying stories with male leads and not thinking about it.

In actuality, there were a quartet of female characters that were intensely important to my shy, chunky, unathletic 12-year-old self:

  • Goth, the wiry 11-year-old Karres Witch who is an equal partner with Captain Pausert in The Witches of Karres
  • Dido Twite, the brash Cockney girl who is a supporting character in Black Hearts in Battersea and who comes into her own as the lead in Nightbirds on Nantucket and a half a dozen sequels
  • Marion the Girl with the Dogs, whose daring, loyalty, and friendship with all the dogs in town enable her to come to the rescue of all the rest of the kids in The Horse without a Head
  • Petrova Fossil, who endures years of ballet lessons and attempts by her nurse to make her more ladylike and is eventually rewarded with her dream of becoming an aviator, in Ballet Shoes

(I should also mention Sally Watson's adventurous girls in her YA historical romances, which have all recently been re-released in paperback by Image Cascade. And Anthea in E. Nesbit's fantasies. And Nan in Linnets and Valerians.)

But it's also true that in general, I read books about boys, and liked them. And identified with the boys.

I've had some pushback when I've said this before. And I'm not sure why. Can't female authors write male characters? Haven't a number of them done so with such success that critics insisted that these authors must be male? So when I read a male character who appeals to me, I identify with him while I'm reading the story.

The fact that a number of these stories were written by female authors - Rosemary Sutcliff, Susan Cooper, Patricia McKillip - probably deserves consideration. But I also identified with Paul Atreides and his father Leto, Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, Frodo and Sam, Geoffrey in The Weathermonger, and other male characters by male authors. While I was reading those stories, I lived in those character's heads.

Later on, I came to realize that there were more adventurous boys than girls, more noble men than women, in what I liked to read. For the most part. that did not make me turn my back on my old literary friends. (Although it did make some visits less frequent: Dune hasn't lasted well, for me, and the treatment of women in the story is one of the reasons.)

Can male authors write plausible female characters? Certainly. Examples: I think the girls in Edward Eager's children's fantasies are as well portrayed as the boys, and the women in Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury are as awesome as those in Black Lagoon.

So, that's where I'm sitting on these things. You?


( 43 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 15th, 2010 02:38 am (UTC)
I like what you have to say about needing to address the existing relationships. I would even say that my favorite original characters are those who provide a new perspective on the canon characters and relationships.
When I think back to my three musketeers Mary Sue, she had a crush on Athos, but wasn't very hopeful. now I suspect I would explore Athos/D'Artagnan, as the most interesting relationship.
Apr. 16th, 2010 03:35 am (UTC)

I felt weirdly bad and guilty when I read your post about feeling erased from so many stories.

(no subject) - fmanalyst - Apr. 16th, 2010 11:05 am (UTC) - Expand
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Apr. 15th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)
I like what you have to say. I'll have to drudge up my favorite Mary Sue essay. I wonder what you'd think.

I have gotten flak for liking and identifying with boys, too. I always was that way, in part because there weren't a lot of girls to read about. I suspect that not all of my identification was strictly, oh, cis, if I might put it that way.

I do still feel cranky about the Herald Myste, because it felt so darn disrespectful. But I have a lot of weird conflicting views about Lackey. Sort of a love and hate thing.
Apr. 16th, 2010 03:44 am (UTC)

>>I suspect that not all of my identification was strictly, oh, cis, if I might put it that way.<<

Yes, I think there was a bit of that in my case as well. It was all part and parcel of treating my dolls like action figures and preferring to hang out with my dad and go to the hardware store and things.

I didn't read Lackey until quite late - already in college or maybe just past it. I think it was the Last Herald Mage series, and I was alternately captivated by the emotional charge of the relationships and appalled by the emotional manipulation. She was also the first writer I recognized as using throw-away characters: someone would say "Hey, remember so-and-so?" and the POV character would spend a page or three remembering so-and-so, who had never been mentioned in the story before, and then the lead would be told "Well, he was killed horribly."

But I know that her books made such a difference in the lives of so many gay teens, I find it hard to stay perturbed about her.

Tell me more about why "disrespectful"?

And I'd be glad to read anything you wanted to show me.

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Apr. 15th, 2010 05:27 am (UTC)
I'm not sure all Mary Sues (or Gary Stus) are self-inserts, and I agree with your more recent conclusion that in original fiction at least, the use of a self-insert alone is not reason enough to be critical. It's what the author does with the self-insert that matters. Lots of fiction is semi-autobiographical; Ryu Murakami's Sixty-Nine, which I adore -- it's about the year, not the position, btw -- is heavily autobiographical, but is breathtaking, wonderful, and funny all the same. Dorothy Sayers has been criticized for creating Lord Peter Wimsey as her ideal man and having her fictional alter ego, Harriet Vane, fall in love with and marry him, but I thought it worked as a concept, though Strong Poison is probably my least favorite of her novels, probably because I so despise Harriet Vane's ex-lover, whose murder caused the whole mess.

I guess that as a child, I read different books than you did, though we share a love of Edward Eager and Streatfeld's Shoes books. The vast majority of children's books I read, by authors such as Madeline L'Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, E.L. Konigsberg, and C.S. Lewis had female protagonists, with or without male ones. I identified with male characters when they were the sole leads; I don't see how you can read and enjoy The Lord of the Rings and not identify with Frodo and Sam somewhere along the way, though I also identified with Gandalf, Merry and Pippin, Faramir, Elrond, Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn, among others. But books in which male characters were the sole leads were in the minority. I probably sought out books on the basis that they contained female leads who were more like me: imaginative and bookish, not tomboyish and active.

It annoys me no end when it's automatically assumed that an original character is a Mary Sue or self-insert. It equally annoys me when it's clear that an original character is in fact a Mary Sue or self-insert, like all those ridiculous stories on FFN in which the ikkou meet one, two, or more teenage girls with ridiculous names. I get it, but if people want to couple themselves and their friends with their favorite ikkou characters, consider that personal and private pornography (or maybe real person/fictonal person het) and circulate it among the interested parties; do not inflict it on the rest of us.

Liking established relationships is why I regret the tendency in Gravitation fanfiction, either because the author genuinely believes Eiri is bad for Shuichi or as a means of heightening tension and conflict, to break up the main pairing. (Which is not to say it isn't often brilliantly used, just that it's a bit of a tired trope.) But when there are no canonical romantic relationships, as is the case with Saiyuki, I have greater tolerance, as long as the relationships within the ikkou haven't been frayed to the breaking point or there's a good explanation why. Hakkai and Gojyo are best friends and rely on each other, and Sanzo and Goku share a deep, fated bond, but the relationships don't have to be romantic or sexual ones, leaving them free to form such relationships with other ikkou members, OCs, or canon characters outside the ikkou.

As for the whole family/variety thing, part of the reason I'm fonder of Gravitation than Saiyuki, even though Saiyuki is inarguably more accomplished, is that Gravitation has a larger main cast with more gender variation than in Saiyiuki and few to no true villains.

Thanks for the thoughtprovoking post.
Apr. 16th, 2010 11:59 am (UTC)

The thing is, the secondary characters in Gravi aren't developed enough for me to do much with them in my imagination. In SDK, you would not believe how many characters get at least one tragic flashback. So I find it a bit easier to think about stories for more of them. (On the other hand, although the fandom finds lots of them slashable, there are relatively few clear pairings in any direction.)

I think that with better authors, people don't notice the self-insertions as much. But when I see the same basic character type repeated with minor variations, I have to wonder. For example, C.J. Cherryh's tough, cynical older woman in command (with a weakness for damaged young men) shows up in several different series - Morgaine in the titular fantasy series, Signy Mallory and Ariane Emory I in her Alliance/Union SF series. The likelihood of self-insertion in these cases is increased by the paperback cover of the first book of three-volume version of Cyteen, where Ari I is clearly drawn as Cherryh herself.

Hee, I actually read some more of those authors you mention. I liked The Egypt Game, but I identified with Melanie more than with April. And my semi-identification with Claudia in Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E, Frankweiler only made me uneasy - Claudia's so bossy and never stops to consider what heartbreak she's causing her folks. In Narnia, the only girl I really identified with was Jill. I liked Aravis, but identified more with Shasta. In LotR, I don't remember ever identifying with Galadriel or Arwen - such womanly people - and Eowyn was so powerfully intent and self-destructive ... I can get into her headspace now more than I did then, actually.

(no subject) - lawless523 - Apr. 16th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 15th, 2010 07:07 am (UTC)
But the relationship between these characters is a major part of what I liked about it. So if a story messes with that, and doesn't do something remarkable in terms of making a new reality that's kind to both partners, I am not going to find that story appealing.

I think this is a such a deep part of why we connect with stories and something that so many authors (pro and fan) don't respect as they should.
Apr. 16th, 2010 03:48 am (UTC)

... I am so relieved to hear that.

I think also that the tendency to try to pair everyone up, although very normal and human, can also encourage some pretty poor writing, both in canon and fanfic. Fruits Basket sort of goes to pieces toward the end because of that.

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Apr. 15th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
I had to think about this before I posted, because I disagree with a few of your points, but I had to think about how and why I did.

Before I begin my dissertation *g*, I don't think a Mary Sue is necessarily the same as a self-insert, although it frequently is. I do think both types of characters are puerile, though, and a sign of a not-very-mature authorial voice.

Having said that, I don't think you (or anyone) are wrong for disliking a particular type of character, whether it is a Mary Sue or self-insert. That would be like saying, in a romance novel, that it is wrong for me to dislike an uber-alpha male "hero" who uses rape or forced seduction to coerce the object of his "affection." Sure, the author has a right to write it, and have it published if s/he can find someone to publish it. I also have the right to think it is crap. I don't like to read that sort of thing, and those sorts of characters will seriously impact my enjoyment of other aspects of the story, thereby making it crap to me. If other people like it, more power to them.

That doesn't mean that I think that characters that are unlikable for various reasons make a bad story, btw. There are a number of works I enjoy, particularly in the urban fantasy genre, that have a protagonist that is Not A Nice Person, that I enjoy as part of a work as a whole. But I regard MarySues and self-inserts as something approaching literary masturbation: much more fun and interesting for the person doing it than anyone else.

An exception, I think, is if the work is a parody or satire of some sort. Actually, I was thinking about this the other day, in the context of Candide... in some ways Candide is an 18th century MS whose beautiful, simple face-- as well as his preternaturally pure and innocent viewpoint-- was used to make a lot of religious and political points that got Voltaire into a world of trouble. So I think a MS can successfully work in this way, perhaps better than a flawed (normal) character.

So, basically, I don't think a work needs to be judged on other factors than the fact that a character is a Mary Sue or self-insert. If a character doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you. That doesn't make you an elitist, or wrong.

In terms of fanfiction and OCs, I generally don't want to read about people's OCs doing things as part of or an equal of the main cast. In some cases, I read fanfiction to think about other people's perceptions, interpretations and insights into the canon storyline /cast. I like AU's for this, actually. Other times I just care about the pr0n. Either way, I don't care about an OC except as an adjunct (or perhaps observer) of the main cast that advances a storyline in some away, and I will never care about a limelight-hogging OC. I don't care about the zany adventures of an OC in fanfiction. Again, that doesn't make me an elitist. It makes me someone who knows what she enjoys and doesn't in a story.

I guess at this point, I should also confess to writing MSs for the lulz, or to get something real underway. But overall, I can think of no situation in which Shadowmoon Sapphire and her amethyst orbs add one iota to a thoughtful interpretation of a canon cast or storyline.

Having said that, I have read and enjoyed fanfiction that was clearly written by an inexperienced or young author, simply because of the ideas expressed or the way it was written.

As you know, my reading and personal experience pretty much paralleled yours (as we are les dames d'une age certaines :D ), so there isn't much to say there. I agree with pretty much everything else you have said.
Apr. 16th, 2010 12:05 am (UTC)
In terms of fanfiction and OCs, I generally don't want to read about people's OCs doing things as part of or an equal of the main cast. In some cases, I read fanfiction to think about other people's perceptions, interpretations and insights into the canon storyline /cast. I like AU's for this, actually. Other times I just care about the pr0n. Either way, I don't care about an OC except as an adjunct (or perhaps observer) of the main cast that advances a storyline in some away, and I will never care about a limelight-hogging OC. I don't care about the zany adventures of an OC in fanfiction.

I've been thinking about this myself, and for me I'd say that a lot of my openness or lack thereof to original characters in fanfic comes down to the nature of the source material. For something like LOTR or Avatar: the Last Airbender, where the worldbuilding itself is so richly detailed and hinting at all sorts of fascinating things just off the map or half-forgotten in its history, I'm much more willing to take a chance on stuff where original characters are strongly in the spotlight; they can be helpful or really almost necessary to explore areas where the canon characters can't plausibly be used. In settings like those I can enjoy stories where the canon characters play more minor roles or barely even appear, so long as the sense of place, culture, etc. fits in with the canon material. In a setting like Saiyuki, OTOH, where the worldbuilding is a little sketchy and slapdash and the characters and their relationships are the main draw, I'm much less inclined to give OCs a shot, unless they're clearly in service of driving a plot, filling in backstory, serving as outside observers, etc. in a story that's primarily focused on those canon characters who draw me to the source material.
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Apr. 16th, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC)
So I was wrong to sneer about Herald Myste in Exile's Honor (which I have done in the past, although not in this space), and equally wrong to sneer about Morlenden in Gameplayers of Zan, whom I would bet money is a "Gary Stu."

I'm not familiar with either book and don't think I've ever seen you talk about those characters or your problems with them before -- care to expand on that a little bit for context?
Apr. 17th, 2010 03:23 am (UTC)

Eh, I should have used Fafhrd as an example of a Gary Stu, but I thought about him too late!

I think I fussed about Myste mostly to the Young Lady, who actually read Lackey at the right age. Basically, there was an older male character, angst-filled and noble-enemy type, master of arms etc., who showed up in one of the sub-series. And shortly after he shows up, we get Herald Myste, an absent-minded near-sighted older woman who falls for him and vice versa. Mercedes Lackey's nickname is Misty ... you can fill in the rest.

Morlenden Deren ... this is going to get complicated. I need to explain to you a little about the Ler, the para-human race Foster made up for Warriors of Dawn,, Gameplayers of Zan, and Day of the Klesh.

The Ler were created from human genetic stock. Their lives have four distinct stages. As child, up until about age 10, they're pretty much like human children. Then, up until age 30 or so, they're adolescents: they have a sex drive but are not fertile. So they can (and do) have lots and lots of sex (straight sex only, as far as I can tell ... ). Then, at 30, fertility kicks in, and their culture marries them off into an elaborate arranged group marriage of 4 (called a braid) that is complicated enough that I would want to make a diagram for you. This is called the parent phase. They have two (or rarely, three) fertilities, each of which almost always results in a child (twins are even more rare than among humans and are always fraternal male-female). After the second or third fertility, they become sterile and functionally sexless. Theoretically at this point they are elders, but are still called "parents" until a certain pair of their children (the insiblings) are married off. At that point, the former parents leave the family household and take up an entirely new life.

So, Morlenden: he is about 45, and he has had three children, and so is now functionally no longer male. But sexy adolescent girls keep throwing themselves at him ... OK, it's really only two, but he has sensual thoughts about two others.

It's hand-waved as part of the Ler eidetic memory (which does have valid other uses in the plot): he remembers how it used to be, so he can appreciate the girls even though he can't do anything about it. And really, he's a pretty good person and not too uber-perfect, and I enjoy his viewpoint for most of the book. But every time one of the incidents with the girls occurs, I find myself thinking "Heh - yeah, right, Mr. Foster!"

(no subject) - smillaraaq - Apr. 17th, 2010 04:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 17th, 2010 02:36 pm (UTC)
I'm going to reply first and than read all these comments because this is a seriously interesting subjects.

When I first discovered the internet about 10 years ago (on the school computers because we didn't have internet at home back in the days) I ended up on this Harry Potter website and eventually on the forums. On these forum it was common practice to write self-inserts. We'd write VVs (Vervolgverhalen, litterally translated; follow up stories) in which every writer inserted their character and wrote the story a little further along, then leaving it to the following and following author, creating some magificent stories along with the silly, fun, weird and just plain stupid ones).

We were all young teens that just loved the idea of walking around on Hogwards and having magical powers and with all the issues of young teens trying to find their way in life and highschool. Most of us were geeks (you had to be, to be readng Harry Potter back than. This was before the 4th book had even been published) and many of us had experiences of bullying and other stuff that wasn't all that fun.

We wrote Mary Sues. Every single one of us, even though I think our ideals were different enough that we had very different characters regardless.

I'm sure I gained a great deal by writing like that. Not only is that what got me into writing down the stories I've always made up and did I learn a lot from it in terms of writing but it gave me the opportunity to explore some issues in a way that wasn't threatening, it gave me the opportunity to be this cool, kick-ass girl who can fight to safe her friends, is smart and funny and pretty popular. We started meeting up IRL a couple of years later and before I knew I really was much more popular. This is also around the time my character started being less and less like a Mary Sue and more like an actual rounded character.

I know writing Mary Sue is something that's often frowned upon, but it's also very debatable what you see as a Mary Sue. Many, MANY strong or beautiful female characters get instantly branded as Mary Sue but... Damn it, have you ever looked at the GUYS involved? Gorgeous, brave, awesome guys who beat every danger into submission and get the girl and blablabla. Yet they're no Mary Sue. That irks me.

I also don't get why girls go on about how authors make girls so girly. I'm sorry, but in the end a lot of girls ARE girly. After puberty hits most girls ARE phisically weaker than guys. Girls do more emotional violence and manipulation while guys are more physical. Guys beat up strangers and if girls do beat anyone up, they know the person, often very well. It's proven fact, even if there's a huge overlap as well.But so what if an author writes a girly girl. So what if girls often get the caring part. Look around you. There's a lot of girly girls out there. The overwhelming majority of caring professions are done by women. That's how nature's wired us. Does that make us worth less than men? No. Different? Hell yeah.

And hell, if I get the chance, I'll be a stay at home mom in a couple of years, by choice, fulfilling the nightmare of every feminist.

I enjoy writing and reading both guys and girls. Who knows, it might have something to do with the fact that I'm bi-sexual and so girls are just as attractive to me as guys are.
Apr. 17th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
And about the relationships in fiction: I really, really like Gojyo/Goku (or the other way around) BUT there is no way I can read it fully if there isn't a very good reason why they aren't with Hakkai and Sanzo, respectively or, in Sanzo's case, why Sanzo is unavailable, so I know what you mean.
Apr. 17th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)

With a big ensemble cast like there is for "Harry Potter" at Hogwarts, it's easy for a young writer to imagine him or herself as part of the action. My question is, though, did people create Mary Sues/Gary Stus for the express purpose of removing canon love interests for characters that they desired themselves? Did people create female characters to wrest Harry away from Ginny, or male characters to free Hermione from Ron? Especially with horrible things happening to Ginny and Ron?

That's the sort of thing that irritates me.

I'm sure that it was fun for you, and yes, it probably was a good starting point for writing. At that age, I had a whole imaginary universe that was essentially RPF AU, peopled with old D&D characters and real-life rock stars, with a gay male character who was essentially my Gary Stu (and man, was there a lot of hurt-comfort going on in my brain). But I have never inserted myself into a canon story to snatch away either the limelight or the hero/heroine.

One of the problems with writing a response to my post without reading the conversation in the comments is that some of the giants at which you're tilting are really windmills. At least three of the other participants here enjoy looking at girls as much as they enjoy looking at guys (or maybe more), so your perceptions from the viewpoint of bisexuality are only unique in that we are all different from each other in some way.

For me, girly =/= feminine. Shenhua (from Black Lagoon) is intensely feminine, but not at all girly. Renge (from Ouran High School Host Club and Kagura (from Fruits Basket) are girly.

I truly believe that there are equally ridiculous Gary Stu characters. In our discussion here, I remembered a famous one: the ever-more-noble yet still earthy barbarian Fafhrd, in Fritz Leiber's famous "Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser" sword-and-sorcery series of short stories (written from the 1940s to the 1970s).

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