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Avoiding the Mary Sue (+ a contest!)

HippieVan at 12:00AM, March 6, 2015
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This newspost was inspired by this week's Quackcast on testing your writing and knowing your characters. In the comments, KimLuster posted a Mary Sue test and discussed her annoyance in finding that one of her characters scored highly.

So what is a Mary Sue? Everyone sort of knows one when they see it - it's that character who makes you roll your eyes so far they get stuck in the back of your head. Truthfully, there isn't a great definiteion because people use “Mary Sue” to mean different things. Generally, though, a Mary Sue is a character who is transparently the author's fantasy version of themselves. The most egregious Mary Sues are fabulously good-looking, universally adored, great at everything, and have special skills or powers.

Objectively identifying a Mary Sue is a pretty tricky business. I ran two of my characters through the Mary Sue test - Izzy and my new character Dee - and was surprised to see that both scored in the low range. I should say that I don't consider either character to be very well written - Izzy is completely single-faceted (he's just a huge grump all the time) and Dee's story is defined mostly by things happening to her rather than her personality or skills.

The problem with worrying overly much about this is that a Mary Sue isn't necessarily a bad character, and a bad character doesn't necessarily have Mary Sue qualities. Mary Sue tests don't account for overall good or bad writing. Some of the great classics have characters who are clearly “author inserts,” for instance! A Mary Sue can also appeal to audiences looking for escapism or wish fulfillment in their literature - I think the popularity of the Hunger Games books is evidence of this effect.

That being said, the test can still be useful for letting you know if you're relying on a few too many cliches in your writing. Run through the test here with one of your main characters and comment with how they fared! Do you think the test or the overall concept of a Mary Sue is useful?

CONTEST

This was ironscarf's idea, and I thought it would be really fun! Make a 1-page comic featuring a character who is as Mary Sue-ish as possible and send it to me via PQ or email. I'll feature all the comics in my newspost two weeks from now, and the winner will get a big ol' plug for their comic.

EDIT: Extending the deadline! Send me your Mary Sues by Thursday, March 19th!

I didn't have time to do a comic for this, but I drew a Hippie-Sue for you guys above. She's a much prettier me who leads the world with an army of cats (who she can talk to, because she speaks every language including animal and plant languages) and also has time to make amazing watercolour paintings. Plus her hair is never crazy, and neither of her eyebrows is weirdly lower than the other.


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comment

anonymous?

CornTown at 9:31AM, March 6, 2015

Mary Sues are awesome! http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/048s3c/tek-jansen---hounds-of-hell--ragtime-billy-peaches

HippieVan at 8:38AM, March 6, 2015

@Genejoke: I feel like it's been around for a long time...I remember stumbling across either this test or a very similar one years ago. Not sure why they never updated the colour scheme, though.

HippieVan at 8:37AM, March 6, 2015

@bravo: I'm not sure I understand what you mean by writing "objectively."

HippieVan at 8:37AM, March 6, 2015

@KimLuster: I think you've hit on a good point there! Any character with super powers (which is TONS of characters in comics) is almost certainly going to score higher on that test.

Genejoke at 8:36AM, March 6, 2015

that test has a horrible colour scheme.

KimLuster at 8:09AM, March 6, 2015

@Bravo: I agree with you in the 'attempt' to be objective, but I also agree with strixvanallen that it's inherently impossible (there's schools of philosophy that claim objectivity in ANYTHING, even science, isn't possible... Anyway...). There are times when I've purposefully thrown objectivity away - I've tried to imagine myself in my character's shoes in certain situation so I could try to get a grip on 'what would really happen'... What would someone really do in said situation...? Still, even though it may be unobtainable, I do think objectivity should be strived for. It's relative - we all know when someone is trying to be objective and that counts!

KimLuster at 8:00AM, March 6, 2015

It seems there's a slippery slope when writing characters that, by their nature, are above human. Yes, my character Kimber Lee is quite beautiful, super strong and agile... Pretty much every physical aspect of her is now 'better' than a standard humans (me included)... But that's sort of the point - it what the Godstrain does! Like Bravo, I love my real life and felt I've had quite an adventurous one! Still, I honestly don't think I'd say 'NO' if some 'power' offered to turn me up to Eleven! It's fantasy and I know it'll never happen, but if it did, I wouldn't say 'Nah, I'm good'! Is it Mary Sue-ish, then, that I've written a character that I wouldn't mind having some (ALL?) of her uber-traits (for the purpose of this post, let's ignore the MANY negatives of the Godstrain)? If so, then is any Male who writes about Superman or Batman type character guilty of the same thing...!

strixvanallen at 7:43AM, March 6, 2015

If I had to make a guess, I would guess that Mary Sues are reviled because they are expressions of immature and/or selfish wishes from the authors. When we grow out of those desires (or simply get others that are more important to us), Mary Sues become an annoying reminder of what we once were.

KimLuster at 7:42AM, March 6, 2015

Yeah, it bugged me greatly that my Character Kimber Lee scored much higher that I wished in Mary Sue-ness (not a stratospheric score, but higher than I liked), but then, my story has a plot device, the 'Godstrain' that actually seems to bring about certain 'wish fulfillments' of whoever has it. It's sort of a mini-theme of the story, so I'm just gonna roll with it. I'll even bring the 'Mary Sue' point up later in the story. As has been mentioned, these tests don't seem to put near as much weight on the negatives of a character that 'could' counter-balance some of the Mary Sue-ness (and the Godstrain brings PLENTY of negatives).

strixvanallen at 7:40AM, March 6, 2015

I don't think that Mary Sues are simply "subjective" characters in opposotion to "objective" characters, whichever that means. Objective wirtting isn't fiction, it's scientific writting. All characters are author avatars, it doesn't matter if you want it or not. The point is, we draw our characters from our own experiences and knowledge. There's no way a character won't have at least a part of ourselves. Sometimes, it is a good part of ourselves, sometimes it is a bad part. But it's always us. Writing in itself is wish fulfillment. You wish to say something, you go and say. I don't think it's a coincidence that Mary Sue characters are (usually) works of teenagers: they (usually) have less experiences to share, a less mature look at the world. It reflects on the characters, that are a reflection of this lack of maturity. As people grow, they tend to learn more about the world and about other people, they tend to learn better to feel empathy, and that shows in fiction.

bravo1102 at 7:11AM, March 6, 2015

Princess January isn't a Sue. She's a classic villain. Villains aren't usually Sues only heroes. Unless you're into anti-hero characters which can be a form of Sue. Then there's the Anti-Sue. Where you do everything possible to make your character not a Sue. An ugly reviled cripple who still saves the princess and wins everyone's hearts, but damn it's a long trip. Shrek?

bravo1102 at 7:07AM, March 6, 2015

Mary Sues are subjective which is why as a writer I try to be totally objective. I try not to put myself in my stories. Some characters may at times reflect bits of my point of view but I grew out of the Mary Sue thing in my early 20's. To me that's what makes a good writer as opposed to a bad one. Taking yourself out of the story and being an objective observer of the action. Wish fulfillment? My life has been entirely too interesting thank you very much. Even my fan-fiction was decidedly anti-Sue. A good story is about an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, not little-miss-popular-perfection (with a quirk) taking on the great ques to determine the fate of a planet. How about Mr. Average little guy. Frodo Baggins perhaps?

VinoMas at 6:55AM, March 6, 2015

It's hard to consider Princess January as a Mary Sue, because even though she is very pretty with a great body and is contanstly talking about how amazing she is...she is also pure evil and certiafiably crazy. Is that a Mary Sue, or just someone that's truly AWESOMELY INSANE?

strixvanallen at 6:26AM, March 6, 2015

All my characters always score high in Mary Sue tests. I'm used to it, and it never pained me because I could see that: a) I never give them Mary-Sue-ish personality traits. They score high because I like to make them, well, not-boring, so they have powers and quirks that score high on the test. I also like to give them something visually appealing because only drawing common people with common designs can get boring, too. b) those tests hardly ever have de-mary-sue boxes for my characters' flaws. Or, if they do, it subtracts little, compared with all things that the character have on the plus side (most of which are cosmetic things, like unusual eye colours and such). // That said, in good writing, ONE de-Mary-Sue trait can often balance all the Mary-Sue traits combined. // I wrote a thing characterizing Mary Sues some time ago: http://fav.me/d64i1jm (A scientist's habits die hard. xD/0

tupapayon at 5:32AM, March 6, 2015

This Mary Sue concept is very subjective… most of the time, your main characters would be Mary Sues… an extension of your fantasies, or a better version of yourself… because stories are usually your own fantasy…

Call Me Tom at 2:51AM, March 6, 2015

Acording to the test Mark from the understanding is a High-to-very high Mary Sue.


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