Monday, October 20, 2008

The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test

I heard about a character test, designed to judge if your character is a "Mary Sue," or in danger of becoming one. Since I'm in the midst of working on the new stories about the new character, I ran her through it. Her score: 18 (probably not, but be careful).

It's an entertaining test, to be sure, but far from the be-all, end-all on character construction (as the authors themselves point out). For instance, the test-writers don't like characters who are too unique. You get strikes against you if your character is a tom boy, has special abilities, is something other than pure human, or is the best at something. Oops, my bad. Then again, also Joss's bad (or anyone else's who I like). Angel, one of my favorite genre characters, isn't human, is incredibly powerful, saves the day more than anyone else, etc. Shame on him.

Now, toward the end of the test there is a section of de-Suifiers, which can help make up the difference. This is the spot where you get to click on character flaws. There are far fewer options for flaws than for perfections. Feels a bit weighted. If your character is overweight, middle aged, and a wuss, you're in good shape. Angel is none of these. Bad Joss. Angel has other flaws, some of which are listed on the test, but most of which are not. Flaws like arrogance, vanity, a savior complex, etc. But, since they're not on the test, they don't count, right?

Anyhow, the test is fun. Take it for one of your characters, but take it with a grain of salt.

For me, I'm thinking now about my character. She's the hero in an urban fantasy world, so there are certain things that go along with that - she's a bit special, she's not purely human, and she tends to be the one to save the day. I've done my best to make her personality flawed, but now I'm thinking of how else I can make life hard for her. I think I need to take some time to think about what her vulnerabilities really are. What are her weaknesses? Her vices? What's she most afraid of? What abilities/virtues does she have that could get pushed too far and turned into weaknesses? Good questions to have answers to.

Along with/instead of running one of your own characters through the test, I also recommend substituting some of your favorite characters from your favorite story tellers. I wonder how their hero does? If, according to the test, said character is a Mary Sue, what is it that the test doesn't account for which redeems them?


The One and Only John said...

I submit that the better litmus test is your audience reaction. This survey doesn't really look like something I would entirely rely on. This isn't something a creator of a character should be answering, but rather the audience of the character. As the creator, you can try really hard to make a character come off a certain way, just like with your own personality, but people develop their own perceptions how they want and it's not always the same as you develop yours. The test would better serve if the responses were qualitative, rather than quantitative. Sure, great, my character has a Mary-Sue score of 38, now how do I improve that score? Is the problem the same for one person as it is for others, and if so, how many?

This survey brings up good points. Certainly is food for thought, but some things are not so simply answered with a Cosmopolitan quiz.

Ali said...

The one difficulty of having the reader take the test is that they don't know for sure whether or not the author wants to date/look like/be like/etc. the character.

The One and Only John said...

The reader should be thinking about their own reactions to the material, about whether or not they want to date/look like/be like/etc. the character. If they are thinking about how the author feels about the character, the author has failed as a storyteller.

The whole point of character development is to get an audience to identify with characters in some way. If they can't do that, the issue is the relationship between the audience and the character, and moreover the relationship between the audience and the author; but definitely not the relationship between the author and the character.

Of course the issue of how the author feels may come into the equation sooner or later, but the catalyst for the disconnect arises from how the audience reacts. First they hate the character for existing, then the author for making it exist, then for why the character exists.

Ali said...

Yes, true. However, the idea of the Mary Sue test is to see if you as the author are in love with your character.

Whether the audience loves the character is not relevant.

The One and Only John said...

I suppose my point lies in the bigger picture.

The author's feelings by itself is useless information unless compared to how the audience feels. How the two match up, along with how much of the character was intentional, indicates how adept the author is at reflecting a view of the world back on itself in a way that can be understood, which should be the point of art.

If you can't tell whether or not you are in love with your character, then you need more help than a simple quiz, and you weren't paying enough attention when you created the character in the first place.

Ali said...

I dig that. But, this isn't about the bigger picture, it's about a specific brush-stroke :)

The One and Only John said...

Well, it's a useless stroke. Interpret that however you want.