The (Original) Mary Sue Litmus Test
Merlin Missy has been active in online fandom since 1994. She likes fanfics with plots and happy endings.View all articles by Merlin Missy
(Note: This essay was originally posted in 1997 and has been revised on several occasions since. For those not in the know, Gargoyles was a Disney series that aired from 1994 - 1997, which served as a dead-dog party to the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast. The show is best described as the mutant bastard offspring of Batman: The Animated Series and The Gummi Bears.)
Since its publication, I've received a bit of commentary on "Dr. Merlin's Guide," and fortunately for my ego, it's been positive feedback. However, there has been some concern about the section on Mary Sue-ism; specifically, many authors have talked to me and my associates about characters of their own, worried that said characters will be granted the dreaded appellation. First of all, not every original character is a Mary Sue. Most original characters are not, and for this, we may all be glad. On the other hand, Gargoyles fandom is filled with them, and only a few realize it.
This test has been designed to help an aspiring author determine whether his or her character is a Mary Sue, or is simply another addition to the megaverse that is fanfiction. Scoring is simple -- for every question answered "Yes," (even if it's "technically yes, but," still count a yes) add the number of points in brackets to your score. Be honest; you're not helping yourself by saying "But it doesn't really count because ... " and thus not counting something. If your character really is a Mary Sue, and you say he/she isn't because you can talk yourself into enough "No" answers, the character is still a Mary Sue and people will still flame you. The higher your score, the more likely it is the character is a problem, or worse, is a retread of a thousand characters exactly like him/her/it.
Note for those who are going to come after me with pitchforks: yes, many of the following traits were drawn from "Gargoyles" and "Star Trek" fanfic. Just as many, though, have been drawn from my own stories, characters who saw the light of day only in my mind and were mercifully executed before they made their way into published stories. I know whereof I write. Consider this my way of trying to help.
Funniest damn name I've heard yet: Billy Bob Sue, by Chrissy Synth
Section 1 - The Name Game
Is the character named after you? (This can be your first name, middle name, or the name you go by in chat or irc.) If so, stop now. Put your pencil (mouse?) down and turn in your test.
DO NOT NAME YOUR CHARACTER AFTER YOURSELF.
DO NOT NAME YOURSELF AFTER YOUR CHARACTER.
I DON'T CARE WHAT YOUR EXCEPTION IS.
Is the character's name an unusual spelling of a more common name or word?
Is the character's name unusual in another way?
A female with a male-sounding name?
A name the character chose for him or herself, because s/he "didn't want to forget"?
A noun or adjective not normally used for a name (especially for human characters)?
(Touchy with gargoyle characters, but use your discretion. Would any self-respecting gargoyle really want to go through life with this name?)
Does the character have a really cool name that you wish you had?
Is the character's name in the title of the story or is the title otherwise a description of the character? (i.e. "The Girl Who Could Fly")
Is the character named Hunter?
(If the character's last name is Canmore, ignore this question.)
Is the character a gargoyle originally from Wyvern circa 994 who had a name back then?
Is the character one of Oberon's Children whose name you made up because you liked the sound of it?
(Every fay we've met has been from a legend of some sort. Odds are good the rest are, too.)
Does the character have more than one name? (i.e. a nickname or a pseudonym that other characters use to refer to the character)
Did you spend more than a day looking for just the right name?
Have you considered naming your pet or child the character's name?
Section 2 - Physical Attributes
Is the character the same gender as you?
Is the character from the same racial group as you?
(Note: if the character is a gargoyle, fay, or another magical/genetically altered being, answer yes to this question.)
Is the character a hybrid of two or more species?
Is the character a cross-breed of any other type? (i.e. multi-racial, multi-clan)
Is the character not subject to limitations normally put upon someone of this species? (Examples: A character who is any part gargoyle but does not turn to stone at dawn. A character who is in any part fay but is not vulnerable to iron. A human who is immortal.)
Note: Take away four points if the character does not have the benefits of being part of the race but still has the drawbacks. (Examples: A character who is any part gargoyle who cannot fly, ever, in your entire story series. A character who is part fay who cannot work magic, ever, in your entire story series.) Take away only one point if the character eventually does get the benefit, anywhere in the story series.
Is the character a teenager or in her/his early twenties?
Does the character look like s/he is a teenager or in her/his early twenties for no apparent reason?
For a magical or special scientific reason?
That you plan on making a plot point later?
Does this sentence or similar appear anywhere in your story? "(Character's name) was the youngest person to ever become (insert job title here)."
Is the character the age you would like to be?
Is the character beautiful or roguishly handsome?
Does one or more of the regulars find the character highly attractive?
Do other regulars see him/her as a threat because of this?
Does the character have an unusual eye color for no apparent reason?
Will this be a plot point later?
Does the character have really nice hair that you describe more than once, or on the first page?
Does the character have an accent which you do not share?
Does the character have a scar or a strange marking that is noticed by another character, but does not actually detract from his/her appearance?
Is the character deaf, mute, or both?
Is s/he no longer deaf and/or mute by the end of the story/series or else dead? (subtract 1 pt if character is alive and still deaf or mute at the end of the entire series)
Is the character otherwise physically disabled? (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)[subtract 2 pts]
Is the character no longer disabled at the end of the series, or else dead?
Is the character mentally disabled? (read: at the functional level of Forrest Gump or below)[subtract 2]
Does the character have any telekinetic, telepathic, or other psychic powers despite / because of this disability?
Is the character overweight? (not just "I ate too many Snackwells and now my thighs are HUGE, but honestly overweight)[subtract 2]
Is this remarked upon by another character who is not motivated by jealousy?[subtract 2]
Is the character no longer overweight by the end of the series?
Section 3 - Personal Traits
Is the character the long-lost child or descendent or sibling of a regular or recurring character?
Of Brooklyn and/or Demona?
Of Oberon and/or Puck?
Of another original character for whom you intend to write another story or even another series?
Was the character adopted or did he/she otherwise live with people who were not his/her parents as a child?
Is the character a member or a friend of a hitherto unknown clan of gargoyles?
And is the last surviving member of that clan?
Add points for each aspect seen somewhere during your character's life:
- abandoned by caregivers
- born or forced into slavery
- born or raised in extreme poverty
- sole survivor of a calamity
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse by a caregiver
- member of a "despised" class or race[1, 2 if it is a plot point of the "I can make a contribution even thought I'm ... " variety]
- illegitimate birth
- later parent of illegitimate child[1 pt each]
- any other life experience inspired by V.C. Andrews
Does the character suffer from guilt about something terrible that s/he did in the past?
Do the other characters eventually convince her/him that it was not his/her fault?
Does the character share your religious beliefs?
(Add an extra point if the character is a gargoyle or fay.)
Did the character have an unusual birth or unusual experience in early infancy? (i.e. abducted, placed in a basket and set afloat, visited by Three Weirdos, etc.)
Does the character have a twin, a clone, or a sibling of the same gender?
About whom you plan on writing another story later?
Does the character have a very good singing voice?
Or play a musical instrument amazingly well?
The guitar or flute, for instance?
Does the character have better taste in music than you do?
(For example, does your character own cd's that you think educated people ought to own, even though you've never actually listened to the music yourself?)
Does the character do what you do for fun or profit?
(This includes having the same job you have, or would like to have when you're older, or having a job that sounds like a lot of fun even though you know nothing about it. It can also mean RPing, computer programming, whatever.)
Is the character Alexander's nanny?
Is the character royalty of any type?
That she/he does not originally know about?
Does the character make more wisecracks than Brooklyn?
Because Brooklyn is your favorite character?
Does everyone end up liking the character (among the regulars you like)?
Section 4 - Super Powers
Is the character at all or part fay?
But doesn't find out until the middle or end of the story, or will find out in a future story you already have planned?
Is the character banished from Avalon or somehow not subject to the Gathering?
Is the character allowed to go as he/she pleases from Avalon?
Does the character, not being fay, have magical/mutant powers anyway?
Does the character have telekinesis or telepathy? (Twins count.)
Does the character just "know things" for no apparent reason?
Can the character fly?
Without the aid of wings?
Can the character heal with a touch and/or thought?
Do animals (especially fuzzy ones) instinctively like the character?
(Subtract two points if the only animals that like the character are non-butterfly insects and crawly lizard-types.)
Section 5 - The Love Connection
Does the character fall in love with and/or have sex with Owen and/or Brooklyn and/or Demona?
(If anyone writes a story with all three being "AND," send me a copy.
Because you want to have sex with Owen and/or Brooklyn and/or Demona?
Does the character fall in love with and/or have sex with another recurring character from the show?
With whom you would like to fall in love and/or have sex?
Does the character fall in love with and/or have sex with another original character?
With whom you would like to fall in love and/or have sex?
Does the character's presence (eventually) make Goliath and Elisa (or Angela and Brooklyn or Angela and Broadway or any other pair of canon characters) realize they were meant for each other?
Does the story end with the character's wedding?
Is it attended by more than one fay (other than Owen and Alexander)?
Section 6 - The Real World and Your Character
Would you like to be friends with the character if you met in real life?
Do you think everyone who reads the story should automatically like the character and want to be friends with the character?
If someone tells you he/she doesn't like your character, do you take it as a personal attack on you?
Do you ever pretend, just to yourself, that you are the character, with the same strengths and abilities?
If someone calls your character a Mary Sue, do you immediately assume they're jealous of you?
Section 7 - The Fiendish Plot
Do you introduce the character on the first page of the story?
In the first sentence?
Do you tell the story from the character's point of view, all or mostly?
Does the character meet the gargoyles, and after a few tense pages of plot, become friends with them?
Does the character manage to develop a friendship with an otherwise villainous character, and through this friendship, reform the other character?
Is the villain in question Demona?
Does the villain become evil again after the character dies, but retain some last vestige of goodness from his/her interaction with the character, evidenced in one selfless action at the end of the story?
Is the character transformed into a gargoyle or into a magical or genetically-altered being?
Is the character happier in her/his new form?
Do people like the character better in her/his new form?
Do you wish you could be transformed because of the neat powers?
Does the character save the day and/or another character's life?
Through magical/mystical intervention?
Through dying? (Turning to stone "forever" counts.)
Through almost dying?
Does everyone go into mourning?
Does s/he get not-dead by the end of the story?
Will s/he get not-dead in the sequel?
Does the character go to Avalon at the end of the story?
(no points if the character came from Avalon at the beginning of the story)
Does the character end up living at the clocktower/Castle Wyvern?
Do you plan to write many more stories revolving around this character?
Do you plan to write one or more stories featuring this character's child(ren)?
Possible Points: 170 (assuming some questions obviate the rest) Preliminary testing suggests the following basic scoring scheme:
0-14 Developed character, unlikely MS.
15-20 Borderline character. Characters in this range are potential MS's, who can go either way dependent on the author's skill.
21+ Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Proceed with greatest caution.
35+ Reconsider your character and plot. Please.
Note: As of 9/4/02, I went through the test and reevaluated the original characters I used to set up the scoring in the first place. Oddly enough, the breakdown of scores stayed the same. Some MS's scored higher than before, but no non-MS's left the range.
Occasionally Asked Questions
Why are Mary Sues bad? I'm just writing to have a good time.
First, they're not always bad. Mary Sues are a fun, easy way to start writing stories about our favorite characters. What could be simpler for a story idea than pretending you're hanging out with the cool people on your favorite show or in your favorite movie? The problem is that it's overdone. So many people started out this way, and made the stories public, that the character is a walking, talking, angsting, violet-eyed cliche. She's dull to those of us who've read a lot of fanfic. (And so's he.) If you're writing for your own amusement, and not as a way of learning to write as a profession, then by all means, continue with this same style. However, if you want to improve your abilities, you're eventually going to have to learn proper character development, and not just use a sad upbringing and a fiery temper as a substitute. It's hard, and it takes time. Mary Sues are much easier to do, but as a rule, they show lazy writing. Personally, I don't have time to wade through your story if I already know everything about your Neat New Character and how s/he is going to save the day, so if I see an MS, I'm going to stop reading. That's me.
I got 74 reviews on fanfiction.net saying my character was great, so she can't be a Mary Sue. Right?
Here's a tip. Take a look at the profiles for the folks who left those reviews. Are they all 13? Are they all writing the same Neat New Character insertion stories? Are there several from the same people, who are always the same people who tell you that you're wonderful? Okay then. Everyone has their own opinion, and your fans are certainly entitled to theirs. You may even be among the writers who can start with a cliched character and make her sparkle despite it. If you are, good for you. It'd be nice if the number of reviews on ff.net actually reflected the quality of the story, it really would.
I only write canon characters, but some of the ones I'm writing fail. Can canon characters be Mary Sues?
Ah, you've met Canon Sue. The question is, are the traits that you're worried about part of the character's canon backstory, or did you add them yourself? The more MS traits you've added to the existing material, the more likely it is that someone's getting irritated with the way you handle the character. Willow Sue is apparently very common in Buffy fandom, as is Chloe Sue in Smallville fandom. Gargoyles fandom has seen more than its share of Brooklyn Sue and Angela Sue. Watch your character development. If you're worried, try telling the story from the POV of another character for a while.
But how can it be a Mary Sue? S/he's not me! I'm nothing like him/her.
Not all MS's are author insertion. Not all authors realize when they are inserting themselves. The most infamous (there are fan websites to this MS) fan-created Mary Sue in Star Trek is God Empress of the Universe Marrissa Amber Flores Picard, who was written by a well-meaning and quite nice straight male. A cliched character is still a cliched character, no matter if you think s/he isn't you in Groucho glasses. Sorry.
My friend wrote a Mary Sue. How can I tell her without hurting her feelings?
Well, you can start by gently prodding her in the direction of this or another MS Litmus test. Quite often, that's enough to wake writers up to the true nature of their characters. If you're her beta reader, use the opportunity to suggest alternate possibilities for the character, like a different age, a heathier background story, maybe even a smaller part in favor of the canon characters. And again, not all Mary Sues are bad, evil and awful, and mean that their authors are terrible folk what ought never be allowed to write again. They're a growth step in the writing process. Some are even kind of fun. Your friend's character may entertain her. If she doesn't want to fix the character, as long as she understands that doesn't make her the "Kooolst Writr Eva," she loses points for lacking originality but you shouldn't lose sleep over it. Just hope she learns a little better for next time.
Also, please repeat after me: "NOT EVERY ORIGINAL CHARACTER IS AUTOMATICALLY A MARY SUE." Now say it again. Out loud. Come on. Okay. Just because an author introduces a new character, don't immediately assume MS. Original characters are great; they add to the universe in a non-threatening way. They can even be shared if the author is okay with that. OC's are cool. OC's that draw on the author's own experience are also cool. That gives the character another aspect of realism ('cause that's what we want in all of our characters, remember?). It's only when the character takes over the story, making the canon characters act out of character, or when the so-called original character is the same damned character from the last five fanfics we just read with a different wig and colored contacts, that you start pulling out a litmus test. OC's are good. OC's who get in the way of the story are bad.
That's a lot of points for the first question. Aren't there any exceptions?
Maybe. Stop! Don't immediately assume your story is that exception, because if you had to ask, it's not. But maybe it could be. If your character really and truly is you, with all your awkwardness and shyness, and every good and bad trait you honestly know you possess, with your own neither entirely happy nor terribly tragic childhood, and with your own massive unlikelihood of meeting, much less befriending, the canon characters, then maybe. If your self-insertion character is not in any way idealized, or made more angst-ridden so that canon characters who've already led tough lives can still sympathize, then it's possible the character won't be badly cliched and flamed to a crisp by reviewers. But don't count on it.
Isn't "Mary Sue" just a label made up by fanfic writers who are jealous that other writers are more popular?
No. If that were true, the same people would also be snarking at fanfiction that did not include the dreaded MS's but was extremely popular. Instead, these are the stories that are (or should be) held up as the best of the fandom. For an example from Gargoyles fandom, let us consider the writer Christine Morgan. She's very prolific (a story almost every other week), very talented (Good plots, solid characterization, sizzling descriptions, and she does research. Oh, and she can actually spell.), and she's had a few novels professionally published. And while she's got characters that gather a few points on the test, she's also bright enough to give them well-rounded personalities and flaws. She doesn't write Mary Sues, and I think she's received exactly one letter saying her stories are bad and she should stop writing. (Now *that* sounds like jealousy to me.) I can also think of some other writers from the fandom (no names for now) who are also prolific and popular, but write extremely cliched Mary Sues. They're the ones who get the letters and the reviews telling them about it. If the people who are writing the feedback are "just jealous," why don't they flame Ms. Morgan as well?
The expression "Mary Sue" stems from Trek fandom in the early 70's. It has spread into common fan culture since, as a way of describing a character that everyone knows and nobody likes. While jealousy may be a factor in a reviewer pointing out a specific Mary Sue by a specific author, the term is valid. Personally, I wrote this test because I was cranky about reading so many stories in the Gargoyles archives with the same plots revolving around the same original characters that weren't very original. I wanted better fanfic to read, so rather than contact the specific authors, which may have worked but only one ego at a time, I created a quick test for aspiring fanfic writers to filter out some of the worst stories before I read them. Because it's all about me.
Okay, so you've taken the test, and the character in question has failed miserably. You're stuck with a conundrum: should you write this wonderful story you have in your head? How can you do it without your character? I can't answer that for you. There are plenty of wonderful stories out there with characters who fit a high number of these traits, and still manage to be excellent fiction with interesting characters. The authors in question knew what they were doing when handling a character of this type, and pulled it off well. On the other hand, there are a disturbingly large number of stories in the same places with very painful examples of the above in them. Some of them helped inspire the test. In the end, your own common sense must be the judge.
If you see too many traits in common with your own character, can you change the character accordingly? Does the character have to be, or look, sixteen? Can you tell the exact same story with just the regulars? (You'd be amazed how often a little imagination can make this work, sometimes with even better results. Try it.) Does the character have to save the day? Must he/she be such an integral part of the story? Can you use the character instead as a means of examining the reactions of the regulars (to something other than the character's demise)? Can you give the character a major flaw? (Being unable to sing is not a major flaw. Being a gargoyle who is afraid of heights is a major flaw. Being socially inept can be a major flaw.)
I have one final piece of advice to impart. When creating a new character, no matter of what species, at his or her most basic level, the character will be human, because the author will be human. The audience will also be human, and will relate to the character on those terms. Yes, your character might have wonderful magical powers, and that is fun to fantasize about having for yourself. At the same time, your character also has fears, and wishes, and dreams, and s/he will make mistakes, sometimes painful ones. Not everything your character does can be perfect and good. Humans don't work that way. We say stupid things sometimes, and get wrapped up in ourselves, and we step on the feelings of other people whether we mean to or not, and we laugh at dumb jokes, and we smell bad when we sweat, and we drool on our pillows.
If you really want to make an original character, give him or her bad habits, and good ones, and thoughts and opinions you don't share. Have the relationship not necessarily work out, especially right from the start. (But please avoid the "You belong with XXXX, so although I love you, I must leave you that you may be with your destined love" cliche, because wow. Overdone much?) Even Goliath and Elisa didn't admit their feelings until they'd known each other for two years and a really long cruise. First and last of all, be real. The fantasy will make itself.
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