Testing a Character for Mary Sue-ism and What to Do About It

What is a Mary Sue?
There are several definitions of a Mary Sue. Usually a character that makes people say, “Mary Sue!” has some combination of the follow characterizations:

  • A Character Based Off Yourself

Named after you, working at the job you wish you had, possessing all your good qualities, dressing, thinking, and acting like you, this is the beginner’s Mary Sue. When I first started writing as a teen all my protagonists were copies – maybe idealized copies, but still copies – of me. Trust me, this is a bad idea. You will get too attached to your character, not allow them to grow and 3D-ize naturally, and will squish the story to fit the character, instead of the other way around.

  • A Perfect, Unbeatable, Fantastic Character

She is gorgeous. She will whip anyone in a fight. She can not lose. She gets all the guys she wants. If she’s got a fault it something like “a little clumsy when not on the battlefield.”  She’s a Mary Sue. These are the characters that annoy people. Unfortunately, these Sues also tend to masquerade as Really Cool characters. And it’s really temping to make your favorite character Really Cool.

  • A Character With Cliche Qualities, Backstory, or Plot Points

She was abandoned by her parents, has strange eyes that see into your soul, and will die in her lovers arms to be brought back to life at the Crucial Moment. If you’re wondering how you could possibly write a character this terrible. . . well, maybe not that terrible. But letting “little” cliche attributes pile up is easier than you think, especially if you are not well-versed in cliches.

Despite the female name, Mary Sues do not have to be girls. Guys can have the qualities too. Now, whether you call a male Mary Sue a Gary Stu or Murray Sue or Marty Stew is subject to some debate. For the sake of simplicity, however, I will only use “she” in this post. Substitute “he/she/it” in your mind.

A Little History

Originally, Mary Sues referred to original fanfiction characters. Even more originally, it referred to original Star Trek fanfiction characters. A short story mocking the abundance of young, perfect, attention-stealing insert characters coined the term. It is viewable here: http://www.fortunecity.com/rivendell/dark/1000/marysue.htm The term “Mary Sue” has lost a lot of its meaning in fanfiction due to general overuse and definition fuzziness, but plain fiction writers have happily adopted the term.

How can I tell if one of my characters is a Mary Sue?

Well, the easy way is to try a Mary Sue test on the character. Now, in no way is a simple yes/no test perfect, but I’ve found such tests very useful. I’ve compiled links to the tests I’ve found most useful. They are intended for straight fiction characters (many tests you find will be intended for fanficiton characters).

  • The Original Mary Sue Test for Fiction Characters

http://www.ponylandpress.com/ms-test.html

[Note: the original original Mary Sue test which the above test was based off of was for fanfiction characters.]

  • The Exhaustive, Recommended Test [Slight language and references to sexuality. For a PG to PG-13 audience.]

http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm

[Note: on the same site is a Mary Sue test for created races.]

  • A Shorter Test

http://www.katfeete.net/writing/marysue.html

[Note: the "summary" after the test is humorously unreliable, but all the points are something to think about.]

The Mary Sue of Stargate: Atlantis

I just realized why Teyla is my least favorite character on my favorite show. She's an orphan, the leader of her people, a keen warrioress, partially Wraith, and the only new thing she struggles to understand is Earth culture. No wonder she annoys me.

Oh dear. How do I fix my Mary Sue?

Fixing Mary Sues isn’t too hard, as long as you’re not too attached. What exactly you need to do to fix your Mary Sue depends on what is wrong. But first, let me define “fixing.” I do not mean going, “OK, maybe I can cut that out,” and de-checking boxes on a Mary Sue test until you are down to a reasonable score. I mean taking a grand look at your character, picking up the worst problems one at a time, and figuring out what should be there instead.

  • Copy of You

So, she’s actually you, huh? Here’s a quick tip: change her (or his) name. I mentioned above that all my first protagonists were coppies of me. Well, one of those protagonists has since been rewritten (along with her accompanying story line) into someone else entirely who can carry a novel on her shoulders. The first step was to change her name. Then figure out how much of your storyline was pandering to the fact she’s you – and cut it.  Leave her alone for a few months. Come back and figure out who she really is.

  • Backstory

Backstory is perhaps the easiest to fix, and it’s even easier to fix if you’ve yet to start writing (this is why you test for Mary Sues in the development stage). Just. . . change their personal story. If you’ve already begun writing, you may need to add or delete scenes, but trust me, it’s for the better of your novel. This only gets tricky if you have a bad backstory giving a character their motive or something for integral to the story. In this case it’s back to the drawing board: your character is underdeveloped. Decide what is really causing Mary Sue to act.

  • Character Traits

Ditch the purple eyes and raven hair and the out-of-time-and-place clothing. Make sure she has a real character flaw – or three or five. Realize she is not going to stay calm and collected no matter what, and certainly not when everyone else is panicking. Take a look at your character arc: how has she changed by The End? Or did you make her perfect at the beginning and leave no room for development?

  • Cliche Development

If you just realized that Mary Sue easily switches from being an apothecary to leading the rebel army, if Mary Sue never gets honestly beaten or makes a mistake (without a reasonable excuse), if Mary Sue develops amnesia, and becomes royalty. . . hopefully you’re only outlining. :) Take bad plot points out and figure out a better way to get from the A before the point and the B after the point. Add good plot points (your character receiving the consequences for being a smart alec, for example). Think carefully about realism, since many Mary Sue plot point borderline the fantastic.

If you find that a character is just too deep a Mary Sue to keep alive and just can’t make it in your story, that’s OK. Sometimes its easier to start over from the beginning rather than try to revise the unrevisable. Just last year I scrapped a complete draft and started over from the beginning. It was that bad.

Things To Remember So You Don’t Huff And Ignore Everything I Just Said:
~Those tests are for symptom of the disease. Not every point is to be avoided like a hurricane; Mary Sue characteristics – when used with restraint – can be done well. See below.
~Yes, it is possible for you to see Mary Sue qualities in a character from your favorite or a classic book. If you are a really, really good writer, you can pull off a great story with a Mary Sue. And I mean J. K. Rowling good (try doing a Mary Sue test for Harry Potter).
~Every writer has made a Mary Sue in their day. You will too at some point. You are not J. K. Rowling. If you think you are, there’s a name for that psychiatric condition.

This is the first post in a serious on characters. You see, in my planning for NaNoWriMo, I’m fleshing out my main and supporting characters. So it’s all in self-interest.  May you never write another Mary Sue again! (I wish the same for myself.)

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About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on October 5, 2011, in On Writing, Useful Sites and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I was interested to read this. In the novel i am developing right now, that is based in an environment that i am very familiar with, and with characters who I am also very familiar with, there is a flawed and human not so pretty Mary-Sue who is a major player. But all from the POV of another very different character.
    It is my first novel. I feel that I should begin with writing what I know and it is flowing. I have previously worked for years in script development. Anyway i shall go back and apply your tests to these characters and look again.
    But i have to confess to being a little confused as to why I should not write using a character like me.. Is that weird? c

  2. I ran my NaNoWriMo ninja superhero character through several of them, and he comes out as a Sue everytime. They must not have been designed for superheroes.

    • “Aren’t designed for fantasy characters” is a common complaint. The problem is that fantasy has a lot of its own Mary Sue characteristics, so it merely appears that way. I’d image it’s the same for superheros. . . Although, the superhero genre has always had Mary Sues for leads. In the comics, anyways. I admit I have never read a superhero novel and don’t know if that’s expected to change or not. I instinctively say it would, that novels and comics and movies are different mediums, but you might try researching that.

  3. Many of the ones I saw had a lot for fantasy characters in them.

    The thing it didn’t cover was emotions and how they were inside.

    • Exactly. Some say this is unfair targeting of fantasy characters, when it’s just targeting the weaknesses in the genre.

      I’m not sure what you mean; you think the tests lacked questions for emotions? How would that make them “not designed for superheros?”

  4. just popped by your blog from your comment on mine. i’ve never heard of a mary sue before! i’m proud to say only my very first character ever is a mary sue….she was me jacked up on steroids to perfection. ah….to grow and learn. :) thanks for stopping by! you can still take the plot and personality test if you feel the keen urge to do so. :)

    jeannie

  5. I think it’s fine to have a character that is a copy of you, as long as he/she isn’t the only main character, there is no more than one copy per story, and you let the other characters do an equal amount of cool stuff.

  6. I actually do the Mary Sue test every so often for whatever made-up I’m planning on using for a fanfiction or fandom roleplay. Luckily though I haven’t gotten any score higher than the Slight-Sue in a few years (I worked hard to give my characters various issues and problems). Your thing though reminded me of not only my original attempts at writing (where I did use characters with my name but never my appearance) but that I still come across ridiculously Sue-ish characters even now. XD

  7. Reblogged this on worldpen and commented:
    I know I’m about a year late, but this is excellent advice. I just took one of the tests…thankfully my NaNo MC is not Mary Sue! Unfortunately, he’s also pretty boring. I’ll be working on that.

  8. Reblogged this on The Shift and commented:
    This is excellent for my character development… I’ll be running a few Mary Sue tests for some of my MC’s now…

  9. I read what is a Mary Sue and how to avoid make one, but it’s to late, beacuse I made one, and I don’t know how to deSue it.I think is impossible to change her, maybe because I’m to attached to it.I don’t see how I can make a character which isn’t almost like me or haven’t some of my features, mental or physical, because if it dose’t has them, I’ll can’t identify myself with she/ find me in her personality and I’ll don’t like she anymore.Also, her physical appearence is very close to mine, almost the same.What should I do?
    I don’t want she be a Mary Sue, but I still want she likes some thing that I like, like drawing, writing and reading-but just that- and her physical appearence remain the same is now, even is very close to mine.Her personality I can change-I guess-, but not her physic-which means, I think, I’m a materialist person, or just obssesed the way I look.Her personalitty should be 1/100 of mine, but I have no idea what should I do for this.I can’t hill she almost entirely!But still I don’t want it be a Sue, a cliche.
    And the last question, the same which I put before, if she looks almost like me and likes drawing, writing and reading, but the rest of her personality is different, she’s still a Sue?

    (P.S.: Sorry for the eventually grammar mistakes and the repetition of some words or pharagraps, but I’m not a native english speaker.)

  10. Klaus Schilling

    I considere Mary-Sues as a good thing, and nobody will ever bee able to dissuade me from using them in my fanfictions.

  11. Another one coming to this late! Just wanted to say thanks for the article, it is massively helpful :)

    I have unwittingly written a copy/backstory Mary-Sue in my first fan fic in about ten years, which makes me far too old to be writing Mary-Sues, so I’m currently in a process of de-Sueifying her. The things I have found that work for me are not writing her as your canon character’s dream girl (I redrafted her as the dream girl for a character with a completely opposite personality to the one I’ve paired her with, and that seems to be working), and writing her in the third person – it gives you distance if you write ‘she’ or ‘[name]‘ rather than ‘I’. Definitely agree with the suggestions about flaws and backstory – that’s the area I’m struggling to cut right now, but this post has given me some good ideas for where to start.

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