We’ve posted a few articles about Mary Sue characters in roleplaying games (you can see them here), but what exactly is a Mary Sue? There’s obviously the story of the very first Mary Sue character, but the term means different things to different people.
There was a discussion about this on RPG-Directory this week, which was quite enlightening, and here are the highlights:
I know it has specific origins but as time has passed it’s just become a good term for any character you don’t like. If a character is too good it’s a Sue, if it’s too angsted it’s a Sue, if it doesn’t let me kill them in a fight it’s a Sue. You can just throw it out there as an accusation people immediately have to recoil from. I was talking to a friend once and he believed a character was a Mary Sue because they cared more about other people than themsleves but… like… selflessness can be a character trait and all. It’s weird. People will link that Mary Sue test and then characters will rank high but then it will be explained that oh no, they’re not a Mary Sue. They’re a carefully developed character with motivations and backstory that just so happens to apparently have traits or backstory considered to be Sueish. And hey, often they’re right because the things mentioned in that test aren’t completely horrible things that damn you to Suedom, they are things you can in fact do well. So really it’s a blanket term for bad and like most blanket terms it has lost most of it’s nuance.
When I read a character that has 15 different skills and abilities that they took to without effort and do perfectly, and has numerous contradicting personality traits (such as, she’s super nice but can be a bitch when she wants to be, or she’s overly shy but flourishes in a crowd), I go ‘oh lordy’.Now I don’t think having Mary Sue type qualities is a bad thing. One of my oldest characters was such a sue when I first created her but as I developed her, she developed flaws and weaknesses that actually made her kind of unlikeable at times. To me, a ‘Mary Sue’ is only a bad thing when they never develop beyond being perfect. Or well, never develop at all. Then they’re just that character that no one wants to play with…or likes to troll.
To me, the most important part of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu character is that the writer refuses to let them be fallible. No matter what, a Sue will always come out on top somehow, and even their “flaws” seem to work for them in some way. They have no true negative aspect to them, nothing that can’t also be construed as positive for the character, which is why Mary Sue can be used about such a wide range of characters. Being untouchable means different things to different characters.
For me, it’s more about how the person plays a character. You can have a perfect character – talented, gifted, amazing, and quite literally perfect at everything – but have them not come across as a Sue because of how they are played. It’s when the player puts their character on a pedestal, thinks they’re the best thing ever since sliced bread, and has their opinion show in threads (and, like, the character does not come across as amazing as the player thinks), not letting the other person/character/player judge for themselves.
Mary Sueism in RP is pretty much one of several (or worse, a combination) factors:1. the character is not only the smartest but also the most beautiful, most talented, most amazing, most popular – not because they actually ARE this in-play but because the writer says so in the bio, with no reason for this good fortune nor any drawbacks or weaknesses.
2. the character has no weakness ever- they are always the best no matter what happens, even if it’s a skill they have never used or attempted to learn before. Not only are they a brilliant concert musician in ten instruments, can speak seventeen languages and have the world’s highest charisma score BUT he can perform brain surgery in a triage tent in the middle of a war without losing a single patient!!
3. the writer will throw a huge OOC tantrum about any situation where their Sue/Stu loses in any sense of the word and will flat out ret-con or deny that it even happened or could ever happen.
4. a character who does not fit into the game world- they exist as this microcosm of perfection and morality regardless of what setting they are actually in or what choices they may be forced to make because they will ALWAYS do the right thing and whatever they’ve done must be the right thing because they did it. The writer will absolutely lose their mind if you even suggest their Sue may have made a questionable choice at any point.
5. The writer accepts no negative IC consequences for anything the Sue/Stu will ever do or any situation they end up in. Is the Sue revealed to Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley as a jewel thief and convicted murderess? Clearly everyone will admire her spunky spirit and shimmering purple eyes and declare that circumstances do not matter, let all the eligible bachelors of nobility and wealth in land propose to marry the sweet dear thing. Basically a Sue is a character that will require the setting to fit them or break for them just because they are more important than anything else in the world.
6. The writer ret-cons, re-writes and re-imagines the character’s entire history between one post and the next to always put the character on the winning side or give them an advantage in whatever the situation is. Nothing the character has done before in the game should ever continue to affect them in the future, right?
I have a particular loathing for number 4 and 5.
The term “Mary Sue” has turned into an umbrella term for many factors, and it can mean different things to different people. You’ll find much more discussion about this on RPG-D here.