I read a book last week with a whole cast of MarySues. I kid you not. Everyone was royalty, half-elf, full elf, an amazing fighter, horrendously accomplished/respected/feared despite their young age, dressed dashingly to the nines even in squalid circumstances, etc. The heroine MarySue-bested the hero when they crossed swords on their first encounter, and the hero was grudgingly impressed because he was, like, the Bestest Swordsman Evar!!1!1! His elf-prince sidekick had a nicely tragic backstory to make his alone-ness all the more poignant. The Lesser Sues either died nobly or received their glory moments so that the reader would know how omigosh speshul they were.
It was a riot. (And no, I’m not going to call out the book by name. That would be bad form.)
Basically, MarySue embodies the acme of ham-handed character development. Although she’s more common to fanfic and RPGs, she rears her head often enough in fiction to merit discussion. Everyone loves MarySue. Everyone readily sympathizes with her. Everyone knows that in the end, she will triumph and her cause will be vindicated. She is special, the exception to every rule, the outlier character with superficial flaws that are easily glossed over.
I’m guessing that at some point in our development, all writers are guilty of creating a MarySue—or a whole cast of MarySue variations. It stems from our natural desire for readers to love and sympathize with a character (or characters). Ironically, though, the more MarySue a character becomes, the less the reader is likely to connect. At some point, sooner rather than later, “amazing” becomes “absurd.”
Sorry to break the news. Your handsome prince-turned-highwayman who’s out for revenge against the wicked coward who murdered his father, and he’s only 18 but commands a whole crew of sycophants and has since he was 12, and they’re all unfailingly loyal to him because his cause is Just and True™ (except for that traitor-in-the-midst who is evil and self-serving and whose traitorous behavior no one ever saw coming because who could be so traitorous), who attracts the beautiful-and-contrary heroine with his dashingly noble behavior and draws her to his side despite him now being a horrible criminal (but he’s a noble criminal, you see), and their love is so destined because they are both awesomesauce with a side of angst? That guy is absurd.
“Well, when you put it that way, Kate…”
I’m not trying to be harsh. Like I said, I think it’s a stage of creation that all authors pass through at some point or another. And if you’re at all worried that your favorite brain-child might be tipping over into MarySue territory, Springhole.net provides a fun and enlightening diagnostic:
The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test
Please note, this test has a very low tolerance for MarySue-ness. 5 – 16 points is the “very safe range” to be in. I took one of my early characters for a spin and was disheartened when she scored a 31 (“high-to-very high chance” of being a MarySue). But then out of curiosity, I tested a character from a fairly recent Big-5-published novel. Even leaving out the “author specific” questions (whether the character’s looks were patterned after the author’s; whether the author wanted to be the character or adopt the character, etc.), the score was 74.
And I felt marginally better—not because “My character is less MarySue than yours, lol!” but because I had mostly liked the second character. A few of the extra attributes got on my nerves, sure, but for the most part, I related to her and was interested in her story, MarySue or not.
I think that, particularly for writing fantasy, there will always be an element of MarySue, because MarySue is fantasy personified. I don’t have plans to overhaul my 31-scoring character, in other words. I like her the way she is for the world in which she lives. However, I might, on my next revision of her manuscript, highlight more of her human side, particularly the mistakes and poor choices that she makes.
There’s nothing I can do about her backstory, though. If she’s not a demon-princess-shapeshifter-dragon-elf-halfling-sorceress, the whole plot will fall apart.
(Loljk. She’s only two of those.)