Character Development: Tips & Tricks – The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test

May 27

Earlier this month, Sumevala wrote two articles on the infamous Mary Sue; the first explained exactly what a Mary Sue was while the second considered how Mary Sues even exist, and whether or not they’re a necessity in role play experiences. As Sumevala mentioned, there are many different definitions out there about what a Mary Sue actually is, and while some people just slap the label upon any role play character they personally don’t like, a more unified criteria has been established.

Years ago, I was introduced to the Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test, which also had a pretty good, evolving definition attached to it. While the entire definition is a great read, I’m going to quote the highlights from the definition, but I do suggest following the link (it opens in a new tab/window) and reading the entire thing.

  • The very fabric of the universe will bend to accommodate Mary Sues.
  • Mary Sues rarely, if ever, have to deal with realistic consequences to their actions.
  • Very often, Mary Sues are created to be admired, envied, or even pitied rather than empathized with.
  • Mary Sues aren’t just characters you don’t like, nor are they simply love interests thrown in out of left field.
  • Mary Sues don’t just happen in fan fiction.
  • Mary Sues aren’t just female.
  • Mary Sues aren’t just strong female characters.

In general, people dislike a Mary Sue character, even if they have played one at some point. There are varying degrees of Sueims, so someone who is playing a Sue themselves may look at another person who is playing a “bigger Sue” and dislike them. Often, a Sue character is part of growth as a role player, but as Sumevala also mentioned, some people stagnate at this stage and continuously make Mary Sue characters.

The Litmus Test is a great way to avoid getting trapped in the land of Sueism. It has a variable system that allows for multiple settings (extreme realism to extreme fantasy), and works as a guidance tool if the user is paying attention to the instructions. The most important part of the instructions states that if something is common place in the world, then the question can be skipped or a simple No is valid; for role players, it also points out that any outside influences, such as other people constantly throwing themselves at your character’s feet without you initiating such actions, should not be taken into consideration – just the character itself, on its own, needs to be evaluated.

Gender neutral pronouns are used by the test, because many characters in certain settings don’t have strictly binary genders, and because it makes the test a lot more streamlined; if the author had to write out all the various instances of he/she or the like, it would likely add at least a quarter page to the entire test. It may take a bit of getting used to, so here is a handy guide to gender neutral pronouns – the pronouns used are in 5.2 of this page.

The test is divided into five parts as of this writing; the test is updated from time to time, and back when I first saw it, there were only three or four parts. The first part are questions for all characters, whether they be for original fiction, fan fiction, or role play. The second part focuses on characters for original fiction. The third part is for fan creations or new additions to worlds that you have previously created. The fourth part focuses on RP characters/non-writing based characters, specifically for traditional RPGs and now MMORPGs. The fifth part is a section where the variables will always remove “Sue Points” from the equation, as they are things that are very unlikely to occur in Sueism.

So, let’s use the test on the character we created last month – Mephista Redtail, Aurin Exile Spellslinger, for the upcoming game WildStar by Carbine Studios. The test itself is actually over one hundred questions long, even with leaving sections out that do not relate to RP characters, so rather than expressing a question by question process, we’ll go section by section.

In the first section, which is for all characters, there were a few questions I answered yes to.

  • A really unusual-sounding name (unusual in the character’s time/place/world) that you made up yourself? I actually created the name Mephista years ago, without basing it on any other name, though frequently people mistake it for having basis with the name Mephistopheles. While I don’t think it’s going to hugely break Aurin nomenclature, we’re still lacking a lot of extensive information about that right now, so to be safe, I answered yes.
  • Does your character explicitly look like or strongly resemble a real-life celebrity? It’s a habit of mine to use celebrities or models as the basis for creating my character’s facial features, mostly to keep from having characters within the same game ending up identical. I have my ideal for facial construction, and often default to it without thinking. I do add things, like a bit of weight (or loss of weight), age changes, freckles, different colouration…but I do use real life people as bases.
  • Does your character have a scar or other small “flaw” that is noticed by someone, but does not actually detract from your character’s appearance from your point of view? Mephista’s tail was broken at some point, somewhere near the tip of it, and it has an odd bend to it; this is based off one of our cat’s tails. While mundane, I don’t really expect a lot of Aurin to have permanent alterations from broken bones, or even that specific type of break.
  • Does your character’s personal choice of clothing frequently include clothing you chose because it makes your character look super sexy and/or badass? I’ve characterised Mephista to have a trench coat, because I think it makes her look a bit more badass than she actually is (at launch). So far, most female Aurin clothing has looked pretty sexy in general, so it’s hard to count the rest of it under this.
  • Does your character voice political, social, and/or religious opinions or beliefs which you share? Pansexual or Sapiosexual are the closest definitions to my sexuality, for the more part, and I believe in constructive polyamorous relationships; most of my characters end up somewhere along these lines, because I really don’t like playing straight characters – people tried to make me be straight and monogamous for a large portion of my life, and there’s no appeal in doing such in an activity that is meant to be fun and relaxing.
  • Is your character mainly driven by completely-justified revenge? At the beginning of her story, Mephista is out to get revenge on the Dominion scum that killed Jax, a Human Spellslinger she became good friends with; she finds it justified, while I as a player am rather neutral about whether it is justified or not. This plot point is meant to be resolved toward the middle of her story, after several months of play, but until then, it is a huge driving force – though I’ve not decided it is the absolute main force.
  • Does your character habitually share profound wisdom and knowledge? Part of her characterisation is to be the mischievous trickster that teaches through mostly harmless pranks, and part of that will likely result in sharing profound lessons…I just don’t know how often yet, so I’m answering yes just to be safe.
  • Does your character share your favorite types of movies, music, clothes, hobbies, etc? One of Mephista’s hobbies is one of my own, while another is one that I had interest in, but never had the money to work on.
  • Does your character pick up new skills and/or gain ranks unusually fast during the course of the story? This is a really tough question for MMORPG characters, due to how fast one can level. As someone who directly ties the mechanics of class/etc to my RP, characters I play can learn incredibly fast. We don’t even have clear information on how skill progression is going to work all the way through the game, so it’s sort of on the fence as to whether or not she’ll pick up ranks fast. And let’s not even start in about learning crafting…
  • Not counting his or her first language, how many languages does your character fluently speak? Even though we don’t have complete information on language in WildStar, I’m going to assume that Aurin speak their own language, and the common language of the Exiles (which is likely Human/Cassian)
  • Does your character possess a one-of-a-kind trinket that is magical and/or has some special significance? Mephista took Jax’ mag-pistols when he was killed, and while they’re not magical, he did design them himself and they have major significance to Mephista – but not to anyone else, really.
  • Was your character orphaned, abandoned, kicked out, or at least raised by a family/person that was not xir own family? This is totally a trick question for a lot of Aurin. Younger Aurin may well have been essentially orphaned or had their parents killed during the exodus from their homeworld. That being said, it’s not entirely clear how normal this is going to be lore wise. Mephista was only eleven when the Aurin were evacuated (unless they really shorten the time between that and launch), and while that seems young from our stand point as real humans, we don’t have a solid “coming of age” age for the Aurin.
  • Has your character otherwise lost a close friend? As mentioned, Mephista lost her friend Jax, and it really affected her.

After ninety-four questions, I have twenty-three “Sue Points” for Mephista; the scale runs from zero to fifty and over, but breaks down into smaller categories. Currently, she’s sitting just inside the group that can go either way, as far as original characters and RP characters go. Some of these points may not even be valid, but it’s hard to know until more lore and information are available.

The second part is for original characters that are being added to an original fiction universe, which does not apply to characters being made for RPGs, for the more part. For this character, we skip these ten questions and move on. The third part is for Fan Characters or Newcomers to established fictional universes…excluding MMORPGs.

The fourth part for RPG specific characters is really sparse – it’s only two questions long, which is why I believe that the Fan Characters/Newcomers section should also be used for RP characters. Neither question is valid for Mephista right now, especially since the first asks about other players’ opinions of your character.

The fifth and final part of the test covers items that detract from Sueism, or are outright anti-Sue material. These detract from your characters overall “Sue Points”, changing their score and category. This section is twenty-five questions long, giving plenty of chances for “Sue Points” to be lost.

Here are the ones I answered yes to:

  • Do you ever poke fun at your character’s faults/weaknesses and/or use them as plot devices or gags? I fully intend to use Mephista’s faults as plot devices, and possibly even gags. She’s got a bit of a temper, despite trying to be the sage trickster, really has a more wild magic/under developed control on her magic, and there’s that whole revenge thing…
  • Does your character get into a fight or rush into a situation without preparing for it – and get xir butt completely owned? As mentioned, Mephista has a temper, and that’s going to result in her rushing into things without preparing, and she is going to get her butt kicked for it from time to time.
  • Has your character ever been in a situation that xe had no way of overcoming on xir own and had to rely on others for help? This is admittedly a total gimme for any young Aurin character, as the entire race was facing destruction, and only made it out by helping each other and because the Exiles came back for them.
  • Does your character ever seriously question the morality of xir actions and/or is left with a lingering doubt that xe may not have done the right thing? Any pranks gone wrong, any massive amount of harming another player character, and the eventual slaughter of the people who killed Jax is going to leave her with a conflict of conscious and lingering doubts.
  • Did you spend days, if not months or longer carefully and thoughtfully researching the traumas/hardships/handicaps/disorders your character has so you could write them as realistically and sensitively as possible? To a degree, most RPers end up doing this as we have to research the lore and the effects it has had on our characters; I tend to go a bit overboard with this sort of thing, because I have to look up a lot of medical issues in my “real life”, and it’s just a habit now.

Overall, after the fifth section, Mephista dropped down to 16 “Sue Points”, which leaves her just barely in the first category of the scoring. Here is what the complete scoring break down looks like.

  • <0 – 16: Most likely Not-Sue. Characters at this level could probably take a little spicing up without hurting them any.
  • 17 – 21: Fan fiction characters can go either way at this point depending on the writer. For an MMO/RPG or original fiction character, however, you’re most likely perfectly fine.
  • 22 – 29: Original fiction and MMO/RPG characters can go either way at this point depending on the writer. Fan fiction characters may need some adjustment, however.
  • 30 – 35: Fan fiction authors beware – Mary’s on the loose. There’s still a chance you can save this character with some TLC, though. Role-players and original fiction writers, you should also consider tweaking your character.
  • 36+: Fan fiction authors, you might just want to start over. Role-players and original fiction authors, at this point your characters are likely to provoke eye-rolling and exclamations of “yeah, right!” from your readers. (Well, at least from me.) Immediate work-over is probably in order.
  • 50+: It’s probably a lost cause either way, or you didn’t read instructions properly (some people don’t do this, which causes freakishly high scores). If it’s the latter case, read the instructions and take the test again.

Before you become overly concerned about your character’s final score, remember what the authors of the test stated way back at the beginning of the test, just after the general instructions.

Please, please, please remember that these are the symptoms, not the disease. Just because something is on the test does not mean that it’s inherently bad and should be avoided at all costs. Think of them as being like salt or spices – they serve to enhance the dish when used in the right amounts, but when used too liberally, the result tends to be quite unappetizing. Again, INDIVIDUAL ITEMS DO NOT MAKE THE MARY SUE. THE INDIVIDUAL ITEMS ARE NOT BAD. MOST CHARACTERS HAVE AND SHOULD HAVE AT LEAST SOME OF THEM.
While it is true that some writers are skilled enough to pull off characters that fall into the ‘Sue category, do not assume that you are one of them. I’ve seen plenty of Sue-authors fall into this trap. Instead, go out and get feedback from people more experienced in reading/writing, preferably adults. Not teenagers. Adults.

Furthermore, this test has never been nor probably will be perfect.

The analogy used here is perfect (I may have bias leanings, given I help maintain a spice vendor’s website). Think of characteristics as being spices, and your character as the dish being prepared with such. Certain spices lend to being complimentary to one another, creating a blend that is enjoyable and manageable to the majority of palates. Some spices will just contrast each other so heavily that the dish becomes questionable or wholly incompatible, such as William James’ examples in Sumevala’s articles. Lastly, too much of any spice, and too many spices in general, will completely ruin a dish to the point where very few – if any – palates will find it pleasing.

The test, and the suggestions therein, are guidelines. They are very good guidelines for making fictional and RP characters, but they are not word and law. If we look at some iconic characters like Harry Potter, who scores a huge 55 “Sue Points” (based on observations, some questions were unanswerable as I am not J.K. Rowling, your mileage may vary based on perspectives), and yet he ended up being a very beloved character; some writers are capable of pulling off a Sue character, after all.

Another thing to remember is that a character can start out as a Mary Sue, and progress passed this through the course of their story – Harry Potter has a bit of this element to him, as a lot of his “Sue Points” came from things in his past that are not a part of the character by the end of it. If you have a character that is borderline Sue or an actual Sue, there can be redemption without having to entirely rewrite the character, as long as you make some plans for the character’s overall journey.

Next time, we’ll be looking at crafting what I call the Road Map for a character’s journey; even though there will be outside influences in RP, having an idea of where you want your character’s story to go can be extremely beneficial. The Road Map is a very important role play tool if you’re planning on taking a Sue and transforming them into a non-Sue via role play. If Ash’s Guide to RPG Personality & Background or similar process was used in a character’s creation, there are already some points to place on the Road Map.

Until then, keep writing and keep role playing!


One comment

  1. Sumevala /

    Very well written! I look forward to the Road Map article.

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