Writing Echoes

Delijah's Writing Blog

Let’s talk about Sue

Let me start saying that I am guilty of Sues. Quite a few of them to be honest. So I am not being all high-and-mighty on my character development. I am just going to talk about Sues, some thoughts, some opinions – excuse me omg!opinions – and write a random blog post about it all. Just because.

What is a Sue?: Sues are those characters that make you go “yeah, right” at everything they do in a book or story (movies sometimes, too). They are the coolest, tallest, most attractive, have the most charms, youngest to achieve X, most skilled using Y. They usually have a super hard past, take armies single-handedly and generally pwn (and save) the world more often than not, and then go “ah, no, it was nothing”. Chris O’Donnel’s character in NCIS:Los Angeles is a good example of this [link]. Sues are perfect. So perfect – even perfect sufferers – that they get on your nerves.

The term was originally coined as “Mary Sue” after Lieutenant Mary Sue, who was the main character in a parody story written by Paula Smith in 1973, A Trekkie’s Tale. See above and imagine a 15 and a half Lieutenant in the Enterprise. Originally the term was only applied to self-inserted female characters that seemed to be a projection of a fanfic author(ess) into a story, with lots of romance with the original characters. But males can also be Sues (see the above example), they can be called “Gary Stu”, “Larry Stu”, “Marty Stu” or stuff like that. I call of them Mary Sue anyway – it’s a personal preference.

Think of the female Mary Sue as Barbie on a story. Not “Princess Barbie”, but all of them. At once. In the same character: teacher, doctor, awesome mom, perfect mother, unspotted house, keeps a die-for figure, goes to the gym, reads… she is perfect. Don’t confuse this with “strong female character that goes on regardless of her flaws or problems” or even kick-ass females. Sarah Connor is not a Mary Sue and she kicks ass badly. In the first and second (did not read more) Harry Potter books Hermione Granger is annoying, but she is not a Mary Sue. She’s annoying because being annoying is part of her character’s traits. Three-dimensional characters – even those who annoy you – are rarely Mary Sues.

The male Mary Sue is usually… urgh, think Sean Connery’s James Bond? Is there anything that man can’t do? He defuses a bomb while he sips his Martini, kills the bad guy, gets the girl, has all the cool gadgets, bends or breaks the rules with zero consequences… And gets the girl again. More 2D? Impossible? More perfect? I would have gladly strangled the guy and his sexist’s approach but then again those were the times, right? Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt is another fine example: they guy holds a university degree (I think a PhD), is a combat pilot, directs NUMA, gets the girl, can walk for miles in the middle of an Icelandic blizzard with a few broken bones, saves the world for conspiracies and is the smartest guy on the block…

So what’s up with Sues? Sues are dangerous because they annoy and alienate the reader but the writers dotes upon them, bestowing them with any and every thing that can be done (and more and better than anyone else). I quote from Wikipedia [link] that can be characterised as being “special” by having a gratuitously tragic past, unrealistic skills or attractiveness, or a seeming inability for the character to do wrong.

Then what’s the point?: The point of it is that characters should have flaws, else they risk becoming boring by sheer perfection. The key word is unrealistic. The art lies in making a mage in a completely-made-up world a character you can identify with. Now, that’s the amazing thing. If the character is perfect there is no way one can identify with them, and thus they become a liability for the reader (remember: you can hate a character’s guts and they, think they are annoying as hell without them being Mary Sues. I hate Lauralanthalasa Kanan to death and she is not Mary Sue, she is just a brat). A great character makes you empathise, flinch, fear, sometimes even love, hate or love to hate. A Mary Sue can make you put the book aside, change channels or close the file.

Sometimes for fun, sometimes for an actual check, I run my characters thorough The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test [link]. It is not the only one and I doubt is the original (someone claims that title here [link]). I am sure there are hundreds of them, I just like the one at Springhole and use that one. Makes you think and rationalise a few things.

A few of my favourite questions, and some commentary:

Not counting his or her first language, how many languages does your character fluently speak? Click one box for every language (eight boxes, each box is a point): I had a big laugh when I ran Iwase Tadashi through this. The guy speaks five languages, basically because he is studying languages in University. I chose his degree totally at random back in time, and I keep wondering whether I should give him “full points” or not, considering that the importance of him knowing those languages is… null except for English.

Is your character impervious to any of the normal limitations and/or weaknesses of xir species?: The example for this is “a human who cannot get drunk no matter how much booze they consume”. Okonogi Kazuki, that is a point for you, my dear. However, when I worked on Wren I gave the reef elf the “need water” thing that his race should have without blinking. See? I get better! XD

Do think of your character as a role-model?: *Dies laughing*

Does your character voice political, social, and/or religious opinions or beliefs which you share? This is something I have to work on. Most of my characters are atheists. I really want to write a good character with religious convictions, but I haven’t been too successful yet…

Has your character ever been honestly selfish, petty, lazy, shallow, or pointlessly cruel?: Defects, defects. We all have them, the characters should too.

If your character lost xir virginity unwillingly, does xe find a way to restore it? (Yes, this really is a thing.) This kills me. Every fucking time.

The test is not perfect, but I think it is rather complete, and as mentioned I usually have fun with it. It is flexible, too. Using magic in a magical world does not count as a Mary Sue point, being the only human on this earth who can use magic is.

A variation of this test is the The Mary Sue Race Test, which tries to debunk super perfect races (looking at you Vulcans or Tolkien’s elves) that you can find here [link]. It is less exhaustive and not as fun, but hey, still useful.

That’s all for today ^^

Mary Sue Tests by their respective authors, image from OpenClip Library [link]

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8 responses to “Let’s talk about Sue

  1. Denise May 25, 2012 at 08:48

    Now how come James Bond grew into a huge franchise regardkess?