by Karrin Jackson – 2004-04-05
Love them or hate them, Mary Sues are an aspect of gaming that will probably never go away. For the handful of cave dwellers who have no idea what I’m talking about, Mary Sue is what, in writing, is called an author avatar, wherein the writer creates an idealized version of him/herself and sticks the resulting character into the story. If this author avatar is a female, she is usually exotically beautiful, universally adored, and incapable of any flaw. Chances are she also has mystical powers and can make all conflict in a story disappear with a wave of her hand. The male version is usually a strappingly handsome or ruggedly mysterious version of the same, except maybe replace mystical powers with the world’s biggest gun – let Freud make of that what he will.
What are the telltale marks of a Mary Sue? Why do people create them? Why are they so annoying, and more to the point, what can we do about them? Read on, gentle reader. Read on.
Is it a Mary Sue?
Google “Mary Sue Litmus Test” and you’ll find a wealth of information on the definition of a Mary Sue. I’m not going to plagiarize any of that. Instead, I’ll give the quick version: does the character seem too unreal and ‘perfect’ for the setting? Is the character a thing of beauty unmatched by all others? Is everything the character does eloquent, polished, self-assured, and flawless? Is her skin ever described as alabaster, and are her eyes violet, silver, or do they change colors? Does he wear a long leather trenchcoat and shades? Is he so dangerous that villains hear his name and tremble while women swoon? If he’s so cool that the world could be destroyed by an asteroid and his only response would be to shrug and say, “Bummer,” then we’re probably heading into MS territory.
Mary Sues are everything the author wishes he or she could be but isn’t. They are a vessel through which one may live vicariously, and that is why they will always plague MU*dom, because vicarious living is one of the tantalizing draws of an online RPG, where on the internet no one needs to know you’re an average looking college dropout. One may argue that every MU* character is a Mary Sue. It’s just that the things some people wish to vicariously experience aren’t as tied up in perfection and success as others.
I would venture to say that the horribly scarred violence junkie who goes around axe-murdering other PCs is every bit as much a Mary Sue as the supermodel with a Ph. D. in astrophysics and veterinary medicine. We’re more willing to point at the latter and slap a label on her because that is an obvious sign of someone whose character has it all. In the case of the former, it’s still the pseudo-life some player is aching to live. Most people don’t create monstrous characters who antagonize PCs because they aren’t fascinated by the politics of power and fear. It’s a perfection/success fantasy with a different set of goals, but the spirit in which it’s approached is the same.
Rather than go into the psychoanalysis of deeply disturbed individuals, let’s just say that whether beautiful and talented or grotesque and repulsive, the Mary Sue character is one who is the best at whatever it is s/he does. It’s not enough to be pretty, one must be transcendentally beautiful. It’s not enough to be mildly creepy and scorch ants with a magnifying glass, one must keep a meat locker full of former acquaintances. Whatever it is that defines the character, it is poignant, obvious, and in most cases all-consuming.
Why? Oh, God, Why?!
What is it with all the gorgeous supermodel physicists and brooding maniacs? Why is it that on some games there just seem to be the same types of characters that all strive to be special while only managing to be exactly the same? Why does everyone want to play [insert annoying trend here]? I’ve heard this complaint on just about every game on which I’ve ever played, and here are the only answers I’ve managed to come up with.
People play the character they want to play. I find it ironic that, when I hear the worst complaints about people playing abnormal characters, the people making the complaints are themselves the biggest Mary Sues you’ll ever meet, and what it boils down to is that they don’t want anyone else horning in on their spotlight. The fact is people don’t want to play the nameless, faceless masses who exist only to watch you shine. Why aren’t there more people applying to play janitors and pizza delivery boys? Because MU* is where we exercise our fantasies, and blue collar workers with a receding hairline and a spare tire around their gut aren’t exactly fodder for mental gratification. How many of us sit in our cubicles all day wistfully thinking about how cool it would be if we’d flunked out of college and ended up working fast food? I’d rather confidently wager that, instead, people think about how great it would be if they were a rock star or a millionaire. The only problem is that when every other character is a millionaire, being rich is no longer special. If you want to be really special, your character has to be a billionaire, and it just escalates from there.
Also, people want to play what’s going to get them RP. When you’re on a game and can’t get a scene to save your life, and you notice that all the people playing certified public accountants are getting all the RP, doesn’t it make sense that, if you want to get RP, you should make your character a certified public accountant? Of course, this then leads to a glut of certified public accountants on the database, and the only RP that ever takes place centers around CPA to such a degree that everyone else feels excluded. While it might be well and good for a some people to make CPAs, others have nothing against mathematics, but it’s just not their bag, so they’re left out in the cold. Not to mention, whatever the game was originally about, it’s now about CPAs. Period.
Finally, the unpleasant fact is that people are lazy, and it’s easier to make a character who is interesting because he or she is rich, famous, beautiful, badass, or what have you. It’s easier to fall into the CPA trend rather than try to start one of your own. It’s easier to get attention if you’re a surreal beauty with ‘raven wing’ hair and silver eyes than if you’re an average person with a nifty personality that takes a few scenes for people to notice. It’s easier to get out of a troublesome IC situation if you can blow it up with your big gun rather than have to use your brains or, heaven forbid, interpersonal skills. So while it’s understandable that people want to play their fantasies, and they want to play something that’s going to get them RP, many take the Mary Sue route because it’s easy.
So What’s the Big Deal?
So what if every other character on the game is obnoxiously gorgeous? So what if all the guys are badasses and all the girls are knockouts? Who is it hurting if some other player wants to portray a supermodel/veterinarian/astrophysicist? If they’re enjoying their RP and it’s not influencing yours, why let it bother you? Well, for starters, their RP does influence yours. In a multi-player game where everyone contributes something to the setting, the herd of people trampling over each other to be the most at something, be it beauty, wealth, or grotesqueness, is going to affect everyone else’s characters. For starters, if the standard for beauty has been raised so high that pretty people are average, the average characters are now ugly. If the standard for wealth goes from a million dollars to a trillion, the millionaires are the new middle class. It messes with the game’s dynamic, and that’s bound to make people who are trying to create reasonable and balanced characters cranky.
Plus, it’s annoying because experience has taught that characters who exist on a shtick (i.e. their ethereal beauty) are often not very interesting. The only thing that defines the character is put right out there, and where substance should lie beneath, there is fluff and padding. The lovely girl with mystical powers, who has never failed, has no interesting flaws to which another player could relate. The brooding badass with the big gun, more often than not, has the personality of sawdust, and there isn’t any way to interact with him except to dodge bullets. The psychopath so twisted he or she can’t comprehend interpersonal relationships that don’t involve a hacksaw is a one-trick stabby pony. That doesn’t mean that good, interesting characters can’t be beautiful, tough, or psycho. It just means that when that is all the character is, there’s nothing upon which to build a story. Characters like that aren’t giving other characters anything interesting to do.
Make it all Go Away
Unfortunately, Mary Sues will be with us as long as there is MU*ing, and they won’t all always be clueless newbies who haven’t been around long enough to realize that raven-haired beauties are done to death and most jaded players will take one look at a leather trenchcoat, roll their eyes, and wander away. Game developers and staff can deal with this to some extent by attempting, during the character generation process, to communicate with prospective players and address MS aspects of their application. Players can try to ignore the Mary Sues, find some way to play with them that won’t cause their suspension of disbelief to implode, or bravely try to discuss the issue like a pair of mature adults while relying on the other person’s sense of clue and fairness (not recommended).
Ultimately, the only way to effectively deal with a Mary Sue is take a look at your characters, what drives your decisions to create them, and ask yourself what they are bringing to RP and the game at large. Do they really need to be that good at whatever it is they’re good at? Are you compensating for something? Is there maybe some way to make the character more interesting beneath the surface without shoving his/her exterior down everyone’s throat? If another character was better at [insert favored trait here] would you be able to roll with that, or would it drive you crazy? In other words, cure the Mary Sue within thyself, and pray to whatever it is you believe in others are compelled do the same.