Posted by: Jess Riley | October 26, 2008

Mary Sueism and Cliches

We’ve mentioned this elusive Mary Sue creature a few times, and it’s occured to me that we’ve never really done a post on that topic specifically.

I don’t want to spend the whole time just talking about exactly what a Mary Sue is; there’s other resources for that online, and I’m sure no one really wants me to re-explain it now and talk about exactly why it’s a problem.

So, I’m not going to. Seriously, if you want to know what a Mary Sue is, go on and read that link; it’s a good one. Instead, I’m going to talk about how much is too much when we’re playing with Mary Sue-esque traits – is there an alloted number of traits you’re allowed to have before it gets to be too much, or does it depend on other factors?

To be honest, I think it’s a bit of both. A lot of people say that fictional characters in their own universes score awfully high on a Mary Sue Litmus Test, and this is pretty true – using the example of the Litmus Test I just linked to, I just did a quick run-through using Batman as an example, and got a score which came out as ‘Kill it dead’. Now, keeping in mind that I’m not the creator of Batman and, as a result, far from an expert on the subject, this isn’t a perfectly accurate measure, but I think my point is more or less made. He comes out on a Litmus Test as a Mary Sue.

There’s a difference here between Batman the Mary Sue and Joe Roleplay Character the Mary Sue: when you pick up a Batman comic, or watch a Batman film, or anything of the sort, you’re there for Batman. Let’s be honest. We let Batman get away with being, well, Batman, because the only reason why we’re there is for him.

The difference, therefore, is that in a roleplay situation, we’re not all there for your character. You’re not here for mine. People don’t want to let other people in a roleplay be ultra-cool, because roleplay is about balance, not about any one person shining. Sure, everyone needs their moments to shine, but it can’t be all the time, or other people start getting annoyed.

Hold up, though – I’m being awfully down on these Mary Sue-esque traits. Can’t they ever be done well?

Yes – up to a point. In my opinion, it’s not that these traits can’t be done well. There’s two important factors, here. One is that if you’re playing a character with some Mary Sue-ish traits, you need to be able to handle it well. You need to have some kind of depth, as most of the problem with a Mary Sue kind of character is that they’re too shallow, and they have all these traits with no depth. You need to have an explanation for the more cool things, because there’s very little more deserving of a bit of eyerolling than someone who is awesome Just Because. Put simply, if you’re heading into Mary Sue territory, just be aware of how you’re playing and make sure you’re doing it properly.

The second point is that there’s only so much you can do with Mary Sue kind of cliches before people will just give up. Even if you roleplay extraordinarily well, there’s only so much that other people will be able to stand before they just raise a hand and say, “No, too much.” You can certainly ‘get away with’, so to speak, a lot of things if you’re a particularly good roleplayer, but even then you can’t over-saturate a character with too many Mary Sue-ish traits.

Essentially, both points boil down to the same thing – just pay attention to how you’re coming across, and be aware of the risk of coming across badly if you make use of too many of these traits.

There’s another point I wanted to cover, and it’s only a brief one, but I’ll surely come back to it at some point in the future:

Cliches become cliches because at some point, they worked.

It’s not insta-fail to make use of some kind of cliche. It’s not a death sentence for your character if you have some elements of a Mary Sue, or if some aspect of your history is broadly similar to the history of other people. The thing about a game like World of Warcraft is that a lot of characters are going to have a strong shared history – you can’t get past the fact that approximately one in two gnomes died in Gnomeregan, so a lot of gnomes are going to have dead family members in their personal story. All the Forsaken were once alive, and will have been separated from their families, or lost their families to the Scourge. It’s not bad if you, along with a bunch of other people, have these same ideas in your story.

Is it cool if you can write a believable and original background? Absolutely! But if your story draws heavily from lore and, as a result, is pretty similar to the basic idea of everyone else’s, that’s not bad. These things are cliches because they work and they fit in with the lore, and it’s not bad to use some of them in your roleplay.



  1. Great entry! 🙂

    I think it covered the topic well, while being a quick simple read. Because really, if you would of opted to go into the intricacies of what a Mary Sue is, things start to get convoluted(though justly so) real quick. So it definitely was a good idea to just provide a link to TV Tropes.

    And it definitely be good to expand on the use of cliches in the future, as that is right up there with people making way too many Mary Sue’s for characters. But, you still covered the subject nicely considering how briefly you went over it.

  2. Very informative post, I enjoyed reading this!

    Keep up the good work!

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