Thursday, December 16, 2010

We can test for these things.

Today I’m going to review a good character-building tool that I’ve been using for some time. This is the “Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test” a web page created some time ago and actually recently updated. I’ve known about it for a few years now, and like to run the test on characters every so often just to get an over-all feel.

For those of you who’ve never heard the term before, “Mary Sue” refers to a character with overly idealized mannerisms, lacks balancing flaws, and is basically there as wish-fulfillment for the author. For a great example, read the Twilight novels if you can stomach them.

The term originates with a character from a Star Trek fan fiction by the name of, you guessed it, Mary-Sue! Now, you tend not to see Mary Sues in published work, primarily because writers—sorry, most writers—know better, and if they don’t, their publishers bloody well should.

If you read much fanfiction(or Twilight) you’ve met a Mary Sue before, guaranteed. Water is wet, fish swim, birds fly, fanfiction has Mary Sues. Of course, just like all birds do not fly, not all fanfiction has Mary Sues, but a lot of them do. It’s no secret I have a very low opinion of fanfiction, by the way.

Now on to the test!

The Litmus test is a simple java applet where you check off boxes, and a score is totaled at the end. There are a wide variety of questions, and areas devoted specifically to fanfiction characters and RPG characters. In all I think the questions are largely biased towards first-world characters, though it works well enough for fantasy/sci-fi. It’s a bit lengthy and you have to be fairly thorough every time. Personally, I mainly use the test as a sounding boards, I may run it on a specific character I’m worried about, but be thinking of all my other characters. It helps that the test specifically references other characters in the story, something you might check can be left un-checked in perspective to the other characters.

A good example of when to check something and when not to: in the Consecution Books, you have the character Aden, which means fire in some language. His middle name is Iggy, which also means fire. Normally this would be worthy of a few checkmarks, but in dragon-culture, virtually every name means fire, or smoke, or burning, or something along those lines. It’s a depressingly normal name in his culture, and thus does not warrant a check.

There are a few problems, but even the test is a work-in-progress. A few years ago, I seem to recall it being significantly longer, which made it nearly impossible to avoid getting a high score just by virtue of having a well-developed character. Further, I have found that the “de-sueifiers”, a section towards the end that subtracts points from your score, doesn’t include a wide enough range of character flaws.

Characters, as we know, have strengths and weaknesses, flaws and complexities. In general, a few flaws can balance out some specific sue-like tendency. For example, I have a character named Julia; she has not yet appeared in any specific work. At 14 or so, young Julia is an expert on hydro-dynamics. This would be a fairly sueish trait, except that she is only an expert because she has studied the subject to the exclusion of all others. She’s failing every subject in school, has no friends, and is in general a shy, awkward, socially mal-adjusted youth, but darnit all if she doesn’t know more about raindrops than anyone else!

The litmus test does not account for this sort of balance. It also doesn’t test for particularly well-rounded characters. Jason, the star of the Consecution Books, scores artificially low on the test. He has a solid set of strengths and weaknesses, but none of his strengths are too strong, and none of his weaknesses too weak. For this reason, he registers on the test as being bland and uninteresting, where as in the actual story, its his dullness that makes him so exciting. You heard me.

Hunter Jusenkyou, from the Course Books, tends to go the other direction by scoring artificially high. Because of the diversity and length of the series, he scores high simply for the amount of things he’s done. The Course Books as a series is 1 million words long, split into five volumes, and covers a period of about 90 years. Further, the test doesn’t account for the character’s full background. Hunter is blessed, gifted, a savant, if you will; but he also worked excruciatingly hard to get there. He does have failures, some of them huge. It is important to understand that the character wasn’t given anything, he had to earn it. Or steal it. Which he did a lot.

I really can’t fault the test for any of this. It’s mainly designed for identifying characters who might fall into the Mary Sue category. It’s sort of like a tuberculosis test; the test can tell whether or not you have TB, but just because you don’t have TB doesn’t mean you’re perfectly healthy. Likewise, just because your TB test comes back positive, it doesn’t mean with absolute certainty that you have tuberculosis. Jason Jusenkyou scores low, but his character has a lot of growing to do. Hunter scores high, but his character has grown a lot.

Much like a hammer or a table saw, you have to learn how to use the Mary Sue Litmus Test. And also like hammers and power tools, you have to make sure you’re using the right tool for the right job. Not every character even needs the check done, some characters might score high because of attributes vital to the plot, but have enough flaws to balance it all out.

Anyway, I would definitely give the Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test a 7 out of 10, and log it under “handy things to have around.”

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