I have a confession to make. When I was in high school, I wrote Sailor Moon fanfiction. Even worse, I wrote Mary Sue fanfiction. I know, my computer should be taken away from me, burned, and I should be banned from the Internet. Ok, maybe it’s not that bad, because I know that there are people who truly enjoy that kind of fiction (especially when it’s more of a ‘new character insertion’ than a Mary Sue) and really, if the reader doesn’t like it, they don’t have to read it. The feedback I received was positive, so I’m not (too) embarrassed, and it was a good creative outlet for me (the math/science geek with little interest in writing in general).
Why did this come up? I am a big fan of the Mary Sue game that RG posted – I love corny, one-shot type games and think it would be a lot of fun to toy around with. I’ve even started creating a character for the game I’m going to force RG to run (he doesn’t know it yet). However, making the background for this character, it made me wonder about making characters for more ‘serious’ games. Mainly, how can you make a compelling character for a game, without it becoming a Mary Sue or a cliché?
The first game I ever played in, I played a mercenary in a Warhammer Fantasy 2e game. I was nervous about playing in a game for the first time, and with a group of people that I had basically just met (start of a new semester, at a new college). From exploring the Internet, I was too familiar with Mary Sues or ‘perfect’ characters and didn’t want to fall into the same trap – I didn’t want to look stupid in front of this new group by coming up with a cliched character. So when the GM asked me to describe my character, I gave her physical stats (blond hair, green eyes, medium build, etc.). He then asked, “What do you look like? Are you hot?” I didn’t want them to think that I wanted my character to be super-special, so I said, “Not ugly, but not really pretty. I guess average.” They laughed and the other girl who was playing with us, when asked the same question, said, “I’m drop dead gorgeous.” and it became a joke in the game.
That’s just a minor example, but whenever I create a character (well, a character’s background), I am always worried that, to a degree, I’m creating some sort of cliched character. I mean, at what point does a dramatic background turn into a tragedy filled past worthy of Batman? When does the character surpass being a good ranger to being an Aragorn or Drizzt knock-off? How do you prevent your character with a prophetic future turn into a clone of Harry Potter?
I guess there are a couple of ways that I try to combat the cliché: I try to not make my character too-special or have too-dramatic a past. Instead of having my character’s entire village from being destroyed because of her, perhaps just her parents were killed trying to protect her. Or instead of being the next Qui-Gon Jinn of lightsaber fighting, she is comparable to padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi. There are many people who can craft a background where their character is ‘the best’ but still not be Mary Sue-esque, but this works for me.
I also try to make sure that my character has some kind of flaw. I know that in of itself can be cliché – however, it prevents me from designing a ‘perfect’ character. I dislike Mary Sues, but also know without limits it’s very easy to create them. So, for me, it’s a preventive measure.
Finally, I try not to make my character be super, super important. I try to stay away from being the princess of the land, or the last hope for all mankind, etc. Maybe that’s more of a comfort thing to me, but I don’t want my character’s background to potentially take precedence over everyone else’s. I understand that games have natural ebb and flow where some characters’ back stories come to the forefront of the adventure, but if a character’s background is that he/she is the crown prince/princess of the land who is constantly being followed by their evil stepmother who is trying to kill them at every turn, a lot of focus will be put on that character.
Now, before anyone flames me into Oblivion for the above guidelines: This is what I do. I am not recommending every single person playing in a RPG to create their characters the same way. Hell, some games may thrive on more clichéd sounding characters. And there are very talented people who have the gift of making even the most cheesy, Mary Sue-y type background work – I am not one of those people. So, read the above with the smallest grain of salt that you can find.
I am very curious about how others handle this – do you even worry about it? Do you have any special tricks to prevent a clichéd character? And GMs, do you try to steer your players away from ‘special’ backgrounds or do you just roll with the flow? And how do you handle the super-special snowflake of the group?