Not a Mary Sue!

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?

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5 responses

  1. I don’t get to play on the player’s side of the screen often enough to actually worry about how my character will be perceived, but I do spend a lot of time in the creation process considering how this character will affect what I know of the setting. I will often make two PCs and during discussions with the GM, ask which they’d prefer me to bring in. I did wonder about it a little when given a chance to play in a Palladium Fantasy game recently, and decided to run a Palladin. I blogged about the creation process for the character at the time, but uncovered no tips to share about how to avoid archetypes. I think I actually encouraged embracing them.

    I fully expect that my characters will have certain traits in common with dear old Mary Sue whether I like it or not., so I just try to focus on whatever it is that I hope to explore with the character, and see where it takes me. I tend to view a cliché as what others make of an idea. While a particular character type may have been done to death in a thousand campaigns around the world, if I haven’t run one, and I haven’t explored what effect it has on the stories our group tells, then it’s not a cliché to me. I only have to worry about it becoming one if I keep playing different versions of it again and again.

    As a GM, I just want the PC to have an idea of what they want to do with the character, a sense of how it might grow over time, and an awareness of how it will mesh with the other characters. If that entails being special, or invoking a well-worn archetype, so be it.

  2. As a GM, I handle this problem by having the entire tone of all my games dead-set against it. My players know that my worlds are full of NPCs who are every bit as good as they are at what they do. They are usually more powerful than the guy off the street, but they are still completely replaceable. Attempts to be a “super-special snowflake” will be met with scorn and derisive laughter.

    To be unique, they need details. If a character’s total summation is “that one twinked warlock build,” there will be dozens of others with the same general capabilities. If the character is “that one twinked warlock build, who collects portraits of chairs, has a passionate fear of gnolls, and never really got along with her mother,” then the character is actually unique.

    As a player, I try to avoid cliches by setting my characters up for failure. Most cliches center around miraculously overcoming something; my characters don’t, so no cliche.

  3. To some extent, the framework of most RPGs is built on cliché. I say embrace them, make them your own and breath new life into them.

    From what I read above, you have no danger of slipping into ‘Mary Sue-dom’ for your game characters, you seem far to self-aware and willing to play with others for that.

  4. @Runslinger – I definitely see your point – just because something is an archetype or a cliche doesn’t mean it has been feel overplayed. I will admit, though, I need to be careful about the ‘playing different versions of it again and again’ – I could definitely see myself falling into that trap.

    And as a GM, I can see an advantage of a player using a cliche – once the GM sees it, they can either play into it, or totally turn it on its head, depending on what would be best for the story.

    @Paul – Requiring characters with detailed backgrounds and that have quirks definitely solves the problem of the player just coming in with “Sir. Knight A”. And I’ve never tried to set up a character for failure before – I’m not sure that approach would work for everyone (but then again, what would?), but it’s something I might try.

    @seaofstarsrpg – You’re right of course – even systems that are supposes to ‘defy’ cliches end up becoming cliched themselves. And thanks!

    Thanks for the responses everyone. It’s interesting to see how other people handle this (or if they even worry about it at all). I’ve been told that I over think things – and that might be partially the case when I create character backgrounds. 🙂

  5. cauldronofevil | Reply

    I’m the 10-pages of background type of player.

    The only time a GM ever reacted badly was when (as another player put it) “You built the kind of character that used to beat up the GM!”

    So, no I don’t worry about it. If I can’t be Mary-Sue in an RPG, why am I playing them!?!

    The only ‘special trick’ I use is that I try to use something from the existing background to inspire my character.

    In other words, my characters almost always come from some event that I know happened in the background of the world. Maybe a distant relative of a hero or a bad guy. Maybe he/she found out about something or had something happen to them that related to the worlds history. That way I’m actually ‘tied’ to the particular setting if you know what I mean.

    Because of the type of player I am, I’d NEVER steer a player away from anything they want to add to the world.

    As a GM I LOVE the ‘super-special snowflake’. You’ve just cut the burden of GMing in half!

    Of course, the story may not end up ‘quite’ as you thought it would! }:)

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