Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Anachronisms & Renaissance Men, Part I

Yesterday, a friend sent me a couple links to Mary-Sue tests designed to help writers ascertain if their characters are realistic or too idealized. A Mary-Sue is a character who is so endowed with desirable attributes, talents, characteristics, powers, and circumstances as to be annoyingly unbelievable and rather like a shapely plastic mannequin on which an exorbitant amount of jewelry has been hung. They're commonly seen in fanfiction and fantasy novels, and are more often than not the author fantasizing the way he would wish himself to be if the world went his way.

My characters aren't afflicted with Mary-Sueism, but as I was going through the questions and laughing at them and the results, I noticed something oddly familiar about them. After thinking about it for a moment, I retook the test answering each question for myself as if I were a book character, checking only the boxes that would indisputably apply.

For any score higher than a 71, the results say, “Irredeemable-Sue. You're going to have to start over, my friend. I know you want to keep writing, but no. Just no.”

I scored a 122.

My dears, I am a Mary-Sue. Shocking much?

Now, before anyone dashes off to run their characters or themselves through the test and despair, there is a note at the end that says the results will contain some degree of inaccuracy, and that it is even possible for someone to score very highly and yet be a well-developed, balanced, and original character. The test only takes a tally of the most commonly clichéd traits and situations, not of how cleverly or originally they are integrated into the story or of the counterbalancing challenges the character might face.

The questions that caught my attention were the ones regarding hobbies, tastes, and mental abilities- things like knowing multiple languages, singing and playing musical instruments well, having “refined” tastes in books, music, and movies, learning skills quickly, practicing martial arts, collecting interesting things, knowing a wide range of assorted facts, possessing a high level of intelligence, being expert in more than one field, being astonishingly good at something which is not one's profession, photographic memory, and dressing in an unusual style.
Are these things so unattainable that someone who lays claim to some, most, or in many cases all of them is some superhuman wonder?

My mind went spinning off down several tracks. What is so unusual about listening to good music, reading good books, and watching good movies? Is there something particularly stunning about collecting something, whether it be mollusks or stamps or minerals or bird's-nests or postcards? Is having a hobby that interests one, be it building models or crafting or photography something unheard-of? Is knowing trivia or odd bits of interesting information a superpower? Is knowing and being interested in languages besides American English the very stigma of otherworldly superiority?

The next thought was, what are people supposed to do instead? Excluding a few other unmentioned yet obvious categories such as playing sports, exercising, and any other wholesome activity, what one thing is there left to do? What is one to do, when there are no books and no music, nothing to collect, to study, to want to know simply because it's interesting, to build or sew or play with or talk about? It begins to sound like a desert island scenario. So, what do real people, not unrealistic Mary-Sues, do with their time? I asked several friends if they could enlighten me, and discovered that without these phenomenally unknown activities, modern people get addicted to video-games, shop, go to the mall, gossip, and enjoy bad music, books, and movies. Please note that I am not, of course, speaking of people who may not be particularly blessed with gifts in art and music, or whose pecuniary standing or otherwise lack of opportunity prevent their proper nurturing.

The next mental track was the realization that throughout history, the cultivation and enjoyment of these marvelously impossible activities was something that the commonest of people strove for. Even 100 years ago, these accomplishments were held in what was apparently another half of education, and one whose almost complete absence today has perhaps catalyzed the atrophy of the artistic intellect in society. I have know for a long time that I am an anachronism, but the fact that my anachronistic tastes may lead people to believe that I am not old-fashioned but unrealistic to the point of nonexistence is beyond disturbing.

Is the tendency to want to give now-unusual abilities to a character really a manifestation of a half-forgotten, almost inaccessible latent desire to pursue these things for oneself? Is it the mysterious gravitation toward a culture which is missing in the world today? Do they feel instinctively that sometimes the only progress is moving backwards? Perhaps- yet at the same time, they remain so depraved or deprived that it cannot be recognized, and until that balance comes, modern culture will remain one-sided, and what ought to be normal will remain the epitome of eccentricity.

Perhaps this was rather a far station from where my train of thought set out, but the idea I began with remains- the world shuns the enjoyment of simplicity, and the cultivation of gifts, to the point that someone who chooses otherwise is regarded as almost unreal.


  1. I did the male lead of the story I'm currently puttering around with and got a 71, just inside the range of "Irredemable-Sue". I did the female lead and got a 34, near the high end of "Borderline-Sue". I must idealize my male characters.

    Then I did myself and got a 71 again.

    I don't exist, obviously.

    (I do think the test is oversimplified. Being able to fly is not quite equivalent to knowing three languages, for instance.)

  2. (But still, if you randomly speak a foreign language people will stare as if they expected you to sprout wings.)

    It would be a better test if it included a lot more questions on the spirituality and opinions of characters, or their idiosyncrasies, personal habits, favorite foods, and daily schedules. And if it asked questions about character flaws other than major addictions and mortal sins.

    I lost several points for carrying an Asian weapon and not being Asian. XD

  3. I was a borderline Sue, I think. I only speak 2 langs, but whenever I talk to Bryan in German on the phone ('cause I don't want people to eavesdrop) they're like "Is that Russian?" So I guess it's still pretty awesome. *g*

    I did Hadassah, and she was Non-Sue. But I think that maybe being a non- or anti- Sue is just as flat as being an Irredeemable Sue.

    We were explaining this test to Ethan, why more points is bad, and he was like,
    "Oh, I get it. We're being attacked! Now we're invisible and we're flying!"

  4. yeah, like I said... the test isn't very balanced. It's not really a good way of testing whether a character is balanced, either. It would make better sense if it had a follow-up essay answer box where you explain why the character has or does such and such thing. It's good for making you look at your character's abilities and questioning why, though- I guess.

    XD there was another Mary-Sue test... one of the questions was, "would your character's boss recommend that your character attend an anger management seminar?" and I didn't think I had any character like that, but last night I suddenly realized I did, and it was rather funny.

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  6. I don't even have to look at the test to know its problems. Apparently Mary-Sue was somebody who tried to live a good, full life.

    My random thoughts while reading:

    -I KNEW fairy tales were improbable! If they get this test right, they should call it the "Cinderella" test.

    -Hmm, another argument for Harry Potter....

    -I wish more people could tell the difference between video game addiction and video game hobby and appreciation. (That's not self-defense to what you said, btw.) *rambles about art in good VGs*

  7. Yeah, I wish more people could tell the difference, too- I know you're not addicted. ;) I know very few people who aren't, though, sadly.