Luna Rose’s Actually Logical Mary Sue Litmus Test

Dear Miss Luna Rose,

I’m worried that my character is a Mary Sue. She has dyed purple hair and pretty blue eyes. She witnessed her dad’s murder at age 7 and it left her with some issues. She’s also bad at dancing and sometimes her anger flares up and she does things she regrets. Is she a Mary Sue?

Concerned writer #472

I get questions like this all the time. And I never can tell them a “yes” or “no.”

Why not? Because

  1. I can’t possibly tell from a short description, and
  2. this misunderstands what it means to be a Mary Sue.

Honestly, I blame litmus tests.

What’s wrong with litmus tests?

Mary Sue litmus tests were popular back in earlier decades, full of questions like:

  • Does your character have different-colored eyes?
  • Was your character abused as a child?
  • Is your character an orphan?

The problem here is that none of these necessarily mean that you have a bad character. In fact, these are all things that can be true of people in real life.

A character who is unique but well-written could score high on these tests. Heck, as an autistic person who survived a life-threatening illness, I could score myself high on a few of those tests.

(How to pass a litmus test? Just write a really boring character.)

Being a Mary Sue isn’t about a character’s eye color, personality, or life experiences. It’s all about the way they are treated in the story.

But that’s a nebulous statement. And people really love litmus tests. So here you go: I’ve made you a litmus test that actually makes sense.

And I’ve even included advice for if it comes back positive.

Luna’s litmus test

Give yourself one point for each statement that is true. Go slowly and think carefully if you want the test to be accurate.

Hate math? Try taking the quiz on my writing site and it’ll automatically total it up for you.

A. Readers and your character

  • First-time readers can probably tell who my favorite character is.
  • I really hope that all readers will get the same impression of my character.
  • If someone criticized my character’s personality or behavior, I would feel hurt.

Score: _ / 3

B. Character traits and habits

  • My character has an unusual appearance because I want to show that they’re special.
  • My character is way more skilled than others, to the point that most of their peers could never hope to match them. It’s beyond impressive.
    • Compare them to both people in their peer group (e.g. “fellow recent MIT graduates”) and to major characters in the story (e.g. “fellow engineers at the company”).
  • My character has an above-average amount of health problems or episodes (like fainting) because I want to turn up the drama or elicit sympathy.
  • My character has a tragic backstory/mental illness/(un)diagnosed disability because I think it makes them interesting, sympathetic, or not responsible for their past behavior.

Pay attention to the “because” part, here. There’s a difference between wanting to help your readers understand a condition and using it as a way to get your character attention.

Score: _ / 4

C. The plot

  • If someone disagrees with my character, they’re either evil or temporarily misguided.
  • Friends or enemies are drawn to my character without a clear logical/emotional reason.
  • My character gets to get away with hurting feelings or breaking rules without any real consequences.

Score: _ /3

Your results

If you scored 0 or 1, it’s unlikely that you have a Mary Sue.

If you scored 2 or 3, it’s likely that you have a Mary Sue.

If you scored 4 or more, it’s almost guaranteed that you have a Mary Sue.

While there’s nothing wrong with inventing a Mary Sue for fun, this can be a problem if you’re trying to share your work professionally and/or get a following. Readers dislike characters who get unfair advantages, so your favoritism towards your character may turn them away from your story.

Don’t want that? I have a few ideas for you.

Fixing problems

Visit the section(s) where you got points.

A. Readers and the character: emotional investment

A child's drawing of a sad girl sitting on a rock looking down at the water
“Some guy called @fancyjoe547 said my main character is self-centered!”

You’re likely to have responded “yes” to one or more of these questions if you’re highly invested in the character.

Your character is extraordinarily special to you and you may identify with them strongly. When your character feels love, you feel loved. If/when your character is criticized by people in real life, you feel criticized.

This level of investment is fine for a personal story (hey, we all gotta vent somehow), but it could lead to problems if you want to share your story with the outside world.

Potential fixes:

  • Remember to put pieces of yourself into all major characters, not just one.
  • Make time for the likable parts of other characters.
  • Remember that it’s okay for your character to make mistakes. It’s humanizing, because it’s human.
  • Decide to keep your story private, away from judgmental eyes, so you can do whatever you want without worrying. It’s yours, after all!

Decide what makes sense for you and your story.

B. Character traits and habits: what is “special,” really?

If you said “yes” to one or more of these, you either misinterpreted the questions or you are trying to make your character special in the wrong ways.

So let’s talk about what makes people special.

I have:

Three drawings depicting 4 hypermobility poses: W sitting, folding the hands in a "prayer" position behind the back, a little finger joint that goes backwards, and touching the thumb to the wrist of the same hand.
I can do all of these lol
  • Unique-colored hair (blonde and pink)
  • Diagnoses of autism, asthma, generalized anxiety, social anxiety (misdiagnosis tbh), depression, and more
  • Unusual contortion abilities probably caused by Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
  • An on-again-off-again bruise collection due to clumsiness (table corners are my nemesis)
  • A tragic backstory of almost dying from illness
  • Problems with sleeping and eating
  • Sensitivity to heat that makes me feel faint

Does that make me super special? Does that mean people should treat me better and come running anytime I say I’m dizzy/anxious/sad and give me lots of hugs and fanart of my characters? Do I deserve a ton of sympathy and pity?

No, of course not. I don’t like being pitied. I occasionally get special treatment, usually from people who think I’m a toddler in an adult body, and I pretend it’s nice instead of awkward. I deserve basic disability accommodations, understanding, and acceptance. Not special treatment. (But I’ll still accept lots of fanart of my characters.)

So those don’t make me special. But am I special anyway?

Mom was busy, so I asked if one of my followers could tell me whether I was special.

Certainly! You write in a nuanced, respectful and compassionate way about autism, your art is pleasant to look at, and you do good infographics. You handle even dated and overly simplified concepts like functioning labels with more humanity and respect to the people depicted.

The lovely artist Lamees Tayyib

She’s not talking about my unique appearance or my list of disabilities and health conditions. Nor is my backstory in here.

It’s not about who I am. It’s about what I do.

A drawing of a Mary Sue-ish character with elaborate hair, heterochromic eyes, and a lot of unusual traits. She looks insecure. Text reads "Am I special yet?"
All the quirks in the world don’t make you special. Kindness makes you special.

Your character can be an ordinary-looking person with an ordinary past and no attention-grabbing quirks or diagnosable conditions, and yet they could choose to do extraordinary things that make them incredibly special.

You don’t need a gimmick to make your character unique.

Now, take away any traits that you gave your character just because you thought they would be special. And make your character actually special by having them do special things.

From what Lamees Tayyib said above, we can conclude that:

  • Being kind is special
  • Helping others is special
  • Having awesome skills (and using them positively) is special

If your character does these things, then they should be pretty special!

(This doesn’t mean that you should only write neurotypical plain-looking characters with zero disabilities and boring pasts. Just that you should write these for their own sake instead of for the special factor.)

And maybe you want to also call attention to your character or create drama. You can do that too:

  • Your character can ask for help. They can say things like “I’m sad” or “I think I’m having a panic attack.” And when other people come to help, your readers will feel that a kind and helpful person like your character certainly deserves help with their own problems.
  • Raise stakes instead of making your characters overreact.* Add an external or internal conflict to make it harder on your characters. Make them unsure what the right thing to do is. Make them face their demons. Make them afraid they’ll lose something important. That’s real drama!

*Unless you want “they overreact sometimes” to be a character trait of theirs, and hey, that’s valid.

C. The plot: character-centric stories

If you said “yes” to one or more of these questions, then you’re centering the plot around your character instead of around a story.

If my character does it, they must be in the right. If someone dislikes goodness, they must dislike my character. All important things revolve around my character.

a writer who needs to grow

It’s a very childish viewpoint, and it was certainly there in many of the things I wrote as a teenager. And while it’s normal for a child to think that way, it’s less appealing in a work of fiction.

So tell yourself:

  • My character can make mistakes and deal with the consequences.
  • Other characters have interesting aspects worth exploring.
  • Sometimes the focus needs to be on another character, and the story can still be engaging that way.
  • Characters can be interested in my character. They just need to have a reason for it that makes logical or emotional sense.

I know it might be unclear what it means to have logical or emotional reasons for a character to be interested in another character, so let me provide examples from my own writing.

Doodles of Claire's family and Glitter from Silent Voice. They are being silly and having fun in most of the pictures.
We all do things for a reason. It just so happens that mischief makes up a solid proportion of Claire’s reasons.
  • In Thousand Dollar Friend, Aurora’s friend group welcomes Tara because (a) Tara is kind to Aurora, (b) Tara is friendly and pleasant to talk to, and (c) they’re friendly people.
  • In Thousand Dollar Friend, Beverly bullies Tara because she perceives Tara to be a threat and she needs an outlet for her anger.
  • In Silent Voice, Glitter (a little girl) latches onto Claire because Glitter is a lonely kid in need of a big sister figure, and Claire seems confident and friendly.
  • In Silent Voice, a villain takes particular interest in Claire because… sorry, no spoilers. You’ll have to read it to find out.

It’s not “because Tara and Claire are special” (though they’re special in my heart). It’s because all characters are their own people with their own thoughts and reasoning.

The plot comes before any one character. The story serves the plot, not the main character.

So:

  • Let your character make mistakes sometimes. Then they can realize that they were wrong, do their best to make it right, and grow from the experience. Speaking as a reader, I like seeing that.
  • Let there be disagreements in which both sides have a valid point.
  • Make sure that your character has at least one important flaw, a flaw that comes from priorities (like “she doesn’t manage her temper” or “he’s rude”) instead of lack of skill (like “she’s clumsy” or “he can’t dance”).
  • Make sure that side characters are properly motivated and not just being magnetically drawn to your character.

Improving your character

Pin it to save a fellow writer

So maybe you know your character is a Mary Sue, maybe you aren’t sure, or maybe you just think it wouldn’t hurt to make them a little better.

All this stuff is subjective, so apply your own perspective and common sense to what you read here. You know your story better than I do. You need to form your own opinions and make your own choices.

And if you’re unsure, take your time. Reread what you’ve written, imagine the story from each character’s point of view, and think about the depth of what’s happening.

I also have a few more resources that may help:

Shaping a story takes a long time. Read, learn, write, reflect, repeat.

Happy writing.

8 thoughts on “Luna Rose’s Actually Logical Mary Sue Litmus Test

  1. My story takes place on a rogue planet somewhere in the multiverse, and all of the inhabitants are different magical creatures or hybrids between magical creatures. If all of the characters were remarkably strange and no two characters were alike in any way, would they all count as mary sues?

    Like

    1. Being different/strange doesn’t make a character a Mary Sue. If you’re using it as a tool to constantly call attention to a favorite character at the expense of the plot, then you might have an issue. But inventing an imaginative world is very different from that.

      I hate the message that creativity makes characters a Mary Sue. Too many writers are afraid to express themselves.

      Like

  2. Something I think worth mentioning when it comes to character skills is that being very skilled is not an automatic Mary Sue trait, because some people *are* naturally gifted at something or put a lot of effort into learning something from an early age. It’s not that out of the ordinary for a given person to be breezing through school material when their classmates aren’t, to play an instrument well because they’ve been in lessons since they were five, or to be naturally charismatic or charming. Being more skilled than other characters in one or two things isn’t necessarily a Mary Sue trait if there’s a genuine reason for it, it doesn’t apply to every single skill, and there’s other things that can detract from it.

    It’s also possible for a character to have a desirable skill that turns out to be completely useless in the setting, or to have a skill but not know how to use it appropriately. Having an advanced vocabulary might help a character out if they’re writing, but it wouldn’t be of much use if they want to be an engineer, and big words don’t compensate for underdeveloped social skills. A character can ace their classes in school with little effort and paint masterpieces, yet be naïve and end up making decisions that results in someone getting hurt. Superheroes with incredible powers aren’t very good superheroes if they haven’t learned to control their powers yet. So on and so forth. The question is really whether the skills are used as a grab for attention (“look how cool this is!”) or wish fulfillment, or if they’re used to actually progress the plot. An author can even use a character’s skills as a weakness depending on the situation – a world-renowned programmer whose only other skills are in technology would be a potential liability in an apocalypse, for instance!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, yes, for sure! It’s complicated and I found it hard to consolidate into a single sentence. I hope the wording isn’t misleading. I considered discussing things like the sum of all skills but that’s kind of confusing and I’m cautious about using math as analogies because it comes much easier to me than it does to most people.

      I’ve seen characters who are supposed to be the absolute best in the whole world, and characters who are good/proficient at everything (so much so that other characters don’t get to shine). That’s the sort of thing that should typically make a writer re-evaluate.

      It’s so subjective and complicated and difficult to describe in a single sentence. My hope is that readers can get the idea of what I’m talking about by recognizing whether the character’s abilities are unrealistic, and think about how they’re making a character special.

      Do you think there’s a better way to word it? I’m honestly still scratching my head over it.

      Like

      1. Hm, maybe “My character is way more skilled than other characters – they know about everything, and are incredibly good at anything even if it’s new to them or it’s hard for most people to do”? Or “My character is way more skilled than other characters – they can do anything better than other characters no matter what it is, and anyone can count on them to save the day”? It’s a bit wordy, but it might be a bit more clear.

        (Your writing-tips posts make me remember the stories I first really dedicated myself to writing, and I can’t help but giggle at them in retrospect. I think I was only capable of writing overpowered, sometimes-unintentionally-bisexual Mary Sues for awhile.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ll think about it and figure out a way to make it clearer. Your suggestions definitely help.

          I wrote stories like that too, only all my Mary Sues had zero love interests because dating a boy would be boring and a hindrance to the plot. Gee, I wonder why I thought that?

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Side characters would get romantic subplots, but never the main character. No, she had better things to do.

              I wonder whether it would be different if I knew back then that girls could date other girls.

              Like

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