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All the World's A Stage: So Sue me

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In World of Warcraft, that player is you! Each week, Anne Stickney brings you All the World's a Stage with helpful hints, tips and tricks on the art of roleplay in WoW.

Of all the various topics among roleplayers, none is quite as cringe-worthy as the Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a character who is just too good to be true -- no flaws to be found, undeniably amazing according to the author, and generally seen as nothing more than a self-insertion of what the author wishes he or she could be. The term actually originates from fan fiction, but it has leeched its way into the RP community as well.

The inherent flaw in playing Mary Sues is that they are "too perfect" -- they lack any flaws and thus lack any realism whatsoever. So how do you know if you have a Mary Sue? What does a Mary Sue look like? What are the qualities of that kind of character? And more importantly -- how can you avoid making one when you're developing a character for RP? It's all about rooting your character in lore in a way that isn't over the top and keeping your character's traits realistic.

Let's get physical

The first tip off that people attribute to a character being a Mary Sue is being attractive beyond all reason. When you are writing out your character description, it's tempting to not only make your character gorgeous but to write out every single last detail of their sparkling eyes, winsome smile and heaving ... attributes. This is entirely unnecessary for the purpose of RP. Sure, make your character attractive, but describing every last detail makes it appear as though you're wallowing in how perfect your character is.

And that's exactly what sets people off -- it's not just the fact that there is a Mary Sue present, it's the general conception that Mary Sue characters are created solely for the purpose of rubbing people's noses in how wonderful their character is. When you're writing your character description, whether it be outside of game, or using an RP addon to make it public, try to keep an objective stance on your character.

By that, I mean don't get invested in making a character that everyone's going to instantly fall in love with. Let's look at this from a realistic standpoint. In game, all character avatars look pretty much the same. People aren't going to be keeping that description in mind too overly much when they are talking to you; they are going to be paying attention to what it is your character has to say (unless, of course, they're looking for an entirely different kind of roleplay). Before you write that eight-page soliloquy triumphantly exclaiming over the virtues of your character's glorious buttocks, ask yourself what exactly you're hoping to get out of revealing that to other characters.

The ironic part of a Mary Sue is that whoever created that character made them that way so that everyone would love them, yet by doing so, they've guaranteed that their character is anything but loved by the players around them. What Sue authors fail to realize is that conflict and clashes between characters are not only common, but also part of what makes playing that character exciting. Don't get hung up on making everyone love you; concentrate on making that character interesting for his own merits instead of interesting based on something as shallow as appearance.


Lore and the wild Sue

Another tip-off to potential Mary Sues is that they are somehow related to major characters in lore. Some people say that there are lore characters themselves that are Mary Sues, but that's kind of a fallacy in thinking. An author writing a work for pay isn't really writing a Mary Sue, because it's not fan fiction -- it's a universe of his or her own making. Can author-created characters be self-indulgent? Absolutely. Can author-created characters be self-insertions? Oh, you bet they can. The difference between self-insertion and a Mary Sue lies in whom the original author of that universe is.

It's a little tricky to understand, but the best way to frame it is that the author is writing the character into the lore. By doing so, he is rooting that character in the lore of the universe he created. A Mary Sue, on the other hand, is an author outside of that universe who isn't writing a piece of lore so much as a wishful "gosh, I wish this could happen!" view of that established world. When someone who isn't the author takes liberties with characters that author has created, that's where the Mary Sue label comes into play.

When you are creating a character, it's important to look at whom that character could realistically be related to. Taking a character and saying it is the illegitimate child of Kael'thas and Sylvanas the Banshee Queen is absurd -- those two characters have no established relationship to each other in existing lore and timeline, so there's no way they could have a child. Saying your character is related to some small NPC in town, though -- that's entirely possible, because there hasn't really been any established lore written surrounding those characters.

So yes, you can fit your character in as a relative of someone in game, but there are a couple things you want to keep in mind when you do it. First off, has there been any established canon written about that NPC? If so, do your research and figure out whether or not your idea fits within the lore. If not, go ahead and make a distant cousin to the bread vendor in Ironforge. Secondly, what does making your character a relation of an NPC actually do for your character? If there's nothing there to further your story, you may want to just cut it out entirely.

Super hero or super Sue

It is tempting to make your character powerful beyond all reason, incredibly smart, immortal, or otherwise "special" in relation to other characters. But think about that for a minute -- if you start off with a character who is perfect and play his perfect life in which nothing bad can ever happen, what's the point of playing that character? If your character is already a demigod at level 1, what's the point of traveling around the world? If your character is always going to win a fight, what's the point of even fighting in the first place?

RP is all about conflict, and characters that are too "perfect" lack any kind of conflict, other than the vague sense of irritation other players feel at having to interact with them. A character with no faults has nothing to strive for, nothing to accomplish. You have to think of a character not only in the dynamic of RP, but the dynamic of storytelling. Good books follow the same basic format of exposition (the basic introduction of a character and situation), conflict (whatever is preventing that character from getting what they desire), and resolution (the point at which that conflict is resolved).

The difference between a book and RP, or even a book and life, is that that basic format is cyclical. Once one conflict has been resolved, another emerges. After that, another emerges, and so on and so on until the point that the character dies. So how does this all fit in with special characters? A character with no disadvantages has no conflict. With no conflict, there's no resolution, no peak to the story, no further conflict. You already know everything is going to work out all right in the end, so there's no excitement.

The urge to make a character extraordinary right off the bat is a big one, but the best authors out there take the opposite tack -- the character itself is ordinary, but the situations surrounding that character are extraordinary ones. Take The Hobbit, for example. A small town character living a very normal life in their universe is suddenly confronted with a situation so extraordinary that that character must rise to the occasion and deal with it. Or Harry Potter -- another normal person, in this case a young boy, who has an extraordinary situation thrust upon him.

When you're tempted to make an extraordinary character with some sort of grand, perfect life, think about instead reversing the situation. After all, in Warcraft, we all start from level 1 in a relatively ordinary setting, and as time goes on and we continue questing our way to 85, it's the situations around us that get more extraordinary over time. It's not about being a hero to begin with; it's about rising up to the challenge and becoming that hero as a result of your actions.

Keep it simple

The urge to take your character and make him into the most perfect, incredible example of a night elf or orc or dwarf imaginable is a strong one. But once you've made that powerhouse of a description and that gigantic tangle of backstory, in reality, you've got very little left to play with. My suggestion for beginner roleplayers is to keep it simple. Don't get too cluttered with the details, because those details will ultimately bog you down and may get you into a situation you simply can't play with.

The less you put out there, the more reason other characters have to interact with you. Instead of having to keep a billion and a half nitpicking details about your character in mind, it leaves you free to just concentrate on the RP at hand. The simpler you keep your story, the more you have to work with over time and the less you have to worry about writing yourself into a corner that you can't get out of. Don't get so caught up in the details that you're swept away with your character's perfection -- otherwise, you may see the Sue label applied to yourself.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. Let us help you imagine what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying or even RP on a non-RP realm!

Filed under: All the World's a Stage (Roleplaying)

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