Mary Sues And Reader Identification

17 Aug

After reading Susan Kearney’s The Challenge I thought about reader identification and Mary Sue characters. For more info about Mary Sue characters see Wikipedia or Mrs Giggles. There are also tests to find out if a character is a Mary Sue, for example the Mary-Sue Litmus Test.

There are many things which are considered typical of a Mary Sue characters. Some I consider a stronger indication than others, but for me it boils down to:
A Mary Sue character (or the male equivalent) is a character who has such a high amount of positive qualities in comparison to
a) his/her negative qualities (if there are any at all!)
b) the positive qualities of the other characters in the novel
that these qualities are overwhelming and appear unbelievable.

That is the reason why I consider Tessa from Kearney’s The Challenge a Mary Sue character, although she probably wouldn’t score high on the Mary Sue Litmus Test. But the test also notes:

we can’t promise you that every character who scores high on this test is a Mary-Sue, or that every character who scores low isn’t

So I think I’m not that far off in my assessment.

Now, what is my point about reader identification?

At the end of The Challenge I had a strong dislike of the heroine Tessa. She was such a blatant Mary Sue to me and a strong factor in ruining the book. But clearly, Kearney intended the reader to like her and think her kick-ass. Why didn’t it work for me? Maybe because I don’t identify with characters in novels?

My point about reader identification and Mary Sue characters crystalizes then in two questions:
1. Are readers who tend to identify with characters, especially the heroine, more forgiving towards Mary Sue characters?
2. Or is it the other way round because a reader can only lose in comparison with such a perfect character?

I don’t know because I don’t identify with characters in novels. With identifying I mean I don’t think stuff like “I want to be [heroine’s name]”, “I wish I could be friends with …”, “I’m so in love with [hero’s name]”, or “I don’t like this novel because a character did something I would never do”. I even don’t think this about novels with premises I like to read. This way of relating to novels and characters was something that really confused me in my earlier years online. And sometimes it still baffles me today.

Thinking about number 2, maybe the deciding factor is some kind of reality check and not the process of identification.
Anyway, it’s clear that I’m not exactly sure what I’m about with this. But I know that I spot a Mary Sue character in a novel with a premise I enjoy reading (for example, a plain Jane story) as easily as in a novel with a premise I don’t particularly care for.


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