Today’s episode is about two examples of poor characterization: the Mary Sue and Pants. Mary Sue being a reference to a very old Star Trek parody fanfiction, and Pants being a reference to the Oatmeal’s less than flattering review of the Twilight series.
Spoilers start at 09:05 and continue to 10:59 for Curse of Strahd, and 10:59 to 12:45 for (minor) Wrath of the Righteous spoilers!
I’m going to devote this blog entry to clearing the air a bit: the accusation that a character is a Mary Sue or Pants can come across as elitist and exclusionary because it’s frequently used to belittle things that can’t reasonably be called “Mary Sue” fiction or that take inspiration from other more famous things. For those of you who pound the table, demanding originality, let me be the one to say: there is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from someone else’s work, *especially* in the context of roleplaying games. A truly unique character – one that doesn’t draw on any of the common tropes or ideas – is ludicrous, and would be ridiculous. Tropes exist for a reason, and familiar themes are vital to culture and society.
When we talk about people player Pants characters, we’re not just talking about playing characters with interests and experiences that align with your own. While playing a character completely outside your norm or with a totally different personality from yours can be a great experience, it doesn’t take a lot, if played sincerely and with full consideration, to keep a character from just being you-in-funny-clothes-with-superpowers. There’s an old saying, “Write what you know,” and for many, it helps to write your characters in ways with which you are able to relate. That doesn’t mean narrowly limiting yourself to only your own experiences, attitudes or ideas though. Being a loyal, devoted person doesn’t mean you couldn’t play a flippant character.
King Solomon famously said, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and he probably cribbed that from the Epic of Gilgamesh or something. The notion that because something is “unoriginal” it has no merit is devoid of merit itself. There’s nothing wrong with playing a chaotic good Drow, or a gruff dwarf, or a cunning but reluctant adventuring halfling, or an unscrupulous wizard, or a trenchcoat wearing modern sorcerer, or just about any other spin on a famous character from fiction. In fact, that can be a great starting point for a character!
What we want to encourage is for you to make it your own and make it interesting. Don’t settle for playing someone else’s character – give it your twist! Maybe your Lloth-worshiping drow is the genki girl of the group. Maybe your gruff dwarf is secretly riddled with doubts about traditional dwarven faith. Maybe your halfling has a hidden altruistic motivation for his reluctance to take on adventures. Maybe your unscrupulous wizard is like most adults – just faking it, despite having no clue what he’s doing. Maybe your trenchcoat wearing sorcerer is actually disappointed her doesn’t have a keen scientific mind and resents his magic powers. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe – there’s a million different spins that can be put on familiar characters!
Avoiding the Mary Sue trap isn’t about making a character that is completely original, or that is ridiculously flawed, or that isn’t powerful – it’s about making a character you and your fellow players can relate to. Importantly, it’s about making one that doesn’t utterly overshadow everyone else, or appear so bizarrely out of place that they break that suspense of disbelief necessary to enjoy fiction.
But I do draw a line – your Sonic the Hedgehog recolor fursona is bad: it isn’t original, it’s not interesting and it doesn’t match the tone of the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Sometimes, people make fun of something not because they’re jealous haters, but because it’s genuinely ridiculous.