Mary Sue Litmus Tests

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Mary Sue Litmus Tests are a fan-created quiz/writers' guide.

The very first litmus test was by Melissa "Merlin Missy" Wilson and was created in 1997 for Gargoyles fan fiction. Many other litmus tests by other fans and for other fandoms soon followed.

They were very popular in the late 1990s, and early to mid-2000s. Since then, "Mary Sue Litmus Tests" have fallen out of style and favor, mostly due to fans' complaints that they fostered misogyny, curtailed fan creativity, fostered censorship, shamed female fans, and made many fans unwilling to write original characters for fear of being mocked or worse.

Reactions and Fan Comments


I hate those Mary Sue Litmus tests. They're half the reason people are afraid of writing original characters in the first place....Maybe in the beginning of them, yes. They do provide a sort of list of things to avoid. I, for one, try to avoid creating characters whom everyone likes on the spot.

However, those lists have become a staple in some fandoms, so much so to the point where newbies on some of the 40+ mailing lists I'm on ask what a Mary Sue and get directed to 50 or more of such lists, and the links are often accompanied by essays on why one should avoid writing original characters. In which case, the litmus test fail in providing a guide and becomes a creativity squelching tool of Big Brother.... That's why I said I didn't like them. Not because of the purpose they were meant to serve, but because of what they have come to mean. And mostly, because people almost never admit when they're shoving a litmus test (that they likely didn't write themselves) down some newbies throat, that not all OCs are Mary Sues. [1]

My offhand categorization of Litmus Test questions:

Is the character in any way like you?
Is the character in any way as you would like to be?
Does the character have any rare abilities?
Does the character have relatives whom you did not invent?
Does the character have a love and/or sex life?
Does the character accomplish anything?

I'm being somewhat unfair, as positive answers to some of the questions on names and powers are almost invariably bad signs, and too many of them together often are, but I think they tend to merge actual sources of trouble with several less reasonable theories and assorted characteristics that many people are just tired of and/or assume indicate Mary Sues... which I suppose leads into the question of whether people are trying to avoid creating a Mary Sue or trying to avoid having people perceive their character as a Mary Sue.

The litmus tests, at least, have a scoring system acknowledging that almost none of the characteristics they use, by themselves or even a few in combination, automatically make a character a Mary Sue. Leaving aside the question of weighting and where the cutoff scores ought to be, not to mention whether the characteristics are appropriately chosen... it seems to be more of a problem that a lot of people dismiss a story with one of the traits in question. How much of this can be blamed on the litmus tests themselves as compared to how much it's responsible for the questions, I'm not sure. [2]

Instead of saying "All OFC's are Mary Sues," the idea behind the litmus test is to describe exactly *what* traits make your character a Mary Sue, and since having just a few doesn't do it, it points out how egregiously many you really need to have to be in Mary Sue territory.

Part of what set off my rant was reading marysues and an article which seemed to be operating on the assumption that either any supremely talented and attractive character, even if she is THE CANON HEROINE, is a Mary Sue, or that original female characters are Mary Sue until proven otherwise. If you run the litmus tests, you can see that they frequently don't meet MS criteria. (For instance, the article said that Amanda Rogers, the teenage girl who turned out to be a Q, was a canonical instance of a Mary Sue, but I'll bet if you ran a Star Trek litmus test on her she wouldn't qualify. She isn't superlatively gorgeous, she has a normal name (more normal than mine in fact :-)), her background isn't overly traumatic, the rest of the characters in the story are written in character, no one falls in love with her (well, without her mind controlling them), she doesn't *like* the person she's related to, and she doesn't die tragically at the end. Because there are so many criteria that need to work together to make a Mary Sue, you can look at a teenage girl who discovers she's really omnipotent and determine that actually, no, she is not one. But if all you had to go on was the description "teenage girl discovers she's really omnipotent," and when you also know that originally the character was male and had the same name as the male teen author who sold the original script that Paramount bought and heavily rewrote to make the episode, then it does seem obvious the character must be Mary Sue. You have to, you know, actually analyze the character to notice that no, she's *not.* [3]



  1. ^ comment by debc at Make up your mind: what is a Mary Sue?
  2. ^ comment by persephone_kore at Make up your mind: what is a Mary Sue?
  3. ^ comment by alara rogers at Make up your mind: what is a Mary Sue?