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MARY SUE, MARY SCHMUE: WHY YOU SHOULD IGNORE THE LABEL
Part One: It's Not As Bad As You Think




Any writer who has opened their work to criticism or posted their work on the Internet (oh wait, that's the same thing), has undoubtedly heard the term "Mary Sue." In all likelihood, you've heard this term because one of your characters has had this label thrown at them. Perhaps the fear alone of having your character turned into a dartboard for flamers has driven you to discover the definition of this term. In fact, it's likely that the fear of this label has altered your writing and characterization in some way. Has it driven you to be less shallow, and make your characters less shallow? Good! Has it driven you to think more carefully about your plot devices to make sure you're not pulling a Deus Ex Machina, and to keep a close eye on your characterization to make sure you're not derailing any of their personalities? Good! Has it driven you to become so obsessed with every minute detail, you've forgotten that you cannot please everyone and you stopped having fun with the writing? Not so good.

The problem with the "Mary Sue" label is that people have forgotten what it actually means, and so they are throwing it around like the mot du jour without having any idea what they are actually saying. Do you know that the saying "It's a Doozy" once referred to something being so So Cool It's Awesome, and not something to watch out for? Do you know which profession sparked the phrase "show me the ropes"? Same goes for Mary Sue: People have started sticking the label on any character they don't like, and it has skewed the definition to a point where it's so highly subjective, its original meaning is all but lost. As unnerving as Sue sometimes may be, she is nothing to stay up nights fretting about, because the people who throw the label at you will often have no idea what they're actually accusing you of... and likewise, you may not know what you're being accused of either.  The best you can do is to be informed, and not have a Giant Royal Flipout until you know exactly what to look out for in your characters.

According to TV Tropes, the abbreviated definition of Mary Sue is:
...a character who obviously serves the purpose of wish fulfillment for the author -- not merely as a true to life author insertion, but as an overly idealized version of the author.  She is head-turningly beautiful, with hair and eyes of colors not natural for the story's norms, and she has a similarly cool and exotic name.  She's exceptionally talented in an implausible variety of areas, and possesses skills that are rare or nonexistent in the established setting.  Regardless of what skill levels the other characters have established, she is simply better than them, often in ways that do not make sense.  If she needs to know a plot-relevant skill, she'll pick it up in a fraction of the time required, if she doesn't magically know it already.  She also lacks any significant, story-relevant character flaws -- either that, or her "flaws" are obviously meant to be endearing.  She is highly persuasive, regardless of how easy it normally is to convince the other characters of anything.  She is incorruptible.  In fact, she is often unaware of the existence of temptation.  Her personality is practically nonexistent; she is either unabashed and cheerful, mopey and depressed beyond necessity, or violently explosively angry (almost always in a justified vengeful rampage).

In summary, "Mary Sue" is a term given to a character who is vital to the story, possesses highly unusual physical traits, attracts the attention of the other characters to a story-altering degree, and has an over-idealized and irrelevantly over-skilled nature. However, therein lies the problem… this term is generally slapped onto ANY character possessing any number of these traits, without regarding how many of these traits the character exhibits, why those traits are there, or how realistic they are. With the way the term has mutated over time, a great many people just end up labeling any character overdosed with these traits as a Mary Sue.

This is not necessarily true.

Even if a character has quite a number of the traits described, creating a Sue can still be averted by a good enough explanation for why these traits are there.  In fact, there are many real-life people who have taken the "Mary-Sue Litmus Test" and failed. Tom Petty achieves a score of "Kill It Dead." Does this mean that these people -- who are here, in real life, and therefore are obviously real -- are unrealistic? Is Tom Petty a walking cartoon?

See, Mary Sue is not completely about how she has radiant purple hair, a perfect seven octave singing voice, and can slice Superman with her katana -- although that does make a difference, if these traits aren't given plausible explanations and balanced out with flaws of equal gravity.  It's about what she does to the story. There's a fine line between a character with traits that make her really stand out, and a Mary Sue.  It's only partially defined by her appearance, her abilities, or how fantastically improbable her backstory is. Moreover, it is about how the character is defined exclusively by external traits to the point of shallowness, and about how all the other characters are defined exclusively by their attitude to her. Looks aren't the half of it. It is other qualities -- abilities, personality (or lack thereof), and the way that not just the story, but the entire WORLD revolves around a character, even though it logically wouldn't -- that make a character a Sue.

The current craze to avoid Typhoid Mary Sue is causing good writers to go to the extreme of creating characters with absolutely no points of interest, falsely believing that any stand-out qualities will make their character a Sue. As we've just noticed, the ability to stick your character into the mold does not mean that they belong there. Allow me, for a moment, to point out the obvious: You must have an interesting character. You cannot have a completely normal character with no physical qualities, personality traits, past events, mannerisms, abilities, or some sort of quirk, that make him/her stand out in some way. If your character is just your standard Joe Shmoe and has no points of interest, then you have hit a rather big "duh" of a roadblock -- your character is not interesting. If your character is not interesting, nobody is going to read your story. Do YOU read stories where the characters don't draw you in? Even the most action-packed, twisted-plot, blow-your-mind-and-leave-you-drooling-like-a-tard book can be killed dead by a boring-ass main character. I couldn't get past chapter 5 of Catcher in the Rye because Caulfield was so irritatingly dull.

Now, if you are so utterly obsessed with the "MY CHARACTER CANNOT BE AMAZING" fad that you literally cannot add any embellishments to him/her, do bear in mind that characters can be cursed with normal. What if your story exists in a universe where everyone can read minds, and your protagonist, for whatever reason, can't? What if your character is the odd man out by being the only one without superpowers? Your character can also be made different simply by having a different mindset than everybody else. Look at Horton Hears a Who! It's all about being willing to get creative with something, while not going over the edge of believability.

However, READ THIS AND ABSORB: I am not encouraging you to make shallow, over-the-top unusual, borderline-unbelievable characters just because you can, because guess what? Mary Sue. That "edge of believability" is very important, and cannot be forgotten. I am not encouraging you to stop taking caution entirely. I'm just saying you don't need to be so paranoid that the sheer unadulterated terror makes ink shoot out of your ears. You can have characters who are odd, who don't fit in, who stand out above the rest. You simply have to have valid, well-plotted, not-handwaved-away explanations for these traits, and flaws that balance them out.

The important thing as a writer is not to never have this label thrown at you, even once in your life... because it will happen. People throw the word around all the time without a thought toward the context. The important thing is to make your characters believable. Not completely normal, not without any fantastical or above-normal qualities, just believable. You can always provide perfectly good explanations as to why a character has traits that make them stand out. The main thing is to realize that the label doesn't matter. What matters is that you have the confidence to stop worrying about what people are calling your character, and worry more about improving your talent so that you have something worthwhile to bring to the table.
Just got really sick of the "Typhoid Mary-Sue" phase. It irks me. Like really, get over it.

Edited to break the essay down into four components:

1. It's Not As Bad As You Think
2. The Balancing Act: Positives vs Flaws
3. Context Is the Backbone
4. Common Grievances and When They Are Acceptable

Partially inspired by a friend's treatise on character creation (unavailable online). Partially inspired by ~Ty-Chou and by TV Tropes. Partially inspired by sheer irritation. Partially just trying to be funny. XD

Anyhoozer... hope you find this engaging and/or helpful. ^^
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:iconmendeddragon:
MendedDragon Featured By Owner Apr 14, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
I was thinking about faving without commenting, but I suppose I'll give you a bit :dummy:
Thanks, I never exactly thought of it this way until I'd read this. The rule I really went by all the time was to at least make them generally likeable or interesting.
I suppose it is a good thing to try and disregard the term altogether and stay in that little bubble of believability, heh >w>
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:icontalondragon000:
TalonDragon000 Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
You've been featured in my mary sue project! Take a look [link]
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:iconmakingfunofstuff:
MakingFunOfStuff Featured By Owner Oct 18, 2012
I like what you said about how real people can take Mary Sue tests and still come out as a Sue. That's why I strongly believe that what makes a Mary Sue is portrayal. What might be a Mary Sue in one story could be a completely reasonable character in another depending on how they're portrayed. That's how stereotype perfect cartoon characters are bearable, because no matter how many times they are *called* perfect, they're really being made fun of by the people making the cartoon. Mary Sues are being worshiped by the author and that, I think is what makes a Mary Sue. Since we all have different ideas of perfect, there's no way that can be the definition. It's a character *portrayed* as perfect, I think.
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:iconsouthernimagineer:
SouthernImagineer Featured By Owner Feb 29, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Just found this, read over it, and I couldn't agree more. Coming from someone who's had her fair share of accusatory comments on my characters, calling them Mary Sues, I really do believe that the term is thrown around much more than it should.

So thank you. This really made me feel better about my writing :)
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Aw, I'm glad you like it so much and it could help you out! :) I get a lot of flak too for having insert characters in fanfiction, and it's important to make sure the difference between an insert and a Sue is clear. ^^
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:iconsouthernimagineer:
SouthernImagineer Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Exactly. Couldn't have put it better myself! :dance:
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:iconiceprincess94:
iceprincess94 Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2011
TThisi s definate going into my writing folder
Reply
:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Oct 23, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Glad you like it! ^^
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:iconandytheb-artist:
AndytheB-Artist Featured By Owner Sep 9, 2011  Hobbyist
How is Tom Petty remotely a Mary-Sue (or Gary-Stu)?
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Sep 9, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
The whole "generally misunderstood teenager with weird-colored hair who was abused by his father, plays guitar, met the most famous rock star ever before he hit puberty, and somehow manages to make it big even though he comes from the middle of nowhere hicksville" idea. It's funny how he's thought of as a cultural icon and hero, when in literature, this is pretty much the cookie cutter definition of a Mary Sue. (don't get me wrong, he's a magical musician and a hilarious & charming personality, and I love the man; I just find the dichotomy ironic.)
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:iconceltickawaii:
CelticKawaii Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2011  Student Traditional Artist
Thank you for this! I might quote some of this in my "help fic" on Fanfiction.Net.
Reply
:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Aug 20, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Cool! Glad you like it ^^
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:iconflightfootwarrior:
flightfootwarrior Featured By Owner Jul 7, 2011
I meant Strengths,sorry XD
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Aug 3, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
XD s'all good.
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:iconflightfootwarrior:
flightfootwarrior Featured By Owner Aug 3, 2011
X3
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:iconflightfootwarrior:
flightfootwarrior Featured By Owner Jul 7, 2011
Thank you so much for making this!some people think they're "oh so clever" and know exactly what a Mary-Sue is and abuse it,which just plainly ticks me off.
this is basically most of what i think about Mary-Sues and such,and the whole"if she/he has anything that makes her/him stand out they're a sue"is typically BS. would people rather see a boring,plain,worn-down character then an interesting,hard to guess character with flaws to contradict their weaknesses?
Reply
:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Aug 3, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Seriously. I literally cannot stand it when people use terms without really knowing what they mean. And people tend to think that giving your character any flaws IS making them a Sue, because having flaws is like trying to make them piteous, or something. o_o Glad you enjoyed reading!
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:iconflightfootwarrior:
flightfootwarrior Featured By Owner Aug 3, 2011
hehe X3 ive seen some MAJOR sues and suts in RPs,and its freaking terrible!I think the ones I cant stand the most are over-powered sues,and angsty sues XP its like "you cant be THAT tough!" and "My character wont feel sorry for yours just because they baw and cry all the time about their sucky life,she didn't exactly have a past of butterflies and rainbows either! <.<"


No Prob ^^
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Aug 3, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Oh man, it makes me so mad when people try to be intimidating via keyboard. Like... seriously? I can't see you, I'm not going to acknowledge you're better than me, stfu and stop trying. XD
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:iconaurora-celest:
aurora-celest Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2011
Oh thank you for writing this and showing me the Litmus Test! :kiss: I was starting to become worried about my character being a Mary-Sue, but I scored a 16-17 on the Test.

After reading this, I came to the conclusion that I didn't fuck up the character. Her only Mary-Sue tendencies are her courage, generosity, and long, pretty, *normal-colored* hair (that she eventually loses).

She's not crazy popular, she doesn't speak "Animal", what she does, anyone can, etc.
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:iconredconvoy:
redconvoy Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
PS I am seeing a lot of so-called original characters in the Yugioh fandom that do have the Sue qualities. I even see it on Deviant Art. How many wives can Atemu have who's goth, unbelievably beautiful, or is a mousy wall flower? I've seen one in particular that has a fanbase and she has her own universe making the original characters more like background characters. You could get away with this possibly in the Transformers fandom since there is no established universe, but not with one that has an established story line and characters.
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I do think it's possible to have characters with Sue qualities that aren't necessarily Sues -- that's what the whole essay is about. There are ways to have those qualities, but to justify them, and balance them out with flaws, so that the character is realistic rather than a cardboard cutout.

However... yeah, there are some things that should just be altogether avoided -- like being goth/scene princesses. That archetype got completely and utterly destroyed all across the board ever since My Immortal. XD

And yeah, I do see quite often that fan-made characters take over and make the story about themselves... and I do agree with you that this should only be done in universes where the storyline is really maleable. It could also be pulled off in places where there are canon cliffhangers that involve all the characters and it only makes sense to bring in somebody else, but you still have to return stardom to the main characters once they're involved.
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:iconredconvoy:
redconvoy Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I agree. The main characters should be the main focus. I am about ready to write a crack fic called "The Domestication of Atem." Atem gets a second chance at life just to be snatched by an OC for marriage, a 9 to 5 job, and...DIAPER DUTY!!!! ;D What a life! I can hear him crying out for Yugi to save him!;D
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 15, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Pffffft that's AMAZING. XD have fun with it!
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:iconredconvoy:
redconvoy Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Bella in Twilight and Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation are prime examples of Mary Sue and Gary Stu.
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
idk if I would call Wesley a Stu, simply because he's not the main character (or at least, the writing didn't *originally* focus much on him). TV Tropes actually classifies the characters like Wesley -- sideline characters who are so bland and perfect that the whole audience hates them, yet the writers decide the audience needs to see *why* the character is so amazing and thus make concerted efforts to shove the hated character down the audience's throat -- as not Mary Sues, but as a category unto themselves... aptly named The Wesley. XD
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:iconredconvoy:
redconvoy Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
LOL!!! I didn't think of it that way! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!! Poor Wesley! We hate him so! ;D Robot Chicken did something funny with that. The fans made death threats so the screen writer of ST:TNG put in another character to overshadow Wesley called Snerkle. The next day the fans said keep Snerkle and get rid of Wesley! ;D
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
pffffft XD wouldn't surprise me!
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:iconfayina-kei-sancia:
Fayina-Kei-Sancia Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2011
I love this. As someone with tons of characters running around in her mind, I do get worried about the whole Mary Sue issue. This reminded me to ignore it and just focus on the task of making believable characters. So thank you. :thanks:
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
:D glad I could help! there are 3 more on the way, with better ideas of how to avoid or justify certain characteristics that could pin a character as a Sue.
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:iconfayina-kei-sancia:
Fayina-Kei-Sancia Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011
awesome, can't wait to read 'em!
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:iconkatyanoctis:
katyanoctis Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2011
You know, that is ENTIRELY true. I guess I haven't been involved in a fandom deep enough these days because I had no idea this was an issue. My definition of a Mary Sue is basically exactly what you/TV Tropes said; I didn't realize it was so amorphous now.

Excellent argument, and well thought out, too. You always say things way better than I could ;) <3
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I guess it's the YGO and TF fanfic universes that have a lot of Sues these days, and whaddya know, they're the ones I'm neck-deep in. XDDD Glad you like!
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:iconkyra-fletcher:
Kyra-Fletcher Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2011
Well, there's a lot to read through, and well said.
I admit to being someone who throws the Mary Sue title around, often justly done, when the author clearly hasn't put an ounce of real thought into their OC, which is far too often for my liking.

I just checked the MSLT for my "you couldn't get more averagely normal" character, and it comes up with "Borderline Sue". What an insult. Ridiculous and unfounded and I take it entirely personally.

What happened to the days when an OC was an OC, figment of your own imagination, the character entirely yours to be as likeable or believable as you wanted? It sepperates the bad writers from the good from the great; what is so wrong with that? You read enough badly spelled, badly worded, half written, under-devised plot lines that even if the most perfectly rounded, genuine character with reasonable and sound talents and flaws were thrown in, what would it be worth?
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
XD sorry it's so long!

The MSLT really doesn't take into account any reasons for why a character's odd qualities exist. It's a pretty unfair test, imo :\

I agree. Though I think there's a big difference between posting something you expect to be taken seriously, vs writing for your own amusement. I write ridiculous characters all the time, but when I want to try to hone my craft, then I straighten up and make them more believable. Though it does help to have a lot of crap to wade through in order to find the gems. XD
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:iconnikki-kuznetsov:
Nikki-Kuznetsov Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Awesomesauce.
Oh, Twilight. How you make us lol/be irritated with your lack of...everything, really. ;p
Loved the HP and YGO references~
And how to create a 'justified' Mary Sue. Very useful.

Oh the days where my OCs were Sues... -shudders- X.x Well done on a great article~!
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Hahaha XD there's a stamp floating around that says "Twilight: literature for people who don't like literature" or something to that effect. So true.

Thanks! I'm glad you liked it ^^ There are a couple more short essays coming including specific tips about how to avoid/justify characteristics that could be called Sueish.
Reply
:iconnikki-kuznetsov:
Nikki-Kuznetsov Featured By Owner Jun 14, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
That's just brilliant :XD:
Looking forward to them~
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 15, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks! :D
Reply
:iconelementalheroshadow2:
ElementalHeroShadow2 Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2011
and shadow scores a 21 on that test, so he's good.

people need to consider context when determining a sue/stu. really.
Reply
:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
The MSLT doesn't take context into consideration, though -- I've had characters score in the 60's on that test, but the justifications for their high scores and the counterbalancing faults are thrown to the wayside. It's a pretty unfair test, tbh.
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:iconblue-and-dog:
Blue-and-Dog Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
:iconclapplz:
Reply
:iconnortstar:
Nortstar Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2011
that was so true what you was writing..
I heard so manty time that some charactre is Mary Sue and it was something bad.. and I was wonder why.. So that why I like yo reflections that all are true ^^
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks hun! :hug: I'm glad I could help you, hehe :D
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:iconnortstar:
Nortstar Featured By Owner Jun 10, 2011
you are welcome dear:hug:
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:iconlalunafelis:
lalunafelis Featured By Owner Mar 11, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
"Cursed with normal"....now that's something I can tell the "sue stampers" the next time I encounter one.
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:iconbirdewilliams:
birdewilliams Featured By Owner Mar 13, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
glad you found something useful! :D
Reply
:iconlalunafelis:
lalunafelis Featured By Owner Mar 22, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Like HOW. Someone actually shot down my OC as a Sue when I was just introducing her just because she's the "camera lens" of the story, the canon characters acknowledge her presence, and has these skills and qualifications that like um, give her a right to join the characters' ranks? Nevermind that the actual weight of the story was with the canon characters, but that never even let me get to that part?

Although I am considering changing the POV to a canon character's, since I already know how hostile people can get with OFCs and would make my still-in-the-drawing-board story more palatable. Is that a right move?
Reply
:iconwaffelwollust:
WaffelWollust Featured By Owner Jan 31, 2011
This gave me a lot of good ideas of things to watch out for in my character, as well as ways to improve on her. Thank you for writing this.
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:iconkittythenekoalien:
KittyTheNekoAlien Featured By Owner Jan 7, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
that is like wow, really indepth. cant edward be considered a sue too, in more of a minor sense in the fact he's the one falling for an "average girl" yet he is extremely "gorgeous" and powerful and all this shit DX similar to sasuke (by traits in general, not that they are the same) really is what i've noticed...
this is really great, basically, you need to make the character believable and not uber-powerful or whatever, but dont obsess over it at the same time
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