The Mary Sue, as a concept, is a useful but oft-misapplied tool. Its utility, I think, is primarily that it is a way to teach inexperienced writers about context, framing, and building characters as well-rounded wholes. Young writers learn a lot of rules, especially a lot of negatives, such as “don’t use the passive voice,” and can get the idea that writing which adheres to all the rules is good writing. Good writing isn’t truly quantifiable. Some literary tools are powerful on their own, but work poorly in combination. Most can be overused. How does one learn to walk the balance? Enter the Mary Sue.
A Mary Sue is a negative outcome of a combination or excess of character traits that, for the most part, are completely acceptable on their own. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, here is its trope page; I’ve previously discussed the term, regarding The Name of the Wind, on my main blog, Chimaera. Since the term originated in fan fiction, young authors are usually familiar with it. Thus, they learn how to assess a character based on zir overall persona rather than a series of yes/no questions.
Still, beginners like rules and they can feel uneasy trying to make a character fall at the right end of an amorphous spectrum. Thus, a variety of tests exist to guide them along. The idea is that an uncertain author can feel more confident about a character who scores within the “acceptable” range, while a stubborn author who insists that zir character is fine may rethink that if the character scores in the “definitely a Mary Sue” range.
These tests, however, share some weaknesses. Most have more or less flat scoring, awarding the same points to relatively benign traits, such as the character being an orphan, and to particularly egregious ones, such as the character redeeming a villain through the power of love. Many also seem disproportionately harsh to fantasy or sci-fi characters, but this is unavoidable: Some Mary-Sue traits, like having magical powers, can only appear in fantasy/sci-fi, whereas there are no realistic-fiction traits that couldn’t appear in a work of fantasy. More problematic is the inevitable ignoring of context. Tests rarely account for mitigating or aggravating factors, such as whether the trait is common or rare in that setting, and questions may overlap in unusual cases, unfairly awarding extra points. No wonder taking these tests inevitably results in quibbling over the scoring.
Now, I wouldn’t encourage people to put too much stock in my test, because I don’t put too much stock in the idea of Mary-Sue tests or any other quiz to determine whether an author is doing something wrong. The approach is too legalistic. Checking boxes reenforces the faulty idea that each trait is, in and of itself, wrong (like missing a question on an exam), regardless of how many times you say that all characters are expected to score a few points. No test can ever be comprehensive; there are always going to be potential Sue traits that aren’t listed. And, generally, tests do little to help authors learn to think critically and self-evaluate their characters.
Nevertheless, while beginning writers exist, so will quizzes for them, and the quizzes might as well be good ones.