[GUEST POST] Violette Malan Asks: If Setting Can Be a Character, Where Does that Leave Mary Sue?


Violette Malan lives in southeastern Ontario with her husband. People tend to ask her about the choreography of stripping – and she’ll answer – but most of the time she’s the author of the Dhulyn and Parno novels, and  the Mirror Lands novels, fantasies available from DAW. You’ll find her on Facebook, on Twitter, and check her website: www.violettemalan.com

If Setting Can Be a Character, Where Does that Leave Mary Sue?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about dystopias vs utopias – why are we seeing so many of the former, and so few of the latter? Are the novels being touted as dystopias really dystopias, and so on. This talk can be seen as part of the larger concept of world building, something which, for F&SF writers, takes up at least as much of our time as creating characters, and working out plots. After all, none of us is really dealing with unadulterated representations of the real world as we live in it. The other day I found myself thinking about a variant on the utopia/dystopia paradigm: how much MarySueing is there in our complex imaginary worlds?

In other words, is there a world-building version of the Mary Sue? If we agree with those who suggest there aren’t any utopias out there right now, we’d conclude that, no, there isn’t. But I wondered whether there might be any Mary Sue elements which writers find surfacing in their work. So I did an informal survey, asking this question: Are there any “improvements” on our world/society that you routinely try to introduce into your work?

The first thing I learned was that I had to amend my question. I wasn’t asking about what the characters believed in but didn’t have, or what they were fighting for, or even the point of political conflict on which the story turned. So, I’m not talking about what Sherwood Smith does when she uses her characters’ desire to improve humans/society as the impetus for the action of her novels. I wanted to know what improvements on our world the characters themselves took for granted. The second thing I learned? There’s not that much difference between F, and SF, except the technology.

And in the interest of full disclosure, here are my own Mary Sue elements: gender and racial equality; no bias due to sexual orientation; vastly improved state of general health.

I wasn’t surprised that most of the other women I asked also mentioned elements that spoke specifically to the status of women in society. Safe, simple birth control was mentioned many times, while Kari Sperring, for example, said very simply that she tries to arrange for women to be listened to. The idea of women having voices is a subtle but important improvement. All the women I asked agreed with Tanya Huff and Elizabeth Moon (and me!) on including gender equality – to the point that they often forgot to mention it themselves, since they took it for granted that I’d expect that one.

Of the men, it was Jim C. Hines who pointed out that his princess series “had some deliberate efforts at gender equality. In some ways, that was the point of the whole series.” He also tries to include diversity in his books, in terms of race, gender, orientation, etc., but he doesn’t think of that as an “improvement” so much as an attempt to more accurately write about the way the world is.

There were other less gender-specific social improvements on the “try to include” lists. Kari Sperring likes to have – where she can – people with power and money who are more concerned about helping and supporting those without. When creating worlds for game playing, Dennis Poor tries to make his religions as non-specific, or as all-encompassing as possible. Leah Bobet stressed the importance of showing mixed marriages and bi-racial children, as well as same sex marriage. Leah’s observations fit right in with others, like Elizabeth Moon, who works in racial equality as a given whenever she can.

But social changes would also include scientific or medical improvements such as Elizabeth’s “life-extending ‘rejuvenation’ treatments; FTL spaceships, instantaneous trans-light communications devices, and automatic treatment machines.”  And on a somewhat different medical note, Marie Bilodeau likes to include the right to assisted suicide.

There were also those for whom the idea of improvements applied to human values, rather than to social/political changes – though it can be hard to tell where one starts and the other stops.  You might not think of it as an improvement, but Alex Bledsoe likes to include “a certain cynicism toward religion” though he also “put[s] genuine, good religious people in as well.” Leah Bobet tries to show compassion as a value. Hayden Trenholm does his best to include the right of people to their own identities, the freedom to choose to be who they want to be. And as often as possible, he likes to include the idea of Art as a transformational element of life.

Though it might be implied in almost any of the examples I’ve mentioned, it struck me as odd that no one said “better government” or even “a government that works”, though Elizabeth Moon came closest when she suggested that no matter how her societies are organized, “none of them are founded on pure selfishness.”

But I don’t want you to think it was all sweetness and light. A few people responded as Nathan Long did. Nathan says he’s usually trying to create more drama, so he tends to remove social improvements, not add them, to give his characters more to fight against.  Which raises the question, are all of these Mary Sue elements really improvements – or even improvements all the time? Elizabeth Moon concluded by saying that “rejuv and mind-altering drugs let me show some effects of inequality in medical access, and the social problems resulting from extreme long life – the social stagnation on the one hand, and overpopulation on the other, resulting in (at the national level) expansionist policies that invite defensive aggression from neighbours.” So even when the characters take what would be improvements on our world for granted, conflict can and does arise out of them.

Which only goes to show us that even Mary Sue can turn around and bite you.

3 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Violette Malan Asks: If Setting Can Be a Character, Where Does that Leave Mary Sue?”

  1. Very interesting post. I’ve never considered how often certain elements repeat, and how they’re considered good/perfect in the way of a Mary Sue character. Something to think about.

  2. Wow, thought-provoking post, Violette. As I was reading I realized I’d done some of this myself in GHOST PLANET, without really being aware of it. My world-building made the assumption that humanity would finally rally around the idea of addressing global environmental crises (albeit because they had little choice), but it was a corruption of that good intention that created much of the story’s conflict.

    I also agree with what Jim said about including diversity more because it is a reflection of real life. Though I guess it could still be considered Mary Sue, because visual media often isn’t overly concerned about portraying realistic diversity.

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