Cameras In Storytelling

The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)

THE CAMERA FIEND TROPE

Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.

TV Tropes

Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?

Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked. 

[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:

  • A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
  • Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991) 
  • Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)

Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies. 
  • The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
  • The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
  • Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”

Photographers as main characters aren’t limited to YA by any means — Nora Roberts likes a photographer as character. Goodreads has a list of novels with characters who love photography.

CAMERA AS AGENCY IN YA LITERATURE

Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change. 

Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

SUSAN SONTAG ON CAMERAS

In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:

  • In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
  • Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
  • For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
  • Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.

CAMERAS IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION

Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.

Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.

The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.

CAMERA AS TRUTH-TELLER

It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.

CAMERA AS SOURCE OF AGGRESSION

There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.

Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.

It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).

Magical Camera

FANTASY CAMERAS

Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.

But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)

In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.

A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.

Photogram

Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.

In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.

Scene from The Spiderwick Chronicles movie

CAMERAS IN THE HORROR GENRE

The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror. 

For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.

In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:

Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.

Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.

Scene from Insidious

CAMERA AS BOOKEND NARRATIVE

Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.

The memorable selfie in The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project is the archetypal example of the In-Universe Camera trope.

The Cat Returns Storytelling Notes

The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns is a 2002 feature-length anime about a teenage girl who is transported against her will into a feline fantasy world after saving a cat’s life. Writer Aoi Hiiragi also wrote the script for Whisper of the Heart. This is a sort of sequel to that, where the main character writes this story. In written form, this is an ‘urban fantasy’, which literary agents have recently started to call grounded, contemporary fantasy (I believe it’s a rebranding thing).

Like a number of animated cartoons, The Cat Returns started out as a comic book series, though the film is quite different.

Japanese Title of The Cat Returns

Neko no ongaeshi DVD

The Japanese title is Neko no ongaeshi, which literally means ‘The Cat’s Favour’. But that’s not a great translation because there’s no exact equivalent of ongaeshi in English:

It means ‘to return a favor’ or ‘to prove a gratitude’. In Japan, the word is perceived as rather antiquated and poetic and describes the space between action and reaction of gratitude. In this context ‘action’ can be described as: an invitation for a project, assistance to a solution for an abstract problem as well as direct support at the workspace. All this leads to a ‘reaction’ which may occur later in time, or have a different context. Even in Japanese it is difficult to comprehend this word which makes it open to imagination and potential.

Ongaeshi Artist Exchange

‘The Cat Returns A Favour’ isn’t exactly catchy, so I suppose that’s one reason we got ‘The Cat Returns’ in English. It’s also a sequel, so.

Continue reading “The Cat Returns Storytelling Notes”

Up and Up by Shirley Hughes

up and up cover_shirley hughes

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at another wordless picture book, this time by Shirley Hughes: Up and Up, from 1979.

STORY STRUCTURE OF UP AND UP

Up and Up is a carnivalesque portal fantasy, and the portal is the huge chocolate egg.

The story opens with the following wonderfully detailed Where’s Wally-esque opening spread, with foreshadowing of the big balloon partially hidden behind a tree:

up and up opening spread
Our copy has got beetroot on it.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

The girl in Up and Up doesn’t have a name, though she may be one of the characters from another Shirley Hughes book. Hughes’s characters all have a similarity to them. Children are drawn like sprightly little old people, somehow.

When characters in children’s books don’t have a name, this turns them by default into The Every Child.

WHAT DOES SHE WANT?

The girl wants to fly like a bird. We see this from the opening spread. A bird flies past; she stands up to watch it leave. At first we don’t know if she’s just interested in bird watching or perhaps feather-collecting, but the following spread cements that wish.

For more on flight, see The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Her natural opponent is gravity, but gravity does not make for an especially interesting opponent. We can’t care about gravity — whether it wins or loses. Gravity just is.

Like many children who go off on carnivalesque adventures, her parents don’t pay attention to her. I guess this is a universal feeling children have, no matter how much time parents have.

up and up newspaper
This is a typical picture book of its era. The father is reading the newspaper while the mother cooks in the kitchen. Notice the small bird outside the window. You can’t miss it, because our eyes are lead to the bird by steam rising.

Her main human opponent is introduced a bit later — the old man with the telescope, who is the most hellbent on bringing her down. He’s a mad scientist archetype, and so keen to arrest her that he even uses his hot air balloon which he has in his backyard.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Shirley Hughes utilises the rule of threes during the opening sequence, giving the girl three separate plans to fly like a bird.

  1. Run and leap (trips and falls)
  2. Make wings out of paper and jump off a ladder. (I have personally done this as a kid, though I didn’t have enough faith to actually make the leap!)
  3. Inflate balloons and float up into the sky. (Gets stuck on a twig.) At this point the story has already crossed over into fantasy realm. First, the girl blows up the balloons with her breath, but these are behaving like helium balloons. Second, there’s no way 9 balloons would lift a girl up into a tree.

All of her plans fail so she goes home in a grumpy mood. She’s standing in her entrance hall when something amazing happens. A massive chocolate egg is dropped off by the postie.

The ‘portal’ takes the girl back into the mundane world rather than into a parallel world. The chocolate egg is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, and to be honest I’d never even realised any connection  between my chocolate eggs at Easter and the fact that eggs normally house baby birds.

Ideally, you want your character to move through the passageway slowly. A passageway is a special world unto itself; it should be filled with things and inhabitants that are both strange and organic to your story. Let your character linger there. Your audience will love you for it. The passageway to another world is one of the most popular of all story techniques. Come up with a unique one, and your story is halfway there.

— Notes from John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

Though these pictures are simple black and white line drawings, I imagine this is the part in ‘Wizard of Oz’ where everything turns technicolour (or perhaps the colour has been seeping in since the balloons fantasy page). What follows is maybe a dream, or maybe it’s real within the world of the picture book. Picture book fantasies generally work like that — they can often be interpreted as the young child’s inner world fantasy.

BIG BATTLE

The Big Battle in this story is preceded by a chase sequence in which people on the ground are chasing the girl to see this amazing spectacle. There’s a large dose of showing off involved here — the wish fulfilment in this fantasy is ‘everyone looks at how amazing I am and I am briefly the centre of attention’.

So we can predict she will defeat the old man chasing her. It’s all part of her own fantasy of  being a hero.

up and up battle

We never see the old man again. I guess he’s dead. (Who said you couldn’t kill people off in picture books? Just make sure it’s off the page.)

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

A carnivalesque story is not about learning stuff.

You know from the beginning if a character is going to have a self-revelation because there will be something wrong with them. They might not appreciate someone, or they might be lonely, or they might not treat their friends well. In those stories, the character will almost certainly have changed by the end.

But in a carnivalesque story the point is to escape the mundane world and have fun for a while. That’s it. The carnivalesque story structure has more in common with comic structure than with dramatic structure. Though more ‘fun’ than ‘funny’, there is nothing to be learned except ‘that was really fun’ or ‘so that’s what fun looks like’.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

The point of a carnivalesque story is that it will actually be the same as before… with one small difference. Now the girl knows what it is to have real, unfettered fun. The scene at the end where she’s eating a boiled egg and toast shows the mundane nature of her everyday life. (Boiled eggs are quite often used in fiction to show ‘ordinary’, though less so these days. I think kids are eating fewer boiled eggs in general.)

Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

Outside Over There cover

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Today I look closely at a picture book classic by iconic American author/illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Outside Over There is a mythic journey of the imagination, with emphasis on atmosphere and emotion. It is a changeling story with the strong influence of fairy and folk tale.

Maurice Sendak’s most famous work is Where The Wild Things Are. Entire theses have been written about Where The Wild Things Are. I’ve summarised some of the key thoughts about that picture book myself, and have since noticed just how influential it was in its depiction of difficult feelings, previously taboo in stories for young readers.

Yet some children’s literature specialists believe Outside Over There is Sendak’s best work. In its publishing history, this picture book hasn’t always been marketed to children. This is one of those ‘children’s books’ which appeals to adults in a different, possibly deeper, way.

STORY WORLD OF OUTSIDE OVER THERE

Continue reading “Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak”

Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline book cover

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the female myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the female myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.) Continue reading “Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline”

The Misplaced Importance Of Bloodline In Fiction

bloodline in fiction

A ‘chosen one’ story stars a main character who is basically ordinary, but because of their bloodline, they are destined for great things. Harry Potter is the iconic example of a contemporary chosen one story. Harry Potter comes after a long tradition.

At TV Tropes you’ll find that Chosen One stories are so popular there are various subcategories.

WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF BLOODLINE?

When we talk about blood we’re of course talking about genetics. We didn’t know this until recently, though scientists had a sense there was some kind of particle which passed traits on.

The 20th century gave us the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but anyone who still thinks in those terms is making a folk distinction. Scientists working in genetics today don’t think in those terms at all because, basically, it’s all circular. We now know that environment influences gene expression. Now we know how little we actually know about genes. Sean Carroll describes our early thinking on DNA, once we had a name for it, then goes on to describe how much more complicated it is than that:

If you knew what the DNA was you could predict exactly what the organism was going to be, maybe what kind of food they would like or what kind of occupation they would have later in life. Today we know it’s a little bit more complicated than that. There’s more going on than just our DNA to make up who we are, not only nature versus nurture but even the nature part is very complicated. There’s epigenetics and development factors. There’s mitochondrial DNA. There’s the expression of the different parts of the genes that we have, and so we’re in a very, very rapid state of evolution, as it were, in terms of how we think in terms of how heredity works.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast with Carl Zimmer

Separately, I heard another geneticist talking in an interview. I don’t remember who it was or what they were talking about exactly, but one thing stuck in my mind: Geneticists, as a group, don’t tend to be all that interested in ancestry. You won’t find geneticists avidly researching their own family trees. They don’t hang out on the forums of Ancestry.com. That’s a separate interest altogether. Conversely, an interest in genetics seems to make you less interested in where you personally came from, partly because your greater understanding of genetics shows you that we’re all related in one giant web. It seems the story of our collective DNA is far more interesting than any individual’s bloodline.

Maybe we should all get PhDs in genetics and we’ll get some world peace?

FEATURES OF A CHOSEN ONE STORY

The bloodline plot often involves an orphaned character. (Or a character who thinks they are orphaned.) Orphans are super popular in children’s literature, especially in American children’s literature.

Especially in kids’ literature … there’s a trend towards unhappily adopted orphan heroes, as we’ll all know, who are lifted from the abuse/poverty/hilariously wonky living conditions they’re in by discovering that their parents were secretly wizards, or royalty, or holders of some great destiny that Our Hero is now tasked to take up. The truth of their bloodline saves the day, and you can dream of a giant busting through your door declaring “Yer a wizard” and scooping you off into the adventure you were destined for, away from your mundane and terrible home life.

The Afictionado

THE PROBLEMS WITH CHOSEN ONE STORIES

Continue reading “The Misplaced Importance Of Bloodline In Fiction”

What is a heterotopia?

I have previously written about utopias, apparent utopias, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that now?

Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.

thanks, Wikipedia.

That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.

After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In the real world you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm ande helpful rather than show your human side.

heterotopia

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA

Hetereotopia is based on the concept of utopia. The Greek ‘u’  bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’. The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’. So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word utopia has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More, heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.

The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. Maybe he confused his own self. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Others have picked up the word and ran with it.

Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into  — children’s literature.

Continue reading “What is a heterotopia?”

Animal Characters Can Still Be White Dudes

Previously I delved deep into how jokes can be broken into categories, using a taxonomy proposed by the writer of The Onion. Today I will talk about an implicit rule of comedy to do with gender and also race: White dudes are the Every Person. Any ‘extra’ identity muddies the joke. This rule is less talked about, but is starting to be acknowledged. Next, it needs to change.

animal white dude default from Bojack Horseman

The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, explains for us all why gender diversity is such a tough hurdle, and why the subjects of comedy are still — despite an increasingly woke population — white and male:

In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.

My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”

I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.

The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.

Boring Old Raphael, Tumblr

Bob-Waksberg goes on to say that this thinking is everywhere.

White Dude As Default In Children’s Stories

It is also everywhere in children’s literature. In fact, it may be at its worst in stories for children. Bob-Waksberg even brings up The Lego Movie as his prime example — a big budget film which is first and foremost designed to draw in a young audience, with a large adult audience as bonus.

The LEGO Movie was my favorite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.

That’s why Jon Klassen’s characters are male. That’s why Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug characters are male. The main guy in Pig The Pug is even called ‘Trevor’ — the most non-descript, white, male Australian name possible. That’s why Oliver Jeffers writes a story about a boy called Wilfred and not a girl called Wilhelmina.

Bojack Horseman isn’t entirely problem free. It’s still about the problems of a white dude, as clearly explained by Eleanor Robertson at The Guardian.

But I have seen interviews with various comedy writers whose default position is this: My books are not gendered. This boy could be anyone. Even academics will argue that Winnie-the-Pooh is gender free. (Winnie-the-Pooh is sex free, but cannot be gender free because we do not have a gender free pronoun in English.)

It is remarkably rare to find a writer who will acknowledge the reason for why their main character is white and male. It is even more rare to find a writer/illustrator acknowledge that even though their character is an animal, that animal is obviously coded as white.

double spread from This Moose Belongs To Me

That’s why the creator of Bojack Horseman is so unusual. He is talking about a specifically comedy example of an implicit rule of writing, but writers have long called this “The One Big Lie Of Storytelling“. According to this rule, audiences can’t cope with too much new stuff in a single story. It is a particularly cynical view of audiences, but not without basis.

White Dude As Default In Speculative Fiction

Alongside comedy,  the genres of fantasy and sci-fi suffer badly because of this thinking. That’s because the audience sees anything other than a patriarchy and has to work extra hard to work out what’s going on. If speculative fiction is about the real world, only highlighted by dint of its being transplanted to an alien setting, both writer and audience must work very hard because:

a. They’re already working hard to form a mind-picture of this new world

b. Even just imagining an alternative political set-up in this real world of ours is beyond the imagination of most.

That’s why Game of Thrones is a white patriarchy, and why almost every big, popular fantasy series is also a white patriarchy, where dragons are a thing, where time travel is a thing, but where only one kind of oppressive system of politics works.  We recognise this political structure immediately, because it’s all around us in our everyday lives. Because it’s all around us, it is invisible within our stories. This lets us sink into the fantasy of the rest of it.

(When I say ‘the audience’, I mean the popular, ticket-buying audience who cite ‘entertainment’ as the main reason for engaging with story. That’s all of us at least some of the time. For most people it’s us almost all of the time. We don’t want to work too hard for our stories.)

 

This rule of storytelling needs to change, and I’m glad to see young, woke writers with a decent platform, like Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talking about it. I hope he keeps talking about it.

For those of us working in children’s literature world, little kids have not yet learned to question jokes about female characters. Humans are not born harbouring gender stereotypes. The place to start changing this expectation of male as default is with picture books. Don’t assume that simply by making your characters animals you are suddenly free from all gender and racial constraints.

Storytelling Tips from Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

Northern Lights is a YA story with broad appeal for adults. It follows mythic structure.

The story has been adapted into a film (2007) and also into an action/adventure puzzle game (by Sega). While in some cases films can be just as enjoyable — or even more enjoyable — than the books upon which they are based, that is nowhere near true in this case. There are many reasons for this which resulted from too many cooks spoiling the broth. Not least: Continue reading “Storytelling Tips from Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman”

What Is Magical Realism? Is It Fabulism?

This is the most succinct explanation of magical realism that I have seen lately:

magical realism definition

If you’re looking for a literary agent on Twitter you will find many agents and editors asking for magical realism in children’s books at the moment. They are also complaining that they’re not getting enough of it. When an author says, “Hey I’ve got some for you!” it’s not magical realism at all.

Agent Michelle Witte has a much more detailed series of blog posts defining exactly what magical realism is and is not.

Here is part one.

Essentially, magical realism is:

Real-world setting + fantastical elements = magical realism

In visual terms, think of it as a photo that’s blurred around the edges to give it an ethereal, almost otherworldly quality. It has the feel of magic—that anything is possible.

Magical realism focuses on ordinary people going about the humdrum activities of daily life. Everything is normal—except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility, whether it be magic or fate or a physical connection with the earth and the creatures that inhabit it, but always in a way that celebrates the mundane.

FABULISM OR MAGICAL REALISM?

Bear in mind that the definition of magical realism varies, depending on who you ask. Here is another point of view:

fabulism does not equal magical realism

Michelle Witte argues that in fact magical realism did not originate in South America:

Despite the common misconception, magical realism didn’t originate in South America. Instead, German art critic Franz Roch coined the term “magical realism” in 1925 to describe the New Objectivity style of painting. A few years later, the concept of magical realism crossed the ocean to South America, where it was adopted and popularized by Latin American authors throughout the twentieth century as lo real maravilloso, the marvelous real. Notable writers include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende, among numerous others.

While Hispanic writers were—and still are—a major influence in modern magical realistic literature, the style is not limited to a specific time or place. In fact, writers from across the world have adopted and adapted magical realism to fit their own cultures and within their own frame of reference.

new objectivity painting magical realism
Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove 1929 Christian Schad 1894-1982. An example of New Objectivity in painting

SEE ALSO

Fifty years on, One Hundred Years of Solitude is still providing profound insights into our evolving human tale where horrors co-exist with wonders, where absurdities don’t provoke a blink.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is 50. Its magic realism is immortal, from Scroll.in.

Here’s a list of magical realist children’s books, which I am calling ‘fabulism’ to be safe: Fabulism In Children’s Literature

And here’s a discussion which begins with the question: The genre magical realism came to be in the German language. Yet, Latin American has had a home for the genre. Why is this?