If you work hard you will find success. Persistence leads to success is a comforting truism, because we feel the future is under our own control. Work hard, you win.
An episode of a Freakonomics podcastprovides a strong, economically sound argument for sometimes giving up. But you’ll be hard pressed to find a book for which encourages quitting. When a child character quits a sports team or skips out on piano, it will probably be because they’ve replaced their parents’ dream with another hobby of their own. Quitting to hang out on the corner? Hard to find that in a non-tragic story.
Most writers are well-aware that a main character needs a weakness. Christopher Vogler and other high profile story gurus often talk about a lack:
It can be very effective to show that a hero is unable to perform some simple task at the beginning of the story. In Ordinary People the young hero Conrad is unable to eat French toast his mother has prepared for him. It signifies, in symbolic language, his inability to accept being loved and cared for, because of the terrible guilt he bears over the accidental death of his brother. It’s only after he undertakes an emotional hero’s journey, and relives and processes the death through therapy, that he is able to accept love.
– Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
But this does not go far enough. Go one step further and break it in half.
Everyone who gives writers advice about characterisation has something to say about this topic. Author of the book Story GeniusLisa Cron says that it’s the character’s internal struggle that makes the external struggle important. This echoes exactly what John Truby says about external desires on the surface vs character weakness underneath.
What about children’s books? Do they follow the same rules?
Mostly, but not always. Some picture books do not feature characters with weakness. These stories tend to be of the carnivalesque variety. A few standout examples feature the reader as protagonist. These, too, do not follow the rules of story.
Children’s books for older readers do follow the same rules as those applied to narrative aimed at adults. Modern picture books which win big awards are also likely to follow these rules.
According to the rules of story structure aimed at screenwriters and writers with an audience of adults…
Every Main Character Needs…
A PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS: What are the fundamental flaws? (Lacking confidence, scarred by former lovers, afraid of intimacy, overly pessimistic etc.)
A MORAL WEAKNESS: How does this character treat others badly? (Lacking empathy, overbearing, two-faced, greedy, lying, selfish etc.) The Seven Deadly Sins feature prominently in this part of the weakness.
It’s a very old idea. Aristotled called it ‘hamartia’.
Harmatia is a term developed by Aristotle in his work Poetics. The term can simply be seen as a character’s flaw or error. The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes accident and mistake, as well as wrongdoing, error, or sin. In Nicomachean Ethics, hamartia is described by Aristotle as one of the three kinds of injuries that a person can commit against another person. Hamartia is an injury committed in ignorance (when the person affected or the results are not what the agent supposed they were).
Like anything, this rule of story has developed some tropes. As an example:
The story of the poor girl who overcomes obstacles and makes a good marriage in the end, what might be called the Horatia Alger story, is very common in nineteenth-century fiction, especially fiction written by women. This heroine does not have to begin in absolute poverty — even Cinderella’s family must have been middle-class or her stepsisters wouldn’t have been able to go to the ball in such style. But she does have to be in some way underprivileged at the start of the boo, and she must go through many difficulties before she can marry the prince.
Occasionally she is poor in other than the economic sense, as with some of Jane Austen’s heroines: Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is poor in intellect; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is naive and muddleheaded; while Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is … poor in spirit. Charlotte Bronte, even more daring, made the heroine of Villette plain.
— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s stories
In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
Do Children’s Book Characters Need A Moral Weakness?
Or any weakness at all?
The short answer is that, yes, an interesting modern children’s book character needs at least a psychological weakness, and the story might also support a moral weakness. This wasn’t always the case, as you’ll already know if you’ve read from the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. It was the amazing Edith Nesbit who changed all of that.
All of Nesbit’s characters have both virtues and flaws: not only are the children’s actions always a push and pull between their better instincts and their baser impulses, but the various authority figures they encounter are equally complicated. The magical Psammead creature is peevish, the Queen of Babylon is kind-hearted but imperious, and the upstairs scholar is helpful but blind to the magic he experiences.
Until Nesbit came along, adults who wrote for children believed children read as medicine. The viewpoint characters therefore had to demonstrate impeccable behaviour, or else be punished for wrongdoing, learning to be good along the way.
The older the reader, the more likely they are reading about characters with both types of weakness. But when it comes to picture books, no. That’s because a picture book character is quite often ‘The Every Child’, and because children are all different, the writer doesn’t always want to tell us much about the character at all. In this case, the child’s main weakness is the fact that they are a child: naivety, weakness, lack of freedom, lack of knowledge. These are weaknesses common to all children and cannot really be called ‘psychological’ weaknesses. This is the main difference between a protagonist in a children’s book and a protagonist in a story for adults.
Children’s writers have to deal with something other writers do not: The expectation from a large proportion of the book-buying public that the empathetic character behaves in a model-like fashion. And if they don’t? That’s okay, so long as they’re punished.
Must Children’s Book Characters Treat Others Badly?
After looking at a lot of children’s books with this exact question in mind, the answer is no. There are several reasons for this:
Some characters in children’s books represent the Every Child. When a reader is meant to paste themselves onto the character we don’t want that character to be too specific. For similar reasons a lot of picture book characters are cartoon-like and minimalist. (For more on that see Taxonomy Of Detail In Character Illustration.) Even in stories for older readers, these Every Child characters are given a ‘cosmetic’ weakness rather than a psychological and moral one, which makes them far more generic and less interesting. For instance, a common cosmetic weakness in young adult romance is ‘clumsy’. Bella Swan is one example. Even in stories for adults you’ll find the Every Man. Susan from Desperate Housewives is clumsy but this clumsiness functions to provide comedy. Susan has many other psychological weaknesses. She is unconfident and needy but also fake-nice and backstabbing. Susan’s clumsiness has nothing to do with storytelling.
There are gatekeepers of children’s literature — people responsible for buying the books and putting them into children’s hands — who choose literature with the philosophy that characters in stories need to serve as role models for good behaviour. These people might approve of characters who treat others badly but only if that character is punished. For more on that see Picturebook Study: In Which Baddies Get Their Comeuppance.
The wish to avoid child characters as morally corrupt may come from JudeoChristian thought in which it is thought that people enjoy an ‘age of innocence’. Strictly speaking, we’re better off using the phrase ‘age of accountability’ because the Bible does not suggest at any point that children are sinless, but rather that children can’t be held accountable for certain things due to their inexperience. Thirteen is the most common age suggested for the age of accountability, based on the Jewish custom that a child becomes an adult at the age of 13. This is no doubt related to The Magical Age of 12 in children’s literature. (There’s nothing in the Bible, however, to suggest 13 is a significant age.)
Complex, rounded characters simply aren’t necessary in all types of stories. For action stories with exciting plots, or genre fiction — such as mysteries and thrillers — all the reader really wants is a great story. In fact, the characters can’t change all that much if the book is part of a series. Series fiction is very popular with young readers and the best-selling books are all part of a series, year after year.
The view that badly behaving children’s characters must be punished is increasingly challenged, mostly by writers and publishers who refuse to believe in the concept of the young reader as tabula rasa (blank slates), who trust children and young adults to read critically and not blindly follow their main characters into bad situations. The modern main character in children’s stories will most definitely have both a psychological weakness and a moral weakness. In other words, they will be treating others badly in some way.
This wasn’t always the case, and if you take a look at books from the First And Second Golden Ages Of Children’s Literature you’ll find many more Mary Sue/Pollyanna types, who have been written as model children for young readers to emulate. These characters are not well accepted by contemporary young readers, who have a vast selection of books to choose from and are not stuck with moralistic stories as earlier generations were.
The idea of child readers as tabula rasa was particularly strong in the Victorian era, and if young readers didn’t want moral stories they really only had the Gothic to turn to. These stories offered all the bloodshed, villainy and titillation lacking in the ‘stories for children’.
Not all writers of children’s stories are interested in this concept. Hayao Miyazaki has never formally studied screenwriting or storytelling technique, and goes about creating his Studio Ghibli films in his own auteur fashion. Miyazaki’s main characters don’t tend to have an external desire. He doesn’t bother with that. They do have psychological needs, however, and by the end of the story they haven’t necessarily got anything they wanted — but by immersing themselves in a new world, they have grown emotionally.
For this reason I feel the very concept of desire is a Western one. In Japanese language, to say “I want” something is considered childish and you’ll rarely hear those words (even though the grammar and words for desire exist). Instead, a Japanese interlocutor will avoid the assumption that you are a spoilt baby with desires and ask you what you ‘need’. English: “Do you want a drink of water?” becomes “Do you need a drink of water?” I believe Hayao Miyazaki brings his specifically Japanese sensibilities towards ‘desire’ to the table when creating his main characters — Chihiro doesn’t seem to want anything in Spirited Away — she is simply there, and if she works hard, things will come good. Desperately wanting to turn her parents back into humans would probably work against her cause.
Common Character Weaknesses In Children’s Books
They may be common but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep using them:
Naivety. This is arguably the biggest weakness any children’s book hero has. It’s a good one, too, because the child can’t help it. Failure to understand the world is an easy weakness to improve upon over the course of the story, providing ample opportunity for a character arc. Hence, every story is a coming-of-age story.
Cheekiness. These characters are fun to be around. They won’t let horrible adults get away with treating kids badly without at least a little backchat. Judy Moody.
Talking too much. Anne Shirley grew up in an age when children should be seen and not heard. There are many modern Anne Shirleys, always getting into trouble but adorable nonetheless.
Shyness. Then you have your socially anxious characters who don’t find themselves in trouble with authority but who must learn to stand up for themselves and others, and for what they truly believe in.
Below are some modern and not so modern case studies of weakness and desire in (Western) children’s literature.
That said, the most popular, award-winning, beloved contemporary picture books for children often feature characters with a moral weakness.
The fish in This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen full on steals someone else’s item of clothing. (Bear in mind that he is punished pretty heavily for it… behind the reeds.)
In some of the older types of stories, the main character sometimes gets into bother by failing to follow the rules set down by the parents. The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese is a good example of that. Today, failing to obey rules/parents/teachers is not considered a moral weakness. Rather, we’re in a period where we glamorise and encourage independent thinking and questioning of authority, of which I generally approve, except a lot of these stories also seem to punish those characters who do do as they’re told. (Usually Hillary Clinton types.)
Olivia by Ian Falconer is basically a narcissistic little girl in a pig’s body. While I personally have no love for Olivia, she is very popular.
There is probably a finite number of human needs, though so many you’ll never be short of material. Take a pyramid you’re probably familiar with, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are a few problems with this hierarchy, so it pays to look at it critically:
The modern integration of ideas from neuroscience, developmental biology, and evolutionary psychology suggests that Maslow had a few things wrong. For one thing, he never gave much thought to reproduction. He conceived of “higher needs” as completely personal strivings, unconnected from other people, and totally divorced from biological needs. Parental motivations were completely missing from his hierarchy, and he placed “sexual needs” down at the bottom— along with hunger and thirst. Presumably, sexual urges were biological annoyances that could be as well dispatched by masturbation as by having intercourse, before one moved back to higher pursuits like playing the guitar or writing poetry.
The psychological need of your main character is closely associated with their weakness.
In children’s stories where there is no psychological or moral weakness and won’t learn anything or change in any way by the end of the narrative, your character will (probably) have a Problem. This problem is external to their psychology. Stories like this don’t tend to be as emotionally interesting, but are appropriate for, say, humour.
In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, the boy’s problem is that something is stuck in a tree and he can’t reach it down.
There’s another kind of story where the ‘main character’ is the reader. Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacekis one example of this: The reader’s problem is that the book asks them to locate a green sheep, but that’s impossible until turning the final page. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brownis another example of a perennial favourite which doesn’t seem to follow any of the usual rules of story — again, this book addresses the young reader directly. The child is the character, saying goodnight to the items. This is more secular prayer than complete narrative.
Do all children’s book characters need a Problem, if they don’t have a moral or psychological weakness? Again the answer is not always, actually.
The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerbergis a carnivalesque story in which a man turns up and makes an enormous sandwich. In a carnivalesque story, there doesn’t have to be a problem as such, because the unsupervised play itself is the story — equivalent to the battle scene in a more common type of story. A carnivalesque story is a ‘toy story’ — all about play and enjoyment with no ‘broccoli’. However, even in The Biggest Sandwich Ever, the characters do face a problem by the end: After stuffing themselves full of sandwich, they are now faced with the task of eating a giant pie.
More! by Peter Schossowis a wordless picture book which celebrates the joy of walking (flying) along a beach on a windy day.
A golden rule about problems in story: The initial problem gets more complicated as soon as the main character tries to solve it.
Sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.
The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these people, dishing out advice to help the protagonist get through the story. Teachers can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In YA, teachers can also be love opponents. Continue reading “Teachers In Children’s Literature”
Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA
In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.
THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.
Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.
In no particular order:
Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female weakness was well understood, and made for a good psychological weakness. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological weakness is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.
THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES
For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:
Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly — nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.
Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favorite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.
Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.
It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air.Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.
Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.
Anne has the same weakness as Cinderella — all alone in the world with literally no one but her imaginary friend Katie. Audiences love an underdog character, and Anne is nothing if not an underdog.
She’s a destitute orphan
As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog. (You can see the recent evolution in Brave versus Moana, for instance.)
Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.
The love story is designed to show the audience the value of community between two equals. The central concept of love stories is quite profound. Love stories say that a person does not become a true individual by being alone. A person becomes a unique and authentic individual only be entering into a community of two.
What’s really at stake is not the individual characters as much as the love between them.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.
Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s weaknesses has a flipside strength:
She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.
Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:
Stay at Green Gables
Grow darker hair
Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.
The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.
On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.
Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.
The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in which men control the fertility of women, I have more sympathy for Mrs Hammond as a victim. The 1980s miniseries starring Megan Follows almost encourages the viewer to read Mrs Hammond as lesbian, about to move in with her possessive, shoulder-rubbing female friend as she accuses Anne of basically killing the husband herself, with her failure to deliver lunch on time. What if Mrs Hammond was gay? What if she never wanted any children at all, but was stuck with all those twins? In a pre-contraceptive age, Mrs Hammond is arguably as much as a victim as Anne Shirley.
Marilla is an opponent who turns into Anne’s firmest ally by the end of the book.
Miss Shirley is a Miss Honey archetype (used by Roald Dahl in Matilda), an ally in every way.
Soon a pattern emerges — Anne is universally liked by good people, even if those people are crotchety on the surface. Diana’s auntie is the best example of that. Anne is a bit of a travelling angel trope, though rather than leaving town for good, she is pulled away to complete different parts of her life’s journey, returning every now and then.
In any love story, the desire and opponent are the same person. This is specific to love stories. So, Gilbert Blythe is both desired and an opponent. Same for Marilla, actually, because this is a story about a girl falling in love with her (substitute) parents.
There is a romantic triangle in Anne of Green Gables, since it is clear from the start that Diana Barry admires Gilbert Blythe. But because readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the first character they see, we are all rooting for Anne and Gilbert, even though Diana probably ‘deserves’ him more, if you think about it. We can see Diana isn’t quite smart (or educated) enough for Gilbert though, who is obviously more interested in fiery women like Anne. How does Montgomery manage readers to the point where we don’t end up mad and frustrated at Anne for her stubborn resistance to Gilbert? Diana realizes Gilbert isn’t her destiny. After a conversation with Anne near the end of the book, we are left with the impression that while Diana will pursue Gilbert if Anne doesn’t want him, she’ll happily give him over to Anne.
Josie Pye is a different matter — Josie is that snobby, girly character found in most popular books for girls — a girl who thinks she’s better than other people (the worst thing a girl can possibly be). Josie is rich but not academically inclined. She is well-dressed and confident and sees Anne as her rival, setting up a rivalry even before Anne has noticed she exists. This ensures the audience dislikes Josie Pye. Josie is not all that interested in Gilbert — she is mostly keen to deprive Anne of him.
Anne’s childlike, episodic adventures at Avonlea culminate in a ‘near drowning’ (which is no such thing), but the suggestion of death is there. A common storytelling technique in middle grade is to have another character come to the rescue of your protagonist. In this case it’s not a true rescue, more of a farce, as if acted upon a stage (where Anne often imagines herself, in fact). The rule here is that your main character still has to help themselves when it comes the character arc. They can be helped out in some sticky plot situation, but ultimately, change is up to them.
By the way, is there a deeper meaning to Anne’s obsession with The Lady of Shalott? Since it occurs at a climactic moment, I suggest there is. Doomed to view life through reflections, the Lady’s life is a mere shadow with no experiences of her own. Like The Lady of Shalott, Anne is inclined to live vicariously via women whose lives she has invented inside her head. This is the very thing preventing her pursuing anything in real life with Gilbert, right there in front of her.
Anne’s obsession with Tennyson’s poem isn’t really helping her get over her red hair issues, because it encourages us to focus on form over substance. The leak in the boat symbolises her psychological weakness — it will be her undoing — she needs the love of Gilbert to teach her she is in fact worthy in her own right. Signfiicantly, Gilbert has said he prefers brains over beauty anyway.
The Main Plot
Anne learns that she truly belongs to Avonlea, even if she started out as an unwanted orphan. She has won numerous people over and spurred their own character arc (especially that of Marilla and Matthew, but also that of Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry’s mother and the crotchety old maid aunt*).
*As a side note, why is Diana’s old maid aunt so much richer than Diana’s natal family? My own guess is that Diana’s extended family is aristocratic by heritage, but perhaps the father made some bad investments and they have since lost most of it, which is why the aunt is the only one still able to pay for Diana’s music lessons. In this sense, Diana is very much like Jane Bennett — not only docile and beautiful and kind but also in a financially precarious position unless she marries well — and she will be expected to marry well in order to haul the financially failing family back into Prince Edward Island’s gentry class.
The Romantic Subplot
When Gilbert reveals that he and Anne tied for first in the Queens exam it is clear to Anne, seemingly for the first time, that they are true equals. This will eventually lead to a full-blown romance and marriage, but not in this first book.
After the death of Matthew we are left with Anne and Marilla together — Anne wants the best for Marilla and Marilla wants the best for Anne (college). These two goals will continue to butt heads and we’re not quite sure exactly what happiness will look like for these two, but when Gilbert offers to walk Anne home we know those two are going to end up together and we know for sure that Anne is going to look after Marilla in her old age.
If I Stay by Gayle Foreman is a young adult novel published 2009.
WELCOME TO THE THIRD GOLDEN AGE
This book is an excellent example of ‘The Third Golden Age Of Children’s Literature’, as described by Amanda Craig:
The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye and many more. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
While I’m a little uncomfortable with the pejorative connotations of the term ‘sick-lit’, it works for critical purposes.
YA SICK-LIT & FEMINISM
There are parallels between Mia Hall and Bella Swan. Twilight is part of this movement — a girl who must make a decision between life and (un)death in an environment that’s largely blueish and grey (though due to rain rather than snow).
Adam is always amazed at how even in middle of summer, even after the sweatiest of encounters, my hands stay cold.
– If I Stay
That line reminds me of Bella’s deathly white skin — strangely white even though she hails from Phoenix.
“Aren’t people from Arizona meant to be, like, really tanned?”
“Yeah. I guess that’s why they kicked me out.”
Forman’s work, I would argue, is a little more feminist than that of Stephenie Meyer, though part of me feels Forman is going out of her way to distinguish herself from those silly girls when Mia narrates:
I never expected to fall in love. I was never the kind of girl who had crushes on rock stars or fantasies about marrying Brad Pitt. I sort of vaguely knew that one day I’d probably have boyfriends…and get married. I wasn’t totally immune to the charms of the opposite sex, but I wasn’t one of those romantic, swoony girls who had pink fluffy daydreams about falling in love.
That could pretty much be the self-description of any teenage girl. Like Bella Swan, Mia Hall is The Everygirl, apart from having one main standout quality: Her prodigious ability with the cello, though even then, most of her ‘talent’ comes from sheer hard work, passion, and a full decade of practice. Bella Swan has no standout talent apart from smelling good to hot vampire boys. So Mia is more like Rory Gilmore in this respect.
This movie adaptation of If I Stay was released in 2014 and stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Mia.
Rotten Tomatoes says of the film, “Although Chloë Grace Moretz gives it her all and the story adds an intriguing supernatural twist to its melodramatic YA framework, If I Stay is ultimately more manipulative than moving.”
Movie review websites aren’t kind to films and TV series made for and by women. I’ve also noticed that the word ‘manipulative’ is a gendered concept, far more likely to be applied to both women and media aimed at women. (I’m sure Joanna Russ would have something to say about this.) I would call this story a ‘tearjerker’ — it is what it is, and many readers enjoy reading stories like these for the cathartic power of sobbing, I think. Which is just as valid a reason to read/watch a movie as the chance to be ‘thrilled’ or ‘scared’ (emotions more robustly embraced by men).
Although the film follows the book quite closely, I’m writing here about the book.
GENRE BLEND OF “IF I STAY” BY GAYLE FOREMAN
At the beginning of the book, 17-year-old Mia already has a boyfriend of six months and is therefore not entirely new to relationships. In a straight romance the partners meet in the first few pages, something keeps them apart for the length of a book and then they get together at the end. At one point Mia narrates that her romance with Adam is a lot more complicated than that which means that, despite the romantic subplot, this isn’t a straight-up romance. More properly this is a love story.
The out-of-body half-dead narration makes it supernatural, though some may read it as religious. This is not a religious story so much as a spiritual one, borrowing the state of limbo from earlier Catholic teachings, in much the same way as the horror genre also loves Catholic symbolism.
Mia states at one stage that if there’s a God he hasn’t shown up. Readers are therefore free to imbue the story with their own philosophies (though atheist nihilists aren’t well catered for in popular American YA).
Mia’s character arc of finding out which parts of herself are essentially ‘her’ make it a coming-of-age drama.
STORYWORLD OF “IF I STAY”
Mia’s family is the sort of cool, rocker family who tend to get sent up in Portlandia (although this family lives elsewhere in Oregon). The father doesn’t even get a driver’s licence until the mother makes him get one, so I imagine he’s a bit like the guy in this Portlandia send-up of hipster cyclists.
The nice thing about setting a story in Oregon is that a writer can make full symbolic use of the distinctly four seasons. If I Stay opens in the season of winter. This is significant to the plot (the car presumably skids on black ice or something) but is also highly metaphorical — this is the darkest hour of Mia’s life so far. When she looks back on her earlier recent past we’ll be taken with her back to happier times in warmer seasons. “It was warmer then”, we are told, when she went on that first date to see Yo Yo Ma with Adam.
As with many American stories, there is the whole Glamorization of New York thing going on. New York is the only place where things can happen. The not-so-subtle assumption here is that even if you make it back to your hometown, you haven’t really made it til you’ve been to New York.
The present — on a snow day the family take a drive and everyone but Mia is killed. Mia narrates as an out-of-body ghost following her sick body around as she is helicoptered to the hospital, then suffers through a succession of visitors.
Flashbacks — how she started dating Adam, how her parents met, how she always feels like the odd one out, family history
Each of these two threads has its own fully-developed story arc. The Storyworld, Mia’s Weakness/Need and the New Equilibrium are common to both of them.
Mia has this nagging feeling occasionally that she was swapped in the hospital — not helped by her father’s jokes — exacerbated by the fact that Mia is into classical music while her family are punk rockers from wayback. This difference is expressed in her physical appearance: Mia is dark haired and dark-eyed while her parents and younger brother are blonde.
Mia is trying to work out who she is, which is probably the need of every single YA protagonist. Here, more specifically, she wonders if she should even continue playing the cello which she has been obsessed with for a decade.
Mia needs to ‘find her tribe’, basically, which is ironically more difficult for a nerdy type kid who is born into a ‘cool’ family, and for an introverted girl who happens to find a boyfriend with friends so different from herself.
1. THE PRESENT THREAD
The author sets up a mystery for this thread — Mia knows that her parents have been killed, but where is Teddy? Mia desperately wants to know this information but because she is a ghost she has no ability to ask.
She desperately wants to see her boyfriend Adam. Although she is visited by a succession of relatives, none of these people manage to persuade her to live rather than die.
The staff at the hospital are set up as opponents, from the grey-haired nurse to the doctor who roughly opens her eyelids to the guards. Willow is the only ‘goodie’ here.
The problem Mia has is one teenagers will relate to; although Mia’s relationship with Adam is as significant as that of an old married couple, Adam is not allowed in to see her because he’s not family.
*However, this book is not for fans of strict literary mimesis. It bothers me that the father’s brain on the road looks like a ‘grey cauliflower’. The flesh of fresh brains is pink, not grey. It’s not Seinfeld who wears the puffy jacket — it’s George.
With Mia unable to formulate a plan in her non-body, it’s up to the best friends to somehow make it past the curmudgeonly hospital staff to see Mia. Mia watches as they stage an elaborate decoy plan.
There is a lot of running around the hospital, evading guards and what not, and eventually the teenagers make it to Mia’s bedside.
It’s been said that every movie (adaptation) could be called ‘Trapped’. This is because all popular stories seem to have a sequence in which the main character sees no way out. Mia’s trapped scene happens after she realises Teddy is dead.
I race through the hospital like a trapped wild animal. Teddy? I call. Where are you? Come back to me!
But he won’t. I know it’s fruitless. I give up and drag myself back to my ICU. I want to break the double doors. I want to smash the nurses’ station. I want it all to go away. I want to go away. I don’t want to be here.
This is an outward scene of the turmoil going on inside Mia’s head. (The author very sensibly wrote the book with some big scenes, making it good to go as a movie adaptation.)
I’m not sure this is a world I belong in anymore. I’m not sure that I want to wake up.
I realise now that dying is easy. Living is hard.
With Adam finally by her side in the hospital, Mia chooses life over death, even though her future will be vastly more uncertain than it was before.
The reveal is also that Adam has actually broken up with Mia right before the accident because she couldn’t promise to spend New Year’s with him.
2. THE FLASHBACKS THREAD
Mia wants to get into Julliard after other people sort of suggest to her that it might be a possibility. This isn’t a girl with a burning desire, but a girl who wants to please other people. Although the desire to get into Julliard is more burning than initially revealed, Mia is beginning to establish a nice adult life in Oregon and has a boyfriend based in Oregon. Mia’s desires are conflicting. The parents — cool as they are — serve as a vision of her future she does not want. She wants a life built around music, not the other way around.
Some writers would refer to the Julliard thing as the ‘outer desire’.
Mia’s ‘inner desire’ is to not be lonely. In both threads, Mia is consistently alone. She is alone in her family, alone here on stage during her audition, and if she gets in, she’ll be totally alone in New York, with the rest of her family hailing from Minnesota, the author makes sure to tell us.
A lot of YA books feature parents as caring opponent figures but this book shuns that trope altogether with the cool, understanding parents.
Appropriately named Adam is Mia’s first boyfriend, and with this guy Mia must learn how to negotiate and communicate in a relationship. There are plenty of opportunities for disagreements along the way — there’s the cool rock chick he plays with (ultimately revealed to be lesbian in the film adaptation and therefore no threat at all), there’s a Pride and Prejudice sort of beginning in which Adam mistakes Mia’s attitude towards his gigs for lack of interest in him.
We also have an ally and sometime opponent in Mia’s best friend, the one she had a fisticuffs with back when they were eleven. Now they’ll fight to the death for each other. This history means the bffs have an honest, open communication line going between them — in contrast to the shutdown between Mia and Adam — and Kim also fills the role of challenging Mia when she considers giving up the cello. You can’t give up the cello, Kim advises, because she can’t possibly imagine Mia without a cello ‘between her legs’. In other words, Kim points out what the reader has already realised — that Mia’s road to happiness must, at all costs, include the cello.
Mia will go through the Julliard application process and avoid making any big decisions until — and only if — she gets in.
She will also spend the year working out who she is, and this at one point involves a makeover scene. In a Betty/Veronica scene readers will instantly recognise, Mia realises she is not the fun blonde chick.
Mia gets into Julliard, as must happen to make a successful story. The reader knows this will happen but it’s not a problem, because the real question we want to know is: Will she choose her boyfriend over New York? (And also, did her little brother die?)
The big battle scene of this thread is the argument with Adam, who feels Mia has lied to him, mainly by omission, not letting him in on her thoughts as she goes through the process of Julliard acceptance.
There’s a bit of a feminist message to young readers in this battle: Hopefully readers will notice the double standard that’s going on here — Adam expects Mia to do a lot of waiting around for him, busy with his performing and band practice, but he doesn’t want to do any waiting for his girlfriend, while she’s away pursuing her own musical dream. That said, the breaking up battle takes place off the page. Instead we have a very-much ameliorated boyfriend situation, with a guy who realises the double standard and concedes rather than — more realistically, in my opinion — a girl who works out the double standard for herself and points it out to him.
The message for both Mia and to young readers: Even if he’s got a lop-sided smile, live your own life before settling down. Otherwise you’ll end up like Mia’s mother — happy in her own way, but suppressing her own creative dreams for the sake of family, stuck in safe suburbia, (symbolically dying first because you’re a bit of a martyr).
This book has a bittersweet ending characteristic of the Third Golden Age. Although she’s alive, Mia has lost her entire family and will need a lot of physical therapy. (Fortunately there is a sequel. We get to see how Mia does in her recovery.)
This book is, at its heart, a celebration of life over death. (All themes sound cheesey when you put them in a single sentence.) But what will the Fourth Golden Age of Children’s Literature bring us? An evolution on this type of story would surely be the glorification of death over life? Or perhaps there will be a backlash all the way back to full, Enid Blyton-esque health.
Finally, what is all this life and death stuff all about? What’s the main message here? Surely, surely, it’s about more than the opportunity to have a good wallow for a while, contemplating our own mortality.
Ultimately, there may be a strong feminist message in If I Stay, and that’s where this story is nothing like the Twilight series. For Mia, ‘life’ = ‘her own life’. On the flip side we have ‘settling down in Oregon with a band boyfriend’ (who will probably end up ditching his musical dreams by the time he hits his 30s), which for her is a kind of ‘death’.
THE RECIPE FOR A YOUNG ADULT DARK PARANORMAL ROMANCE BOYFRIEND
In a white kind of way
Muscled but not too muscled — not like he works at it
Well groomed and fairly nubile — not much body hair
Remarkable eyes and gaze
A bit older than the female protagonist
A bit taller
Maybe a bit richer (though sometimes he’s an underdog, financially speaking). All of this ‘a bit more’ refers to ‘hypergamy’ — the longheld view that husbands should be a little more more of everything (except beautiful) than their wives.
Not like other typical guys — interested in literature rather than sport
Though he’s not the uncoordinated, klutzy type either
Loves reading, though he may be embarrassed to be seen doing something so sensitive and girly
Perhaps writes poetry in his spare time
May be on the periphery of a group of guy friends but is basically a loner
Inexplicably falls instantly in love with the beautiful (though sometimes just girl-next-door looking) female protagonist
There will be some reason why he cannot be with her right away (he’s a teacher/vampire/she’s already taken…)
But he must be with her nonetheless, though their love is based on very little really
This might lead to some stalking
Or otherwise taboo/unethical boundary crossing
And will definitely lead to much brooding
Because he is not fully in control of his own sexual impulses
Cannot stand seeing her with another boy
Even if they’re just friends
There will probably be a lot of mansplaining, in which he explains things about love and life to the female, and even if she balks occasionally, the reader/viewer will actually see he has a point
He is experienced in love. It helps his attractiveness that he’s had previous girlfriends; as long as this girl is his last, that’s fine.
Unless you are — or have been — a heterosexual adolescent girl, the appeal is a little hard to understand. Even if you ask an adolescent girl, she might not be able to tell you. If she is woke she’ll be keen to point out that he is only a fantasy, and fantasies are just that. She knows he is not real.
Still, it’s an interesting exercise to consider where sexual fantasies come from. Especially when they’re commonly held throughout a culture. Even fantasies do not exist in a cultural bubble:
The Erotics Of Abstinence — lengthy months of yearning, which is at least half of the fun. Stephenie Meyer’s books are well-known for this aspect, and are thought to stem from her Mormon background, which preaches abstinence before marriage.
The Expectation Of Hypergamy — in which the man is always a little bit more of something — a bit taller/richer/older/streetwise.
The Fantasy Of Being Looked After Unconditionally And Forever — a return to the safety of the early years and I’m sure we could get all psychoanalytic right here. The girl only has to exist — he doesn’t ask anything of her.
The Fantasy of Being Delivered From Obscurity by a Dazzling, Powerful Man — like one of those classic novels in which the ordinary but pretty common girl is chosen by the lord of the castle or something. Because until very recently, that has been a woman’s only hope at social mobility. (In Titanic you see the same thing but the economics are in reverse.)
The Florence Nightingale effect — in which a caregiver develops romantic and/or sexual feelings for his/her patient, even if very little communication or contact takes place outside of basic care. A depressed/melancholic/damaged man seems appealing because in order to be attracted to someone as a partner you have to feel you can improve their life in some way. Our ghosts make us vulnerable. Vulnerability is attractive. Of Edward Cullen it has been said that “His anguish makes him volatile enough to keep things interesting but dependent enough that he will never be tempted to leave.”
Stockholm Syndrome — feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a captor
The Wish To Have A ‘Real Man’ — in a culture in which men and women are increasingly similar in life expectations
The Wish To Have A Fantastic Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Pressure You To Have Sex — related to the erotics of abstinence above. A boyfriend who can’t/won’t have sex with you is a safe person to have when you’re both terrified and curious.
The Desire To Be Dominated — not always in real life, but quite often in fantasy, as was discovered by E.L. James. There are various opinions on this. Some argue that the desire to be dominated comes from emancipation. When women take on more responsibility in their real lives, they like to fantasise about having no power in their sex lives. Which leads me to the question: What are the fantasy lives of women living in strongly patriarchal societies? Do those women also have domination fantasies, when they are not allowed to drive, or leave the house, or decide who they’re married off to? That would be an interesting comparison.
The prevalence of ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ in young adult literature and schoolyard banter is enough to make a feminist mother weep. Our daughters learn early the same sexually oppressive messages that we learnt: that female sexuality is a prize to be given to (or taken by) a man.
The sex in TV and movies can be simultaneously explicit and evasive. Sex, particularly non-committed sex, is typically presented as fun and advisable; rarely is it awkward or silly or challenging or messy or actively negotiated or preceded by discussion of contraception and disease protection. There’s always plenty of room in the backseats of those limousines, and nary a pothole in the road.
— Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex
One way to discover what Americans are concerned about is to delve into the books they read. Or more tellingly, the ones they reject. […] “America seems to be very exercised about sex,” Mr. LaRue said.
— Banned Books Week, NYT
You may have heard the phrase, “Children’s literature is both a mirror and a window,” meaning when children (indeed anyone) is exposed to someone else’s story, two things happen:
We get a glimpse into someone else’s experience via the ‘window’
We see ourselves reflected back via the ‘mirror’.
Since stories function as windows, they also function as ‘super-peers’ — teaching us not only how others live in the world, but also providing scripts on how to live a good (or a not so good) life.
Is Twilight the modern Pride and Prejudice. Don’t for a moment think anyone’s suggesting that. However, there are some interesting parallels.
Yesterday I listened to a lecture from the Kid You Not Podcast in which Clementine and Lauren discuss the appeal of dark paranormal romance among teenage girls. This reminded me of a lecture delivered by La Trobe University’s David Beagley.
About 95% of all pop songs are about romance, the pairing up of people.
Twilight by Stephanie Myer is one of the most popular YA romances of the last decade or so
Pride and Prejudice is arguably the most popular romantic novel in the English language.
A lot of the elements – the crowded room, the fly to her side – can be found in Some Enchanted Evening. These are nowadays clichés, the standard building blocks of the romance story which are used over and over.
Lee from Marvels and Tales Guilty Pleasures: reading romances as reworked fairytales (2008) looks at the form and structure of the typical romance novels.
Leisha Jones writes about Bildungsroman and the ‘prosumer‘, a new word which has come out after analysis of the Twilight series. Jones looks at how the modern stereotype of the girl in love is a carefully manufactured product that is marketed very heavily toward its target audience, and how the target audience is starting to take control of that image, with the fan fiction, the blogs, sharing their impressions of the story without that mediation of the commercial product (the prosumer – a proactive consumer). (Here is a blog post about the article from Latinas Coming Of Age.)
Jasna, the Jane Austen Society of North America, looks at the Twilight movies and their relationship to Pride and Prejudice.
About Jane Austen
One of the few drawings we have of Jane Austen done by her sister Cassandra. One of the problems with studying Austen is that despite her copious letters, her family destroyed them soon after her death. There are only a few remaining, so it’s difficult to get prime evidence about her as a person.
Austen died at 42 which was not particularly old but not all that unusual for her time, though it was still young for her class. She was a clergyman’s daughter.
Pride and Prejudice [at time of broadcast] has just reached its double century and is now considered one of the best books of all time, just behind Lord of the Rings in big polls. There have been many adaptations.
For women who grew up in the 1970s and early ’80s — nurtured in the fictions of Ms. Blume, Paul Zindel and Norma Klein among others, writers for whom an urbane brand of social realism was the only reasonable métier — the arrival of the “Twilight” franchise a decade ago, with its enormous success, signaled a gloomy period of regression for the young-adult novel. The first of the “Twilight” books appeared in 2005, two years after Arnold Schwarzenegger became the governor of California amid sexual assault allegations that prompted relatively little of the outcry now bedeviling Donald J. Trump. A distinct product of Bush-era gender politics rather than a renunciation of them, the series ultimately has its heroine forfeit a chance to go to Dartmouth to stay home and tend to her half-vampire baby, one conceived after a night of violent sex that leaves her body bruised with a husband who is at least 100 years old.
Now, though, the appetite for paranormal lunacy has abated, and issue-driven fiction set very much in a universe of urbanism’s chief concerns is having a renaissance.
Originally ‘bildungsroman’ meant a romantic story but we’ve narrowed the definition right down to refer to a type of story which follows a character as he or she grows from adolescence into adulthood. Harry Potter is very much a bildungsroman. Pride and Prejudice probably isn’t because it only takes place over the course of a single year, but it does show a change of character.
Bella Swan, in Twilight, is followed from late adolescence into adulthood so the Twilight series is indeed a bildungsroman.
What do Pride and Prejudice and Twilight Have In Common?
A young adult girl as protagonist
Independent minded, pretty, intelligent, speaks her mind. (Bella Swan is an unsubtle use of names. Think of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. Bella means beautiful, swan shows that she is beautiful – it is only to herself that she is less than beautiful, yet she is popular with boys [and suffers no prejudice regards beauty], so within the world of the story is obviously beautiful and exotic from anyone else’s point of view.)
This is similar to Elizabeth Bennett, who sees Jane as the beautiful one.
These are characters who are the standard bearer of what it means to be an attractive female in their own milieu.
Both protagonists live in rural backwaters, not quite the loving, supportive family. Each is the sensible one who keeps it all together.
Family of Lizzie Bennett is not rich within he social circle of Hertfordshire, in a little village Longbourne, out in the sticks (even though these days easy to access by train from London). Bella lives in Forks, North Washington, moved there from Phoenix Arizona, a totally different place where you get to wear short shorts and tank tops – she’s moved to the misty mountains, miles from the decent shops, she has to plan a shopping visit for a full day to do some decent shopping for dresses. Her parents have separated. Mum’s got a baseballer boyfriend for a second husband and Bella is having to choose between her mother and father. She is the one being sensible and deciding. Instead of the sisters she’s got the ditzy fashion mad boy crazy friends at school. All they care about is who is aligned with who.
Well-meaning but ineffective fathers. Mr Bennett and Charlie Swan are very similar, each locked into a lifestyle that prevents them doing much for their daughters. Charlie is so used to being on his own that he can’t even cook. All the parents in these stories are largely ineffective.
Both meet a dark, brooding, handsome man. With Lizzie it’s Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy. Both Fitzwilliam and Darcy are names that imply a station within the nobility. Darcy would have originally been D’Arcy, an old French name, just as his aunt Lady Catherine D’Burg was named. They were not Germanic peasants. To have a name with French origins meant an old, established family. The Fitz of Fitzwilliam means that one of his ancestors was the illegitimate son of a noble. It was better to have an heir than not to have an heir, so illegitimacy wasn’t seen as a major problem, mainly because most marriages were not for romantic love but for convenience. If one wife can’t produce a male heir you just keep going through wives until you get one.
Edward Cullen. Something mysterious about Darcy and Edward when first appearing. So much emphasis is put on the appearance of Edward, very little on Bella. We only get brief physical descriptions of Bella, mainly from other characters, but every couple of pages there’s something about Edward’s muscular, fine appearance. Darcy is defined by his facial expressions and his moods.
At first Cullen appears to dislike Bella and she him. Same with Darcy and Lizzie. Darcy is out of sorts at the party because he’s just had to buy Wickham off after Wickham got his younger sister into a heap of trouble, and his rudeness towards Lizzie is displaced. Edward Cullen appears to be distant but really he finds Bella irresistible and is feigning disinterest. Both stories are about the unreliability of initial appearances.
The absent-minded heroine: she is thinking of absence. Lizzie only falls in love with Darcy when he is not there. Between her rejection of his proposal when apparently he was the ‘last’ man she would marry and then his reappearance at her house having solved the problem, Greenfield has worked out that Lizzie has seen him for perhaps three hours total. Yet she has fallen in love with him. She builds her epistemology upon how things appear, and it’s only when there’s no appearance there that she learns what Darcy is really like.
Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth when he sees her in her natural state, after tramping across a muddy field. Likewise, when Elizabeth sees Darcy again after reassessing his character he is walking across a field (unlike in the BBC adaptation in which case we have Colin Firth in a wet shirt).
Similarly with Bella it’s when she’s being tracked by a group of guys intent on raping her who is saved by Edward who takes her to a coffee shop that Bella is separated from her ditzy friends who are off shopping. The two are alone, and later they’re in among the flowers in the woods. In both stories, the natural environment is important. Get rid of artificiality then let nature take its course.
But, there are warnings. Lady Catherine D’Burg is a very snobby and titled character who intervenes. She wants her own daughter to marry Darcy (her nephew). Just because you have a title doesn’t mean you have a never-ending supply of money. It’s important that her sickly daughter marries rich.
In the case of Bella the warnings come from a slightly related connection of her father – Jacob and his grandfather Billy’s warnings. Not social suicide but literal suicide – it will kill you. Both characters realise they are in love and they press on. With Bella the predator is James, another vampire, who turns up when they’re all playing baseball in the middle of a storm. (Woebetide any guy with a blonde ponytail – look at that character from the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice – they’re playing the same trope.)
Disaster threatens but all is saved by the handsome brooding misunderstood man. With Lizzie disaster is averted because her younger sister is no longer living in sin – she’s at least married (which is a happy ending for the times, even though Lydia is married to a man of questionable nature). Darcy saved the social standing of the Bennett girls. In the case of Bella it’s Edward who solves the problem in that they entrap James and rips him into pieces and burns them. (The dance studio burns down so we assume that’s what’s happens.) Who actually has the capacity to enact change? In both cases it’s the dark, brooding, handsome man. The girl is passive. Edward has the power over Bella. She is the bait to catch him. Darcy is the one who goes away and solves the problems. Lizzie doesn’t even know what he’s up to. She only finds out later, just in time for the big celebrations.
In Lizzie’s case it’s the wedding and in Bella’s case it’s the high school prom, which is almost as big in American cultures.
Has Stephanie Myer simply copied P and P or are these standard elements?
Both characters are outstanding – gorgeous, intelligent, able to solve problems… but don’t think they are.
There is something at first sight… not necessarily love. But yes, I notice you, you’re something.
Appearances are deceiving. Love at first sight is too corny even for most novelists [and is rejected as such in Pixar’s Frozen, for a young audience], so there’s misunderstanding to begin with.
Lizzie Bennett needs three hours to fall in love with Darcy. Edward need only ask Bella to sit with him in the canteen and wow, we’re in love. How gendered is this? The girl has to wait for the boy to solve the problem until they can live happily ever after.
How set up for sequels is each story? Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice (possibly because she died five years later?) but others have done so. [My favourite synopsis is Colleen McCullough’s version, in which she doesn’t think Darcy is the perfect hero, but rather a grumpy old sod, in which case the marriage is a disaster.]
“It’s time to re-examine the decade-old culture surrounding Twilight-bashing”, from Lindsay Ellis.
Paranormal romance is a literary subgenre of the romance novel. A type of speculative fiction, paranormal romance focuses on romance and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from the genres of:
Paranormal romance may range from traditional category romances with a paranormal setting to stories where the main emphasis is on a science fiction or fantasy-based plot with a romantic subplot. Common hallmarks are romantic relationships between humans and vampires, shapeshifters, or fantastical beings (the Fae, Elves, etc.). Paranormal romances can also include characters with psychic abilities, like telekinesis or telepathy.
Paranormal romance is the new gothic romance, enjoyed by Jane Austen even as she parodied the genre in Northanger Abbey. (A letter written by Jane Austen shows that Austen continued to read gothic romance for years after making fun of it in her own writing. Surely she derived much pleasure from the genre.)
But why? And why do so many teenage girls and women enjoy the genre today? Paranormal romance is a strange contradiction. The genre is at once supremely sexist but is also a response to existing in a sexist society, providing escapism and wish fulfilment.
Say what you will about sparkly vampires, they worked.
[A]las, making kids’ stories “dark” seems de rigeur these days. While the original fairy tales are violent and contain the supernatural, they weren’t meant to be categorized as “Gothic”; it’s only in recent years that they have been Twilight-ed and pitched to brooding teens. But it’s not just fairy tales that have been “darkened.” Consider the difference between Disney’s original “Alice in Wonderland” and Tim Burton’s creepy version. Or Spike Jonze’s film “Where the Wild Things Are” which took Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book and turned it not into a children’s film but “a film about childhood” by replaying Jonze’s own feelings about growing up as a child of divorce and resulted in a movie full of misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, and injured recriminations.
A lot of people hate on the Twilight Saga, and also on the women and girls who are hooked on it. While I have huge issues with this series myself, I have an uncomfortable feeling that a bit of femme phobia is wrapped up in criticism of its fandom. If you have no intention of seeing the film adaptations (I’ve seen the first), you can find examples of both the femme phobia and the actual problems with the story in the spoof movie trailers from ‘Honest Trailers’.
The following books come up, and I’m sure you could have predicted at least a few of them!
The Ravenwood Mysteries by Mia James, in which the first is By Midnight
The Fallen Trilogy by Lauren Kate
The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer
One of the hosts of this podcast (Clementine) does not like paranormal romance [nor do I] whereas the other reads them with a ferocity that ‘is very strange considering’ Lauren is aware they’re not the best quality. Lauren is a fan of Twilight and has read them numerous times. (She does say that New Moon is the boring one of the trilogy and explains why further down.)
First, they read an excerpt from the paranormal YA romance novel By Midnight by Mia James, in which the romantic vibe comes through in a way typical for this genre.
It would be easy to criticise dark romance book but this podcast is about why people read them.
NECESSARY ELEMENTS OF PARANORMAL ROMANCE
The unvaried plot is comforting to the reader. Readers expect certain specific things: a love story with a twist, appeals to girls, more scary than a normal love story, and supernatural elements which provide excitement and danger. A recurring theme is that no matter how much danger the girl is in, you know a heroine will ultimately be protected by the immortal or supernatural boy she has ‘chosen’ to be with. Readers want romance. If the book is going through a non-romantic sequence, sometimes the readers will skip it. The main character is not fully fleshed out enough to provide any interest in her own right. The Love is a character in its own right. It’s not about the female character per se.
Typical in descriptions and reviews of paranormal romances:
a slow burning relationship that blossoms when you least expect it
the gift of eternal life
thrown together in a violent and unfamiliar world
a mysterious young man
an immediate and powerful connection
warriors and other feuding factions
a regular girl just trying to survive high school
their love is so pure
he has been secretly in love with her forever and she is only just realising
has a secret that may tear them apart
the mystery of their past
the greatest danger might not be the warriors coming to destroy them but the forbidden romance that’s grown between them
LOVE ACROSS THE SPECIES
Central to all of these paranormal romance books is ‘forbidden love’. This is also how romance in non-supernatural romantic tales starts — a traditional plot. People have always read romance with forbidden love in it. But times have changed. Parents no longer get to decide who their daughters marry. There are fewer obstacles when people get together, unless the story is set in a more restrictive setting such as a country which has war, or with different political configurations. A paranormal romance gets round this issue by having a human girl fall in love with a man from a supernatural species, which is forbidden for reasons explained in any given story of this genre.
While not all paranormal romances have love triangles, many do. The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare features a love triangle between Tessa, a downworlder with a rare ability and two best friends. Will and Jem are Shadowhunters and parabatai and both of them will do anything to be with Tessa. It’s up to her to choose who she wants to be with.
Upsides: Approximately two supernatural hotties want you. There is smoldering. You’ll probably end up becoming supernatural yourself, one way or the other. You get to feel popular and important, even if ordinary people don’t understand you (bonus!). You’re like a misfit outcast whom everybody wants to marry.
Downsides: You don’t necessarily get much agency besides choosing between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. You’re stuck in a world where everybody thinks you’re weak because you’re human. There’s probably no sex, or at least not enough sex.
AN ANCIENT TRADITION
Although there has been a recent swing towards supernatural love stories, this is actually an ancient tradition. Greek mythology is full of such stories. Zeus impregnates different types of human females. Readers are aware of this. From looking at fansites, readers of paranormal romance are actually quite demanding regarding what they read. They’re not going to read indiscriminately anything – there has to be a twist for it to be interesting. There must be some kind of alchemy between romance and mythology, and the twist might be in setting it in a modern setting such as a school etc. This completely offsets the mythological and romantic element.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show in the 1990s which was part of this trend, which came from the work of Anne Rice, which itself comes from a very long tradition. [See The Evolution Of The Vampire In Fiction, again, notes from a lecture by David Beagley.]
THE SPECIFIC NEEDS OF A READER
A reader review of By Midnight on Amazon shows that the reader appreciates this particular story for avoiding a ‘gooey’ female character, embedding the plot in a kind of reality. [Reality can obviously be placed on a very broad continuum.]
There are so many of these paranormal romance novels now that readers have generally honed their specific wants and needs. It’s a rapidly evolving genre as a consequence. They’re a bit like the teenage Mills and Boons, but updated for today’s teens. The love is also supposed to be very angsty and significant. They replicate the intensity of first love and teenage infatuation, making them more than hormone driven. There’s usually a worldwide significant event which has the ability to change the lives of everyone. [This fits the definition of ‘high fantasy’ as explained by David Beagley in his lecture Harry Potter and High Fantasy.]
WHY DOES THIS GENRE SPEAK SO WELL TO A TEENAGE, FEMALE READERSHIP?
A lot of other teenage books don’t validate these feelings. Paranormal romance takes a ‘hormonal fact’ and gives it an almost spiritual dimension, as if confirming to the insecure teen that their feelings are so real and tremendously important that they have to live them fully. This concords with the completely narcissistic view on life that adults often conclude teenagers have, [and one could argue that these books encourage it].
The physical symptoms of the protagonists blushing/heart palpitating/breathing patterns and so on is not really described in any other genre. The love is therefore interpreted as all-consuming: the love is not just in your head; it’s in your whole body. This lends the love more significance. Teenage girls can really relate to this.
These feelings that feel uncontrollable to the teenage reader are validated: These feelings you have are from some supernatural event which is indeed outside your control. Or, you inherited them and it’s not your fault. This is comforting, and allows the teenager to access a feeling very powerfully. Love is presented as something that happens to you rather than a choice. It’s as if the love is predetermined.
Like the young heroine in a book, a reader is preconditioned to fall in love with a supernatural man. A lot of the stories make an attempt to explain the love interest’s appeal. Often it’s his handsomeness, which is a very uncomfortable fact given the lack of choice the female protagonist feels she has.
Why do people respond so well to these troublesome ideologies? Is it a response to living in a society which is full of sexualised images of women? Because ironically, paranormal romance is incredibly chaste. There’s no sex until after marriage. This storyline is escapist if a teenage girl feels her body is constantly being judged. Girls perhaps like these stories for the same reason teenage girls prefer non-threatening, boy-like, almost asexual partners a la the members of Hansen. [I have heard this referred to as ‘the erotics of abstinence’.]
THE NATURE OF THE FEMALE PROTAGONIST
The female protagonists are created in such a way that as many readers as possible are meant to identify with her. A lot of her attributes play on the insecurities of teenage girls. A very common trait is the heroine is never popular. She’s never someone surrounded by close, real friends. [Genuine female friendships in YA are rare, as explained by Kate DeGoldi in her review of Code Name Verity – a rare example of female friendship well done.] She’s always a bit of an outcast, that she doesn’t fit in. [She feels she isn’t beautiful enough – there has to be something wrong with her. This isn’t limited to this genre, but is common across all YA genres. Here are my views on that.]
Coincidentally, the male love interest in paranormal romance is the only character who has ever really understood her.
A ‘Mary Sue character’ is a term given to female characters who are basically devoid of character traits. [The term is used in various different ways, as explained at TV Tropes.] She is generally weak, clumsy, insecure. Empty shells allow the reader to comfortably fit inside.
Divergent by Veronica Roth is not a dark paranormal YA romance but is rather a dystopian one in the vein of The Hunger Games, but like Twilight, the protagonist is a blank character upon which a young reader can easily superimpose herself:
Despite the constant assurance that Tris is courageous, clever and kind, her own first-person narration displays a blank personality. No matter; all the “good” characters adore her and the “bad” are spiteful and jealous.
Many fans of paranormal romance are highly articulate. They explain very well on forums why they like one book over another. Posts can get quite close to literary analysis. For this reason it would be a mistake to dismiss readers of paranormal romance as unsophisticated. They are enchanted by these books but can be critical of them. The books obviously offer something upon which to base critique. Breaking Dawn came under heavy criticism from Twilight’s most hardcore fans, who subsequently wrote an open letter to Stephanie Meyer via her blog. Fans had problem with the ideology behind the ending. This proved that an author can’t just wrap up a story in babies and weddings and vampires.
Readers will say they like these books for the ‘danger’. But these books are dangerous in another way, if the reader fails to read them critically and discerningly. You can be asked to absorb viewpoints that can be damaging to your development as a teenager. It’s worrisome that these books are sometimes held up as a romantic ideal. They’re best when viewed as a complete fantasy. But in 2008 and 2009 when Twilight was at its most popular, girls were apparently dumping their boyfriends because they weren’t enough like Jacob or Edward. The story sets up an ‘ideal’ that real teenage boys are never going to live up to. The stories can also set up an expectation for how girls are to be treated by boys, which is not just unrealistic but damaging. It is presented as good to be overprotected and have a boy who controls you.
An article in The Guardian about Bollywood Film and depictions of sex shows how much viewers want romance and erotica in fiction, and Indian film makers go to great lengths to get around censorship, to the point where visual metaphors are now arguably more sexual than brazen Hollywood depictions:
There is the popular misconception that Bollywood films do not show scenes of a sexual nature: they do. However, when comparing the screen time or manner in which kissing (or more “bedroomly” activity) is portrayed in Bollywood versus Hollywood, Bollywood is a blushing ballerina, whereas Hollywood is as brazen as a pole-dancing stripper.
L.J. Smith, S.M. Parker and G.S. Predergast are other examples of paranormal romance authors using initials as author names.
Cassandra Clare may not agree with her paranormal urban fantasy series being designed ‘romance’, showing there is a disconnect between what marketers/publishers/readers think a book might be, and what genre the author perceives their work to be:
For a long time with these books – and they’re very classic urban fantasy – they’re stories about teens growing up and being surrounded by supernatural threats and demons and there’s a lot of mythology and whatnot. But for years and years they were treated as romance novels. And it drove me nuts!
Cassandra Clare also alludes to the phenomenon whereby if a woman writes a romantic subplot, her book is ‘romance’, whereas when men write romantic subplots their work is designated something else, be it thriller or whatever.
One of the references in this lecture, which compares and contrasts Twilight by Stephanie Myer with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, is Greenfield’s Absent Minded Heroine: Or, Elizabeth Bennett Has A Thought, an analysis which looks very much at the idea of absence: how to fall in love when the person isn’t actually there. It looks at the idealisation of another person, love at first sight, and at the unreliability of appearance.
Here’s something I never noticed about Pride and Prejudice until it was pointed out to me: Lizzie only falls in love with Darcy when he is not there. Between her rejection of his proposal when apparently he was the ‘last’ man she would marry and then his reappearance at her house having solved the problem, Greenfield has worked out that Lizzie has seen him for perhaps three hours total. Yet she has fallen in love with him. She builds her epistemology upon how things appear, and it’s only when there’s no appearance there that she learns what Darcy is really like.
Darcy, on the other hand, falls in love with Elizabeth when he sees her in her natural state, after tramping across a muddy field. Likewise, when Elizabeth sees Darcy again after reassessing his character he is walking across a field (unlike in the BBC adaptation in which case we have Colin Firth in a wet shirt — note that this scene isn’t in the book — Darcy simply walks across the field towards them).
Similarly with Bella Swan in Twilight, it’s when she’s being tracked by a group of guys intent on raping her and is saved by Edward (who takes her to a coffee shop) that Bella is separated from her ditzy friends (who are off shopping) and falls in love. Bella and Edward are now alone, and later they’re alone again, among the flowers in the woods. In both stories, the natural environment is important and symbolic: Get rid of artificiality then let nature take its course.
A storyline of Love at First Sight is too corny for most modern novelists, so the modern romantic storyline is likely to start with some sort of misunderstanding.
Lizzie Bennett needs only three hours to fall in love with Darcy. Edward needs only to ask Bella to sit with him in the canteen and wow, they’re in love.
How gendered is this? The girl has to wait for the boy to solve the problem until they can live happily ever after.
A subsequent lecture from the same series is called Romance and Vampires. The first part of this lecture looks at the evolution of the vampire as a character in fiction, from the vampire as monster right through to the modern vampire, who is sexualised and sympathetic. After talking about the significance of Twilight and the author’s Mormon background upon the storyline, Beagley talks about The Readers of Vampire Fiction and how Twilight has led to a critical revolution:
Over 100 million copies of Twilight have been sold. People never thought Harry Potter would be knocked off the top of the best sellers list. [I’m pretty sure the publishers never expected that either — otherwise the first book in the Twilight series might have been more thoughtfully copy-edited at a line level.]
Myer didn’t set out to write such a popular series [and says the idea for the story came to her as a sort of divine inspiration], but the response online from fans has been huge. The mechanism is the fansite, to which anyone can register. Users of the fansite can blog, share and ask questions and write their own fan fiction. Fans are creating their own parts of the story, then posting them online for other fans to read. A lot of the fanfic includes the raunchy sex scenes which Myer left out. [This indirectly lead to Fifty Shades Of Grey, another phenomenon.] Stephanie Myer is happy to embrace and actively support some of the actual fansites. Users tend to use pseudonyms. We don’t know who is male, who is female, who is young or old. This anonymity is empowering. There are also a lot of negative responses on fansites as well. My Twilight Purgatory is an anti-fansite on Tumblr.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 80% of adolescents use online social network sites, 38% share original creative work online, and 21% remix their own transformative works, inspired by others’ words and images (Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, & Purcell, 2010; Lenhart, Madden, Smith, Purcell, Zickuhr, & Rainie, 2011).
In the past five years, this sort of fan activity has lead to a critical revolution leading to a new question: What is a reader and what is an author? The line has completely blurred. These fans are ‘prosumers’ – consumers who produce. The reader and the author are starting to blend and are now the same thing.
Myer’s own website lists (at the time of the lecture) 488 different fansites all about Twilight. They’re even arranged by different languages. There are at least 30 different languages. (There are plenty more unrecognised fansites.)
Peer Reviewed, Schmeer Reviewed
Most of it is ‘gush and squeal’ about Edward or Jacob, and how these characters are so hot. But there is also a lot of serious commentary and worth reading. Why do we at universities make such a fuss of peer reviewed, serious academic literature when the blogs on the fansites are talking about the same things? This is causing a huge change in the nature of literary commentary.
Why Do Some People Get So… Fanatic About Fictional Characters?
Fictional Attraction may clear a lot of this up. This very interesting podcast from Stuff Mom Never Told You covers some of the research that has been carried out regarding what’s known as ‘Para social relationships’ or PSR. The same stories keep coming up: Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and of course in YA book world, Harry Potter and Twilight. These are stories in which a certain segment of fans are at the extreme end of involved — they may write fanfiction or talk about the characters on fan boards across the Internet, or with their real-life friends, reading the books or watching the shows over and over again. People most likely to develop these para social relationships with fictional characters are those going through a transition (so, teenagers) and the lonely (so, elderly people). But there is also some gendered difference: people whose relationship style is avoidant are less likely to be interested in forming attachments with fictional characters either, but for women, being in a secure relationship makes her more likely to become interested in fictional relationships, whereas for men the state of being anxious about one’s real world relationships makes him more likely to seek out fictional ones. Fictional relationships are not necessarily a bad thing, and correlate with extroversion. They generally should be considered an extension of social life rather than a problematic competitor.
However, I did last week watch a documentary about Mechanophiles (My Car Is My Lover, 2008). Disturbing at times, these men show that humans have a huge capacity for love, but also for imagination, specifically for imagining people (and in this case objects) can love us in return.