The Three Main Types Of Modern Myth Stories

The Adventure Story

An adventure story contains the following:

  1. action
  2. suspense
  3. surprise
  4. setback

There are three main types of modern adventure stories, and they all make use of mythic structure. (For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.)

1. THE MYTHIC JOURNEY

The ur-Myth is The Odyssey, first recorded by Homer 800 BC.

Also known as the (Mythic) Quest. These stories all have the same basic structure. The technical definition of myth:

The story of the transformation of the soul and the stages of its illumination.

It’s different from other genres — birth to death to rebirth, a story of recycling that never ends. It has the broadest story structure of any genre. Instead of a love story, typically tracking the courtship between a man and a woman, this is a story form that has massive scope. Myth stories are almost always epics. An interesting thing to do is to make a combination between myth and love, which aren’t normally put together, but if you did do this, your work would be separated from almost everyone else writing love stories so it’s an excellent technique.

There are four major story areas where myth is distinguished from other genres: character, story world, plot and theme.

The Monomyth comes from Joseph Campbell — the idea that there’s a single story that all writers tap into. But this is a faulty idea. If you look at the beats Joseph talks about, they tend to be warrior male myth stories, so don’t really work when you’re trying to talk about female myth. Well, maybe there’s a single female myth story? You get into a lot of problems because if you try to reduce all female stories to a single story — you end up reducing her to the single biological function of a woman. Better to think rather that the character can grow past the basic biological capacity to give birth.

There’s a new knight story, with knight stories being one of the most enduring stories at the moment, especially in the West. This story form will continue to be in its more modern version very popular for the next 10-20 years.

The rejuvenation myth is a story form about how do you rejuvenate the city and make it liveable, a place that’s freeing and promotes growth? This is probably the central challenge for story tellers if they’re trying to tell a modern day story. In the past writers have written that the city gets so technological and overbearing that it collapses and starts all over again. That’s no longer a good solution. Look at Avatar to see how popular these stories can be — it’s basically based on ecological story beats, so we have a new story form: ecological.

For more on mythic structure, see: What is mythic structure?

In this kind of adventure there are often two journeys, closely linked and mutually dependent, one physical and the other spiritual. The protagonist, by means of a physical journey, experiences a growth in self-knowledge or subtle character development. An observant reader will respond to both journeys and be aware of the spiritual growth that has taken place.

Give Them Wings, edited by Saxby and Winch

Or, as John Truby says, in a mythic journey, the hero goes on a journey, finds himself, then comes back home a slightly (or vastly) changed individual.

The Home-away-home story is also very common in picturebooks.

Apart from The Odyssey there are a whole bunch of really old myths that all have the basic same plot: Jason and the Golden Fleece, Beowulf, Saint George etc.

A slightly more modern mythic journey is Gulliver’s Travels, published 1726.

Gulliver tied down

From Gulliver’s Travels came 20th Century stories such as:

(Gulliver’s Travels is also the ur-Miniature Story as well as being the ur-Journey.)

An example of an Odyssean journey in a picture book is Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

2. THE STATIC JOURNEY

The ur-Static Journey is the Robinsonnade, a word that appeared to describe two similar novels which happened to both have ‘Robinson’ in the title: Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swiss Family Robinson.

What made Robinson Crusoe so popular?

  1. A wonderful narrative voice — exciting, unhurried and conversational. Quasi-journalistic.
  2. It’s actually a very old story pattern, also seen in the Bible: transgression, retribution, repentance, redemption. (Youthful rebellion, successive shipwrecks, the painful lessons of isolation, Crusoe’s return home.)
  3. Memorably concrete images, like Friday’s footprints in the sand, Crusoe with his parrot and umbrella.

One reason for the island myth is pure escapism, of course. But this sort of myth is often not an escape from work. Once you’re on the island, you need to work hard to live. Like ultra-camping, or the feeling you get watching reality TV of the Doomsday Preppers variety. In Robinson Crusoe, our hero has to build shelters, fence off territories, hunt and farm.

Another island story is The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Prospero has to procure the island’s secrets from Caliban, make the wretch his slave, learn to master the elements and protect his daughter.

Why are these stories so popular? Well, we love a story in which characters work for what they have. This is a dominant ideology in children’s literature too. When characters get what they desire we like to see evidence that they deserve it. Robinson Crusoe has achieved longevity due in part to its consonance with this modern ideology that work is one of most important things humans can do. Indeed, Defoe presents work as a kind of therapy — working on mind, body and spirit. When Crusoe bakes his own bread he’s proud of his achievement. This is in line with the tale of The Little Red Hen: If you want to enjoy your bread you had better have baked it yourself.

For more on Robinson Crusoe see The Guardian, in which they count Robinson Crusoe as the second most important book in English literature.

A more recent evolution is Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, written in the mid- to late-1800s in which the hero doesn’t actually need to go anywhere; all the action takes place at home.

In the 20th century we read school stories and holiday stories, which are also static in that the action takes place at a (boarding) school or at a holiday destination.  See: School Stories.

Around the 1960s and 70s adventure stories started to focus less on plot and more on character. Romanticism gave way to realism. As in the best adventure stories, setting is still important.

  • Betsy Byars
  • Joan Phipson
  • Patricia Wrightson
  • Ivan Southall — the Simon Black series — the Australian Biggles
  • Eleanor Spence
  • Lilith Norman

Most recently these realistic adventure novels have evolved into ‘issues novels’, especially in YA, and the trend is now moving down into MG.

A more direct modern retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story is of course Castaway starring Tom Hanks. But don’t forget that any adventure story which takes place in one place is a descendent of Robinson Crusoe.

Julie of the Wolves is a YA novel in the Robinsonnade tradition.

3. THE FEMALE MYTH

It could be that we’re all sick of the three act structure and that actually there is a way of telling a story that is different. And it’s just not about the big orgasm [Battle] at the end. We have multiple orgasms, that’s God’s gift to us. […] There is a theory around women’s storytelling, that it isn’t just the three act structure to get to the big bang at the end. That isn’t our biology. We like a slow burn. And it’s very rewarding. What’s wrong with 10 endings?

Gaylene Preston, New Zealand filmmaker

Odyssean stories and Robinsonades are of the ‘male’ type. (The first involves leaving home and going on a journey to find oneself; the second focuses a bit more on character development.) The Male Myth form is well-known to everyone because it is so common and so ancient.

Then there is the female myth form which is much newer.

This new female myth form is a blend of the two minus a few things.

There are few modern examples of the female myth form, but some notable examples are:

  1. Inside Out
  2. Frozen
  3. Gravity

For the last 3000 years (since The Odyssey) adventure stories have been about men and typically masculine pursuits. Frozen is one of the most popular animated films of all time. This shows the absurdity of the old Hollywood conventional wisdom that says you can’t have a blockbuster hit with a female lead character. There is a tremendous thirst for new female myth forms.

Riley from Inside Out, a female myth
Riley of Pixar’s Inside Out is a good example of a female character who also happens to star in a female myth.

John Truby says that female myths:

fundamentally change our collective vision of who the hero is and what she will accomplish on her life and story paths.[…] Of course both Joy and Riley are female. But that alone does not make this a female myth. Joy is not a warrior like the Diana goddess, as depicted by the Katniss Everdeen character in The Hunger Games. She is an emotion, and a way of seeing and interacting with the world without fighting. Riley isn’t the typical Disney princess. She’s a normal, eleven-year-old girl facing a traumatic life event where she’s been forced to move to a new home.

Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.

In other words, the Female Myth:

  • Doesn’t technically have to star female heroes — ‘female myth’ describes the story type rather than the gender of the main character. The inverse is also true: Just because a myth stars a female doesn’t mean the story is a ‘female myth form’. (Likewise, a feminist story doesn’t have to star a female character — feminist stories let characters of all genders transcend limitations of their sex.)
  • Doesn’t have all the fighting
  • Or the big battle at the climax
  • Doesn’t necessarily involve a journey away from home, but there is some sort of long, difficult journey
  • There doesn’t have to be a ‘minotaur’ (a powerful outside opponent)
  • Plots are not based on conflict
  • It draws heavily from Jungian theory.
  • Interiority. The Female Myth is an inner journey. It seems to have been around since the Second Wave feminist movement (though there may well be excellent earlier examples I don’t know about.) Either the character goes into their own heads or, as in Inside Out, there’s a whole other world in there. Imagination and fantasy are great combos for the female myth form, as without the big battles and strong outside villain we do require a rich story world.

In children’s literature, it’s possible to track the development from ‘male myths only’ to where we are today, with Inside Out.

In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites names two books in particular: The Blue Sword by Robyn McKinley and On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight.

THE BLUE SWORD (1982)

This novel has a lot of feminist problems, to be sure.

  • The main character (Harry) basically has to become a boy and do traditionally masculine stuff. Inversion does not equal subversion.
  • Harry is silenced because of how it’s plotted — she can’t speak the local fantasy language and has to rely on a dude to translate everything for her. This means he dominates conversations.
  • Only four of the fifteen knights are women and they remain unnamed, so McKinley doesn’t achieve gender balance in her minor characters.
  • This is ultimately a marriage plot. At the end she gets married and this is a happy ending for her.

But The Blue Sword is an important work because it was one of the first books to allow a female character a traditionally masculine mythic quest.

Seelinger Trites points out that imagery of cycles and wheels inform both texts to emphasize how Birle and Orien’s journeys are process- rather than goal-oriented. This lines up with what Maria Nikolajeva has said about how seasons dominate in children’s books written for girls, since seasons are cyclical.

The journeys themselves are circular as well. In male myth forms, the hero often (though not always) ends in a different part of the world.

ON FORTUNE’S WHEEL (1990)

Published 8 years later, Cynthia Voight’s novel is similar to The Blue Sword but avoids some of the traps of subversion.

  • Birle goes on a quest, like Harry, though she’s not after an object in particular.
  • She doesn’t give up her voice, identity or her culture when she marries.
  • She starts her journey voluntarily, trying to rescue her family. (This is similar to the much later Katniss Everdeen ‘call’ to adventure.) She’s not kidnapped or anything.
  • She serves as the male character’s guide for a while then makes her own decision to join him on his journey in the hopes of escaping an unwise betrothal (that she made herself).
  • She falls in love with her male companion and chooses to be with him.
  • Birle is not setting out to destroy a foe. This is what makes it different from the male quest/myth.
  • Instead, it is the process of the journey, which allows the characters’ love for each other to grow, and not the end of the journey that matters. This is the main narrative choice that separates Voight’s quest from others.

The differences between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ myth forms are described by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover, in which she picks the highlights from an earlier feminist book The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock.

MALE MYTH: THE OUTER QUEST

FEMALE MYTH: THE INNER QUEST

The Hero is in his familiar Ordinary World when a serious event introduces a problem that is his Call To Adventure.

A life changing event compels a woman to go on a quest to find her own identity, separate from the one she assimilated from the male culture that was modelled by her mother.

He refuses the Call because it will mean change, challenge, Separation from the known and familiar, and Departure from home. It may even mean risking his life. He also doesn’t know if he is capable of the task.

At first she adopts so-called male behaviours, thinking that she has denied aggressiveness in the past and that is what she needs.

A Mentor assures him that he can do it, must do it, and is the only one who can succeed.

This belief leads her into the world of men, often also growing closer to her father.

Emboldened and committed, the Hero departs. He Crosses the Threshold into the Special World, which is alien compared to his Ordinary World.

She often achieves success in the work world as she perfects her Animus, the assertive competitive, perfectionist, and male-identified side of her personality.

He quickly learns the rules, encounters Allies and Enemies, and begins his Descent deep into the Special World, the territory of those who oppose him and where he’ll find the solution to the problem.

At the same time, she challenges, rejects and even rebukes the beliefs in inferiority, dependency, and romantic love that she now sees as cultural indoctrination of women.

As he continues on the Road of Tests and Trials, the obstacles grow more formidable. He reaches the Approach to the Inner Cave, knowing that at its heart will be the Supreme Ordeal. In the innermost cave, he encounters the biggest obstacles and threats to success. If he overcomes these final challenges, he will have claim to the Reward: He’ll achieve the goal that resolves the problem that set him on his journey.

She may blame her mother and distance herself from her.

After he succeeds (or fails), he Refuses the Call to return home, instead emerging from the cave to regale in his glory or to lick his wounds.

But when success in the male world also leaves her feeling hollow she no longer feels close to her father or male mentors. She feels betrayed by everyone and everything she has known and believes, including God as a male-defined creation of the culture.

Believing his quest is over and he can at last begin his Return home, he is confronted with one last obstacle, the Ultimate Test. Whether or not he reaches his story goal, if he summons all that he has learned, and releases or heals a wound he was afflicted with in his past, he will let his old self die to be reborn into a new, freer self.

Alone, “spiritually arid”, the woman begins her turn inward in search of her unique self. She examines her unique experiences and searches for memories that seem to reflect pieces of a lost but authentic self. However long this period lasts, it often involves shedding any accoutrements of what the patriarchal culture deems appropriate and desirable: female dress, manners and friends. Yet she yearns for an end to the grief and emptiness. She fears she may die without finding her true self and a chance to pursue dreams that she discovers within her.

This is his emotional passage, his Initiation. Death and Rebirth allow him to overcome this final confrontation (unless the story is a tragedy, and then he clings to his old ways, weaknesses, and the emotional wound.)

Little by little, or all at once, she finds that connection, and the courage to receive the archetypal power of the Feminine. She integrates it in her own way. She begins to express her unique and now known self. Now she can also express, as needed, nurturing, relatedness and receptivity. These are the positive qualities of the Feminine.

She reconnects with her mother or with the archetype of the Mother. If the relationship with her earthly mother permits it, she seeks to heal the former breach.

Instead of rejecting all the Masculine qualities, she integrates the side of herself that also holds the power of the positive Masculine archetype.

At last he can Return with the Elixir, perhaps a treasure, but the true reward is being a new, transformed individual, a Master of Two Worlds, an integrated person with wisdom to share, in the form of the theme reflected by his journey.

Finally, she ends her duality, the split of her self and cultural beliefs about the Feminine and Masculine. She ends the misery of beliefs and behaviours not in harmony with her discovered self. She emerges into her new world and selects her new life as an integrated, renewed and healed person.

In order to work out whether a mythic story is ‘male’ or ‘female’, don’t look at the gender of the hero. Men and boys can star in female myths while women and girls can star in the traditional male myth.

Oprah’s book club picks were usually good examples of the female myth. Since the reader of this kind of female myth form is asked to identify with a character battling what is essentially the patriarchy, it’s not surprising that some men (one of whom even refused to appear on Oprah’s book club…) will be turned off by a Oprah’s book club sticker. It is true of many things in life as it is in reading — women are expected to understand and sympathise with the male experience but not vice versa. Many men simply cannot understand what such a struggle would feel like, or what it even entails.

The most recent Female Myths have branched out. The woman/girl hero no longer has to battle against the patriarchy, or wrestle with the binary gender norm. We are moving into a political period where, in enlightened communities, the gender binary is put aside in favour of individual expression.

We’re even starting to see the female myth in film — traditionally later than novels in picking up the latest trends. (Hollywood is notoriously conservative.)

The Male Warrior Myth, indeed all of Western storytelling in the last 3000 years, is based on maximum conflict. The hero goes on a journey and fights one opponent after another. There is always a big bloody battle near the end.

Female Myths solve problems in a different way. The hero goes on a journey, but instead of battling with others, she might think and feel her way through her problem.

[Echoing Maureen Murdock and Elizabeth Lyon:] Females as main characters are not what make a ‘female myth form’. It’s all about how the hero deals with the problem.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

As John Truby points out, Pixar’s film Inside Out is an excellent example of a Female Myth. While Riley is a girl, she could just as easily have been a boy.

Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.

Her primary ally in this journey, and the key to its final success, is another woman, Sadness. As in any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent. In the mind of Joy and the audience, Sadness is her polar opposite and best avoided whenever possible. But the key to the self-revelation, for Joy and thus Riley as well, is that experiencing loss and Sadness is part of growing up.

Other examples of the Female Myth form:

  • Coraline — A girl retreats into her imagination where her ideal home life is found. She realises she doesn’t want what she thought she wanted after all, and battles the demons before returning to reality more grateful and satisfied.
  • My Neighbour Totoro
  • The Snowman
  • Arrival — A woman’s ability to see holistically instead of divisively is matched by the story’s structure, and results in a personal and global revolution.
Where are all the female creation myths?

The female body follows the lunar cycle, which is closely associated with the idea of death and rebirth (waning and waxing moon). The cardinal function of the female body is reproduction. The female myths, describing female initiation, are aimed at repetition, rebirth, the eternal life cycle. Actually, very few genuine female myths exist in written–male, civilised, “symbolic” (Lacan)–form, due to many reasons. Connected with essential life mysteries such as menstruation and birth (both involving bloody), female myths are more secret and sacred than male myths. They have mostly existed in oral form, as esoteric rituals. In Western civilisation, they have been suppressed and muted by the dominant male culture. We can only discover traces and remnants of them, in the figures of the *Progenitrix, the witch, the **chthonic goddess.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

*Progenitrix = A female progenitor, a foremother, any of a person’s direct female ancestors (ancestresses).

**Chthonic = relating to or inhabiting the underworld

There are still few female myths around, which is why I wrote one myself, in the form of Hilda Bewildered. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this story is similar to Inside Out in that it’s about a girl facing a hard situation, learning to overcome a difficult fear by going inside herself. There is no minotaur; there is no big battle scene. These stories are certainly difficult to write, for exactly that reason.

The Artifacts is also a female myth form even though it stars a boy.

Midnight Feast may also fit the female myth form — I’m not quite sure myself. But I did aim to write something different, and I think I succeeded in that, for sure.

I would love to see more female myth forms in the world, so if you have an idea for one, please write it!

(And remember, inversion does not equal subversion.)

RELATED LINKS

The masculine, heroic adventure story in the tradition of Odysseus has ‘only’ been dominant for the last 3000 years. Before then, myth was often about ‘origin’ — where did we come from? Who made us? Since women are the creators of life, it followed that the heroes of such myths were originally female. But where are all these original creation myths?

Young Adult Fiction Uses Myths To Keep Traditional Storytelling Alive from NPR (and also because traditional mythic form is still a successful way to satisfy an audience).

What Is Meant By Mythic Structure? for writers who would like to use it.

Using Maureen Murdoch’s work, and anything else she could find on the topic, Kim Hudson has crafted a theory of the female mythic form but calls it The Virgin’s Promise. I’m yet to read this one, but Melanie Marttila summarises the main parts of the theory.

The Technique of Ticking Clocks in Storytelling

The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.

The_Cat_in_the_Hat_Comes_Back_Dr_Seuss_Cover

(Here are many more tropes associated with Cat In The Hat, though ‘race against the clock’ isn’t one of them.)

A Trick Older Than The Hills

The ticking clock device has been used in storytelling to increase narrative drive for many generations. It is used in Cinderella, who must escape from the ball before midnight, before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Often, the device is implied rather than stated outright. In Hansel and Gretel, we know the witch will eventually eat the children. That could happen at any moment, though she’s waiting for them to fatten up.

Other Examples Of Ticking Clocks In Movies

  • Die Hard 2 — a plane running out of fuel
  • Speed — a bomb is set to go off if the bus goes under 50 miles per hour
  • Se7en — a cop must stop a serial killer before he kills his next victim
  • The Fugitive — an innocent man must prove his innocence before being caught again
  • Dumplin — Performances always give a story narrative drive because they provide a ticking clock. Without that, Dumplin would’ve been in great danger of losing momentum.

Ticking Clocks In Picture Books

Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.

TV Tropes refers to this as ‘Race Against The Clock’ and offers plenty of examples.

Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.

On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.

In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.

Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.

Home By Five cover

As you can see, this is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.

But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.

Home By Five setup
Home by Five setup2

So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…

Rosie dilly-dallies

We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.

Home By Five clock

On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.

In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.

midnight feast ticking clocks

Jeff Kinney also makes use of the ticking clock in several of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul gags.

Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is story book, part ‘toy book’. Young readers learn to look at pictures and search for intertextuality, as each illustration links to a well-known fairytale. This makes the book popular for classroom use, along with the Shrek films and modern stories with fairytales as ur-texts.

Anthony Browne writes postmodern picturebooks and Into The Forest is an excellent example of intertextuality.

WHAT IS INTERTEXTUALITY?

The relationship ‘between texts’.

No work of literature stands entirely alone. Readers bring a lot to a story, including their entire lives until that point, but also every story they’ve ever been exposed to. When an author points the reader’s attention to another text, this technique is known as ‘intertextuality’.

Continue reading “Intertextuality of Into The Forest by Anthony Browne”

Doppelgangers In Fiction

A doppelganger is an apparition or double of a living person. It comes from German, and translates literally from ‘double walker’. In fiction there are four main types of doppelangers:

  1. A ghostly double of a living person, especially one that haunts such a person.
  2. An evil twin.
  3. A remarkably similar double; a lookalike. This kind of doppelganger is also known as a ‘twin stranger’.
  4. (fantasy) A monster that takes the forms of people, usually after killing them. The changeling is one such monster. You may be familiar with the film starring Angelina Jolie. See John Truby’s breakdown — for him the film didn’t work. Did it work for you? Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is of the changeling tradition, as is Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. Tales about changelings were collected by the Grimm brothers, for instance in ‘About A Woman Whose Child They Had Exchanged’. (Spoilers in the title, much?) This collection of links gives an excellent overview of the changeling mythology from Germany, and offers handy hints on what to do to prevent your newborn being swapped out for an ugly, crying one. (Get yourself a pair of men’s trousers. Masculinity fixes all kinds of woes, y’all.)

CHANGELINGS

“Children’s literature is full of representations of children who aren’t ‘real’ children, children who are fakes, counterfeits, frauds of some sort. In our contemporary culture, where the child has such an angelic status in many ways, we invest so much in our children…The counterfeit child he deals with in film and literature is a stand-in, a changeling child, a fake, a fraud, an adopted child or orphan in books and movies – any child a parent did not expect to raise, Bruhm explained. The ‘counterfeit child’ is the notion children are not as innocent as they seem, and they, in fact, know more about the world than adults perceive them to.”

Steven Bruhm
Chucky
Rosemary’s Baby

I’m sure I’m not the first to float the theory that mythology around changelings is an outworking of post-natal anxiety, nowadays known as post-natal depression/anxiety. There’s a fairly common (and completely unexpected) disconnect between the expectation and reality of new motherhood. Separately, babies are hard work. Throughout history, mothers must have asked, “Did I really give birth to that?”

DOPPELGANGERS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Mr Monkey and Mr Monkey stuck together, from the Japanese picture book Kuttsuita by Miura Tarou
Mr Monkey and Mr Monkey stuck together, from the Japanese picture book Kuttsuita by Miura Tarou

Our picture book app Hilda Bewildered makes use of a doppelgänger, who may or may not exist in the real life of the story. The purpose? To demonstrate the theme: That there is really not that much difference between rich kids and poor kids other than circumstance of birth. Or as I heard Julian Fellowes say in an RNZ interview, in his experience there are genteel, good-looking and smart people to be found at every level of society.

Hero and the Imagined Self from Hilda Bewildered
Hero and the Imagined Self from Hilda Bewildered

DOPPELGANGERS IN SERIES MIDDLE GRADE

The ghost writer of this Alfred Hitchcock novel from 1978 used the concept of the doppelgänger in a very camp way. Read accordingly.

But we all have doppelgangers, if you expand the concept a little.

WHAT IS A DATA DOPPELGANGER?

If you’ve ever taken more than a brief glance at the ‘personalised’ advertising directed at you by companies such as Facebook, you may identify with the following:

Google thinks I’m interested in parenting, superhero movies, and shooter games. The data broker Acxiom thinks I like driving trucks. My data doppelgänger is made up of my browsing history, my status updates, my GPS locations, my responses to marketing mail, my credit card transactions, and my public records. Still, it constantly gets me wrong, often to hilarious effect. I take some comfort that the system doesn’t know me too well, yet it is unnerving when something is misdirected at me. Why do I take it so personally when personalization gets it wrong? 

The Atlantic

DOPPELGANGERS IN FILM

The Double Film Poster
A clerk in a government agency finds his unenviable life takes a turn for the horrific with the arrival of a new co-worker who is both his exact physical double and his opposite – confident, charismatic and seductive with women.

See this list: 20 Films About Doubles And Doppelgangers. Can you guess the most famous one?

The double/doppelganger is a subcategory of the trickster archetype. (Click through for a mindmap of tricksters in storytelling.)

DIFFERENT SPINS ON THE DOPPELGANGER

Freaky Friday is a story which has been adapted numerous times for film. The Freaky Friday body swap is a different take on the doppelganger.

RELATED LINKS

 Goodreads List of Changelings and Doppelgangers

Goodreads List of Doppelgangers in general fiction

Goodreads List of Trading Places: YA