Choric Figures In Contemporary Storytelling

Statler and Waldorf


CHORIC FIGURE: Any character in any type of narrative literature that serves the same purpose as a chorus in drama by remaining detached from the main action and commenting upon or explaining this action to the audience. I’ve also seen ‘choral commentator’ and guess it means the same thing.

It may be useful to think of choric figures in terms of a continuum rather than ‘choric commentators’ and all the other characters. That said, a ‘normal’ character can morph into a choric commentator. See below for an example from Charlotte’s Web.

At the ‘very choric’ end of that continuum we’ve got Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets, who literally sit in the audience. Whenever we see them, they are spatially removed from the ‘show’, and they remind the real audience that we are watching a show. Their commentary is therefore meta.


Then there’s Stevie Budd from Schitt’s Creek, the designated ‘normal’ character in a cast full of oddballs. In the final episode of one season of Schitt’s Creek, Stevie says that she feels like crying. She says this to ‘no one’ in particular; she says it to us, and Stevie’s emotion successfully evokes pathos in the audience. Importantly, Stevie Budd very much has a personality of her own, but if anyone’s going to be offering sarcastic commentary, it’ll be Stevie (and also David).

Jerry Seinfeld is the designated normal character of Seinfeld, and what he says, what he observes (as part of his stand-up routine) is a choric commentary on the absurdity of life, embodied by his friends and their disastrous dating escapades.

Jim and Pam of the The Office are not-exactly-subtle choric characters because the structure of the comedy allows characters to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly.

The Designated Normal character of This Country is the Vicar.

Basically, these choric characters say whatever the writers expect the audience might be thinking, or giving the sensible advice the audience would likely give, if this were a real life situation. The designated normal character is inherently relatable and very useful. Oddball characters can be alienating, and when an audience sees there’s a ‘normal’ person who loves them, this helps us to love them, too.

The Designated Normal character is also useful for various types of lampshading. “Now WHAT are you planning? Isn’t that utterly ridiculous?” The Designated Normal thereby functions to highlight the warped logic of the screwball characters, who must nevertheless run according to their own internal logic. Their internal logic must somehow be made apparent to an audience.

The Designed Normal character is also used as a Straight Man, of course. But we all understand the importance of the straight man.


Now for some much more subtle examples of choric characters.

I consider the ‘new kid in town’ (or the ‘new dead kid’ an example of a choric character in the sense that they are new to the situation and as baffled as the audience. There’s a good narrative reason why stories often begin with a character moving to a new house or to a new school. The narrator can realistically observe and comment upon the things they are seeing all around them, things which would be normal and non-noteworthy if they were already acclimatised to this particular setting.

Sometimes with a story on screen, it’s not so much in the writing as in the acting. Chloë Grace Moretz is known among critics for an acting style which often makes her seem alien in her fictional environment, as perplexed as we are. Her performance in If I Stay, based on the young adult novel by Gayle Forman, is a good example of that. She looks bewildered at events playing out before her. (She’s the perfect choice; she’s newly dead.) Like her audience, she is trying to work out what’s going on.

Now for a completely different kind of subtle chorus. In Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White there are not Statler and Waldorf commentators but in his Annoted Guide, Peter Neumeyer points out two choral commentators.

The first is Dr. Dorian, who tells Fern’s mother (and also the reader) that we should believe in magic such as animals talking in a barn. Wise owls are often used in this way by children’s book writers, though sometimes their wisdom is subverted (e.g. in Winnie-the-Pooh).

Next Charlotte takes his place by morphing into a choric commentator, though it’s very subtle.

“What’s inside it?” asked Wilbur. “Eggs?”
“Five hundred and fourteen of them,” she replied.

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Perhaps the shift in Charlotte’s narrative use is because she’s approaching death.

There’s this idea that people approaching death have achieved some kind of greater insight into life matters in general. Whether this is true in reality is debatable, but in storytelling writers milk this idea. Hence, as Charlotte sees her impending death, she achieves The Overview Effect and is able to see ‘the circle of life’ and be content with it, guiding Wilbur through his Being-toward-death enlightenment in the process. (Her egg sac will let her achieve immortality.)

Characters approaching death are perhaps more often used by storytellers as choral commentators, even when previously they didn’t seem to have any advantageous insight into life matters.


There are many ways of thinking about narration. Another continuum, oft talked about: the psychic distance continuum. In this post I’ve been talking about the distance between a particular, designated ‘audience/cast member’ character. This describes how that character emotionally aligns with the audience. (The relationship between character and audience.)

Psychic distance instead describes how fully a third-person, unseen narrator is inside a character’s head. (The relationship between narrator and character.) Psycho narration happens when a narrator is right inside a character’s head.

Commentators have used the words ‘dissonant’ and ‘consonant’ to describe the degree to which a narrator is inside a character’s head at any given moment, noting that it shifts as a story progresses. We might use those same words to describe the choric figure. Sometimes they seem like another ordinary member of the cast (dissonant), but the writer can jerk them partly off stage and use them as a proxy audience member if needs be (consonant).

I’m sure narratologists have talked about this but, heigh ho, this is how I think of it.

Edwardo The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World by John Burningham and Fabulously Naughty Children

Edwardo The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World John Burningham cover

Child audiences love to see child characters behaving badly. Watching children get into mischief is a bit like watching robbers carry out a heist: as audience we never know what they’re going to do until they’ve done it. These characters are intrinsically motivated. They’re the opposite of passive. Interest derives from seeing them get out of their predicaments, or suffering in comedic fashion from their own stupid decisions. (Stupid characters who never learn a thing make great comedic stock.)

Continue reading “Edwardo The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World by John Burningham and Fabulously Naughty Children”

Unnamed Characters in Stories

Rumpelstiltskin illustrated by Edward Gorey

When telling a story, why might a writer choose not to name a character? If you’ve ever written an essay about a fictional work with an unnamed character you’ll realise it’s more hassle not to name a significant character than to just go ahead and call them something. Indeed there are reasons not to.

To Deliberately Keep A Character Generic

There is a place in storytelling for archetypes and flat characters. As soon as we name a character we give them individuality. So if we want the audience to think in terms of archetype, it pays not to give them a name.

On the other hand, some names function entirely generically. Across English fairy tales the name Jack meant ‘archetypal, unmarked boy’. See Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance. (The female equivalent is Jill, but girl characters can never be truly ‘unmarked’ owing to them being marked with female-ness.) John is equally generic, but less working class. The female equivalents are Jill and Jane. The German boys of fairytale were generically called Hans.

Cicely Mary Barker (1895 - 1973) The Fairies of The Wayside ~ The Jack-Go-To-Bed-At-Noon Fairy
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 – 1973) The Fairies of The Wayside ~ The Jack-Go-To-Bed-At-Noon Fairy

Paul Jennings made use of generic Australian 1980s names in his short children’s fiction. These names may seem generic, but are clearly white.

Katherine Mansfield does not name the main character in her short story “The Little Governess“. This turns the story of a young woman alone into a more universal female experience.

Another example is Closet Land from 1991, in which the abuser male and abused female remain unnamed. This is an attempt to universalise the dynamic, though it ultimately subverts nothing.

To Keep Them From Seeming Important

Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Writers choose details for different reasons, and one detail might be offering up character names. Sometimes writers want to make a setting seem real, and will give details for that reason alone. Recently I wrote a story which mentioned two children by name — characters who I’d individualised slightly hoping to show the smallness of the community, but who were not going to appear again later on.

A critique partner questioned my decision to name these characters. Especially because I happened to name them early in the story, the reader was primed to try and remember them, expecting them to pop up later. I removed the characters altogether rather than face the dilemma of how to introduce community characters without also accidentally giving the impression the reader is meant to remember who they are.

In short, readers intuit they won’t have to remember the kettle is ‘blue’, and will happily accept that kind of detail as background. A blue kettle may be symbolically significant but nothing more. It is more problematic to name background characters hoping a reader to do the same. We are naturally sentiocentric.

In “The Little Governess” Mansfield doesn’t name the porter, the waiter, either. This is more expected. They’re minor characters, and she interacts with these men as their work roles.

When re-visioning old tales, writers often give names to previously unnamed characters.

Accidental Symbolic Annihilation

Miss Nonentity vintage book by LT Meade, c1900, London

Some years ago I wrote a story in which I named the main male character but didn’t name his wife. The storytelling reason for this: I wanted to keep the wife from seeming important to the plot. To give her name would be asking the reader to remember yet another name. But when I put it through critique, a (fellow) feminist critique partner was insulted that I had not named the wife and refused to read further. She had grown sick and tired of reading stories about men. An unnamed wife was a bridge too far.

This brings up an interesting point. Throughout history, certain demographics have been left out of stories, and not just fictional ones. This is part of a (mostly) subconscious ploy to uphold white patriarchy. Women’s scientific breakthroughs have often been attributed to adjacent men, oftentimes in a variation on the Pygmalion story, in which a successful woman must be the product of a man.

In short, you will come under increased scrutiny if you avoid naming an historically marginalised character than to avoid naming a white male character. This holds true even if you can justify why you did what you did in storytelling terms.

To Highlight Problematic Invisibility

One good political reason not to name a character: To highlight to the reader that this character is ignored, downtrodden and marginalised in society.

An example of this can be seen in “The Home Girls“, a short story by Australian writer Olga Masters about two young girls who are shunted from foster home to foster home. Jarringly, Masters refers to the sisters as ‘the fat one’ and ‘the thin one’. An ungenerous reader might think the author’s fatphobia is revealed in this description.

My take: Masters is highlighting the tendency for people to regard these unknown girls only after the briefest, impressionistic glance: BMI is a shallow and offensive way to describe a girl, and Master’s narrative voice is The Village Voice.

We are now living in an era where commentary on other people’s weight is taboo. Masters published her short stories in the 1980s, and I wonder how many writers would be brave enough today to trust readers’ ability to separate narrative choice from author’s voice.

No Name, Incomplete

In antiquity, to know someone’s name was to have some kind of power over them. This is seen very clearly in “Rumpelstiltskin“.

Toni Morrison utilised this universal mythology in her novel Beloved, drawing on ancient African and Indian mythologies about child-demons. In Beloved, Sethe murders her baby to prevent her from being taken by slave drivers. The ghost of this baby never goes away, interfering in every aspect of Sethe’s life. Significantly, the baby is never given her own name, known only as “Beloved”.

That’s because, in mythic stories, a character never named remains incomplete. Superstitiously, to be incomplete is terrible. And pretty much the worst thing you can be is an incomplete woman. Across mythology, an ‘incomplete’ woman includes a woman who hasn’t given birth. Maybe this is because she died a virgin without having babies of her own (e.g. the Greek ogre of Lesbos, Gello). In that case, she’ll come back to wreak havoc upon corporeal beings, killing other people’s babies, eating them up.

Honestly, what else is she meant to do? The incomplete woman doesn’t belong here, but nor does she belong in the world of the dead. According to The Odyssey, she’ll wander forever between both worlds. 

This category of dead people was known as the aoroi.

Oh, the aoroi did have one use — for us, at least. Earthlings could summon these incomplete beings during rituals. The aoroi were useful as go-between messengers. In ancient Greece and Egypt it was thought that the underworld surrounded its inhabitants by walls, but these aoroi had no walls around them. Any decent magician could summon them back to Earth for a bit.

In Christianity it is also terrible to be incomplete (unbaptised). This will leave you vulnerable to evil. So it’s no accident that the baptism ceremony is also a kind of naming ceremony. There is generally a public naming of the child and a sprinkling of water over the babies forehead.

To be baptised is to be named; to be named is to be complete. As a general principle, naming equals completion.

Nickname Only, Individuality Denied

A variation on the decision to avoid naming a character is to give them only a nickname. This can also have the effect of removing power.

Header: Rumpelstiltskin illustrated by Edward Gorey

Clowns in Art and Storytelling

'Hippodrome' (4 Clowns) - Poster by Jules Chèret, 1882

Once upon a time clowns were an un-ironic take on the jester archetype. Storytellers could make use of clowns to lighten a mood. Shakespeare did it.

1922 Vintage Ad Cover- Jester with Pumpkin. E.M. Jackson, illustrator
1922 Vintage Ad Cover- Jester with Pumpkin. E.M. Jackson, illustrator. Jesters are associated with tricks and tricks are associated with Halloween.
Poster by L. Bakst, 1899
Poster by L. Bakst, 1899


When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring in a clown or a foolish innkeeper or something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets, science fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing in the clowns every so often to lighten things up.

Kurt Vonnegut


The clown in a story is often a trickster. The lucky thing about villain tricksters: they can be outwitted. They are frequently single-mindedly focused on wreaking havoc and can be therefore be taken by surprise.


Parody children's book cover, blending IT by Stephen King with the style of Dr Seuss. The commentary here is obvious: clowns are inherently scary, even when we design them for children. (Artist unknown.)
Parody children’s book cover, blending IT by Stephen King with the style of Dr Seuss. The commentary here is obvious: clowns are inherently scary, even when we design them for children. (Artist unknown.)

Take a look at children’s stories, toys and merchandise from the 20th century and clown archetypes are everywhere. The Jack-in-the-box below wears a jester’s hat, but also wears the red nose of a clown.

Perhaps children of the first and second Golden Ages didn’t find clowns so scary. Would this chalk packaging fly today? The concept is funny, end result terrifying.

Clown chalk packaging copyright notice reads 1938
Clown chalk packaging copyright notice reads 1938

Were clowns always a bit terrifying, though? I don’t think we can blame Stephen King for ruining clowns. An alternative theory: Early children’s stories expected to both scare AND entertain (as well as teach). There was perhaps less expectation that books would be soothing.

Part of their scariness, I believe, comes from their maquillage — make up so thick and exaggerated that it functions as a mask. The smile only makes it worse. Why? Why is the smile worse?


I wondered if those smiles were meant to be creepy until I happened upon this image, and its purpose: The smiling sun below graces the cover of a picture book celebrating the 50th anniversary of Queen Wilhelmina’s reign in Holland (now The Netherlands). I think we can all agree this creepy smile was not meant to be creepy.

from Eric Kincaid’s Alice in Wonderland cheshire cat
The Cheshire Cat from Eric Kincaid’s Alice in Wonderland

When describing the ogre from Greek myth, Baubo, Diane Purkiss has this to say about the associations between terror and smiling:

Fear provokes laughter as easily as screams. Children often laugh when they are frightened. Both fear and laughter depend on surprise, the rupture of expectations. Many demons found their way into the repertoire of comic masks. Aristophanes uses the word for hobgoblin to mean both demon and a comic mask. In an exactly similar way, the Romans hung masks called oscilla (literally, ‘little faces’) in trees to frighten away ghosts, yet the masks could be called by the same naes as the demons they were supposed to frighten. … Play (meaning both theatre and games) is central to demons. Terror, when acted out, is displaced, managed, controlled.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A history of fairies and fairy stories

Comedians are supposed to have sad lives, though this isn’t a cliche I entirely endorse, the sad clown not a type I’ve ever come across whereas the mean clown, the selfish clown and the downright unpleasant clown are commonplace.

Alan Bennett, Radio and TV, Untold Stories

When illustrating a smile, it’s easy to depict a scary grimace. The line is pretty fine. I can’t say what the artist was going for in the dog illustration below, but if they were going for scary, they managed it. I’m reminded of Stephen King’s I.T.

"Tige" His Story 1905 Richard Felton Outcault clown face
“Tige” His Story 1905 Richard Felton Outcault clown face

Why can an illustrated smile so easily turn evil? It’s probably an evolutionary thing. When apes and monkeys ‘grin’ at each other they are showing their teeth to convey how they could rip you to pieces if they sunk their incisors into you. Our pet dogs still use their teeth in that way despite thousands of years of domestication. So do people. We are highly attuned to the fake smile. There’s nothing more fake than a painted on smile. This fakeness explains the scariness of the clown’s smile.

J. Kuzich Del Monte Foods 1971
Fortunately someone had the foresight to not give this clown a knife. J. Kuzich Del Monte Foods, 1971.

Many children’s book villains have clownish features without conforming fully to the clown archetype. Mean Old Mister Minky of the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories shares in common with clowns those big, wide eyes and the face in rictus, rendered only slightly comical by the concentrating tongue. Mister Minky is a clown-goblin-jester mixture of dastardness.

Mister Minky catches Raggedy Ann and Andy
Mister Minky catches Raggedy Ann and Andy.

Gargamel of the Smurfs came later but is a similar archetype to Mister Minky, with his big wide eyes and long nose. The long nose denotes old age but the tufts of hair around the ears with nothing on top now look clownish… We might expect this hair to denote unmarked old age. The receding hairline presents in many men, but this hairstyle (non style?) has been used so frequently in recent clown archetypes one simply cannot get away with it in real life.

Pennywise the Clown from 1990 with his receding hairline and long back and sides.
Pennywise the Clown from 1990 with his receding hairline and long back and sides.

Noteworthy is what the Japanese call ‘wakahage‘ (youth balding), which is a less judgemental word than ‘premature balding’ (who’s to say what’s ‘premature’?). All actors who play both Pennywise and Gargamel in the ‘live action’ film adaptations are young men with full heads of hair who need to have their pate covered. The red hair of Pennywise suggests youth, though the balding does not. Again, the juxtaposition is important when it comes to clowns. Juxtaposition creates unease.


Loneliness takes many forms. If clowns are surrounded by people and they take it upon themselves to cheer everybody else up, they fall into the category of the Appreciated Outsider. The lonely person who does not appear to be lonely is wearing a metaphorical mask, which turns into a literal mask in the case of a clown, whose face is so altered by make-up that the real person is no longer visible underneath. There’s nothing more lonely than being ignored when surrounded by people. A rule of the narrative mask: The character who wears a mask will never find happiness until the mask comes off. Clowns must become known before they find friends.

The Lonely Clown archetype doesn’t always look like a clown, and the clownishness of a character doesn’t always endure throughout a story. An example of a temporary Lonely Clown can be seen in American Beauty (1999), in which Lester’s wife Carolyn sings “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in the car. The story is not about Carolyn, and she is not a sympathetic character, but we can deduce that if Lester is isolated within their marriage then Carolyn is suffering equally. We get a few brief glimpses.

In the scene below, the juxtaposition between Carolyn’s inner loneliness contrasts with the upbeat, carnivalesque nature of the song and her rendition of it, which together evoke the classic Lonely Clown idea. Carolyn’s loneliness is only magnified by the happy song, because the audience can see she is wearing a mask.

(Also relevant, we associated clowns with parades.)

An outstanding picture book example of a lonely clown is The Farmer And The Clown by Marla Frazee. In line with picture book ‘rules’, the story ends with a clown character who is no longer lonely, reunited with family in this case. But the Lonely Clown archetype is at play. For a depiction of a lonely landscape conveyed entirely via art work, check out this book as a mentor text.


Robert Ingpen, Australian, 1936 From the book Halloween Circus, written by Charise Neugebauer
Robert Ingpen, Australian, 1936 From the book Halloween Circus, written by Charise Neugebauer

The clown is an outsider, lonely because he is alone on his stage, never truly known. He exists on the fringe of our culture, and therefore makes the perfect liminal creature. In Ingpen’s illustration above the clown exists in a graveyard, another liminal space, where the living go to greet the dead, forced to contemplate their own mortality.

Header illustration: ‘Hippodrome’ (4 Clowns) – Poster by Jules Chèret, 1882

The US Office Character Studies

The Office poster

The Office started out in 2001 as a UK mockumentary devised by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I can’t enjoy the level of cringe executed by the UK cast, especially the Ricky Gervais boss, who make me want to curl into a ball due to transferred humiliation. But like many, many other viewers I love the concept. I soon turned to the American spin-off starring Steve Carell as boss Michael Scott. The American Office ran for nine seasons (2005-2013), which makes it one of the most successful comedy series in history. Mockumentaries enjoyed a new lease of life, leading to another favourite of mine, This Country.

Continue reading “The US Office Character Studies”

The Likeable Superpower of Perspicacity

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is a Victorian fairy poem and, coincidentally, O.G. To T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In this context, ‘childe’ refers to a young man who has not been knighted. He is a modern young adult.

In this poem, Roland is having a pretty crappy time. But he perseveres on a hopeless journey because, like many a modern young adult character, “naught else remained to do”.

What else does this old poem by Robert Browning have to do with modern young adult characters?

Continue reading “The Likeable Superpower of Perspicacity”

How To Write A Likeable Main Character

George Bernard O'Neill - Stolen Fruit is the Sweetest

Must characters in stories be likeable? No. Are unlikeable characters popular with audiences? Yes. But they’re harder to write. They need to be all of the things listed below and then some.

Some characters in some stories shouldn’t be likeable.

But what if you want to create a genuinely likeable main character who appeals to the broadest base? What if your themes are nothing to do with a reality in which bad people don’t always get what they deserve?

Here are some tips and tricks.

Make use of the trickster archetype

More on tricksters here.

In Children’s Literature, instead of the ‘rogue charmer’ type trickster archetypes per se, we often see child main characters who get into trouble despite their best intentions, and who always maintain a positive attitude against all odds.

  • Anne ShirleyAnne of Green Gables is a completely unrealistic character in that a child who’d been through such hardship would probably be suffering from PTSD and be irredeemably damaged by the time she reached Marilla and Matthew. This aspect is rendered more realistically in the recent re-visioning Anne With An E. Nut the fictional Anne is loveable because she tries her hardest to please, and we know why she does what she does.
  • Ramona Quimby — Likewise, Ramona is always getting into trouble despite her best intentions. Ramona is a granddaughter of Anne Shirley.
  • Amelia Bedelia — overcomes minor misunderstandings while maintaining her dignity and cheerful attitude

Avoid ‘Whiny’

Editor Cheryl Klein urges children’s authors to avoid ‘whiny protagonists without charm or truth’. The worst thing you can do is have a main character sitting around contemplating things. This is why the Flaneur or the Sunday Wanderer archetype is so difficult to write, though you might try a successful post-modern flaneur a la Weetzie Bat.

But for contemporary child audiences it’s a hard sell. Klein sees a lot of scripts start like this when the character is about to move to a new place, so watch out for that especially if you’re writing one of those kinds of stories.

Give Your Character Authority

Klein writes that in children’s stories voices must have ‘authority’ — ‘a sense that the writer knows where he is going and what she is doing; the feeling that the reader is in good hands.’ She says that authority comes from three things:

  • specificity of language
  • not wasting the reader’s time
  • recognisability (identification)

Bravery, confidence and self-motivation are important for child main characters as they are for the ‘con-man’ archetype:

  • Little Bear — illustrated by Maurice Sendak is sweet and plucky, friendly and adventurous
  • Nate Wright (a.k.a. Big Nate) — aspiring cartoonist and prankster, exhibits great confidence and creativity

Make Them Interesting In A Virtuous Way

  • Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows, who really wants a dog and works tirelessly until he’s saved enough to get one
  • Hermione of Harry Potter loves her school work and helps the reader to become interested in magic, too.

Or Make Them Interesting In A Morally Grey Way

Likeable characters may be pessimistic, sardonic, ironic…

  • Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games doesn’t have much hope for the future at the beginning of the story but she is soon propelled into action.
  • Bella Swan is a bit of a Debbie Downer, and also a blank Every Girl, but that doesn’t stop her from being interesting. She still has drive (except when she falls into depression — which the reader quickly skips over because the pages are blank except that they have the words for months on them) by seeking out the company of certain boys in a love triangle.
  • The Wimpy Kid has a good, pessimistic handle on his situation in life, and this series is an example of a funny kid with interesting pessimistic energy. This makes him likeable.

I think flawed characters are likeable, because people are flawed. It creates an instant sort of empathy. It’s like when you read Gone With the Wind and Scarlett thinks that the worst thing about the war is how boring it is to hear everyone talk about it. You realize that she’s selfish, and that makes her real.

Katherine Heiny

Show The Readers Your Characters’ Secret Selves

We all have a public, private and secret self. When writers allow readers insight into a character’s secret self readers tend to understand, judge, forgive and then sympathise with the confessor.

This four step progression comes from the work of Dennis Foster who wrote Confession and Complicity in Narrative (1987). Though it applies to fictional characters, it applies in real life as well. This is the astounding power of fiction — when we learn that others have a secret self, and when we learn to empathise with fictional characters via this secret self, we tend to apply these skills to real people.

Give them a moral shortcoming

A likeable character treats others badly. This seems counterintuitive at first. Alain de Botton says that genuine love springs not from admiration of someone’s strengths but from a complete acceptance of their shortcomings. The same is true for fictional characters.

Julie Lythcott-Haims is talking about writing memoir when she offers the following advice, but it applies to your main fictional characters as well as it applies to your memoir:

You have to be okay with your flawed self, and all of the flawed selves in your story. You also have to be fair to everyone else. As my editor told me when I was writing my memoir, “Be the God of all characters,” by which she meant care about everyone equally. Look at every interaction from all angles. Make sure you’re not portraying yourself in rich complexity and everyone else as stereotype. My editor also meant I had to be realistic about myself. She told me, “Readers won’t trust you or root for you unless they know about some of the stupid, shitty, and shameful things you have done.” It felt like a paradox—how are they going to like me if I give them a reason to hate me? But I came to understand her point. All humans are flawed; a willingness to show your own flaws on the page makes you all the more relatable.

at Jane Friedman’s blog

That said, admiration is still part of why we like someone.

We identify most strongly with characters we feel sorry for, worry about, or like and admire.

Michael Hauge

Make them heroic.

“The hero doesn’t become a hero simply because he takes a stand against the villain; he becomes a hero because he stands for something. This can be justice, a cause, his family, friends, community, or nation. Invariably, while the villain stands for himself, the hero stands for something beyond himself.”

Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Make them pretty but not too sexually appealing

Howard Suber also says that although stars of films tend to have sex appeal, characters in films who use their sex appeal to get ahead usually end up dead in the end. In children’s stories, the main character is usually unremarkable in looks — the ‘every child’. Before Kristin Stewart came to represent the character of Bella from Twilight, she was described in very generic terms. She was The Every Girl, with defining qualities to speak of. As unpopular as Bella is among certain, more critical, readers, she is also widely loved.

See: The Appeal of Dark, Paranormal Romance.

I’m describing how to make a character widely ‘likeable’ for an inherently conservative audience, not how to tell a woke, inclusive, sex positive story. For a lengthy rumination on this very topic see my post: Female Beauty In Young Adult Literature

Make them smart but not too smart.

forrest gump ice creams

Main characters don’t tend to be super smart. Northrop Frye calls these empathetic main characters low-mimetic heroes. In children’s literature, the self-effacing Greg Heffley is an excellent example, as well as Big Nate and other (mostly boy) characters. Due to well-intentioned but slightly misplaced feminist efforts, girl characters are less often low mimetic heroes who do one dumb thing after another, though we do have Ramona Quimby archetype and granddaughters such as Junie B. Jones, liked for a wide-eyed sort of naivety.

Make their virtues personal achievements rather than privileges.

Education works the same way — a likeable main character doesn’t have to be highly educated. Education isn’t a personal achievement (it’s a luck thing, mostly), so films don’t reward characters simply for being educated.

Suber also points out that whereas people in real life aspire to being rich, in movies characters are punished for this. (Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard). Oskar Schindler is an example of a character who starts off wanting to be rich, but part of his character change is that by the end he’s no longer focused on riches. (He has therefore become a ‘better’ person.)

We know Draco Malfoy is no good as a person because he comes from a background of privilege.
We know Draco Malfoy is no good as a person because he comes from a background of privilege.

Make them self-sacrifice for the greater good.

The hero generally gains little or no reward for their sacrifice — it is the community that gains. To the extent the hero does personally gain from their sacrifice, they cease to be a hero and become simply a smart operator.

Sacrifice becomes sacred when it is truly selfless.

Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Put them in danger and make them experience pain and sorrow.

A lot of popular stories are pyrrhic victories, leaving the hero in a miserable state at the end. (It’s not true that Hollywood films all have happy endings.)

Make them loyal.

Likeable main characters subscribe to the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ policy. As Shakespeare meant it, “If someone takes your eye, you take one of theirs, not both.” (The line is frequently misinterpreted as “If someone takes your eye, you should definitely poke theirs out in retaliation.) Shakespeare was urging moderation in revenge. We don’t seem to mind revenge stories, but we despise characters who take revenge by going way too far.

Cater to Audience Prejudices.

Suber is upfront about the fact that Hollywood writers and producers cater very much to a conservative, particular kind of audience. It helps if your hero is young. And their values need to concord with those of the majority of the audience.

Many of us are ageists when it comes to heroes — we often think of heroes as people who are beyond childhood but not yet into middle age.

Howard Suber, The Power of Film

There is troubling and enduring audience prejudice when it comes to children’s book heroes: The white, middle-class boy as the ‘universal child’. The myth of the universal child must be based on the idea that there is an archetype with which young readers of all backgrounds can relate. We therefore have books disproportionately full of such types.

This is related to the idea that only white boys can be funny, and a lot of the most popular children’s literature is funny: Children of colour can star in tragic stories. Girls can’t be silly.

This state of affairs is changing, but slowly.

Make them a good mediator.

The hero is almost always an intermediary, someone who mediates between different social groups, between man and nature, man and God, or some other constellation of forces. […] Villains, by contrast, are usually well-integrated into their communities, and are often members of its power structure. They belong: heroes don’t. […] To be an intermediary is to always be lonely, because you never truly belong. One of the recurrent paradoxes of heroes is that they so often successfully mediate between contending cultures or value systems, but they often cannot mediate between contending forces within themselves.

Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Make them empathetic, not sympathetic.

Sympathetic means likeable. … We’d want them as friends, family members, or lovers. They have an innate likeability and evoke sympathy. Empathy, however, is a more profound response.

Empathetic means “like me”. Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires.

The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: This character is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I’d want the same thing for myself.” Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: “somebody to get behind,” “someone to root for,” All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes between itself and the protagonist. And audience may, if so moved, empathize with every character in your film, but it must empathize with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken.

Robert McKee, Story

Okay, make them empathetic, but not too empathetic!

It’s counter intuitive, but audiences prefer that characters show a human failing. That’s why the Mary-Sue archetype no longer works. The Mary Sue probably never really worked for audiences, but was written in didactic stories for children under the belief that children required good modelling in their fictional characters.

Modern thinking is more like this: Children need to see that others have the same emotions and ‘bad feelings’ as they do in order to know that they are not alone in the world. The same applies to adults, actually.

Give them self control rather than power over others.

Self-control isn’t much talked about in comparison to other virtues but we value it highly in ourselves and in others. This is a relative modern phenomenon. We admire those who exert excellent control over themselves.

On the other hand, we revile those who try to exert control over others. We resist those people in real life, and the same is true in fiction.

Michel Foucault’s main legacy is his thoughts about power. He unpicked notions of progress and enlightenment in order to analyse their dark sides. But what he had to say about human sexuality is also interesting and relates to how we have historically considered self-control a virtue.

Foucault believed that sexuality only started to be policed in the 19th century, which (ironically) led to an explosion in people talking about sex, Havelock Ellis et al. Foucault was very interested in how we categorised things. He noticed that people started to be divided into taxonomies according to their sexuality: sadists, masochists, hysterical females, sexually promiscuous females and so on. These categories started to be medicalised. People started to think that by looking at your sexuality you would understand something deeper about yourself. Foucault critiqued that idea. He then studied old texts from antiquity to understand how people thought of sexuality in the past. He discovered that until Havelock Ellis et al came along, people were categorised not according to their sexual orientation, and not according to the type of sex they had, but along a simple binary: Could they control their urges? In the past, someone who could control their sexual urges was considered admirable, like someone who can control their finances — evidence of a person who’s got it all together. Who you slept with, their gender, your fantasies, none of that came into it.

It’s interesting to consider the extent to which we admire those with self-control today, versus how we (via our governments) punish people who do not exhibit self-control, be it over substance use, sex, or personal finances.

In fact, it’s difficult to think of an anti-hero who does not have self-control. This anti-hero may be morally wrong, but on some level we can still admire their great self-control when it comes to exacting revenge and evildoings.


How to edit your movie to create empathy

Header painting: George Bernard O’Neill — Stolen Fruit is the Sweetest

Humour in the Nancy Cartoons by Olivia Jaimes


I really like Scott Dikkers’ taxonomy of humour categories. Today I’m taking a closer look at why the new Nancy cartoons by the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes work so well for so many. In short, why are these minimalist snapshots funny?

The strip, about a rambunctious little girl, her buxom aunt, and her tough-talking best friend, was a study in comedy’s bare essentials, using a handful of panels to tell exquisitely crafted jokes, many of which played with the format of the comic strip itself. It began in 1938, as a spinoff of an earlier strip, Fritzi Ritz, about Nancy’s aunt who gradually became a supporting character in her own strip. And it was so ambitiously simple that it inspired a famous work of comics criticism, the 1988 essay (and later book) “How to Read Nancy.”


(I haven’t read How To Read Nancy, but I’d like to.)

How To Read Nancy

Some points from the book and from enthusiasts:

  • To dismiss ‘Nancy’ as a simple strip about a simple slot-nosed kid is to miss the gag completely. ‘Nancy’ appears to be simple only at a simple glance.
  • Every element in a “Nancy” panel adheres not to a comic strip but rather to “the blueprint of a comic strip.
  • In comics, all action is composition.
  • In ‘Nancy,’ Ernie Bushmiller created his own reality, where everything is wholly his and the world as we know it has been reduced to its essentials — there’s a Zen-like mastery of form.
  • Unlike a justly venerated classic like ‘Peanuts,’ ‘Nancy’ doesn’t tell us much about what it’s like to be a kid. Instead, ‘Nancy’ tells us what it’s like to be a comic strip.
  • There’s an emotional sort of flatness of the stories
  • The gags aren’t side-splittingly funny but they are always visually satisfying.

The following strip is considered classic Bushmiller at his peak:

Nancy Bushmiller at his peak

Notice how Nancy is a trickster, observing a situation then getting her own back, with extra on top. (Her opponent uses a water pistol; she is about to make use of an infinite stream of hose water.) The Battle is kept off the strip because we know exactly what’s going to happen.


1. Irony – Intended meaning is opposite of literal meaning

Is Nancy ironic? I believe it’s hipster ironic, always aware of irony itself.

[Jaimes says] her comic is “#relatable” — and here I detect a sideways irony in her voice as she pronounces the word hashtag.“The self-hating part that often comes with #relatable comics is being like, ‘Ohhhh, I procrastinated, I’m the worst,’ ” she says. “And ‘Nancy’ adds one more panel to that, being like, ‘Who cares? I don’t care. More corn bread for me.’ ”


2019 readers tend to find it ironic that we listen more to the people on the other side of a screen than we do to people sitting proximal to us in the real world, so the following cartoon works on an ironic level, but I do wonder if younger generations won’t start with that expectation — that the person in the room with you cares more about you than people on the other side of a screen. For them, this may not be irony:

Nancy sincere interest

2. Character – Comedic character acting on personality traits

Jaimes is a brilliant character writer. Her version of Nancy is all rapacious appetite, unwilling to curb herself in almost any way. (When Jaimes took over the strip in April, the title character was introduced going in on that cornbread.) And Jaimes’s version of Nancy’s long-running foil Sluggo is probably kinder than Nancy, but he also seems to have less patience with his friend’s antics just because she’s the protagonist. Aunt Fritzi, meanwhile, shows a welcome change from the hypersexualized version of Gilchrist’s era — she seems like someone who can’t believe she’s somehow raising her niece but making the best of it anyway.


“Nancy as a character had drifted from where I envision her,” Jaimes says, “in that the Nancy I know and love is a total jerk and also gluttonous and also has big feelings and voraciously consumes her world. […]Vulture

Nancy can be overconfident to a ridiculous degree.

Olivia James Nancy

She’s also destructive.

Nancy breaks ornaments

3. Reference – Common experiences that audiences can relate to

The technology humour of Nancy is also reference humour. Anyone on Messenger can relate to this one:


Nancy is perfectly suited to our present moment of cynical hedonism. The character is focused solely on self-satisfaction and stubbornly opposed to anything that gets in her way, and the strip allows readers to see themselves in her tech-addled narcissism and have a laugh at their own expense.


You’re going full Black Mirror.
This is my plan. “Nancy” is going to become Black Mirror.


4. Shock – Surprising jokes typically involving sex, drugs, gross-out humor, swearing

This is based on something started in the 1930s, so even if the strip had ever used shocking language, it wouldn’t feel shocking today. This is not part of ‘Nancy’.

5. Parody – Mimic a familiar character, trope or cliche in an unfamiliar way

Nancy humour regularly makes fun of our use of technology. Here, our addiction to it, as Nancy is compelled to get out of bed to check an inconsequential message because her phone is charging and she can’t have it in bed right next to her. The general grimness of it is an extra overlay of dark humour.

And then there’s the well-known joke that while we’re staring at our screens we’re failing to notice the world around us, to our own detriment.

Nancy technology

If I hadn’t just watched a documentary on kids who are Instagram famous I wouldn’t get this joke, which describes how keen Instagram users know that at certain times of day their posts will get more likes:

Nancy instagram relatable

6. Hyperbole – Exaggeration to absurd extremes

While Bushmiller gave Nancy megaphones as gags, Jaimes realised she couldn’t give modern Nancy megaphones. She doesn’t need megaphones because we all use phones for that. The phone itself is hyperbole, but it’s a kind of realistic hyperbole, because we all use them so much:

‘Nancy uses something in a way that’s different than intended,’ ” Jaimes says. “[In Bushmiller’s originals] she’s got, like, a thousand megaphones sitting around her house just waiting to be used creatively in jokes.

Washington Post

I realized that all of the nouns that Nancy used to have are being supplanted by a phone. Things that she would have lying around the house to make up a joke are gone. She uses megaphones for a ton of things in Bushmiller’s strips, and I don’t have megaphones lying around my house. So how, then, can Nancy solve problems, given that technology is advancing to the point where problems are being solved in really nonphysical ways? That’s why I’m making her learn robotics. It opens up a wider range of visual gags to make down the line.


7. Wordplay – Puns, rhymes, double entendres, etc.

Wordplay often involves taking a metaphorical extension of a word and making Nancy interpret it more literally, as in the various meanings of ‘move’.

Nancy art that moves

8. Analogy – Comparing two disparate things

This isn’t such an easy concept to understand, so I’ll quote from Dikkers’ book (How To Write Funny):

Analogy is the comparing of two different things and finding their similarities. The two things should be very different—opposites are especially good, and there must be many similarities. It’s finding these connections between the two things and making the reader aware of them that makes Analogy funny. Analogy, like Parody, is slightly more complex than the other Funny Filters. It provides another “hidden secret” in your writing. The secret in Analogy is the half of your Analogy that you keep veiled.

When you compare two things in an Analogy, you only want to overtly reveal one of them to the reader. The other is alluded to, and readers are invited to add two and two to think of it on their own, thanks to your clues.

So far, the closest I’ve found is this example. The real world is compared to the online world which, to Nancy, is more real.

Analogy Nancy humour

9. Madcap – Crazy, wacky, silly, nonsensical 

Jaimes has also updated Nancy in other ways, bringing more characters into the world of the strip, like Nancy’s robotics teacher and her friend Lucy (the girl in the yellow shirt in the comic below). Just the idea of Nancy taking a robotics class is the sort of gag that marks the strip as being written in 2018, but it’s easy to imagine Bushmiller loving it for its ability to create chaos.


Nancy big bites

10. Meta-humor – Jokes about jokes, or about the idea of comedy

[Jaimes] constructs jokes patiently, often using the idea of the comics panel itself to make them funny. Consider the comic below, for instance, where Nancy (the little girl with the bow in her hair) and her friend Sluggo remain stationary in the frame, and the action consists entirely of scenery that simply appears around them. Even the old man who has all the dialogue barely changes his facial expressions.


Nancy metahumour

[E]ven while adding plenty of her own flourishes, Jaimes has smartly returned to one of Bushmiller’s trademark joke structures: Using the format of the comic strip itself to create gags that refer to “the artist” as a weird presence in all of the characters’ lives. (They seem to know, at all times, that they live in a comic strip, but they also seem okay with this.)


Nancy cartoon humour

nancy punchline

Nancy meta

Nancy meta drawing

Nancy work art

(For more on metafiction, see this post.)

11. Misplaced Focus – Attention is focused on the wrong thing

Deliberately misplaced focus is part of Nancy’s character humour. She interprets answers to her questions as she sees fit.

She also runs on her own internal logic.

nancy textbooks

Jaimes also uses lots of chestnutty advice and ends it with Nancy having interpreted it in the opposite way from that intended:

Nancy misplaced focus

Character Study: Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano

Much has been said about the character of Tony Soprano. I’ve explored some of it on this blog;

What more could I possibly learn about character development from the example of Tony Soprano? For storytellers the lessons are as follows:


Out-and-out evil does exist in the world. There are people out there who’d like nothing better than to strangle a man with their bare hands.

To pretend otherwise—to symbolically annihilate evil people in fiction—borders on gaslighting. We need confirmation they exist, because now and again we encounter them in our real lives. Dotted throughout history, sometimes they even rule us.

Actually, I find ‘evil’ a word too freighted with religiosity, but I’ve yet to stumble upon a better descriptor for a character like Tony, without resorting to armchair psychoanalasis. (We might also call him a psychopath.)


The redemption story has been popular for a long time, especially in America. But the success of The Sopranos showed there was always room in popular fiction for the anti-redemption arc, running alongside. The story of Tony Soprano is the ultimate anti-redemption narrative and, as such, shucks off a lot of the redemption story’s problems. At first Tony looks like this family guy who’s going to turn his life around by going to see a therapist, but eventually the audience learns — as does his fictional therapist — that for Tony, therapy exists only to allow him to continue in his evil ways.

[I]f you were accustomed to traditional TV narratives, there were signs that this might be a straightforward one about a man reforming himself through therapy and the love of his family. After all, the first episode began with what could have been a saint’s conversionary vision of the beauty and vulnerability of the world., contained in a flock of baby ducks. It was plausible, too, given the slightly exaggerated cinematography and design of the first few episodes, not to mention the repartee between Paulie Walnuts, Silvio, and the other gangsters, that the show would ultimately turn out to be a comedy more than anything else. Chase often said, quite seriously, that he was never 100 percent sure that wasn’t true.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin


I’m using Brett Martin’s term. By ‘out’, he means ‘a legitimate reason for a character to behave badly’. It was always accepted wisdom that if you wanted your character to behave badly, you’d have to set up the backstory first. As Martin explains:

And then, in week five, Tony strangled a man to death. Right in front of us. In real time. While taking his daughter on a college tour. […] Within a few years of [this episode airing], the idea that a TV protagonist couldn’t kill somebody would seem as fusty and dated a convention as earlier generations not being able to share a bed or say the word ‘pregnant’. What remains shocking in “College” isn’t the death itself; it’s Tony’s unmitigated relish in doing the deed. There is no tortured internal debate—even after his snooping reveals that Petrulio, now masquerading as “Fred Peters,” has a new family and small daughter of his own—no qualms even about Meadow’s presence, other than the inconvenience it poses. Nor is there any suggestion that Tony stands to earn much in the way of credit or prestige by doing away with a rat; indeed, Christopher (whom we’ve already seen dismember a body for disposal in the back of Satriale’s) begs Tony to allow him to fly up and take care of the hit. It is simply a given in Tony’s world: a rat needs to be killed. At least in Chase’s original story, there are none of the “outs'” designed to allow viewers to rationalize and justify what they’re about to see—which is Tony grunting, spitting, exultant, crushing Petrulio’s windpipe with an improvised garrote of electrical wire, the wire cutting deep into his palms from the effort, Petrulio begging for his life between gasps. The scene lasts an unwavering minute and sixteen seconds.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

Martin goes on to describe how the showrunners did not like this storyline one little bit. Executive Chris Albrecht argued that the audience was going to hate Tony Soprano at episode five, after all the good work was done setting him up as a sympathetic bad guy.

David Chase won the argument, as we now know — and the scene is gruelling. But here’s the concession he made: The executives insisted he insert a scene in which the audience gets to see why Petrulio deserves to be killed.

Chase inserted a scene in which it is revealed that Petrulio not only is dealing drugs in town, but is seen trying to hire a couple of junkies to kill Tony and Meadow. Predictably, the scene feels false and conventionally “TV”. It was the last such concession that Chase would make.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

The Sopranos can legitimately be criticised as a violent show which almost encourages its audience to revel in gore. And for an unthinking audience, sure, that’s all it is.

But the example of Petrulio’s murder in season one, episode five demonstrates the complexity of such criticism. In contrast, isn’t it a cheaper trick, and completely disingenuous, for to writer to backstories designed solely to persuade the audience that certain characters are legitimately murdered?

Is there any such thing as legitimate murder? Do writers really want audiences to empathise with gangsters? If so, at what point does the story subvert these allegiances? Ever?


If there are differences between stories for adults and stories for children, it runs along the lines of wish fulfilment. Wish fulfilment in stories for children is wholesome. It looks like this.

But adults are attracted to fantasies which confirm the duality in all of us. By adulthood, we’ve come head-to-head with our baser instincts.

Wish fulfilment has always been at the queasy heart of of the mobster genre, the longing for a life outside the bounds of convention, mingled with the conflicted desire to see the perpetrator punished for the same transgression. So it was for the fictional men of the straight world on The Sopranos, who were drawn to Tony’s flame with consistently disastrous results. […] Likewise for viewers, for whom a life of taking, killing, and sleeping with whomever and whatever one wants had an undesirable, if conflict-laden appeal.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

When creating our own stories, it’s worth asking the question early on: What particular wish-fulfilment does my story scratch in the audience?


A Quick Evolution of the Gangster Genre from Script

Giants and Ogres In Storytelling

Jack and the Beanstalk

Giants and ogres are central archetypes in the fairytale cast. Though similar, they’re not exactly the same.


Giants are big. That’s their defining feature. Ogres have a massive appetite. That’s their defining feature, and in true fairytale fashion, their body is an outworking of their inner story. Because of their massive appetites, they also happen to be big.

The songs and stories that feature ogres and cannibal devils and other monstrous eaters raise questions about the very nature of desire and our ways of expressing it: do our appetites make us monstrous?

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Ogre on cover of L'Assiette au Beurre
Ogre on cover of L’Assiette au Beurre

Ogre stories are related to the Oedipal plot, about the big struggle of power between fathers and sons.

Ogre stories are about food and power, about food in the right place and who puts it there, and vice versa. This concern has grown, as monsters have proliferated and their appetites been ever more luridly dramatised, so that fading and monstrosity have begun to coincide in meaning: from the Cookie Monster of Sesame Street to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

When you think of an ogre you have probably been conditioned via modern narrative to code him male. But go back to antiquity and we find fearsome female creatures who very much fit the description of an ogre.

An excellent example is the reproductive demon Gello. Reproductive demons are coded femme because they concern themselves with wreaking havoc for babies and their mothers. They kill babies, take them, eat them. Gello was thought to have been from the island of Lesbos. She died as a virgin then, because she was cut off in the prime of her life she remained incomplete. The state of incompleteness is a dangerous thing to be. It means you’ll come back and haunt people once you’re dead. So Gello did just that. She hung around as a ghost and ate babies in a rather extreme case of lateral violence.


It’s hard to think of an example of a good ogre, but giants in storytelling are often shown to be not so bad — simply misunderstood, out of place.

Defeated giants inspire a certain patronising affection, as mirrors of a buried and superseded ancestry […] and they enter the comic repertory of entertaining tales. […] Paradoxically, it is the monsters done to death by heroes who survive gloriously, narrated again and again as part of their murderers’ destinies.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Giants in World Myth

I wonder why Africa and South America are the only continents without widely recalled tracks of giants.

  • Let’s go right back to inferno’s giganti (Virgil’s Dante), who strike terror in the poet. Dante (the character) names Nimrod, who built the tower of Babel. Ephialtes was one of the Titans who rebelled against Zeus. Also, Zeus defeated the Titans with his thunderbolts.
  • In Norse mythology, jots are ‘huge, shaggy beings of a demonic character who dwell in a distant dark chaotic land.
  • The order of the monstrous belongs to a horrible, frightening past. We continue to be fascinated by giants and we like to summon them to mind in the present.
  • Giants and ogres have been superseded in popular storytelling. Though immortal, they’re always in the throes of defeat. However, the story of the big struggles that overthrew them is rehearsed again and again. Often in contemporary storytelling The Corporation stands in for The Giant.
  • Celtic gods, who were supplanted by Christian saints, are a kind of giant.
  • The Nephilim, (from Genesis) are the heroes of days gone by, the offspring of gods coupling with the daughters of men.
  • Atlas (one of the deposed Titans) foreshadows the Catholic giant St. Christopher. Christopher is literally Christo-phoros, the Christ-bearer (suggesting he was big and strong).
  • Further back in time, beings were thought to grow larger than today (we see it in contemporary stories such as Jurassic Park). The New World was imagined as a haunt of giants. (Did people suspect dinosaurs even before dinosaur bones were unearthed?) People imagined men with one eye in the middle of their chests, who shaded themselves from the sun with a single, gigantic foot.
  • Paranormal giants: Yeti, Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yowie (Aboriginal Australia, who goes by a similar description to a Hobbit, with big, hairy feet.)
  • As mentioned, most cultures have giant myths. My home country of New Zealand had Kiharoa and Matua, among others:

There is the story of Kiharoa, a giant of the Ngati-Raukawa and Ngati-Whakatere tribes, who met his death about a hundred and fifty years ago. His stronghold was Tokanui Pa, on the middle hill of the “Three Sisters,” the conical hills which are seen close to the present motor road through the King Country a short distance south of the Puniu River. The story has it that he was twice the height of an ordinary man, and he wielded a hard-wood taiaha of unusual length and weight. He was killed at last when he slipped on some karaka leaves as he fought in a big struggle just outside his pa. His enormous head presently decorated the palisades of Totorewa, a pa of the Ngati-Maniapoto. An excavation for an oven to cook the huge body was made where he fell, and in one’s youth in those parts the “Giant’s Grave,” as it was called, in the fern, was pointed out by the Maori; the spot is close to where the Tokanui Hall now stands at the cross-roads. Two fathoms long and a foot over, is the native word-of-mouth record of Kiha-roa’s height. It may seem slightly exaggerated; but let us be generous and allow that he was at least eight feet.

There was another giant of these parts long ago, one Matau; like Kiharoa, he was a man of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe, and, too, his favourite weapon was the taiaha. He lived on a hill above the Wairaka River, a few miles beyond Orakau. Maori accounts aver that he was eleven feet high.

Legends of the Maori, Victoria University
German Fairy Tales

Jakob Grimm commented that ‘In the giants as a whole, an untamed natural force has full swing, entailing their excessive bodily size, their overbearing insolence, that is to say, their abuse of corporal and mental power.’

Seven-mile boots (or seven-league boots) are an element of European folklore. They allow the person wearing them to take strides of seven leagues per step, resulting in great speed.

The Diamond Fairy Book. c.1898. Frank Papé. LILLKORT - “Lillekort with his magic sword struck off the fifteen heads at one blow ”
The Diamond Fairy Book. c.1898. Frank Papé. LILLKORT – “Lillekort with his magic sword struck off the fifteen heads at one blow ”
English Fairy Tales

In The Chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Albion is a mighty British giant, defeated with all his giant cohorts and his brothers Got and Magog, by the founder of London, Brutus. (Albion is most remembered.)

Anywhere you have a child, or young person, dealing with giants, the comparison to Jack (of giant slayer and beanstalk fame), is inevitable

Fairytale News Blog
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

When Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself stranded on the island of Lilliput, he has no way of knowing that this is just the first of his encounters with strange and unknown people, including the giants of Brobdingnag.

In real belief from around this time, giants were thought to exist, and expected to bark like dogs. Some iconic giants even had the heads of dogs. Did you know St Christopher had a dog’s head before he was converted from paganism to Christianity? (Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travellers.) He was depicted as a kind of Anubis, the jackal-headed ferryman of lost souls, from Egypt. Perhaps his hallucinations were inspired by this imagery, but the sixteenth century explorer Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 – c. 1531) said he heard giants barking when he sailed past Patagonia.

When Gulliver spoofed the long genre of travel writing, he sure had brilliant material to work with.


Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman  Inspired by the Norse myths, Neil Gaiman takes readers on an epic journey with a boy named Odd and his animal companions as they try to save Asgard, the Norse city of the Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl  Visit a gigantic piece of fruit and the oversized insects that live inside it. One of Dahl’s most well-known stories, this book is a starting point for reading the rest of his works.

The BFG by Roald Dahl This story is more obviously about giants, anthropomorphised. The giants draw on a long history of the cannibalistic ogre. I Kill Giants, the film  

Giants appear frequently in picture books, often as sympathetic outcasts. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, children.”

Giants And Symbolism

Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great shortcoming.

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Giants are often depicted as hairy.


Mark Hall is an American scholar who has compiled global records of the existence of giants. He argues that gigantopithecus is another species of primate who were largely wiped out by us (as the Neanderthals were). But he also argues a few of them survive to this day. He describes them as we have long described giants in storytelling, conflating them with ogres:

  • cannibalistic
  • primitive
  • huge
  • far-dwelling living in areas inhospitable to humans. (Dahl used this in The BFG.)
The Giant and How He Humbugged America by Jim Murphy

The Cardiff Giant mystery became one of 19th-century America’s biggest scams. See how George Hull fooled the masses when a large statue was uncovered on his farm.

Carnival Castells

Sometimes the risk-taking [of carnivals] is no masquerade but, as in bullfighting, places the participants in real danger: on feast days throughout Catalonia, confraternities form troupes of acrobats to build human castells or towers, living giants composed of eight or more tiers of men, girls and boys climbing one above the other, gripping thighs, backs and shoulders, until at the end the whole perilous edifice is crowned by the anxaneta, a small child who shins up to the pinnacle, which towers 40 feet or more above the ground.

No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner

Wilt Chamberlain and André the Giant taking Arnold Schwarzenegger for a stroll

41 Strange (@41Strange) July 28, 2019
THE GIANT 1923 by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, Ladies Home Journal 1923
THE GIANT 1923 by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, Ladies Home Journal 1923
Andre The Giant

There have always been medical conditions which lead to large physical stature. One of the most famous is French wrestler. Unfortunately, real life ‘giants’ face real life discrimination, the result of millennia of negative storytelling archetyping (aka stereotyping).

Let’s give him the last word, at least.