The concept of self-revelation links to a long human history of religious morality. Not surprisingly, storytelling is influenced by this way of viewing humanity, even in a non-religious modern story. The term ‘revelation’ is similar to the 2016 word ‘woke‘ — while it has its origin in religion, the concept is far wider than that.
THE RELIGIOUS ORIGIN OF REVELATION
Religious thought from around the world has shaped our storytelling. The story which includes a self-revelation is therefore a universal story.
“Millions of people never analyze themselves. Mentally they are mechanical products of the factory of their environment, preoccupied with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, working and sleeping, and going here and there to be entertained. They don’t know what or why they are seeking, nor why they never realize complete happiness and lasting satisfaction. By evading self-analysis, people go on being robots, conditioned by their environment. True self-analysis is the greatest art of progress.”
It all comes from Moses On The Mount, of course. Or maybe the Bible stories are based on much, much older storytelling conventions. Maybe there’s something about being up high which allows humans to see things differently.
SELF-REVELATION EXISTS ON A CONTINUUM
Just as there are strong desires and low-level desires, sometimes a character has a Eureka Moment (that’s what TV Tropes calls it), and at other times they realise something, sort of, in a nebulous kind of way.
Genre stories tend to have a stronger self-revelation (or revelation) than more literary stories, which can get away with revelations far more subtle.
In some stories, the character has no revelation but the reader does, on their behalf.
SELF-REVELATION IN MYTH
In Greek mythology, a phoenixis a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or born again.
Associated with the Sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. According to some sources, the phoenix dies in a show of flames and combustion, although there are other sources that claim that the legendary bird dies and simply decomposes before being born again.
At the beginning of 2018, Uma Thurman opened up to the media about her experiences with Weinstein and Tarantino. Following in from this, Jessica Chastain said the following in a series of tweets:
I keep imagining Tarantino spitting in Uma’s face and strangling her with a chain for KILL BILL. How many images of women in media do we celebrate that showcase abuse? When did this become normalized ‘entertainment’? When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are.
Chastain’s phrase ‘phoenix moment’ is a useful one. I consider this a subcategory of the self-revelation phase in storytelling, and one which is highly problematic when used time and again with certain groups of people. It’s not the phoenix moment itself which is the problem, but the sequence of abuse scenes leading up to that moment.
The ‘New Equilibrium’ is a storytelling term to describe part of the ‘denouement’, as traditionally known. It’s the part of a story where we are left with a sense of what the main character’s life is like now. This comes right after the Self Revelation sequence. The main character has undergone a change (unless it’s a sit-com) and their life will be better than before, worse than before, or just plain old different.
In any case, the audience wants enough clues to guess how life is going to turn out for them from here on in.
DIFFERENCES OF OPINION
There is often controversy about where a film ‘should have’ ended. Audiences want different things from their endings. Take Adventureland, a 2009 coming of age film. Hang out at review forums and you’ll soon notice that a lot of people think the story should have ended with the main character saying goodbye on the hill. Realistically, in the real world, he would probably never see these people again. But this is movie land, and we see a (dream?) sequence in which his crush moves to New York and they live happily ever after. The screenwriters decided the audience of this film would appreciate a happy ending, but the scene on the hill would certainly have been enough of a ‘New Equilibrium’ from a storytelling point of view. All we really needed to know was that the main character is moving on and his life is going to be completely different in New York.
This is where literary short stories deviate from traditional story structure… sometimes. Sometimes we are given very little clues about about how life will be from now on, with short stories sometimes ending at the Self Revelation moment. ‘Get in, get out’, with emphasis here on the ‘get out’. I’m talking specifically about short stories which are what I’d describe as ‘epiphanic moments’. A character makes some small discovery about something/someone. Even in these stories, if you go back you’ll be able to ‘extrapolate’ what their life will be like from now on. In short, short stories require more imaginative work on the part of the reader.
(Genre short stories work the same as longer works, with all seven steps.)
EXTRAPOLATED ENDINGS IN NEVER-ENDING PICTURE BOOKS
I’m sure the storytelling gurus consider this last step unnecessary but I include the ‘extrapolated ending’ as a final optional step in storytelling because some stories leave us with an open ending, in which case the work of finishing off is left up to the audience. Since audience members will vary on this, I like to consider it a separate step from the ‘New Equilibrium’ the author has chosen for us.
There is a very common sort of extrapolated ending in picture books — you can probably guess what it is.
It is often implied that the same adventure is about to happen all over again. Perhaps there will be a bit of a tweak. Picture books are unique in that they are the only book designed to be read at least 50 times by both a young and old audience, so this particular story structure encourages readers to think beyond the last page, and acknowledges that they’ll probably be back.
Not all picture books are sweetness and light and routine and comforting, however. This is a fairly new trend (though was already observed by kidlit critics in 1988 — see the work of Sheila Egoff in Give Them Wings) but contemporary popular children’s books are increasingly likely to be open ended.
Famously, This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen have rather gory implied endings. (The sneaky but cheeky fish protagonist gets eaten, for example.) What would have happened if Jon Klassen had shown the little fish being eaten by the big fish? (Or more likely, inside the big fish’s stomach wondering what happened.) This would have probably been considered too much for the youngest popular audience. In short, an extrapolated ending allows children with the capacity for gore to imagine what they like, while more sensitive types don’t have to go there at all.
HORRORS AND IRREPRESIBLE BADDIES
Here’s something picture books have in common with horror films.
In Dead Calm (to take just one example), the audience is left with a sense of calm, knowing that the man and woman have defeated the sociopathic killer. But just before the end, we are given evidence that the killer is not in fact dead. The entire story is about to repeat itself, only this time it may not go so well.
Here’s the thing about horror opponents — they are mechanical in their behaviour and you can’t kill them, no matter how hard you try. Ghosts come back as different kinds of ghouls, possessed creatures show up in different, more invasive places and so on and so forth.
PARABLES, FAIRYTALES AND PARABLE-SPOOFS
Those really old fables and Charles Perrault fairytales offer a moral lesson after the new equilibrium in which we extrapolate that this particular character is not going to make the same mistake ever again… and neither should you.
The “Ripped Pants” episode of Spongebob Squarepants does the same thing, with a musical outtake instead of the didactic paragraph, in a spoof of a parable about recycling the same joke.
Characters in stories need a plan. Even passive character types need to be actively passive. Initial plans will most likely change.
As you can see, the plan itself is made up of 7 main segments. It also follows the Storytelling Rule Of Threes, because the plan will need to be changed 3 times. If you find your stories really sag in the middle it’s worth trying this guided breakdown on for size.
HEROES AS WELL AS THEIR OPPONENTS NEED PLANS
You always hear that “Drama is conflict,” but when you think about it –what the hell does that mean, practically? It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonists’, PLANS. In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE. She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto. Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.
Initial plans fail in the vast majority of cases. Initial plans might be a single scene or, in a film, a single montage of failed attempts. This is often the writer’s way of lampshading, “Well wouldn’t a good/regular person just do this rather than jump headfirst into that kind of danger?”
Walter White’s plan to get ahead financially by washing cars to supplement his teacher income fail when his medical bills suddenly skyrocket. (Breaking Bad)
Rule for life: If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan. Never the goal.
In stories? What happens is, the main character tends to double down on plans they were feeling lacklustre about at the beginning.
The pattern in a film length story will go something like this:
Main character makes a plan
Opponent ruins the plan with their own plan
Main character seems defeated
Oh hang on: a modified plan, new motive, new momentum
Second revelation. Makes some sort of decision
Ideally the audience realises something
Main character has a third revelation and makes another decision
THE ‘PLAN MCGUFFIN’ WORKAROUND FOR PASSIVE PERSONALITY TYPES
Otherwise known as The Reluctant Hero. Characters who have no plan overlap with characters who don’t seem to want anything either. I talk about these passive types a little in my post on Desire.
Although a rule of story is that the hero must be proactive (especially in children’s books perhaps), depressive types deserve stories too, right? So how is it done?
In the indie comedy film Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), we first meet our main character at a job interview.
This disaffected magazine intern doesn’t get the job at the cafe, as she is terrible at interviews. This is a masterful way of introducing a character because it tells us a lot about Darius in a short time. We learn how much she does not like being an intern, that she has interpersonal issues and is in a mood slump. Although she initially planned to get a job, she and the audience quickly learn that this plan is not going to work. She ends up with another plan.
For the writers of Safety Not Guaranteed, figuring out a ‘plan’ for this ‘character in a slump’ is a tough one, because the very nature of being in a slump and generally pessimistic about everything is that you are not making plans. This plan Darius had — to get a part-time job in a cafe — was a bit of a ‘plan McGuffin’ — we soon forget she ever wanted to leave the internship at the magazine. She is the opposite of a go-getter. She is passing up an opportunity to possibly advance in her career to work in a minimum wage job. But this initial scene exposes several things:
We see that she doesn’t say/do things just because they are expected of her. She is her own person and also self-destructively honest.
The interviewer says “I know your type”, encouraging the audience to categorise this young woman. If we get it wrong our expectations for her will be subverted. It’s also a pretty shitty thing for the guy to say, so anyone who hates job interview questions is likely to sympathise with Darius.
The failed interview explains how she ends up on a strange trip with her womanising, unlikeable boss: She doesn’t just walk away from the adventure which is forced upon her because she has no other choice. Even her father is on her back about not living a worthy life.
Whenever a story stars a reluctant, passive, sarcastic, layabout, depressive (etc.) protagonist, during the course of the story the hero will almost always double down and realise that this thing, this one thing happening in this particular story — perhaps for the first time in their life — is the thing they are meant to do. In effect, there is a bit of a self-revelation near the beginning. This doubling-down forms part of their character arc.
PASSIVE PERSONALITIES NEED TO BE ACTIVELY PASSIVE
‘Actively passive’ sounds impossible, but refers to stories in which a passive character is actively resisting calls to adventure over and over. They actually have to do something to get out of adventure’s way.
CHARACTERS RARELY CONFRONT THINGS HEAD-ON
Most scenes are rarely about what the subject matter is. You soon see the power of dealing obliquely or elliptically with situations, because most people rarely confront things head-on.
— Robert Towne
However, there are several things you really DON’T want your audience thinking:
This wouldn’t be a problem if only they just communicated!
I feel Robert Towne refers instead to general reluctance of ordinary heroes (not superheroes, who jump at any chance to save the world) to undertake a dangerous mission. Everyday heroes are generally drawn into danger against their will, but at about the halfway point in the story, this character doubles down. Suddenly this mission is important to them. They won’t stop for anything. This doubling down is necessary because they’re going to go through a battle. An audience isn’t interested in watching a half-hearted hero, unless we’re talking about a comedy in which the hero (or often, the heroine in detective comedies) bumbles through a story solving a mystery or saving the day by sheer accident.
COMEDY GENRE PLANS
In the comedy genres, the plans characters come up with are often the most ridiculous thing you can think of.
A male actor who can’t find work because he’s a bastard dresses as a woman. (Tootsie)
A superficial high school student plays matchmaker to two hard-grading teachers so that she can renegotiate her own terrible grades. (Clueless)
Two men advise their virgin friend on superficial ways to become a ‘real man’ but end up getting him into troubling predicaments (The 40 Year Old Virgin)
A boy comes up with ridiculous ways of retrieving something stuck up a tree ( Stuck by Oliver Jeffers)
Kurt Vonnegut famously advised writers: Characters must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.
Desire is what the character thinks they want. According to Vonnegut, this could be something run-of-the-mill. But maybe that character who wants a glass of water really needs human interaction, which is why he has visited the corner shop to buy a bottle of water rather than drinking it out of his kitchen tap. This advice is so fundamental, every storytelling guru will tell you a version of the same thing.
Some authors don’t bother with such low stakes as a glass of water. Before Caroline Leavitt starts any novel, she asks herself the following questions about each of her characters.
What does she want at the beginning of the novel and why? And what’s at stake if she doesn’t get it? “There has to be something at stake. It has to be something really major. I mean, if she just wants a glass of water, that’s not really interesting.”
Note that ‘stakes’ is a concept closely related to ‘desire’. John Yorke prefers the term ‘active goal’ rather than ‘desire’:
All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us. […] If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring. — John Yorke, Into The Woods
And for the concept of desire itself, some people use different terminology: motive, goal, want. Each genre of story has its own typical desire lines. In romantic comedies the main character wants to find love. In a crime thriller the detective wants to find the criminal. The ‘quest’ plot has a strong desire line built into its plot, which partly explains its enduring popularity over the last 3000 years. John Truby has given us a basic hierarchy of desire, which shows us the complete continuum of wants. As you can see, superheroes are at the top, underdogs are at the bottom. From highest level of desire to lowest:
Save the world
Save the republic
Bright justice and freedom
Find the truth
Catch a criminal
Explore a world
Win the battle
Survive or escape
We might quibble a little with the ordering of that list — some characters (and people) make it their absolute mission in life to exact revenge. But the takeaway point is this: Your main character doesn’t have to want to save the world in order for you to have a decent story in your hands.
Desire is the main reason almost all TV shows are set in the cop, lawyer, and doctor arenas. These jobs give their shows a simple and repeatable desire line that tracks the episode every week. Catch the criminal. Win the case. Save the life. But of course this is extremely limiting. Most people don’t spend their daily lives solving crimes, prosecuting bad guys, and saving lives.
— John Truby
Without desire, no story. This is so basic — at first glance what more could be to it? This comic strip by Poorly Drawn Lines takes a common desire line and spoofs it. Why does it work as a joke? Because of the juxtaposition between (noble) quest and the completely unremarkable character arc — the discovery that he can eat his roommate’s leftovers with basically no consequences. This flaunts the basic rules of storytelling which we all know intuitively: When a character has a strong desire they go on an important quest and undergo significant character change as a result. Achieving their goal must be hard. It can’t come easily or you don’t have a fully-fleshed story. Continue reading “Story Structure: Character Desire”
Most writers are well-aware that a main character needs a weakness. Christopher Vogler and other high profile story gurus often talk about a lack:
It can be very effective to show that a hero is unable to perform some simple task at the beginning of the story. In Ordinary People the young hero Conrad is unable to eat French toast his mother has prepared for him. It signifies, in symbolic language, his inability to accept being loved and cared for, because of the terrible guilt he bears over the accidental death of his brother. It’s only after he undertakes an emotional hero’s journey, and relives and processes the death through therapy, that he is able to accept love.
– Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
First, there’s the issue of the Hero’s Journey as an ideology:One issue w/the “Hero’s Journey”: its insistence on individualism v. collective strength and community. Yes, the “hero” has help but those who help are relegated to the side, their purpose mostly reduced to further the hero’s goals, often at the expense of others.
Aside from that, Vogler’s advice does not go far enough. Go one step further and break it in half.
Everyone who gives writers advice about characterisation has something to say about this topic. Author of the book Story GeniusLisa Cron says that it’s the character’s internal struggle that makes the external struggle important. This echoes exactly what John Truby says about external desires on the surface vs character weakness underneath.
What about children’s books? Do they follow the same rules?
Mostly, but not always. Some picture books do not feature characters with weakness. These stories tend to be of the carnivalesque variety. A few standout examples feature the reader as protagonist. These, too, do not follow the rules of story.
Children’s books for older readers do follow the same rules as those applied to narrative aimed at adults. Modern picture books which win big awards are also likely to follow these rules.
According to the rules of story structure aimed at screenwriters and writers with an audience of adults…
Every Main Character Needs…
A PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS: What are the fundamental flaws? (Lacking confidence, scarred by former lovers, afraid of intimacy, overly pessimistic etc.)
A MORAL WEAKNESS: How does this character treat others badly? (Lacking empathy, overbearing, two-faced, greedy, lying, selfish etc.) The Seven Deadly Sins feature prominently in this part of the weakness.
It’s a very old idea. Aristotled called it ‘hamartia’.
Harmatia is a term developed by Aristotle in his work Poetics. The term can simply be seen as a character’s flaw or error. The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes accident and mistake, as well as wrongdoing, error, or sin. In Nicomachean Ethics, hamartia is described by Aristotle as one of the three kinds of injuries that a person can commit against another person. Hamartia is an injury committed in ignorance (when the person affected or the results are not what the agent supposed they were).
Like anything, this rule of story has developed some tropes. As an example:
The story of the poor girl who overcomes obstacles and makes a good marriage in the end, what might be called the Horatia Alger story, is very common in nineteenth-century fiction, especially fiction written by women. This heroine does not have to begin in absolute poverty — even Cinderella’s family must have been middle-class or her stepsisters wouldn’t have been able to go to the ball in such style. But she does have to be in some way underprivileged at the start of the boo, and she must go through many difficulties before she can marry the prince.
Occasionally she is poor in other than the economic sense, as with some of Jane Austen’s heroines: Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is poor in intellect; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is naive and muddleheaded; while Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is … poor in spirit. Charlotte Bronte, even more daring, made the heroine of Villette plain.
— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s stories
In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
Do Children’s Book Characters Need A Moral Weakness?
Or any weakness at all?
The short answer is that, yes, an interesting modern children’s book character needs at least a psychological weakness, and the story might also support a moral weakness. This wasn’t always the case, as you’ll already know if you’ve read from the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. It was the amazing Edith Nesbit who changed all of that.
All of Nesbit’s characters have both virtues and flaws: not only are the children’s actions always a push and pull between their better instincts and their baser impulses, but the various authority figures they encounter are equally complicated. The magical Psammead creature is peevish, the Queen of Babylon is kind-hearted but imperious, and the upstairs scholar is helpful but blind to the magic he experiences.
Until Nesbit came along, adults who wrote for children believed children read as medicine. The viewpoint characters therefore had to demonstrate impeccable behaviour, or else be punished for wrongdoing, learning to be good along the way.
The older the reader, the more likely they are reading about characters with both types of weakness. But when it comes to picture books, no. That’s because a picture book character is quite often ‘The Every Child’, and because children are all different, the writer doesn’t always want to tell us much about the character at all. In this case, the child’s main weakness is the fact that they are a child: naivety, weakness, lack of freedom, lack of knowledge. These are weaknesses common to all children and cannot really be called ‘psychological’ weaknesses. This is the main difference between a protagonist in a children’s book and a protagonist in a story for adults.
Children’s writers have to deal with something other writers do not: The expectation from a large proportion of the book-buying public that the empathetic character behaves in a model-like fashion. And if they don’t? That’s okay, so long as they’re punished.
Must Children’s Book Characters Treat Others Badly?
After looking at a lot of children’s books with this exact question in mind, the answer is no. There are several reasons for this:
Some characters in children’s books represent the Every Child. When a reader is meant to paste themselves onto the character we don’t want that character to be too specific. For similar reasons a lot of picture book characters are cartoon-like and minimalist. (For more on that see Taxonomy Of Detail In Character Illustration.) Even in stories for older readers, these Every Child characters are given a ‘cosmetic’ weakness rather than a psychological and moral one, which makes them far more generic and less interesting. For instance, a common cosmetic weakness in young adult romance is ‘clumsy’. Bella Swan is one example. Even in stories for adults you’ll find the Every Man. Susan from Desperate Housewives is clumsy but this clumsiness functions to provide comedy. Susan has many other psychological weaknesses. She is unconfident and needy but also fake-nice and backstabbing. Susan’s clumsiness has nothing to do with storytelling.
There are gatekeepers of children’s literature — people responsible for buying the books and putting them into children’s hands — who choose literature with the philosophy that characters in stories need to serve as role models for good behaviour. These people might approve of characters who treat others badly but only if that character is punished. For more on that see Picturebook Study: In Which Baddies Get Their Comeuppance.
The wish to avoid child characters as morally corrupt may come from JudeoChristian thought in which it is thought that people enjoy an ‘age of innocence’. Strictly speaking, we’re better off using the phrase ‘age of accountability’ because the Bible does not suggest at any point that children are sinless, but rather that children can’t be held accountable for certain things due to their inexperience. Thirteen is the most common age suggested for the age of accountability, based on the Jewish custom that a child becomes an adult at the age of 13. This is no doubt related to The Magical Age of 12 in children’s literature. (There’s nothing in the Bible, however, to suggest 13 is a significant age.)
Complex, rounded characters simply aren’t necessary in all types of stories. For action stories with exciting plots, or genre fiction — such as mysteries and thrillers — all the reader really wants is a great story. In fact, the characters can’t change all that much if the book is part of a series. Series fiction is very popular with young readers and the best-selling books are all part of a series, year after year.
The view that badly behaving children’s characters must be punished is increasingly challenged, mostly by writers and publishers who refuse to believe in the concept of the young reader as tabula rasa (blank slates), who trust children and young adults to read critically and not blindly follow their main characters into bad situations. The modern main character in children’s stories will most definitely have both a psychological weakness and a moral weakness. In other words, they will be treating others badly in some way.
This wasn’t always the case, and if you take a look at books from the First And Second Golden Ages Of Children’s Literature you’ll find many more Mary Sue/Pollyanna types, who have been written as model children for young readers to emulate. These characters are not well accepted by contemporary young readers, who have a vast selection of books to choose from and are not stuck with moralistic stories as earlier generations were.
The idea of child readers as tabula rasa was particularly strong in the Victorian era, and if young readers didn’t want moral stories they really only had the Gothic to turn to. These stories offered all the bloodshed, villainy and titillation lacking in the ‘stories for children’.
Not all writers of children’s stories are interested in this concept. Hayao Miyazaki has never formally studied screenwriting or storytelling technique, and goes about creating his Studio Ghibli films in his own auteur fashion. Miyazaki’s main characters don’t tend to have an external desire. He doesn’t bother with that. They do have psychological needs, however, and by the end of the story they haven’t necessarily got anything they wanted — but by immersing themselves in a new world, they have grown emotionally.
For this reason I feel the very concept of desire is a Western one. In Japanese language, to say “I want” something is considered childish and you’ll rarely hear those words (even though the grammar and words for desire exist). Instead, a Japanese interlocutor will avoid the assumption that you are a spoilt baby with desires and ask you what you ‘need’. English: “Do you want a drink of water?” becomes “Do you need a drink of water?” I believe Hayao Miyazaki brings his specifically Japanese sensibilities towards ‘desire’ to the table when creating his main characters — Chihiro doesn’t seem to want anything in Spirited Away — she is simply there, and if she works hard, things will come good. Desperately wanting to turn her parents back into humans would probably work against her cause.
Common Character Weaknesses In Children’s Books
They may be common but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep using them:
Naivety. This is arguably the biggest weakness any children’s book hero has. It’s a good one, too, because the child can’t help it. Failure to understand the world is an easy weakness to improve upon over the course of the story, providing ample opportunity for a character arc. Hence, every story is a coming-of-age story.
Cheekiness. These characters are fun to be around. They won’t let horrible adults get away with treating kids badly without at least a little backchat. Judy Moody.
Talking too much. Anne Shirley grew up in an age when children should be seen and not heard. There are many modern Anne Shirleys, always getting into trouble but adorable nonetheless.
Shyness. Then you have your socially anxious characters who don’t find themselves in trouble with authority but who must learn to stand up for themselves and others, and for what they truly believe in.
Below are some modern and not so modern case studies of weakness and desire in (Western) children’s literature.
That said, the most popular, award-winning, beloved contemporary picture books for children often feature characters with a moral weakness.
The fish in This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen full on steals someone else’s item of clothing. (Bear in mind that he is punished pretty heavily for it… behind the reeds.)
In some of the older types of stories, the main character sometimes gets into bother by failing to follow the rules set down by the parents. The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese is a good example of that. Today, failing to obey rules/parents/teachers is not considered a moral weakness. Rather, we’re in a period where we glamorise and encourage independent thinking and questioning of authority, of which I generally approve, except a lot of these stories also seem to punish those characters who do do as they’re told. (Usually Hillary Clinton types.)
Olivia by Ian Falconer is basically a narcissistic little girl in a pig’s body. While I personally have no love for Olivia, she is very popular.
There is probably a finite number of human needs, though so many you’ll never be short of material. Take a pyramid you’re probably familiar with, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are a few problems with this hierarchy, so it pays to look at it critically:
The modern integration of ideas from neuroscience, developmental biology, and evolutionary psychology suggests that Maslow had a few things wrong. For one thing, he never gave much thought to reproduction. He conceived of “higher needs” as completely personal strivings, unconnected from other people, and totally divorced from biological needs. Parental motivations were completely missing from his hierarchy, and he placed “sexual needs” down at the bottom— along with hunger and thirst. Presumably, sexual urges were biological annoyances that could be as well dispatched by masturbation as by having intercourse, before one moved back to higher pursuits like playing the guitar or writing poetry.
The psychological need of your main character is closely associated with their weakness.
In children’s stories where there is no psychological or moral weakness and won’t learn anything or change in any way by the end of the narrative, your character will (probably) have a Problem. This problem is external to their psychology. Stories like this don’t tend to be as emotionally interesting, but are appropriate for, say, humour.
In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, the boy’s problem is that something is stuck in a tree and he can’t reach it down.
There’s another kind of story where the ‘main character’ is the reader. Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacekis one example of this: The reader’s problem is that the book asks them to locate a green sheep, but that’s impossible until turning the final page. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brownis another example of a perennial favourite which doesn’t seem to follow any of the usual rules of story — again, this book addresses the young reader directly. The child is the character, saying goodnight to the items. This is more secular prayer than complete narrative.
Do all children’s book characters need a Problem, if they don’t have a moral or psychological weakness? Again the answer is not always, actually.
The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerbergis a carnivalesque story in which a man turns up and makes an enormous sandwich. In a carnivalesque story, there doesn’t have to be a problem as such, because the unsupervised play itself is the story — equivalent to the battle scene in a more common type of story. A carnivalesque story is a ‘toy story’ — all about play and enjoyment with no ‘broccoli’. However, even in The Biggest Sandwich Ever, the characters do face a problem by the end: After stuffing themselves full of sandwich, they are now faced with the task of eating a giant pie.
More! by Peter Schossowis a wordless picture book which celebrates the joy of walking (flying) along a beach on a windy day.
A golden rule about problems in story: The initial problem gets more complicated as soon as the main character tries to solve it.
Sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.
Reversals and reveals are vital for creating momentum and suspense in a story. Certain genres are required to be more page-turny than others, and all children’s literature must be page-turny. So you’ll find reversals and reveals everywhere in children’s literature.
‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.
– Peggy Ramsay, agent
A revelation is basically a surprise.
Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.
WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?
‘Reversals’ are ‘big reveals’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘plot twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are.
The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movie was a hit. (M. Night Shyalaman didn’t come up with the idea of the psychologist being dead until well after his first draft. Though he managed to make it feel very new, Shyalaman was borrowing from a long tradition of Dead All Along characters.)
An example of a reversal is when the audience finds out who A.D. is on Pretty Little Liars. A mistake the writers of that show made was waiting seven seasons to give that information to the audience. Desperate Housewives, the writer’s mentor series, wrapped up mysteries at the end of each season, not at the end of the entire series. This is called a ‘reveal’ but is also a reversal because we realise A.D. was in front of us the whole time. We are asked to think back on everything we’ve seen so far and consider in a new light.
The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.
A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.
A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers.
But you must be careful with this technique. It can reduce the story to a mere vehicle for plot, and very few stories can support such domination by the plot. O. Henry gained great fame using the reversal technique in his short stories (such as “The Gift of the Magi”), but they were also criticized for being forced, gimmicky, and mechanical.
A subversion is not a modern invention but peripeteia itself; it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.
That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.
The best reversal is the kind that creates the biggest surprise without ruining the established logic.
Create suspense by providing the audience with a certain amount of information, then leave the rest to their own imagination.
— Alfred Hitchcock
Give the audience just enough to see it coming but not enough to expect it. How to test if the plot twist works or not: The story is rewatchable/re-readable. It should be just as fun if not more fun to go back and see where the writers hint at that twist. This explains why studies show that spoiling a book before a subject reads it makes the reading more enjoyable. The path towards the reversal is more exciting, even though the reader has lost the enjoyment of the surprise. Perhaps this is why lots of stories spoil the ending at the very beginning.
Gone Girl has a big reversal when we realise the victim is bad.
Victimised women who are actually evil in their own right may be a trend started by Gillian Flynn. In the b-grade horror/thriller movie Pet (2016) a stalker captures a woman he’s interested in and keeps her in a cage in ‘the tunnels’ of a dog shelter where he works. Halfway through the movie the young woman is discovered by the security guard. The reversal is that instead of wanting to be saved, the captured woman encourages her captor to murder him brutally. The big reveal is that she is a psychopath and the reason the stalker creep has captured her is because by stalking her he has realised this about her.
Safe Haven is a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is fun to watch if you enjoy predicting romantic cliches. The minor conflict, the handsome widower, the woman who kids fall in love with. The downpour of rain, the first kiss… Eventually, however, just when there is nothing left (because they’ve fallen into bed), Sparks gives us the first major revelation: He tells the audience why his main character is being followed. All this time we weren’t sure if she’s a baddie, but now we know she’s the victim, abused and stalked by her cop ex-husband. But another supernatural revelation occurs right at the end, when we realize the woman who has befriended our main character has been a ghost all along. This is a reversal, because it causes us to see the entire progression of the relationship in a new light — this coupling hasn’t happened organically at all; it’s been ‘ordained’ by a higher power.
REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY
The Rug Jerk
Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov’s principles: “If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III.” The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards.
The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot
Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel (“It never happened”), parallel universes (“It never happened *here*”), unconscious duplicates (“We’re all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!”) and dream-sequences (“It was all a dream!”) have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story’s or series’ central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*).
When a story relies on reveals as its main source of interest for its audience, this is known as a ‘reveals’ or ‘revelations’ plot. Another name for this is the ‘big plot’, not just because there are so many surprises but also because they tend to be shocking. Although still immensely popular today—especially in detective stories and thrillers. Mysteries are required to include a big revelation, but other kinds of stories make use of revelation also. (Lord Of The Flies: Who is the beast?)
Came from: The heyday of the reveals plot was the 19th century e.g. Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers), Dickens, The Portrait Of A Lady
How It Works:
The hero generally stays in one place, though it is not nearly so narrow an area as unity of place requires. For example, the story may take place in a town or a city. Desperate Housewives is a great example of a reveals plot. Characters don’t leave the suburbs except to visit hospitals/schools/workplaces which are themselves a part of suburban life.
The reveals plot almost always covers a longer time period than unity of time allows, even up to a few years.
The hero is familiar with his or her opponents, but a great deal about them is hidden from the hero and the audience. In Desperate Housewives, the mysterious newcomers have secrets. Characters and audience learn about them as each series progresses.
These opponents are very skilled at scheming to get what they want. This combination produces a plot that is filled with revelations, or surprises, for the hero and the audience.
These plots tend to start en medias res, then take the audience backwards and forward through time. We’re not just talking flashback here. One set of scenes might unravel a secret in the forward direction. Another set of scenes might move us backwards from the ‘beginning’ to the source of the mystery itself. In a detective story the plot begins in the middle of the story — the point at which the investigation gets going. In this kind of story, the plot progresses by going backwards in time. The biggest revelation will coincide with the moment of the deepest penetration into the past.
The inverse* of the ‘reveals’ plot is the ‘journey’ plot.
In the journey plot, surprise is limited because the hero dispatches a large number of opponents quickly.
The reveals plot takes few opponents and hides as much about them as possible. Revelations magnify the plot by going under the surface.
*Dickens actually blended the reveals plot with the journey plot. This shows what a master he was of plotting, since the two approaches are in many ways opposites.
Advantages Of The Reveals Plot
The reveals plot is organic because the opponent is the character best able to attack the weakness of the hero, and the surprises come at the moments when the hero and the audience learn how those attacks have occurred. The hero must then overcome his weakness and change or be destroyed.
The reveals plot maximises surprise. (Since plot basically equals ‘surprise’, surprises are always good.)
Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.
A Common Misperception
A misperception I run into a lot: if a reader is not SHOCKED by your big twist, it’s a failure. This isn’t true! Here’s why…
First, guessing a surprise twist beforehand (as long as it isn’t insulting obvious) can make readers feel smart and vindicated to see they guessed right.
Second, when you use a trope where a certain plot twist/reveal is expected, knowing that reveal is coming ADDS to the tension, it doesn’t detract from it. We’re looking forward to him discovering *gasp* his gf is actually the empress! The anticipation is part of the experience.
So: a plot twist can have value not only in being surprising, but also in being anticipated. How to set up plot twists so they’ll delightfully surprise readers OR add to our breathless anticipation when we guess them early: foreshadow adequately, but don’t make it blindingly obvious (unless you don’t mean for it to be a reveal to us, only to another character).
Try to ensure that your reveal will escalate the stakes and/or evolve at least one conflict (the main external one, an internal conflict, or a conflict between characters) in a new way. If it doesn’t change things in some relevant way, it won’t impact readers.
Types of Reveals
A few main types of plot twists/reveals:
1. those that surprise us but not the character (this type is used often for unreliable narrators; can be super fun, but can also make a reader feel lied to, so use carefully).
2. The type of plot twist that surprises a POV character but not us. Often used in dual POV stories where one character has a secret that we’re in on, but the other POV character isn’t. Great for driving up tension and anticipation as you build toward the reveal.
And finally, 3. The type of plot twist that surprises (or is meant to surprise; refer to earlier tweet about readers guessing it early not necessarily being a bad thing) both readers and the POV characters. Often happens at midpoint &/or climax.
Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot
John Truby advises writers take some time to separate the reveals from the rest of the plot and look at them as one unit. Tracking the revelations sequence is one of the most valuable of all storytelling techniques. You’re checking to see if the sequence builds properly.
1. The sequence of revelations must be logical. They must occur in the order in which the hero would most likely learn of them.
2. Reveals must build in intensity. Ideally, each reveal should be stronger than the one that came before it. This is not always possible, especially in longer stories (for one thing, it defies logic). But you want a general buildup so that the drama increases.
3. Reveals must come at an increasing pace. This also heightens the drama because the audience gets hit with a greater density of surprise.
4. Start the hero’sdesire low and raise it with each “reveal”. It’s pretty typical in a story for the hero to be ambling along not wanting anything much and then something happens and they are forced into action. Then, at about the midway point the hero will really, really want that thing, doing everything in their powers to achieve the thing they never really wanted in the first place. The reveals are what drive the hero’s increasing intensity of desire.
Further questions to ask:
Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.
Every interesting hero in every story needs a worthy opponent. The opponent makes the hero interesting. The hero learns through their opponent. The opponent attacks the hero’s great weakness. The hero deals with their own great weakness and grows as a result.
The concept of theme means different things in different settings. In high school literature class we are told that ‘theme’ is a word — a sort of abstract noun like ‘love’ or ‘independence’. This is okay — this gets most students passing year 11 English, but if you go on to study literature, or if you’re a writer, the single word example of theme isn’t enough.
THEME AS USED IN EVERYDAY ENGLISH
“Well, the theme of today’s meeting was definitely muffins.”
In everyday usage, ‘theme’ can refer to any collection of ideas which are somehow connected.
DEFINITION FOR WRITERS
A theme is a sentence, not a single word.
Theme is a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.
WAR is not a theme. War is a setting.
LOVE is not a theme. Love is a genre (Romance, love story)
TEEN DRUG ABUSE is not a theme. Teen drug abuse is subject matter.
THEME AND SCREENWRITING
Screenwriters are tasked with the job of coming up with a great hook and logline — even more so than novel writers because of the big budgets involved and because the traditional movie-going audience are looking for high concept stories. Accordingly, screenwriters think of ‘theme’ a little differently. They like to attach their own words to the concept. (The skeptic in me thinks that’s partly so they can package their own brands… But in the end we should pick the version that makes sense to us.)
Well-known screenwriting guru Robert McKee prefers the phrase ‘Controlling Idea’, because ‘theme’ is now used widely in colloquial language and doesn’t mean what he wants it to mean. McKee says the theme (controlling idea) exists to tell the emotional lesson of a story. This sounds a little like math class but if your brain works like this:
The Controlling Idea = Value changed by Cause
Value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.
Cause refers to the primary reason that the life or world of the protagonist has tuned to its positive or negative value.
e.g. Justice (VALUE) triumphs (the change) because the hero is smarter than the villain (CAUSE).
Another screenwriting guru, John Truby, thinks in terms of ‘moral argument’ and ‘symbol web’. According to Truby, theme exists to show “The writer’s view of the proper way to act in the world.”
THEME IN YOUR OWN STORIES
The best way to get a handle on the concept of theme is to write sentences summing up your own stories. Then do the same for your favourite stories by other writers. I used McKee’s formula to write the controlling ideas (after the fact).
The theme of The Artifacts: Hope (VALUE) is restored(CHANGE) because a boy realises the value of knowledge and abstract joys over the amassing of material wealth (CAUSE).
The theme of Midnight Feast: Adult-like awareness of poverty (VALUE) is gained (CHANGE) when a girl stays up late one night and sees the poverty right outside her home (CAUSE).
The theme of Hilda Bewildered: A young princess learns to deal with performance anxiety (CHANGE) when she learns the power of visualisation (VALUE) on the night of her first speech (CAUSE).
The theme of Diary of a Goth Girl: It is only after the grim reaper comes for a pessimistic try-hard goth (CAUSE) that she learns(CHANGE) the value of human kindness (VALUE).
Theme might also be expressed like this, embracing the didactic (moralistic) aspect of the story. This is often done for children’s stories.
The Artifacts: It’s better to collect knowledge and experiences than material wealth.
Midnight Feast: It’s fairly easy to ignore poverty even when it’s right outside your own window.
Hilda Bewildered: Difficult real life situations become surmountable once harnessing the power of visualisation.
Children’s literature seems to have a higher tolerance for didacticism (though the trend is against it), so you’ll often find themes written like that somewhere in the advertising copy.
The Biggest Sandwich Ever is a book from 1980. It was my first “Lucky Book Club” purchase, and I loved it. (I don’t agree with my husband either, who says there should also be an “Unlucky Book Club”.)
The Biggest Sandwich Ever is such a simple story and that’s why it works. My own daughter loves it as much as I did.
What makes it great? It’s not especially original, but it does follow a successful formula. Although the plot feels quite Dr Seuss-ish, Rita Golden Gelman didn’t fall into the trap of trying to rhyme like only Theodor Geisel can. Instead, she sticks to simple rhyme. There are no special tricks in the rhyming scheme but it is easy to read aloud.
A descendent of this kind of picture book is the bear series by Jez Alborough, also featuring simple rhyme, playing with scale (a massive teddy bear) and a circular ending.
Why are stories of excess and outsize so memorable? I don’t know, they just are. In fact, people who specialise in training others to have good memories recommend making use of this trick of the brain. We’re more likely to remember to buy lemons at the supermarket if we imagine a massive lemon beforehand, squirting juice painfully into the eye.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE BIGGEST SANDWICH EVER
Although it’s a rule for main characters to have a psychological and moral weakness, the rule doesn’t necessarily apply to stories for children. More specifically, it doesn’t seem to apply to carnivalesque children’s stories.
Instead, the story begins:
We were having
Just Tammy and I.
In other words, these kids were just fine as they were. Like a Cat In The Hat plot template, a character arrives unbidden and the purpose of that character is simply to liven up the day.
The general rules of story are quite different in a carnivalesque tale. This becomes apparent when I take a closer look, comparing this picturebook to John Truby’s universal plot template:
In any carnivalesque story the children crave a fun time.
Ostensibly, however, they don’t seem to want anything at all. Adventure seems to find them.
The man with the pot
Watching an enormous sandwich being built in the countryside
The eating of the sandwich
Self revelation is perhaps replaced by an achievement: the finishing of the sandwich.
This is a circular story. The reader predicts the same story will happen over again, but this time with a pie. In other words, this was a moment of fun, and there will be many more such moments for these children.
OTHER TALES OF ABUNDANCE
Many, if not most, children’s picturebooks include an element of fantastic excess.
Some of those stories are veritable tall tales, in which the excess is so exaggerated that the excess is the story.
The inverse of a tale of excess is the miniature — memorable, again, for its playing with scale.
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.
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 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?
A wonderful narrative voice — exciting, unhurried and conversational. Quasi-journalistic.
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.)
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.
Ivan Southall — the Simon Black series — the Australian Biggles
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?
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:
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.
…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.
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.
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!