To The Manor Born is a British romantic comedy series written by Peter Spence which aired from 1979 to 1981. The actors reunited for a Christmas special in 2007. The writer is also known for Rosemary & Thyme and Not The Nine O’Clock News. Spence is educated in politics and American studies, which come across in his one-liners — these English characters have a contempt for all things American and there is a stark division between the blue bloods and the Labour government. He married into the family that runs this estate, so I can’t imagine anyone better positioned to write from an outsider’s perspective about a small English community set around a parish than Peter Spence.
STORYWORLD OF TO THE MANOR BORN
Characters Who Stand In For Subcultures
Oftentimes when two characters clash in fiction, those individuals stand in for the clash between groups of people irl. This elevates an otherwise simple comedy or domestic drama. In Hud we have a clash between old values and new (1960s) values of the American South. In 2017 we saw a similar clash in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which certain characters exemplified racist, insular attitudes. Others struggle to deal with the new, kinder culture. Still others display progressive values. In To The Manor Born we have a very British clash between aristocracy and the nouveau riche — two very different kinds of rich, but both rich all the same, and therefore foreign to the vast majority of the audience.
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 Three, 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 character’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonists’, PLANS.
In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that character 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 main character or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.
Make the trials escalate. Ideally, your character will be at the point where they’re begging no one in particular, “Tell me it gets easier, that I’ll figure it out”.
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)
If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan. Never the goal.
When plans don’t work, 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
i hate the part in movies where things go wrong? you know like halfway through when things are good and then there’s a problem? for me that’s not fun to watch
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.
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.
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. So everyone knows this — everyone gets the joke in that comic — but when you sit down to write your actual story you may find yourself wrestling with the following:
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 main character. These postmodernmeta examples do not follow the general 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.
This is a very old idea. Aristotle 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 book, 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 stories as medicine. The viewpoint characters therefore had to demonstrate impeccable behaviour, or else be punished for wrongdoing, learning to be good along the way.
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 derive from JudeoChristian thought. It is believed 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.
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 a strong 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/getting distracted. In short, developing executive functioning. 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 nascent 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. (She’s much more appealing than her parents.)
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 psychological 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.
By the way, sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.