To The Manor Born Storytelling Techniques

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.

SETTING OF TO THE MANOR BORN

Sydney R. Jones, The Village Homes of England, 1912
Sydney R. Jones, The Village Homes of England, 1912
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.

TO THE MANOR BORN STORY STRUCTURE

Structure Of A Transgression Comedy

Each episode of To The Manor Born conforms to the transgression comedy. This is a perfect structure for two characters whose modus operandi — and main character attribute — is to pretend they are something they are not.

Discontent: someone is unhappy about something

Transgression with a mask: peculiar to comedy (and, incidentally, to noir thrillers)

Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off

Dealing with consequences

Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story

Growth Without a Mask

The stand-out example of this comedy structure is Tootsie, but can be seen all over comedy, including many episodes of The I.T. Crowd.

SHORTCOMING

Returning to To The Manor Born after a long time (it was a series I grew up with), I was slightly surprised to see that Richard DeVere is set up as an equal insofar as screentime and empathy goes. My memory is that this is a story about Audrey. We actually meet Richard first, as he pulls into the village, setting him up as the viewpoint character. Like Richard, we are amused as outsiders by the eccentricities of the vicar. Richard comes across as very reasonable — we sympathise with him.

We soon see that Richard wants what he wants and stops at nothing to get it. He’ll even crash a funeral gathering to get his dream house. Richard reveals himself to be a trickster, though we don’t know the extent of this until episode two, when we learn that he is part Czechoslovakian, part Polish. (This is the perfect example of transgression comedy in which ‘the mask’ comes off. Richard DeVere is revealed to have a Czech birth name. )

Richard’s shortcoming is that he uses people to advance himself socially, and this makes him blind to whatever else is going on peripherally. He demands to be treated with respect, and in the business world he no doubt gets it, but here in blue blood territory he is starting from the bottom and must earn respect in a foreign environment.

Audrey fforbes-Hamilton is presented immediately as a trickster. The trickster is a very popular archetype with audiences, and we needn’t sympathise with them at all because they are so interesting. Tricksters make plans and follow them through. All we need in order to sympathise with a character is right there. We don’t even have to agree with their morality, and we wouldn’t agree with Audrey’s if we knew her in person — Audrey is a pragmatic, gold-digging schemer who will happily use people to get what she wants.

Audrey is also part of a long British tradition of comedic, socially aspiring women, which were very popular sit-com fodder in the 1970s and 80s, and which may be making a comeback.

These women care about no one but themselves and Audrey is probably on the sociopathic spectrum, treating all people as tools, failing to even recognise the emotion of sadness after her blue blood husband dies of double pneumonia and good living.  An older, American analogue would be Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, in that Peter Spencer uses the same trick — he surrounds Audrey with people who do like her. This tells the audience that bad characters can’t be all bad.

Audrey and Marjory are among the second-to-last generation of toff women who were never expected to work, trained only in social manners and managing domestic staff. The very last of that class included women such as Princess Diana, born 1961. Audrey and Marjory would have been born around 1940, same as Penelope Keith. Audrey’s other shortcoming is that she’s just not fit for integration into regular life, even though that is exactly what is demanded of her now that England changed markedly after the war. Audrey has no marketable skills. Unless she marries rich again there is no place for someone like Audrey, and this is a very real problem for her. We could dig more deeply and it says something serious about upper-class women, and how a sexist dichotomy imprisoned them, in its own way.

DESIRE

Richard wants the dream house to impress his business pals, and also to pass himself off as old money. Audrey and Marjory’s xenophobia shows us that Richard has been up against racism his entire life, and we can see why he might want to offload his continental heritage to make life easier for himself.

Audrey wants to continue living in Grantleigh Manor, which has been in the family (her former husband’s family?) for 400 years. I doubt this heritage factor is important to her in the least — Richard pulls her up when she claims certain traditions are ancient when they’re really only new. Audrey wants to stay in the house to maintain her prestige in her community. It is a huge comedown for an aristocratic woman to be ousted from the family manor.

In episode one we are shown Audrey’s history — she had an ‘arranged’ first marriage (arranged by herself), and we’ve not surprised to learn in episode two that she has designs on Richard DeVere, not for him but for the manor. It’s also no surprise because it’s right there in the title. The title is so good because there is irony in it. Audrey is no more deserving of that manor than anyone else. I feel like this show gave modern culture the phrase ‘to the manor born’ but it goes back much further — To The Manner Born is a play on the phrase “to the manner born,” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 

The desire-line ‘to marry Richard and move back into Grantleigh Manor’ will sustain the entire series. And because this is a romantic comedy we know the two will get together eventually.

What keeps them apart over the course of three seasons are mini-desires that are either fulfilled or stymied in the course of one half-hour episode.

01: Richard wants to buy Grantleigh whereas Audrey wants to continue living there as a happy widow. (The sustaining desire-line is established.)

02: Richard wants to find a social secretary to help him integrate into the village without impacting on his role as CEO of his supermarket chain. Audrey is not at all happy about being ousted into the much smaller property across the meadow, but wants to reclaim some dignity of sorts by tricking Richard into embarrassing himself by thinking someone else has moved in instead — someone he can use. In this episode Audrey gets what she wants in a small way, while Richard has already got what he wants in a big way — the manor.

03: Audrey wants to turn Richard into a church-going man. This is one concrete improvement she can make to a man she wants to turn into marriageable material. (Marriageable in her own eyes, that is.) Peter Spence is sure we know that this is part of a larger scheme by having Audrey tell Marjery so.

04: Audrey continues on her Richard improvement strategy. He must learn to protect the nation’s heritage. Instead, he has replaced an ugly but culturally significant mantel with a safe full of cash. Audrey wants him to feel bad about this. (It backfires when she ends up with the ugly mantel in her lodge.)

05: Audrey wants Richard to come to her on “bended knee” to ask for help in organising an annual ball. She wants to maintain her former status in the community and also impress Richard with her organising skills.

06: In episode six, Mrs Poo is the character whose desire sets the story going — she is bored at the Manor and wants a party. But because Mrs Poo is a minor character, her desire is also minor, and can be considered a McGuffin desire. It is only once Audrey attends the party that her own story-worthy desire kicks in — she wants to show the village that she is doing well financially. For that she must go on her usual overseas holiday. But as she explains to Brabinger, it’s appearing to go on holidays that is the main thing, not going on the holiday itself. It makes sense for Audrey’s character that she doesn’t enjoy overseas holidays in the slightest. This is shown via her reading a holiday journal from the previous year, in which she was bored. Outside her own very specific environment, the xenophobic Audrey flounders. This harks back to the wider, enduring desireline of Audrey — regain her former position or die. Audrey is the human equivalent of an insect which can only survive on one single blighted species of grain.

07: At the beginning of the episode it is revealed that Audrey has been having cash flow problems. Ordinarily, a real life person would ‘want money’, but because this is a comedy and because Audrey is a comic archetype, Audrey doesn’t really want money. (For her, such a desire is crass.) She is ironically upbeat about the late bills and wants to bounce a cheque at one of Richard’s supermarkets to get her own back. He took her house, after all. Then she wants to know what’s going on at the Manor, because Richard has a clearer desire in this episode — in an attempt to appear more English he is staring in an advert for Fontleroy’s Old English Tonic. When this is revealed to Audrey she has an about turn and her desire changes — she wants to star in the advert herself, considering herself more genuinely suitable for the job.

OPPONENT

To The Manor Born

Romances are so difficult to write because the main opponents are the lovers, to each other. This series follows the fight-fight-kiss-kiss tradition of romance, where the audience sees from the very beginning that two characters are perfect for each other, and now we must (hopefully) enjoy watching them come to the same realisation, swapping witty banter (and it had better be witty).

A mistake some romance writers make when writing these fight-fight-kiss-kiss stories is simply creating personalities that clash. That’s not enough. Their agendas need to clash. Agenda = desire + plan, so their desires and their plans must clash as well.

The manor provides a very solid goal (desire) for both of them, but they can’t both have it.

Audrey and Marjory have a longterm, sisterly relationship in which Marjory is often the voice of reason, speaking for an audience who would otherwise question Audrey’s motives. A staple of British comedy is the stupid sidekick. In The Vicar of Dibley we have Alice, in Only Fool’s and Horses we have Rodney Trotter, and so on. This dynamic is also utilised frequently in cop and buddy comedies, where one guy is wily and the other dimwitted, getting them into trouble.

PLAN

What is Audrey’s overall plan? After the wedding she plans to stay in the Manor, living life as before, only without her husband. This plan is soon dashed when she is told she is in debt. She has a plan to raise funds, but has no idea about how hard money is to come by, so these plans fail and she is required to leave her family manor.

Her plan switches and she intends to win over Richard.  She’s planned this before the other characters realise — she has purchased the lodge, very nearby. Audrey understands Richard completely and knows that in order to win his heart she has to prove herself as wily and socially aspirational as he is himself. All of these trickster stories are flirtation. And the audience loves to see them fall. These are powerful people we’re laughing at, which makes it satire.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene in each episode of To The Manor Born involves witty back-and-forth dialogue between Richard and Audrey, often with an audience such as Marjory, sometimes alone. Spence started out as a gag writer for radio, but as he explains in the special features, Penelope Keith told him she’s not a gag actor. Also, gags would not be in keeping for a lady of the manor, so that explains why the big struggles happen in dialogue.

The writer kept the winning and losing about even, to show the audience that these two characters are made for each other. Audrey succeeds in getting Richard to church, but in the next episode she succeeds in conveying the importance of historical buildings but fails at the same time — she didn’t want the old mantel in her house. In “The Grapevine” episode, both Audrey and Richard are victims, discovered by the whole village coming out of the woods at night. They’ve been observing badgers.

In “A Touch Of Class”, Audrey attempts to trick Richard into eating a terrible mean, but she has been outfoxed by her drunkard temporary butler, who serves up a delicious meal, cooked by a renowned good cook as a favour.

ANAGNORISIS

A look at the structure of a transgression comedy (above) maps the ‘anagnorisis’ phase onto the ‘coming off of the mask’.

Over the course of the first series of To The Manor Born we see Richard realise that he has to learn a new culture and make a big effort to fit in, as custodian of the land he now owns. The whole village now knows that he’s not old money, so he’ll have to try extra hard to fit in. He realises in episode two that when you’re living among blue bloods, they’re not always happy to do what you want them to do, e.g. be your social secretary.

As for Audrey, she starts off resenting Richard, then realises she might be able to marry him and return to her manor, then she realises she’ll have to mould him into the sort of man she would want. Finally by the end of season one it is clear both of these characters are more similar than they are different, and Audrey realises she likes him as a person.

NEW SITUATION

The back-and-forth one-upmanship and the discovery that each of them is duplicitous as the other will culminate at the end of season three in a wedding. The wedding episode drew huge viewer numbers in 1981. It was the only episode not written by Spence, for some reason. Perhaps Spence felt more comfortable writing transgression comedy than in tidying up a romance with a happy ending. These are two different skills, and two different sensibilities.

Story Structure: The Plan

Characters in stories need a plan. Even passive character types need to be actively passive. Initial plans will most likely change.

sweet plan

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.

By plan, we basically mean action.

“Action is character.” This is what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notes while working on his final novel, The Last Tycoon, and he wrote it in caps: ACTION IS CHARACTER. If one of our greatest narrative writers had to remind himself of that right up to the end, it must be pretty important. It is. Human beings are far too complex to explain away in so many words: imperious; timid; pompous; vain; bombastic – and so on.

Blake Bailey

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.

Alexandra Sokoloff

RULES OF THUMB

  1. Do your worst to your character
  2. 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. If you as writer can’t figure out a plan and instead change the goal, that’ll feel like cheating. That’s a form of deus ex machina.

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:

  1. Main character makes a plan
  2. Opponent ruins the plan with their own plan
  3. Main character seems defeated
  4. Oh hang on: a modified plan, new motive, new momentum
  5. Second revelation. Makes some sort of decision
  6. Ideally the audience realises something
  7. 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

dirt prince (@pant_leg) November 28, 2019 

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.

character has no plan

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 anagnorisis 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:

  1. This wouldn’t be a problem if only they just communicated!
  2. Why don’t they just call the police? (See a one line review of Home Alone on Reddit. The writers make the 8-year-old hero steal a toothbrush as a reason for not calling the police.)

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 big struggle. 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)
  • An I.T. worker gets sick of saying the same thing over and over so he hooks up a machine to answer the phone for him. (The I.T. Crowd)
  • 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 boss has to fire someone before the end of the day, so he leaves the task to his unhinged second-in-charge (The Office)
  • A boy comes up with ridiculous ways of retrieving something stuck up a tree ( Stuck by Oliver Jeffers)

Story Structure: Character Desire

Kurt Vonnegut famously advised writers: Characters must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. 

Desire in storytelling describes 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 they’ve visited the corner shop to buy a bottle of water rather than drinking it out of the 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.

Writer Mag

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
comic about power and desire

Without desire, no story, so the story gurus tell us. 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:

CHARACTER SHORTCOMING AND ITS LINK TO DESIRE

Your character’s shortcoming is linked to their desire. (Click through on that link for a whole lot more.) A character’s desire is always contingent upon what has happened before.

Maybe desire is nothing but memory,
And we dream only what has already been.

Tracy K. Smith

ESTABLISHMENT OF DESIRE EQUALS BEGINNING OF STORY

DESIRE BECOMES CLEAR AT THE INCITING INCIDENT

If you think of story structure in terms of ‘inciting incidents‘ (of questionable value), the main character’s desire becomes clear to the main character and to the audience after the inciting incident. That’s what the inciting incident is for. A specific type of inciting incident is Hitchcock’s ‘McGuffin’. This is an inciting incident which the audience has completely forgotten about by story’s end. The best inciting incidents subvert readers’ expectations. Inciting incidents aren’t always so easy to pick as an ‘explosion which rocks the main character’s world’. It can be much more subtle.

  • The protagonist will be alerted to a world outside their own.
  • They will make a decision on how to react to this and pursue a course of action that will precipitate a crisis. 
  • This will force them to make a decision propelling them into a whole new universe. 

FULFILMENT OF DESIRE EQUALS END OF STORY

Joss [Whedon] makes his living denying people what they want.

James Marsters

Whedon seems to live by advice as explained by Karl Iglesias:

A scene with a chase-and-capture dynamic (the character achieves their scene objective) or a chase-and-escape (they don’t get what they want). A balanced plot line will often include scenes that alternate between the two. Once the writer establishes the central question of whether the protagonist will accomplish their goal, the scenes that answer, “Yes they will!” in a small scene victory should alternate with “No they won’t” in a defeat, back and forth. This alternates the potent visceral emotions of hope and worry. Because a scene is like a mini-story, its beats can also alternate between satisfaction whenever the central character gets a step closer to getting what he wants, and frustration whenever there’s a setback, creating a dance between hope and worry within one scene, and thus keeping the reader hooked.

Karl Iglesias, Writing For Emotional Impact

Likewise, when your character has got what they want, your story is over. (Or maybe your main character does not get what they want, in which case you’ve written a tragedy.) If they get what they want ‘halfway through’ your novel, avoid trying to fix that problem by giving them a new desire. New desire means a new story.

“There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”

George Bernard Shaw (Both work irl; only the first applies if it’s fiction.)
character desire need

However! Desire mutates. Desire strengthens. In fact, in many, many stories you’ll see a passive underdog main character drawn unwillingly into adventure but at the halfway point (and yes, it’s usually exactly the midpoint in a film) they’ll ‘double down’. Now they really, really want that thing they were meh about at the beginning. Desire does not change over the course of a single story. Your main character has one main desire, they go to the ends of the earth to get it (or not) and then the story is over. Contrast this with ‘character plans‘. Plans change all the time. Initial plans fail and characters must invent increasingly ingenious ways to overcome opponents.

Some critics think in terms of three layers. Some storytellers think of desire as two-tiered: The surface desire (they want to be included in a group of friends, they want to get their hands on a fairy cup) and deep desire (they want friendship, they crave economic stability and prestige).

Others think in terms of three layers of desire. The Dostoevskian character has at least three layers, writes James Wood in How Fiction Works:

  1. TOP LAYER: The announced motive.
  2. SECOND LAYER: Unconscious motivation. Those strange inversions wherein love turns into hate and guilt expresses itself as poisonous, sickly love.
  3. BOTTOM LAYER: Can only be understood religiously. These characters act like this because they want to be known; even if they are unaware of it, they want to reveal their baseness. They want to confess. They want to reveal the dark shamefulness of their souls. They act scandalously and appallingly without quite knowing why.

(This all explains why Freud and Nietzche were attracted to Dostoevsky’s work.)

RATIONAL AND IRRATIONAL DESIRES

One function of dreams in literature is to convey to the audience what a character really desires, compared to what they think they desire. Erich Fromm marks this distinction as ‘rational’ vs ‘irrational’ wishes in a chapter about dream interpretation:

We often wish things that are rooted in our shortcoming and compensate for it; we dream of ourselves as famous, all powerful loved by everybody, etc. But sometimes we dream of wishes which are the anticipation of our most valuable goals. We can see ourselves as dancing or flying; we see the city of light; we experience the happy presence of friends. Even if we are not yet capable in our waking life to experience the joy of the dream, the dream experience shows that we are at least capable of wishing it and seeing it fulfilled in a dream fantasy. Fantasies and dreams are the beginning of many deeds, and nothing would be worse than to discourage or depreciate them.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

This is also how storytellers make use of symbols and motifs — the storycrafting equivalent of dreams.

FAIRYTALE AND ROMANTIC DESIRES

Why does Rumpelstiltskin want the young woman’s first born? Why does the Erl-King want the boy, for that matter? We’re never told. It’s not supposed to matter.

In fairy tales influenced by the Romance era, character desire doesn’t seem to be as vital to story as mood and symbolism. Romantic poets weren’t about being the active participant, having a desire then going after it. Instead they were more about being tortured souls, the original Goths, haunted by poetry, at the whims of strong forces, often supernatural, outside their control and understanding.

The three most famous poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge are “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel”. Each one of these poems features a main character whipped away from themselves by some violent and supernatural force. Likewise, Keats wrote odes in which the speaker takes leave of himself by way of contemplation.

These Romantic narratives are not about the desires of the ‘main characters’ (or rather, victim muses) but rather about the desires of the gods. The desires of gods are left off the page. Mere morals can never hope to understand the desire of the gods, and that is the very point. The mere mortals in these poems also remain mysterious to us because we’re not told anything about their wants and needs, either. This makes them different from the regular reader. Obfuscation of desire is a feature of Romantic stories and is deliberate.

The modern audience wants something different from fictional characters. We want to walk in their shoes, to experience another world as they experience it, to undergo a character arc as they do. What applied to Romance poems does not apply to modern stories. This is partly to do with how we are not a religious population in the same way. We don’t explain the world by reassuring ourselves with, “Oh, well, we can’t possibly know what the gods are thinking.” (Though we do still recognise the phrase, “God works in mysterious ways!”)

When modern storytellers take hold of those old narratives and fairytales influenced by Romantic sensibilities, the desire is left wide open and therefore open to fresh interpretation. This makes for a wide variety of re-visionings. What does the Erl-King want with the boy? Well, he could want sex (in a darkly erotic tale). Or he might want him as another kind of servant, or he may have blood lust and desire to kill him. The possibilities are endless.

UNORIGINAL DESIRES

Michael Hauge urges writers not to worry about unoriginal desires. The desire is probably not where the originality of your story will come from, since we all basically want the same things (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs):

Don’t worry about your hero’s desire being trite and familiar. Just about all visible goals in any genre have been done many, many times. Usually they are some version of either winning a battle or competition (HUNGER GAMES), winning another character’s love (THE PRINCESS BRIDE), escaping a bad situation (JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE), retrieving something of value (any Indiana Jones movie), or stopping something bad from happening (any MISSION IMPOSSIBLE or AVENGERS movie). As for inner motivations, they will almost all be to gain love, acceptance, power, revenge or significance.

It’s the CONFLICTS heroes face in pursuing their desires, and the ways they plan to overcome these obstacles, that will make any story original and emotionally involving. So, focus on the external obstacles your hero must conquer to achieve her goal, and the inner conflict that pits your hero’s fear and identity against the emotional courage she must show to fulfill her destiny.

Michael Hauge

CHARACTERS WHO DON’T WANT ANYTHING

These people exist in real life, right? So they also need to exist in fiction.

Indeed they do. A lot of coming-of-age stories are about teenagers mooching around, for instance. A good example is Greg from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. These characters are defined by what they don’t want rather than what they do want.

lack of desire

Contrasting with…

Judy Moody Saves The World

(Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody title is comically hyperbolic — preadolescent Judy Moody is interested in finding her place in her own community.)

Characters who seem to want nothing still want something. They want homeostasis. Or, they may want someone else to do the thing that they want:

We often think of motivations as taking the form of wanting to bring about some state of affairs. They may also, however, take the form of wishing some state of affairs to obtain. This distinction between wants and wishes is important.

Explaining Social Behaviour by Jon Elster
ACTIVELY PASSIVE CHARACTERS

The fact remains, fictional characters who want stuff but don’t actually do anything about it don’t make for compelling story.

What if your character is not a cop or a surgeon or a hero? What if they want to sit on the couch? If you have a passive main character (and by ‘main character‘ I mean simply ‘the character we see the most’), one workaround is to make them actively passive. That’s key.

Also key: Things are happening around them. Other characters must have strong desires. Even to maintain their status quo, your main character must go out of their way to maintain it.

THE CONCEPT OF THE ‘PHERE’

Phere is a Jungian concept, pronounced ‘fear’. In relation to story structure, Shawn Coyne has talked about it. He describes it like this:

it’s the unit of energy that turns a unit of story. … it’s a unit of energy that comes into a story that creates fear in the character. … The phere is the thing that induces the shift in valence from satisfied to unsatisfied.

Storygrid

In real life people don’t tend to put their lives at risk to get things they really badly want, right? Most people just hang around sort of satisfied with the status quo. If your main character doesn’t have a ‘desire’, per se, better perhaps to talk about ‘whatever gets them fired up’. Here’s another thing Shawn Coyne has to say about pheres:

If it’s the beginning hook, you’re probably going to start with a big phere and then you’re going to taper off and then move up and it’s like the movement and the expansion of the energy applied to the system will create a cathartic experience at the end.

In almost all stories, desire grows stronger and stronger over the course of a story. We might therefore think of a phere as a ‘Macguffin Desire’. It’ll do until the til-death-do-us-part desire takes over and drives the main character into big struggle.

CHARACTERS WHO HAVE CONFLICTING DESIRES

This isn’t a problem in your storytelling because a story starring character with two conflicting desires is a story about… conflict! And conflict is good for storytelling. Also, people are walking contradictions. We all want conflicting things.

In his book What Makes Us Tick? Hugh Mackay talks about our conflicting desire for homeostasis and predictability which rubs up against our need for constant change. He also points out that we can want something badly, but as soon as we get it, we wonder why we craved it in the first place.

The question is: why? Is it that we know, deep within us, that if we don’t change we will wither and die, intellectually and emotionally, if not actually?

Or is it that we crave change more than we care to admit; that we love surprises and challenges because they bring us to life and force a reaction from us? Yet the very notion of upheaval is at war with our apparently sincere wish for stability and stasis. Just as the homeostatic mechanisms of the body automatically adjust for tilt or for temperature change (making us shiver to warm up or sweat to cool down), we imagine that we automatically seek that kind of emotional stability, too. Who wants to be shocked by an unwelcome turn of events? Who wants to be obliged to change their minds?

Perhaps this tension between our intellectual need for surprise and uncertainty and our emotional need for security and stability accounts for the restlessness of the human spirit documented by poets, philosophers, theologians and psychologists. It often feels as if we desire one thing and desire its opposite.

Hugh Mackay, What Makes Us Tick

Of course this bundle of conflicting desires will be reflected in fiction, and indeed makes for the most interesting kind of fiction.

FEMINISM AND GOALS

Female characters sometimes seem passive but in fact they are limited by the setting, not permitted to pursue a goal even if they have one. ‘Goals’ as necessary elements of fiction are therefore a feminist issue.

In my education as a TV writer, I heard the same advice on repeat: your protagonist must drive through a story in the relentless pursuit of a goal. This gold standard of storytelling exists for good reason. Stick to it and your story will be clear, your main character a hero, and your narrative comfortable and familiar enough for people to invest in emotionally. In other words, something must happen externally. They have to be forced into action, even if it’s in a vain attempt to keep everything exactly the same as it was before. Often in realistic fiction it’s the annoying mother or a teacher on their tail. In a fantasy/thriller there’s a much wider range of villains who can enter the story to turn a character’s life upside down. … She is limited, and the audience is made to feel this limitation. Women are not often allowed to manipulate this sacred storytelling framework in television. Men, and male-centered narratives, have dominated the small screen from the early days of three-camera sitcoms, right through to what’s now being dubbed as The Golden Age of TV. These narratives privilege a quintessentially male experience. An experience where you get to do what you want, when you want, mostly free from systems that control your movements and decisions. The ideal of the active protagonist assumes your main character is free to act. But it’s hard to venture forth when the deck is stacked against you.

Courtney Jane Walker, What Makes Alias Grace So Good

Cynthia Benis Abrams hosts a podcast called Advanced TV Herstory. The episode from March 22 2018 is about a new kind of aimless character. In TV series, female characters can be divided into categories according to what they want:

  1. Wants to get married
  2. Wants to dedicate self to family
  3. Working mother, often single
  4. Retired woman (these are few — standout example is The Golden Girls)
  5. Feminerd — great at her job, not so lucky in love. Wants it all. (The Mindy Project, New Girl)
  6. The woman who isn’t sure what she wants out of life. This character lets life happen to her. She spends her time responding to external events.

This sixth category is especially interesting from the writing and desire line point of view. Why does this character find popularity and what gave rise to her? The answer to that can be found in the history of melodrama, which I wrote about here. Like the Romantic poems, melodrama features characters who respond to external events rather than drive them. This is why melodrama is considered a feminine form of storytelling.

However, the woman who doesn’t know what she wants is limited to the cable networks rather than seen on the big screen. The big, public networks aren’t taking risks on this kind of aimless woman, yet. This indicates she’s still pretty niche. Look at the following examples and you’ll know people who can’t stand these shows, indicating their niche-ness:

  • Piper Chapman in Orange Is The New Black. (I can’t bear this character myself — she’s the weak link in the entire cast.)
  • Jessa from Girls, who starts out as a party girl. She marries but it doesn’t last. She has no clear goals throughout most of the series, but she does find herself later on, lending a sense of conclusion to the series.
  • Chloe from Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment B.

There is one example from an earlier era. The Days and Nights Of Molly Dodd ran from 1987-1991 and stars a woman who is reactive rather than proactive. She is roll-over nice but isn’t the go-getter audiences had gotten used to after second wave feminism of the 1970s.

This woman is a new trope, specific (mostly) to the 2010s. This probably reflects the dominant American culture, in which millennial women can have two postgraduate degrees from an Ivy League and still find themselves under- or unemployed. Young women no longer believe that it’s possible to have it all. Their grandmothers (or mothers) were the first to have a choice between family and career or both. I come from an in-between generation where there was never any doubt that family and career can go hand-in-hand, but with rising student debt and house prices, millennial women are realising kids might be impossible, even if they want a family. The sit-com Friends is perhaps the bridge between those second wave feminist women and the Piper Chapman/New Girl trope.

Season One of Friends is a great one, for a sitcom. It’s not a great season for Friends, by a mile. The show would soon find its footing with more serialized storylines, and the cast would only get better with time. Even so, the early episodes did a great job of introducing us to the gang and making us want to hang out with them again. The plot would thicken up nicely, but at first it was simple. Twenty-somethings navigating the usual travails of young-ish adulthood, most of which can conceivably be worked out in 22-minutes: Rachel can’t do laundry, so Ross teaches her how. Joey and Chandler’s crappy kitchen table breaks, so they buy a new one—a foosball table! The girls have a moment of existential dread, realizing that youth is past and life is chaotic and they “don’t even have a pla,” let alone a plan. So, they get drunk, problem solved.

Entertainment Weekly

I haven’t looked into TV’s aimless men, but that would be interesting to compare. Brett and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords are fairly aimless, but their backseat goal is to get gigs. They are just as easily sidetracked by getting jobs as sandwich boards or making helmet hair. I’m not sure if this counts as ‘aimless’, or if it’s more accurate to say their aims are comically trivial.

WHEN CHARACTERS DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY WANT

The female sit-com characters listed above demonstrate that a story can be successful even when they are basically aimless. Neil Gaiman probably also agrees with this facet of human psychology, in which even characters who think they know what they want don’t really:

I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted just like that, and it didn’t mean anything? What then?”

Neil Gaiman, Coraline,  p112

Middle grade novel Coraline is of course written in the tradition of melodrama.

Part of the interest of a character is seeing them come to an understanding of what they want:

  • A teenager wants to stay out all night and party past curfew but what they really (also) want (need) is to show their parents that they are grown now, and don’t need to live life by their parents’ rules. (Young adult literature)
  • A toddler wants to eat ice cream instead of broccoli, but also wants/needs to show their parents they are the boss of what goes into their mouth. (Picture books)
  • A future king wants to overcome his stuttering in order to give a speech but wants/needs to prove to himself, his family and the public that he is up to a leadership role. (Adult film)

The most interesting goals will be an outworking of the main character’s deep-seated desire. Greg from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl wants love and wants to be accepted, which is precisely why he has made it his mission to cheer up the dying girl.

A common combo: The character knows what they want on the surface (the treasure, new shoes, to get away from the monster), but doesn’t understand themselves well enough to know what they want at a deeper level. This is where fairy stories come in. To use the word ‘fairy’ in the broadest sense, a fairy stands for a desire which cannot be expressed. Perhaps this desire is too terrifying to confront head-on. Perhaps it simply cannot be named.

WHEN WRITERS DON’T KNOW WHAT THEIR CHARACTERS WANT

As explained above, just as we often have conflicting desires, it is very common for people to not really know what we want. In narrative, this isn’t very satisfying to a modern audience. Plenty of characters don’t know what they want. That’s why they’re sitting around waiting for life to happen to them. But in a story, at some point they must either realise what it is they desire (based on psychological need) or not, in which case this will be their downfall. We all want many things. Janis Joplin wants a Mercedes Benz, a colour TV,  and a night on the town. That’s just the conscious desire, by the way. What she really wants is to be valued as much as her friends are.

CHARACTER DESIRE AND WOMEN

Most of the storytelling gurus work for screenwriters and are men. I would like to add to the discussion: Female characters, in fiction as in real life, will attract audience criticism for expressing certain desires and it’s important for writers to understand this basic gender difference sexism when creating a story. Jill Soloway (non-binary) is one of the big name California writers, and has this to say about women and desire as it relates to their experience directing in the macho world of Hollywood:

Women are shamed for having desire for anything — for food, for sex, for anything. We’re asked to only be the object for other people’s desire. There’s nothing that directing is about more than desire. It’s like, ‘I want to see this. I want to see it with this person. I want to change it. I want to change it again.’ It’s like directing is female desire over and over again, and film is the capturing of human emotions and somehow men were able to swindle us into believing that that is their specialty. All they told us our whole life is we’re too emotional to do any real jobs, yet they’ve taken the most emotional job, which is art making about human emotions and said we’re not capable of it.

Jill Soloway calls for a matriarchal revolution: There is a “state of emergency when it comes to the female voice”

Jill Soloway recently adapted I Love Dick for TV — a story which is in its entirety about the most taboo female desires.

I don’t care how you see me, I don’t care if you want me. It’s better that you don’t. It’s enough that I want you.

the main female character to an imaginary male object of desire

If characters must have desire in order to be interesting and, as Jill Soloway has noticed, women aren’t permitted desire in the dominant culture, it follows that any female characters are likely to be less interesting than male characters, relegated to supporting roles and turned into objects. There are many, many examples, but here’s one:

It’s rare to see any film, much less a PG-13 one for broad audiences, present a woman as a sex object as blatant as Lady Lisa, a fantasy who falls into a man’s arms without so much as a word

from review of Pixels in Vanity Fair. Pixels was released in 2015.

Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick is a response to this long history of storytelling. Perhaps there are some desires which are more specific to women. Jane Caro mentions Hugh McKay’s book What Makes Us Tick in this article, in which Caro expands her definition of feminism to mean, basically: The desire to be taken seriously. That’s the desire of many women, and of many female characters in particular.

DESIRE AND CHARACTER EMPATHY

In fiction there’s a surefire way to set up the villain of the piece: The villain is the one who wants money and power. Especially power.

THE ROLE OF OPPONENTS

Somebody’s got to want something, something’s got to be standing in their way of getting it. You do that and you’ll have a scene.

Aaron Sorkin

DESIRE AND WRITING SCENES

This is a tip from Karl Iglesias in Writing For Emotional Impact. In each scene, the lead character of that scene will have a desire. If sketching out a story plan, Iglesias advises phrasing that character’s desire in relation to that person’s opponents in the scene:

NOT: Spongebob goes to the Krabby Patty hoping to get a job. INSTEAD: Spongebob goes to the Krabby Patty to persuade Mr Krabs and Squidward to give him a job.

The reason for doing so? To remind yourself that every dramatic scene requires conflict of desires. (For more on Spongebob, see this post.)

GENRE AND DESIRE

Each genre has its own desire line tropes.

Romance

For instance, in romance the reader knows that the main character wants to find love. Though what they really want is to find wholeness, and themselves reflected in another individual.

There are countless reasons to read romance novels and much to love about the genre. But ten months into my journey as a newbie romance reader, I’ve finally realized what I personally love so deeply and completely about romance: I always know what the character wants, and I know they’re going to get it. […] Characters in romance novels can be just as deep and nuanced as any other characters in fiction. They can want complicated or contradictory things; they can make mistakes; they can spend a hundred pages pining over the wrong person before finally realizing that it’s someone else who will make them happy. But unlike other kinds of fiction, the underlying current of desire, the thing that drives the plot, the mechanism that makes you turn pages—is never, ever a surprise.

Bookriot

Story Structure: Character Shortcoming, Need and Problem

Most writers are well-aware that a main character needs a shortcoming. 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.

Tricia Ebarvia

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 Genius Lisa Cron says that it’s the character’s internal struggle that makes the external struggle important.

What about children’s books? Do they follow the same rules?

Mostly, but not always. Some picture books do not feature characters with shortcoming. These stories tend to be of the carnivalesque variety. A few standout examples feature the reader as main character. These postmodern meta 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.

CHARACTER SHORTCOMING

I’ve seen plenty of students come in and say, I want to write a novel about blah blah blah. But you just can’t do it. You can only write a novel about a character who does something wrong, and see what happens from there. Novels are compendiums of bad behavior, and literature is the gossip about it.

Ethan Canin

According to the rules of story structure aimed at screenwriters and writers with an audience of adults…

Every Main Character Needs…

  1. A PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS: What are the fundamental flaws?
  2. 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 shortcoming.

Sometimes students seem shy about writing about people who do the wrong thing — we’re all taught to do the right thing and focus on the right thing. But all of literature is about people who do the wrong thing, despite themselves. What would the story be if they did the right thing? No story at all. Fiction wants to look at all the things that go wrong.

Chang-Rae Lee

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).

Wikipedia

Like anything, this ‘rule’ of story has developed some tropes. As an example:

Common Shortcomings of Young Women

This trope comes from the Gothic tradition.

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

The shortcoming of being ‘plain’ continues to be explored in young adult fiction today, as beauty privilege continues to be a thing in modern society.

An Outdated Way Of Showing Character Shortcoming

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 Shortcoming?

Or any shortcoming at all?

The short answer is that, yes, an interesting modern children’s book character needs at least a psychological shortcoming, and the story might also support a moral shortcoming. 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.

The Toronto Review Of Books

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:

  1. 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’ shortcoming rather than a psychological and moral one, which makes them far more generic and less interesting. For instance, a common cosmetic shortcoming 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 shortcomings. She is unconfident and needy but also fake-nice and backstabbing. Susan’s clumsiness has nothing to do with storytelling.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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 shortcoming and a moral shortcoming. 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 Shortcomings 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 shortcoming 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 shortcoming 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 shortcoming 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 shortcoming.

Psychological shortcomings are also common:

Even in children’s books, the most interesting and beloved characters do have both kinds of shortcoming. This character isn’t necessarily the viewpoint character.

  • Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd  Scarface is mean to the dogs but this particular story shows us that he is also a scaredy-cat underneath.
  • 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.)

CHARACTER NEED

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.

Psychology Today

CHARACTER PROBLEM

In children’s stories where there is no psychological or moral shortcoming 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.

There’s another kind of story where the ‘main character’ is the reader. Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek is 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 Brown is 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 shortcoming? Again the answer is not always, actually.

  • The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerberg is 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 big struggle 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 Schossow  is a wordless picture book which celebrates the joy of walking (flying) along a beach on a windy day.
complicated problem comic
comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

By the way, sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.