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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

“All you need is a plan… and courage.” This tag line could apply to a great number of stories.


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
Frank Stone - Plotting Mischief
Frank Stone – Plotting Mischief


  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 


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.


‘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.


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.


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)


When working out plans for your character, there are a few pitfalls.

Bogus alternatives: Cumbersome narration of infeasible actions which a character didn’t take because it would mess up the story. Usually goes overboard and includes long-winded explanations why. If you’re going to handwave past a dumb choice, the faster you do it, the better. (Lewis Shiner)

Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction


If you haven’t set up the character’s Shortcoming and Desire first, the plan will feel like “Runaround”:

Runaround. Frenetic activity by characters we don’t care about, usually in search of objects or goals we’re uninterested in seeing them achieve. Usually injected into action stories when the author realizes that he’s failing his dramatic objectives. Can be recognized when, although the action is fast and furious, the reader skims along with a glazed eye. Often the more spectacular the gore — e.g., the more bodies left on the battlefield at scene’s end — the greater the runaround, and the weaker the story. A tipoff of weak characterization. (CSFW: David Smith)

Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction

If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.

Jim Rohn, from Productive Life Concepts
Lemon girl young adult novella


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. What we want is influenced by society and acculturation, so a character’s desires will be affected by their past and present setting.

The word ‘desire’ is often used in the context of sexual desire, which connects to hunger (for food).

There are three sorts of appetites, described below by (unexpected) gastronome, Alexandre Dumas, in his Dictionary of Cuisine:

  1. Appetite that comes from hunger. It makes no fuss over the food that satisfies it. If it is great enough, a piece of raw meat will appease it as easily as a roasted pheasant or woodcock.
  2. Appetite aroused, hunger or no hunger, by a succulent dish appearing at the right moment, illustrating the proverb that hunger comes with eating.
  3. The third type of appetite is that roused at the end of a meal when, after normal hunger has been satisfied by the main courses, and the guest is truly ready to rise without regret, a delicious dish holds him to the table with a final tempting of his sensuality.

Decades later, in her book Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski talks about the difference between ‘responsive’ and ‘spontaneous’ desire. This difference between ‘responsive’ and ‘spontaneous’ is a useful concept for storytellers, because very often at the beginning of a narrative, characters don’t seem to want anything in particular.

Researchers have spent the last decade trying to develop a “pink pill” for women to function like Viagra does for men. So where is it? Well, for reasons this book makes crystal clear, that pill will never exist—but as a result of the research that’s gone into it, scientists in the last few years have learned more about how women’s sexuality works than we ever thought possible, and Come as You Are explains it all.

Every woman has her own unique sexuality, like a fingerprint, and that women vary more than men in our anatomy, our sexual response mechanisms, and the way our bodies respond to the sexual world. So we never need to judge ourselves based on others’ experiences. Because women vary, and that’s normal.

Second lesson: sex happens in a context. And all the complications of everyday life influence the context surrounding a woman’s arousal, desire, and orgasm.

Movies are still mostly showing us spontaneous sexual desire, though complex contemporary narrative seems to have moved on from the very old ‘Call To Adventure’ as described by Joseph Campbell. Interesting characters want things for a reason.

Angela Chen reminds us all that desire does not occur in a vacuum, and in fiction, too, your character wants what they want partly because they’ve been told they want it:

It is not enough to say that everyone should only do what they want. That’s a bromide that anyone can parrot and it ignores the ways that society pressures us to want certain things.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

Back to Kurt Vonnegut. According to Vonnegut, this thing characters think they want 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

Velleity: A wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action.

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:


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



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. 


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.)

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.

In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love…We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

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.)


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.


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.


Published in 1818, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was hugely influential, partly for affording The Other human emotions, turning him into a sympathetic character. This started a new form of Gothic literature which some people call the feminine Gothic.

Desire has always been a problematic issue for women (forbidden, suppressed, problematised, medicalised) so it’s natural that woman creators have messed with it through their art.

Desire plays a big part in feminine Gothic fiction. In Gothic texts there is generally some kind of violent separation at the beginning. In fact, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has gone so far as to say that separation is one of the most characteristic gothic conventions.


And so it follows that the character desires reconnection. Note that the desire for reconnection applies to a vast number of modern narratives.


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

Mauerbauertraurigkeit: The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.

Lachesism: The desire to be struck by diaster, e.g. to survive a plane crash or to lose everything in a fire.

Liberosis: The desire to care less about things.


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 book cover

(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

Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.

James W. Frick

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The female sit-com characters listed above demonstrate that a story can be successful even when they are basically aimless.

There is still much room in the world for stories about characters who think they know what they want, because everyone else seems to want it, but who then question their mimetic desire:

In theory, mimetic desire can be perfectly fine. In practice, the world is not a neutral place. … If you don’t know who you are or what you want, the world will decide for you. It will show you a couple of options and tell you those are the only ones. As so many people throughout this book have said, it takes active work to step back, to create even enough space to take a breath and admit that maybe you don’t know what you want, but what has been offered has never felt right. … It takes active work to step back, to create even enough space to take a breath and admit that maybe you don’t know what you want, but what has been offered has never felt right.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

Naturally, child characters aren’t going to know what it is they want. Knowing what we want takes maturity and reflection.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Peripheral character ego. The antidote to superman syndrome, the legitimate desire of peripheral characters to be doing something even when being ignored by the protagonists and author. Every peripheral character should behave (whether onstage or off) as if he or she is the most important actor in the story, with his or her own genuine motivations and independence. Tom Stoppard, the maestro of this conceit, built it into a whole play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. (CSFW: David Smith)

Glossary of Terms Useful When Critiquing Science Fiction


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.)


Each genre has its own desire tropes.


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.


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.


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 SHORTCOMING: What are the fundamental flaws?
  2. A MORAL SHORTCOMING: 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).


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

As mentioned above: The two-fold shortcoming required for a good story is psychological and moral. A shortcoming that exists as a result of disability is not what we’re talking about here.

One of the reasons own voices stories are so important: Too many writers are making use of a disability as a shortcoming. Most people will recognise when a writer is falling into this trap with physical disability, but like invisible disabilities themselves, most people don’t seem to recognise it happening when invisibile disability is used as a narrative shortcoming.

For a case study in what not to do, check out this review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine at Penchant Blog. The author has said that Eleanor Oliphant is not written as autistic. She said this despite writing Eleanor Oliphant as the popular stereotype of an autistic person. Eleanor Oliphant’s narrative shortcomings will therefore be coded as autistic shortcomings by a large section of readers, despite what the author has said in her paratextual author interviews.

What if a blind person’s blindness were used as their shortcoming? What if a wheelchair user’s inability to walk up stairs were used as their narrative shortcoming? The ideological problems are far easier to pinpoint when the disabilities are obvious to outsiders.

To spell out the ideological issues in the clearest way I know how: In a story, a main character’s shortcoming will be challenged over the course of the story. The main character will either grow or not (in the case of a tragedy). The reason disability cannot work as a shortcoming: A disability is a part of someone, often part of someone’s identity, and is not something to be overcome, and not something tragic if it’s not ‘overcome’. Nor is it okay for one character’s disability be used as the basis for another character’s arc.

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Character Shortcoming and Romanticism

The Ancient Greeks thought of love differently from how we do today. The Ancient Greeks thought that love was an attraction to virtue, perfection and accomplishment.

Then the Romantics came along and changed storytelling from the middle of the 1800s onwards. We are still living under the ideas of the Romantics today. Romantics believe all sorts of misguided things about love, and one of them is that each of us has a soul mate, a perfect match for us, and once we find that person and get together with them, true love means we never criticise each other and find the ability to gloss over each other’s shortcomings. Therefore, to criticise one’s spouse is considered the inverse of love, which it’s really not at all. It means we care enough to criticise them, and feel safe enough, within our mutual love, to do so.

It seems to me that modern love stories oftentimes straddle those two notions of love. The heroine and love interest in a romance genre story will each be given shortcomings, sure, but only ‘fake’, adorable shortcomings.

The willingness to please, a tendency to clumsiness, a sardonic sense of humour. That sort of thing.

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.

Perhaps a better way of wording this storytelling requirement: Children in stories shouldn’t always ‘do the right thing’.

[Julia] Donaldson’s books are not for children’s benefit, but their enjoyment. “Her stories are never twee,” [David] Walliams said. “There is often real danger, and her characters don’t always do the right thing. The result is that the books are proper page-turners.” The quick-witted hero always bests the villain, the brave snail/fish/stick overcomes great peril to find their way home.

The Guardian

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 thirteen. This is no doubt related to The Magical Age of 12 in children’s literature. (There’s nothing in the Bible, however, to suggest thirteen 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.)


When main characters (heroes) have very clear and reprehensible moral shortcomings, we then call them ‘antiheroes’. In recent times, stories with antiheroes have proved very popular with audiences, notably in prestige TV.

Howard Suber in his book The Power Of Film argues that there is no such thing as an antihero, only those who act heroically and those who do not. Another problem is with the misleading name. Suber has noticed the word ‘antihero’ suggests a character who is ‘anti’ (against) the hero, but this is not what it means at all. Characters called ‘antiheroes’ are ‘not yet heroes’.

Christopher Vogler has said the same thing:

 Definition of Antihero

Anti-hero is a slippery term that can cause a lot of confusion. Simply stated, an anti-hero is not the opposite of a hero, but a specialized kind of hero, one who may be an outlaw or a villain from the point of view of society, but with whom the audience is basically in sympathy. We identify with these outsiders because we have all felt like outsiders at one time or another.

The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler

Perhaps Suber and Vogler would prefer the term ‘unhero’, though the unhero is a comic character and doesn’t tend to rise above his ordinariness:

The un-hero is most similar among the types of heroes to the everyman, with a key exception: he rarely ends up being a proper hero. Generally, the un-hero is in all the wrong places at all the wrong times and does more to hinder the cause of good/justice/world-saving than to help it. Somehow though, through cosmic confluence or the intervention of a more traditional hero, everything works out in the end and the un-hero is heaped with the credit.

This is generally a less serious heroic form and should be reserved for a less serious work.

J.S. Morin

The Function Of The Antihero

Antiheroes are fun to watch. We get to see characters breaking boundaries we’ve fantasised about breaking in our own lives. A lot of the time, antiheroes have the witty comebacks. They are ace with a handgun, always prepared and very organised. These people would actually make great workmates if they were working on the side of good.

In thematic terms, antiheroes play another role. By transgressing social norms and legal boundaries they ask the audience to reflect upon what is okay and what isn’t okay. Breaking Bad did this very well, though I believe the writers overestimated the reflective powers of a vast majority of their viewing audience. If you’ve seen Vince Gilligan interviewed, you’ll know that he expected his audience to stop siding with Walt and take the side of characters such as Skyler after a while. This didn’t happen for much of the audience, who are like ducklings, falling in love with the first character they are encouraged to bond with. Breaking Bad and the discussion that happened online around that time, with much hatred directed towards the character of Skyler, and to the actress who played her, offers insight into the Duckling Phenomenon.

A Brief History Of Storytelling That Lead Us Here: To The Age Of The TV Antihero

Tony Soprano, antihero poster boy
Tony Soprano, antihero poster boy

In the 19th century, you maybe spent an hour a day reading a novel, two hours a month watching a play. That was all the storytelling done by professionals for you. People now see that much storytelling every day. Theater became Broadway, then radio, movies, and TV. It all happened in the 20th century.

All the arts in the 20th century exhausted themselves technically. By the time Ad Reinhardt painted a canvas black from edge to edge and said it’s a painting, the form was over. Music had been explored down to noise. Every technical possibility had been explored. All possible techniques.

So I was thinking, Since all the arts have reached the black canvas, what was going to become of story? Where would writers go in the 21st century?

I realized there is one aspect of human nature that really hasn’t been exploited and explored: evil. You have dark characters like Iago, great villains who are diabolical and evil, but it’s a pure evil. Human beings are very rarely pure evil, and storytelling hadn’t truly explored the complexity of realistic evil.

And then, a few years later, came all these great long-form series, which opened an exploration of evil. There was The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, even Mad Men. With all these great series, you get complex, good/evil characters.

Robert McKee in a Vice interview

Rise of the Female Antihero

When storytelling gurus talk about antiheroes, you’ll notice they offer male characters as examples. But before we had Tony Soprano, we had Carrie Bradshaw. It can be argued that the main female characters of Sex And The City were antiheroes in their own way — Carrie would alternately seem sympathetic but next minute she’d do something most of the audience wouldn’t identify with at all. This is an essential element of the fictional antihero.

More recently we have a complex, fascinating female antihero in Animal Kingdom’s Janine Cody (aka Smurf). The discussion around this character is often about what makes a ‘good mother’, a discussion I don’t remember James Gandolfini being asked to comment on. Society has higher expectations for mothers than for fathers, and this is reflected in stories.

I expect we will see more female antiheroes on screen. Because of that gendered expectation differential, it’s actually better sometimes to have a female antihero, if you really want the audience to pass judgement. Imagine how different the discussion would have been if Skyler White had been the main character of Breaking Bad.

I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels […] We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathise with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But the traits we love in many male heroes—their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikable character.”

In Defence Of Unlikeable Women

In Defence Of Unlikeable Women

More recently, in her book The Logic of Misogyny, philosopher Kate Manne has coined the word ‘himpathy’ to explain the extra empathy we afford men as a patriarchal default. It is therefore more difficult to write empathetic male anti-heroes than empathetic female antiheroes. Anyone who successfully manages it should be applauded. Then again, if we as readers don’t ‘like’ or ’empathise’ with a female antihero, perhaps it’s not actually the fault of the writer? Perhaps we are himpaths.

So, what exactly makes someone an anti-heroine on film? A ‘catch-all’ definition is this: someone who does bad shit for good reasons. A woman who’s flawed, but in the most relatable and almost inspiring of ways (because aren’t we all?), and whose decisions and development unfold on screen independently of their male counterparts.

They’re the Thelmas and the Lousies, the Beatrix Kiddos. We’re now saying buh-bye to the Disney princesses from our youth, who were (and remain; sorry Emma Watson/Belle) almost impossibly virtuous, beautiful and small-waisted. The anti-heroine of today is messy, gritty and imperfect in a more ways than one, often navigating her life with a moral compass that could probably use a service.

We don’t love that Veronica from Heathers literally kills a whole bunch of people, but her reasons for doing so resonate with us (in any case, who DOESN’T love our girl Wynona, even when she’s a murderous high-schooler?). Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne is arguably batshit, but is there anyone who hasn’t thought of a real-life application for her ‘cool girl’ monologue at least once since hearing it for the first time?

‘Three Billboards’ Shows The Anti-Heroine Is Finally On The Rise, Junkee

Further Reading On The Antihero

  1. Are You Sick Of TV Antiheroes from LA Times
  2. The Top 10 Fictional Antiheroes from Litreactor. It would seem most antiheroes are male, but this list includes some women.
  3. A great definition of antihero, and a list of examples, can be found at TV Tropes.
  4. The Likability Trap: We like to root for the antihero, but not for the antiheroine, from Bitch Media
  5. A Day In the Life of a Troubled Male Antihero from Toast
  6. Writing The Antihero (And Why So Many Authors Get It Wrong) from The Passive Voice


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


Every hero needs both an inner and outer problem. In developing fairy tales for Disney Feature Animation, we often find that writers can give the heroes a good outer problem: Can the princess manage to break an enchantment on her father who has been turned to stone? Can the hero get to the top of a glass mountain and win a princess’s hand in marriage? Can Gretel rescue Hansel from the Witch? But sometimes writers neglect to give the characters a compelling inner problem to solve as well…They need to learn something in the course of the story: how to get along with others, how to trust themselves, how to see beyond outward appearances. Audiences love to see characters learning, growing, and dealing with the inner and outer challenges of life.

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

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.

Lemon girl young adult novella


The Blood Bay by Annie Proulx Short Story Analysis

At around the same time Annie Proulx published “The Blood Bay”, an episode of Six Feet Under saw Claire in big trouble for stealing a severed foot from her family’s funeral business and taking it with her to school. That episode, like this story, was darkly funny and made use of someone’s severed foot.

Six Feet Under, like The Blood Bay, uses a severed foot as prop in a darkly humorous episode.
Scene from Six Feet Under

It was inevitable that a TV series called something about feet would have to at one point make use of an actual foot. Dark comedy involving the loss of someone’s severed foot was used more recently in episode seven of season two of Animal Kingdom. (“Dig”)

While this is icky, North Americans haven’t been so squeamish about carrying around rabbits’ feet for good luck. Larry McMurtry writes of that practice in his cowboy novels. (Only the left hind foot is lucky.)

Severed human hands have a stronger history in folklore than severed feet. Characters with severed hands tend to be either victims, or monster-like villains. For more on that see Severed Hands as Symbols of Humanity in Legend and Popular Narrative by Scott White. The severed, walking hand also makes for a memorable horror scene.


The year of this story — the winter of 1886-87 — is offered first thing, because there’s something the author needs us to understand from the get-go: This is a tall tale and it supposedly happened a long time ago. This means the tale might not be terribly true. It is sure to have been embellished as it was handed down the generations. It’s not just the year itself which is significant, but the long-agoness of it.

Valley of Wyoming depicting an approximate vista similar to that of The Blood Bay
Valley Of Wyoming, Jasper Francis Cropsey, 1865

If you’ve read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series, the final two books take place around about the same era. This is the era of the Wild West, of cowboys, where life is pretty cheap but boots cost an arm and a leg. It’s humans up against the weather, where farmers eke out a living without the conveniences and technologies enjoyed today by farmers, who still have bad years even now.


It’s not easy to pick the main character in some of Annie Proulx’s short stories. That’s because, by her own admission, she doesn’t tend to write about people but about entire communities. Take Brokeback Mountain. That’s about a homophobic society more than it’s about Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Likewise, this is a snapshot of cowboy culture, in which death is so common that it might even happen that an old man be so easily fooled.

So I will try to make out the story structure using the cast of characters rather than taking a single hero.

This story makes use of what might be called a McGuffin — one of Hitchcock’s storytelling terms. Once that initial dude with the fancy boots succumbs to hypothermia readers don’t give him a second thought. His journey was used to get the story going. That’s a McGuffin.


In this environment the human inhabitants are at a huge disadvantage: They’re never very far from death. That’s their biggest shortcoming, and is common to Proulx’s Wyoming stories.

The cowboys don’t have much money but they do need to stay the night. They feel they’ve been ripped off. If money were no object, this story wouldn’t fly. Poverty is at the base of most of  Proulx’s Wyoming stories.

The farmer’s biggest shortcoming is that he’s gullible, though this fact is kept for the punchline at the end.

The cowboys are based on the trickster archetype from fairytales — still a very popular archetype in modern stories. But there’s a twist — these guys never set out to be tricksters — they are opportunists who don’t speak out when they see things swinging to their advantage. That describes many of us, doesn’t it?


The cowboys want to get somewhere. One of them needs new boots. (We’ve already seen how perilous it can be to travel with substandard equipment.) The farmer needs to earn a living and he does this by taking in cowpokes and charging them for room and board.


The cowboys are at odds with the farmer because they feel they shouldn’t have to pay that amount for one night’s room and board.


One cowboy rides off early having failed to politely dispose of the thawed feet cut from the fancy boots.

The other two have no plan other than to keep mum once the farmer wakes up, finds the feet and refunds their money.


The ‘big struggle’ scene is the discovery of the feet. It works beautifully because of Annie Proulx’s wonderful dialogue:

“There’s a bad start to the day,” he said, “it is a man’s foot and there’s the other.” He counted the sleeping guests. There were only two of them. “Wake up survivors, for god’s sake wake up and get up.”

The two punchers rolled out, stared wild-eyed at the old man who was fairly frothing, pointing at the feet and the floor behind the blood bay.

“He’s ate Sheets. Ah, I knew he was a hard horse, but to eat a man whole You savage bugger,” he screamed at the blood bay and drove him out into the scorching cold.


It’s a wonderful touch that the farmer is secretly proud that his horse can eat most of a raw cowboy. But I wouldn’t call this any kind of revelation — the farmer is duped and remains so.

The reader is reminded of the harshness of this milieu. The cowpokes don’t put the old man out of his misery, and why bother? People die out here all the time. There’s no real moral dilemma for them.


The farmer is down a night’s room and board. Two of the cowboys got a free night with good food. The other ended up with nice boots.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Shirley The Medium Courage The Cowardly Dog

“Shirley The Medium” is an original recomposition of elements from diverse sources:

  1. Pandora’s Box, the Ancient Greek Myth
  2. A Christmas Carol, Dickens
  3. Modern TV psychics
establishing shot
establishing shot



Courage is unable to tell Eustace not to open the box. He is a dog and can’t speak English. Besides that, the adults don’t listen to him anyway.

Also, in this episode, one shortcoming is that Courage needs to please his owners, even though one of them is outright horrible. When he digs up a locked box he hands it over to Eustace after overhearing Eustace complaining about his dead brother’s box of money. This leads to no end of trouble.


Courage wants to prevent Eustace from opening a box.


There is a different desire, however, to set off the action. Courage wants to find his yo-yo. He runs out into the yard and searches through his hole, which is the child-dog equivalent of a child’s toy box. 

hunting for his yoyo
hunting for his yo-yo

The yo-yo could easily be treated as a McGuffin — something used to start the story off and then forgotten. But the yo-yo subplot is revived later for comic effect when Shirley the Medium exclaims, “I see… I see… A yo-yo! Under the couch!”


The first we see of Shirley is her eerie hand knocking on the door.
The first we see of Shirley is her eerie hand knocking on the door.
Shirley is revealed to be a small, rather cute cat.
Despite the creepy hand, Shirley is revealed to be a small, rather cute cat.

There is plenty of opportunity for conflict in this episode.

  1. The dead brother, comically named ‘Horse’. Muriel tells us that there was always a long-running feud between Eustace and Horse. Eustace’s reaction to Horse on his birthday is comically over-the-top: “We have settled our differences. He’s dead and I’m not!” In the Pandora mythology, Prometheus (“Foresight”) and his brother Epimetheus (“Hindsight”) likewise have a problematic relationship.
  2. Shirley the Medium, who Eustace dislikes — because Eustace automatically dislikes everyone. In this case he doesn’t like handing over money for a service he feels hasn’t been provided. Courage, too, knows that nothing good will come of Shirley’s helping to open the box.
  3. Between Eustace and Muriel — Muriel is conciliatory whereas Eustace alienates.
  4. Between Courage and Eustace/Muriel, who won’t listen to him.
  5. The Minotaur opponent: The ghouls inside the box. (This is also the least interesting opponent.)

Cleverly, the audience is not shown the ghouls. Instead we see Courage watching the ghouls.

Courage looks through the keyhole. This feels like the end of Rosemary’s Baby, where the audience never gets to see ‘the baby’, only the characters’ reactions to the heinous thing. This trope is out of cosmic horror, in which storytellers acknowledge that creatures left to the imagination will always be far more scary than creatures described in full.

We’re offered a taste of ghoulishness when we see Courage transmogrify.



Courage always has the same plan.

One of the many comic coincidences
One of the many comic coincidences

This story is similar to the mattress episode in that the plan comes from Muriel and Eustace initially. Muriel wants Eustace to wish Horse a happy birthday while Eustace wants to connect with his brother in order to find out what he did with the key to his box of money, which Courage has found while looking for his yo-yo, and naively handed over. The interesting comic technique here is piling coincidence upon coincidence. All of these things are happening at once:

  1. It’s Horse’s birthday
  2. Courage just happens to find a box of money while looking for his yo-yo
  3. Eustace just happens to mention the box of money
  4. An advertisement for a psychic medium comes on the telly just as they’re discussing Horse and his unwillingness to spill the beans on the money.

We can make the most of these coincidences when writing comedy. That many coincidences piled up are themselves comic.

Courage has already looked into the box and knows there’s nothing good inside. He tries to alert the people who can help. Eustace throws him aside (literally). Muriel is of a much kinder nature and unwittingly shuts him up by shoving a taste-test of jam into his mouth.


He tries to stop the medium coming into the house, to no avail.

a high angle shot, as if from the heavens
a high angle shot, as if from the heavens, or the realm of the Immortal
Shirley in a trance
Shirley in a comical trance

With Muriel and Eustace’s plan winning out, we are treated to a highly comedic sequence in which Muriel talks to Gertrude, Horse’s dead wife, and the first thing they talk about is how much vinegar to use when making jam. This starts off the jam-making subplot which will keep Muriel occupied in the kitchen while Eustace is hell bent on opening the box. There is also a dial tone ringing. The seance is treated like a realworld telephone call. Eustace, exclaims, “He never answers my calls!”

The phone theme is continued when, unable to speak to Eustace using human language, it turns out he is able to (perhaps) be understood if he is calling on a phone. This implies that the only reason Eustace cannot understand Courage is because he knows from his form that he is a dog, and if only he were to listen closely enough he’d understand perfectly. The great thing about the setting is that it is completely desolate, so when the writers plonk a phone booth out there the juxtaposition provides humour.


Eustace does find out however that his brother has sewn the key to the box inside the lining of Eustace’s hat.

After the big struggle scene, Courage must change his plan. He goes to find Shirley the Medium so she can put the situation right. He carries her back to the house for a second time where she, and only, she has the power to (simply) shut the box.

Although it is Shirley who puts the finishing touches on saving the day, the main saviour is Courage, who not only retrieves Shirley, but has the idea of tying the house up with rope so that at least the ghouls are contained. He gets the rope from the washing line.


Hilariously, on the cusp of imminent death, Muriel asks if he’s folded up the washing first. (He has. “What a good dog!”)


The ‘thread thread’ is continued across scenes — when Courage reaches Shirley at her TV studio she happens to be flossing her teeth. This is a clever transition.



This episode has a moral: Greed will lead you to trouble. There’s nothing subtle about it. We’ve already seen in a previous episode another deadly sin utilised — both Eustace and his mother are vain (about their lack of hair). Greed is associated with the colour green — possibly more so in America, where money is literally green — so it’s fitting that the whole room light up green when Eustace opens the box.



Eustace finds himself shut inside the box and is delighted to see piles and piles of money.

Eustace inside the box
Eustace inside the box — outside view

“But… what can I spend it on?” he asks didactically. The message is obvious. This is a message that’s been done seriously many times before, perhaps most famously in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This cartoon doesn’t really exist to teach a message. Instead, the anagnorisis part of the story is a requirement of a complete narrative, and it must exist here no matter how ‘on-the-nose’ it is. In fact, its on-the-nose quality add to the humour. It’s funny that Eustace hasn’t already learned this simple life lesson.

The box is a tardis machine — much bigger on the inside than on the outside.


The house itself has had its ‘belt tightened’ — a commonly understood English idiom to indicate austerity.

The jam subplot is concluded with Muriel sitting on the rocking chair eating it out of the pot. Eustace calls out from the box, “Hey, can I buy some jam?” Muriel says he can eat jam just as soon as they find the key for the box.


The best of the Courage episodes have excellent closing scenes in which Courage turns to the audience and delivers a joke just for them. Here he reveals to us that he is hiding the key in his mouth. Young viewers love to feel included in this way, and feel fully on side with Courage.

Lemon girl young adult novella


The Shadow Of Courage, Courage The Cowardly Dog

At first I wondered if the title “The Shadow Of Courage” were a riff on The Red Badge Of Courage but no — apart from the grammatical structure and perhaps some of the themes (of bravery vs cowardice) this plot line borrows little from the classic American novel.

Shadows who disentangle themselves from their bodies are a staple of horror, and especially, perhaps, of camp horror comedy.


The Moon

Set in ‘Nowhere’, the moon in this particular story is even more important than usual. The very first image we see is of a huge moon. We see it again and again. The moon, we are lead to believe, has something to do with anthropomorphised shadows.

See also: The Rule Of Oversized Moons In Picturebooks


The house of Eustace and Muriel itself is a dream house, with the kitchen as a metonym for happiness (during the day and when Muriel is working away in it) but a terrifying prison by night. When Courage makes mischief after Eustace locks him in the attic, Eustace threatens that next he’ll be ‘sleeping with the termites’. This is a real threat because in the dream house there is only one place more terrifying than the attic, and that is the basement.

See: Symbolism Of The Dream House 

Mismatched Shadows

A trick sometimes utilised in graphic design is seen in the two images below, in which the shadow cast differs from the person/object casting the shadow. It’s generally used for ominous effect, but could also be comical. I use it in our picture book app Midnight Feast to show how the main character is angry at being sent back to bed.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds movie poster
The Shadow magazine cover
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912, Kay Nielson
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912, Kay Nielson


In this story we have elements of

  • “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”
  • A psychological thriller, in which a character doubts his own sanity


Courage is terrified of the thunderstorm outside. He imagines a burglar breaking and entering.


Unfortunately for Courage, he first coaxes Eustace and Muriel out of bed by telling them (via transmogrification) that there is a burglar in the house. When it turns out there is no such burglar Eustace and Muriel are disinclined to believe him when a real baddie enters the house. That’s where The Boy Who Cries Wolf analogy comes in.


He wants to save his family from the intruder, whatever it is. This is the same in every episode.


The opponent, as in the previous Courage story, is introduced to us first. At first we think the main opponent of this story might be the evil old man looking at the moon through his telescope. But he soon dies of a heart attack.

Here is the establishing shot of the aristocrat’s house. He lives all alone in a big, dark mansion. We know that no good comes to old people who live alone in massive houses.

See Old Dark House at TV Tropes

You know that old, foreboding house up on the top of the hill, surrounded by thick forests, and accessible only by a single bridge that has a tendency to wash out during every rainstorm? Yeah, that one. Have you ever noticed that it always seems to attract eclectic groups of strangers who get invited for the reading of a will or a dinner party with a mysterious host? And why is it that the strangers keep getting killed off, one by one, during the night? It must be one of them doing it? But which?


Next, we think the opponent of this story might actually be the butler, who has just been fired and looks about to turn evil. In fact, the butler is just a McGuffin. We don’t wonder what happens to him after he throws down his napkin and runs off, free for the first time in 50 years.


We then see the dead aristocrat’s shadow morph into a shape on the wall, taking on a life of its own. This is the real opponent of this story.

The viewer is shown right away that this shadow is playful in nature. First it terrifies a little girl eating an ice cream.

After she runs away it terrifies the scoop of ice cream she has dropped on the ground, which wobbles in fright. As a show for little kids, it’s important to establish that the baddie is playful/hapless/ironic/quirky.

As usual, Eustace is another of Courage’s long-term opponents. Not least because it is Eustace who locks Courage in the attic.


Eustace takes great delight in scaring Courage for fun and criticising him for failing to be a real dog, which strikes me as a variation on fathers jibing their sons for failing to be a real man. Here he scares him, but when Muriel enters and whacks him on the head with a rolling pin he gets his comeuppance and the audience is pleased that justice has been served.



The worst thing that could happen to Courage right now happens — Eustace locks him in the attic all alone. From the third-floor window he can see the evil approaching.


He breaks out to tell Eustace and Muriel, which is always his first plan — taken, of course, from the nature of real dogs.


Although this series features a 1950s sensibility, Courage uses the Internet to find out how to defeat an evil shadow. This series was made in the early days of the Internet and the writers make a joke out of the way Google asks if you really mean such-and-such. It’s hard to remember now that this was ever novel.



There is an extended big struggle sequence as the evil shadow chases first Courage then Eustace around the house.


At one point Courage is hiding under the sink and Eustace in the fridge. We don’t know where Eustace is hiding until he emerges, which heightens the comedy. He has also lost his hat. Eustace’s baldness is also a source of amusement.


Eustace starts to doubt his own sanity, running around his own house chased by a shadow.


The Evil Shadow turns out to be a meek and mild character who has been held captive by his evil aristocrat for many years. He’s always wanted to work in show business and is really not evil at all.



For the short future, at least, Eustace and Courage are just a bit more afraid of shadows than they were before. When Muriel comes back to bed they first see her hair in curlers and are terrified once again.


In a scene reminiscent of E.T., the shadow flies into the sky because Courage has suggested he be the shadow of a star.

Lemon girl young adult novella


More! by Peter Schossow Picture Book Analysis

Peter Schossow’s picture book More! is wordless in the same way Robert Redford’s All Is Lost is wordless: Both contain one spoken word, imbued with huge weight accordingly.


Gecko Press brought this book from German to English in 2010, and have also translated another of Schossow’s works: My First Car Was Red.

Even a ‘wordless’ picture book follows the typical story arc.



A man is small and helpless compared to the forces of nature.


The man would like to enjoy a walk along the shore.


The wind, who blows off his hat.


He will chase the hat.


The big struggle takes place over a number of double spreads, and we see the man thrown higher and higher into the air, until he is level with an aeroplane.


He likes it!


He will let himself get swept up in the wind again.


Ask a child the colour of sky and they’ll tell you ‘blue’. They get this from picturebooks, perhaps. In reality, the sky is many colours. But in this picturebook we have a distinctly green hue. Why? What was behind this choice?

Well, the thing about green is, it feels otherworldly. Green is associated with the subconscious; it’s thought we see green just before passing out (though I haven’t given this a go). The other thing is, a green sky means the sky is part of the land. There is no real distinction between land and sky. Did this story really happen, or is it entirely in the man’s imagination?

Notice the sun, also — this is not a distinctly delineated circle but rather a roundish glow, suggestive of some sort of magical haze. Yet at the end of the book we have a crescent moon. Over the course of a day the sky changes from bright to dark, but in this story the sky remains the same otherworldly hue of green. It’s only once you notice the moon that you realise the man has been flying in the wind all day. This is not the first time he’s asked to go again!

Though this is not a Christmas book, the colour palette is made up of green, white and the red of the man’s trousers and scarf. Red and green are complementary colours, so shouldn’t be commandeered by Christmas, sure.

This limited palette means the man is the same colour as the bits of rubbish blowing in the breeze.

This character has a very big nose. In fact, the nose is the first thing we see of him. I thought it was a chin. Then I realised the nose matches the shape of the shoes; these are big clodhoppers of shoes which should plant the man firmly upon the ground.

I’m left with one question though: What happened to his dog? Normally if the story starts with a dog it reappears on the final page. Did the dog get sick of him and go home alone? I believe the dog is an example of a picturebook McGuffin. The dog is the reason the man sets off on a walk in the first place, but after the inciting incident, the audience (generally) doesn’t think about the dog again. And it does work. For me, the dog’s fate was a refrigerator moment.


The colour of the sky in this picture book is a little unusual — green rather than standard blue. When the sky is green in art it often denotes the fantasy realm.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Olivia And The Missing Toy by Ian Falconer (2003) Analysis

Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer shows Olivia the Pig at her most bratty, and her parents at their most indulgent.

There are several versions of the book cover of Olivia and the Missing Toy, and the dark one is the scarier of the two.

Olivia and the Missing Toy scary

The other is mostly white space, in keeping with most of the Olivia series. This book has a gothic episode in it — a definite spoof, with knowing use of the cliche “dark and stormy night”. Below, Margaret Blount explains one reason Olivia is a pig and not a little girl:

Even more suburbanised is Russell Hoban’s Frances where the child/animal substitution is so complete as to be unnoticeable. Frances the Badger is a small girl afraid of the dark, tucked up in bed but constantly annoying her parents by coming downstairs and interrupting the television. Why make her into an animal at all? The cosy delights of the Badger household — so like a human one — do remove the situation one or two degrees away from discomfort; some children are afraid of the dark, do dislike being alone.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

As for Olivia the pig, love her or hate her. Olivia is one popular children’s book character who pisses a lot of parents off, judging by reviews I have read online. While I don’t have a problem with some of the Olivia stories, this particular one annoys the hell out of me. That tends to happen when an adult reader sees a parenting style in a picture book with which we disagree. Here we have a demanding brat, an acquiescent mother and a father who is quick to say ‘I’ll buy you a new one’ after Olivia’s own carelessness with a toy.

I don’t think this is one of Falconer’s best. And it doesn’t just apply to the indulgent parents and bratty child character; the story structure is also a little odd and I don’t think it works. Why not? Let’s take a closer look.



riding a camel in egypt

The story actually opens with ‘One day Olivia was riding a camel in Europe…’ but unfortunately this is the most interesting part of the story and ends there. She wakes up and this was all a dream. I’m not sure how much Falconer has had to do with young children at the time he wrote this book, but I know very few Olivia’s age who need waking up by their parents. At this age they tend to leap out of bed earlier than everyone else in the house (unless their parents let them choose their own bedtimes, I suppose.) What is the reason for this opening? For one thing we do see the precious toy on the back of the camel. This shows how important the toy is to the character.

Shortcoming: Olivia is possibly too attached to a stuffed toy.

Next, Olivia does not like the colour of her soccer shirt.

She does not want to look like everyone else on her soccer team, even though the whole point of the uniform is to look like everyone else. (Explained by the mother.)

This particular shortcoming does not endear me to this character, as I feel it’s a self-absorbed and bratty kind of trait.


Olivia wants her mother to make her a red soccer shirt to replace the team green one. (The mother initially points out why this is a bad idea, then sets to work making the shirt anyway, on her sewing machine.)

This desire doesn’t work for me as a reader because soccer simply doesn’t work if everyone is wearing a random coloured shirt. The story should have been shut down right there.


The opponent is introduced before we find out his exact mischief, and interestingly, we only see half of his little body at first. (The rest is off the page — as is the mischief.)

This is a nice technique.

An adult reader might be thinking Olivia’s true opponents are her over-indulgent parents. (They are making a monster.)


When Olivia realises her toy is missing she:

  • Demands to know where it is by yelling at her mother.
  • Yells even more loudly in her bedroom.
  • Looks everywhere, including under the rug, under the sofa and under the (long-suffering) cat.
  • Asks her little brother, and yells at him accusingly.
  • Asks her baby brother, and yells at him even more loudly. (Volume is conveyed via capitalisation and font size.)
what did you do witih my toy
In this scene my empathy switches to the younger brother.

When none of these behaviours result in the location of the toy, Olivia gets up at night and plays the piano. (How this doesn’t wake the entire family, I’m not sure.) While giving up the hunt for the beloved toy is realistic given her young age, readers do love heroes who persevere. Olivia is neither a persevering nor a patient pig. (She is, however, petulant and possessive, riffing on the p’s.)

Somebody took my best toy


With the switch to the gothic genre, signified by the darkened rooms, the candelabra, the realistically depicted lightning bolt which illuminates the bars on the window, and finally by the scary noise, Olivia checks out the sound coming from behind the door.

dark and stormy night


Olivia finds her toy, but there is no anagnorisis. She runs to her parents (it’s now the next morning, and yet again we have another stereotypical depiction of the father reading the newspaper while the mother cares for the youngest kid), and Olivia tattle-tales on the dog, expecting her parents to do something about the situation. The mother expresses her condolences. The father says, “Don’t worry, tomorrow we’ll go get you the best toy in the whole world.”

I really really want him to say, “Serves you right for leaving it lying around. Now go fix it.”

Fortunately, despite the indulgent parenting style of her parents, Olivia decides to fix the toy herself and shows great initiative by sewing it up herself. This is why I don’t mind Olivia; it’s her parents who shit me to tears. The other nice thing about Olivia as a character is that she is happy with her self-fixed toy even though it looks nothing like it did before. She doesn’t throw any tantrums about lacking the skills to fix it properly.

It’s interesting that Falconer didn’t want the words ‘All better” on this page, but the editor insisted upon it.

[Falconer] says he lost one argument: the addition of the words “All better” when Olivia repairs her missing and mangled toy. “A mommy phrase,” says the author. “Something kids would repeat,” says the editor.

USA Today


Olivia holds a brief grudge against the dog and won’t let her mother read her any books about dogs for this one night.

And if you were wondering about what those books are (only partially depicted on the page):

She’s shown carrying four titles: The Cat in the Hat, Puss in Boots. Krazy Kat and Kitty Foyle.

Kitty Foyle? “A 1930s movie with Ginger Rogers,” Falconer says. “A little joke that no one will get.”

USA Today

“But even Olivia couldn’t stay mad forever”. She lets him sleep in her bed, along with the mended toy.


Here’s the problem with this plot: The whole sequence with the shirt is a Macguffin. A m(a)cguffin, sometimes called ‘a weenie’ is a plot device whose function is to get the action going, but which may be forgotten or become irrelevant by the end of the story. Others use the term simply to mean ‘anything that gets the plot rolling’. But technically, by Hitchcock’s definition — he invented it — a true McGuffin must be forgotten by the audience.

Sure enough, we’ve forgotten all about the shirt by the end of the story, as has Olivia.

A famous example of a McGuffin is in the film Psycho, in which Marion Crane steals money early in the film, which brings her to the Bates Hotel. By the end of the film, no one cares about what happened to the money.


Olivia and the Missing Toy is, of course, a spoof of a psychological drama such as Psycho. (The colour scheme of black, red and white lends the series really well to a spoof of something horrific.) So Falconer opened with a technique often used in that form. Here’s a question: Can the McGuffin work as well in a picture book? In a story of 42 pages, 11 (excluding the camel scene opener) are taken up by the whole shirt palaver. (On the eleventh page it is seen cast aside, as Olivia descends into her tantrum.) That’s a huge portion of the entire story.

it was under my bed

The first question is: Why does the McGuffin work in Psycho?

  1. It gives Marion Crane a reason to skip town and removes the option of going back. (Plot reasons.)
  2. It gives the character of Marion Crane a moral shortcoming, which the audience needs in order to see the character as rounded. A moral shortcoming also makes a character more interesting.
  3. It gives the audience a satisfying frisson of ‘serves you right’ when Marion is scared out of her wits.

As for the McGuffin in Olivia and the Missing Toy:

  1. There is no real plot reason for this McGuffin.
  2. It gives the character of Olivia a moral shortcoming — she treats her family badly when she loses something, BUT…
  3. There is no satisfaction for the audience here, because Olivia is a brat without a cause. There is no anagnorisis, there are no consequences.

In sum, this particular book in the Olivia series doesn’t really work as a story.

Lemon girl young adult novella