Story Structure: Character Desire

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

Desire is what the character thinks they want. According to Vonnegut, this could be something run-of-the-mill. But maybe that character who wants a glass of water really needs human interaction, which is why he has visited the corner shop to buy a bottle of water rather than drinking it out of his kitchen tap. This advice is so fundamental, every storytelling guru will tell you a version of the same thing.

Some authors don’t bother with such low stakes as a glass of water. Before Caroline Leavitt starts any novel, she asks herself the following questions about each of her characters.

What does she want at the beginning of the novel and why? And what’s at stake if she doesn’t get it? “There has to be something at stake. It has to be something really major. I mean, if she just wants a glass of water, that’s not really interesting.”

Writer Mag

Note that ‘stakes’ is a concept closely related to ‘desire’. John Yorke prefers the term ‘active goal’ rather than ‘desire’:

All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us. […] If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring. — John Yorke, Into The Woods

comic about power and desire

Without desire, no story. 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:

WEAKNESS AND ITS LINK TO DESIRE

Your character’s shortcoming is linked to their desire. (Click through on that link for a whole lot more.) Here’s how desire and shortcoming are linked, and why you should be clear by the time you start your second draft what these are for your characters:

ESTABLISHMENT OF DESIRE EQUALS BEGINNING OF STORY

DESIRE BECOMES CLEAR AT THE INCITING INCIDENT

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

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

FULFILMENT OF DESIRE EQUALS END OF STORY

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

James Marsters

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

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

Karl Iglesias, Writing For Emotional Impact

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

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

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

However! Desire mutates. Desire strengthens. In fact, in many, many films 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) they’ll ‘double down’. Now they really, really want that thing they were meh about at the beginning. Desire does not change over the course of a single story. Your main character has one main desire, they go to the ends of the earth to get it (or not) and then the story is over. Contrast this with ‘character plans‘. Plans change all the time. Initial plans fail and characters must invent increasingly ingenious ways to overcome opponents.

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

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

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

RATIONAL AND IRRATIONAL DESIRES

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

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

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

FAIRYTALE AND ROMANTIC DESIRES

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

We never know. 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. This 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.

When modern storytellers take hold of these 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 to him as another kind of servant, or he may have blood lust and desire to kill him. The possibilities are endless.

UNORIGINAL DESIRES

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

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 big struggle or competition (HUNGER GAMES), winning another character’s love (THE PRINCESS BRIDE), escaping a bad situation (JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE), retrieving something of value (any Indiana Jones movie), or stopping something bad from happening (any MISSION IMPOSSIBLE or AVENGERS movie). As for inner motivations, they will almost all be to gain love, acceptance, power, revenge or significance.

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

Michael Hauge

CHARACTERS WHO DON’T WANT ANYTHING

These people exist in real life, right? So they also need to exist in fiction. Indeed they do. A lot of coming-of-age stories are about teenagers mooching around, for instance. A good example is Greg from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. These characters are defined by what they don’t want rather than what they do want.

lack of desire

Contrasting with…

Judy Moody Saves The World

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

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

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

Explaining Social Behaviour by Jon Elster
ACTIVELY PASSIVE CHARACTERS

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

What if your character is not a cop or a surgeon or a hero? What if they want to sit on the couch? If you have a passive main character (and by ‘main character’ I mean ‘the character we see the most’), one workaround is to make them actively passive. That’s key. Also key: Things are happening around them. Other characters must have strong desires. Even to maintain their status quo, your main character must go out of their way to maintain it.

THE CONCEPT OF THE ‘PHERE’

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

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

Storygrid

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

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

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

CHARACTERS WHO HAVE CONFLICTING DESIRES

This isn’t a problem in your storytelling because a story starring character with two conflicting desires is a story about… conflict! And conflict is good for storytelling. Also, people are walking contradictions. We all want conflicting things. In his book What Makes Us Tick? Hugh Mackay talks about our conflicting desire for homeostasis and predictability which rubs up against our need for constant change. He also points out that we can want something badly, but as soon as we get it, we wonder why we craved it in the first place. The question is: why? Is it that we know, deep within us, that if we don’t change we will wither and die, intellectually and emotionally, if not actually? Or is it that we crave change more than we care to admit; that we love surprises and challenges because they bring us to life and force a reaction from us? Yet the very notion of upheaval is at war with our apparently sincere wish for stability and stasis. Just as the homeostatic mechanisms of the body automatically adjust for tilt or for temperature change (making us shiver to warm up or sweat to cool down), we imagine that we automatically seek that kind of emotional stability, too. Who wants to be shocked by an unwelcome turn of events? Who wants to be obliged to change their minds?

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

Hugh Mackay, What Makes Us Tick

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

FEMINISM AND GOALS

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

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

Courtney Jane Walker, What Makes Alias Grace So Good

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

  1. Wants to get married
  2. Wants to dedicate self to family
  3. Working mother, often single
  4. Retired woman (these are few — standout example is The Golden Girls)
  5. Feminerd — great at her job, not so lucky in love. Wants it all. (The Mindy Project, New Girl)
  6. The woman who isn’t sure what she wants out of life. This character let’s 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? First of all, the woman who doesn’t know what she wants is limited to the cable networks. The big, public networks aren’t taking risks on this kind of aimless woman, yet. This indicates she’s still pretty niche. Look at the following examples and you’ll know people who can’t stand these shows, indicating their niche-ness:

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

There is one example from an earlier era. The Days and Nights Of Molly Dodd ran from 1987-1991 and stars a woman who is reactive rather than proactive. She is roll-over nice but isn’t the go-getter audiences had gotten used to after second wave feminism of the 1970s. This woman is a new trope, specific (mostly) to the 2010s. This probably reflects the dominant American culture, in which millennial women can have two postgraduate degrees from an Ivy League and still find themselves under- or unemployed. Young women no longer believe that it’s possible to have it all. Their grandmothers (or mothers) were the first to have a choice between family and career or both. I come from an in-between generation where there was never any doubt that family and career can go hand-in-hand, but with rising student debt and house prices, millennial women are realising kids might be impossible, even if they want a family. The sit-com Friends is perhaps the bridge between those second wave feminist women and the Piper Chapman/New Girl trope.

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

Entertainment Weekly

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

WHEN CHARACTERS DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY WANT

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

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

Neil Gaiman, Coraline,  p112

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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

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

WHEN WRITERS DON’T KNOW WHAT THEIR CHARACTERS WANT

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

CHARACTER DESIRE AND WOMEN

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

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

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

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

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

the main female character to an imaginary male object of desire

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

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

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

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

DESIRE AND CHARACTER EMPATHY

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

THE ROLE OF OPPONENTS

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

Aaron Sorkin

DESIRE AND WRITING SCENES

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

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

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

GENRE AND DESIRE

Each genre has its own desire line tropes.

Romance

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

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

Bookriot

CHARACTER DESIRE IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

It’s a well-known dictum of Disney that their animated movie musicals must start with an “I Wish” song in which the protagonist declares their deepest desire, the one that will be fulfilled by the end of the movie.

Fiction Writer’s Review, Complicating Your Conflict

MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS

THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT BY KATE DICAMILLO
The Magician's Elephant cover

DiCamillo conveys the main character’s (Peter’s) desire by having him visit a fortune teller at a marketplace. This is a nice way of introducing desire, because it ‘shows’ rather than needing the unseen narrator to spell it out. DiCamillo is also a little tricky about how she reveals Peter’s desire — the masterful thing she does here is making the reader wonder what it is that Peter needs to know. DiCamillo understands that the reader needs to know what Peter wants, and she withholds this information for a few pages in order to create suspense. He put the coin in his pocket. He took the soldier’s hat off his head and then put it back on. He stepped away from the [fortune teller’s] sign and came back to it, and stood considering, again, the outrageous and wonderful words.

“But I must know,” he said at last. He took the florit from his pocket. “I want to know the truth. And so I will do it.” [several pages later] Peter felt a small stab of fear. What if, after all this time, he did not really want to know? “Speak,” said the fortune-teller. “Ask.” “My parents,” said Peter. “That is your question?” said the fortune teller. “They are dead.” Peter’s hands trembled. “That is not my question,” he said. “I know that already. You must tell me something that I do not know. You must tell me of another—you must tell me…” The fortune-teller narrowed her eyes. “Ah,” she said. “Her? Your sister? That is your question? Very well. She lives.” Peter’s heart seized upon the words. She lives. She lives!

In this way, the reader can guess already, after only four pages of story plus one full-page illustration, that Peter desires to find his lost sister. Several lines later, in case the young reader missed it:

“If she lives, then I must find her; so my question is, how do I make my way there, to where she is?”

The reader wants Peter to find his sister and will now follow him on his journey through this intriguing world full of magical realism. When we first meet Peter he is struggling internally with a moral dilemma: Should he spend the coin on food, as instructed by an adult in a position of authority, or does he use it to possibly find out about his lost sister? Peter doesn’t know which adult to believe. Does he believe his soldier-caregiver who says his sister is dead, or does he believe a disinterested but shady fortune-teller who says his sister is alive? Peter’s main shortcoming at the beginning of the story is that he is looking to adults to know what to believe. Over the course of the story he must mature by relying upon his own inner compass. Until he learns to trust in himself, he won’t be able to lead a good life, because other people don’t have his best interests at heart.

GINGER PYE BY ELEANOR ESTES

In this classic story, the desire of main characters Jerry and Rachel changes over the course of the book, from wanting a dog of their own, to wanting their beloved dog back after he is stolen. The desire is established as soon as the book opens:

Would Gracie-the-cat be jealous if the Pyes got another pet — a dog? That was what Jerry Pye wanted to know and what he was dreaming about as he sat with Rachel, his sister, on their little upstairs veranda.

In case the young reader has missed it, the second paragraph opens with:

The one thing that Jerry Pye wanted more than anything else in the world right now was a dog. Ever since he had seen the new puppies over in Speedys’ barn, he was not only more anxious than ever to have a dog, he was most anxious to have one of these Speedy puppies.

There are 14 chapters in this book. The first desire is met in chapter two when Jerry and Rachel earn a dollar and are able to buy the dog they want. This might mean the end of the story, unless something else happens: the book turns into a crime story/mystery when they feel they’re being followed by a ‘mysterious footstepper’, and the dog goes missing in chapter 7. The following 6 chapters detail the lengths Jerry and Rachel go to in looking for their dog. Naturally, the dog is found in chapter 14, and there the story ends, because order has been restored. The main problem Jerry and Rachel have is that they

  1. Are too trusting of people who shouldn’t be trusted
  2. They jump to conclusions, making them terrible amateur detectives.

The adults in their lives also suffer from these character flaws, which one could argue are strengths as much as they are flaws. They trust Wally Bullwinkle, who has stolen the dog, because they get it into their heads that the dog thief is your archetypal criminal — a grown man. Yet they jump to this conclusion with no proof whatsoever, and even draw a sketch for the local policeman, who is influenced thusly. By the end of the story they have discovered the truth of what happened, and are berated by the local policeman for drawing a misleading sketch. They have presumably learnt a lesson about making up stories:

[The Chief of Police] came by just then, having had his buns and coffee at last, to make a report on latest developments. […] “The young-uns threw me off the track with that picture they drewed of the man.” “We thought Wally Bullwinkle was just a boy in my class,” explained Jerry apologetically, for now it seemed as though , from the beginning, it should have been as plain as the nose on his face that Wally had been the thief. “We didn’t know Wally was a thief and he didn’t look like the picture we drew of the unsavory character. We didn’t know an unsavory character could be just a boy in my class,” said Jerry.

The confrontation/acknowledgement above occurs just three pages before the end of the novel. The final three pages are used to show that everyone is happy now and back to normal. Estes makes use of dramatic irony throughout Ginger Pye — the young reader will work out long before Jerry and Rachel do that Wally Bullwinkle is the dog thief. We’ve given more than enough clues. This makes the reader feel smart, and has a pedagogic effect of conveying the message that ‘bad people are everywhere; they are among the people you know’. This also means in effect that the main part of the story is the moral need of Jerry and Rachel rather than the desire to have their dog — this being a children’s book, we know this is probably going to happen (unless you’ve read Where The Red Fern Grows, in which case you might be bracing yourself for sadness…).

MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS BY LISA YEE

The main character of this book is a nerdy genius type who is starting senior high school at the tender age of eleven. Millicent’s conscious desire is to be accepted in the college course she will be attending for the first time. She wants someone to sign her high school yearbook, even as she is dismissive of the hysteria end-of-school seems to inspire in others.

After a while it became clear that I wasn’t on the top (or even on the bottom) or anyone’s autograph list.

Millicent’s medium-term goal is to become valedictorian.

Maybe when I’m valedictorian my autograph will be more sought after.

The reader is also told about Millicent’s long-term goals at the end of the first chapter, but none of this exposition is really about Millicent’s desire line — rather, it’s to explain Millicent’s psychological and moral needs:

“I know exactly where I’m headed.” It’s true. I’ve mapped out my goals for the next fourteen years. “Try veering off the road now and then,” Maddie suggested as she lugged her dragon around the room. “Take a few side trips, see where you end up. You might be pleasantly surprised.” I stifled a laugh as I sipped my lemonade. Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Why would I want to take any other route?

We learn at the beginning of chapter two that she plans to win the Fields Medal by the age of twenty, or possibly 23. We’ve also told that this medal is for high achievers under 40. We can see that Millicent may be smart, but she has no real concept of age, which places her firmly as a child (at least, in an adult reader’s mind). Millicent is not well-liked by the older students in her class, for reasons that are obvious to the reader, but not to her. The reader sees how she is accepted only by adults and fellow nerdy types. In self-centred fashion, Millie writes a list of things to do with her grandmother over summer, ignoring the possibility that her grandmother might want to do a few things on her own. In order to have a better life, Millicent needs to learn some humility and genuine wisdom. As it happens, we have been clued into her psychological and moral shortcomings in the opening paragraph, so we can expect that by the end of the novel, these traits have been somewhat ameliorated:

I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things. My disposition probably has a lot to do with the fact that I am technically a genius.

Does the reader really want Millicent to become valedictorian? I actually don’t! Not without becoming a better person. The rest of the book will be about Millicent becoming a better person, treating others better and coming to grips with some of her own more disastrous quirks. This will allow plenty of room for comedy, often with Millicent as the butt of the joke.

THE BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA BY KATHERINE PATERSON

Sure enough, Jessie Oliver Aarons, Jr has a clear desire, explained to the reader at the very beginning of the story: Jesse wants to be the fastest runner in school. In the first scene, he is getting up early to train. Remember that scenes also need their own desires. Jesse’s ‘mini’ desire in the opening scene is to make it downstairs without waking anyone up, because ‘Momma would be mad as flies in a fruit jar if [he] woke her up at this time of day.’ This is one of those stories in which the reader is encouraged to feel sorry for a boy who is surrounded only by sisters. (Aside: Does the inverse story work, too, in which we feel bad for a girl because she only has brothers? Or is it more likely that she’s ‘lucky’, because she turns out a ‘tomboy’?) Basically, Jesse is lonely. This is his psychological need.  Paterson subversively turns this into a feminist-friendly story by having a girl move in next door, rather than a boy. Jesse’s moral need is that he is dismissive of girls in general as companions.

Four year olds were a pure pain.

This is something he, as well as readers, have absorbed from the dominant culture — it is genuinely problematic when he is forced to wear his sister’s ‘girl’ shoes to school. But over the course of the novel Jesse learns to form a friendship with a girl despite her gender, and as a consequence he learns to appreciate his little sister May Belle more, and treat her as a companion rather than as a nuisance. Jesse also learns to embrace the parts of himself which are considered ‘feminine’ such as his love of drawing. This, too, is established early on.

Ever since he’d been in first grade he’d been that “crazy little kid that draws all the time.”

CHARACTER DESIRE IN PICTURE BOOKS

Windows are often used as a visual metaphor for desire. A character might be looking out from a window (or another high vantage point), or they may be looking in on something, unable to grasp it because of the glass.

Book cover from the children’s novel Christmas Holidays at Merryvale by Alice Hale Burnett (1916)

THE TALE OF TWO BAD MICE BY BEATRIX POTTER
The Tale of Two Bad Mice cover

One might think that the star of this story is the dollhouse itself, because the reader is introduced first to the dollhouse and only to the mice after three double spreads. This is a little unusual, but has been done with purpose: The young reader is encouraged to look lasciviously at this doll’s-house. We wish we could go in and play with it. We’re told how beautiful it is, and about all the wonderful things inside it. So naturally, when we meet Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, we absolutely identify with their desire to go inside and play. We’re not told in the text that this is what they want to do — we feel it for ourselves. The Tale Of Two Bad Mice is a carnivalesque tale in which the childlike main characters act against the established order. This doll’s-house does not belong to the mice, so we feel they are not really supposed to be there. At the same time, we absolutely empathise with the poor creatures when their hopes are dashed. This is not a real feast at all, but a fake one! A psychological need of these mice is that they have been fooled. The moral need of the mice is that they have no control of their enthusiasms. In a frenzied effort to find the real feast and a real, liveable mansion for themselves, they steal parts of the doll’s house and cause destruction of a beautiful object which belongs to a little girl, and by proxy to two inanimate dolls.

The story has two endings — the first part of the story ends when the nurse exclaims that she will set a mouse trap. But the story can only end properly after the mice are shown to have had a character arc, in order words they must have learnt to treat others with respect. (Naturally, a story as old as this is heavily gendered.)

SPOT GOES TO THE FARM BY ERIC HILL

What about in a story for much younger readers? The conscious desire of Spot is apparent from the very first image, yet it’s surprisingly complex, and is the desire of many main characters in books for adults. This is a boy who wants to prove himself a capable man to his father. In this case, he wants to prove his worth by finding the farm animals himself. I’m going to argue that this is both Spot’s surface-desire and his psychological need, rolled into one.

Spot Goes To The Farm

On the final double spread we see the words:

Did Dad show you the piglets, Spot? Yes, and then I found some kittens to show Dad!

The story ends because Spot has achieved his desire to impress his father.

Does a simple character such as Spot have a moral need? In other words, does Spot need to learn to treat others better in order to lead a better life? In this story, Spot is told to ‘hurry up’ because he’s busy looking for lambs even as he stands on the backs of a flock of sheep. He is told to get out of the pond, and presumably frightens a duck who says, ‘Quack quack!’ Spot’s main moral need is that—like any toddler character—he is too intent on making fun and achieving the goal at hand to see that around him others aren’t quite so enthusiastic. This can be seen throughout the Spot series. For example, when he ‘helps’ his mother to bake a cake for Dad’s birthday, the reader can see (though Spot himself cannot) that he is causing more nuisance than ‘helping’.

But in a picture book such as this, does the character come face to face with his own moral need? The answer is no, and part of the reason is because this is a series. Even in books which are not technically part of a series, they should be treated as part of a wider literature, in which characters like Spot (and Charlie and Lola, and Clifford, and Peppa Pig) are characters in a sit-com, never growing old, sometimes learning minor lessons along the way, but never really doing anyone else any harm.

IT’S THE BEAR! BY JEZ ALBOROUGH

It's The Bear cover

Eddy’s desire and main psychological need is established at the outset:

Eddy doesn’t want to come and picnic in the woods with Mum. “I’m scared,” he said, “about the bear, the great big bear that lives in there.”

Here we have a story about what the main character doesn’t want to do. Presumably, he desires to be anywhere but here, eating his picnic in safety.

In the real world, this psychological need is a real impediment, and fear of impossible things is something the target audience is likely to be struggling with: monsters under the bed, ghosts in the wardrobe… This is the stuff of childhood, and also the stuff of picture books, where we find many a main character whose main job is to avoid whatever scary things reside in his/her head.

Does Eddy have a moral need? Well, the mother most certainly has a moral need. She needs to learn to listen to her son, because apparently he is right about massive bears found lurking in woods. So is this an ensemble story, with two main characters? No, the main character is most definitely Eddy.

Look a little closer and you’ll see that Eddy does indeed have a moral need: He needs to stop judging large bears by their size. Eddy assumes that because the bear is huge then it is also dangerous. But the reader sees from the bear’s humorous delight in the tiny (to him) blueberry pie, that this bear is nothing to be afraid of. Eddy should not judge a book by its cover.

Likewise, there are many picture books in which the scary thing turns out to be real, but it turns out to be nothing to fear.

RELATED

The Rule Of Three In Storytelling

The rule of three in storytelling has several uses. The first works like this:

  • One tells us what the risk is.
  • Two confirms what wrong behaviour is.
  • At three, we know the rules, and so can appreciate what the smart third person is doing differently, to break the un- successful pattern and win.

If that folk tale was about just one pig who built a house of bricks in the first place, and the wolf couldn’t get in no matter how he huffed and puffed, where would the story be? Conflict, but no drama, just stalemate. Success for the pig, but no suspense. Anticlimax. No story.

Refer to: Picturebook Study: The Three Little Pigs

the-story-of-the-three-little-pigs

Three is suspense, pattern, and contrast, all in one nifty little technique as old as storytelling.

It’s the scientific technique of the variable, with third time lucky.

From Anson Dibell’s book on writing called Plot:

If somebody fails twice, in similar circumstances, there’s going to be more tension and drama when they try the third time because we’ve already seen them fail and know it can happen. We know what doesn’t work, we know the situation; now we’re focusing on what they’re doing differently this time. We’re aware of the pattern, the apparent rules, and are concentrating on the one thing that changes.

Instead of two repetitions, you can use the Rule of Three.

  • The first time the bell coincides with the painful electric shock, you’re too busy being shocked to notice.
  • The second time, you think uneasily that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence.
  • The third time, you’ve started jumping before the bell is even done ringing.

If you want your reader interested and involved in the scene before it’s fully begun to happen, there’s nothing like a triple set- up to get things rolling. It gives added drama. It directs the read- er’s attention where you want it directed. And it makes the scene’s meaning clear in a way it could not have been in isolation.

Choose and control the variable with care, keep the situations visibly comparable so the reader will be aware of the bell/ shock pairing and be anticipating the outcome, and all three scenes will gain in impact and effectiveness.

The second use is far more simple. Show a character doing something three times and we will assume they keep on going until the end.

An example of this occurs in Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig. Eugenia, the arch nemesis, plants pansies all around her house. Mercy makes a hole in the hedge and eats three pansies. Then the chapter ends. We deduce that she eats far more than three pansies. If left to her own devices, she will eat all of the pansies.

For an example of The Rule Of Three in a popular movie, see this article about Star Trek: First Contact.

ALSO PERTINENT

The most important thing I [Nora Ephron] learned from Lee [a chef] was something I call the Rule of Four. Most people serve three things for dinner — some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable — but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected, like those crab apples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate to match it and contradict it.

Nora Ephron, from I Feel Bad About My Neck
Knock Three Times by Marion St John Webb illustrated by Margaret Tarrant

How Children’s Books Teach Kids To Despise Hillary Clinton

richie-lucille

Hillary Clinton in middle grade fiction

hillary

Lately I’ve been reading chapter books with my 8-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading realistic comedy dramas from various American eras, from Ramona Quimby to Junie B. Jones to Judy Moody to Clementine. We’re just starting to (re)delve into the work of Judy Blume.

We’ve also read similar books produced locally such as Philomena Wonderpen by Ian Bone, Billy B. Brown by Sally Rippin and the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.

Many of these stories are great. All of these stories have things to recommend them.

But there is a formula running throughout most chapter books aimed at girls which isn’t doing women any good at all. In fact, in this week heading into the American election, I’m getting pretty cranky about it, because this narrative is having a real world effect.

The chapter book formula concerns the character web, which looks like this:

chapter-book-character-web_1000x696

There are variations on this basic plan, of course.

For instance, the girly-girl might actually be the fake opponent.

Considered together as a corpus, this kind of character in middle grade fiction is saying something quite damaging about a certain kind of girl — the young Hillary Clinton archetype. A non-sympathetic character.

The Mixed Message of Ivy + Bean

ivy-and-bean

An example of that is the relationship between Ivy + Bean. In their case, ‘tomboyish’ viewpoint character Bean mistakes the girly-girl across the road for someone completely uninteresting. But when she takes the time to know her, Bean realises that Ivy is just as scheming as she is, and because of her good-girl appearance they are actually better equipped to carry out their often quite nasty — but always fun — plans. Various parent reviewers criticise this series for its unpunished bad behaviour, but one good thing about the Ivy + Bean series is that the girls learn in the very first book to look behind appearances.

A possibly quite damaging unintended message is that girly-girls are basically presenting a fake image. And unless a girly-girl reveals a more masculine side, she remains unsympathetic. Ergo, true girly-girls are still horrible. This is femme phobic.

Philomena Wonderpen

Readers are encouraged to despise the girly-girl pinkness of the opponent but the book covers are largely pink.
Readers are encouraged to despise the girly-girl pinkness of the main opponent but the book covers are largely… pink.

The girly-girl opponent of the Philomena Wonderpen series is a girl called Sarah Sullivan, who the reader knows to hate due to her overtly feminine accoutrements. Her matching pink accessories and her pink bag. Then there’s the way she competes against our imperfect hero and ends up winning the literal ‘gold star’ at the end of camp, dished out by an unsympathetic Trunchbull-esque school principal.

Even though Philomena has all the advantages of a magic wand (her father’s Wonderpen), Sarah Sullivan still wins the gold star — mostly through her own hard work, I might add, though she is also a rich girl and dishes out store-bought sweets.

The more successful a woman is, the more pleasure we take in demolishing her and turning her into a two-dimensional villain. Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary success may only be tempting the God of Trainwrecks to make her our biggest and best catastrophe yet.

Sady Doyle

To dwell upon the ‘fakeness’ of girly-girl opponents, Sarah Sullivan’s ‘store bought’ sweets are depicted by the author in opposition to Philomena’s home-baked treats, and once again, Sarah Sullivan is deemed a ‘fake’, in a way any modern mother should understand implicitly as coming straight from the ad-men trying to persuade us to buy this cookie over that, because it tastes just like a home-baked one, and women are therefore allowed to serve it up. (Because ideally, women are in the kitchen baking genuine cookies, but if we can’t manage that, we must at least make a good attempt at faking it.)

Fakeness as an attribute of hyper-feminine characters is very much related to the ‘women are basically liars’ trope, which has a long and damaging history.

Clementine

Even in the Clementine series, which I do love, overt markings of femininity are punished. This dynamic is set up in the very first paragraph of the first in the series:

I have had not so good of a week. Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.

Clementine, Sara Pennypacker 

Since hair (and handbags and high-heels) are strong markers of femininity, Margaret the girly-girl opponent is immediately brought down to size, and the reader is encouraged to despise the hysterical mother who is upset about something so frivolous. Putting aside the fact that actually, cutting someone’s hair is a violation of personhood that women have been talking about for decades and which, from boys and men, is actually really unacceptable.

In the seventh book we see the girly-girl character cut down to size by breaking her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels. And so on and so forth. Not so subtle subtext: Clementine is adorable because she is not like one of those girly-girls. She is basically everything we are encouraged to love in a boyish trickster.

Judy Moody

jessica-finch

Judy’s girly-girl enemy is Jessica Finch who at least breaks the mould of blonde bitches by having dark hair. (I suspect the dark hair is a symbolic representation of her dark moods.)

Judy Moody marched into third grade on a plain old Thursday, in a plain old ordinary mood. That was before Judy got stung by the Queen Bee. Judy sat down at her desk, in the front row next to Frank Pearl.”Hey, did you see Jessica Finch?” asked Frank in a low voice.”Yeah. So? I see her every day. She sits catty-cornered behind me.”

Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald  

‘Cater-cornered’ means to sit diagonally behind someone, but the common pronunciation gives me the feeling that ‘catty’ is supposed to be a sexist pun. (When women are compared to cats it’s because cats don’t ‘fight fair’. They hiss and spit and posture, and will scratch you with their long ‘nails’.)

We are encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she is the Queen (Spelling) Bee. We are encouraged to root for Judy’s defeating her mostly because Judy is the viewpoint character but also because Jessica’s presentation is ‘perfect’ — she sits up straight in class and doesn’t have a single hair loose from her high ponytail.

We are also encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she tries hard, much as Donald Trump criticised Hillary for preparing for the second 2016 presidential debate:

“I have spelling posters in my room at home,” said Jessica. “With all the rules. I even have a glow-in-the-dark one.”

“That would give me spelling nightmares. I’ll take my glow-in-the-dark skeleton poster any day. It shows all two hundred and six bones in the body!”

“Judy,” said Mr. Todd. “The back of your head is not nearly as interesting as the front. And so far I’ve seen more o fit today than I’d like.”

Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald

Obviously, our siding with Judy is helped by the fact that both girls were talking but only Judy gets reprimanded by the teacher authority figure.

A positive aspect of the Judy Moody series is that Judy is allowed to express a wider range of emotions, including anger. But mostly she displays spite, and actually ‘moody’ itself is a highly gendered word. Boys are not called moody for displaying the exact same range of emotions. (And yes, I acknowledge there is also a — completely different but still sexist — problem, concerning the narrow range of allowable emotions in boys and men.)

the-many-moods-of-judy-moody

Junie B. Jones

junie-b-jones-by-barbara-park

Like Clementine, Junie B. Jones has a loving relationship with her school principal, owing to her pranks being adorable and the principal being a caring type. (In this post I make the case that Junie B. is a fictional representation of an ADHD phenotype child.)

Junie’s girly-girl enemy is Richie Lucille. The reader knows immediately that Lucille is horrible and unsympathetic because she has long blonde hair tied up in a perfect ponytail, whereas Junie B. looks rough and tumble and doesn’t care about neatness. She is also unlikeable because she is rich. (She has unearned power.)

richie-lucille

Billy B. Brown

the-bad-butterfly

By now it should be clear that messy hair is prerequisite for empathetic girl heroes.

Billie B. Brown has two messy pigtails, two pink ballet slippers and one new tutu.

The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin, opening sentence

It’s almost as if the girliness of the ballet outfit has to be neutralised by the messy hair. The messy hair says, “I’m wearing ballet clothes because I’m doing ballet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I care about what you think of me.”

Billie’s best friend is Jack. Billie and Jack live next door to each other. They do everything together. If Billie decides to play soccer, then Jack will play soccer too.

The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin

Rippin avoids much of the ‘girl drama’ by making Billie a ‘guy’s gal’, basically. Billie’s close friendship with a boy elevates her social status.

The only real gender subversion here is that Jack learns ballet just as Billie plays soccer. This is pretty radical and modern, and it’s easy to overlook the other side.

Because once again we have the horrible girly-girl enemy. This girl is called Lola. Once again she is drawn (by illustrator Aki Fukuoka) with her blonde hair in a perfect bun. She closes her eyes and holds her nose in the air, as if no one else matters.

The message for young readers is that being a girl is fine and girls can do anything they want … so long as they are not too much of a girl. This femme phobic message works in silent opposition to the feminist ‘girls (and boys) can do anything’ intent.

Frenemies: A feature of girl fiction but not in books for and about boys

I have also read the Wimpy Kid books and others like it, and it seems the very concept of ‘frenemy’ is specific to books aimed at girls. There is no frenemy in Wimpy Kid — Rowley is a genuine WYSIWYG friend. Fregley is an out-and-out comedic archetype and the girls are somewhat complicated but one-dimensional opponents. These heterosexual boys don’t like the girls as people but they’re starting to feel inevitable adolescent attraction. The most popular books among boy readers are both reflecting and reinforcing a completely different but equally problematic dynamic — a discussion you can find elsewhere.

In fiction aimed specifically at girls, however, we often see frenemy dynamics. This is an outworking of a culture in which the allowable emotional spectrum for girls spans between friendly and neutral. Anger, distaste, disgust is not generally not allowed from girls.

So we have these girls who trick the adults into thinking they’re perfect but actually they are horrible: a  sexist variation on the trickster archetype. The reason this is sexist is because the prevalence of these girls suggests, to widely-read kids that:

  1. Only girls are able to pull this particular trick off
  2. Boys are all surface and no depth — boys speak their minds and you always know exactly what you’re going to get.
  3. Girls are basically liars.
  4. The worst girls are the prettiest ones. And by ‘pretty’ I mean the girls with the most feminine accoutrements. The more feminine a girl is, the more likely she is to be fake underneath, in a direct correlation.

Hillary Clinton has a unique talent to make people viscerally angry. Just look at the footage from Trump rallies: supporters carry “Lyin Hillary” dolls hung from miniature nooses, cry “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets”, and wear Trump That Bitch T-shirts.

Sady Doyle

Boy Tricksters, Girly-girl Tricksters

There are plenty of boy tricksters but they are presented in a completely different way.

Boy opponents, for example, arrange to beat someone up, after school, behind the bike sheds, but we aren’t inclined to call him ‘scheming’ for arranging the fight outside the range of adult supervision.

Boys take girls’ dolls, attach them to kite tails and send them sailing into the air, but boys aren’t schemers — they are simply having fun.

The bully-boy characters in children’s stories are not raking in all the academic awards. The fact that girly-girls also know all the answers is one more reason for the readers to despise them. We don’t like women who have all the answers.

The lesson is clear, and has been reiterated in countless hacky comedies about cold, loveless career women ever since. Success and love are incompatible for women. For a woman, taking pride in her own talents – especially talents seen as “masculine” – is a sin that will perpetually cut her off from human relationships and social acceptance. She can be good, or liked, not both. The only answer is to let a man beat her, thereby accepting her proper feminine role.

Sady Doyle

Feminine Girl Opponents Are Always Brought Down A Peg

When the girly-girl gets water dumped all over her (accidentally on purpose), or her pretty dress covered in ink, the reader is encouraged to revel in schadenfreude. It’s not just that the girl hero manages to come out on top — punishment usually focuses on ruining the very thing that stands for femininity.

Don’t forget that punishing female characters in children’s stories has a long history. Below, the Wicked Witch melts. The Wicked Witch is truly wicked, not just an annoying perfectionist classmate with frilly dresses and bows in her hair:

the W. W. Denslow illustration of the first edition (1900) of The Wizard Of Oz

I would argue that Hilary Clinton irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person.

We love public women best when they are losers, when they’re humiliated, defeated, or (in some instances) just plain killed.

Sady Doyle

It Didn’t Start With Ramona Quimby And Susan Kushner

You can probably tell which girl is the enemy in this adaptation of a Beverly Cleary classic. At least we get to see the girl behind Susan eventually.
You can probably tell which girl is the enemy in this adaptation of a Beverly Cleary classic. At least we get to see the girl behind Susan eventually.

As Doyle explains, this view of femininity goes back as far as Greek mythology and perhaps even back into the Paleolithic era:  

Aversion to successful or ambitious women is nothing new. It’s baked into our cultural DNA. Consider the myth of Atalanta. She was the fastest runner in her kingdom, forced men to race her for her hand, and defeated every one of them. She would have gotten away with it, too, if some man hadn’t booby-trapped the course with apples to slow her down, which is presented as a happy ending. By taking away her ability to excel, he also takes away her loneliness. Then, there’s the story of Artemis and Orion: He’s the most handsome hunter in all Greece, and she’s the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, who’s ready to get rid of the “virgin” portion for him. Until, that is, her jealous brother Apollo tricks her into an archery contest – she’s so proud of her aim that she lets Apollo taunt her into shooting at a barely visible speck on the horizon and, therefore, winds up shooting her lover in the head.

Sady Doyle 

You see it again in the Bible and actually my high school classics teacher had this quote from Pericles on the wall as if it were a maxim to live by:  

[I]njunctions against female self-expression or fame are everywhere in ancient history. The Christian New Testament “[suffers] not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man;”Pericles wrote that the greatest womanly virtue was “not to be talked of for good or evil among men”. In the colonial United States and Britain, women who talked too much and started fights were labelled“common scolds” – recommended punishments included making them wear gags or repeatedly dunking them in water to simulate drowning.

Sady Doyle

Boyish Tricksters Are Heroes; Girlish Tricksters Are Punished

[T]hough Clinton activates the darkest parts of her critics’ sexual imagination, our yearning for her downfall goes beyond even that. It’s not just that her success makes her unattractive or “unlikable”, it’s that, on some level, we cannot believe her success even exists. You hear that disbelief in the frantic insistence of certain Sanders supporters that the primary was “rigged”, simply because Clinton won it. You hear it when Trump sputters that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run”, making her very presence in the race a violation of the accepted order. You can hear it when pundits such as Jonathan Walczak argue that even if Clinton is elected, she should voluntarily resign after one term “for her own good”. (Also, presumably, good for George Clooney, whom Walczak offers up as a plausible replacement.) Even when we imagine her winning, we can’t imagine her really winning. Unadulterated female success and power, on the level Clinton has experienced, is simply not in our shared playbook. So, even when a Clinton victory is right in front of our eyes, we react, not as if it’s undesirable, but as if it is simply not real. And the thing is, it might not be. Or at least, it might only be temporary: the rise before the big, spectacular, sexism-affirming fall.

Sady Doyle 

The caveat in chapter books is that ‘tomboyish’ girls, like boys, can also get away with anything. It’s the particularly feminine way of being that is not acceptable.  

#NotAllChapterBooks

Violet Mackerel

 
This is where I give a shout out to the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
 

violet-mackerel

Violet is kind, inquisitive, creative, understanding, thoughtful and loyal. The author avoids the girly-girl frenemy dynamics and instead focuses on Violet’s relationship with her hippie family and to the natural world around her. Her ‘opponent’ might be her mother, who meets a friend at the mall and bores Violet talking about the price of petrol, for instance. The conflict is not contrived. We do still have, though, a teenage girl snarker in Nicola, the older sister.

Admittedly, this makes for quieter plots with less Bestseller appeal.

Illustrator Elanna Allen dresses Violet in  practical clothing and Violet sometimes has quite neat hair, other times quite messy. The covers of this series are not heavily pink, which I find ironic given the pinkness of all the other books implicitly criticising pinkness.

Fancy Nancy

fancynancy

Fancy Nancy is another interesting case because this is a character who embraces all of those feminine accoutrements vilified in most chapter books.

For pedagogical reasons, I’m sure, these books also teach young readers ‘fancy words’, which Nancy uses with full explanations for the young readers. In other words, there are many ways of being fancy, and one of those ways is to be smart.

There are also lots of standalone books about different kind of girls, but it’s the bestselling series which are the most widely read and therefore the most influential.

Real World Consequences of the Female Maturity Formula In Storytelling

Salma from Paranorman
Salma from Paranorman

I have previously written about the way in which girls and women in popular stories are consistently portrayed as ‘the only sensible’ one in the room. Typically, the girl is more of a swot, more organised, more witty than the ‘everyday boy’. We see it all sorts of narrative for both adults and children:

  • Everybody Loves Raymond (the long-suffering wife)
  • Harry Potter (Hermione)
  • Calvin and Hobbes (Suzie)
  • Big Nate series (Gina, and also the female teacher Mrs Godfrey, who is far more studious about doing her actual job as teacher than the laid back Mr Rosa.)
  • Toy Story
  • Black Books (Fran, when it suits the plot)
  • The I.T. Crowd (Jen, when it suits the plot)
  • The Simpsons (Marge and Lisa)
  • Futurama (Leela)
  • etc.

At first glance, to the uninitiated, this might seem like sexism indeed… but against men. After all, isn’t it good for women’s rights that women are consistently smarter than the men?

No.

  • These women are the sidekicks, not the heroes. They start and end the story as sensible; the character arcs happen to the men. You can’t be the hero of a story unless you undergo some sort of character arc. This makes men the main characters of the stories.
  • These women are motherly. When the only role for the girl is the motherly type, we end up thinking that’s the only role she’s good for.
  • While these motherly types are allowed smart comebacks (a la Suzie from Calvin and Hobbes), they are are often limited to sarcasm. As often as not they are in fact completely humourless, adding to the cultural stereotype that ‘women just aren’t funny’.  This sensible, parental role suits the straight ‘man’ more than it suits the funny ‘guy’.

But more disturbing than any of these points are the very real political consequences, as described below at a feminism and linguistics blog, in a discussion about the recent English election:

Powerful women are resented in a way their male equivalents are not; the more authoritative a woman sounds, the less likeable a lot of people (both men and women) will find her. But you might think the current situation calls that analysis into question. If we’re so uncomfortable with women taking charge, how have we ended up in a situation where women are the most credible challengers for the top jobs in British politics?

One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organisation is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.

language: a feminist guide

For more on this topic but from an American perspective, listen to Slate’s Double X Podcasts: The Powerfrause Edition, in which Angela Merkel, like Theresa May, also swooped in to power after a German political crisis.

So whenever the girl character swoops in to save the boys with her book learning and smart ideas (a la Monster House, Paranorman, Harry Potter), what we’re really seeing is the Glass Cliff effect.

We might also call it the Happy Housewife view of female politicians:

I have heard many women (and some men) say that they want to see more women in power because women would make the world a better place, lift the tone of parliaments and be all-round kinder to the planet. Some go all quasi-spiritual on me, wittering on about female energy and our goddess-given nurturing nature. This has always struck me as the happy housewife model of leadership, where female leaders whiz around cleaning up the men’s mess, leaving the world all sparkly, clean and sweet smelling. It sounds like it’s a compliment but, in fact, it is a burden.

Jane Caro, after the first 2016 Trump-Clinton debate

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This view dictates that women must be better than men before they can aspire to leadership, that they must offer something special and different or they have no right to take the top job. Frankly, it sets us up for failure because it sets a higher standard for female leaders than for their male counterparts.

Please don’t mistake this for ‘girl power’. And definitely look out for it in your own country’s politics.

EDIT: Fast forward to 2019 and see Elizabeth Warren become the new Hillary Clinton.

A New Vision For Chapter Book Series Aimed At Girls

Could we change the character web template and still engage young readers? Here’s what I’d love to see:

  1. More imagination when it comes to dreaming up opponents. Perhaps this is where fantasy shines. Fantasy, unlike realistic drama, is open to all sorts of monsters, ghosts and ghouls and does not need the girly-girl frenemy/enemy. However, as number 2 in the Ivy + Bean series shows (The Ghost That Had To Go), fantastic imaginings can be included even in realistic fiction.
  2. More complex boy characters. I’d like to kill the stereotype that girls are fake and wily while boys are shallow and simple and unencumbered by complex social difficulties. If writers think they’re reflecting realities, by exaggerating them for comedic effect they are also reinforcing them. Is it possible to model good relationships while still including sufficient tension between characters? (Don’t tell me that these stories shouldn’t be didactic, because they already are.)
  3. In real life, girly girls are not usually the enemy. The girl with the neat hair is probably sitting quietly in the corner doing her work. I know it’s tempting to write only about the Clementine/Ramona/Junie B. wreckers of this world because these girls are propelled into action by their very nature, but there is an invisible majority of girl readers out there whose compliance and hard work are not only invisible, but actively punished throughout children’s literature. Let’s change that. Because it’s affecting how the actual world is being run.

The Two Promises Of Picturebooks

According to Nancy Kress (author of the writing book Beginnings, Middles & Ends), every story makes two promises to the reader:

1. THE EMOTIONAL PROMISE

Read this and you’ll be:

  • Entertained
  • Thrilled
  • Scared
  • Titillated
  • Saddened
  • Nostalgic
  • Uplifted
  • But always absorbed

2. THE INTELLECTUAL PROMISE

  • Read this and you’ll see the world from a different perspective
  • Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about the world
  • Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this. (This last promise can exist on its own or coexist with either of the first two.)

THE PROMISES OF PICTURE BOOKS

1. THE EMOTIONAL PROMISE

  • Almost all picture books aim to entertain. At the moment there’s a bit of a publishing boom going on with ‘single gag’ books. The best-seller lists are full of authors (almost all men, by pure coincidence??) such as Lemony Snicket, B.J. Novak, Jon Klassen, sometimes Oliver Jeffers, Mo Willems and here in Australia we have Nick Bland. 
  • Those that aim to scare will usually end on a reassuring note, unless the picture book is for older readers, or secretly for adults. See The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen.
  • One of the most thrilling picture books for my daughter is one by Jez Alborough, It’s The Bear! The mother goes away to retrieve a forgotten picnic item from the car and while she’s away an enormous teddy bear turns up.
  • Some authors, such as Oliver Jeffers, often write stories with a touch of sadness, though I’d say ‘melancholy’ is a better word.
  • Titillation is off limits for young readers, though it’s well-known that in kid lit food basically equals sex. So there are a number of picture books which ‘titillate’ in respect to food. Perhaps The Biggest Sandwich Ever? I’m sure there are better examples — think of books with beautifully rendered food illustrations, in which food takes centre stage. The deluxe versions of the Faraway Tree books did this for me as a kid. The food at the top of the tree often looked delicious.
  • Are young readers too young to even experience the emotion of ‘nostalgia’? I’d say yes, although there are plenty of ‘retro’ picture books which aim to evoke nostalgia in the parent co-readers. For example, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris will evoke memories for adults who have holidayed in France. Mercer Mayer’s earlier books are set in an American 1950s era, and the setting hasn’t been vastly updated since.
  • The odd picture book for young readers manages to uplift the reader. (Though the vast majority seem to reassure rather than uplift.)

2. THE INTELLECTUAL PROMISE

Because of the young readership, ‘seeing the world from a different perspective’ is a big promise in picture books. But as underscored in the recent and ongoing talk of diversity, children ALSO need to see themselves and their own, familiar environs depicted in picture books as confirmation that they matter. In other words, they need the second promise, too.

When I think of ‘different, more interesting worlds’ I think first of science fiction, though fantasy is far more common in picture books than science fiction. In picture books we very often enter an interesting world not via some sort of portal (a wardrobe, a mirror) but simply via the young child’s imagination. We might be left to wonder how much of this fantasy is ‘real in the story’ and how much is conjured up. But often picture books are simply carnivalesque stories in which a child takes a hum drum situation and ‘lives it up’ for a while, Cat In The Hat style.