Chekhov’s Toy Gun In Children’s Literature

chekhov's toy gun

Chekhov’s gun is a storytelling technique to do with foreshadowing. The author places a gun in the story/picture and one of the characters uses it later. This is the general rule: If the gun has been placed, the author must make use of it. Otherwise the reader will wonder what on earth it was doing there. The reader will feel cheated. In this way, stories are very different from real life.

Obviously, when it comes to children’s literature, guns are a bit of a no-go. However, the Chekhov’s Gun technique is super useful for increasing tension and narrative drive. Children’s writers must be inventive when it comes to avoiding actual gun violence in stories for young readers, but do make use of this same technique.

I’m not sure if someone has already done this, but for children’s literature I’m inventing my own related terminology. The kidlit equivalent of Chekhov’s gun is…



CHEKHOV’S TOY GUN

Chekhov’s TOY Gun refers to an on-the-page gun which turns out to be a toy gun, not a gun at all, or something else similarly benign.

Here’s the difference between the Chekhov’s Gun vs Chekhov’s TOY Gun: The toy gun is never going to be used to inflict harm, even when we see it on the page as a threat. We know this because this is a rule of junior fiction. In Young Adult literature, anything can happen — I’m talking about middle grade and below. In MG stories, characters don’t shoot heroes. However, the reader won’t know that until after the Battle sequence of the story. Part of the Revelation part of the plot (coinciding with the Anagnorisis) part, will be, Oh! It wasn’t any threat at all! Just seemed totally threatening!

EXAMPLES OF CHEKHOV’S TOY GUN

R.L. Stine will often give his adult baddies a gun but these guns are never used to shoot our child heroes. In How I Got My Shrunken Head,the gun turns out to be a water pistol. Thanks to R.L. Stine, for inspiring me with a name for this concept.

In Pax, Sara Pennypacker suggests a character may be carrying a rifle by describing it through a naive animal’s point of view. The reader guesses a ‘long pole’ may be a rifle because the setting is a war situation. We soon learn that the ‘pole’ is actually the hero’s crutch (he has a broken leg), and this crutch is used as a weapon to scare off the attacking coyotes during the final big big struggle scene.

The examples I give are very literal examples, because the child character thinks there is an actual gun. Also very common in children’s literature: A character who looks very scary proves completely benign. For example, the gigantic man next door proves to be kind of heart when the child hero actually meets him in person. Or a rumour about a perceived opponent turns out not to be true.

To offer an extremely tangential example, in Monster House, McCracken is revealed to be a victim of the scary, enlivened, haunted house, despite being very scary to the children himself. The real opponent goes a long way back in history, with a version of intergenerational trauma being the real issue, requiring nothing more than understanding (symbolised by a massive, elongated Battle sequence) on the part of the adolescent heroes.

Apart from the big reveal that something is not so terrible after all, these stories by their nature tend to convey the following ideologies:

  • Things (and people) are not what they seem on the surface.
  • Don’t believe everything you hear.
  • Look closely and pay attention or you’ll perceive danger in the exact wrong places.
  • People who look like baddies are sometimes the goodies (and vice versa).
  • And even if they are bad, there’s probably a reason for that and we should extend understanding. Worse bad lurks behind bad.
  • Understanding to true nature of things, events and people will help us cope with the bad stuff we encounter in life.

Have you noticed examples of Chekhov’s Toy Gun in stories you’ve read lately?

Parts of Prose

parts of prose

There are various ways of thinking about prose.

  • Paragraphs, sentences, words, letters, morphemes. Useful in linguistics; not especially helpful when editing fiction.
  • Acts, scenes, beats. Useful for screenwriters, maybe. (Not everyone thinks in terms of acts, ie. three act structure. Every screenwriting guru carves universal structure differently, usually between 5 and 8 compulsory steps.)

What about fiction writers, crafting stories for ‘print’ (and eReaders)? Here’s how Rennie Browne and Dave King break it down in their book Self-editing For Fiction Writers, which is excellent:

Let’s start with scenes then ignore that screenwriting term, ‘beat’. (‘Beat’ is a confusing word — it can mean a segment of drama which is smaller than a scene or it can mean a noticeable stretch of silence.) Any scene from a work of fiction can be divided further into:

  1. ACTION – stuff happens
  2. NARRATIVE – the narrator says stuff happens. “Tells”
  3. DIALOGUE – stuff inside the speech marks. “Shows”

An author must decide how much of each kind to include in each scene. There are pluses and minuses with each decision:

  1. Too much ACTION loses the reader because character development is sacrificed. Also, fight scenes and whatnot are actually really boring to read. What works on screen probably doesn’t work as well on page, and vice versa.
  2. Too much NARRATIVE slows the pace and gets boring.
  3. Too much DIALOGUE makes the thing sound more like a script than a story and fails to engage.

PROSE AND GENRE

Different genres demand different balances. Modern young adult novels, for example, have a much higher proportion of dialogue than those published 100 years ago (before YA was a thing, tbf). Literary or experimental fiction can get away with little or no dialogue, which may be appropriate for that particular story.

GENERAL TIPS AND FURTHER OBFUSCATIONS

  • When opening a story, some writers decide to start with a snippet of dialogue to plunge the reader right into ‘the action’. But this is usually confusing. It’s like a stranger yelling fire in a cinema. It can feel like a cheap trick.
  • In the beginning you’ll probably want to be establishing the main character, in which case let us hear them speak pretty early on.
  • There are representation issues that can be fixed/broken with dialogue — in the editing process make sure you haven’t given all the dialogue to the white guys, and while you’re there, make sure you haven’t written all the girls giggling at the boys’ jokes. Even if your marginalised characters are described heavily in narrative summary, and on the page take up as much space as characters from the dominant cultural group, that won’t cut it. Readers will notice if you don’t let underrepresented characters speak, inside speech marks. It feels like a form of symbolic annihilation, and comes on the back of a long history of silencing.
  • ‘Action’ is an easily misunderstood word. We’re not just talking about car chases and fight scenes here. To channel Kurt Vonnegut, ‘action’ may be a section of prose in which a character gets up for a glass of water.
  • Not all ‘-logue’ happens between two characters, and it doesn’t always appear inside speech marks. This is known as ‘free indirect speech’. Free indirect speech is the bacterium of writing world. Er, maybe I should explain. Bacteria are like a cross between animals and plants and have their own unique cell structure. Likewise, free indirect speech is like a cross between dialogue and narration. It’s sort of what the character is saying (to themselves, probably), but it’s not presented inside speech marks. The narrator zooms right into the character’s head. A really adept writer will do this without the reader noticing, and you could say it further breaks up the prose into another, fourth category. If you find a narrative heavy piece of writing which reads really well, take a look and see if the author has broken ‘narration’ down into ‘deep third person’ (camera away from head) and ‘free indirect speech’ (camera inside head).
  • Stream of Consciousness vs Interior Monologue (Stream of consciousness is what we called ‘free indirect speech’ in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

FURTHER LISTENING

For an informative podcast on weaving narrative and dialogue, listen to Paula B at The Writing Show — no longer producing new episodes but the archive is a great resource.

Save The Cat, Kill The Dog

save the cat kill the dog

Save The Cat was Blake Snyder’s term for screenwriters, though it’s used a lot by novelists, too. Snyder had the following advice when setting up a main character:

Heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they ‘save a cat’ or similar, to show they’re a good person.

Blake Snyder

The opening of the book must establish an emotional connection with the protagonist. The poignancy doesn’t need to happen on page one, and the character doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) be a saint, but readers need to feel something for them. In screenwriting, this is called saving the cat. The protagonist can yell at old ladies, steal from a blind man’s cup, and cheat at cards, as long as they go out of their way to save one creature from discomfort. Start watching for it in movies. You’ll find that in the first ten minutes, the lead character will enact some version of saving a cat.

Jane Friedman

The technique is not always called Saving The Cat, but most writers have an intuitive grasp of it anyway.

During the story, your character works to do something valuable despite no obvious benefit to themself. They might bestow gifts on whoever they find in need, devoutly say their prayers at every meal, or just carefully tie their shoelaces before they leave their home. Everyone else thinks the hero is just wasting time. But when the climax comes, it’s the people they helped, the gods they pleased, or those well-tied laces that make the difference.

Mythcreants

This is related to another writing trick in which you, as writer, do something nasty to a character at the beginning of a story to show what you are capable of. This increases suspense because the audience wonders what on earth you are going to do to your characters next.

For example, in the film Super Dark Times, the first scene is of a moose who is dying in a high school classroom after jumping through the window. A police officer is tasked with the job of jumping on the moose’s head to put it out of its misery. This scene seems completely unconnected to the rest of the film, except symbolically, and you could argue that it’s a scene of gratuitous violence. The reason for the scene’s existence is more than symbolic, though. This scene tells the viewer that bad things will happen in this story. We either turn it off or keep watching, to see what those bad things are.

Save the Cat technique is especially valuable when writing an antihero, who must first be written as likeable in their own way. Before Walter White breaks bad, we empathise with him. Antiheroes are harder to write than heroes. See further techniques for writing antiheroes in this post.

Examples of Save The Cat Technique

In The Beach by Alex Garland, Richard has a Save The Cat moment when he, alone among all the backpackers, approaches the woman who cleans the hostel about how dangerous it is to mix water with electricity. He ends up backing away, confident she’ll be fine because she’s obviously been doing this job for years, and feels a little chastised — who is he to tell her how to do her job? We now know several things about Richard — he has concern for other people and experiences can be humbling. This is in line with his first person storyteller’s voice — he’s looking back on this period of his life with a large measure of humility.

In No Country For Old Men, Llewelyn is portrayed as an uncaring person when he quickly forgets about the man dying in the van, the one who asked him for agua. But McCarthy wanted to portray him as far less evil than Chigurgh. So Llewelyn awakes in the middle of the night to take a big bottle of water to the dying Mexican. A Save the Cat moment. Unfortunately he coincides with drug runners, the beginning of a cat and mouse thriller. Llewelyn would’ve been far better off had he never gone back to do the good deed, setting up McCarthy’s ironically harsh world in which even good deeds don’t go unpunished. Although he was unable to save the dying Mexican drug runner, the audience sees the humanity in Llewellyn, and we root for him against his struggle with out-and-out evil.

Friday Night Lights — In the pilot episode, the morality of Landry Clarke is unclear as he plans to lay on the romance with a girl who is probably not interested in him. How far will he go? But our empathy is cemented when he insists they stop to rescue Lyla after she breaks down on the side of the road.

Mad Men — Don Draper has gifted his mistress a television. We don’t know she’s his mistress at this stage — she could be his girlfriend. She throws the gift out the window, further engendering empathy for this poor, put-upon man (who is studying her as a way of getting to know people and to be better at his job).

Breaking Bad — The writers use pretty much every trick in the book to inspire empathy for Walt in the pilot episode but Walt’s Save The Cat moments are understated and based upon what we feel men, in general, shouldn’t have to put up with. He has purchased office supplies but instead of getting thanked he gets chided for using the wrong account. (But he did save the cat by buying the office supplies.) He dutifully goes along to a family celebration and doesn’t cause a scene by reacting to Hank’s dick-waving.

Likewise, Tony Soprano, all round despicable human being, cares deeply about a family of ducks in his damn pool.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri — Mildred is a tough, thuggish character and we’re shown this immediately, but when she sees a bug upside down on the window sill, waving its legs helplessly in the air, she flips it over the right way.

Moana — We first see cute little toddler Moana help a turtle down to the water’s edge by shading it with a big palm leaf to save it from a flying predator. We fall in love with Moana.

The Iron Giant — Dean McCoppin stands up for the local kook by saying he saw the Iron Giant too, though it turns out he didn’t. He tells Hogarth that if he doesn’t stick up for the kooks who will?

American Fable — Gitty is depicted as the sympathetic character because of how she cares for her pet chicken. Later she will care for her family’s prisoner in similar fashion. On the way home, her father runs over a yearling deer. Gitty is distraught and won’t let  her father put the deer out of his misery, so both father and daughter take the deer home, hoping to nurse it back to health. I don’t remember seeing the deer again — the deer exists only to set the father and daughter up as sympathetic characters. This contrasts with Gitty’s psychopathic older brother. We know he is psychopathic because he plays a trick which almost chops her hand off.

Avoiding Save The Cat

This technique is used so frequently that a savvy audience can spot it and see it for the trick that it is. Writers such as Gillian Flynn acknowledge this new level of reader sophistication and go out of their way to avoid it:

I […] wanted to make sure no one tried to make [my character] “save the cat.” To me, Camille is an inherently kind person despite everything that’s happened to her. And you see that when you walk through the day with Camille. You see how she treats people. But she’s not running around saving babies and kittens just so the audience can be sure she’s a good person.

Gillian Flynn in interview

Fresh spin: Kill The Dog

The problem with the Save The Cat technique is that it is such an easy trick and so commonly used that sophisticated audiences pick it as a writer’s trick. So some writers are twisting it a little, putting on a fresh spin.

A Slate article from 2013 asked if Snyder’s Save The Cat screenwriting techniques had become too popular, causing Hollywood to churn out the same stories time and again. It’s worth noting that the Slate culture critics are very sophisticated audiences. A younger audience, for instance, isn’t going to pick Save the Cat moments. In fact, until I had the technique pointed out to me, I never noticed them myself. Now I see saved ‘cats’ everywhere.

Once the audience starts to pick a writing technique, this breaks the fourth wall. So now writers need to put a fresh spin on it.

How, exactly, do you put a fresh spin on Save The Cat?

Matt Bird has noticed an increasingly common trick he has called ‘Kill The Dog’.

Examples of Kill The Dog Technique  (or Drown The Cat)

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins has Katniss almost kill a cat, and later Katniss murders a lynx. All this sets the reader up for her to actually save a metaphorical Cat later.

Matt Bird talks about how Suzanne Collins gets away with this.

Matt Bird also offers examples from John Wick and House of Cards.

I noticed it most recently in a Netflix original, The End Of The Fxxxing World.

Case Study: The End Of The Fxxxing World

  • Our two main characters, who have already murdered a serial killer, realise near the end of the narrative that they’re going to have to put an injured dog out of its writhing misery by wringing its neck.
  • I dislike stories in which dogs are killed, and most audiences must feel the same because writers traditionally go out of their way to save dogs, even when numerous humans are expended.
  • This dog is sacrificed for the story, to force the audience to dig deeper into the main moral dilemma: Is it sometimes okay to kill someone? Where would you draw the line? Could you do it?
  • The story starts off priming the audience to think “Killing is wrong in all scenarios, no doubt about it.” We have a seventeen-year-old who wants to murder for the worst of reasons — because he wants to. He is fascinated by it.
  • This is subverted when James and Alyssa accidentally cross a genuine psychopath, which ends with James killing a stranger to save Alyssa from rape and probably death. Now the audience is primed to think that maybe, in some circumstances, murder is all right. It is clear from the props inside the serial killer’s house that he is a despicable human being and that by murdering him they are saving others.
  • Later, James and Alyssa are faced with either murdering the dog or leaving it to writhe in agony. The audience’s morality regarding murder has hopefully gone from one extreme to the other, after various scenarios are presented to us.
  • James, too, is revealed to be not so bad after all. He does show empathy for the dog, proving to himself and to us that he is not actually a proper psychopath. We are what we do, not what we ‘want’ to do, and manage to suppress. Perhaps suppressing our darkest impulses in fact makes us more noble than people who don’t have those impulses in the first place.

Fresh Spin: What You Are In The Dark

The End of The Fxxxing World also makes use of this related trope. Alyssa can easily escape the police by running away, but she finds a lost girl and takes her back to her father, sacrificing herself.

For more on this trope, see the TV Tropes article.

Disturbing Spin but not Fresh: Male Heroes Finding Ugly Women Desirable Nonetheless

This is when a male character finds a woman ‘objectively’ ugly but he wants to do sex to her anyway, in a perverse Save The Cat moment where the author — male author, always a male — seems to want a cookie for his personal stand-in hero, who loves women, all women, even the ugly ones.

Women do realise that we don’t have to look like models and men will still want to have sex with us. Nobody needs saving here.

I write about it here, with examples.

How else are writers saving cats in fiction? Have you noticed related tricks?

Masks In Storytelling

Arthur Hughes - The Property Room

We love stories about tricksters who get away with stuff. But we don’t want them to get away with stuff forever. We want them to be found out.

For instance, when Emerson Moser retired from Crayola and revealed that he is colour blind, he made sure that this one little detail of his career would eclipse all others. I’m not sure if this is what he intended, but that is his Internet legacy.

Audiences love masks. More specifically, we love the slipping of the mask. Our love for the mask may explain the wide appeal of celebrity gossip:

I’ve come to realize that my main attraction to celebrity gossip comes from a fascination with slipping facades. I don’t care what celebrities eat for breakfast or what they buy at Whole Foods, but I like it when they lose their shit: the Britney Spears breakdown, Lindsay Lohan’s downward spiral, Paris Hilton going to jail, etc. I’m sure part of it is just base, ugly schadenfreude on my part, but there’s something else too. Their public images are so carefully micromanaged and manipulated and wrapped in Teflon, and there’s something exhilarating about seeing the mask slip once they stop giving a shit. 

Suzanne Riveca at The Short Form

When creating characters for fiction, storytellers sometimes draw a distinction between what Michael Hauge refers to as ‘identity’ (masks) and ‘essence’.

  • Identity refers to the faces people present to the world, also known as masks.
  • Essence is the (one) true self.

This distinction is more clear in some non-Western cultures, for example in Japan. Japanese culture draws a clear distinction between ‘omote’ and ‘ura’ (public face and private face). The words literally mean ‘front’ and ‘behind’.

We may not have widely understood words to describe this in English, but the distinction is clear in our history of storytelling. The underlying message of most stories is the same no matter the genre: It’s only when a mask (false identity) comes off that true happiness can be found.

(Interestingly, this is not how Japanese culture sees it. In Japan, the ‘omote’ face is a necessary ‘mask’ for a harmonious society.)

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.

Oscar Wilde

Genre And Masks

The Love Genre

This omote/ura distinction is important in the love genre. The audience is clued in about who is right for each other because even if the romantic pair start off fighting (fight fight, kiss kiss trope), they eventually get to know the other’s essence. All other romantic rivals never get past the ‘identity’ stage of knowing.

Comedies

The transgression comedy is all about masks. A character tries to get away with something by posing as somebody else. The audience is in superior position, waiting with glee for the mask to come off. When it does, this big scene is full of comedy. We’ve been anticipating it, so it’s especially satisfying.

Tootsie is the tentpole example of a transgression comedy. A man dresses as a woman because he’s ruined his reputation in Hollywood and needs work. (If he dresses as a woman he assumes a whole new identity.)

A lot of The I.T. Crowd episodes are transgression comedy. Jen Barber is the biggest fraud, having secured the job as head of I.T. by bluffing. It is soon revealed that this is part of her character in general, to the last detail. In a later episode she buys shoes that are too small because she wants people to believe she has dainty little feet. Roy is a little duplicitous but not smart about it. Jen’s duplicitous nature contrasts with the personality of Moss, who says exactly what’s on his mind and takes everything literally.

In the “Kicking Up A Stink” episode of Kath and Kim, Sharon has found a job as a bootcamp leader, but the mask comes off when she invites Kim along. Kim isn’t one bit scared of her and walks off, prompting a mass exodus, ruining Sharon’s session.

Thrillers

Mask iconography – original source unknown

The transgression thriller — surprisingly, perhaps — has the same structure as a transgression comedy. It’s just the entire tone and plot details that are different.

By the way, the structure looks like this, courtesy of The Narrative Breakdown podcast:

Discontent – someone is unhappy about something

Transgression with a mask – peculiar to comedy and 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

Another name for the transgression thriller is ‘the wrong man thriller’. Hitchcock was a big fan. He would set up a falsely accused innocent. Over the course of the story the truth is revealed.

Examples Of Wrong Man Thrillers:

Horror Stories

It is said that horror stories exist to define what is normal by showing us what isn’t. There’s a long tradition of horror monsters who act because ‘the devil made them do it’. Equally lazy but more modern: The horror monster is ‘psychotic’.

The horror genre is beginning to move more solidly into a phase where the audience discovers the ‘true identity’ of the monster and finds that in fact we are looking at the darkest parts of ourselves. This is widely known as The Shadow In The Hero.

A stand-out example of a vampire horror story is “The Mask” by Richard Marsh, which appeared in Marvels and Mysteries in 1900. A homicidal madwoman adept in the art of mask-making transforms herself into a raving beauty and threatens to suck the blood of the hero. 

W. T. Benda, Cover of LIFE, March 8, 1923

Types Of Masks In Storytelling

Actual Masks

Masks are used in all cultures around the world, especially in rituals and ceremonies. Masks play an important social function.

The masks used in ancient Greek theatre are based on the culture of the ancient Dionysian cult. Thespis was the first writer to use a mask in stage writing. Members of the chorus wore masks to distinguish them from the main actors. There was a good logistical reason for this: The same actors were able to play a variety of roles in the same play. Also, the actors were men. Masks allowed them to play women, starting a tradition which is still utilised today (problematically).

Another logistical reason for stage masks: A bland-featured mask utilised over and over again distracts from the individual character and forces the audience to focus on that character’s actions.

Posing As Someone You’re Not

These characters are based on the ancient trickster archetype.

Behaviours include:
  • Bluffing to secure social or economic advantage (Jen Barber in The IT Crowd).
  • Dressing in disguise to get away with a crime (the pigeon in the pilot episode of We Bare Bears)
  • Acting as someone with a different personality (Nom Nom the YouTube sensation Koala in We Bare Bears acts loveable but is actually evil.)

Walter White makes out he’s a nerdy, science teacher type (which works because he was), when in fact he’s the local drug lord.

The 2003 movie Thirteen by Catherine Hardwicke is a coming-of-age drama about two girls who pretend to be what they’re not. The structure involves the coming off of a mask. For much of the movie Tracy Freeland is acting as a pseudo-adult, ditching her mother who she still needs very much in favour of a girl who has not been so well protected from the world. How does Hardwicke wrap up this story? It’s a story chock full of conflict — arguments with Tracy’s mother, father, brother, teacher and former best friends. Therefore the ‘big struggle sequence’ needs something extra. In this case it’s the coming off of the mask. After rejection from Tracy’s mother, Evie Zamora outs Tracy to everyone as a thief, self-harmer, drug abuser and all-round evil person. While this portrait of her is not quite right either, it is in this scene that Tracy’s mother finally gets the full picture regarding what’s been going on with her daughter. The mask is finally off. In the outtake scene we see Tracy on a roundabout (a regression to childhood), emitting a primal scream. The torment of keeping up this facade of rebel has passed.

American Beauty involves two big masks: The teenage beauty who pretends sexual experience to disguise her complete inexperience, and the military neighbour with internalised homophobia. This contrasts with Kevin Spacey’s character, who takes off his mask at the beginning of the film and lives as his true, lazy, hedonistic self.

In some ways, Office Space is the comedy version of American Beauty. After hypnosis gone wrong, the hedonistic, don’t-give-a-damn side of Peter Gibbons is left. Comedy comes from the fact that this works to his advantage. Peter is now seen to have ‘leadership qualities’. Nerdy office workers pretend to be money launderers, knowing nothing at all about money laundering. This is a film with masks at every level — even the guy selling homeless magazines door-to-door is a well-spoken college student.

In both American Beauty and in Office Space, the double-identity characters are set up in contrast with people living as their true selves. Peter Gibbons meets a waitress who is so true to herself that she quits her horrible waitressing job by giving her boss the  middle finger over an argument about not showing enough ‘flair’. Joanna is literally  unable to pretend to be who she is not. Joanna in turn contrasts with her hyper-enthusiastic (but fake) boss. Michael Bolton is another character unable to fake anything with conviction, which is why it’s so funny to watch him try to pretend (in an important job interview) that he likes the singer Michael Bolton. Another character living his true life is Peter’s redneck labourer neighbour, whose basic urges make him crass but also relatable. Office Space has a happy ending because every character is living life as their true selves, ditching fake identities. American Beauty is a tragedy because characters are punished for their false presentations. In both films the message is identical: Faking who you are cannot possibly lead to happiness.

Makeovers

In the “Hello Nails!” episode of Kath and Kim, Kim gives Sharon a makeover. In a comedy, a makeover is a sure sign that the story will have the structure of transgression comedy.

Makeovers in non-comedies are often supposed to ‘reveal’ one’s true attractiveness, matching the attractive personality underneath. This is a fairytale view of humanity — that ideally, good people should look beautiful otherwise there’s an uncomfortable dissonance.

In comedies the real self is the unadorned version, which is why things don’t work out when the awkward, gawky Sharon Strezlecki tries to dress elegantly.

Cross dressing

There is one type of mask often used in comedy, and it is used in almost every major children’s film. At some point a male character dresses as a female character to achieve some goal.

I feel Tootsie becomes more problematic as time goes on, with transgender feminists pointing out for us the downsides of equating feminine presentation with duplicity. In Tootsie, at least, Dustin Hoffman’s character dresses as Dorothy not with the main intention of exploiting femininity by bewitching men with fake feminine wiles, but in order to apply for jobs otherwise not open to him, and to disguise his own well-known male identity.

But in many stories for children, the male characters dressing as femme characters are using a mask of femininity to get away with behaviours which are manipulative in a sexualised way. A terrible example of that is the Australian middle grade book The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey. Yet this is a very popular book and few question its ideology.

This storyline is highly problematic. The message is that femininity equals duplicity >> women are manipulative liars >> “Lock her up”.

I’ve said more about that here: Liars in Storytelling.

Masked Settings

The lovely setting later revealed to be hiding misery and crime is the setting equivalent of peeling a mask off a person. The masked setting is known as a snail under the leaf setting.

This is why mystery stories often work well thematically in tranquil little towns. The crime peels back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

See also: How Can Setting Be A Character?

Guillaume Seignac - Pierrot’s Embrace 1900
Guillaume Seignac – Pierrot’s Embrace 1900

Are Western Storytellers Correct?

A few years ago I read a book called The People You Are by Rita Carter, which presents quite a different thesis of human behaviour.

Carter’s main argument is that there is no ‘one true self’. She argues that humans have the ability to change according to circumstance, and that we are rewarded for doing so. We are one way with our colleagues, another way with our families, and neither one of these ‘people’ takes precedence over the other.

The dominant idea in modern storytelling contrasts with this psychological view. No matter the genre, we are told time and again that that there is ’one true self’. This version of the self must make its way to the surface and be somehow ‘exposed’ before happiness can be found.

This view of human nature may age contemporary stories in the way that ‘one true love’ romance stories now seem old-fashioned to us, in the era of serial monogamy. Some pushback on that:

My problem is that people always say ‘don’t be afraid to just be yourself!’ and like…it’s not that I’m afraid, I just don’t know how to do that? Because I want to get super jacked and tattooed and never wear make-up and have plaid shirts and shave off my hair, and I also want to wear pretty dresses and high heels and learn how to do eyeliner properly and grow my hair out real long, and I want to be intimidating and confident and Speak My Mind and Take No Shit but I also want to be soft and kind and for people to think I’m cute, and I want to be seen as smart and well-read and respected but I also want to be seen as down to earth and approachable and fun…and I have no idea which if any of those people are actually ‘myself’ or if they’re all just a variety of exciting disguises.

Blog of Impossible Things

Since culture prioritises the view of the personality as a ‘singlet’ (hence the popularity of astrology, as explained in Carter’s book), readers generally have little time for a fictional character who does one thing in one context, then seems to be completely different in another. Multiple selves in a single character may be one of those things which doesn’t work too well in fiction even if it would reflect real life. Certainly, if not written well, the reader may blame the author for failing to create an authentic and consistent personality, even though none of us is one hundred percent consistent in real life.

I believe moving past this idea of ‘one true self’, which includes all stories in which someone ‘finds’ their ‘true self’ needs a bit more pushback. It might be closely related to moving past the gender binary, and has particular impact on those who live in a more gender expansive manner, which is hopefully all of us.

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Twins, arch-nemeses, imagined selves, ‘Sliding Doors plots‘… all of these are used in fiction to convey the idea of multiple selves without actually writing multiple selves.

Header painting: Arthur Hughes – The Property Room