I Know Your True Name Trope

Rumpelstiltskin Monro S. Orr

There’s a really old storytelling trope: A trickster girl — and it is usually a girl — overcomes an Opponent with word play rather than physical tousle. Oftentimes the ‘word play’ is simply guessing the opponent’s real name.

Contains Breaking Bad spoilers. But hopefully you’ve already seen that if you wanted to. Continue reading “I Know Your True Name Trope”

How To Describe A Woman In Fiction

woman feeding birds

How to describe woman and girl characters in fiction? There must be a handbook somewhere. (No, only the entire history of literature.) The following tropes are so common they can be found throughout stories over time, including in books for children. On the other hand, writers of children’s literature are also the most likely to invert established tropes. We see successful subversions from children’s authors.

DESCRIBE A WOMAN AS BIRD

Nicoletta Ceccoli Bird girl
Illustration by Nicoletta Ceccoli

She was so little. Like a bird. And some days she looked like she was going to break. Or get shot out of the sky and fall down dead.

— description of the mother in You May Already Be A Winner, MG novel by Ann Dee Ellis (2017)

She was a little woman, with brown, dull hair very elaborately arranged, and she had prominent blue eyes behind invisible pince-nez. Her face was long, like a sheep’s, but she gave no impression of foolishness, rather of extreme alertness; she had the quick movements of a bird. The most remarkable thing about her was her voice, high, metallic, and without inflection; it fell on the ear with a hard monotony, irritating to the nerves like the pitiless clamour of the pneumatic drill.

— description of a Christian woman living in Samoa, “Rain” by W. Somerset Maugham

In contrast, Skellig by David Almond inverts gender tropes in several ways. His young male character brings food to and nurtures another male character. Males serving food anywhere in literature is hard to find, let alone to another male. The gender trope is also broken in that we have a male character described as a bird rather when it’s usually reserved for females. Less remarkable perhaps that the analogy is an owl. Of all the birds, owls are probably the most masculine, owing to their academic, learned, wise anthropomorphism. (In non Western cultures though, owls are connected to the night, the moon and therefore to femininity.)

In the 2017 MG novel Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, Alice receives a dress which has a collar of feathers. This dress makes her feel like she can fly. The dress ‘made her miss the quiet moments she’d once resented, dancing alone in the forest, her heartbeats synchronised to the sounds of the world. This is connected to the more basic cultural idea that women are more connected to nature, owing to our bodily functions which seem gory and base, whereas men are closer to god. That is perhaps an exaggeration and oversimplification when talking about gender differences in modern societies, but historically it’s very accurate. In this book, the main character of Alice has an affinity to nature, and her transformation into a bird-like creature brings her even closer to the forest and the creatures who live within. See also: The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.

Taking a broader look at characters compared to birds in stories and it becomes clear that when any gender is compared to a bird, that character is vulnerable. If women are more commonly described as birds, that’s because women are more often portrayed as vulnerable.

Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen (2017) is a magical realist middle grade novel in which two male characters are described as birds. The first is an elderly man with a childlike sensibility who can levitate. He may or may not be part of Leelu’s imagination. Eventually, Leelu goes on an urban journey to rescue her brother, who has been beaten up by bad people. This, too, is a gender inversion since historically it’s always the male gender saving the female gender.

[The older brother] lay unmoving, apart from one of his hands, which flickered with movement. His fingers flexed and trembled to their own rhythm; little flutterings that made me think of a bird’s wings beating in flight.

In Mad Men, Don Draper’s pet name for his first wife, Betty, if ‘Birdie’, which sounds a lot like ‘Bertie’ until you listen closely. This does play into a common heterosexual female desire, to feel much smaller than her male partner, and therefore protected. The problem for Betty is that she really is quite fragile and does need protecting from the world by a man.

DESCRIBE A WOMAN AS A CAT

women cats describe

In stories for adults, women are birds except when they’re in bed, in which they morph into cats. Purring, mewling and so on. More common in certain genres than others.

What about in children’s literature, which for obvious reasons is absent the sex scenes? (Sex is replaced by food in children’s stories. True story.)

Sometimes the comparison between girl and cat is quite subtle. Do you ever hear boys described as ‘stalking’ away in a huff? Oh sure, there are plenty of actual male stalkers in literature, and quite often they’re rewarded for their predatory behaviour by ending up with the girl, but only girls ‘stalk’ away, which is a weird descriptor when you think about it. How did stalk come to mean two opposite behaviours? When cats stalk their prey, they’re going towards the object, not away from it.

Cass shoves the contents of her tray into the trash and stalks away. Even though she didn’t say it, it’s obvious I’m the reason she’s upset.

—  a lunchroom scene from The Peculiar Incident On Shady Street, MG horror by Lindsay Currie (2017). Notice that like pet cats, girls don’t show their feelings. We can tell exactly what they’re thinking from their body language. (Another dangerous ideology, but commonly underscored in fiction.)

Sometimes women are described as large cats. With irony noted, this article describes women as ‘savage’ in the title for daring to make fun of the way male authors describe female characters.

WOMEN AS UGLY OLD HAG, YET STRANGELY DESIRABLE SOMEHOW

Iris Murdoch’s husband wrote a biography of his late wife after she died. He describes picking her up for their first date:

The door opened. An apparition in what seemed a sort of flame-coloured brocade stood before me. I felt in some way scandalised: dazzled but appalled at the same time. All my daydreams, my illusions and preconceptions about the woman — the girl? the lady? — of the bicycle seemed to have torn away and vanished back into a past which I would still very much have preferred to be inhabiting, given the choice. But I had no choice. The person before me was exactly the same as the one riding the bicycle. I still thought her face homely and kindly, not in any conventional sense pretty or attractive, even if it was a strong face in its own blunt-featured snub-nosed way; and for me it was always mysterious too. But now I was seeing it as other people saw it. Although it was in no way conventional itself its trappings, so to speak, were now conventional. Their appearance disappointed me sadly. They seemed the sort of things that any girl would wear; a silly girl who had not the taste to choose her clothes carefully.

However, gentleman that he says he was, John Bayley fell into bed with Iris later than night and told her in a very sexy way, I’m sure, how he loved her snub-nose.

Later, John Bayley also manages to describe his late wife as a bird:

At happy moments she seems to find [words] more easily than I do. Like the swallows when we lived in the country. Sitting on the telephone wire outside our bedroom window a row of swallows would converse animatedly with one another, always, it seemed signing off each burst of twittering speech with a word that sounded like ‘Weatherby’, a common call-sign delivered on a rising note. We used to call them ‘Weatherbys’. Now I tease her by saying ‘You’re just like a Weatherby, chattering away.’

and a cat, though he overturns the trope somewhat:

The Alzheimer face is neither tragic nor comic, as a face can appear in other forms of dementia: that would suggest humanity and emotion in their most distorted guise. The Alzheimer face indicates only an absence: it is a mask in the most literal sense. That is why the sudden appearance of a smile is so extraordinary. The lion face becomes the face of the Virgin Mary, tranquil in sculpture and painting with a gravity that gives such a smile its deepest meaning.

In any case, John Bayley’s real life use of the trope leads me to question the extent to which men sum up their female dates, balancing their conventional beauty against their inevitable sexual allure, against the social capital their beauty will bring to the man when he claims her for himself and will be judged by her beauty in public. Women worry about our own looks, wondering if we measure up. Men, apparently, also worry about women’s looks, wondering if we’ll measure up.

The most insidious, distasteful thing about men and male characters (proxy male authors) getting caught up in this psychological minefield around beauty standards is the idea that men should be congratulated for finding a non-model girlfriend sexually attractive regardless of her flaws, which are only flaws in his mind anyhow. Don’t nobody get no cookie for that.

A lot of white, male writers love this trope of the strangely alluring but scary woman. Ken Follett opens Pillars of the Earth with a mysterious young woman, who will soon jump our hero in the forest as he’s freshly grieving for the wife who Follett conveniently knocks off in childbirth:

She was a girl of about fifteen. When people looked at her they wondered why they had not noticed her before. She had long, dark brown hair, thick and rich, which came to a point in her wide forehead in what people called a devil’s peak. She had regular features and a sensual, full-lipped mouth. The old women noticed her thick waist and heavy breasts, concluded that she was pregnant, and guessed that the prisoner [about to be executed] was the father of her unborn child. But everyone else noticed nothing except her eyes. She might have been pretty, but she had deep-set, intense eyes of a startling golden colour, so luminous and penetrating that, when she looked at you, you felt she could see right into your heart, and you averted your eyes, scared that she would discover your secrets. She was dressed in rags, and tears streamed down her soft cheeks.

Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

Ken Follett is a big fan of the ugly woman who is nonetheless fuckable, even if she’s old:

She had been famous, once, briefly. At the peak of the hippie era she lived in the Haight-Ashbury nieghbourhood of San Francisco. Priest had not known her then–he had spent the late sixties making his first million dollars–but he had heard the stories. She had been a striking beauty. She had made a record, reciting poetry against a background of psychedelic music with a band called Raining Fresh Daisies. […] That was a long time ago. Now she was a few weeks from her fiftieth birthday. Her figure was still generous, though no longer like an hourglass: she weighed a hundred and eighty pounds. But she still exercised an extraordinary sexual magnetism. When she walked into a bar, all the men stared. / Even now, when she was worried and hot, there was a sexy flounce to the way she paced and turned beside the cheap old car, an invitation in the movement of her flesh beneath the thin cotton dress, and Priest felt the urge to grab her right there.

— The Hammer of Eden, Ken Follett. First detailed description of a woman character in the story.

It’s the ‘but’ that gets me. You find a woman sexually attractive or you don’t. What’s with all the buts? Are we to congratulate our male hero for finding her attractive despite everything? Is this a perverse kind of Save the Cat moment? Jeez, I think I just made a terrible connection there.

WOMEN AS FOOD PRODUCTS

Women of colour will tell you how often they are described as food products, especially hot beverages. (Cocoa, coffee, mocha…) Or food in general, especially sweet ones (caramel, toffee, carob, biscuit, chocolate, honey).

To avoid:

Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.

Sara Hockler

Yet we do still see this in modern children’s books, and I’d like to draw your attention to the gendered nature of it.

Nina’s huge eyes are focused on me now, like saucers of brown paint. If I had to classify them in pastel terms, I’d say they’re cocoa bean.

The Peculiar Incident On Shady Street by Lindsay Currie (2017)

Girls do look different from boys. Girls wear different clothes, different hair, move differently, and eventually there’s sexual dimorphism. But don’t default to a long history of tropes when describing girls and young women, because your story stands on the shoulders of every story which came before.

And that isn’t always a good thing.

The Misplaced Importance Of Bloodline In Fiction

bloodline in fiction

A ‘chosen one’ story stars a main character who is basically ordinary, but because of their bloodline, they are destined for great things. Harry Potter is the iconic example of a contemporary chosen one story. Harry Potter comes after a long tradition.

At TV Tropes you’ll find that Chosen One stories are so popular there are various subcategories.

WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF BLOODLINE?

When we talk about blood we’re of course talking about genetics. We didn’t know this until recently, though scientists had a sense there was some kind of particle which passed traits on.

The 20th century gave us the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but anyone who still thinks in those terms is making a folk distinction. Scientists working in genetics today don’t think in those terms at all because, basically, it’s all circular. We now know that environment influences gene expression. Now we know how little we actually know about genes. Sean Carroll describes our early thinking on DNA, once we had a name for it, then goes on to describe how much more complicated it is than that:

If you knew what the DNA was you could predict exactly what the organism was going to be, maybe what kind of food they would like or what kind of occupation they would have later in life. Today we know it’s a little bit more complicated than that. There’s more going on than just our DNA to make up who we are, not only nature versus nurture but even the nature part is very complicated. There’s epigenetics and development factors. There’s mitochondrial DNA. There’s the expression of the different parts of the genes that we have, and so we’re in a very, very rapid state of evolution, as it were, in terms of how we think in terms of how heredity works.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast with Carl Zimmer

Separately, I heard another geneticist talking in an interview. I don’t remember who it was or what they were talking about exactly, but one thing stuck in my mind: Geneticists, as a group, don’t tend to be all that interested in ancestry. You won’t find geneticists avidly researching their own family trees. They don’t hang out on the forums of Ancestry.com. That’s a separate interest altogether. Conversely, an interest in genetics seems to make you less interested in where you personally came from, partly because your greater understanding of genetics shows you that we’re all related in one giant web. It seems the story of our collective DNA is far more interesting than any individual’s bloodline.

Maybe we should all get PhDs in genetics and we’ll get some world peace?

FEATURES OF A CHOSEN ONE STORY

The bloodline plot often involves an orphaned character. (Or a character who thinks they are orphaned.) Orphans are super popular in children’s literature, especially in American children’s literature.

Especially in kids’ literature … there’s a trend towards unhappily adopted orphan heroes, as we’ll all know, who are lifted from the abuse/poverty/hilariously wonky living conditions they’re in by discovering that their parents were secretly wizards, or royalty, or holders of some great destiny that Our Hero is now tasked to take up. The truth of their bloodline saves the day, and you can dream of a giant busting through your door declaring “Yer a wizard” and scooping you off into the adventure you were destined for, away from your mundane and terrible home life.

The Afictionado

THE PROBLEMS WITH CHOSEN ONE STORIES

Continue reading “The Misplaced Importance Of Bloodline In Fiction”

Hair In Children’s Stories

Merida from Brave

It’s stating the obvious to point out that, in children’s fiction, a character’s hair maps onto personality. But in continuing to use hair-personality shortcuts, are writers perpetuating stereotypes?

Canadian teen actor Sophie Nélisse plays the title role, a young girl in foster care who we know is not terribly well-off emotionally because her hair is so flat. Her attitude stinks, too.

review of the film adaptation of The Great Gilly Hopkins 

As is usual for matters of appearance, this post applies mainly to girl characters. The hairstyles of boys are far less commonly attached to their personalities, desires and psychological weaknesses.

Some authors, such as Daniel Handler, avoid mentioning how a girl looks in books. We didn’t know what Violet looked like until Netflix adapted A Series Of Unfortunate Events for screen. (We only knew that Violet had long hair because she does something with the bow on it.)

The distinction  between ‘inborn’ and ‘styling choices’ of a character is important:

Anyone who has read a book is likely familiar with this phenomenon. Characters’ hair, for example, is often written as a remarkably accurate reflection of their personalities: feisty heroines are endowed with hair as sassy as they are, and these ‘wild manes’ subsequently spend every scene ‘struggling to escape’ from hair ties, messy buns, or other oppressive hairstyles. Granted, a green mohawk may imply a certain individuality of temperament, but self-styling can at least be controlled—this is very different to insinuating that because a person is born with curly hair, they’re automatically incapable of keeping their temper. Worse still is when this descends into racial stereotyping.

ACT Writers Blog

Continue reading “Hair In Children’s Stories”

Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

When romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance.

See also: What’s behind the wide appeal of all the horrible, brooding YA  boyfriends?

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

gothic horror

Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

Continue reading “Gothic Horror And Children’s Books”

Liars In Storytelling

secret-keeping pig the fibber

Liars are everywhere in stories. Stories themselves can be considered giant lies (which tell a deeper truth). The trope of the mask is a part of all this. Certain genres demand a ‘mask’, or, lying.

That’s because entire genres are about finding out the truth:

  1. Detective Crime is all about deciding whose version of a story is the truth. Our crime fighting heroes always care deeply about the truth.
  2. Mystery asks “How can we come to know the truth?” (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)
  3. Anti-Westerns critique the story given by classical Westerns and ask us to consider the truth about The Wild West (that it was a brutal, unjust, hellish place)
  4. In magical realism characters—especially the narrator—might not know what is happening any more than the reader, so they are discovering the truth of their reality as they go along.
  5. In a thriller, the perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)
  6. Superhero stories are wish fulfilment fantasies in which everyone eventually ‘learns the wonderful truth about me’ (I am amazing when you unwrap my everyday clothes and put me in lycra).
  7. In many comedies a hero will be wearing some kind of ‘mask’ but eventually, after some sort of spiritual crisis, this mask will be ripped off and the other characters will learn who this hero really is.
  8. A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
  9. Absurdist stories focus on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value
  10. Drama is often about the difference between a character’s public persona and what’s really going on underneath. We watch drama to learn about the lives we never find out about in our real-world acquaintances.
  11. Cinema in general

The cinema cannot show the truth, or reveal it, because the truth is not out there in the real world, waiting to be photographed. What the cinema can do is produce meanings and meanings can only be plotted, not in relation to some abstract yardstick or criterion of truth, but in relation to other meanings.

Movies and Methods: An Anthology Vol. 2

THE TRUTH DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY

Fictional stories are make believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, may be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. … In movies, screenplays and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.
G.C. Lightenberg

TRUTH AND STORY STRUCTURE

Within a story structure, the truth will be revealed at the ‘Self-Revelation‘ stage. (After the Battle, before New Equilibrium.)

Sometimes the audience is let in on the truth of the situation at the beginning of a story. For instance, in some crime stories the reader knows who the villain is from the get-go. This type of detective story is no longer a whodunnit but a whydunnit.

TRUTH TROPES IN STORYTELLING

LIAR TROPE 1: NOBODY BELIEVES THE HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The underdog hero must take matters into their own hands, saving the day somehow. Only by proving themselves truthful will be finally be accepted by their community.

This is basically the plot of every episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog. It works. Frankly, how quick would you be to trust someone who said there was a flying saucer in the field next door? This initial disbelief is almost mandatory — a type of lampshading for the audience who would otherwise think, “Now who would believe that?”

In 1965, Susan Sontag wrote five steps in one kind of typical science fiction story. Her first two steps demonstrate this lampshading:

  1. The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien space-ship, etc.) This is usually witnessed, or suspected, by just one person, who is a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not married, but has a sympathetic though also incredulous girlfriend.
  2. Confirmation of the hero’s report by a host of witnesses to a great act of destruction. (If the invaders are beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully.) The local police are summoned to deal with the situation and massacred.

When it comes to heroines, however, writers often add a little extra. Like mental instability. The 2012 film Gone, stars Amanda Seyfried as a damaged young woman who takes on the role of a vigilante cop after the actual cops think she’s fabricated a former abduction from which she managed to escape. Even the movie poster announces that ‘no one believes her’.

teenage girls in narrative are often portrayed as liars

LIAR TROPE 2: HERO LIES TO THEMSELVES

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: Over the course of events the character is liberated by accepting the truth of their circumstances.

In Strays Like Us by Richard Peck, the main character has been abandoned by her mother — a drug addict criminal who will never step up to the plate for her adolescent daughter. Over the course of one year in a settled environment with a new female role model, Molly Moberly must come to terms with this. Finally she gives away the notebook she has been using to create a fictional narrative about her mother.

Jacqueline Wilson also writes of a girl lying to herself about her mother in Starring Tracy Beaker.

The mother of these orphan girls with imaginative narratives about their hopeless mothers is perhaps The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.

In Big Little Lies, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) lies to herself about the nature of her relationship with her husband. All of the supporting characters are keeping their own secrets.

 

LIAR TROPE 3: HERO LEARNS WHEN NOT TO LIE

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The hero has learned not to lie as a child but as she enters adolescence she realises the world is not black and white, so she learns when to keep quiet in order to protect someone else.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is an excellent example of this storyline in a children’s book.

 

LIAR TROPE 4: FAKE ALLY LIES TO HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: In children’s books it is often the adult lying to the child ‘in order to protect’ them.

In Strays Like Us even sympathetic adult Aunt Fay lies to Molly by omitting the fact that her mother has checked herself out of rehab and has gone AWOL. Because Peck wants to keep Aunt Fay as a sympathetic character, he has Aunt Fay apologise to Molly for not telling her earlier.

Also in school stories there will often be a ‘bitchy teen girl’ trope who is ‘nasty nice’. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is well-known for introducing this dynamic to the public consciousness.

Eventually the hero works out what the truth of the situation is, and this contributes to their character arc. Or, like Lindsay Lohan’s character on Mean Girls, she might be a trickster archetype who lies back to her opponent in order to exact revenge.

 

LIAR TROPE 5: THE FAKE OPPONENT BENEFACTOR

It comes from Jane Austen:

The obvious liar in Pride and Prejudice is Wickham, but the more interesting from a plot perspective is Darcy. Because Darcy does something immensely noble, which if she knew about it would make Elizabeth deeply grateful to him, but doesn’t tell her. Lies about it. She only finds out indirectly. It’s a heart-stirring and deeply effective device, so much so that it has spread, meme-style, through countless other stories ever since. There’s a legend in Bookworld that when Helen Fielding was considering turning her Bridget Jones columns into a book, she saw the Colin Firth-starring TV adaptation and decided to lift the plot from Pride and Prejudice. Virtually every romantic novel ever since has done the same, including Twilight.

The Guardian

Secret-Keeping And Lies In Children’s Literature

Many books for children explore the ideas of truth, lies and secret-keeping. Young characters commonly keep secrets from adults. Often (especially in portal fantasy) it’s because the adults simply wouldn’t believe the children (that there’s a world on the other side of the wardrobe; that there’s a creature who grants wishes that last for a day). This is a ‘plot level’ secret, and serves to keep adults out of the story. That’s one of the main challenges for children’s authors — keeping adults from solving all the kids’ problems.

In other stories, secrets are thematically and didactically explored.

It’s an accepted fact in child development that humans are not born liars. We do not have the capacity to lie until we have developed theory of mind. Once we have learned to lie, we usually do it badly. Gradually, over the course of childhood, we learn that — even if the rule books say differently — lying is at times necessary. There is good lying and bad lying, or at least, lying that will get you into trouble and lying that will get you out of trouble.

This is complicated stuff. It’s no wonder so many of the great works of children’s literature touch upon it. Some stories are all about the lying.

A Few Case Studies

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Tom’s Aunt and Uncle tell him there is nothing in the yard except for a small area of pavement and some rubbish bins, so when Tom finds a vast, rich fantasy world after opening the back door at midnight, he is incensed that he was lied to. Tom already has a keen sense of right and wrong. When he has his Aunt and Uncle on about it, they have no idea what he’s talking about. When Tom shows them the other world it is no longer there.

In this way, Tom’s sense of reality, as well as his black and white sense of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, is challenged. Tom’s Aunt and Uncle aren’t lying, even though they can’t see the truth right in front of them, because that is just not their reality.

The Chronicles Of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

A similar event occurs in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, of course, when Lucy takes the other Pevensie children back to the wardrobe only to find the back has closed up. Lucy is heavily penalised for lying until it is proven otherwise. Edmond pays the greatest price for the greatest lie — knowing the world of Narnia exists without reporting the truth of it to Susan and Peter, redeeming Lucy in their eyes.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

The Dark Materials trilogy is all about shades of grey over black and white. She is smart and spirited and plucky and at times is a quick thinker but she is also naive and is still learning who to trust with the truth. Before she runs away from Mrs Coulter she is summoned by a man called Lord Boreal. He asks her questions.

“And is Mrs Coulter keeping you busy? What is she teaching you?”

Because Lyra was feeling rebellious and uneasy, she didn’t answer this patronizing question with the truth, or with one of her usual flights of fancy. Instead she said, “I’m learning about Rusakov Particles, and about the Oblation Board.”

The man presses her to tell him what she knows about that.

“Did Mrs Coulter show you a picture like [a photogram where you can see Dust]?”

Lyra hesitated, for this was not lying but something else, and she wasn’t practised at it.

As you can see, Pullman makes a distinction between run-of-the-mill lying and something deeper and unnamed — I’ll call it Preserving The Truth.

Lyra gets more worldly over the course of the story, as all main characters must in myth-structured stories. She naturally learns how to lie, sometimes to comic effect and sometimes because it is a matter of life and death.

After Lyra runs away she is approached by another suspicious man who tries to spike her coffee. To the delight of the reader, Lyra has already told the man that her name is “Alice” and that her father is “a murderer”.

“I told you, he’s a murderer. It’s his profession. He’s doing a job tonight. I got his clean clothes in here, ’cause he’s usually all covered in blood when he’s finished a job.”

“Ah! You’re joking.”

“I en’t.”

Further Examples of Secret-keeping In Children’s Stories

  1. Secrets are dangerous and should be shared with a trusted individual such as a parent, teacher or friend. This is a non-controversial message about secrets and a safe one to put in a book. No parent likes to think that their young child is keeping secrets from us. Parents are terrified of grooming and we no longer automatically trust teachers, coaches and bus-drivers. We like to think our children will tell us everything. Gatekeepers of children’s books therefore like books with this message.
  2. However, sometimes secrets are even more dangerous to share than to keep, and this danger can affect others as well as the secret-keeper.
  3. Even though it’s best to share your own secrets with friends, your friends‘ secrets should never be shared with others even if you feel you yourself need psychological support. Once you pass on a ‘secret’, it’s no longer a secret.
  4. Among groups of friends, secrets are swapped (even complete fabrications) as a mode of toxic bonding. Mean Girls features a Burn Book, for example, started by Regina George for two reasons: First it establishes a social hierarchy with herself at the top and second it bonds a small group of insiders together, using shared ‘knowledge’ as currency. People (mostly female characters) who use secrets and lies as social currency deserve every horrible thing that comes to them, and readers should never imitate this behaviour in real life. These stories exist to show readers that it happens, why it happens, and asks them to criticize the practice. There is also that wish-fulfilment of retribution in Mean Girls, when Regina George finds she’s met her match in the down-to-earth newcomer whose social gullibility turns out to be her strength. Machiavelli agreed that lies always hurt the teller, and Aesop agreed.
  5. Is lying by omission to help someone else a good secret or a bad secret? Not all secrets are the same. They come in different colours — black, white and grey. Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk does a good job of exploring this line of thought. The Case For Teaching Kids To Lie, Just Like Adults, from Fatherly.
  6. If you try to keep some horrible deed secret then get caught out, don’t deflect blame. Lying for your own gain and only your own gain means you deserve retribution. Pig The Fibber by Aaron Blabey is a humorous picture book example of this message.
  7. If you have suicidal thoughts or have been abused then you should never, ever keep that secret. That’s the message of 13 Reasons Why. The TV adaptation comes with messages about the existence of Lifeline, a mental health helpline.
  8. Perhaps the most famous liar in children’s literature is Pinocchio, whose nose grows longer whenever he tells a lie. The image of a growing nose has entered the public consciousness and idiomatic language, regardless of whether we’ve ever read the story or not. The messages about lying are complex in this classic. Pinocchio is not the only liar. Gepetto sells his winter coat (which he needs) in order to buy Pinocchio a school book but he tells Pinocchio the coat was too hot anyway. Presumably this lie is okay, because it’s a ‘white lie’, designed to avoid a child feeling bad and help him in the noble goal of getting an education. For more on lying in Pinocchio, see here: “Lies that have short legs are those that carry you a little distance but cannot outrun the truth. The truthful consequences always catch up with someone who tells a lie with short legs. Lies that have long noses are those that are obvious to everyone except the person who told the lie, lies that make the liar look ridiculous.”
  9. While children should never lie to parents, if (good) parents lie if it’s to protect children. 
  10. Beware ‘tricky’ adults. An example of a nasty-nice stranger who reels a child in with lies is the White Witch, who reels him in with Turkish delight than tells him to keep a secret. The secret-keeping leads to Edmond being ostricised by his family when they find out he’s been lying about the existence of Narnia. The message in C.S. Lewis’s Christian works is that lying is always bad and will always be found out. We are often told that lies will always be outed. This stems from the monotheistic view of the omniscient eye watching our every move, reinforced by the idea that all our bad deeds will be judged upon our death. But not everyone holds these views. Do lies really always come out? Is there some law of ‘physics’ which makes that happen? Or perhaps this is far, far from reality — many secrets and lies die everyday around the world, along with the people who’ve been keeping them. And were they right to keep them?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Notion of The Living Truth

Bonhoeffer argues that it is naive and misleading, perhaps even dangerous to suppose that the literal truth always or even typically conveys what we mean when we talk about telling the truth. Of course we often tell a straightforward lie, and for morally blameworthy reasons. But we also often make statements that are not literally true—that are in fact literal lies—while conveying a deeper truth that an honest statement of the facts could not communicate. So, for example, if Geppetto told Pinocchio, “I sold my coat in order to buy you a schoolbook,” he would be speaking the literal truth, but his meaning might well be (or be understood by Pinocchio as) “Look what sacrifices I make for you!” By telling Pinocchio that he sold his coat because it was too hot—a lie—he communicates to Pinocchio something like “My coat doesn’t really matter to me, and your schoolbook does, and I don’t want you to feel bad about the fact that I sold my coat.” This is a very nice example of what Bonhoeffer means by the living truth, the more important meanings in communication that may not, and sometimes cannot, be conveyed by strict reportage. So many of the stories we tell our children are of this kind—Santa Claus is the obvious example—and we should ask ourselves, as parents and also as lovers: How many stories might my child, or my boyfriend, or my partner, or my mom be telling me, not in order to mislead me but rather to tell me something that, if said outright, might be misunderstood or cause me harm?

The New Yorker

Apart from Pinocchio, can you think of some children’s stories which play with the concept of ‘the living truth’?

At what age can (neurotypical) children understand this concept? For many autistic children, development is atypical when it comes to social lying. When you live with an autistic child you realise the extent to which everyday communication runs on secrets, lies, omissions and short-cuts as social niceties. Autistic readers in particular can benefit hugely from children’s literature which explores the full gamut of ideologies around secret-keeping and lying.

What does the field of psychology tell us about the toll of secret-keeping?

Traditionally, scientists have studied secrecy as a social act, as the wilful hiding of information from others. According to this view, it’s the suppression of the secret—the keeping it in, the self-monitoring, and the tactical contortions that go with it—that exact a cost on the keeper. But Slepian argues that secrets cause suffering in other ways, too. Yes, there are occasions when you have to actively steer a conversation away from the rocks, like when you’re attempting to disguise from your office mates the fact that you’re looking for another job. But most of the time you’re by yourself with your secret, thinking about the many ways in which it could be discovered or you might accidentally let it slip. […]

It is established that keeping a secret can take a toll:

Secrecy, as they see it, is less an activity than a state of being. We don’t keep secrets; we have them. And what’s harmful about a secret isn’t the content so much as the mind’s need to keep revisiting it and turning it over—not the murder itself but the incessant beating of the telltale heart. […]

However, if the secret-keeper is able to avoid ‘dwelling’ on it — if the secret isn’t actually bothering them — well, no problem? We shouldn’t assume that keeping secrets is always going to be harmful for the keeper. It depends on the secret and on the person:

By a margin of two-to-one or more, people dwelled on their secrets on their own time far more than in social situations. And the dwelling, more than the concealing, hurt their sense of well-being. By constantly chewing over a secret, Slepian suggested, people remind themselves of their own deceptiveness; they feel “inauthentic, disingenuous.” […]

Other people, or the same people in different situations, might be better off sharing secrets to avoid letting it harm their sense of integrity. This may apply in particular to sharing with others who we really are. For example, living one’s whole life concealing sexual orientation/identity is going to take a very real emotional toll on a person:

Secrets are largely solitary creatures and can be tamed with company. “Talking about it with another person will really go a long way,” he said. Melissa Ferguson, the Cornell psychologist who studied the cognitive and physical effects of concealing one’s sexual orientation, added that we shouldn’t lose sight of the costs of social secrets.

The New Yorker 

On the other hand, for many young gay and transgender people around the world, coming out to their families and communities is more physically dangerous than the secret-keeping is emotionally dangerous. In which case, what is the answer for those readers looking for similar lives within books? Dan Savage, well-known gay sex columnist, often advises young people from bigoted communities be very careful about coming out, as it can lead to loss of educational opportunities, homelessness and physical harm. The time for coming out can occasionally be postponed a few years.

Alongside all those stories about unburdening, stories about secret-keeping — at least for a while — are also needed.

FURTHER READING ON LIARS AND LYING

1. The Tech of TV News Might Make It Easier for Pundits to Lie

2. Valuing Those Who Tell You The Bitter Truth

3. Amanda Knox: What’s in a face? from The Guardian

4. How To Be More Paranoid from The Hairpin, in which Pamela Meyer tells you how to spot liars.

5. Twelve Completely Foolproof And Not-At-All-Crazy Ways To Make Sure He’s Not Lying from Jezebel: Relationships

6. On Bullshit by Henry Frankfurt

7. How And Why Do We Deceive Ourselves from Freethought Blogs

8. Do People Really Want You To Be Honest? from HBR

9. Why We Don’t Always Tell The Truth, also from HBR

10. 12 Lies To Stop Telling Yourself from Marc And Angel Hack Life

11. Trust Me I’m Lying, interview with Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book about the media and ‘faux-troversies’.

12. Anatomy Of Lying, a book by Sam Harris

13. The ‘Pinnochio Effect’ Confirmed from Science Daily

14. Lying Is Common Age 2, Becomes Norm By 3, from BPS Research Digest

15. How Money Makes You Lie And Cheat from Time

16. Suppression of Incriminating Memories Can Beat Lie-Detector Tests. (I’ve always wondered that.) from Psych Central

17. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves from Farnam Street

18. 10 Lies You Were Tricked Into Believing from Marc and Angel

19. The Lie Detector Paradox from Mindhacks

20. Dan Ariely on the Truth About Dishonesty, Animated from Brainpickings

21. Jeff Hancock and the Future of Lying from GMP

22. How can we make people more honest? a video.

23. How we teach our kids that women are liars, from Role Reboot. (And then I read this unrelated passage in a popular science book: Human females, unlike most of their primate relatives, do not tell the truth about when they are fertile. Female chimpanzees flaunt swollen backsides and genitals for the several days in each cycle when an egg is ready to be fertilised… Women, unlike chimpanzees, advertise their potential for copulation at all times, fertile or otherwise. Perhaps a false statement of fecundity means that a male will choose to stick with a particular mate in order to keep others at bay, rather than tomake a switch to a third party while his partner is unable to conceive.’ -page 151-152 of The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones. #CasualSexism

There are many songs dedicated to the idea that women are (sexy) liars.

24. Intricacies of Lying: False Descriptions Easier to Remember Than False Denials from Science Daily

She stabbed the butter lightly before spreading it on a scrap of French bread — ‘why, when I first met you and you told me about yourself, did your story end when you left your wife and went and lived in a flat somewhere? Why was that the end of the story when it wasn’t the end at all?’

‘How do you mean?’ He had stopped eating, though, she noticed that. ‘I did go and live in a flat when I left my wife.’

‘Indeed you did. But there was more to it, wasn’t there? You left your wife and you went and lived in a flat. Then you met someone else and got married again and went and lived in a large house somewhere else entirely.’

‘Oh that,’ he said. ‘Well, perhaps we got interrupted at that point. Perhaps I just forgot to tell you the rest and you never asked.’

– from The Lonely Margins Of The Sea by Shonagh Koea

25. Here’s What You Need To Know About Liars from Business Insider talks about two different kinds of liars: polite, everyday liars and ‘prolific’ liars. Given the dominant cultural narrative about how women lie (about being raped, about liking computer games, about liking sex etc.), I’d like to point out that men are statistically more likely to be prolific liars.

26. I love children who lie for no reason, by Elena Ferrante

Teachers In Children’s Literature

THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES

The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these people, dishing out advice to help the protagonist get through the story. Teachers can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In YA, teachers can also be love opponents. Continue reading “Teachers In Children’s Literature”

Father Tropes In Fiction

Turn Out Like His Father – A character has charge of a child (usually her son) and is desperate to keep this child from imitating another relative (usually his father). This is a fear of history’s repeating itself for his fate, which may be turning evil and usually ends with being dead. Harry Potter isn’t allowed to find out about his parents in case he turns out like them.

Like Father Like Son – this one is called a ‘supertrope’ because of all its subcategories.

Like Father, Unlike Son – In How to Train Your Dragon, Stoick the Vast is a big bearded man who is every bit a typical Viking warrior whose main defining feature is his strength.

Continue reading “Father Tropes In Fiction”

The Three Little Pigs Illustrated by Leonard Leslie Brooke

The Three Little Pigs is one of the handful of classic tales audiences are expected to know. Pigs are handy characters: They can be adorable or they can be evil. You can strip them  butt naked and let the reader revel in their uncanny resemblance to humans. Or, you can dress them in jumpers and they’re as cute as kittens.

 

Brooke’s version of The Three Little Pigs, published January 1st 1905 by Frederick Warne and Company,  is freely available at Project Gutenberg.

No one knows who wrote it, but we do know it’s from England.

The Story Of The Three Little Pigs

This version is also part of the Mother Goose collection.

(Did you know that children’s books in general originally emerged from nursery rhymes and folk tale? And that William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, published the first Mother Goose Tales?) Continue reading “The Three Little Pigs Illustrated by Leonard Leslie Brooke”

Rats In Children’s Literature

rat-attacks-cat

That’s a gif from Reddit.

I’m reminded of modern children’s literature, in which an underdog, much maligned character has his/her own back.

It’s pretty funny until you read the top commenter, pointing out that the rat probably has toxoplasmosis, a disorder of the brain. On the other hand, mice and rats alike aren’t timid at all when you consider how small and vulnerable they are compared to us, and how they hang around humans anyway.

Sooo, compared to mice, rats are relatively uncommon in children’s literature.

There are a number of reasons for this:

First, mice are cute, and serve as stand-in children owing to their small, vulnerable size. Rats have long, worm-like tails and look at you as if they’re about to murder you. Their paws are large enough for us to notice they are uncannily like human hands.

Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

Second, there’s a long history of tropes depicting rats as baddies, and the antihero isn’t very well explored (yet) in literature for young children.

See also: A list of rodent tropes at TV Tropes

This gets dark real quick when you realise that the trope of rats as baddies extends to real life.

Characterizing people as vermin has historically been a precursor to murder and genocide. The Nazis built on centuries-old hatred of Jews as carriers of disease in a film titled “Der Ewige Jude,” or “The Eternal Jew.”

INFEST — The Ugly Nazi History of Trump’s Chosen Verb About Immigrants

Third, there’s no Aesopian precedent for personified rats. Aesop has a much bigger influence on modern children’s literature than we might think. Take a look at the following word cloud, from a site which catalogue’s Aesop’s fables and you’ll notice that rats are entirely absent. Even mice aren’t all that common.

aesops-characters

 

Rats As Cockney Rag And Bone Types

The rats from Chicken Run speak Cockney, are underworld petty criminal scavenger types and are used to deliver funny one-liners.

rats chicken run

If these guys were characters in a children’s story they would be rats.

Only Fools and Horses
from Only Fools and Horses

Rats = Masculine, Mice = Feminine

The characters in Froggy Went A-Courtin (here we have the 1955 illustrations) are a good example of rodent gendering in children’s stories. The mice is infantalised in what today seems ridiculously old-fashioned, but which was no doubt representative of its time. No one knows exactly when the original song was first composed, but it was long before 1955.

Uncle Rat froggy went a courtin

Miss mouse will you marry me

That said, it wasn’t unusual for Americans to see pictures of women on men’s knees in popular culture, and it wasn’t always a loving dynamic such as this one.

Chase-Sanborn-Coffee

FAMOUS LITERARY RATS

Here are some of the better-known works.

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the_roly-poly_pudding_first_edition_cover_500x636

the-wind-in-the-willows_500x632

a-rats-tale-cover_500x670

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