‘Man Bites Dog’ describes inversion humour. I’ve also seen ‘hat on a dog’ describing the same category of joke, in which the audience laughs because the usual way of things is back to front.
MAN BITES DOG IN JOURNALISM
Journalists also use ‘Man Bites Dog’ to describe stories that are popular because they intrigue via (often humorous) inversion. This is partly why news stories about ‘the first female rugby coach’ or ‘8-year-old codes his own traffic app’ are newsworthy in the first place; these stories are only news because a certain element is unexpected.
For some reason we commonly think of dogs when describing this category of joke. In Harald Skogsberg’s illustration below, a hare chases a dog through the woods. This is comical because for one reason only: in the real world, hounds chase hares instead. The Man Bites Dog gag is a single-layer joke.
In 2002 there was a news story in which a man literally bit a dog. Because the ‘Man Bites Dog’ trope already existed, this was now a double-layer joke.
MAN BITES DOG HUMOUR IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN
Although the hound and hare illustration above includes an audience of adults, children’s picture books are full of man bites dog gags, because preschoolers are yet to understand multi-layered humour such as satire, but will laugh their heads off if they see Dad put on Mum’s hat, for example. In this post I take a close look at the sorts of jokes enjoyed by child audiences at what ages, based on a taxonomy proposed by the co-founder of The Onion.
In order for Man Bites Dog gags to work, the audience needs an internalised schema of ‘expected normality’, and the comedian needs to make use of established norms in order to invert it. By making use of the established norm, the comedian further cements the established norm.
The illustration below is also by Harald Skogsberg, who lived through the 20th century. While a modern audience may not see the humour, it is partly humorous in its intent. A wife scolds a man, who is dressed as a housewife, and is clearly doing the wife expected of a housewife.
There is no better way to cement ideologies than by use of humour. The ideology reinforced within the illustration below: Housework is for wives, not husbands. The image aims to elicit a laugh, but also does the social work of reinforcing the idea that if husbands do their share of housework, they will appear ridiculous to onlookers and lose their status.
This is why Man Bites Dog gags can be so problematic. You might think that contemporary bestselling children’s books are free of the sort of mid-20th century humour depicted in the house husband image above. Unfortunately it hasn’t disappeared.
One of the most quietly problematic examples of gender inversion can be seen in The Day The Crayons Quiet by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. If it seems subtle, that’s only because we’re not looking back on our current era with the benefit of enlightened hindsight. Likewise, there are many, many children’s stories in which a man dresses as a woman, reinforcing the gender binary and all the rules around what proper masculinity and femininity should look like. (tl;dr If boys want to wear dresses, they will look ridiculous.)
The huge numbers of people buying The Day The Crayons Quit indicate that most adults are simply not seeing any problems with that book. I’m sure most mid-20th century audiences enjoying the humorous illustrations of Harald Skogsberg weren’t fully cognisant of his ideologies, either.
To tell 20th century audiences that Skogsberg was problematically sexist would’ve been like explaining water to a fish. And to tell
Body swap stories are high concept stories, and their popularity endures. Freaky Friday, for example, started in 1976. We keep seeing new versions.
The mother-daughter body swap is relatively ‘safe’ and the moral lesson is clear: When we literally put ourselves in cross-generational shoes, we understand the other’s point of view.
However, when the body swap is cross gender, pitfalls soon reveal themselves. Likewise, as I am finding out, middle grade human-to-pet body swap narratives are also likely to convey problematic gender ideologies.
FREAKY FRIDAY AND ME
When I was ten years old I was a massive writer of fan fiction, though it wasn’t called that then. I rarely finished any story but I was struck by one idea after another. The joy was in the writing, not in the finished product. Sometimes I’d simply write book blurbs with no intention of going any further. One day my teacher found me reading (which was fine — he ran the classroom according to Montessori philosophy), and picked up the little note I’d written to myself. I was using it as a bookmark. The note was mostly written to try out the new green, felt-tipped calligraphy marker I’d gotten for my birthday but I’d written something like: “Write a story about a girl who swaps bodies with her mother.”
“Hmm,” said my teacher, who had read this note despite me wanting to snatch it right back out of his hands. “Have you seen the film Freaky Friday?”
I had not. I told him I had not. This was the late 80s, a long time after the first adaptation (1976) and even longer before the next (1995, 2003). He looked at me suspiciously though, and I felt terrible, as if he had caught me plagiarising someone else’s idea. Perhaps all those times he’d praised my original writing were based on a lie, in his mind.
There’s nothing wrong with letting 10 year olds write fan fiction anyway, imo. Let 10 year olds write whatever they want, even if it’s derivative and unoriginal. The job of a 10-year-old is to revel in the joy of reading and writing.
I think of that shameful interaction each time I come across another body swap story, because they’re so common, no one can really be said to be plagiarising anyone else. The body swap story can be good for conveying all sorts of ‘walk-in-another-person’s-shoes’ didacticism in the most literal of plot lines, so no wonder.
Was Freaky Friday the first major story to do the body swap plot? No — take for example P.G. Wodehouse who wrote a book called Laughing Gas, published 1936. Characters Reggie and Joey inhale laughing gas at a dentist’s office.
Wodehouse may have been inspired by the 1928 story The Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs featuring the plot line of brain transplants. At that point in history researchers were experimenting with organ transplantation — and had been doing so, both on animals and humans, in the 18th century. (The first successful transplants didn’t happen until the 1950s.)
Although Freaky Friday was not the first popular story to introduce this plot line but is almost certainly the best known to modern culture because of the film adaptations. The original novel was by Mary Rodgers, published 1972. Rodgers also wrote Freaky Monday and Summer Switch. Due to the success of Rodgers’ first body swap novel, at TV Tropes the body swap plot line is known as the “Freaky Friday Flip”.
A number of the hugely popular series writers for children have utilised the Freaky Friday flip at some point:
The Barking Ghost, Switched and Why I’m Afraid Of Bees by R.L. Stine
Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Parts 1 and 2 by Dav Pilkey
Airhead by Meg Cabot, of Princess Diaries fame
Freaked Out, a Lizzie McGuire story by Alice Alfonsi
Features Of The Freaky Friday Flip
From TV Tropes:
Typically, the main character achieves a deeper appreciation for the other person’s life.
The Flip often involves characters of different ages, genders, races, or social classes.
Another variation is a protagonist and antagonist switching, which usually involves each trying to undermine the other’s organisation while simultaneously trying to switch back. (See Barking Mad, below.)
Barking Mad is a New Zealand publication by Tom Moffatt, and winner of The Tom Fitzgibbon Award. This story is a body swap story, human swapping with dog.
I never read Strasser’s book in the 1990s but a Goodreads review confirms that I’m right to expect a fraught relationship between brother and sister. I am able to extrapolate the moral lesson as well, because it’s standard in body-swap stories for our main character to ‘find someone’s strengths and use them for good’:
Everything is going well for Jake and his pen pal, until he realizes she is coming to visit. Now he must switch bodies with his big sister, Jessica, who does not like him at all, so that he can cover up a lie that he told his pen pal. Learn what the lie is, how they covered it up, and how the siblings worked together, ending with them actually getting along. This book is a great way to encourage teamwork and finding people’s strengths and using them for good.
Presumably the main character of Strasser’s story continues to do good even after being returned to his own body.
Barking Mad features a bitchy, annoying, girly-swot teenage girl whose younger brother narrates the story of their body swap from his own close third-person point of view. The book begins in a very appealing way, with ‘mad professor’ granddad gone ‘barking mad’ after inventing a body swap device and accidentally inhabiting his dog’s body. The brother and sister find the machine, accidentally swap themselves, and now we have a Gender Bender story which actually kind of replaces the animal story I thought I was buying for my dog-loving middle-grade daughter.
Come Back Gizmo by Paul Jennings (1996)
Barking Mad is basically a 2015 retelling of a hi-lo short novel by Paul Jennings, written almost 20 years earlier.
Come Back Gizmo is one long humiliation gag. And for true humiliation, a (cishet) boy needs a female romantic opponent. The (literal) girl next door is a highly unsympathetic archetype. Jennings uses this exact description in any story with a sexually attractive girl. She is always a white girl and she always looks like this:
Oh, just look at her. Golden hair. Blue eyes. White, white teeth.
Jennings describes Samantha’s cat, though he is also describing Samantha herself, because he has demonstrated in other stories that girls are in one of two categories: classy and cheap:
Samantha is carrying her cat, Doddles. It’s one of those expensive ones with green eyes. It is a classy cat. There is nothing cheap about it.
The reader is given no reason to like this girl, and we don’t know why the boy likes her either. The truth is, he doesn’t like her at all. He is annoyingly drawn towards her because… hormones. And because boys are not encouraged (in fiction as in real life) to see pretty girls as people.
The situation of a boy hopelessly attracted to a girl he wouldn’t otherwise like as a friend draws upon a universal feeling of youthful attraction… perhaps. This might explain the popularity of the trope, in which a boy keeps making a buffoon of himself, especially in front of the girl he likes. (In a warped version of gender equality, there are stories now where girls are also the buffoons in front of hot boys.)
Jimmy assumes (as a universal truth) that Samantha would be interested in him because he ‘doesn’t have a dollar to his name’. The universal truth as presented: Girls like boys who have money. Girls are gold-diggers.
Samantha forges a bargain with Jimmy in exchange for a kiss. The implies a universal ‘truth’ that girls fully understand their own sexual appeal, and will manipulate hapless boys into doing exactly what they want. A secondary universal ‘truth’ is that girls are the natural gatekeepers of sex.
Later, Samantha lies to the ‘little man’ from the SPCA when she insists she had nothing to do with locking the dog in the boot. Implied universal truth: That girls are liars. We might code this as ‘Samantha, this particular character, is a liar’, except this plot point follows on the back of Samantha as sexually manipulative, and the attributes go hand-in-hand. Also, the trope of the manipulative, self-centred, beautiful, sexually alluring and wholly unlikeable girl is a trope we see time and again throughout history.
The most disappointing aspect of Paul Jennings’ body swap dog story: It didn’t even need the romantic subplot bookending each end. The girl exists in the story purely to heighten the humiliation aspect of Jimmy running around naked, scratching fleas, cocking a leg on lampposts.
In response to this argument I’ve heard ‘both sides’ rebuttals: Sure, the girl is a manipulative liar, but the boy really is made to look stupid in this. Surely that’s not sexist now? I mean, the girl AND the boy are presented in a bad light. In fact, if anything, it’s reverse sexism!
That’s how the argument goes. But it doesn’t hold water, because
If you flipped the genders the gag in this story wouldn’t work (ie. it would just be weird and uncomfortable, seeing a girl run around naked in front of the entire neighbourhood)
For this exact reason: we objectify the bodies of girls
Therefore a girl’s naked body cannot be funny; her body is always viewed through a sexual lens. Only boys have the privilege of running around naked without being viewed via a sexual gaze.
And I suppose this is why we don’t get many body swap stories in which girls swap bodies with their dogs. Girls sometimes get werewolf stories instead, which is etymologically interesting: ‘Were’ means ‘man’. The female ‘werewolf’ is a very recent development in storytelling. The etymologically correct term for a female werewolf would be wifwolf, but that means ‘wife wolf’. It’s not exactly liberating to be described only in relation to a man, especially since the entire genre of werewolf stories are about ‘breaking free of constraints’, which explains why werewolf is now coded as a gender free term.
Quantum Leap was a 1980s American TV show. In each episode, main character Sam Beckett finds himself in someone else’s body. He is there to solve a crisis in their lives. This is a surprisingly earnest show, and oftentimes Sam dresses as a woman without playing it for laughs. Despite regular lighthearted moments, nothing about the tone of an episode suggests we should laugh at Sam when he dresses his masculine actor’s body in a woman’s one-piece bathing costume, for instance.
Despite the earnestness, Quantum Leap again exemplifies why it is nigh on impossible to write a gender-swap body swap story without relying on sexist stereotypes. In the clip below, the male chauvinist boss who comes onto his much younger secretary gets his comeuppance. On the surface, this is a send up of what we now call toxic masculinity.
But when proving to this guy that he’s ‘really’ a man, Sam ‘proves’ it by offering to demonstrate how he can throw a baseball. This doesn’t work as ‘proof’ unless the audience believes girls can’t throw baseballs.
Your Name (2016)
Your Name avoids much of the ickiness of a brother-sister body swap that we saw in Barking Mad. (Insofar as the characters know) they don’t know each other. Writers nevertheless rely on some stereotyped ideas about how boys and girls are different:
When transplanted into the girl’s body, the teenage boy develops a bit of an obsession with feeling her boobs. (Stereotype: Boys are obsessed with sex and will take any opportunity to be sexual with a girl.)
When transplanted into the boy’s body, the teenage girl is absolutely terrified at the thought of dealing with someone’s penis. (Stereotype: Girls are terrified of the penis/sex with boys. At least, sympathetic girls are. Bad girls are driven by it.)
I occasionally agree with Germaine Greer, and I agree when she writes:
The truth is … that female fearfulness [of the penis] is a cultural construct, instituted and maintained by both men and women in the interests of the dominant, male group. The myth of female victimhood is emphasized in order to keep women under control, so that they plan their activities, remain in view, tell where they are going, how they are getting there, when they will be home. The myth of female victimhood keeps women ‘off the streets’ and at home, in the place of most danger.
The atmosphere of threat that women feel surrounded by is mostly fraudulent.The sight of a man exposing his genitals causes fear; the man who exposes ‘himself’ is almost always rewarded by the sight of submissive behaviour as women passing by avert their eyes and hasten their steps. Submissive behaviour may be what such a man can exact by no other means. In the case of flashing, the proper response would seem to be hilarity and ridicule, to deny the flasher his kick. A middle-aged woman used to enjoy trotting around Cambridgeshire villages naked under an army great-coat. ‘What do you think of that then?’ she would say to surprised shoppers, as she held the coat open. ‘Very nice, dear,’ they would say. In [some] law women are deemed incapable of indecent exposure. A woman’s body signifies nothing; a man’s body, or rather the attachment to a man’s body, signifies power over life and death.
To complain to police is to reinforce the flasher’s belief in his penis’s magical power to amaze and appal. In truth the man standing with his pants down is extremely vulnerable, not least through the thin-skinned genitalia themselves.
Though they don’t know each other, Mitsuha and Taki find themselves occasionally trading bodies, a mix-up that seems to have something to do with an approaching comet, though neither can quite figure out what. So they decide to make the most of it, and in the process find they’re improving each others’ lives. Mitsuha, in Taki’s body, is bolder with Miki, even setting up a date that Taki then nervously has to make good on. Taki takes more chances as Mitsuha than Mitsuha would ever take on her own. They leave notes for each other. They develop a rapport. They begin an odd, but oddly functional, relationship in which they never meet but know each other better than anyone else. And then Mitsuha disappears.
It’s here that Your Name transforms from a sweet, sort-of romantic comedy into an X-Files-ish mystery. It’s also at this point that the film becomes a little less compelling. After spending so much time on Mitsuha and Taki’s relationship, Shinkai’s film isn’t quite as assured when they’re on their own. Still, the emotions keep it moving, to say nothing of the visuals. Shinkai lets the drama play out against sumptuous landscapes — be it the hills around Itomori or the streets of Tokyo — unforgettable places he fills with passionate, searching characters haunted by a happiness that eludes them and a loneliness they’re not sure they can ever overcome — even if they suspect they have a soulmate chosen by the stars themselves. By the time Your Name reaches its moving finale, the Next Big Thing tag doesn’t seem quite enough for Shinkai. He’s arrived already.
Personality Swap — the characters’ personalities are swapped but their minds stay where they are meant to be. It will often involve similar tropes to transformation stories (such as Gender Bender) as this is essentially two of these in one, with the addition of confusion resulting from the transformations being into other known characters.
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.
This post contains Breaking Bad spoilers. But hopefully you’ve already seen that if you wanted to.
The Importance Of Names
It’s common for characters on ego-trips to insist on usage of their name. One of my primary school principals insisted on being called “Miss Jones” at the end of every single sentence. If you slipped up and said “Yes” to one of her questions, she pulled you up and required you to say “Yes, Miss Jones.” She was a lot of fun. And probably military trained.
Miss Jones was my real-life 1980s example of “I’m the god damn Batman.” Getting your name all over the place is the ultimate power trip.
But in story, outsized ego often leads to your own downfall. This is because one’s name is a metonym for honour and reputation, more so in some cultures than in others. According to the mythology of Scotland, for instance, everyone came from the one ancestral clan, passed down through the male line. Even after marriage Scottish women traditionally keep their own names, but this isn’t for a feminist reason: names are so very important to one’s identity that you can’t get a new one simply by getting married. Women are accepted as demi-members of their husbands’ families — demi because they aren’t given his name.
In storytelling, to lose your name is one way of losing your identity. This is utilised by Hayao Miyazaki in Spirited Away when Chihiro becomes Sen when she starts working at the bathhouse. She will only get her name back after she proves her dedication to hard work as the salve to all of her problems.
There are other ways storytellers convey the idea that losing one’s identity is the worst. In Peter Pan and Wendy (and later in Hook) to grow up is to lose your identity. However, it’s interesting that the loss of name, or replacement of ‘real’ name with ‘nick name’ often happens in stories where your identity is more generally lost.
The I Know Your True Name Trope
You will see this trope across fairytales. The stand-out example: Rumpelstiltskin. When the princess discovers the goblin’s name she has won the Big Struggle.
In the classic Rumpelstiltskin plot, the princess hasn’t simply learned the goblin’s name: She has learned how mean he really is. She’s got the measure of him. The name stands for True Self.
When you’re really, really bad, the act of being known is in itself a destructive act. Ironically, the really, really bad character puts up the challenge: See if you can work out who I really am. Bet you can’t. I’m smarter than you, after all.
The trope can also be seen in myths from antiquity, such as the story of Lilith, who had a number of secret names. When Elijah learned her names — and also the nature of her evil — he had the upper hand.
The Say My Name Trope In Contemporary Storytelling
You’ll see the Say My Name trope in contemporary storytelling — not just in old fairytales.
It often goes hand in hand with shapeshifting: Once the hero(ine) says the opponent’s name, the opponent may change into something else.
Recently I watched Split (by M. Night Shyalaman) and noticed the initial Big Struggle scene was Rumpelstiltskin-esque. Spoiler (actually the film spoils itself — I have several issues with it, politically): the abducted surviving heroine finds a note from the baddy’s newly murdered psychologist instructing her to use the baddy’s real name in order to snap him out of his dissociative state.
Kevin Wendell Crumb!” she chants. “Kevin Wendell Crumb!” This sends the DID (dissociative identity disordered) opponent into a tailspin and precipitates a (long, drawn-out) big struggle between the forces of good and evil.
“Say My Name” is the title of the seventh episode of Breaking Bad in its fifth season. So, Walter White is almost dead now.
The episode was originally titled something different, but the writers room must have intuited how great that quote is, and pulled it for the episode title.
“Say my name” refers to Walter’s demand for Declan to call him Heisenberg during their confrontation by urging him to “say my name”. Some viewers have called the Say My Name scene Walt’s ‘Icarus Moment’, when his ego is at its peak. (Icarus is more broadly about ego. I’m after a name more specific when referring to this trope.)
Walter White, like Rumpelstiltskin, is on a power trip. And like Rumpelstiltskin, he’s about to meet his maker. In many versions of the fairytale, Rumpelstiltskin dies after stomping in fire. (Nope, in fairytales stomping on fire does not put the fire out — it puts you out.) In Breaking Bad, Walter is also ‘put out’ in a blaze of fire (gun fire). So is Hank, his foil.
By the airing of the “Say My Name” episode, everyone (including me) was waiting with bated breath to find out how Breaking Bad was going to end. Only in hindsight, everything was right there for us, leading to exactly that ending. If I’d seen the Rumpelstiltskin connection, and how Walt was so insistent about people knowing and using his name, I’d have predicted his fate.
This is how writers make endings feel both surprising and inevitable. I wonder if even the writers made the Rumpelstiltskin connection, or if they were telling the story of Walter White at a deeply subconscious level.
Just guessing here, but maybe angry mothers have been calling children by their full-names literally since children EVEN HAD full names. When our mothers call us by our full names we don’t call that a trope, but in fiction it’s known as the Full Name Ultimatum. Full names are scary!
In her book From The Beast To The Blonde, Marina Warner has a more considered answer for us. First, she begins with by describing a main function of fairytales:
Fairy tales […] concern themselves with sexual distinctions, and with sexual transgression, with defining differences according to morals and mores. This interest forms part of the genre’s larger engagement with the marvellous, for the marvellous is understood to be impossible. The realms of wonder and impossibility converge, and fairy tales function to conjure the first in order to delineate the second: magic paradoxically defines normality. Hence the recurrence, in such stories, of metamorphoses, disguises and above all the impossible tasks—the adynata—of folk narrative.
Did you know what adynaton is, as literary technique? (Me neither.) Now we get examples:
These can take an active form: that the protagonist should fill a crippled pail with four-leaved clovers, as in Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s ‘Serpentin vert‘, or that the quester should come neither clothed nor naked, neither riding nor walking, neither bearing a gift nor not bearing one.
This riddling demand, made in traditional tales in many different languages, was given to King Solomon and the Trickster Marcoulf in medieval texts, and to the poor peasant’s clever daughter in the Russian fairy tale, collected in the nineteenth century. Verbal riddles do not always invite performed solutions, but Sheba’s to Solomon do, and in her role in these stories she takes the place of the lowlife, cunning figure, like Marcolf, or the quick-witted peasant girl, as she tries to have the advantage over Solomon. This riddle is solved when the subject of the challenge rides on a goat (or a hare), with one shoe off and one shoe on, one leg on the ground, draped only in a net, and carrying a hare (or a quail) which springs to freedom as soon as he or she arrives.
The riddling story is found all over the place, Warner explains:
The riddles posed by Sheba relate to the matter and the manner of many fairy tales, which dramatise ‘witches’ duels‘: in these the heroine or hero confounds the powers of fairy evil by surpassing them in verbal adroitness, in tricksters.
The Devil is the ultimate trickster.
The Devil turns tricks, but those who elude him can outsmart him at his own game.
The Elfin-Knight is a famous Scottish ballad. (This trope seems especially popular in Scotland. The tale of Whuppity Stourie is the Scottish version of “Rumpelstiltskin”.)
In one of the highly popular ballad versions of ‘The Elfin-Knight’, for instance, a story which exists in different forms all over the world (the most famous being ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, hero of the Brothers Grimm’s popular tale of that name), the heroine wrestles with the Elfin-Knight, who would snatch her away to the underworld as his bride, by using her verbal wit against his power. The Devil who has come for her in marriage sets her ten riddling questions, and she replies staunchly to all of them. […]
This all relates back to a religious view of earlier times. People really did used to believe this, hence the entire concept of blasphemy:
Only God can remain the Unnameable: naming the Devil, knowing him for what he is, undoes his power.
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.
The cellist’s practicing annoyed everybody, especially the girl living directly above her who was pregnant. The girl was very nervous and seemed to be having a hard time. Her face was meager above her swollen body, her little hands delicate as a sparrow’s claws. The way she had her hair skinned back tightly to her head made her look like a child.
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
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.
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.)
Carson McCullers, who describes a woman as a bird in “Court In The West Eighties”, subverts the gender trope by later describing a man as a cat: ‘He was dapper like a little cat — small, with a round oily face and large almond shaped eyes.’
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).
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.
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.
Header painting: Robert Payton Reid – Love’s Messenger.
Humorous stories about characters who find themselves in strife after taking instructions too literally are old stock comedy fodder. One of the earliest recorded in Europe is the fairytale Clever Hans — an ironic title, because Hans is a fool. Hans does something stupid, his mother tells him to do it differently next time. But when Hans applies the previous bit of commonsense advice to the new, slightly different situation, this leads to different trouble. Trouble increases in magnitude until he ruins his life.
If you’re anything like me, Clever Hans as a humorous tale doesn’t work. It feels outdated, by centuries. One problem is the heinous nature of the repercussions. Hans ‘stupidly’ plucks out the eyeballs of the farm animals — an example of foolishness which seems cruel rather than funny to me.
But has the archetype of the overly literal foolgone out of fashion? Not at all. In fact, we’re having a bit of a renaissance. I suspect this is partly to do with increasing autism awareness (which is a different thing entirely from autism acceptance). The stereotypical autistic person, promoted by the contemporary corpus of fiction is:
Good at maths/fixing and hacking computers/memorising facts about specialty area
And overly literal, to his own detriment
CASE STUDY: ATYPICAL
Sam of Netflix’s Atypical series is an excellent showcase of this popular — but ultimately shallow — understanding of level one autism:
Sam is a basically a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments. He talks in a somewhat rat-a-tat monotone voice (demonstrating atypical verbal development), can’t understand social cues and takes everything very literally (social and emotional difficulties), and has obsessions (imaginative restriction or repetitive behaviour), which manifests in his case as an all-consuming interest in Antarctica and the Arctic and all the fauna of those environments, especially penguins.
Overly literal interpretation of language is not a characteristic shared by every person with a diagnosis of autism. Many autistic people can throw sarcasm with the best of them. Satire — top level comedy — is not lost on autistic people. At the moment, any overly literal comedic character tends to have a pop-culture diagnosis of autism whether the creators declare that or not. The Big Bang Theory is an excellent example of that phenomenon.
This is why I am delighted to see brilliant Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has revealed her autism diagnosis publicly,a generous act, given that she’s now going to be seconded as ambassador for yet another marginalised group, whether she wants to invest all that time or not. Gadsby does not fit the autistic stereotype. Fortunately for us, she has the gift of seeing satire and absurdity at the deepest level, commenting ironically, manipulating audience emotion with fine precision. Gadsby shares this skill with many in the autistic community.
Perhaps this signals the beginning of a more diverse representation of autism in pop-culture. I hope comedy writers will start pushing the boat out when writing autistic characters, beyond mishaps caused by ‘overly literal’ interpretations. It’s far more difficult to pinpoint humour in the very real differences between autistic and neurotypical communication styles. It really does require #OwnVoices level insight.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE STEREOTYPE?
The following observations are from an #ActuallyAutistic perspective:
Autism and Literal Speech
Taking things literally is an extremely famous autistic trait, suggesting that irony, sarcasm, metaphor is entirely beyond us. But these things often aren’t [beyond us at all], so what’s really going on?
In my various communications with autistic folk (quite a lot, considering how anti-social I am) I’ve found increasing evidence that autistic people can recognise figurative, ironic language quite well, most of the time. I think the real story is a bit more complex. Straightforward irony and sarcasm can be pretty clearly signposted in speech after all – the whole ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ thing.
I think autistic people can get pretty adept at spotting these signs and even use them themselves. I’m going to basically think out loud now all the instances where I have taken things literally, to see if a pattern exists. Please join in.
So one type of implication that I *always* run the risk of missing is implied instruction. Such as, ‘ooh it’s got dark’ meaning ‘put the light on’ or ‘well, someone has to do it’ meaning ‘I want you to do it’. I miss this kind of thing very frequently. However, I don’t tend to miss implied criticism at all. In fact, I’m liable to hear it even when it isn’t there. All the time.
So what’s the difference? I think it’s to do with interaction with other mental states. The implicit instruction one is demanding some action as a result, and I think autistic people have a great deal of inertia a lot of the time that slows us changing tasks. This makes picking up on and acting on implicit instructions even less likely? Whereas picking up on criticism fits nicely with the sort of C-PTSD we often pick up from our endless failed interactions with neurotypical people — we become very very sensitive to such things and have been conditioned to expect criticism – is that just me?
Similarly, I tend to totally misunderstand sarcastic criticism. Like if a friend says, jokingly, that something I did was crap, I’d unfailingly take this to heart. I’ve tended to avoid people who like using this sort of humour. Whereas sarcastic praise is fine. I can handle that, even though it’s critical. It’s very confusing.
Another type of thing I’ll misunderstand is exaggeration. I’ll always take it at face value. If someone says they’ve had the worst day ever, I’ll believe that and be horrified for them. Anyone else do this? It’s like my brain doesn’t accept exaggeration as an option. So many times I’ve been amazed that people have seemingly recovered so quickly from what they described as dreadful, terrible things. I just never picked up on the fact they were exaggerating for effect.
Whereas I’m actually very good at identifying when people aren’t telling the truth, especially those little white avoidant lies like ‘I’m fine’ when they’re not. This seems to fit an easy pattern I can handle. I don’t know why. I’m not sure whether there’s a unifying pattern here, but I think that the issues around inference become more complicated when criticism is involved, due to the insidious effects of trauma in autistic people.
Once again it seems possible that an old obvious identifier of autism may actually be inextricably mixed up with the symptoms of trauma, like so many other traits.
We end up wondering what autism would be like without the trauma – how would it present? Maybe one day we’ll find out?
Below, an insight into the pitfalls of using stereotypically autistic tropes to create a character, and why it is problematic to then deny your character is written to be autistic. (Denial may work to get the author off the hook, but does nothing for the autistic community, who can see right through it.)
It’s very trendy, at the moment, to write characters coded as autistic. There have been several hits in books, films and television, that feature a particular kind of character. Usually, though not always, male. Usually, though not always, with savant-type abilities in some suitably nerdy subject. If not a savant as such, they are still very academically gifted. They are socially inept to the point of being flagrantly offensive and oblivious to it. They have no understanding of sarcasm or irony. Usually these characters are written by someone who isn’t autistic. Sometimes they admit that the character is supposed to be autistic, and sometimes they don’t. Claiming that the character isn’t autistic seems to be a good defence against irate autistic people like me saying “can you not with this terrible representation and encouraging people to laugh at us? You know it’s ableist, right?”
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.
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.
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?
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.
I can’t STAND the whole idea of the “Chosen One” — someone who, usually by virtue of their family background, is destined for greatness. The prophecies all say so!
I’ve hated this trope as long as I’ve been alive. The Force runs strong in the Skywalker family? Harry Potter is a celebrity at the start of his story, destined to kill Voldemorte (or die trying)? Frodo must destroy the One Ring that his cousin/uncle brought back from his adventures, redeeming the family name?
Where does all this leave the rest of us? We’re supposed sit back and let the Chosen One complete his destiny? If we’re lucky, we might get to help?
This annoys me because it’s so clearly based on the idea of royalty: that some family lines are simply better than other ones. They’re chosen by God, or the gods, or Destiny itself. (Often, this is couched in the idea that this greatness is some kind of unbearable “burden,” one that must be kept hidden from the ignorant rabble, but that’s mostly just a bunch of bunk. From the point of view of all these stories, the main character is the “cool” kid, even if the actual cool kids can’t see it yet.)
But I believe to the core of my being that greatness is democratic: it’s damn hard, but it’s available to ALL of us.
Brent Hartinger, fantasy author
Bloodlines stories are rarely truly feminist stories. That’s because most stories, even those set in fantasy worlds, work on the principle of patrimony.
It’s the rare novel which subverts this, though some do. One of the earlier subversions happened in On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight (1990). As Roberta Seelinger Trites describes:
While Birle [the main girl character] chafes against the narrowness of being female in this feudal society, Orien [her male love interest] questions the entire premise of the feudal society. Rejecting his patrimony, he bitterly tells Birle that knowing who one’s father is does not matter: “I know my fathers, for generations past”. He wonders why patrimony exists and why classes even exist, what gives one set of people the right to rule another, and why women are as disfranchised as they are.
Waking Sleeping Beauty
(Importantly, the story never switches to that of the boy character. He is only ever an accessory to the female character’s self-actualisation.)
REASON TWO: LAZY CHARACTERISATION
Characters of the chosen one archetype are hailed as the most important personin their setting for reasons that are entirely outside their control. The archetype is used to prop up bland characters who have done nothing to earn praise. Because these characters were born better than everyone else, they don’t have to practice or work hard to make a difference. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is worshiped because of what his mother did, while his hard-working friend Hermione sits in his shadow.
REASON THREE: IN REAL LIFE IT’S NEVER JUST ONE PERSON SAVING THE DAY
Even when one person takes all the glory.
Because the chosen one is destined to change the course of history all on their own, the efforts of a larger community are quickly sidelined or forgotten. In A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance looks incompetent after Luke Skywalker swoops in and takes out an entire deathstar. And unlike many other chosen ones, he actually had some outside experience. By leaving the world-saving to one person, you’ll get a setting that is shallow and simplistic. No one makes history in a vacuum.
In real life, there’s a human tendency to credit one person with doing all the work of saving the day, especially if that person happens to be a white man. (Compare responses to Chesley Sullenberger, who landed a plane safely ‘all on his own’ to many comments regarding Tammie Jo Shults, attempting to diffuse heroism to all the men in her arena.)
The following responses can be found on any comments section without scrolling far:
“Max Stone’s” element of truth is that many individuals are involved in a rescue operation. The difference is, our dominant cultural narrative gives sole credit only to men. This is how history books end up with far fewer female heroes.
Rather than continue to give sole credit to heroic, individual white men, we should treat male heroes as we currently treat female heroes.
This article from The Atlantic builds a good case: we expect too much of the President of the United States. The job itself has expanded over the decades. This may have something to do with all these (fictional) narratives in which one white dude saves the day, maybe? And now we think that’s how things should work?
BLOODLINE AND STAR WARS
I am not a Star Wars fan myself, but I would like to include a Twitter thread from someone who is. Star Wars is such a culturally significant story, and says a lot about what a ‘universal’ audience wants from blockbusters.
One of the MANY problems with overvaluing the bloodlines and legacy in Star Wars fandom: I’m a biracial woman of color. Blood purity and legacy when centered on white people has always been about white supremacy.
In worlds where that’s idealized people like me are exterminated. So having that very real inevitable outcome of imperialistic breeding be shown to be flawed and destructive, as well as intrinsically linked to a fascist regime that upholds oppression and exploitation of marginalized people is very validating.
As well as the damaging psychological toll that early indoctrination of children into any organisation, whether it is the Jedi order or the Stormtrooper program. I’m still very disappointed that I have not seen anyone draw parallels between Luke’s early training of Ben and Finn’s abduction into Stormtrooper training. Both of these men were fucked up by the previous generation’s pushing their political and religious aspersions onto kids. Much of the subtext, that I am most likely reading into, the new cast of characters is that this is a generation of war orphans.
Whether they had parents or not, each one of them has been deeply marked by galactic civil war. Poe is a child of the Rebellion, a second generation rebel fighter. That brings with it high expectations, familiar ties to the cause and a still very childish ideation of what he believes heroism is. Rey lives in a literal Emperial graveyard, survives on salvaging scraps from the past. Jakku is such a fantastic subtle marker of how broken the galaxy was left after the last war. It’s quite a contrast to the opulent splendor or Canto Bight. Finn’s a literal child soldier, taken by a war machine fed by wealthy imperialistic interests and political apathy. Rose is deeply marked by the fractured and corrupt galactic politics of this post war universe. Her childhood was stolen in much the same ways as Rey and Finn. Kylo Ren is the ultimate failure of the precious generations, but also the embodiment of generational trauma. Both in the actual abuse his mother suffered under his grandfather, the misguided choice to train him as a child, and the stain of overvalued bloodlines and “legacy”.
I don’t feel like this narrative is mocking of berating it for falling in love with the romantic notions of destiny and heroism. I feel it’s, if a bit sarcastically, redirecting us to what lies beneath these seemingly mystical and wondrous ways in which people change their world. It’s ALWAYS people. Not magic. Not powerful death machines. People shift the tides of war. People save each other. People do this because of love, friendship, family, and faith in a better future. To me this recaptures the magic of A New Hope, but more importantly our first experience of it. Where it was just about random people stumbling their way into friendship and saving the galaxy along the way. Just a farm boy, smuggler, and rebel princess. Anything was possible.
They won not because of magic or machinery. They won because Han Solo couldn’t abandon his new friends, showed up in the very last minute of the big struggle, kicked Vader in the dick, so Luke could blow up the Death Star. Luke didn’t defeat the Emperor using the Force. Anakin Skywalker decided he couldn’t let his son die for a reason. A father chose to save his son’s life. The Lightside of the Force is love and hope. The Darkside is hate, anger, and fear. These are not exclusive to one family, bloodline. Neither is the Force.
DOES THE WORK OF LEIGH BARDUGO SYMBOLISE A CULTURAL SHIFT IN STORYTELLING?
I have reason to believe The Chosen One story is falling out of fashion, but that’s mainly based on observing the career trajectory of Leigh Bardugo. Now, I read a lot of publishing blogs, listen to agent podcasts and whatnot and I’ve never heard any series recommended by publishing people as much as Six Of Crows. Agents love this series. Importantly to my theory: Six Of Crows is not Bardugo’s first fantasy series. What is it about this one that made it take off, and what made it take off at this cultural moment? Bear in mind, most children’s publishing people are lefties:
Six of Crows was radically different from the original trilogy. It had nothing to do with royalty or secret powers or chosen ones or any of the things that people still seem so hungry for—and to be clear, those are all tropes I’ve written and tropes I like, so I get the appeal. But I was in a place where I wanted to talk about characters who the world sees as expendable, not the ones with grand destinies.
It’s impossible to write about chosen one stories without mentioning Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s series is proof that many readers love chosen one narratives. It’s also worth pointing out, because it’s easy to forget, that Harry Potter is now 20 years old. In sociological terms, that’s more than an entire generation. But even in 2018, Harry Potter remains super popular with young readers. Harry Potter is as popular as it ever was. The biggest argument in favour of chosen one stories: Readers love them.
Readers have always loved them, so I’d be surprised if we see the end anytime soon.
Commenter Bruce Hahne points out that the ‘un-democratic’ work ethic implicit in the Chosen One criticism is borne by an equally problematic Protestant work ethic. Taken too far, that, too, can marginalise entire groups of people who are unable to contribute to GDP: Hahne also gives us a brief history of Chosen One stories in popular culture:
Rule out The Chosen One as an origin trope and you kill Green Lantern (all of them), Thor, Harry Potter, Captain Marvel (Billy Batson version), Buffy, and probably about half of Greek mythology.
God also disagrees with you:
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17)
No hard work and right choices there, he was just chosen.
Storytellers use The Chosen One because it works, it continues to work, and movies that use this origin trope well make money.
BLOODLINE STORIES: TIME FOR A MODERN RE-VISIONING?
Some bloodline stories are less problematic than others, or perhaps problematic in a slightly different way. Compare Harry Potter to Matilda:
An interesting case … is Roald Dahl’s Matilda, who off the bat has a lot in common with Harry Potter— a young person in an obnoxious and abusive family who happens to have supernatural powers, both immediately relatable as heroes and providing the wish-fulfilment that we could magic ourselves out of horrible situations we’ve been raised in. Both end up leaving their toxic home environments and end up surrounded by people who love them. There’s a crucial difference between the two, though: Harry is saved by the reveal of his secret and much more appealing family lineage, and Matilda voluntarily leaves her biological family for better prospects.
Harry’s story is a much more common one: your life is terrible, orphan hero? Surprise, your real, but sadly dead and unable to help you, leading to you propelling the plot on your own, family were magical, giving you a portal to a better life you’ve been unknowingly destined for since the get go. This goes all the way back to Oliver Twist, the kicked-around workhouse boy discovered by chance by a rich old man who realises Oliver is his grandson. Happy endings ensue after plentiful struggle. This is a good narrative, and kind of so ingrained in our collective hearts that Matilda’s seems shocking in comparison: she left her blood relatives? But they were supposed to be where the hope was!
Matilda’s happy ending is being adopted, rather than the other way around. She finds someone kind and good, who knows her struggle, and together they rise up against the awful characters surrounding them and go off together to make their own family. Family is redefined as people who love, accept and protect you, and Matilda’s blood relatives are told, narrative-wise and literally, to go stuff themselves.
One in 25 adult Australians will be estranged from their family at one point, but it’s a issue that’s rarely discussed openly.
Afictionado also points out that when we open our hearts to ‘found family’ stories (rather than ‘be loyal to your blood family at all costs’), this paves the way for a more diverse representation of family structure in fiction:
Matilda has a single adoptive mother. Lilo [from Lilo and Stitch] has her older sister, brother-in-law, extra-terrestrial best friend and two cross-dressing alien dads. Steven Universe has three (occasionally five) shapeshifting alien mums and a human dad who supports from the sidelines. Mako Mori has her adoptive father/teacher/saviour, drift companion and an entire army of international pilots and technicians who she’ll heroically protect.
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 shortcomings.
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
Wild hair is also described in fiction as kinky or curly.
Wild hair can mean: A free spirit, pluck, individuality, fun.
Quite often it means all of those wonderful things AND it means the girl is in need of some serious calming down. Messy-haired girl will undergo a character arc over the course of the movie in which she learns to be nice to people and appreciate family. Especially if this is a screen story, the girl’s hair will change to show us that she has been tamed.
This happens in the film adaptation of The Great Gilly Hopkins for instance, in which Gilly gets a very becoming new hairstyle at the end. In the final dinner party scene Gilly has her hair tied back, a pony tail carefully constructed to sit to one side and neatly parted down the middle.
Does anyone else interpret compliments on your haircut as attacks on your previous hair?
Less than 2 per cent of the population has red hair. Most have Irish or Scottish ancestry.
In early modern England it was thought that if a woman had sex during her period, this would result in a puny baby with red hair — both undesirable attributes.
Red hair is also connected to witchery — in earlier times literally, and now mostly in stories. See for example Badjelly The Witch.
There’s a damn good reason why Anne Shirley wants black hair, and it’s not about vanity. She’s trying to avoid some very real discrimination. Anne’s life would really have been easier had she been born with non-red hair. Especially at that cultural moment, a girl with red hair was thought to have a bad temper. It was a form of actual discrimination and I don’t believe it’s truly died. I doubt we really think ‘witch child’ when we think red hair anymore, but that wasn’t true in L. M. Montgomery’s time. The concept of ‘wickedness’ and ‘evil’ run strong through the Green Gables series.
Picture book illustrators love red hair. Though I haven’t made a formal study, there is absolutely a disproportionate number of red-headed children in picture books and I suspect the reason is simple: red is an excellent focal point and attracts attention to the main character on the page.
Todd of Breaking Bad, partly to distinguish him from an otherwise indistinguishable gang of baddies. Though a friend of mine tells me he is definitely not a red head. He is a ‘strawberry blonde’.
Red hair, or lack of pigmentation around the eyelashes and eyebrows (be they red headed or strawberry blonde), is mostly used to show that a character is different. Since they will always stand out in a crowd owing to their pigmentation, they might as well step right out of normality, right?
Sometimes, as in the Bree of Desperate Housewives case, the red doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular, but is a stylistic choice, to individuate characters from one another. There are already two main blonde women, so Bree had to be different. In Bree’s case, you could argue that the redness of her hair marks her out as evil, deriving from witch folklore. Bree is cold and calculating and always composed. Red haired characters are just as likely portrayed as not in control of their emotions (the Anne Shirley trope). Bree and Anne represent to extremes on the same spectrum.
Prejudices against people because of the colour of their skin are unacceptable. And yet, it is often socially accepted to make fun of people because of the colour of their hair. Why should this be any different? And is there any evidence to back up the beliefs?
I judge television shows by the women’s hair. It turns out this is a binary judgment: Either the women have TV hair, or they don’t. What is TV hair? It’s shiny, long, has obviously been styled with a curling iron at the ends, and looks like that of a beauty pageant contestant. […] the less sleek the hair, the more likely a show will have a memorable female protagonist
The girl opponents in middle grade/chapter books all seem to have perfect hair, even if they’re an opponent at first and then turn out to be besties, because ‘we shouldn’t judge others by what they look like’.
The “Mother’s Day” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog offers viewers the backstory of Eustace Bagge. When we see his mother is the female equivalent of her son, and that she mistreats Eustace the way Eustace mistreats Courage, we understand why Eustace behaves the way he does.
The ultimate gag in this episode is that, after preening herself, old Mrs Bagge is humiliated by losing her wig. It is revealed that under her accoutrements she looks exactly the same as Eustace. Without her hair, Mrs Bagge sobs that she is ‘ugly’ and that nobody could possibly love her. Eustace and his mother end up reconciling, rubbing each other’s billiard ball heads lovingly. They have realised how similar they are, and that loving each other means loving themselves.
While the implication is that true family will love you no matter what you look like, the other, inevitable implication is that having a full head of luxurious hair makes a woman beautiful. Lack of hair is connected to Eustace’s ugliness, too. But the difference is, he does not feel great shame about this. An absence of hair signifies:
In old men, old age
In younger men, toughness
In women, ugliness, lack of sexual desirability
No surprises there, perhaps.
Writers, is it possible to subvert these tropes? Red-headed kids who are totally normal, and neither witchy nor out of control? The bookish kid with curly hair? The bookish girl who also happens to have messy hair? (Actually pretty common in real life.)
Alternatively, should we all make like Daniel Handler and refuse to describe child characters more than we absolutely must? When writers avoid talking about appearance, child readers get to see themselves as the hero. In Handler’s case he decided not to describe Violet because he realised girls have an undue amount of attention foisted upon how they look and he didn’t want to add to that corpus. I applaud him for that. Instead, all we know about Violet (in the books, at least) is that she ties her (long) hair up before doing something physical.
BLACK HAIR, WHITE HAIR
The title for this section comes from the old Western genre trope of white hats versus black hats, in which the guys with white hats are the goodies.
The idea of black hair as a female symbol of evil and power is illustrated perfectly by Rachel Wise:
If the witch and the fatal woman have functioned over the centuries as warnings to women who might be tempted to act autonomously or enjoy their own sexuality, the beautiful brides of hero tales have compounded women’s psychological oppression by providing a model of what they ‘ought’ to look like—in appearance, attitude and behaviour. This model has profoundly influenced women’s perceptions of themselves and has contributed to their pervasive self-lingering belief that it is natural for women to be submissive and self-denying, sacrificing their interests to the needs of the men in their lives.
It is hardly necessary to describe the physical attributes of the hero’s bride as her late twentieth-century incarnations smile at us every day from advertisements, fashion magazines, film and television screens, but a consideration of the significance of her appearance is instructive. She is, of course, beautiful; in one of the most popular fairy tales ‘Beauty’ is her only name. But her beauty is of a particular kind, and advances in the technology of printing and the reproduction of works of art, together with the advent of film and television, have made the visual definitions of Western female beauty as familiar as the motifs of the hero story itself. …
To begin with the bride is white, and usually blonde. In fairy tales golden-haired beauties abound; the only memorable dark-haired heroine is Snow White whose hair is in stark contrast to the pallor of her skin. Rapunzel is more typical: she had ‘long and beautiful hair, as fine spun as gold’, which she let down from her tower window to allow the witch and the prince to climb up. … The story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ did not become popular until the late nineteenth century when it was modified to emphasize the golden hair.
Marjery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero
Hourihan also explains that even when the blondness of hair is not mentioned in picture books and illustrated stories, the illustrator often gives the ‘beauty’ blonde hair anyway, such is the power of the trope. Cinderella has had golden hair since 1854, courtesy of illustrator George Cruickshank.
The blonde-hair is better than brown-hair idea continues to be perpetuated, as recently as Laura Ingalls and Ramona Quimby, both of whom despise their own brown hair, wishing it could be blonde.
Since Ramona, middle grade realistic fiction aimed at girls has created a slightly different hair-related trope: The blonde girl as goody-two-shoes who at some point has to be punished for being so fussy about her willingness to please and her pretty dresses. A true, relatable heroine of middle grade fiction is more of a ‘tomboy’.
(Tina Fey addresses it in her autobiographical book Bossypants, and explains that as a child she noticed that blonde girls get all the attention.)
BIRDS AND HAIR
There is a clear association between hair and birds in funny stories especially, whether the hair is attached to a human or a furry animal.
Child moves house and starts at new school. This trope is hard to write well because it has been done so many times before. But it’s very useful, because many children’s stories are about friendship, and all stories about friendship must start from a point of loneliness. Everyone is lonely when they move to a new place.
Some specific plot elements, or motifs, that we find in children’s novels are not as prominent in the mainstream fiction. The first is coming to a new home. Naturally, this element—connected to the basic motif of dislocation, inherent in all fiction—is present in quite a number of mainstream novels, such as Jane Eyre or Mansfield Park. However, I would state that the new home is more dominant in children’s fiction and also more significant, since the change of setting is a more dramatic event in a child’s life than in an adult’s. The character’s reaction to the change is very revealing.
The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Fiction by Maria Nikolajeva
Maria Nikolajeva published that paragraph in 2002 and goes easy on the child moves house trope. Since then, despite every children’s author knowing full well that the child moves house trope — or motif — or whatever you’d like to call it had been done thousands of times before, we get to 2017 and Betsy Bird (librarian and reviewer for School Libarary Journal) has this to say about the state of middle grade literature:
If you read too many middle grade novels in a given year, you begin to sense patterns that no one else can see. In 2017 I’ve started down that path. I’ll give you an example of a particular pattern: The new kid in school. It’s not a new idea for a book (Joseph Campbell would probably tell you that it’s just a variation on the old “A Stranger Comes to Town” storytelling motif) but this year it’s gotten extreme. In book after book authors have hit the same notes. Kid is new. Kid is awkward in the lunchroom (seriously – if I never read another lunch room scene again it’ll be too soon). Kid makes friends with outcasts. Kid triumphs by being true to his or her own self. Simple, right? They blend together after a while, but it’s not the fault of the format. A good book, a really good book, transcends its format. Much of what I’ve read this year has already faded into a fuzzy haze in my brain.
The contributors to TV Tropes have also noticed the moving house trope has become super popular in the last 10 years. The trope New House, New Problems refers specifically to a new family moving into a new home, whereupon strange happenings begin to reveal themselves. It’s not just a middle grade thing — it’s a horror thing.
Who knows what contributed to this trend, but I suspect big hits such as Neil Gaiman’s Coralinehave something to do with it. The TV Tropes page also points out that every other Goosebumps book begins with a kid moving to a new house. In young adult stories we have the huge successes of Twilight, 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls, so audiences must love the trope. Writers love it too, because it allows a natural discovery of a new milieu, as our new student discovers how the new environment works, along with readers.
CHILDREN MOVE HOUSE BOOKS
Observations from the list below: Many children’s series include one book in which the character moves house. Some authors rely on the moving house storyline time and again. Jean Little is one such author. There are a large number of moving house books entitled simply, “Moving House”.
Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction and refers to a type of story with a genre blend of horror, death and romance. 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 phenomena 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 and is a popular genre in young adult literature.
English author Horace Walpole is thought to have kicked the gothic genre off, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” This story originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. But it took until the late 1790s for “Gothic” to 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 closely aligns 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. Encoded in law, marriage meant 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 an unhelpful, outdated word for what is actually a collection of disparate conditions. Many women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But we still live in a patriarchal world. Classic 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. Patricia Murphy has said that “a truism of critical commentary holds that the gothic emerges in literature during times of cultural anxiety.” (Zombie stories are another example of this.)
These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame to one character in a Manichean view of human nature. Even in children’s literature, with perhaps a slightly higher tolerance for ‘black and white’ morality, the opponent web is more complex than ever. Even if a story contains a Minotaur opponent (pure bad), there will be other more nuanced opponents. These characters are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. When writers create fictional characters, they usually hint at how they became that way, by giving them a ‘psychic wound‘ (sometimes called ‘fatal flaw’ or ‘ghost’).
Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.
Everyday Usage of The Word ‘Gothic’
Modern readers and critics have begun to think of “Gothic literature” as any story that uses an elaborate, opulent setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent main character. We also associate Gothic with Goths, who are pale, wear a lot of black, and reject mainstream culture as default.
Natalie Wynn succinctly describes the sensibility of gothic as ‘ruined opulence’, and speculates we may soon see the gothic in abandoned shopping malls.
Raison d’être Of Gothic Stories
Classically Gothic settings (falsely) reassure us that ‘monsters’ are inhuman, and can be recognised quite easily. In reality, monsters are not so easily recognised:
You don’t find [monsters] in gothic dungeons or humid forests. You find them at the mall, at the school, in the town or city with the rest of us. But how do you find them before they victimize someone? With animals, it depends on perspective: The kitten is a monster to the bird, and the bird is a monster to the worm. With man, it is likewise a matter of perspective, but more complicated, because the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognised by the naked eye.
Gavin de Becker, The Gift Of Fear
The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new in the 19th century. The word for this is ‘horripilation’.
The Gothic releases forces which are usually repressed. Anarchy is loosed and contained at the same time. In Gothic, we have the return of whatever’s been repressed. Our enjoyment is visceral. We enjoy the cracking of bone and the snapping of backs and the spilling of blood. The appeal has something to do with lack of restraint, transgression, the overturning of normalcy. Taboos are broken. In this respect, the Gothic is related to the carnivalesque.
The Gothic is also a form known to examine our fear of desire.
Common Features Of Gothic Stories
There is lots of parody within the gothic genre, including parodies of parodies. Authors send up other work by writing a supernatural gothic romance. Ironically, later audiences assume they were meant to take these old parodies seriously, and subsequent authors make parodies of that ‘original’ parody.
The Gothic is basically ‘paranoid‘. But only if you immerse yourself too much in it, succumbing to its fears. Modern mass media itself might be accused of being Gothic, with its emphasis on the macabre.
The Gothic is also often described as ‘sublime‘, which you may realise means something slightly different when it comes to literature. In everyday English, sublime might mean ‘really wonderful’ but in literature it refers to work which provokes terror and pain in the audience. Terror and pain are the two emotions considered most powerful. Unlike the terror and pain of the real world, however, when experienced via story the audience enjoys it very much. The sublime is a feature of romantic work.
‘Uncanny‘ is another word you’ll hear in reference to the Gothic. The uncanny is a psychological concept which refers to something that is strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. The emotions evoked in a work of Gothic fiction will be familiar to you. You may not have seen an actual ghost, but you will have experienced horripilation — that feeling of hair standing on end.
Typical Character Archetypes
Here is the basic cast of characters for those original Gothic stories:
Young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. These heroines tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. Modern stories such as Harry Potter borrow from the Gothic. We don’t think of the Grimm fairytales as Gothic, but a lot of them follow this exact plot.
Older, foolish woman
Or the Madwoman, or the Old Wife. Interestingly, British culture consistently associated ghosts and children with the oral tradition in storytelling. These stories were delivered by a greatly misunderstood figure: The Old Wife. The Old Wife was the woman in your community who dished out advice and help to do with childbirth, herbal remedies and so on. She lost a lot of respect, as well as her place in her community, with the emergence of modern day science.
This coincided with a growing distaste for people who believed in ghosts. Shakespeare himself poked fun at the Old Wife who believed in ghosts. You can see him doing that in Macbeth, The Winter’s Taleand The Tempest. Women, ghost stories and oral stories were connected. When one lost status, so did the others. Even in the gothic stories themselves, the Old Wife character (who told these very tales) was made fun of.
Like the virginal maidens, the hero was innocent, plunged into a weird situation. Gothic stories are melodramatic stories, and in classic melodrama, the main character reacts to crises. The classic hero drives the action, deliberately setting out into the world. In those stories there’s no pull factor, but rather a push factor: to escape the feminine realm of mother and home.
With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women. This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader’s pathos.
Even today, crime fiction focuses heavily on victims which are young, attractive, female (and white). We seem more interested in their deaths than in deaths of other demographics.
The modern antihero (or hero-villain if you prefer) comes from the Gothic tradition. However, in gothic stories morality is clear. Good is good, evil is evil, even if it is attractive. Evil is not simply misunderstood, it is inherent. Evil cannot be assimilated into everyday society and must be expelled. That’s not how modern stories about anti-heroes typically play out. Viewers were encouraged to understand Walter White and Tony Soprano. Thinking individuals are much more yin-yang about people these days. Less nature, more nurture — even if you’re a nature over nurture sort of person, you probably admit that Tony Soprano’s life would have panned out differently had he not grown up in the mafia.
These opponents add interesting complexity to the web of opposition. They are less powerful than the main tyrant/villain.
Clergy in Gothic stories are always weak, usually evil.
In Medieval times, Monks often were pretty evil. They were rich and pampered. They sequestered funds for themselves (while amazingly often managing to bankrupt the abbey by doing stupid things with money), and sometimes even harboured criminals. They were supposed to live simple lives, but found ways around every rule, including the invention of a sort of sign language to get around the rule of no communication over mealtimes. It’s easy to see how the clergy became figures of fun. By early modern times, people had learned to put far more faith in nuns, more likely to behave properly according to the church.
Gothic Stories And Madness
American Gothic in particular tends to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters. An early example is the novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown. Two characters slowly become more and more deranged.
Sunset Boulevard — Since Boulevard’s original film release, the role has become famous for its tragic, hysterical femaleness, and is for that reason vulnerable to one-dimensional renderings of empty, and even harmful, stereotype. SunsetBoulevard subtextually warns that a woman’s ambition, creativity, and desire for sexual fulfilment are the causes of unhappiness and undoing.
Fatal Attraction — While Norma of Sunset Boulevard is an artist, the madwoman of Fatal Attraction is a professional.
Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews
The Shining by Stephen King — Isolation is used as a vehicle for madness. (Used again more recently in Shut In.) The main character is Jack Torrence, played by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. With his family he looks after an empty hotel one winter, partly to concentrate on writing his novel. But he is haunted by visions and descends into murderous madness.
Carrie by Stephen King, which promotes anxiety and thereby encourages conformity. A good example of ‘suburban Gothic’, making use of Gothic features such as witch-hunting.
Misery by Stephen King
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was herself diagnosed with hysteria and commanded never to touch pencil and paper again.
Shut In — Naomi Watts plays a widowed child psychologist who lives in isolation in rural New England with her son, who is comatose and bedridden as a result of an automobile accident. Snowed in and withdrawn from the outside world, Watts’ character descends into a desperate existence. It soon becomes difficult for her to distinguish the phantasms of her imagination from the reality of the creepy goings-on in her apparently haunted house.
As we learned from Misery, the story of the woman who holds a man captive can never be a glamorous one. Over the course of Stephen King’s 1987 novel, we’re led to understand that Annie’s insanity—her insecurity, her obsession—is inextricable from that which makes her unlovable, a given long before she ever stumbles across the luckless object of her affections, her favourite writer, in the wreckage of his car. Dowdy and deranged, Annie forces him to rewrite his final novel according to her whims, crooning, “I’m your biggest fan,” over his tortured body.
And indeed, what could be beautiful or romantic about a woman with the violent upper hand, the muse forcing herself on the artist—never mind that the gendered inverse (see: Scheherazade’s dilemma) is the stuff of literature? A story about woman holding a man against his will, especially if she seeks to exploit his creative labor…Well, that’s just crazy. And for women, crazy, as we all know, is not a Good Look.
from Davey Davis writing at The Millions
Davis is writing about the gendered nature of craziness:
Humanity is not something the crazy woman is typically afforded
This ‘madwoman archetype’, or the idea that a woman who desires (what she doesn’t have; what she shouldn’t want; what is inconvenient or dangerous for male authority) must be institutionalised, silenced, or worse — is deep in the bedrock of our culture.
Even now, the two attributes of women most feared (by the dominant culture and by women ourselves) are ugliness and craziness. Infertility is linked to ugliness, which is linked to old age. Old age is linked to death, the most scary thing of all.
Settings Of Gothic Horror
The setting of the Gothic novel is a character in itself. The setting not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
The term “Gothic” originates with the ornate architecture created by Germanic tribes called the Goths. It was then later expanded to include most of the medieval style of architecture. The ornate and intricate style of this kind of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary style, one which concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition.
This building will have secrets of its own, and can therefore almost be considered a character in its own right (with psychological/moral needs and desires).
Other settings may include caves or the wilderness.
Plot Structure Of A Straight-up Gothic Story
WEAKNESS: A female character is an innocent, unwitting victim with no particular moral shortcoming but she is weak in general owing to her position/station in life.
DESIRE: She (perhaps subconsciously) wants to be saved from her ordinary life. This is the same wish-fulfilment as modern dark, paranormal romances, and is easy to mock until you understand that this desire is borne of a need to escape, because adolescence is terrifying for a girl whose body is suddenly attracting the attention of much larger, stronger men, some of whom will not leave her alone.
OPPONENT: She is the victim of some sort of external malevolence.
ALLY: A rescuer arrives from outside.
BIG STRUGGLE: There is a climactic encounter between the forces of evil and the forces of good.
Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people.
Evil characters are also seen in Gothic literature and especially American Gothic. Depending on the time period that the work is written about, the evil characters could be characters like Native Americans, trappers, gold miners etc.
Omens — or portents, visions, etc. — often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams.
Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise.
An element of fear is another characteristic of American Gothic literature. This is typically connected to the unknown and is generally seen throughout the course of the entire novel. This can also be connected to the feeling of despair that characters within the novel are overcome by. This element can lead characters to commit heinous crimes. In the case of Brown’s character Edgar Huntly, he experiences this element when he contemplates eating himself, eats an uncooked panther, and drinks his own sweat.
Psychological overlay is an element that is connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. An example of this would be if a character was in a maze-like area and a connection was made to the maze that their minds represented.
Revelation & Gothic’s Relationship To Mystery
Revelation is the basis of much plotted fiction, especially any story containing a mystery—and that includes far more than detective or mystery fiction. Much gothic fiction is founded on a central mystery. When a story’s main dynamic is to have the protagonist find out something, or realize something that’s been true for some time, the story’s narrative drive comes from the finding out, not in the discovered fact itself. More similar to a ‘whydunnit’ mystery than a ‘whodunnit’, in other words.
Often the framework of this kind of mystery/revelation story will be very simple: a quest or journey which involves meeting people, getting into one situation after another, each demonstrating the story’s central theme but otherwise unrelated to the others, each supplying some new information on the story’s central mystery.
The Woman In The Attic Trope
The Mad Woman In The Attic is now a trope, though this real life story flips it — a woman kept her husband in the attic and made him live like a bat.
Jane Eyre —Mr. Edward Rochester keeps his violently insane wife Bertha locked in the attic of Thornfield. All the while, Rochester is romancing Jane. The story is Jane’s gradual discovery of the unchanging but hidden state of things. Except for the secret — the mystery — the story would be quite static.
Likewise, Rebecca, whose plot is the disclosure of dead Rebecca’s real nature and how her widower, Maxim, actually felt toward her. Rebecca is a more modern Bluebeard story.
Stranger Things, the Netflix TV show, also features a ‘girl in the attic’ trope in Eleven. Stranger Things is indeed a gothic story:
One of the most interesting aspects of this show is how it’s reminiscent of gothic fiction. A lot of early gothic is set in some kind of remote past yet reflects contemporaneous issues. With Stranger Things we have a 21st century TV show set in the 80s, which I guess for young people is a remote past, but speaking to our contemporary moment. We are thus looking at Stranger Things not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a text that speaks to current issues like surveillance culture and the modern family. In short, it is interesting how the show turns to the past to speak to the present.
Gormenghastseries— three novels by Mervyn Peake, originally published between 1946 and 1959. Follows the life of Titus Groan, left to fend for himself in a crumbling kingdom he will one day inherit. He is surrounded by bizarre family members. He survives his neglectful childhood, grows up, survives attempted murder. The ending is thought to be pretty poor. Peake never bothered finishing it himself — it’s supposedly finished off by his family, which explains a lot.
Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald — these stories influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
The horror classic film Freaks
The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is probably the most famous example of pure gothic fiction. The combined elements of terror and medievalism set a precedent for an entirely new, thrilling genre. This story was already a pastiche and self-consciously parodic send-up of the genre that it itself established.
The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe — a good example of a paranormal scheme against a helpless young woman. Bourgeois heroine Emily St. Aubert endures all kinds of struggles. She loses her father to supernatural experiences in an old castle. Jane Austen was influenced by this book. The heroine continuously disavows her own foolish predisposition towards superstition by projecting it onto her servant girl, Annette.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817) is actually a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Jane Austen parodied the genre but also seemed to really enjoy reading it herself. She continued to read gothic romance for years, even after parodying it.
The History of the Caliph Vathek(1786) by William Thomas Beckford
The Monk(1796) by Mathew Lewis — Lewis was 19 when he wrote this novel of ecclesiastical debasement. It is stuffed full of love, murder and immorality.
Frankenstein(1818) by Mary Shelley — Don’t forget that Frankenstein is the doctor (not the monster). Dr Frankenstein creates a creature from body parts culled from graves at the local cemetery.
Melmoth the Wanderer(1820) by Charles Maturin
Salathiel the Immortal (1828) by George Croly
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame(1831) by Victor Hugo
Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula(1897) by Bram Stoker — Vampires, haunted kingdoms, blood.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — a philosophical work about getting old and indulgence. The main character becomes so obsessed with stayng beautiful that he sells his soul. He occasionally goes up to the attic to watch his portrait grow old.
The Woman In Black (1983) by Susan Hill — A best-seller from the 1980s. A spooky visitor haunts a small town in England, warning that children are going to die. It’s been adapted for stage and is a hit in West End.
Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice — Written as an interview between a reporter and a vampire called Louis de Pointe du Lac, who recounts the last 200 years of his life. He is full of regret.
The Tell Tale Heart(1843) by Edgar Allan Poe — the murderous main character is haunted by the sound of the beating heart of his victim, hidden in pieces under the floorboards.
Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte — Set on the moors, this story is about class, survival, prejudice and is highly atmospheric.
Gothic children’s literature emerged in response to the adult Gothic romance. However, even children in the 18th century probably preferred the scary tales over the didactic ones they were supposed to read, which were heavily didactic. There was an effort by the gatekeepers of this time to keep Gothic stories away from children. This fear has never subsided. There are always cultural critics worried about the effect Gothic stories have on the tabula rasa of children. In earlier eras children were thought to be entirely innocent. Rousseau was partly responsible for that. These days stories tend to play with the idea that children are somewhat complicit in getting themselves into trouble. This is why children’s stories, too, quite often give a moral shortcoming to the main character. This affords children more agency, in fact.
Maryrose Wood uses this historical attitude in her gothic parody The Mysterious Howling when she writes:
[Penelope the governess] had chosen Dante because she found the rhyme scheme pleasingly jaunty, but she realised too late that the Inferno’s tale of sinners being cruelly punished in the afterlife was much too bloody and disturbing to be suitable for young minds. Penelope could tell this by the way the children hung on her every word and demanded “More, more!” each time she reached the end of a canto and tried to stop […]
Penelope had begun reading poetry to the children in the belief that it would improve their English faster than lists of spelling words ever could. Besides, she personally found poetry very interesting, and since her students [literally raised by wolves] were more or less blank slates when it came to literature, she felt she might as well do what she liked. (As you may already know, the Latin term for “blank slate” is tabula rasa, a phrase the Incorrigibles would no doubt be exposed to a little further on in their educations.)
The Mysterious Howling, book one of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place
Recently we have those fears directed towards the Twilight series, in which the passive heroine basically waits around to be saved by a creepy, much older male monster. The fear is that girls in real life will hope to emulate this as a script for their own romantic lives. (I admit, I have some sympathy for this view myself, if girls are reading dark, paranormal fiction widely but not critically. Then again, who’s to say they’re not critical of the very stories they enjoy?)
Children’s stories have always been gothic. In fact, gothic stories belonged to children all along. The Gothic romances for adults actually came out of fairytales told while these adult readers were still children.
There was a lot of playing with Gothic conventions in the latter half of the 19th century, especially by woman writers, who were presumably reading gothic romance/horror themselves for pleasure.
Another three 18th century woman writers started writing partly in order to combat what they considered worrying trends in contemporary children’s fiction. These women were Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth. Bear in mind that each of these women used Gothic features in their writing for children but it wasn’t actually Gothic because they didn’t want to expose children to ghosts. Also, each and every one of them wrote Gothic stories for adults in a different part of her writing career, exposing a double standard. We love the Gothic and find it entertaining, but not for children, whose minds are easily corrupted.
Influential male writers have said they loved to read Gothic chapbooks as children. These men include: Boswell, Johnson, Carlyle, Goethe, Lamb, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Yet chapbooks were never culturally approved. (Chapbooks were magazine type products sold door-to-door — an important means of cultural dissemination before people could afford books.) Chap books were considered trash fiction.
Before the rise of the Gothic novel, faciliated by the development of cheap printing systems, the Chapbook and Bluebook were common forms of literature, particularly in the United Kingdom. For a penny or half-penny, members of the public of any class with the ability to read suddenly had access to a wealth of information (of varying degrees of accuracy) and stories of adventure and morality through these publications. Although looked down on by the higher classes of the time, and indeed by scholars of today, the Chapbooks and Bluebooks are a wonderful repository of folklore which can tell us much about the beliefs and traditions of the people of the time. In this edition of The Folklore Podcast, the first of Season 2, creator and host Mark Norman examines some of the folklore presented in the old Chapbooks and how it was used to teach lessons to others.
A very easy definition of Gothic children’s literature: Gothic stories are everything ‘quality’ children’s literature is not, in any given era. When a literature emerged for the middle class white child, ghosts were firmly erased.
Fear (or the pretence of fear) is very popular right now in children’s literature. This is the modern take on ‘gothic’.
Examples Of Early Gothic Children’s Literature
Mary Louisa Molesworth (A Christmas Child, A Christmas Posy, An Enchanted Garden and so on)took the gothic tradition and domesticated it.
A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T. Meade is a vivid and detailed description of college life among a perfect bevy of young misses in the old English university town of Kingsdene. It follows the fortunes of a young Devonshire lass who goes away to college and finds herself among entirely different conditions of life and points of view than those that prevail in her own narrow village. L.T. Meade was perhaps the first to transform the school into a gothic place.
The Secret Garden has the madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a little boy, not a mad-woman. There’s also the haunted house and grounds. The Secret Garden is the most obvious example of Gothic children’s literature.
C.S. Lewis used The Woman In The Attic trope in his Narnia Chronicles — The Magician’s Nephew to be exact. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe begins in a big old scary mansion and a scary, remote owner who is basically a hermit, probably with secrets of his own.
The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, who writes macabre rhymes. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…”In response to being called gothic, [Gorey] stated, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.” — Wikipedia entry on Edward Gorey
Emily series by L.M. Montgomery (who wrote Anne of Green Gables) — Montgomery plays with Gothic conventions, as well as in some of her stand-alone novels and short stories.
If you’re wondering about Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice is not Gothic literature. There are plenty of Gothic features without it adding up to actually Gothic. Alice is absurdist instead.
Features Of Gothic Children’s Literature
What does the Gothic look like in children’s literature? Gothic motifs in general are very well-suited to exploring adolescence, and the way identity seems to change from day to day. With the menarche, girls face blood — another Gothic motif (wayward fluids, murder). Elements include:
Hobgoblins, dwarves, trolls, witches, werewolves, vampires and other folkloric creatures
Bugaboos such as chimney sweeps, Wee Willy Winkies and other creatures from urban folklore. (Bugaboos come in the night.)
Ghouls — The ghoul is the classic Gothic monster. They frighten us and transform the familiar into the strange and threatening.
Ghosts, spectres, phantoms, apparitions and general hauntings
Schools are often the proxy for haunted mansions and castles. The schoolyard is the forest.
Irony and parody is very gothic, so anything meta in the style of Lemony Snicket borrows from the Gothic tradition. There’s a lot of parody of Victorian settings.
The Gothic is to do with transgression, lack of restraint and the overturning of normality. For example, Gothic villains break taboos, as do young children, by not doing as they’re told. See again The Carnivalesque, which is a tradition with a long history in children’s literature. No wonder Gothic features so heavily in stories for the young.
A lot of Gothic stories have a ‘jump’ ending. Take the oral versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, in which the storyteller grabs the listener as if she is about to get eaten by the wolf. A number of modern stories for young children are also designed to be performed as much as read.
The Gothic warns readers of the dangers mysteriously close to even the most familiar places. The Gothic tells us that the world is not safe. How many children’s stories teach that? Quite a number. Pretty much any story that’s not pastoral is teaching children that same lesson: Be vigilant, be smart, stick with your friends, know friends from enemies.
Gothic children’s literature often takes the form of fantasy. If the Gothic is about fear of desire, fantasy is a great genre to explore that because fantasy teaches the reader to desire.
Many children’s stories use the trope of the Explained Ghost. Basically, there’s some sort of supernatural happenings in the world of the story which is later revealed to have been just the over-workings of a foolish mind. This trope is used to teach the reader that there is no such thing as ghosts and whatnot, and to always dig deeper for the truth behind our fancies. Nevertheless, even the Explained Ghost tropes themselves rely upon Gothic motifs and traditions. That’s not to say traditional Gothic stories themselves didn’t make use of the Explained Ghost. Ann Radcliffe herself used it, though perhaps to a different end (to show up rational thinking by later subverting it).
Unlike in Gothic romance for adults, child heroes are mostly given something to fight back with. They don’t wait around to be rescued, except in the odd parody. This is in line with the general advice when writing for children: heroes must be proactive and basically get themselves out of their own predicaments. They may ask for help from a mentor, but no one’s coming to save them.
The writer must be familiar with gothic motifs and tropes and settings — familiar enough to parody them, and to manage whether readers will find something scary or funny (or both).
Writers can take gothic motifs and transplant them to a new setting. This creates a kind of neo-Gothic (to borrow from the term neo-Western). For example, writers may take the labyrinthine qualities of a castle and reuse them in a dystopian city or in a setting inspired by cyberspace.
Gothic stories tend to do one of two things:
They can either suggest subversive possibilities to readers
They can scare children into submission and ensure conformity.
Be clear with yourself: Are you achieving the former? If not, you’re writing didactic, 19th century work.
Examples Of Modern Gothic Literature For Children
Flowers In The Attic was the Twilight of my generation (teenagers of the 1990s). It features children locked in the attic of a big, mean castle of a house and a wicked grandmother. Also incest.
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl — This is the first of The Caster Chronicles. It is young adult fiction about a main character called Ethan, who has lost his mother and feels trapped in a tiny town.
Roald Dahl — Dahl’s work is popular partly because stories preserve the innocence of the child and retains the level of evil of the villain, but gives the child the means to save themselves. Daniel Handler has continued this tradition.
Anything Gothic for children these days tends to be compared to Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, even if there’s not much else really in common.
An example often compared to Lemony Snicket is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, set in the mid 1850s.
J.K. Rowling uses the madwoman in the attic trope in Harry Potter, more than once, and many other elements from Gothic fiction, being the master borrower and remixer of tropes.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — chronicles the life of Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. The story is a series of loosely connected stories about Bod’s life and what he learns about life/death.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman is another middle grade novel from the gothic tradition, with its large house, bizarre characters and supernatural goings-on.
Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman is a picture book, with a title reminiscent of The Rats In The Walls, and is similarly gothic in tone.
Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson — a picture book about a ghost called Leo who lives alone in a deserted house.
The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen — a picture book set in a big, scary, empty, dark house. In reality the house is probably an ordinary one, replete with a mother/father, but the representation of the house on the page is how the boy feels about it.
Ghostlight by Sonia Gensler — An American Gothic tale including an abandoned haunted mansion, spooky movies, imaginary games, film-making (a popular device in ghost stories).
Doll Bones by Holly Black — A coming-of-age novel about a boy called Zach who plays with dolls. His father throws his creepy porcelain dolls away but this isn’t the last we see of them.
The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black
The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
Gothic Hospital by Gary Crew
The Devil Latch by Sonya Hartnett
The Seventh Tower by Garth Nix
Thirsty by M.T. Anderson — the main character can’t join in his culture’s hatred of the monstrous because he has discovered it within himself. He has to find a way of living which is neither killing himself nor accepting his fate.
Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz — As Kate de Goldi said in her RNZ interview review, the author uses Victorian Gothic really skilfully in her books. It’s a great playground for children’s writers at the moment: Writers don’t have to wrestle with technology in the story and this historical setting is dark and mysterious and very colourful, and lends an air of fantasy. This is a really good story. There are big things being talked about women’s place, about exploitation at all levels of life. The author looks very interestingly at disability and writes really tenderly about unusual friendships about people who are marginalised.
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz — The things that Schlitz did well in her first novel were done equally well in this one. (There are two titles for this book depending on the continent.) This is a fantastic adventure about two orphans who work for an Italian puppeteer. They live in poverty. This is a fable, of sorts. Names of characters are really important in this: Clara (light) Wintermute (she can’t speak). In her house she’s been silenced by the grief of her parents. Four of her siblings died in the cholera epidemic but she survived and has the guilt of a survivor. While the plot may sound a bit hokey, the writing is very beautiful. The music, the rhythm of the words… We learn a huge amount of detail about Victorian London. Something Schlitz does without any shrinking is show the evil capacity of ordinary adults. It’s quite frightening the way the adults have buried sexual desires which are under the surface of the text. Having said that, this is very much a children’s story. The end is elevating.
Then there are books which are not obviously Gothic, but influenced by the tradition. The labyrinthine computer game stories set in cyberspace calling to mind the structures of Gothic castles, are one example, as mentioned above. Themes in common: double consciousness, metafiction, moral disintegration. In this way, 19th century Gothic fiction has a lot in common with ultra-contemporary speculative work.
With regard to children’s gothic, Anna Jackson recently edited a collection titled New Directions in Children’s Gothic: Debatable Lands. It’s a good start for getting a sense of the type of scholarship that is going on in the field. Also, anything by Chloe Buckley, who has what sounds like a fascinating book on children’s gothic coming out November 30.
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:
Detective Crime is all about deciding whose version of a story is the truth. Our crime fighting heroes always care deeply about the truth.
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.)
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)
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.
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.)
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).
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.
A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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’.
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 main character 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.
Another example, likewise a literary middle grade novel, is Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee. With her mother and little brother caught up in the story of the brother’s health issues, main character Lenny goes to visit a great aunt from her estranged father’s side of the family. She now faces a moral dilemma: To tell her mother and Davey or not?
But an entire great aunt. An entire person, all bony and angular and whiskery and filled with cackling laughter. All nylon stockings and strange orthotic shoes. All stories and sizzling bacon fat and radio violins. That secret was huge. Each time I looked at Davey, I knew I had to tell him, but each time I went to tell him, my thoughts clogged up. The secret sat on my tongue like a spoonful of peanut butter.
Karen Foxlee, Lenny’s Book of Everything
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.
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
In Tom’s Midnight Garden 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.”
Further Examples of Secret-keeping In Children’s Stories
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.
However, sometimes secrets are even more dangerous to share than to keep, and this danger can affect others as well as the secret-keeper.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
While children should never lie to parents, if (good) parents lie if it’s to protect children.
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?
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.
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.
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
When people say “believe women” a lot of them really mean “believe women until they try to unmask someone I like.”
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.