The landscape that surrounds us is rich in folklore connected with the plants and flowers that dwell within it. Some of these are old and connect with the world of fairy. Some are more modern and relate to invasive species. All are fascinating. In this episode of the Folklore Podcast, storyteller and environmentalist Lisa Schneidau discusses the research which went into her book “Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland” and tells some of the stories related to our plant-based beliefs.
Long before Day of the Triffids, carnivorous plants existed in Gothic horror, including in vampire stories. This subgenre was pioneered by Phil Robinson who wrote “The Man Eating Tree” (1881).
In “The Story of the Grey House” guests stay at a secluded country mansion but are strangled and drained of blood by a demoniacal creeper growing among the shrubbery.
Another is “The Purple Terror” (1899) by Fred M. White.
If you wanted to create a scary monster, the scariest ever, how would you go about it? Make it big (like an ogre). Make it invisible, so you never know when it’s there. Make it sometimes nasty, sometimes nice, like a white witch, seductive and charming, all the while scheming.
Make it unexpectedly violent. Therefore make it a woman. Worse, make it a mother. Make it a failed mother. Make it a vengeful failed mother who cooks and eats children. Make it a vengeful failed mother who eats her own children. RAW.
That, folks, is peak monster.
Actually, maybe we can go one step further and make it even worse. Make the cannibal a CHILD. Don’t blame me for that mental imagery. I didn’t invent it.
At least, that’s what I thought, until I listened to the Scale of Evil episode of Unpopular Culture podcast. At around the 20 minute mark they talk about actual instances of cannibalistic criminals in our time, and it turns out my mind hadn’t gone there. If you are hellbent on finding out what’s even worse than what I just described above, I offer only a link.
Across the globe, black has negative connotations. This is probably because night-time is black, and historically night-time is the scariest, most dangerous time for humans. Our eyes have evolved for daylight. That’s why I’m combining ‘night’ and ‘black’ when delving into symbolism.
Black is not technically a colour, rather an absence of colour. Artists are often advised against using black out of the tube. Instead we are to mix a dark hue from other colours. More interesting blacks are achieved if they are red black or blue black, say. This is debatable advice.
There are cultural variations on black. For example:
In Japan, black is one of the four important colours. Black indicates wisdom, maturity and high accomplishment, hence black belts in martial arts. In Japan black is also the opposite of the colour purple, associated with the armoury of samurai, and in ancient times geisha used black to colour their teeth.
The Cathars were a dualist medieval religious sect of Southern France. Like Japan, the Cathars also used black to mean perfection and purity. (Today purity is most often symbolised using white.)
Though black is generally considered bad, black cats are lucky in the United Kingdom and in many parts of the world. Black contains layers of flipped symbolism.
Associations With Night-time
In English we say night ‘falls’ but actually it rises, emerging first in the valleys.
Fading rays are known as ‘sun suckers’.
Eventide is an archaic term — Irish people have a saying that bushes and men look alike. Italians say hounds look like wolves.
Night feels palpable, like some sort of dark mist. The Old Testament talks about darkness that befell Pharoah’s Egypt.
Night Vapours: Noxious fumes are widely thought to descend from the sky. “Night fogges” and “noysom vapours”
Shakespeare — “the daylight sick”. “Make haste, the vaporous night approaches.”
Noctivagator was a Latin term used to refer to people who walked around at night causing trouble in the Middle Ages. It was later replaced by nightwalker in England in around 1500.
Linkboys were orphans and urchins, paid to carry lights for pedestrians. They were not well trusted, sometimes leading customers straight to pick-pockets.
As nature tires of human destruction, two sisters must face a changing environment that stands between them and survival.
When Quinn and Riley set out on a family vacation with their parents, the trip ends before it begins. Mother Nature interferes with their plans, setting off a sequence of events that thrusts the teens into a hostile landscape.
Stranded, with limited supplies, struggling to figure out who they can trust along the way, they must determine how to survive nature’s evolving fury.
Ancient Times Of Day
Before the industrial era nightfall was known as ‘shutting in’. Watchdogs have been let out by nightfall, so it is time to lock yourself in for the night.
Gloaming (twilight, dusk)
Cock-shut/cockshut — twilight
Crow-time — evening
Daylight’s gate — The period of the evening when daylight fades; twilight. From the early 17th century.
Owl-leet — perhaps Lancashire dialect for ‘owl light’, when owls come out
Darkness and Fear
All humans seem to fear the dark, probably an instinctive thing after many generations of learning to fear things which emerge in the dark. But not all cultures fear dark equally. Fear levels depend on the cultural narratives around night-time.
We don’t just fear the dark because we can’t see through it. We fear it because we can’t be recognised as ourselves. This is especially scary for children, who fear their parents may not recognise them in the darkness. In ancient stories, the coal man who covers children’s faces with coal is a terrifying bogeyman.
Deinos melas means ‘scary black’ and describes the ghost of one of Odysseus’ sailors.
Also, cultures change across time. Modern cultures fear dark less than earlier cultures — in this modern era there is no true darkness in populated areas anyway.
People weren’t really afraid of the dark until the END of the middle ages. Before then the dark was considered a peaceful time. Then we got vampires, werewolves, witches and all sorts of horrible night creatures and people actually believed these things existed, outside a few analytic mindsets. A great number of people sat on the fence, agnostic about the existence of such things. Others were absolutely terrified by their own supernatural beliefs, sometimes to the detriment of others:
On a winter night in 1725, a drunken man stumbled into a London well, only to die from his injuries after a neighbour ignored his creeds for help, fearing instead a demon.
At Day’s Close: Night in times past by A. Roger Ekirch
Since people were so scared of the night, this was excellent for pickpockets and thieves, who were able to utilise that and almost always used the cover of darkness to commit their crimes. It even became a separate crime. Housebreakers worked in the daytime, burglars by night between 1660 and 1800.
Curtains weren’t a thing until the 18th century. When people first got them, neighbours assumed the worst regarding what was going on behind them. At that time everyone knew everyone else’s business. That’s not to say people hadn’t wanted privacy. The reason privacy became paramount then and not at any earlier time is because that’s when people started to accumulate personal possessions of their own. The words ‘privacy’ and ‘private’ didn’t exist in English until the 1400s. But by the time of Shakespeare these words were known and used by everyone.
In earlier eras across Europe, there were laws about what jobs were allowed to be done at night. Basically, working at night was considered very suspicious because night was for the devil’s work. People were even beaten to death for working after dark. However, you were allowed to work if it was in service to a noble family. You were also allowed to work if you were preparing for a carnival or fair. Depending on the culture, exemptions were made for overnight working. In Sweden and Amsterdam for instance workers were allowed to make beer overnight because beer was very important.
Although work was generally not allowed at night, ‘day-labour’ really did mean from dawn until dusk, until modern labour laws came in. Just as well for the superstitions, I suppose, or the working class would never have been afforded sleep.
According to some belief systems, prayer, piety and church attendance can protect you from sin (darkness) because your body emulates light. Take the following from a Pentecostal churchgoer in Papua New Guinea:
When witches confess, they say things like: “When we encounter people who follow Jesus, when we would like to get close to them, there is a light! A strong light! It reflects against our vision, and we can’t get close to them.”
From the brothels and gin-shops of Covent Garden to the elegant townhouses of Mayfair, Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Daughters of Night follows Caroline Corsham, as she seeks justice for a murdered woman whom London society would rather forget . . .
Lucia’s fingers found her own. She gazed at Caro as if from a distance. Her lips parted, her words a whisper: ‘He knows.’
London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline ‘Caro’ Corsham is already in a state of anxiety when she finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly-paid prostitute, at which point they cease to care entirely. But Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself. Enlisting the help of thieftaker, Peregrine Child, their inquiry delves into the hidden corners of Georgian society, a world of artifice, deception and secret lives.
But with many gentlemen refusing to speak about their dealings with the dead woman, and Caro’s own reputation under threat, finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous than she can know . . .
Darkness triggers a chain of interrelated processes, including a cognitive processing style, which is beneficial to creativity…But they also gave [subjects] four logic problems that required a great deal of analytical thinking. This time the researchers found that while creativity thrived in the dark, careful reasoning flourished in the light.
Most commonly we mean a corpse brought back to life by a demon or by the original spirit. This spirit is unable to rest in death.
Sometimes ‘vampire’ refers to a spirit or ghost who did not need a body in its hunt for blood. These kinds of vampires occur most often where communities worship and fear the spirits of dead ancestors.
There is some overlap between witches and vampires, and again between vampires and cannibals. Some beliefs around witches tell us that witches and sorcerers were thought to send out their souls to steal blood and do evil. They could do this without even dying first. Their bodies would fall into a deep trance. They would not recover until their souls returned.
Broomsticks are useful storytelling symbols that serve double duty — they are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Broomsticks may keep a woman housebound, but also afford the imaginative freedom to fly.
Which is the correct way to sit on a broomstick? Take a look at the images below:
Now take a look at this witch from about the middle of the 15th century, who sits on her broomstick with the broom part in front:
Honestly, this is how I’d be clinging onto a broom:
Not all women in the sky with broomsticks are riding said broomsticks.
See also the two part series on broomsticks possibly being about ergotism at the Ridiculous History podcast. The witch riding a broom may be a drug reference. This sounds like a post hoc explanation to me, but the hallucinogenic component of the bread mould is much less upsetting when absorbed by the skin rather than taken orally. It is speculated that ergot was historically taken via the anal membrane, and speculated further that this was applied using broomsticks. (I can’t understand why broomsticks would be needed.)
Brooms and Witchcraft, Part 1: A Killer in the Rye?
Most people are familiar with the stereotypical image of a witch: a haggard, often older individual with a peaked hat, black robes, a demonic familiar and, oddly enough, a penchant for cruising around on broomsticks. But where did that last, weirdly specific, trope of flying on a broomstick actually come from?
Brooms and Witchcraft, Part 2: Inquisitions and Iniquity
Could the stereotype of witches on broomsticks actually be a drug reference? Join Ben, Noel and Casey as they continue digging through the history and folklore of witchcraft — and how it affected pop culture in the modern day.
The cartoon below, by Norman Bridwell, is funny to those of us who grew up with the idea that Santa and his reindeer drove/pulled a sleigh. In fact, Bridwell is combining a couple of different Christmas-time legends. In Italy, for instance, it is an old woman who delivers gifts down the chimney and she is often thought to ride a broomstick. Her name is Befana.
For those of us with vacuum cleaners, it’s hard to imagine the amount of time once tied to brooms, brushes and dustpans. The task of keeping dirt and dust from the home was constant — and necessary — because without constant attention the home would attract rodents. At certain times in history, rodents in the house meant death.
For this reason, in Ancient times brooms in a temple were considered sacred. You had to have clean hands to use one.
There are plenty of superstitions concerning brooms, because the act of sweeping is inherently metaphorical.
One version of ‘correct’ sweeping looked like this: Start by the door and sweep inwards. If you sweep your dust outwards towards the front door you will sweep your luck away. (I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life.)
Brooms have had both indoor and outdoor uses, all resulting in hard work.
Brooms have phallic associations (and doesn’t everything?). According to one old superstition, if a single woman stepped over a broom lying on the floor, she would become pregnant out of wedlock. The degree to which people imagine stuffing things inside women to control us will forever baffle me.
It wasn’t just women who have been symbolically tied to brooms. Victorian era British art often depicts boys alongside brooms, as a shorthand symbol of poverty. These are working class boys, some are perhaps chimney sweeps.
The boy below is sitting outside in the dark. Darkness and brooms don’t go luckily together. In Europe it considered unlucky to sweep your home after dark.
A broomstick made from tying twigs around a stick is known as a besom. Besom originates from the old English besema meaning ‘woman’ (because guess who did all the sweeping). ‘Besom’ has the same root word as ‘bosom’.
The first broom sticks typically used twigs from the broom plant (hence the name).
The broom does another double duty — in the pleasant and calming scene depicted below, the broom seems to simply add balance to the composition, and also act as another feature of the home, alongside gardens and pets.
Here’s a similar bucolic composition from the same painter:
The outdoors equivalent of the hygge broom is the garden rake:
In the painting below we may wonder at the inclusion of the broom. We see a pretty girl admiring herself in the mirror — what’s with the broom edging into the scene?
It all becomes clear when we learn the title of the painting: Borrowed Plumes. A plume is a long, soft feather or arrangement of feathers used by a bird for display or worn by a person for ornament, or anything that spreads itself out as a bird plumes its feathers.
So these are not her clothes. This is a little brown bird dressing up as a fancier bird. The broom nearby tells us she’ll never be free of her mundane duties though, significantly, the broom isn’t positioned to appear in the mirror image.
Below, children dress up for play. A broom is a mandatory accoutrement when dressing as Cinderella.
The broomstick below serves to anthropomorphise the mouse.
Broomstick weddings were common term during the 18th and 19th century England and referred to weddings not regarded legal.
In America slaves who lived on plantations were often refused the right to marry. Naturally they fell in love and yearned to commit themselves to the love of their life. When two lovers jumped over a broom together they were considered married. This tradition is related to the metaphorical act of ‘sweeping away’ — and fresh beginnings.
Others claim the stick on the ground represented a division between their old home and the new. Lovers thereby jump into their new home together, this time as a couple.
Brooms can be used to get rid of unpleasant things from the house — other than just dirt and dust.
According to Chinese folklore, you can get rid of a vampire (jiangshi) by sweeping it out with a broom.
According to French folklore it’s considered bad form to sweep up after dark in case good luck is swept away with the dirt.
In Ancient Rome special broomsticks were used by sacred ‘midwives’ or wise women to symbolically sweep away any negative influences from a house in which a baby had just been born. These midwives were precursors to the modern conception of a witch, who flies around on a broomstick.
“Up At A Villa” is a short story by Helen Simpson, opening her 2011 collection In-flight Entertainment. This is a lyrical short story full of symbolism.
Cover copy tells us to expect work a la Alice Munro. Of all the stories here, the images in “Up At A Villa” are most reminiscent of Munro — young and old are juxtaposed, reminding the reader that we are all young and old at some point, and therefore young and old at once.
This is a story of two groups of people. The first group comprises two heterosexual pairs of young people in their late teens or early twenties. The characters named Nick and Tina are romantic and flirtatious with each other. The other pair, Joe and Charlotte, do not feel that way about each other, or Charlotte does not feel that way about Joe. Helen Simpson paints this picture in extremely succinct fashion and we know it by the end of the third paragraph, observing these young people waking up from the forest after a drunken night of frolicking. We know this about them from the way they behave around the pool and in the water. We’d know it if we were seated nearby. And that’s where Simpson puts the reader. We’ve been given an invisible pool-side seat.
These two young couples juxtapose against another couple — older. This older couple has a new baby. This could of course be either of the young couples in another ten years’ time.
SETTING OF “UP AT A VILLA”
There’s a fairytale vibe to this short story, which is probably set in Southern France. Local food provides this detail —pissaladière — cuisine of Nice. It’s Monday morning and everything is closed down in the village (fermé le lundi). The young couples have snuck onto this holiday villa to use the pool as they’ve run out of money, which reminds me of the opening of Brokedown Palace, the 1999 film about two young American women who eventually find themselves imprisoned for drug trafficking.
It’s mid afternoon and these kids have their morning sleeping in the forest, redolent with fairytale spookiness. Their hair is ‘stuck with pine needles’. They’ve become one with the forest, but could the story be making use of the double English meaning of ‘pine’, much as Robin Black did in her short story “Pine“?
In stories the forest can function as all kinds of things, most notably the subconscious. When they wake up in the forest, have they really woken up? What follows around the pool could easily be part of a dreamscape.
Helen Simpson inverts the general utopian beachspace of our imaginations by describing the Mediterranean this way:
Anyway they had fallen out of love over the last week with the warm soup of the Mediterranean, its filmy surface bobbing with polystyrene shards and other unsavoury orts.
‘Ort’ is an archaic word, linking this contemporary setting to an archaic world and means ‘a scrap or remainder of food from a meal’. Alongside breastmilk, this word choice links something which shouldn’t be eaten with food. (Of course breastmilk is food — the best human food that exists — but that’s not how the young observers see it.)
Three bodies of water are mentioned in this story: first the sea, then the pool, then the baby’s bath when Harvey asks the woman what’s so special about bath-time anyway? This creates a very subtle mise-en-abyme effect, from large down to small — the grievances are likewise becoming more petty, while at the same time carrying the magnitude of a sea for this couple.
‘Space’ and ‘Place’ are not the same thing. Drawing on spatial theory by Lawrence Buell and E. V. Walter, a place is seen, heard, smelled, imagined, loved, hated, feared, revered, enjoyed, or avoided. In contrast, the Space is the subjective dimension of located experience. Because certain Spaces exist in the shared cultural imagination, it’s possible to be familiar with a ‘space’ without having visited a ‘place’. For instance, if you live in Australia or have seen tourist advertising, you’ll be familiar with beachspace even if you haven’t ever visited (the place of) an actual beach. Likewise, we are all familiar with images of the Mediterranean even if we haven’t visited the Mediterranean:
In other words, we know a Space of even if we don’t know the Place. This applies to the tourists in Helen Simpson’s story, whose knowledge of the Space has been replaced by unwelcome knowledge of the Place. Evoking the story of Adam and Eve — these kids were happier before they saw the polystyrene. Now their imaginative Space will be forever tainted.
What about the symbolism of the pool? In a few deft strokes, Simpson evokes a scene of ancient mythology — modernised, of course — but this pool could easily be a lake or a pond in a forest. The naked young people, the youthful bodies… well, they could be sirens, of course.
What do you imagine when you think ‘siren’? Probably of beautiful femme fatales fresh out of Romanticism…
… or perhaps something more like this…
… not the sirens of Ancient Greece, where winged and clawed bird-women lured sailors to destruction through the power of their song.
Audiences didn’t exactly appreciate John William Waterhouse harking back to the earlier era of sirens. I mean, these women are terrifying. And no one wants to go to an art gallery and look at terrifying women, do they? Women are supposed to be warm and sexy and alluring and welcoming.
[A woman’s] value [is] contingent on her giving moral goods to them: life, love, pleasure, nurture, sustenance, and comfort, being some
The same thing has happened to witches, female vampires and basically any femme/androgynous mythical creature (including gothic male vampires). We love to sexualise anyone who’s not overtly manly.
Anyway, this story is perhaps Helen Simpson’s reclamation. Because of the varied history of siren mythology, these hybrid creatures are useful to storytellers when weaving an imagistic pattern. (Double-duty symbols always are.)
Though Simpson has left the siren mythology off the page, I think it’s there in her imagery. An important thing to understand about metaphorical chimera (and other metaphorical symbols in general) is that they also represent something within the characters. In common with a siren, these kids (especially Tina) are two things at once — their current youthful selves and the older selves they are forced to imagine.
If we read the young women of Helen Simpson’s short story as contemporary sirens, they are both of these creatures at once — tempting and terrifying.
What else is tempting and terrifying? All of us: tempting when young; terrifying when old.
Age has always terrified the young. When we are young it’s difficult to even imagine ourselves as older. If younger selves imagine older selves at all, we see them as separate identities. When Tina whispers “Oh, gross!” at the sight of the mother breastfeeding, what exactly disgusts her? The narrator describes breasts with ‘huge brown nipples on breasts like wheels of Camembert’. Cheese is nice. But anything that’s not cheese, when compared to cheese, is not nice. Weird how that works, but there we have it. We love cheese despite itself, I guess.
Using free indirect style, Helen Simpson encourages the reader to react with disgust to the spectacle of a woman breastfeeding her newborn. This is a modern reaction. Scroll through classic art from the Victorian era and you’ll find many beautiful breastfeeding images, clearly romanticising the act of breastfeeding as beautiful, natural, life-giving and good. Simpson’s story is an inversion — contemporary life has inverted this aspect of motherhood.
So the Shortcoming of Tina is that she is disgusted by what she herself may one day become.
“She’s hideous,” whispered Tina. “Look at that gross stomach, it’s all in folds.” She glanced down superstitiously at her own body, the high breasts like halved apples, the handspan waist.
Joe and Nick have a different reaction — they are fascinated by it.
At this point Helen Simpson makes an astute feminist observation on why people don’t listen to women:
At some subliminal level each of the eavesdropping quartet recognised their own mother’s voice in hers, and glazed over.
Harvey and the unnamed mother are in marital conflict. It’s difficult to read without sympathy for them, especially the mother, who is in a very vulnerable position.
The complete lack of sympathy from the young people is striking.
The young couples came to France on a shoestring budget, buoyed by new love that didn’t last, because they’ve been let down by their surroundings. France is traditionally the country of love, but even France can’t help them. They’re each too self-absorbed to be in an adult partnership of equals (in common with Harvey, in fact).
Since the young couples want to live in the moment, the sight of older versions of themselves pull them out of that. (All are from England, cementing their more general similarity when in a foreign country.)
The character of Charlotte has been kept silent for most of the story but after introducing her briefly as someone who has it together (aligning her with the mother), she brings her back in at the end.
Charlotte remembers a framed picture, and what follows is an ekphrastic description, cementing for the reader the subverted fairytale nature of this story:
As for Charlotte, she was remembering another unwitting act of voyeurism, a metaphorical framed picture from a childhood camping holiday.
It had been early morning, she’d gone off on her own to the village for their breakfast baguettes, and the village had been on a hills like in a fairy-tale, full of steep little flights of steps which she was climbing for fun. The light was sweet and glittering and as she looked down over the rooftops she saw very clearly one particular open window, so near that she could have lobbed in a ten-franc piece, and through the window she could see a woman dropping kisses onto a man’s face and neck and chest. He was lying naked in bed and she was kissing him lovingly and gracefully, her breasts dipping down over him like silvery peonies. Charlotte had never mentioned this to anyone, keeping the picture to herself, a secret snapshot protected from outside sniggerings.
Once again we have a description of breasts — symbolic, in this particular story, and metonyms for women at various life stages:
The half-apple breasts of youth
The sagging wheels of Camembert of nursing motherhood
The full, womanly, pleasure-giving breasts of sexual womanhood
Charlotte is the character who experiences the Anagnorisis in this story, and it’s interesting that Simpson kept her quiet. She needed to be quiet to be afforded time to reflect. Unlike Tina, Charlotte realises that growing into a woman’s body is not a disgusting, terrifying thing at all. She’s had the benefit of witnessing this other image, which counteracts Tina’s commentary of this scene before them, a few years later.
The Anagnorisis in “Up at a Villa” is a great example of how a character can have an epiphany/understanding after connecting two experiences, even if the previous experience happened some time ago. In this case, the Anagnorisis phase will probably comprise a flashback or dream.
High up on the swimming-pool terrace the little family, frozen together for a photographic instant, watched their flight open-mouthed, like the ghosts of summers past; or, indeed, of summers yet to come.
The final sentence links present time with future time, pulling that whole thread of the story together (the young are simultaneously old — that is why they fear it).
Why does Helen Simpson frame the little family statically, in a ‘photographic instant’? When the young couples run like deer, they’re not only running from the scene of the ‘crime’ — they’re running from the inevitability of youth.
So long as they’re running, by comparison that other, ‘gross’ family looks static, and behind that ‘frame’, completely separate. For this moment of running away, they can pretend they’ll never be older themselves.
I’ve previously taken a close look at wolves in literature, specifically in children’s stories. Werewolves are a separate archetype from wolves and play a different storytelling role. In folklore and fairytale, werewolves are lunar figures which stand in for cyclic time, alongside. dragons, serpents and related creatures.
THE HISTORY OF WEREWOLVES IN A NUTSHELL
Werewolf literally means ‘Man Wolf’. Were is from Old English ‘wer’ meaning ‘man’. The maleness of ‘were’ has since been lost in modern English, but if we wanted to seem technically accurate, the female equivalent would probably be ‘wifwolf’, and that’s not ideal in an age where women don’t always appreciate being referred to in relation to men. (Wif is the Old English word for ‘wife’, in an era where women did not exist as autonomous human beings, belonging only to fathers, husbands and sons.)
In Europe, people really used to believe werewolves were a thing. Imagine believing that. Imagine thinking that, if you weren’t careful, you yourself might turn into a werewolf. How would you regard the moon, if this were your worldview? Don’t know about you, but I’d stay inside on moonlit nights.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reports of werewolves pervaded much of Central Europe and sections of France along the Swiss border, notably the Jura and the Franche-Comfte. The surgeon Johann Dietz witnessed a crowd of villagers in the northern German town of Itzehoechase a werewolf with spears and stakes. Even Paris suffered sporadic attacks. In 1683, a werewolf on the Notre-Dame-de-Grace road supposedly saved a party that included several priests.
At Day’s Close, A. Roger Erkich
This dynamic picture book from an award-winning art director shows how feeling hangry can turn even the sweetest kid into a Wolfboy!
Wolfboy is hungry!
WEREWOLVES ACROSS CULTURES
Something about wolves that leads humans to think, across largely unrelated cultures, that people can turn into them. Horror storytellers have since turned all number of creatures into were-creatures, from horripilating to comedic effect and everything in between. Wallace and Gromit gave us the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, for instance, comedic because rabbits are not naturally terrifying (on their own).
The ‘were’ of ‘werewolf’ originally meant ‘man’ (man-wolf). This gendered meaning has largely been forgotten in contemporary English. We can therefore have female werewolves.
werewolves and the moon
There is a long history connecting moon cycles to changes in the human body:
Best known of the many “planets” said to influence the rhythms of everyday life was earth’s closest neighbour, the moon. While a welcome source of light, the moon reputedly affected the internal workings of the human body much as it did the flow and timing of ocean tides and the course of the weather. France’s “first philosophe”, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, was one of many learned authorities to perpetuate the medieval theory stressing the moon’s importance to physical health: “As it passes through its phase, it exerts a great influence for better or worse over the course of illnesses.” So potent was its power that the moon could alter the amount of moisture within a person’s body, including the brain, thereby driving some individuals insane or “moon-struck.” Observed the authors of Maison Rustique, or, the Countrey Farme (1616), the moon was the “governesse of all such humidities as are in earthly bodies.” When the moon was full, women were thought at particular risk to become “lunatics.” Some victims died on the spot. In London’s St. Botoloph’s Parish between 1583 and 1599, as many as twenty-two deaths were attributed to planetary influence.
At Day’s Close by A. Roger Ekirch
But the story which connected the moon so closely to werewolves for a modern audience was the 1941 Wolf Man movie. Earlier werewolf stories were more fairytale in nature. The person turning into the wolf tended to put on a certain item of clothing such as a magic belt or coat.
WEREWOLVES IN MODERN STORIES
When it comes to werewolf tropes, the tropes differ depending on the medium. Movie werewolves are most often supernatural horror villains, there for the gore and slashing, and could be swapped out with many other horror villains. For this reason, these werewolves are not particularly interesting.
Twilightshifted the status of werewolves — the character of Jacob paved the way for a modern werewolf who is also a potential love interest.
Werewolves can be used to convey many things, depending on the ideology of the storyteller. One common use of the werewolf (among various other wild animals) is as a proxy for overwhelming teenage sexuality:
It can be a hard thing to be a teenage girl.You face pressure from both your peers and society at large to rush into sexual activity you may not be ready for. You’re judged for your clothes, your makeup, your interests. You have to navigate that blurry line between childhood and adulthood, exemplified by physical changes that can make your body feel like it’s not your own.
Also, you might turn into a werewolf.
Or a mermaid.
Maybe a succubus.
At least that’s the case in the movies, where there exists a long and storied tradition of associating of female puberty with the supernatural.
Or, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing: “Help, I’m a teenage girl coming into my own as a sexual creature, while also turning into a literal creature who transforms into a deadly animal/can control objects with my mind / has an all-consuming hunger for human flesh / bites dudes’ junk off with my vagina” (circle where applicable).
Supernatural sexuality is nothing new at the movies.
It’s a horror subgenre that’s shown its face time and time again throughout the decades. In 1942’s Cat People, a sexually repressed young woman refuses to be intimate with her husband due to her (justified, as it turns out) fear that doing so will cause her to turn into the killer cat that looms so large in her people’s mythology.
As such, the werewolf as sexual beast trope can be used to try and suppress sexuality, or to encourage readers to embrace it.
PROBLEMATIC WEREWOLF TROPES
The problem with many werewolf stories is that the wolf is based on inaccurate, outdated science, in which wolves were studied in captivity, not in the wild. When studied only in captivity, scientists came up with the following:
In each pack there is an alpha male and an alpha female running things.
The alpha male is more powerful than the alpha female.
There will be wolves at the bottom of the hierarchy (omegas).
Wolves mate for life.
In the wild:
The parents are in charge of the pack. ‘Alpha male’ and ‘alpha female’ are mum and dad taking care of the teenagers. (Not so sexy now, right?)
Wolves don’t mate for life.
The ‘males are stronger than females’ thing is never so simplistic, whether we’re talking about animals or humans. It is a fantasy to imagine that men can protect us all. To take an example from a different species, it was only recently that researchers shared that male, alpha chimpanzees are only the alphas of the other males, and that an alpha male chimp can easily be dethroned if all the females decide to reject him. It is certain that the sexual hierarchy of wolf packs is equally nuanced and complicated as it is in chimpanzees.
If storytellers go with the captivity inaccuracies, this results in a romantic view of the (human) patriarchy, which is intimately connected to the One True Love story. We see this in Twilight, in which werewolf Jacob’s One True Love is Bella’s baby.
Consent is a complicated topic in storytelling because sexual fantasies are somewhat separate from what an audience will accept in reality. Or is the line really so clear? The very definition of ‘fantasy’ becomes muddied when narratees live in the real, non-fantasy world in which non-consensual activity happens to people frequently. Werewolf stories set up under the (human) patriarchal system require ‘underdogs’ do as they are told. While this hierarchy can pave the way for con-non-con fantasies, is it still a fantasy when the characters within the setting are unable to give their own consent?Con-non-con activities are in fact consensual. There is a dearth of stories modeling conversation which needs to take place beforehand. To what extent should stories model good behaviour? Does there need to be that wrapper story in which readers are gradually immersed further into the fantasy world?
As mentioned above, the alpha werewolf in a patriarchal werewolf story is more powerful than the alpha female. This is an uncritical presentation and serves to reinforce ‘the natural order of things’ (for humans).
Some werewolf stories present werewolf as analogue for disease. J.K. Rowling has said that in the Harry Potter series, the werewolf part stands for AIDs. Even if readers are supposed to get the message that ostracising werewolves (diseased people) is bad and we shouldn’t do it, the very act of writing a diseased character as a supernatural monster is in itself problematic, and perhaps relies too heavily on the audience’s ability to see the storyteller’s intent. Zombies are also used in this way.
Werewolves in modern stories are sometimes presented as protectors of nature, which is not problematic in its own right. It can become problematic once non-native writers include tokenistic, appropriated indigenous cultures and transfer those symbols onto wolves.
WHAT MAKES FOR A PROGRESSIVE WEREWOLF STORY?
In better stories, a werewolf can make for an interesting, rounded character in its own right. An adept storyteller can almost transport us into a canine body ourselves and send us running through the forest.
Modern werewolf stories tend to say one of the following:
Friendship makes you stronger. The metaphor here is the wolf pack. Teen Wolf is a good example of that, with the additional message that ‘those in your pack don’t have to be wolves’, which conveys a message of diversity and ‘chosen family’.
Werewolf stories can say something interesting about anger management, and the struggle to control one’s emotions.
Werewolf stories can more generally be about Being Different — this plot is certainly not limited to werewolf stories.
WOLVES, TRANSFORMATION AND SEXUALITY
One modern and interesting way writers are using werewolves: As symbols for how hard it is to fit into the rules of the patriarchy.
The following example makes use of wolves rather than werewolves, but these wolves are functionally ‘were’- wolfish:
“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell is […] about a pack of wolf-girls sent away to live with nuns so they can transition into normal young women. I think Russell uses animals in this story as a symbol for the wildness in young people and how there is an expectation, especially for girls, to abandon rough or wild behaviour as they mature. It is about societal pressure, but it is also about the kinship people feel toward animals, and similarly the divide between animal and human that we can never traverse. Pulling from this set of examples, what are some of your favourite short stories and in what ways are animals used in them?
“Dear Amelia” by Anne Valente, explores a similar transformation in reverse. The story is narrated by a group of girls that is turning into Maine black bears, a secret that they keep to themselves. To me, this story is so much about the private discovery of the self as you come of age, an experience that is at once mysterious and magical. What better way to enact that than through this literal transformation?
In the wilds of the Northern California mountains, all the inhabitants of a small town have gone missing. It’s as if the people picked up and left everything they owned behind. Fearing something supernatural might be going on, the FBI taps a source they’ve consulted in the past: the werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham. But Charles and Anna soon find a deserted town is the least of the mysteries they face.
Death sings in the forest, and when it calls, Charles and Anna must answer. Something has awakened in the heart of the California mountains, something old and dangerous — and it has met werewolves before.
As night fell, something stirred the darkness. Birds shrieked, rising into the air as the peace cracked and fell apart. Flashes of crimson uniform cut the smothering black of the woods. The smell of smoke lifted through the boughs and choked the leaves. A drum beat out a steady pulse as soldiers tore over the dead leaf matter, hacking their way through the web of forest.
The prisoner ran.
When Lowell Sencha finds the strange girl lying as if dead on the riverbank, he is startled to find that she is like them: waer. Human, but able to assume the form of a wolf. The Sencha family’s small community has kept itself sequestered and unnoticed, free from persecution. The arrival of a fellow traveller, and a hunted one at that, threatens their very survival.
Sure enough, the soldiers of the blood-purist Daeman Leldh soon descend on the village searching for her, burning and slaughtering. Lowell and the mysterious stranger are among the few to escape. And now they must find their way to the city of Luthan where, she says, they will find people to help them bring down Daeman Leldh.
If she can persuade them not to kill her.
MORE ON WEREWOLVES
A Goodreads list of the most popular Werewolf novels recently. Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver series is near the top, and definitely the most popular young adult werewolf series. There is another entire list dedicated to Werewolf Erotica. Anyone who has read Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden may not be surprised at werewolf erotica because dogs make a surprisingly frequent appearance in female sexual fantasy.
Writers think in terms of point of view: omniscient, third person, first person, second person. Close third person, universal first person and so on. For most purposes, point of view as a concept does fine. But it’s worth taking a brief look at terminology used by narratologists. Every narratologist comes with their own terminology. The concepts below are courtesy of Gerard Genet.
These concepts are especially worth a look if:
You are almost ready to start writing but can’t decide which point of view would be best for this particular story, and no amount of POV articles are helping out.
Or maybe you’re self-editing and you suspect your narration is patchy, e.g. too intrusive in places
Or if you would like to parody novels from an earlier era, in which narration was handled quite differently
Or if you’re writing experimental fiction
Or someone in your writing group keeps pointing out head-hopping, but you know it’s not head-hopping at all, but you don’t know how to explain it’s not (tl;dr: it’s probably psycho narration by an overt narrator).
THE MEANING OF DIEGESIS
‘Diegetic’ refers to something that occurs within a setting: ‘In-universe’.
On the other hand, ‘non-diegetic’ refers to something that has been tacked on afterwards: ‘out-of-universe’.
In a film ‘diegetic sound’ appears to originate from within the story. So music might be coming out of a car radio and the characters can supposedly hear it. Quentin Tarantino’s film soundtracks are diegetic. Gritty, real-life drama such as The Wire would never add a soundtrack in after (or if they do, it doesn’t seem like they do). Cinema verite (e.g. Meek’s Cutoff) makes use of diegetic sound because the aim is to make the audience feel this is real, we are there.
Non-diegetic sound is sound that has been edited in afterwards for the benefit of the audience. An example of non-diegetic sound would be a sad soundtrack that plays as a character walks through a forest. In this case, the audience can hear the music but the character cannot. There is no surround sound system in the forest. The music does not exist ‘in-universe’.
In narration, diegesis describes a narrator’s involvement in the story as well as their distance from the narrative. In a separate post, I describe how these terms meld together to describe levels of narration, and in another I look at how writers create experimental fiction by blending functions.
DESCRIBING A NARRATOR’S INVOLVEMENT IN THE STORY
The following words explain a narrator’s involvement in the story they are telling.
A heterodiegetic narrator does not take part in the story.
A homodiegetic narrator is part of their own story.
Literally means ‘identical with fiction’.
They may or may not be the main character.
An autodiegetic narrator is a homodiegetic narration who is ALSO the MAIN character in his/her own story.
Think autobiography. The narrator of an autobiography is also the star of the autobiography.
Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye — because he is telling us exclusively about himself, his own feelings and thoughts.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
Sometimes the narrator seems to be telling a story about someone else, but they’re actually telling the story in order to understand themselves better, or as a form of catharsis. In this case the narration can be classified as autodiegetic.
An example is Sal in Walk Two Moons (1994).
Gramps says that I am a country girl at heart, and that is true. I have lived most of my thirteen years in Bybanks, Kentucky, which is not much more than a caboodle of houses roosting in a green spot alongside the Ohio River. Just over a year ago, my father plucked me up like a weed and took me and all our belongings (no, that is not true — the did not bring the chestnut tree, the willow, the maple, the hayloft, or the swimming hole, which all belonged to me) and we drove three hundred miles straight north and stopped in front of a house in Euclid, Ohio.
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Although the narration of Walk Two Moons reads quite a lot like Catcher in the Rye, take a look at the advertising copy:
“How about a story? Spin us a yarn.” Instantly, Phoebe Winterbottom came to mind. “I could tell you an extensively strange story,” I warned. “Oh, good!” Gram said. “Delicious!” And that is how I happened to tell them about Phoebe, her disappearing mother, and the lunatic.
As Sal entertains her grandparents with Phoebe’s outrageous story, her own story begins to unfold — the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother.
A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is another example. The narrator talks about his grandmother. We get an excellent portrait of this old woman over a series of summers. Over this time the narrator grows up, finally leaving for war. Although the novel is ostensibly about a boy describing his grandmother, he is the character who changes and comes of age.
INVOLVEMENT AND DIVERSITY
It’s never immediately apparent who a story is ‘about’ based purely on ‘point of view’. When a storyteller (focaliser) tells a story involving another character, the story could be mostly about the storyteller themselves, mostly about another character, or about both, in varying degrees of proportion.
A shorthand way of figuring out who a story is ‘about’: Who gets to star in the moral line of the story? Who gets to have the character arc, the anagnorisis?
We are obliged to think carefully about who gets to be the star of a story because storytellers who narrate other characters’ stories can mask lack of diversity.
Is Million Dollar Baby a story about a Black man because Morgan Freeman’s character narrates? Well, the Black narrator has a minor character arc owing to the story he’s telling, but the guy who gets to have the main revelation (that he was being an asshole) is the White boxing trainer. (Meanwhile, the female boxer played by Hillary Swank is little more than a sacrificial lamb. Yet this film gets compared to Rocky, in which Rocky Balboa is the genuine star of his own story.)
The following terms describe the narrator’s distance from the narrative.
An extradiegetic narrator is one who narrates a story from outside the fictional universe of a particular text. This narrator communicates the primary narrative to an audience equally removed from the setting; this audience, then, is the extradiegetic narratee.
Extradiegetic narrators may be characters in their narratives, but at the moment of narration they are operating from without its setting. This may happen when a character-narrator tells the story some years after the event, from another fictional level. (After some insight has been gained.)
Think of this term as: ‘Out-of-universe’. Bear in mind that the term extradiegetic does not refer to whether the narrator is a personal narrator telling about their childhood, say, or an impersonal narrator telling about some other character’s childhood. Both are extradiegetic. (Even the audience is extradiegetic.) This all-encompassing word describing anyone who is not part of the level zero setting.
I hate hate hate when the ends of chapters say things like, “I would look back on this day for years and wonder what ever happened to that cat.” You’ve just sucked me into a wonderful chapter and I’m eager to see what comes next, but with that one line you draw attention to the fact that this is a story I’m being told and it takes me right out of the immediacy of it and kills all the tension. Also, if this is a murder mystery or the character is being chased, you’ve just told me that character survives for years and so they probably live at the end of this story. What’s the point of continuing to read if the reader knows the ending?
CA Marshall, editor
In Twilight, Bella is writing her memoir from ‘the other side’ of her main story — early in the story she’s not a vampire. So in the first book of the Twilight stories she is extradiegetic.
I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
The style of narration in Monkey Grip by Helen Garner allows for much reflection. Helen Garner is an extremely reflective writer and chooses for Monkey Grip to narrate in first person with an extradiegetic narrator. From page 2:
So, afterwards, it is possible to see the beginning of things, the point at which you had already plunged in, while at the time you thought you were only testing the water with your toe.
This is a great example of the kind of reflection that can only come after much distance.
Use this word to describe narrators who are part of the setting. This is a narrator who tells a story as if it is happening, without distance.
If you work hard you will find success. Persistence leads to success is a comforting truism, because we feel the future is under our own control. Work hard, you win.
An episode of a Freakonomics podcastprovides a strong, economically sound argument for sometimes giving up. But you’ll be hard pressed to find a book for which encourages quitting. When a child character quits a sports team or skips out on piano, it will probably be because they’ve replaced their parents’ dream with another hobby of their own. Quitting to hang out on the corner? Hard to find that in a non-tragic story.
This is a ‘truism’ because it contains an element of truth. Modern parenting and teaching gurus have spread the message that we should praise children not for being smart but for trying hard, moving away from ‘talent’ mindset into ‘growth’ mindset. Becky is good at math because she worked hard. Johnny knows all the characters of Harry Potter not because he has a superlative memory but because he’s read the complete series three times. That’s ‘growth mindset’.
This ideology is especially strong in Japanese narrative. In the Hayao Miyazaki animated film Spirited Away, the child hero Chihiro gets locked inside a fantasy theme park world and must save her parents from ending their days as bacon by… you guessed it: working hard.
In the West there is no shortage of gritty fictional kids.
PERSISTENCE IN PICTURE BOOKS
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper ― This is the ultimate persistence picture book, known to many of us. It has even entered popular vernacular as a shorthand trope for believing in yourself:
So how do you overcome the parasympathetic nervous system? Is it as simple as just being like the Little Engine and saying, “I think I can”? No, although that doesn’t hurt. Saying something doesn’t mean you believe it, and frankly, your brain has no reason to trust you. You need to convince your brain that it is safe.
The Science Behind Why “I Think I Can” Actually Works This from a Goodreads reviewer: “The lesson of this book isn’t perseverance, it’s that 3/4 of people you meet will leave you to die on the side of the road. An important lesson, sure, but I think I’d rather wait until at least kindergarten before I start teaching my son that.”
The Little Engine That Could has influenced many writers. Some children’s book authors enter children’s book publishing because they bring fame, not because they bring originality. So often in celebrity picture books, the message is simplistic and unnuanced. The ‘Never Give Up’ maxim is a particular favourite of authors who haven’t read many picture books. Take Elbow Grease, written by American wrestling professional John Cena. An underdog racing car is picked on by his brothers. In order to win a place in their masculine hierarchy he must beat them in a race. Significantly, there must also be a girl to impress. (Don’t mistake this for gender inclusion.)
The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss ― A boy plants a carrot seed. Throughout the story various people tell him the seed won’t grow, but the boy never gives up. Another picture book using a garden as a metaphor for patience is The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. A little boy works hard to grow a lush, green garden only to find out the winter snow has ruined most of it. But he doesn’t get discouraged and, together with some neighbors, works hard to make it green again.
Brave Irene by William Steig ― This is basically a mythological hero(ine) in picture book format ― Irene Bobbin has to brave snowy, stormy weather to deliver a ballgown. She meets lots of obstacles on the way but doesn’t give up. She is rewarded at the end with kindness, a hot meal and personal satisfaction.
Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems ― Elephant and Piggie meet a new friend, Snake, who wants to play catch with them. Snake has no arms. The characters never give up on trying to find a solution to include Snake.
How To Catch A Star by Oliver Jeffers ― A boy really wants to catch a (highly metaphorical) star. He comes up with all kinds of ways to try to catch one, but none of the ideas seem to work. He doesn’t give up. The message is pretty clear with the text: “But in his heart, the wish just wouldn’t give up.” He gets his star, though in a humorous, ironic twist, it might just be a washed-up dead starfish. This saves the story from being 100 per cent sap.
Stuck by the same author is also a story about persistence. Oliver Jeffers’ persistent boys are a running theme in his picture books.
Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges ― Ruby, the main character, is determined to go to college when she’s older instead of getting married and staying home as is the normal tradition of her family.
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires ― A girl sets out to make the most magnificent thing, assuming it will be easy. She knows exactly how it will work; all she has to do is make it. But making this most magnificent thing turns out to be anything but easy and she tries and fails repeatedly. Eventually, she gets really mad and decides to quit. But after her dog convinces her to take a walk, the girl comes back to her project with a new perspective and manages to get it just right. We have the full range of emotions in here. The journey towards death is perhaps overkill when it comes to picture books, but in storytelling speak, the near death experience is ‘almost gave up’.
Salt In His Shoes by Deloris Jordan & Roslyn M. Jordan ― A biography of Michael Jordan, as written by his mother and sister. Message being: Never give up and you too can be a great athlete. Though you’ll find this on lists of ‘picturebooks about perseverance’, there’s a hefty dose of magical thinking in there, too. Michael feels the reason he isn’t very good at basketball is because he’s short. His mother suggests he put salt in his shoes and say a prayer to help him grow. This is apparently why he grew. (Around age 8 I prayed every night to become tall, too. Didn’t work for me.)
Luigi and the Barefoot Races by Dan Paley ― Another story about sport and perseverance, though this one is fictional. This is not about an underdog trying to beat the fast kid but about the fast kid being pressured from below by a contender. Kids who are great at sport are thereby catered for in picture book world.
Matthew’s Dream by Leo Lionni ― A mouse dreams of becoming an artist when he grows up. He works hard to fulfil his dream and ends up displaying a painting in a museum.
A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams ― Rosa, her mother, and her grandmother save up coins to buy a chair after their furniture is destroyed in a fire.
Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats ― A boy really wants to whistle. He tries really hard and eventually whistles to his dog.
Ready, Set, Skip! by Jane O’Connor is another book about mastering a particular skill.
Froggy Rides a Bike by Jonathan London ― Whistling, skipping, riding bikes… these are all childhood skills where parents first realise whether they’ve got a naturally persevering child or not.
Betty Bunny Wants A Goal by Michael Kaplan ― When kids get a bit older, sports is a good way to learn perseverance, so long as the child is the competitive type.
Stickley Sticks To It! A Frog’s Guide To Getting Things Done by Brenda S. Miles ― A picture book with an overt didactic purpose in the title, probably purchased by parents who know their kids need to hear the lesson.
The Pout-Pout Fish Goes To School by Deborah Diesen ― This going-to-school book underscores the message that school requires hard work ― you won’t necessarily magically learn how to read. (Though some kids seem to.)
Flight School by Lita Judge ― It’s easy to exhaust the skills that need to be mastered by toddlers and young kids (at least, the interesting ones) but there’s a whole other list of skills to be mastered once we turn to the animal kingdom. In this story a little penguin is determined to fly. The bird-literature reader knows that penguins can’t actually fly. The ending is similar to what Oliver Jeffers did in How To Catch A Star― when the dream is impossible, the writer can modify the ending so the kid character still gets what they want, albeit modified. This penguin learns to fly with a little help from technology. The front cover shows him with feathers tied onto his little wings, somewhat ruining the denouement. You Can Do It, Bert is a similar book but features a nervous bird who can actually fly. He’s just a little anxious.
Experience the true story of lifelong activist Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins and her participation in the Capitol Crawl in this autobiographical picture book.
This is the story of a little girl who just wanted to go, even when others tried to stop her.
Jennifer Keelan was determined to make a change―even if she was just a kid. She never thought her wheelchair could slow her down, but the way the world around her was built made it hard to do even simple things. Like going to school, or eating lunch in the cafeteria.
Jennifer knew that everyone deserves a voice! Then the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that would make public spaces much more accessible to people with disabilities, was proposed to Congress. And to make sure it passed, Jennifer went to the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC to convince them.
And, without her wheelchair, she climbed.
ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP!
From Ashima Shiraishi, one of the world’s youngest and most skilled climbers, comes a true story of strength and perseverence–in rock-climbing and in life.
To a rock climber, a boulder is called a “problem,” and you solve it by climbing to the top. There are twists and turns, falls and scrapes, and obstacles that seem insurmountable until you learn to see the possibilities within them. And then there is the moment of triumph, when there’s nothing above you but sky and nothing below but a goal achieved.
Ashima Shiraishi draws on her experience as a world-class climber in this story that challenges readers to tackle the problems in their own lives and rise to greater heights than they would have ever thought possible.
A commonality in the best of these picture books is that the main character goes through a range of emotions: disappointment, fear, frustration and satisfaction. Sometimes elation. The model children manage their emotions, keeping them in check at all times. Comedic characters might have a hissy fit at some point. Comedic characters are relatable, and they’re funny because of that.
A lot of these main characters are anxious types. According to my kid’s paediatrician, ten per cent of children fit the criteria for anxiety, and it’s worth pointing out that ‘reluctance to try something’ or ‘reluctance to try again’ correlates with anxiety.
The most contemporary of these books sometimes star highly imperfect child characters. Older style stories seem more likely to set these kids on a character arc where they turn out better at the end. This makes the older books seem more didactic. There is a movement against overt didacticism at the moment, though I do notice that didacticism is just fine if the book is also very funny.
PERSEVERANCE AND MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS
By the time readers are into middle grade books, there isn’t much difference between middle grade and adult character arc ― in any good story the main character needs to be one of the following:
What does it mean to be ‘actively passive’? This is when the character has received the Call To Adventure but goes out of their way to avoid getting involved. That in itself is doing something.
A typical pattern involves:
a reluctant main character who wants things to stay basically the same
something happens ― a problem, a spanner in the works
character resists change but is forced to get involved anyway
at some point in the story (often around the mid point) the character buckles down, deciding that this journey they’re on needs to be seen through to the end.
If that’s not a ‘perseverance’ character arc, I don’t know what is. Perseverance ‘perseveres’ throughout stories for all ages.
PERSEVERANCE AND YOUNG ADULT BOOKS
“There’s a lesson in real-life stalking cases that young women can benefit from learning: persistence only proves persistence—it does not prove love. The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special—it means he is troubled.”
In Hollywood films for adults there is a recent history of stories which rewards men for persistence in the pursuit of romance:
If a man in a movie researches a woman’s schedule, finds out where she lives and works, even goes to her work uninvited, it shows his commitment, proves his love. When Robert Redford does this to Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, it’s adorable. But when she shows up at his work unannounced, interrupting a business lunch, it’s alarming and disruptive.
If a man in the movies wants a sexual encounter or applies persistence, he’s a regular, everyday guy, but if a woman does the same thing, she’s a maniac or a killer. Just recall Fatal Attraction. The King of Comedy, Single White Female, Play Misty for Me, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and Basic Instinct. When the men pursue, they usually get the girl. When the women pursue, they usually get killed.
Popular movies may be reflections of society or designers of society depending on whom you ask, but either way, they model behaviour for us. During the early stages of pursuit situations in movies ― and too often in life ― the woman is watching and waiting, fitting in to the expectations of an overly invested man. She isn’t heard or recognized; she is the screen upon which the man projects his needs and his idea of what she should be [I call this the Pygmalion Principle of storytelling, in which a woman is moulded into a full human being only by [her relationship with] a man).
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
The films listed by de Becker are well-known problematic storylines but we see it too in more recent stories. When a woman stalks a man, she is rarely rewarded for it.
Ghost World is a 2001 film based on a graphic novel. But our main female character is pretty far from ‘adorable’. Enid is snarky, sarcastic and self-destructive. Every time someone offers her an opportunity to succeed, she sabotages it. In a Pigman type storyline (harking back to the Paul Zindel novel from the 1970s), Enid and her friend start stalking a vulnerable man for kicks. While she ‘gets the guy’, suggesting her stalking persistence has paid off, the viewer can see that playing wifey to this much older loser is not in Enid’s best interests. She ends up leaving town. In his review, Roger Ebert nevertheless calls this a happy ending:
The movie sidesteps the happy ending Hollywood executives think lobotomized audiences need as an all-clear to leave the theater. Clowes and Zwigoff find an ending that is more poetic, more true to the tradition of the classic short story, in which a minor character finds closure that symbolizes the next step for everyone. “Ghost World” is smart enough to know that Enid and Seymour can’t solve their lives in a week or two. But their meeting has blasted them out of lethargy, and now movement is possible. Who says that isn’t a happy ending?
Many cis men have been socialized to ignore both indirect and direct “no” signals from women, and some of them really lean into that and feel entitled to push their luck until they get a response they decide is clear enough, at which time they make it maximally weird and awkward in order to punish and dissuade future rude cock-blocking from the likes of you.
Captain Awkward (who also has some tips for if you’re trying to extricate yourself from a situation with these kinds of cis men).
The Notebook― based on a Nicholas Sparks ‘love tragedy’ is a classic example of a man who won’t take no for an answer. It is so irritating to watch his obsession rewarded as the film progresses. Bear in mind that Noah has already asked Allie, “Do you wanna dance with me?” “No,” she says. “Why not?” The boy with Allie with steps in and says, “She’s with us,” (because he knows that other men only listen to men), but still Noah won’t take Allie’s clear no for an answer. Noah has been taught that persistence pays off, even if it means ignoring a woman’s feelings altogether. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8ldUWIruvs
Pop Culture Detective pinpoints Groundhog Day as the ultimate example of creepy stalking and also uses a bunch of other Hollywood movies as examples. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=185&v=rZ1MPc5HG_I
Showing men kissing women against their will hurts kids and leads to date rape. Folks, in Ratatouille, there are THREE females – two characters and one bridal caketopper – that are kissed against their will. Each of these is presented as humorous or romantic. Are you kidding me? When kids see these images, 1) they learn that when girls say no, it is romantic or funny to kiss them anyway, which can lead directly to date rape. 2) Girls learn that what they want or say is not important, and that what a guy really wants is for them to put up a half-hearted fight and then submit. Is this really what you want to be teaching? I fervently hope that Ratatouille is the last time we will ever see that kind of thing in a Pixar movie.
In =famously in Twilight, Edward Cullen is so persistent he ends up creepily stalking Bella in her actual bedroom, watching her as she sleeps. This is nothing if not persistence. According to the setting, Edward has some kind of animal instinct and can’t help himself. (Plain old persistence by another explanation.)
Ready Player One
I’ve noticed Ready Player One called out for problematic stalky tropes on Twitter. Ready Player Two is no better, actually worse for a number of different reasons.
Bollywood Films In General
College student Shakti Singh, 20, said he would like a girlfriend but has no clue how to get one.
With little help from their conservative parents but with easy access to the Internet, he and his friends model their behaviour on the swains in Bollywood romance movies. The genre — often with a hero who breaks down a woman’s reluctance — has been criticized for glorifying stalking and rape.
“There is a lot of effect from movies,” Singh said. “Even though the girl says no he continues chasing her, and she still says no. But in the end he gets the girl.”
Now multiply that impression by the several million unattached young men watching these movies nationwide. The state recently launched a program to curtail these misguided “Romeos,” with special police squads to patrol shopping malls, college campuses and bus stands where chronic harassers gather.
“I won’t tease in the village. I will get beaten up. But outside I do,” boasted Lal Singh, a field worker, 31.
Disney/Pixar really does have a speckled history of getting things really right and other things spectacularly wrong. That’s because although the funding all comes from the same corporation, the ideologies of writers differ quite a lot.
Sometimes Disney writers are able to see through the persistence-as-romance bullshit. The writers of Disney’s Hercules (1997) did a great job with Megara’s dialogue in this scene:
Writers Ron Clements and John Musker were making a parody of a Greek tragedy, and to modernise it without the film being completely misogynistic and violent and so on they had no choice but to make the characters more modern and woke. This is how the film begins:
Long ago, in the faraway land of ancient Greece… there was a golden age of powerful gods… and extraordinary heroes. And the greatest and strongest of all these heroes… was the mighty Hercules. But what is the measure of a true hero? Ah, that is what our story is… Will you listen to him? He’s makin’ the story sound like some Greek tragedy. Lighten up, dude. We’ll take it from here, darling. You go, girl. We are the muses… goddesses of the arts and proclaimers of heroes. Heroes like Hercules.
Norsemen is a Netflix series for adults.
The tides may be turning on the ideology of persistence in fiction, at least in certain genres. The pilot (“Homecoming”) episode of this Norwegian comedy features a great scene in which a man clearly about to die (it’s no real spoiler to say that he does die) is told by his nonchalant wife that if he only thinks outside the box and tries his best he will survive.
Most writers are well-aware that a main character needs a shortcoming. Christopher Vogler and other high profile story gurus often talk about a lack:
It can be very effective to show that a hero is unable to perform some simple task at the beginning of the story. In Ordinary People the young hero Conrad is unable to eat French toast his mother has prepared for him. It signifies, in symbolic language, his inability to accept being loved and cared for, because of the terrible guilt he bears over the accidental death of his brother. It’s only after he undertakes an emotional hero’s journey, and relives and processes the death through therapy, that he is able to accept love.
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
First, there’s the issue of the Hero’s Journey as an ideology: One issue w/the “Hero’s Journey”: its insistence on individualism v. collective strength and community. Yes, the “hero” has help but those who help are relegated to the side, their purpose mostly reduced to further the hero’s goals, often at the expense of others.
Aside from that, Vogler’s advice does not go far enough. Go one step further and break it in half.
Everyone who gives writers advice about characterisation has something to say about this topic. Author of the book Story GeniusLisa Cron says that it’s the character’s internal struggle that makes the external struggle important.
What about children’s books? Do they follow the same rules?
Mostly, but not always. Some picture books do not feature characters with shortcoming. These stories tend to be of the carnivalesque variety. A few standout examples feature the reader as main character. These postmodernmeta examples do not follow the general rules of story.
Children’s books for older readers do follow the same rules as those applied to narrative aimed at adults. Modern picture books which win big awards are also likely to follow these rules.
I’ve seen plenty of students come in and say, I want to write a novel about blah blah blah. But you just can’t do it. You can only write a novel about a character who does something wrong, and see what happens from there. Novels are compendiums of bad behavior, and literature is the gossip about it.
According to the rules of story structure aimed at screenwriters and writers with an audience of adults…
Every Main Character Needs…
A PSYCHOLOGICAL SHORTCOMING: What are the fundamental flaws?
A MORAL SHORTCOMING: How does this character treat others badly? (Lacking empathy, overbearing, two-faced, greedy, lying, selfish etc.) The Seven Deadly Sins feature prominently in this part of the shortcoming.
Sometimes students seem shy about writing about people who do the wrong thing — we’re all taught to do the right thing and focus on the right thing. But all of literature is about people who do the wrong thing, despite themselves. What would the story be if they did the right thing? No story at all. Fiction wants to look at all the things that go wrong.
Aristotle called it ‘hamartia’:
Harmatia is a term developed by Aristotle in his work Poetics. The term can simply be seen as a character’s flaw or error. The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes accident and mistake, as well as wrongdoing, error, or sin. In Nicomachean Ethics, hamartia is described by Aristotle as one of the three kinds of injuries that a person can commit against another person. Hamartia is an injury committed in ignorance (when the person affected or the results are not what the agent supposed they were).
Like anything, this ‘rule’ of story has developed some tropes. As an example:
The story of the poor girl who overcomes obstacles and makes a good marriage in the end, what might be called the Horatia Alger story, is very common in nineteenth-century fiction, especially fiction written by women. This heroine does not have to begin in absolute poverty — even Cinderella’s family must have been middle-class or her stepsisters wouldn’t have been able to go to the ball in such style. But she does have to be in some way underprivileged at the start of the book, and she must go through many difficulties before she can marry the prince.
Occasionally she is poor in other than the economic sense, as with some of Jane Austen’s heroines: Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is poor in intellect; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is naive and muddleheaded; while Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is … poor in spirit. Charlotte Bronte, even more daring, made the heroine of Villette plain.
Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s stories
In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.
John Yorke, Into The Woods
BEWARE: AVOID USING DISABILITY AS NARRATIVE SHORTCOMING
As mentioned above: The two-fold shortcoming required for a good story is psychological and moral. A shortcoming that exists as a result of disability is not what we’re talking about here.
One of the reasons own voices stories are so important: Too many writers are making use of a disability as a shortcoming. Most people will recognise when a writer is falling into this trap with physical disability, but like invisible disabilities themselves, most people don’t seem to recognise it happening when invisibile disability is used as a narrative shortcoming.
For a case study in what not to do, check out this review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine at Penchant Blog. The author has said that Eleanor Oliphant is not written as autistic. She said this despite writing Eleanor Oliphant as the popular stereotype of an autistic person. Eleanor Oliphant’s narrative shortcomings will therefore be coded as autistic shortcomings by a large section of readers, despite what the author has said in her paratextual author interviews.
What if a blind person’s blindness were used as their shortcoming? What if a wheelchair user’s inability to walk up stairs were used as their narrative shortcoming? The ideological problems are far easier to pinpoint when the disabilities are obvious to outsiders.
To spell out the ideological issues in the clearest way I know how: In a story, a main character’s shortcoming will be challenged over the course of the story. The main character will either grow or not (in the case of a tragedy). The reason disability cannot work as a shortcoming: A disability is a part of someone, often part of someone’s identity, and is not something to be overcome, and not something tragic if it’s not ‘overcome’. Nor is it okay for one character’s disability be used as the basis for another character’s arc.
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Character Shortcoming and Romanticism
The Ancient Greeks thought of love differently from how we do today. The Ancient Greeks thought that love was an attraction to virtue, perfection and accomplishment.
Then the Romantics came along and changed storytelling from the middle of the 1800s onwards. We are still living under the ideas of the Romantics today. Romantics believe all sorts of misguided things about love, and one of them is that each of us has a soul mate, a perfect match for us, and once we find that person and get together with them, true love means we never criticise each other and find the ability to gloss over each other’s shortcomings. Therefore, to criticise one’s spouse is considered the inverse of love, which it’s really not at all. It means we care enough to criticise them, and feel safe enough, within our mutual love, to do so.
It seems to me that modern love stories oftentimes straddle those two notions of love. The heroine and love interest in a romance genre story will each be given shortcomings, sure, but only ‘fake’, adorable shortcomings.
The willingness to please, a tendency to clumsiness, a sardonic sense of humour. That sort of thing.
Do Children’s Book Characters Need A Moral Shortcoming?
Or any shortcoming at all?
The short answer is that, yes, an interesting modern children’s book character needs at least a psychological shortcoming, and the story might also support a moral shortcoming. This wasn’t always the case, as you’ll already know if you’ve read from the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. It was the amazing Edith Nesbit who changed all of that.
All of Nesbit’s characters have both virtues and flaws: not only are the children’s actions always a push and pull between their better instincts and their baser impulses, but the various authority figures they encounter are equally complicated. The magical Psammead creature is peevish, the Queen of Babylon is kind-hearted but imperious, and the upstairs scholar is helpful but blind to the magic he experiences.
Until Nesbit came along, adults who wrote for children believed children read stories as medicine. The viewpoint characters therefore had to demonstrate impeccable behaviour, or else be punished for wrongdoing, learning to be good along the way.
Perhaps a better way of wording this storytelling requirement: Children in stories shouldn’t always ‘do the right thing’.
[Julia] Donaldson’s books are not for children’s benefit, but their enjoyment. “Her stories are never twee,” [David] Walliams said. “There is often real danger, and her characters don’t always do the right thing. The result is that the books are proper page-turners.” The quick-witted hero always bests the villain, the brave snail/fish/stick overcomes great peril to find their way home.
Must Children’s Book Characters Treat Others Badly?
After looking at a lot of children’s books with this exact question in mind, the answer is no. There are several reasons for this:
Some characters in children’s books represent the Every Child. When a reader is meant to paste themselves onto the character we don’t want that character to be too specific. For similar reasons a lot of picture book characters are cartoon-like and minimalist. (For more on that see Taxonomy Of Detail In Character Illustration.) Even in stories for older readers, these Every Child characters are given a ‘cosmetic’ shortcoming rather than a psychological and moral one, which makes them far more generic and less interesting. For instance, a common cosmetic shortcoming in young adult romance is ‘clumsy’. Bella Swan is one example. Even in stories for adults you’ll find the Every Man. Susan from Desperate Housewives is clumsy but this clumsiness functions to provide comedy. Susan has many other psychological shortcomings. She is unconfident and needy but also fake-nice and backstabbing. Susan’s clumsiness has nothing to do with storytelling.
There are gatekeepers of children’s literature — people responsible for buying the books and putting them into children’s hands — who choose literature with the philosophy that characters in stories need to serve as role models for good behaviour. These people might approve of characters who treat others badly but only if that character is punished. For more on that see Picturebook Study: In Which Baddies Get Their Comeuppance.
The wish to avoid child characters as morally corrupt may derive from JudeoChristian thought. It is believed people enjoy an ‘age of innocence’. Strictly speaking, we’re better off using the phrase ‘age of accountability’ because the Bible does not suggest at any point that children are sinless, but rather that children can’t be held accountable for certain things due to their inexperience. Thirteen is the most common age suggested for the age of accountability, based on the Jewish custom that a child becomes an adult at the age of 13. This is no doubt related to The Magical Age of 12 in children’s literature. (There’s nothing in the Bible, however, to suggest 13 is a significant age.)
Complex, rounded characters simply aren’t necessary in all types of stories. For action stories with exciting plots, or genre fiction — such as mysteries and thrillers— all the reader really wants is a great story. In fact, the characters can’t change all that much if the book is part of a series. Series fiction is very popular with young readers and the best-selling books are all part of a series, year after year.
The view that badly behaving children’s characters must be punished is increasingly challenged, mostly by writers and publishers who refuse to believe in the concept of the young reader as tabula rasa (blank slates), who trust children and young adults to read critically and not blindly follow their main characters into bad situations. The modern main character in children’s stories will most definitely have both a psychological shortcoming and a moral shortcoming. In other words, they will be treating others badly in some way.
This wasn’t always the case, and if you take a look at books from the First And Second Golden Ages Of Children’s Literature you’ll find many more Mary Sue/Pollyanna types, who have been written as model children for young readers to emulate. These characters are not well accepted by contemporary young readers.
The idea of child readers as tabula rasa was particularly strong in the Victorian era, and if young readers didn’t want moral stories they really only had the Gothic to turn to. These stories offered all the bloodshed, villainy and titillation lacking in the ‘stories for children’.
Not all writers of children’s stories are interested in this concept. Hayao Miyazaki has never formally studied screenwriting or storytelling technique, and goes about creating his Studio Ghibli films in his own auteur fashion. Miyazaki’s main characters don’t tend to have a strong external desire. He doesn’t bother with that. They do have psychological needs, however, and by the end of the story they haven’t necessarily got anything they wanted — but by immersing themselves in a new world, they have grown emotionally.
For this reason I feel the very concept of desire is a Western one. In Japanese language, to say “I want” something is considered childish and you’ll rarely hear those words (even though the grammar and words for desire exist). Instead, a Japanese interlocutor will avoid the assumption that you are a spoilt baby with desires and ask you what you ‘need’. English: “Do you want a drink of water?” becomes “Do you need a drink of water?” I believe Hayao Miyazaki brings his specifically Japanese sensibilities towards ‘desire’ to the table when creating his main characters — Chihiro doesn’t seem to want anything in Spirited Away— she is simply there, and if she works hard, things will come good. Desperately wanting to turn her parents back into humans would probably work against her cause.
Common Character Shortcomings In Children’s Books
They may be common but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep using them:
Naivety. This is arguably the biggest shortcoming any children’s book hero has. It’s a good one, too, because the child can’t help it. Failure to understand the world is an easy shortcoming to improve upon over the course of the story, providing ample opportunity for a character arc. Hence, every story is a coming-of-age story.
Cheekiness. These characters are fun to be around. They won’t let horrible adults get away with treating kids badly without at least a little backchat. Judy Moody.
Talking too much/getting distracted. In short, developing executive functioning. Anne Shirley grew up in an age when children should be seen and not heard. There are many modern Anne Shirleys, always getting into trouble but adorable nonetheless.
Shyness. Then you have your socially anxious characters who don’t find themselves in trouble with authority but who must learn to stand up for themselves and others, and for what they truly believe in.
Below are some modern and not so modern case studies of shortcoming and desire in (Western) children’s literature.
That said, the most popular, award-winning, beloved contemporary picture books for children often feature characters with a moral shortcoming.
The fish in This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen full on steals someone else’s item of clothing. (Bear in mind that he is punished pretty heavily for it… behind the reeds.)
In some of the older types of stories, the main character sometimes gets into bother by failing to follow the rules set down by the parents. The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese is a good example of that. Today, failing to obey rules/parents/teachers is not considered a moral shortcoming. Rather, we’re in a period where we glamorise and encourage independent thinking and questioning of authority, of which I generally approve, except a lot of these stories also seem to punish those characters who do do as they’re told. (Usually nascent Hillary Clinton types.)
Olivia by Ian Falconer is basically a narcissistic little girl in a pig’s body. While I personally have no love for Olivia, she is very popular. (She’s much more appealing than her parents.)
THE RISE OF THE ANTIHERO
When main characters (heroes) have very clear and reprehensible moral shortcomings, we then call them ‘antiheroes’. In recent times, stories with antiheroes have proved very popular with audiences, notably in prestige TV.
Howard Suber in his book The Power Of Film argues that there is no such thing as an antihero, only those who act heroically and those who do not. Another problem is with the misleading name. Suber has noticed the word ‘antihero’ suggests a character who is ‘anti’ (against) the hero, but this is not what it means at all. Characters called ‘antiheroes’ are ‘not yet heroes’.
Christopher Vogler has said the same thing:
Definition of Antihero
Anti-hero is a slippery term that can cause a lot of confusion. Simply stated, an anti-hero is not the opposite of a hero, but a specialized kind of hero, one who may be an outlaw or a villain from the point of view of society, but with whom the audience is basically in sympathy. We identify with these outsiders because we have all felt like outsiders at one time or another.
The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler
Perhaps Suber and Vogler would prefer the term ‘unhero’, though the unhero is a comic character and doesn’t tend to rise above his ordinariness:
The un-hero is most similar among the types of heroes to the everyman, with a key exception: he rarely ends up being a proper hero. Generally, the un-hero is in all the wrong places at all the wrong times and does more to hinder the cause of good/justice/world-saving than to help it. Somehow though, through cosmic confluence or the intervention of a more traditional hero, everything works out in the end and the un-hero is heaped with the credit.
This is generally a less serious heroic form and should be reserved for a less serious work.
Antiheroes are fun to watch. We get to see characters breaking boundaries we’ve fantasised about breaking in our own lives. A lot of the time, antiheroes have the witty comebacks. They are ace with a handgun, always prepared and very organised. These people would actually make great workmates if they were working on the side of good.
In thematic terms, antiheroes play another role. By transgressing social norms and legal boundaries they ask the audience to reflect upon what is okay and what isn’t okay. Breaking Bad did this very well, though I believe the writers overestimated the reflective powers of a vast majority of their viewing audience. If you’ve seen Vince Gilligan interviewed, you’ll know that he expected his audience to stop siding with Walt and take the side of characters such as Skyler after a while. This didn’t happen for much of the audience, who are like ducklings, falling in love with the first character they are encouraged to bond with. Breaking Bad and the discussion that happened online around that time, with much hatred directed towards the character of Skyler, and to the actress who played her, offers insight into the Duckling Phenomenon.
A Brief History Of Storytelling That Lead Us Here: To The Age Of The TV Antihero
In the 19th century, you maybe spent an hour a day reading a novel, two hours a month watching a play. That was all the storytelling done by professionals for you. People now see that much storytelling every day. Theater became Broadway, then radio, movies, and TV. It all happened in the 20th century.
All the arts in the 20th century exhausted themselves technically. By the time Ad Reinhardt painted a canvas black from edge to edge and said it’s a painting, the form was over. Music had been explored down to noise. Every technical possibility had been explored. All possible techniques.
So I was thinking, Since all the arts have reached the black canvas, what was going to become of story? Where would writers go in the 21st century?
I realized there is one aspect of human nature that really hasn’t been exploited and explored: evil. You have dark characters like Iago, great villains who are diabolical and evil, but it’s a pure evil. Human beings are very rarely pure evil, and storytelling hadn’t truly explored the complexity of realistic evil.
And then, a few years later, came all these great long-form series, which opened an exploration of evil. There was The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, even Mad Men. With all these great series, you get complex, good/evil characters.
When storytelling gurus talk about antiheroes, you’ll notice they offer male characters as examples. But before we had Tony Soprano, we had Carrie Bradshaw. It can be argued that the main female characters of Sex And The City were antiheroes in their own way — Carrie would alternately seem sympathetic but next minute she’d do something most of the audience wouldn’t identify with at all. This is an essential element of the fictional antihero.
More recently we have a complex, fascinating female antihero in Animal Kingdom’s Janine Cody (aka Smurf). The discussion around this character is often about what makes a ‘good mother’, a discussion I don’t remember James Gandolfini being asked to comment on. Society has higher expectations for mothers than for fathers, and this is reflected in stories.
I expect we will see more female antiheroes on screen. Because of that gendered expectation differential, it’s actually better sometimes to have a female antihero, if you really want the audience to pass judgement. Imagine how different the discussion would have been if Skyler White had been the main protagonist of Breaking Bad.
I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels […] We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathise with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But the traits we love in many male heroes—their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikable character.”
More recently, in her book The Logic of Misogyny, philosopher Kate Manne has coined the word ‘himpathy’ to explain the extra empathy we afford men as a patriarchal default. It is therefore more difficult to write empathetic male anti-heroes than empathetic female antiheroes. Anyone who successfully manages it should be applauded. Then again, if we as readers don’t ‘like’ or ’empathise’ with a female antihero, perhaps it’s not actually the fault of the writer? Perhaps we are himpaths.
So, what exactly makes someone an anti-heroine on film? A ‘catch-all’ definition is this: someone who does bad shit for good reasons. A woman who’s flawed, but in the most relatable and almost inspiring of ways (because aren’t we all?), and whose decisions and development unfold on screen independently of their male counterparts.
They’re the Thelmas and the Lousies, the Beatrix Kiddos. We’re now saying buh-bye to the Disney princesses from our youth, who were (and remain; sorry Emma Watson/Belle) almost impossibly virtuous, beautiful and small-waisted. The anti-heroine of today is messy, gritty and imperfect in a more ways than one, often navigating her life with a moral compass that could probably use a service.
We don’t love that Veronica from Heathers literally kills a whole bunch of people, but her reasons for doing so resonate with us (in any case, who DOESN’T love our girl Wynona, even when she’s a murderous high-schooler?). Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne is arguably batshit, but is there anyone who hasn’t thought of a real-life application for her ‘cool girl’ monologue at least once since hearing it for the first time?
There is probably a finite number of human needs, though so many you’ll never be short of material. Take a pyramid you’re probably familiar with, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are a few problems with this hierarchy, so it pays to look at it critically:
The modern integration of ideas from neuroscience, developmental biology, and evolutionary psychology suggests that Maslow had a few things wrong. For one thing, he never gave much thought to reproduction. He conceived of “higher needs” as completely personal strivings, unconnected from other people, and totally divorced from biological needs. Parental motivations were completely missing from his hierarchy, and he placed “sexual needs” down at the bottom— along with hunger and thirst. Presumably, sexual urges were biological annoyances that could be as well dispatched by masturbation as by having intercourse, before one moved back to higher pursuits like playing the guitar or writing poetry.
Every hero needs both an inner and outer problem. In developing fairy tales for Disney Feature Animation, we often find that writers can give the heroes a good outer problem: Can the princess manage to break an enchantment on her father who has been turned to stone? Can the hero get to the top of a glass mountain and win a princess’s hand in marriage? Can Gretel rescue Hansel from the Witch? But sometimes writers neglect to give the characters a compelling inner problem to solve as well…They need to learn something in the course of the story: how to get along with others, how to trust themselves, how to see beyond outward appearances. Audiences love to see characters learning, growing, and dealing with the inner and outer challenges of life.
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
In children’s stories where there is no psychological or moral shortcoming and won’t learn anything or change in any psychological way by the end of the narrative, your character will (probably) have a Problem. This problem is external to their psychology. Stories like this don’t tend to be as emotionally interesting, but are appropriate for, say, humour.
In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, the boy’s problem is that something is stuck in a tree and he can’t reach it down.
There’s another kind of story where the ‘main character’ is the reader. Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacekis one example of this: The reader’s problem is that the book asks them to locate a green sheep, but that’s impossible until turning the final page. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brownis another example of a perennial favourite which doesn’t seem to follow any of the usual rules of story — again, this book addresses the young reader directly. The child is the character, saying goodnight to the items. This is more secular prayer than complete narrative.
Do all children’s book characters need a Problem, if they don’t have a moral or psychological shortcoming? Again the answer is not always, actually.
The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerbergis a carnivalesque story in which a man turns up and makes an enormous sandwich. In a carnivalesque story, there doesn’t have to be a problem as such, because the unsupervised play itself is the story — equivalent to the big struggle scene in a more common type of story. A carnivalesque story is a ‘toy story’ — all about play and enjoyment with no ‘broccoli’. However, even in The Biggest Sandwich Ever, the characters do face a problem by the end: After stuffing themselves full of sandwich, they are now faced with the task of eating a giant pie.
More! by Peter Schossowis a wordless picture book which celebrates the joy of walking (flying) along a beach on a windy day.
By the way, sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.