A Pattern Emerges
Thanks to YouTuber Hannah Hart and her “My Drunk Kitchen” series, I recently discovered the works of John Green. His novels are classified as Young Adult, but, after the success of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and such, I’m assuming that we’ve reached the point as a society where I don’t have to justify why I would read books in that category.
Green’s first novel, “Looking for Alaska” affected me far more than I was expecting (I believe I said as much in my interview with our beloved site mistress). It’s the story of a very intelligent but socially inept teen boy who transfers to a private boarding school, where he makes several new friends including Alaska. Alaska (not her real name) is smart, beautiful, moody, and severely troubled. Despite having a boyfriend, she takes quite a bit of interest in our protagonist. She’s one character among many, and I’d be doing a disservice to the book to say more about the plot. I feel it’s best to go into “Looking For Alaska” knowing as little as possible about it. I’ll say that I thought it was very well done and leave it at that.
Having enjoyed “Looking For Alaska,” I moved on to one of Green’s other books, “An Abundance of Katherines.” It’s the story of a very intelligent but socially inept teen boy who shortly after graduating high school takes a road trip with his best friend, Hassan. In rural Tennessee, he meets Lindsey. She is smart, beautiful, and despite having a boyfriend, she takes quite a bit of interest in our protagonist.
Let me be very clear about two things. First, I’m vastly oversimplifying the plot of each book. Second, I’m not picking on Green here. I liked both books quite a bit and plan to move onto either his “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Paper Towns” next.
Still, there was a point while reading “Katherines” that the similarities in the protagonists and the women they encounter in the two books was too much to ignore. Pudge from “Alaska” has a quirk where he memorizes last words of famous and historically significant people. Colin from “Katherines” has a quirk where he almost reflexively creates anagrams from names and phrases he sees and hears. More to the point I’m trying to get to, though, both of these boys are described as being physically unremarkable, even skinny, and nerdy, yet Alaska and Lindsey, who are both generally considered to be amazing by everyone around them, including the protagonists, fall for these boys.
Could this happen? Sure. But it does seem to be fairly uncommon in the real world. Fiction is another matter, and Green isn’t the only one to present this sort of story. It happens enough in books and film that there’s even a name for these female characters, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Lest you think I’m making that up, Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) has its own Wikipedia entry. Here’s the definition as stated by said entry, “Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005), describes the MPDG as ‘that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.’”
Zooey Deschanel has almost made a career playing this type of character in films like “(500) Days of Summer,” and for some unknown reason they turned her version of Trillian in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” into a MPDG with her relationship with Arthur that didn’t exist in the novel.
Why am I bringing this whole thing up? Because after noticing that Green had fallen into the MPDG trap in both of his books, I came to a far more troubling realization: I’d done it too. I went to graduate school for screenwriting and wrote four or five different scripts during that time. At least three of them can be distilled down to “regular guy meets amazing woman who takes an interest in him and adds magic/adventure/romance to his life.” These were scripts that I wrote between 1996 and 1999. I was writing MPDGs before anyone had coined the term, which leads me to believe that this character type is exceptionally common. One look at the MPDG page on TVTropes.com confirms this.
Now Green claims to be aware of MPDGs and to be working against the idea. I’ll admit that I missed that in two books of his that I’ve read so far. I, however, have no excuse other than not realizing what I was doing. But again, I’m obviously not alone.
I suppose it’s not too much of a mystery why this archetype is so popular. The vast majority of us lead what would be considered normal lives. We go to work or school, we worry about bills, and we don’t want to be alone forever. Add to that a longing for something different, mysterious, exciting, or incredible, and it’s no wonder that many male writers, including myself, have put all of that together into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who drops in to shake up the life of our protagonists, who are invariably variations of ourselves. We want something more, so we create the woman to give it to us. And even if we write unhappy or tragic endings, our MPDGs can leave our protagonists the gift of depth as they deal with their sorrow.
It’s not just male writers, though, for what is “Twilight” if not a variation on this type of tale. An average girl meets an amazing and mysterious guy who falls for her and adds magic and adventure to her life (In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t read “Twilight” or seen the movie. I’m going based on what I’ve read and heard about it). Actually, she ends up being fought over by two of them, but instead of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she has Brooding Magical Dream Boys. I’ve read criticisms that Bella is a blank slate rather than a character, but obviously the storyline connected with an audience. I would also argue that the protagonists of most of the MPDG stories I’ve encountered (and written) could face the same criticism.
Acknowledging that you have a problem is supposedly the first step in dealing with it, so I hereby admit to my past use of MPDGs. I also vow to stop. It’s bad enough that they’ve been done so much, but even worse is knowing that I basically wrote the same damn story three times with different trappings around it. I’d much rather be writing actual characters instead of plot devices or wish fulfillment. That doesn’t mean that I won’t still enjoy the trope when I seet it, though. That Zooey Deschanel is just too darn adorable.
- Alan Decker