The Problem with Wish Fulfillment Characters

 

Consider the following…

You’re writing your debut novel. It’s a touching coming-of-age story about a brooding and soulful young man whose life is utterly ordinary. He leads a sheltered, colorless existence, living in his head—and bored out of his mind.

Oh, if only somebody would sweep into his life and show him just how magical the world can be… how to live in the moment, to stop and smell the roses, to live each second as though it could be his last!

But who in the Wide World of Sports Entertainment would be up to such a mighty task?

Yoo-hoo! Enter the Manic Pixie Dream Girl—and she’s here to inject energy and pizzazz and meaning into your male hero’s life!

She’s got an interesting name—like Krystal, or Chloe, or Mika. She’s covered in buttons and ribbons. Her hair is pink, but she’s thinking about dying it green. She works at an exotic pet store. She runs barefoot in the park. She’s devastatingly beautiful—and for whatever reason, she’s attached herself to your stick-in-the-mud male hero, hell-bent on teaching him to live free or die hard.

Sound almost too good to be true? Well, that’s because it probably is.

A Manic Pixie Dream Girl can make all your young male lead’s dreams come true…

but she just might ruin your novel in the process.

Defining the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

When a Mary Sue somehow ends up a side character in another hero’s story, this is what can happen…

A Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or “MPDG” for short, is a stock character in film or literature. MPDGs are typically static characters—meaning that they don’t have a character arc in the narrative—who are bubbly, unabashedly girly, and highly eccentric.

Because she’s denied a character arc of her own, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl almost always winds up as a love interest for a gloomy male protagonist, tasked with the hefty burden of spicing up his life and fulfilling his every unspoken desire.

And while this archetype isn’t hated anywhere near as much as Mary Sues are, Manic Pixie Dream Girls still inspire their fair share of outrage. They’re unrealistic, readers say. They’re obnoxious. They’re sexist. They’re vessels for wish fulfillment and aren’t treated like human beings in the context of the narrative.

But while that may be true, it’s not the whole story. To fully understand the nature of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl beast, we’ve got to trace her ancient history—all the way back to 2005.

The “First” Manic Pixie Dream Girl

In October of 2005, a movie called Elizabethtown hit theaters after first appearing in the Venice Film Festival a month prior.

The movie starred Orlando Bloom as Drew, a shoe designer, and Kirsten Dunst as Claire, a flight attendant. In the film, Bloom’s Drew meets Dunst’s Claire on the way to retrieve his recently deceased father’s remains from the titular Kentucky town.

The optimistic and eccentric Claire cheers up the despondent Drew, and over the course of their stay in Elizabethtown, they sleep together and eventually fall in love.

The film is mostly unremarkable and received lackluster reviews, with a 28% “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metacritic score of 45 out of 100… but only two years later, one of these reviews would change pop culture history.

The A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin first coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in his review of Elizabethtown, entitled “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown.” Describing Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film, he defined his new catchword as follows:

“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly … or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate families. As for me, well, let’s just say I’m not going to propose to Dunst’s psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon.”

The A.V. Club published this review in 2007, and soon, Manic Pixie Dream Girls were everywhere. The term exploded in the public consciousness, changing the dialogue around both literature and pop culture nearly overnight.

Quirky, energized female characters would never be viewed through the same lens again, and actresses like Dunst and New Girl star Zooey Deschanel would see their career paths near-permanently altered, getting increasingly typecast in MPDG-ish roles.

But while many analysts and armchair pundits typically only quote the first sentence of Rabin’s condemnation of the trope when writing their own think-pieces on the subject, the full paragraph reveals something important, I feel.

Namely, Rabin didn’t invent this trope, nor did Elizabethtown: audiences were already split on the character archetype—or, to put it bluntly, Claire wasn’t the first Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s just the first character to get slapped with the label.

Manic Pixie Dream Girls vs. Mary Sues

No, the title of “first” Manic Pixie Dream Girl probably belongs to Katharine Hepburn in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby (she’s a scatterbrained heiress who livens up stuffy paleontologist Cary Grant’s humdrum life), although MPDG-like characters might have appeared far earlier. My point is that the character type has been around a long time—and audiences have always had a peculiar love-hate relationship with them.

You see, unlike the Mary Sue cliché, Manic Pixie Dream Girls are not a universally hated archetype.

Characters like Colleen Minou in Ron Koertge’s Stoner and Spaz, the angel Dulcie in Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, and the titular heroine of Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl are equal parts loved and loathed by modern readers.

Their detractors brand these fictional girls over-whimsical, one-dimensional vessels for male wish-fulfillment—but their admirers seem to like them for the exact same reasons.

How to Spot a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Your Writing

We’ve said this before at TCK Publishing: clichés aren’t always bad things. Tropes are tools and can be used effectively to craft engaging stories so long as you wield them creatively—and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is no exception.

That’s why we’re going to flip the script a little: instead of teaching you how to avoid writing MPDG characters in your stories, we’re going to give you some instruction on how to avoid the pitfalls and narrative traps that such characters inevitably drag in with them.

But to do this, we’ve got to break down just what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl means, word by word—so strap in, because class is now in session.

1. She’s “Manic”

While there are more subdued examples out there—Ramona Flowers in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novels is a sulkier version of the type—a MPDG is often characterized by her bubbly, high-energy nature… her mania, if you will.

It’s this chirpy, cheerful nature that’s meant to energize the protagonist, to get them off their tuchas and out of their funk in order to enjoy life on the MPDG’s level.

But there’s nothing truly wrong with writing a high-energy, obnoxious character, after all. Real people like that do exist, and it’s entirely realistic that your characters could ultimately be charmed by a MPDG’s unrelenting optimism after due time.

But even the peppiest characters’ energy wanes sometimes. Everybody needs downtime, and your Manic Pixie Dream Girl is no different. So while a MPDG Classic might run five-alarm hot at all times, your character must ebb and flow like any real human would—or risk falling into cliché.

2. She’s a “Pixie”

Not a literal pixie, of course, but the closest possible human equivalent the imagination can conjure.

This is where a Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s eccentricities get to shine. A character in this mold often has whimsical hobbies and eclectic tastes, a bizarre or cutesy fashion sense, or even just a collection of personality quirks that make her simultaneously exotic and endearing.

She does chalk art outside greenhouses. She bedazzles everything she owns. She listens to acoustic covers of thrash metal on giant Technicolor headphones. She sprinkles Mandarin phrases into her everyday speech—not because she’s Chinese, but because that’s fun for her.

Yes, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a ball of quirks and oddities… and it’s into this world that she drags our hapless protagonist, seducing him with her weirdness and adding color to his life just by being the loveable weirdo she is.

But again, there’s nothing abjectly wrong with this: Quirky characters are a mainstay of popular fiction. They’re fun to write about and fun to read about, and can add much-needed flavor to your story.

The problem comes when you forget to give a Manic Pixie Dream Girl a personality outside of her eccentricities. “Odd” is not a personality. “Quirky” is not a personality. “Paints with her feet” is not a personality.

Remember that you’re creating a character here, so you’ve got to do the same amount of work designing her that you would any other. Write her a character sketch. Give her flaws. Give her a backstory—and a future.

In short, give your Manic Pixie Dream Girl the same care and depth and humanity you’d infuse into any other character in your fiction.

3. She’s a “Dream Girl”

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is best defined by the role she plays in a story—and how that role centers on the story’s male lead.

If he’s lonely, she appears to keep him company. If he’s bored, she sweeps in to lead him on an adventure. If he’s seeking inspiration, she’s his muse…

…and that’s all she is.

This is, perhaps, the most outwardly problematic aspect of the trope, and the part readers seem to hate the most.

In their classic form, Manic Pixie Dream Girls seem completely devoid of a discernable “inner life,” instead existing solely to bolster the spirits of the brooding male lead. She’s called a “dream girl” because she’s essentially a fantasy—the perfect woman born of his repressed dreams and desires.

And with this comes a host of other troublesome notions: That female characters are somehow “less-than” characters. That women exist to change or fix “broken” men. That, as Laurie Penny writes in her 2013 credo against the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, women “are stories that happen to other people,” instead of heroines in their own stories.

But there’s an easy fix for this, as well. If you’re worried that you’ve written one of your characters as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl… give her a story arc.

You don’t think of yourself a side character in somebody else’s story, do you? Neither should any of your characters. Give your MPDG a goal, a quest, a dream—some inner drive that’s separate from her relationship to the male lead. Let her change and grow over the course of the narrative. Let her reveal her humanity.

Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl can still cheer up, liven up, or shake up your leading man’s life, but that shouldn’t be her only function in the narrative. If anything, it should happen by accident on her way to getting what she wants.

 

But our opinion’s not the only game in town. You’ve probably come across a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in your own reading—and you’ve probably got your own thoughts on the subject. Are MPDGs a sexist stereotype or a harmless trope? Join the debate in the comments below!

And if you’d like to learn more about developing three-dimensional characters, we’ve got just the articles you need:

 

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As a Senior Editor at TCK Publishing, Jacob Mohr relishes the opportunity to work closely with the authors of tomorrow, creating new stories and exciting possibilities—and making the world a little more awesome, one book at a time. When he’s not editing someone else’s writing, Jacob can usually be found reading Stephen King, riding rollercoasters, or crafting his own stories.

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