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What is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

She's free spirited. She's smart and interesting. She's damaged, but you can fix her.erent. She's the manic pixie dream girl...and she's in stories all the time.

Is the manic pixie dream girl anything like a real person? Should you be making an effort to erase her from your stories?

Holly Golightly

Kate Hudson's Penny Lane in "Almost Famous," Kate Winslet in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Helena Bonham Carter in "Fight Club." They're all sexy, they all have a dark side and they're all fearless when it comes to being themselves. These are classic manic pixie dream girls but if you want a true prototype of this common character trope, look to Audrey Hepburn.

Hollywood goddess Audrey Hepburn arguably played a manic pixie dream girl in nearly every movie she appeared in and perhaps even originated this story trope on screen. No one quite captures the ceaseless drive to be happy that continues to fail due to the character's own dark undertones quite like Hepburn.

The character that embodies this trope the best is undoubtedly Holly Golightly, who fought endlessly to be herself, even when she had no idea who that self really was. She was driven toward finding happiness with a desperation that seamlessly transitioned between hopefulness and hopelessness in the blink of an eye, always at odds with the darker shades of her own mind and the cruel, cruel world surrounding her.

 Supporting Act

The problem with the trope is this: since Hepburn's Holly Golightly first appeared onscreen in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (and first, in Truman Capote's book of the same name), few stories have managed to give this character any real character.

She often breezes into the life of the male protagonist the story is actually about, spreading her wings and sprinkling little bon mots in his ears, shaking up his complacent world to become an ideal, a concept of what life could be if only he was as wild and free and unguarded as this fascinating creature.

And that…is usually as far as it goes. The manic pixie dream girl more often than not is a fantasy ideal who rarely gets to have much of a backstory unless it somehow endears her even more the the male who is falling in love not with her, but with the lifestyle she represents.

She appears as a two-dimensional sketch of a human being who is only there to break the guy out of his shell. Will he win her heart? With her, it doesn't matter. She can snatch the prize away as easily as it is won…and so the romantic dance continues. The source of her darkness is rarely explored and the reality of who she is remains a mystery. The mystery is a huge part of her appeal, so why spoil it by making her a real person?

Fixing the Trope

In good writing, in good stories, there shouldn't be any two-dimensional characters. The manic pixie dream girl can start out as this mysterious and free loving entity…but she can't stay that way. Every real person has hopes and dreams, past traumas, motivations and desires, painful memories. Every character has these things, too. Or at least, they should.

Some people resemble specific character tropes…at first. But everyone is more complex than their surface. The way to beat any trope is to reveal what's behind the character's mask. The audience sees Holly's mask slip and this is why she feels real. Show what lies behind the surface of your tropes and your characters will feel real, too.

 Write What You Know?

When you tell people you are a writer, or that you want to be, you will invariably hear a piece of advice that all non-writers love to share: write what you know. 

So, what does that mean and are you doing it?

What Do You Know?

Though this little bit of advice is well-intentioned, hearing that you should write what you know is extremely discouraging.

What if you want to write about a fantasy world that exists far from planet Earth, or dive into a time that is long, long past? What if you have never worn a corset or held a sword or gone into battle behind the yoke of a starship flying across the galaxy? Does every story you write have to be set yesterday in a suburb or a city that millions of people already know? What if your character wants to eat truffles…and you've never tasted one?

Write what you know is a pretty impossible thing, when you really think about it.

But there's good news. This trite and usually unwanted phrase, "write what you know," does not mean what many people think it means. 

What Should You Write?

First, don't ever let anyone tell you what to write. While feedback is nice and most people genuinely want to help, ignore them. Every writer has to find their own voice and their own story to write. No one can really help you with that.

Second, you know what it is to be a human. You've had a crush, fallen in love, experienced heartbreak. Even if you've never had a passion-fueled affair or drove to Vegas in a convertible, you've loved TV or movie characters. You've experienced the grief of loss. You did and didn't get your way. Maybe you loved and adored a movie icon. Maybe you cried when a favorite character died.

These feelings are universal to the human experience, whether you're falling in love with someone on a screen from the safety of your couch or you're hurtling across a desert landscape in a Bronze Age chariot.

You still know love. You know grief. You know joy and pain. And for what you don't know, like how fast a chariot can move, there is research. Plenty of people have described the taste of truffles or the heat of a desert sun in painful detail.

The thing that makes stories great is not how many explosions there are, how many fantastical creatures you can shove into it, how often the main character performs a spell. It's in the human experience that the story tells.

And you definitely have experience with being a human. You know what it is to be human. So all you really need to do is write human characters. Wherever they go, whatever they eat, whoever they love, infuse them with what you know about being a human. Give them flaws. Watch them fall down. See how they overcome these struggles, how they find love, how they manage hate. Whether that story takes place in the suburbs or on an alien planet, that is a story people will like reading.

What Should You Read Next?

 Everyone has a list of books they want to read and every reader has their favorite books. But when you read a lot, eventually you'll finish this mental list. And when that happens, you might not know what to read next. One website has decided to answer this age-old question.

Discovering Books


Shepherd is all about book lists. If you want to know what to read next based on author recommendations, types of books, books by certain authors any all kinds of different categories, this is where you need to be. For example if you love books about time travel, you can find recommendations for specific books that fall into this category and even find out what makes certain books so readable.

I recently did a list for Shepherd about switching places, a theme that Deck of Lies readers know very well. Go check it out and go find out more about all the books you're going to want to read soon.

Writing 101: What the H is a Mary Sue?

The dues ex machina. Foreshadowing. Using an allegory. The Roman a clef. Some literary terms sound so cool, you want to figure out what they are just to use them. And then...there's the Mary Sue. Who is this character and how is this a literary thing?

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

Mary Sue is a name that many critics will use, often with a bit of a sneering tone. But she sounds kind of sweet and innocent, so what's so bad about her that critics always seem to dismiss this as a literary device altogether?

The Mary Sue is a specific character trope, meaning it's a frequent and somewhat static characterization that appears in fiction of all kinds, be it on stage, on screen or on the page. And despite the name, a Mary Sue character can be of either gender, both genders or have no gender at all.

So what makes a Mary Sue a Mary Sue? For starters, they are ridiculously lucky. And unlike most of us mere mortals, they emerge from the worst of situations generally unscathed. They are often very positive in nature, though this is not a requirement, and often characterized as somewhat clueless, though this isn't necessary either.

Mary Sue's big claim to fame is saving the day. When all hope is lost and the other, and generally more competent, characters are facing certain doom, Mary Sue saves the day...and always by sheer luck. Mary Sue does not succeed by being smart or solving a problem, but through some happy accident or some wild twist of fate. This victory feels unearned and this makes the payoff of the victory fall flat. This is why the Mary Sue character so annoys the critics.

A character who lucks into a solution does not typically garner a lot of admiration from those of us observing the story, because they have done nothing to earn the victory they achieve. They just got lucky. And for many, this rings false. Critics may dismiss the character entirely as lazy storytelling and they kind of have a point.

However, when done well, the Mary Sue can be a highly likable character who does serve to drive the plot forward. Mary Sues have appeared successfully in many stories. The Mary Sue trope itself comes from “Star Trek” fan fiction and Mary Sue types still frequently appear in “Trek” stories of all types. Many lead characters in stories display Mary Sue qualities.

Tropes are tropes because they do work. And sometimes, people can become a Mary Sue even in life. Pure dumb luck does happen in reality and so, it must also happen in stories.

Writing 101: So What the Heck is an Allegory?

When critics talk about books, they tend to throw around all sorts of important-sounding words and phrases, like “allegory” It’s a big, fancy word and it’s almost always said in some sort of reverential way. Many of the greatest stories are given that label, allegory. So...what the heck is it?

Defining the Allegory

 In the proper definition of the literary term, an allegory is any story, poem or another work of art that has a hidden meaning. Usually, that meaning is political, religious or somehow moral in nature. But that's just the problem with an allegory. There's a fine line between a real allegory and an interpretation.

One of the most well-known allegorical stories, they say, is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis. It’s all one big metaphor for the life and subsequent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, perhaps the most famous literary figure of them all. Critics say the book has extremely clear references to the Biblical story of Jesus of Nazareth, heralded as a savior for mankind during the Bronze Age. Critics have even said that the stone table in the first installment of "Chronicles of Narnia" represents the stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. And "Aslan's country" is, of course, Heaven.

Unless you don't want it to be. Because like any other critical review of any work of art of any type, the most significant meaning is what you get out of it...and not what all the critics and experts say about it. No one can know what hidden meanings an author hides in their work except for the author themselves. And if the author gives the readers every single answer and reveals every single hidden meaning, then what's the point of reading the book?

An allegory is just one more of many literary terms that are often used to break down and analyze books. It's just one more thing that people use to try and figure out the author's "real" meaning in any story. Only the author can decide what meanings they’re trying to put into their stories and only the readers can figure out what they find inside that story.

But it’s always good to know what the term means. That will make it easier for you as an author to roll your eyes when critics try to tell you what your stories are secretly all about.

Writing 101:Writing Comedy

Being funny is a huge asset in writing. People remember what's funny. They react. If you can make someone laugh, you can make your stories much more enjoyable. But is funny something you can learn? How did comedic writing start...and how can you master it?

Ha Ha Ha

The first stories were not funny. The earliest stories ever found were epic, lengthy tales full of tragedy and trials. The first plays ever performed, way back in ancient Greece, were tragic tales. But then one ancient Greek decided he didn't want to make people cry. He wanted to make them laugh.

Aeschylus is considered to be the father of comedy because he was the first playwright to write a comedy. It was in ancient Athens, the city famous for building the Parthenon and inventing democracy. It was classical Greece, a time of learning and enlightenment. Great philosophers and mathematicians walked the streets here. It was in this great city of the ages that Aeschylus invented the idea of comedy.

And he did it with a lot of dick jokes. It's true. In that great city of Athens where walked the greats like Plato, Euclid and Socrates, the first-ever comedies were ribald plays full of sexual innuendo with actors who walked around on stage wearing enormous strap-ons.

The ancient Athenians loved it. Aeschylus became wildly popular and his plays were soon used as inspiration by other comedy writers. In fact, dick jokes and sexual innuendo still carry the comedy genre more than 2,000 years later.

Comedy doesn't need to be sophisticated. It doesn't need to be fancy. It just needs to be funny. Aeschylus succeeded at writing comedy because he simply wrote what made him laugh. He liked ribald comedy full of sex jokes and huge fake penises. And it turns out, the very fancy and sophisticated and enlightened Athenians loved it, too.

Many writers fail at writing funny because they are trying to be funny. They spend a lot of time thinking about comedy, about what's funny, about making people laugh. You don't need to do that. Sometimes, a basic penis joke will work wonders. Don't try to be funny. Just write in a way that makes you laugh and others will, too. Whether they're laughing with you or at you, they're still laughing.

Writing comedy is only as hard as you make it. The whole point of comedy is that you shouldn't have to think too hard to get the joke. So go ahead and include that dick joke in your next story. After all, it was good enough for the ancient Greeks.

Writing 101: It's All Greek to Me

Star-crossed lovers, destined to never be together. Revenge that becomes twisted and ugly, turning back around to go the other way. The mother who kills out of jealousy and rage when her husband takes a younger woman. If you think you've come up with a plot so twisted, so dark, so gory and tragic that no one can top it, guess again. Whatever you write, the Greeks probably wrote it first.


Been There, Done That

Incest. Debauchery. Infidelity. Murder. Self-mutilation. Patricide. Matricide. Whatever it's called when you kill your own son. It's not a new show on HBO. It's your basic Greek tragedy.

Most modern storytelling was shaped by those early Greeks, who went on to inspire Shakespeare, James Joyce and countless others. The Greeks took their characters into Hell, sometimes literally, and saw them ripped apart by plot twists, sudden reveals and betrayals of all kinds.
If you're looking for new story inspiration, try turning to some of the oldest stories ever written down. All the plots have already been covered, all the twists already sprung and lots of the good ideas have already been explored. But you can still put a new twist and a modern take on all these old stories and make something completely your own. Many, many writers have turned to the old stories to create new ones. 

Writing 101: Epic Stories

The oldest recorded story is an epic tale of adventure. It's fraught with passion, death, battle and love. It's a tale of a heroic journey. And in this regard, it's pretty much like every other epic story. 

The ancients loved their epic adventure tales. Hercules, Gilgamesh, Beowulf and their ilk continue to capture the imagination and inspire new retellings of their stories. But when it comes to modern storytelling, is writing an epic an epically bad idea?

The Long, Long, Long Tale Of…

Epic tales, whether they come from the ancient Middle East or J.R.R. Tolkien, tend to have some elements in common. There is usually a hero who is often tested, and frequently. There are dragons to slay, unusually metaphorical but sometimes actual (looking at you, Beowulf). Action, adventure, romance, good versus evil...you get the idea.

But epic tales often have yet one more thing in common: they’re long. Like super long. Like the fourth Harry Potter book long. And if there’s one thing traditional publishers don’t like so much, it’s publishing super long books.

Self-publishing is a perfect way to get your epic story out there without worry about rejection from traditional publishing houses. The success of stories like the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones series proves that super long, epic tales still capture the public's imagination. There is still an appetite for these adventure tales that are packed with plot, characters, failures and triumph. 

Unleash your long tales and tell epic stories, because the modern writer has one huge advantage over all those who have come before: you can publish whatever type of story you want on your own and put your work out there for millions and even billions to read. So when it comes to publishing houses...luckily, you don't really have to worry about pleasing them at all.