Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl in 2007 in a review of the film Elizabethtown. But while the term is relatively young, the type of character it describes is not.
In a nutshell, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is (usually) a young woman who is vivacious, quirky, and totally “not like other girls.” She has no depth of character or goals of her own; she exists solely to bring excitement into the life of the main character, who is usually male and painfully average. While they might not always end up together in the end, rest assured the Manic Pixie Dream Girl will have changed our hero for the better, and his life is now enriched and full of purpose for having known her.
Author Lenore Appelhans’s new YA novel The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project (out March 5, 2019 from Minneapolis publishing imprint Carolrhoda Lab) takes a look at this trope and digs deep into what makes it so problematic. Riley, a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, lives in TropeTown, a magical place where literary devices and stock characters live when they’re not being used in stories. Riley has a case of Disney Princess Syndrome, feeling like there’s more to life than being used as a tool to further the development of main characters. The Council of TropeTown sends him to group therapy to change his thinking, because freethinking tropes pose a danger to the state of TropeTown. It’s not long after starting therapy that Riley and his fellow Manic Pixies learn that something deeply sinister is going on, and it’s up to them and all their quirky personalities to prove that there’s more to them than meets the eye—or risk being retired from literature forever.
As a writer myself, I love deconstructing and analyzing tropes. TV Tropes is my Internet kryptonite; I can spend hours reading articles about movies I’ve watched and the tropes they use. When I learned that this book was centered on the Manic Pixie archetype in particular, I knew I had to check it out. I’m definitely not a fan of the trope when it’s played straight, because, as Appelhans points out in the book, it’s a very sexist and damaging one to use. Female characters should not exist solely to further male development—and, as in Riley’s case, male characters shouldn’t exist solely to further female development. He knows this, and going against what authors want him to do is how he ends up in trouble in the first place.
Riley’s situation reminded me a lot of Jodi Picoult’s Between the Lines, in which the characters in a fairy tale have lives outside of the story when their book is closed. Oliver, the prince in one tale, longs to leave the confines of the pages and live in the real world, where he has free will and doesn’t have to relive the same story over and over. While Riley is recruited by authors for different projects rather than having to repeat the same story, he, too, feels very trapped in his existence, and he makes it clear he envies those who live in Reader World. TropeTown may be a safe place to live, but he’d rather live his life for himself. I’m always a fan of stories that explore what characters do when their books are not being read, because it allows authors to really delve into the mechanics of what makes a story and gives characters that added depth of human emotions.
While it’s true that Riley and his friends are Manic Pixies and they have weird quirks—Mandy, in particular, has fortune cookies and a ukulele stashed in her bag for emergencies—it’s very clear they’re restless with their roles and want to be seen as autonomous individuals, rather than regressive stereotypes. I couldn’t help but smile at their over-the-top behavior, but I also rooted for them to prove they weren’t just defined by their quirks. They have problems going on in their personal lives, such as relationship issues and and identity crises. The tone of the book never strays too far from lighthearted, but Appelhans still makes sure to give her characters the depth they so desperately crave from their authors.
Appelhans alludes to the fact that Manic Pixies are still present in the YA genre, and she makes several references to fellow real-life authors’ works. One of the oldest Manic Pixies, Nebraska, is a clear allusion to John Green’s first novel, Looking for Alaska. Riley mentions that one of his books takes place in Amsterdam, where he played a boy with cancer—a nod to another of Green’s books, the wildly popular The Fault in Our Stars. Little touches like this had me laughing out loud, especially since Green has been criticized for writing Manic Pixie Dream Girls into his novels (despite him making the claim he subverts the trope). Ironically, Appelhans has Riley fall prey to his own trope over the course of the story—he falls in love at first sight with a fellow Manic Pixie named Zelda, and it’s not until she calls him out on it that he realizes he’s reduced her to nothing more than a concept. She comes off as flighty and “inconsistent,” as her character sheet states, but in reality she’s insecure and deeply troubled by the prospect of being retired. Giving Zelda her own troubles and making Riley realize he’s wrong about her is a subversion in and of itself, but an extra layer is added because they’re both incarnations of the same trope.
Appelhans is clearly aware of the medium she’s writing in, and she doesn’t just subvert the tropes she uses for the fun of it—she discusses the more harmful ones and explains why they’re problematic, playing devil’s advocate and making the argument that tropes should be given a chance to grow and evolve over time. She also plays with familiar archetypes and gives them new spins, and it’s so much fun to see how vibrant and detailed the world she’s created is. There’s even a map of TropeTown included with the book that shows where everything is in the story, which I loved poring over. I had a blast getting to know the ins and outs of Riley’s life, and while I do wish a sequel were guaranteed, I’m perfectly satisfied with the story on its own. This book is smart and a joy to read, and I won’t soon forget Riley or his adoration of all things pie.
The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is out March 5, 2019. It’s definitely a title I’m going to reread again and again.