YA Literary Tropes: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and Boy)

In our ongoing examination of literary tropes that are pervasive in young adult fiction we have covered “The Old Clunker I Drive“, “The I Already Know You Introduction“, and “I Have to Take Care of my Parents.”

YA Literary Tropes The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Today let us delve into one of the most pervasive tropes of our time, one that appears in literature, films, television, and maybe even our fantasies: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and Boy) (MPDG/B).  Just in case your are not familiar with this moniker, it was identified by Nathan Rabin in 2005 when describing Kirsten Dunsts’ character in his movie review of “Elizabethtown”:

“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 “MPDG/B” trope has developed and grown in this past decade and definitely includes both girls and boys.  Let’s get right to this quirky trope, which just always awakens something in me…

  • Papertowns (2009 Best Book For Young Adults) by John Green: Margo Roth Spiegelman.  Margo invades Q’s room one night dressed as a ninja and demands his help to carry out an evening of vengeful pranks–each crazier than the last.   Margo is wild, brave, and full of life; she has boyfriends, adventures, and late nights.  Q is quiet, smart, and likes to stay home (playing a video game called “Resurrection.”)  Q has always pined after Margo and after their night together something changes in him.  But the next day Margo has disappeared, leaving behind only some very confusing clues about her whereabouts.  Many have pondered Margo’s existence as the quintessential MPDG, and Green himself addresses the issue in this excerpt from his blog:

“Paper Towns is a book about–at least in part–the MPDG lie, and the danger of the lie–the way it hurts both the observer and the observed. In order to uncover Margo’s fate, Q must imagine Margo as a person, and abandon his long-held MPDG fantasies.”

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2000 Best Books for Young Adults, 2000 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2002 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)  by Stephen Chbosky: Sam and Patrick.  Charlie is an introvert; a wallflower.  Charlie does not socialize much or actually have much personality when we first meet him.  Along comes Sam (hey, is Sam a common MPDG name or what?) and Patrick who introduce Charlie to life: in the form of wild nights out, mix tapes, romance, risk, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show (which they both perform in, of course.)  Here, the Charlie/Sam/Patrick dynamic really shows what this trope means: it’s not about the MPD girl or boy, it’s about the straight character waking up.
  • Looking for Alaska (2005 Teens Top Ten, 2006 PrintzAward Winner, 2009 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2006 Best Books for Young Adults, 2006 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers) by John Green: Alaska Young.  Pudge’s life was so boring he decided he wanted to go to boarding school to explore “the great perhaps”.  And he found it: it was Alaska.  The girl’s vivaciousness, boldness, and zest for life enthralled Pudge from his first day.  Alaska is the epitome of the MPDG: she is quirky (she makes her volcanoes out of dripping wax), unpredictable (she purposely gets kicked out of class so she and Pudge can look for four leaf clovers), and beautiful.  I venture to suggest that Alaska might  be one of the only MPDGs who actually suffers from bipolar disorder (a.k.a. “manic depression.”)  Green uses smoking with literal and figurative significance here, and Alaska is like a match to Pudge; she ignites in him something explosive that was not there before.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Gus.  Augustus Waters is a prime example of the inherent romance of a Manic Pixie Dream Boy– what more could Hazel want?  Gus seems to exists only for Hazel.  To woo her (with an unfailing semi-stalker like devotion with no regard for her continued rejection), to be there when she is not feeling well, and to whisk her away on a spur of the moment-ish adventure (Amsterdam.)   Gus keeps an unlit cigarette in his mouth “ironically” (oh so quirky) and, after learning her middle name insists on always calling her “Hazel Grace.”

So, where do you come down on this issue?  Manic Pixie Dream Girls and Boys; dangerous lies like John Green states?  A common trope because repressed characters often covet in others the characteristics that they lack?  Or fun characters we all wish we could collect for their quirky powers like Pokemon cards?  Where else have you read or seen a MPDG/B?

Join in next week for another examination of a literary trope in YA: “The A-Hole Friends.”

– Tara Kehoe, currently reading Walk on Earth a Stranger (The Gold Seer #1) by Rae Carson