literary tropes

Dangerous Artifacts and the Characters Who Love Them

Average has a gift for neutralizing dangerous artifacts.
When it comes to dangerous artifacts in a fictional setting, every writer faces at least two dilemmas:

  1. Why does everyone want this thing?
  2. Why is the main character the most appropriate to deal with it?

(I mean, you can ignore those two issues, but then you end up with a confirmed MacGuffin and a contrived plot. If that’s your cup o’ tea, more power to you.)

Issue #1: The Cause for Desire

The obsession with dangerous artifacts usually boils down to one word: power. “Dangerous artifacts” are dangerous because they grant or disrupt power and thereby throw off the balance of the universe. Consider:

  • The One Ring (LOTR)
  • The Elder Wand (HP)
  • The Amulet of Samarkand (Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy)
  • The Orb of Aldur (Eddings’s Belgariad)
  • The Godstone (Carson’s Fire and Thorns)
  • Every dragon egg and enchanted sword across the fantasy spectrum

Each is a singular item that amplifies its user into a new class of abilities. Hence, the bad guys want the power, and the good guys (generally) want to keep it hidden. Or, either side might want to destroy it, depending on how its powers affect them.

And then there’s that one poor sap who stumbles across it unwittingly.

Issue #2: “Why Me?”

When a dangerous artifact lies at the center of a crisis, the story inevitably needs someone to deal with it.

Enter the Chosen One.

I’ve encountered a lot of critique lately about how books—and fantasy epics in particular—keep focusing on this motif of a Chosen One. The snarkier critics point to it almost with a sneer.

“Oh, look! Another story about a Chosen One! How original!”

While I agree that the motif can be too heavy-handed, stories by their very nature must center on unique individuals. Protagonists have to measure up to their conflicts, or else they’d get eliminated in the first three chapters. And then what was the point?

(Or you can take away the conflict, but then we’re left wandering the hills with Wordsworth. Again, what’s the point?)

In a sense, every protagonist is a Chosen One, because the author chooses to tell their story.

So, answer #1 to the question of “Why this protagonist?” is simply “Because it had to be someone.”

A pretty crummy answer by itself. Which is why there must be something more.

That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

Some characters merit their Chosen One status because they are literally chosen by God, prophecy, or the villain himself to rise up against the conflict:

  • Princess Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza (chosen by God)
  • Taran of Caer Dallben (chosen by prophecy)
  • Harry Potter (chosen by prophecy and/or Voldemort)

Others merit it because of their heritage, lineage, or inborn talent:

  • Frodo Baggins (mild-mannered hobbit = less susceptible to the Ring)
  • Arthur Pendragon (son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, daughter of a Welsh king)
  • Nathanial/John Mandrake (natural-born magician with all the advantages therein)

In some rare cases, the protagonist appears to assume their role by happenstance, but beware that condition. “Chance” almost always ties into fate.

Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy it.

A Final Observation on Dangerous Artifacts

While jewelry and weapons receive favored status, the truly innovative artifacts fall outside these categories. For example, Lloyd Alexander’s black cauldron grants its owner the means to an immortal army and his oracular pig allows glimpses into the future. They’re both brilliant artifacts, because no one expects anything so grand from cookware and livestock.

(And yes, h/t to the Mabinogion for that innovation. Source material matters, my friends.)

Plot Devices and Other Narrative Thickeners

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We’ve all been there. One minute you’re minding your own business, and the next, a dangerous and coveted plot device tumbles into your hands. And then it’s off to Mt. Doom or Alderaan or the Marshes of Morva to figure out just what to do with the blasted thing.

Much to your chagrin.

The Inherent Joys of Plot Devices

But everyone loves plot devices, and for good reason. Without them, literature would consist entirely of people remarking on their surroundings while they aimlessly wander the countryside.

Also known as the Collected Works of William Wordsworth.

(Sorry, not sorry.)

Plot devices come in many shapes and sizes. They trigger the story arc and drive it forward. The best of them hold the key to solving everything. They are the bread and butter of every writer worth his snuff.

(Yes, I’m giving you the side-eye, Wordsworth. You know what you did.)

But, of course, not all plot devices are created equal.

The Dreaded MacGuffin

Although Alfred Hitchcock gets credit for the term (spelled “MacGuffin” or “McGuffin,” depending on your preference), the concept of the MacGuffin existed before he put that term to use. It refers to an object that everybody in the story wants but that has no special attribute beyond that.

Classic examples abound.

  • The Golden Fleece? MacGuffin
  • Helen of Troy? MacGuffin
  • The Holy Grail? MacGuffin

All of these items have the same draw for those who seek them: “There’s this thing, see? And everyone’s after it, but we’re going to get it.”

*cue prematurely triumphant laughter*

MacGuffins typically cause more trouble than they’re worth, and they have no real benefits beyond some vague blessing or prestige that comes with ownership. Thus their narrative value lies only in how well they can drive an interesting plot.

(I’d give first place in this category to Helen of Troy, but the Apple of Discord is the instigating MacGuffin there. I mean, really? “Look, I need that piece of gold produce. Everyone knows that imitation-fruit trophies are the highest authority in determining one’s worth and value.”)

As with any trope, the application governs its merit. “MacGuffin” is more of a fun term than a derogatory one. Some MacGuffins are superfluous, but others are downright essential.

The Cellini Venus in How to Steal a Million (1966), for example, does nothing and is literally worth nothing, but it makes for a superbly entertaining plot.

Heist and mystery story lines frequently rely on MacGuffins to spur their heroes. You don’t expect a box of jewels or a priceless Van Gogh to have properties beyond “expensive” and “coveted.”

Quests and epics, on the other hand, can wade into forbidden territory. Long story short, if you introduce an artifact into your fantasy adventure, it better do something more than look pretty.

Further MacGuffin Reading

For more examples of MacGuffins, TvTropes.org provides an extensive list, including dozens of trope variations. Do you have a favorite? Leave it in the comments!

Finding the Easy Way Out

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Anticlimactic plot twist? Guilty as charged!

The Author-Audience Contract

An unwritten contract exists between every author and their audience. The author promises to take the audience somewhere new—to greater knowledge or fantastic lands—and the audience promises to go along for the ride. The lion’s share of the work lies on the author’s side. If they fail to engage with cunning word-craft, the audience has every right to abandon ship or—worse—to remain on board and snark through the whole trip.

Which can be grossly entertaining, I’ll be the first to admit. (MST3K, anyone? Coming soon to a Netflix near you!)

Generally, though, it’s never the author’s goal to inspire rampant mockery. The author-audience relationship is meant to be cooperative: author provides story, audience is entertained. One of these days I’m going to write a whole series of posts on the linguistic principle of cooperation. For now, suffice it to say that this cooperative relationship involves a delicate balancing act on the author’s part.

The savvy reader looks at every book as a puzzle to decipher. The savvy author looks at every reader as a customer to entertain. And that is where plot twists come into play.

The Garden Path

Plot twists, plainly defined, are the punchline to a joke you didn’t know you were being told. Sometimes the joke isn’t at all funny. Sometimes it’s horrific or heart-wrenching. The punchline catches you off-guard and sends you reeling. That moment of enlightenment, of surprise and delight or despair is the ambrosia sought after by author and audience alike.

We sometimes refer to authors adept at plot twists as “leading [their audience] down the garden path.” The audience, in large part, signs up for this deception too, and if they don’t receive it, they can feel cheated in the end.

Which leads us to our worst offender…

Deus ex Machina

Literally “God from the Machine,” this infamous plot device is the cheapest ploy on the block. It refers to a convention in Ancient Greek plays where the characters would become so entangled in their dire and twisted circumstances that their only way out was through divine intervention in the form of a god lowered onto the stage via crane.

Modern versions don’t typically involve deities or pulley systems. They might lean on happenstance or good fortune that drops out of the blue to save the day. Sometimes they are simply a conflict too easily resolved: a villain that isn’t as bad as they seem, a “catastrophe” with minimal impact, or the ever-popular “it was all a dream” cop-out.

These and their ilk are the literary equivalents of expecting a decadent truffle and biting into a stale marshmallow instead.

But sometimes, from the author’s perspective, deus ex machina is oh-so-tempting. Especially in that first draft stage when you get to the point where you just want to set the whole manuscript on fire and walk away.

*cough*

It’s hard work to embroil one’s characters in turmoil and ruin. It’s harder work to get them believably back out again. For the sake of the author-audience relationship, though, plotting is always time well spent.

***

PS – Happy Birthday to Average Everygirl. Today marks a year from her Average debut, and what a long way she’s come.

 

The Most Potent of Good-luck Charms

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Once upon a time, fictional dogs didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of surviving to the end of the story. Old YellerBristle Face, and Where the Red Fern Grows taught generations of children to weep in trauma.

Then, presumably, those children grew up and took over the entertainment industry. The canine body count had reached critical mass and the pendulum swung the opposite direction.

Particularly where disaster movies were concerned.

The ’90s boasted a series of apocalyptic films, many of them coming in thematic pairs, and most if not all of them hosting a common plot thread:

  • Volcano (1997): The dog lives.
  • Dante’s Peak (1997): The dog lives.
  • Armageddon (1998): The dog lives.

Yes, humans are dropping like flies and all mayhem abounds, but those furry, rambunctious pets somehow manage to avoid any serious injury.

Independence Day (1996) features the now-infamous scene of the family dog leaping into a concrete shelter mere seconds before a raging wall of fire sweeps past. The feel-good moment belies its context. Millions of people have just been incinerated off screen, but the audience is supposed to cheer for a dog.

(There’s also the physics-defying politeness of the flames not to flood that sheltered nook and barbecue its occupants. So kind of the inferno to magically pass by, as though fire traveling forcefully on air currents wouldn’t press into every opening it encounters.)

But, I’ll admit, the first time I saw the film, I did cheer. No one wants a fictional dog to die. (Unless it’s Cujo, I mean.)

One of the more egregious example of The Dog that Lives trope appears in the 1996 disaster flick Daylight. A group of people seek to escape a collapsed traffic tunnel beneath a river, their path immersed in darkness and slowly rising waters. The dog, which belongs to the token elderly couple of the ensemble, doesn’t make it through one of the chambers. Grandma is despondent. She can’t go on. She gives up and dies.

And the freaking dog shows up again, like, five minutes later, to make a final escape.

Hooray! Fido’s alive!

Granted, the owner who loved him so much is floating lifeless in the darkened depths below, but that’s not important. And all those people who croaked in the initial disaster and along the way, well, they’re just faceless casualties. And yeah, his appearance caused the protagonist to (stupidly) jump back into the waters to save him and subsequently get trapped again and have to find another way out.

But it was totes worth it, m’kay?

For the record, I love animals. Dogs are among the purest, most loving creatures on the earth.

But when push comes to shove in a disaster story line, they take second tier on my list of priorities. When creators bend over backwards to let the dog live while simultaneously slaughtering human characters by the dozens, I’m out.

***

PS – For a comical take on the Ill-Fated Dog trope, try No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman.

The Principle of Expendable Virtue

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We’ve all seen it: two people of casual acquaintance thrown into a story line that involves instant death bearing down upon them. And suddenly, in the midst of calamity, voila! A lurrrve subplot is born!

Sure, they might grapple with a token moral dilemma—”Should we? Should we not?”—but inevitably, the qualms recede as the end draws nigh. Principles aren’t that important, you guys.

This phenomenon of expendable virtue can crop up in pretty much any impending-death scenario, but the cataclysmic doomsday genre allows it to flourish. It encourages its characters to participate in an angst-filled battle against regret and to arrive upon its “seize the day” solution.

Which is ironic, because impromptu hook-ups are more often a cause of regret rather than a means of avoiding it. But I digress.

I have issues with this subplot for several reasons, three of which I’ll here discuss.

1. It illustrates selfishness.

I get the whole “unfulfilled love” vein of regrets, but intimacy born of impulse is the opposite of love. It’s a self-serving act, and too often it comes with an “anyone will do” undertone. Person A solicits Person B to satisfy their own desires. “But Person A has always secretly loved Person B,” you might contend.

Yeah, sorry. It still rings hollow. It would hold a lot more weight for me if Person A only wanted to spend time with Person B and wasn’t angling for some action, but that’s rarely the case.

2. Characters in this subplot can come across as predatory.

This is particularly true when one of the parties involved is at all reluctant. One partner pressuring the other for intimacy creates an unequal power balance, and using impending doom as a means of coercion is a special brand of vile.

That’s something captors do to hostages. It’s what abusers do to their victims. It’s a mind game. “You don’t want to have these consequences, do you? You should obey me.”

Yuck.

3. It’s fundamentally godless.

This one is probably fine for readers with atheist or agnostic leanings. I don’t fit in that category, but I get the logic. If death is certain and there’s nothing beyond, why not engage in behavior that might otherwise be reckless or ill-advised?

Except that there’s a whole list of behaviors we should never engage in under any circumstances: arson, murder, rape, molestation, animal cruelty, and so forth. And no, I’m not drawing a parallel between consensual sex and criminal activity, but when the argument boils down to, “Let’s do this because there will be no consequences,” the line between right and wrong no longer exists. Why shouldn’t a character go on a murder spree if there won’t be any consequences?

(Incidentally, that could be a fascinating subplot for a doomsday story, and a heck of a lot more original than the Desperate Awkward Love trope.)

The moral dilemma variation to this subplot only enhances the scenario’s inherent godlessness: in the face of impending destruction, characters cast aside life-long beliefs and embrace the philosophy of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”—a philosophy that only works if there’s no final reckoning in the Great Beyond.

Frankly, abandonment of faith and principles is the last thing I want to see in any character’s closing hours. That’s depressing, even more so than an Imminent Fiery Death.

I’d much rather see kindness, hope, encouragement, people being decent to one another, reconnecting with family, mending fences. A million potential regrets would loom over someone’s head in a doomsday scenario, but love—true, lasting love for family and dearest friends—dominates that list.

Our culture is obsessed with romance, though, and spur-of-the-moment intimacy marks the apex of that ideal. So, we get hackneyed subplots about gangly teens trying to fulfill their warped sense of love, validation, and lost adulthood instead.

Yay.

*gags*

Principles are not meant to be disposable. They’re supposed to remain constant regardless of external circumstances. The whole “You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?” line of persuasion should lead to one obvious answer: “Why not? That’s the way I lived.”

But there’s no drama in that, only dignity—which is one of the most underrated virtues of all.

 

Traits of the Truly Worthy

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Doomsday catalysts come in many flavors: asteroids, volcanoes, earthquakes, alien invasions, global warming, global thermonuclear war, and so forth. These cataclysmic events project such an epic scale of destruction that they threaten the existence of all life on earth.

If they legitimately occur, that is.

The asteroid holds a special place in this genre. Referred to in some circles as the Sweet Meteor O’Death (or SMOD, colloquially), it reigns as the ultimate doomsday trigger because A) there’s precedent (sorry, dinosaurs!), B) its advent is beyond human control (thanks, physics!), and C) it leaves enough time between discovery and impact to layer drama thicker than the icing on Sandra Lee’s infamous Christmas cake (oh, the sugary suspense!).

This plot device lends well to a division of story lines: one each for the government character, the scientist, and the Ordinary Joe at minimum. And when it’s introduced, you can pretty much bet there will be a Noah’s Ark involved, because governments habitually sink tons of money into prepping for doomsday survival.

The Noah’s Ark can be a space ship or an underground bunker. Regardless of its form, it boasts three major features:

  1. Safety and survival from the extinction-level destruction
  2. A scarcity of space when compared with the population as a whole
  3. A scarcity of resources to last through the full duration of the calamity

Which brings to another type of division within this genre: the Elites vs. the Non-elites.

Whenever a Noah’s Ark comes into play, characters get weighed on a scale of worthiness to enter. The government types—usually the President of the United States or some other high-ranking super-elite official—have rubber-stamped access to the Ark. The scientist types are the best in their field (of course), and thus get a pass to the Ark but possibly struggle with the ethical dilemma of whether to retreat to safety or to continue fighting against the planet’s impending doom because they’re so very noble.

And the Ordinary Joes? They’re toast. But they will have an angst-filled, poignant struggle, oozing with pathos to drive home to the audience the desperation of their circumstances. And sometimes they even win against the cataclysmic force that threatens their demise (though not without sacrifice, natch).

Non-elite though the Ordinary Joes may be on the social scale, on the narrative one, they are gold.

From a literary standpoint, this second division of Elites vs. Non-elites is more important than the first. The protagonist of every story is, by default, a Narrative Elite. Their perspective is more important to tell than the millions of people around them, than the scores that they interact with throughout the story’s progress. They are special, even if they are only “ordinary”—and often because they are only “ordinary.”

While their also-ordinary peers picket the entrance to the Noah’s Ark or present faces of miserable martyrdom, the Ordinary Joes pull up their bootstraps and face their calamities head on. They act with full intent to triumph or to die trying. They present an ideal that invokes the reader’s admiration and empathy.

Thus, the Ordinary Joe is perhaps the most important character in a doomsday story. We, the ordinary audience, are each the hero of our own life. The Ordinary Joe provides an avatar, a window for where we might aim to fall if such a cataclysm ever should occur.

They are, in short, not ordinary at all.

(But they’re still not elite enough to pass into safety uncontested. Haha.)

Taking the Low Road to Power

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Politics is a touchy subject, I know. I think we can all agree, however, that it habitually draws the Worst Possible candidates into its jaws. (We may not agree on who those Worst Possibles are, but let’s sweep that detail under the rug, shall we? *wink*) The Worst Possibles always want power, and politics is a nexus thereof.

Peanut-butter, meet your jelly.

The diversity of thought in democratic-minded countries allows each and every one of us to feel like these Worst Possibles succeed far too often in the political sphere. We root for underdog challengers, but deep down we know the narrative is 98% set in stone.

So, we turn to fiction for solace.

Whenever an election story line shows up—and I’m including Homecoming/Prom-type scenarios here as well—the reader automatically knows who the shoe-in is, who the underdog is, and which one of these, in a perfect world, would have absolutely no chance of winning.

(Hint: It’s usually not the underdog.)

It goes something like this:

Über-popular, awful Person A is a candidate for some office, contest, or award. Normal, kindly Person B gets nominated as well. Ugly politics ensue, wherein Person B must choose either to take the high road or to get down and dirty in the mud. In the end, whether A or B wins, the contest outcome is less important than the lessons learned along the way.

The audience can see at the outset that Person A is horrible, but the fictional society around Person A apparently cannot, which creates dramatic tension. On the other hand, the audience knows at the start that Person B is better and more deserving of the honor, but the fictional society has little to no clue that Person B even exists.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this narrative (and it certainly has its real-life equivalents), you wanna know the story I’d like to read instead?

Über-popular, kindly Person A is a candidate for some office, contest, or award. Normal, awful Person B gets into the race as well. Person B uses every underhanded, dirty tactic in the book—including invoking the Awful Popular vs. Kindly Underdog narrative described above—to unseat Person A from their social throne.

I don’t even care how the contest ends. Person A, being kindly, would exhibit grace regardless of the outcome. Person B, being awful, would seethe with resentment because of it (presuming there is no Convenient Reformation™ that occurs). The plot could twist in a tragic or comedic bent, depending on the author’s will.

Most importantly (for me), the focus of the story would shift from the contest to the characters. Does adversity corrupt or purify Person A? Does manipulation drive Person B to remorse or ruthlessness?

The external rivalry, dramatic as it may be, holds less interest than the spectrum of possible internal conflicts. Politics at its very best is not loud opinions and attention-hogging ads. It’s that quiet voice that whispers, “Is this who I really am? Is it who I really want to be?”

And, quizzically, it’s also the social instinct that smothers that voice to go with the flow. There’s always room for one more on the bandwagon.

The Consequence of Seeing Red

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The social narrative for redheads is a double-edged sword, with the lovable, quirky, positive image juxtaposed against a much darker perception.

In ages past, red hair had a direct association with witchcraft and the occult. It served as evidence of Satanic ties, rumored to be favored by the devil himself. Witch hunters kept watch for fiery locks, and were advised to consider them an outward sign of evil hearts.

I heard, once upon a time, that for England at least, this came because redheads were prevalent among the Celtic tribes: the Irish, Scottish, Cornish, and Welsh. The Irish in particular, removed on their island and resistant to British rule, maintained close ties with their pagan folklore and roots, with the “other-izing” effect that they were perceived as more attuned to supernatural elements.

This belief that red hair marked a witch or other supernatural being was not restricted only to the British Isles, however, but cropped up across Northern Europe. This negative narrative echoes into present day, where red hair can yet signal a social outlier.

The “redheaded stepchild” motif plays into this narrative, as does the bullying that some redheads suffer as a result of their hair color. “Better dead than red,” the saying goes, and many a redhead has sloughed it off as best they could.

Infamously, South Park dedicated an episode to “gingers,” which spawned the ongoing meme that redheads are soulless, as well as inspiring a “Kick-a-Ginger Day” observance among some over-zealous middle-schoolers. And, of course, the Internet is rife with such negative stereotypes.

Redheads are the perpetual outcast, the default whipping boy for the rest of society—or society of European descent, at least. I would say it’s astonishing that a simple physical characteristic could spawn such irrational patterns of thought and behavior, but this seems to be the general modus operandi for much of the human race. Redheads are not the first, nor are they the most abused on the spectrum of victims.

Ginger Pride, too, is alive and well. (As it should be, because we’re awesome.)

For authors who create redheaded characters, whether to fill the role of protagonist or antagonist, the many social concerns of redheads must come into play, at least in the character development stage. Does the society of your story view red hair as a positive feature? A negative one? Is it noted at all? How will that perception shape your character’s worldview? (And believe me, it will.)

Most importantly, is the red hair simply one of your character’s features or is it a full-blown personality trait?

If it’s the latter, you’re playing into a stereotype. Proceed with caution.

Secrets of a Rare Breed

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Blog articles abound on redhead statistics: anywhere from 1-4% of the world’s population has this coloration, it’s more prevalent in Northern European countries (from the British Isles over to Russia), and it’s a recessive trait caused by a mutation of the MC1R gene, so it can skip generations.

A few years back, a piece even circulated about how redheads are going extinct. (That was false, by the way.)

I could parrot these articles and give you lots of readily accessible redhead facts. Instead, I’m going to discuss a less-acknowledged coppertop attribute.

To start: natural redheads can usually spot a dye job a mile away. We’re conditioned to see our hair as part of our identity, and we know when someone’s trying to break into the club.

A common phrase among redheads: “This color doesn’t come from a bottle.” For clarification on why this statement is so true, I spoke with Rashelle du Pont, hair stylist extraordinaire. Rashelle, a fellow redhead, is an artist when it comes to hair color. She gets to work with a lot of redheads from young to old, with every tone from strawberry-blond to dark auburn, and she’s an expert at matching the natural color to a shade.

(She’s also my cousin. Have I mentioned that my maternal relatives consider red hair to be a badge of honor and evidence of divine favor? They do, and of course it is.)

According to Rashelle, the spectrum of red hair covers more than just the light-to-dark continuum. Most people think of the fiery red tones when they hear the word “redhead,” but copper, auburn, and ginger all have their place in this color family. What’s more, red hair also incorporates both a warm and a cool spectrum of color.

And most bottle-jobs skew too far to the warm side. When your Lucille Balls and Emma Stones of the world sport that vibrant shade of red that leaps off the screen and looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true. (Both Lucille and Emma were/are natural blondes.)

The cool-toned reds get easily overlooked, but this is the link that your bottle-reds are missing. Rashelle’s custom formula for “the perfect auburn” involves a 50/50 mixture of copper (warm) and what she terms an “ashy bluish-green” (cool). And, from the sounds of it, that’s an easy combo. She mixes 4-5 colors to match some shades of red.

What can I say? Redheads are naturally complex.

As you can probably imagine, this warm/cool combo throws all the fashion color theories out the window, but those theories were created for blondes and brunettes anyway. Redheads almost need their own line of makeup and their own color palette for clothes. However, as only ~2% of the population suffers from this lack, we make do with what we have.

I will admit, though, that my world opened up the day my Great-Aunt Elise (also a hair stylist) disclosed, “Honey, you’re a blue-red, not an orange-red.” All my life up until then, I’d been told that my hair color was warm, which left me to wonder why I looked so horrible in warm-colored clothes.

These days I like to toy with the cool/warm ambiguity. I can tip my green eyes over to blue with the right makeup. I’ve found the perfect shade of orange I can wear (more in the copper spectrum, naturally). I know which colors will wash me out and which ones will turn me pink.

And the cardinal rule? When in doubt, wear black.

(Red hair really should come with an owner’s manual.)

Now, you may be thinking, “But Kate, blondes and brunettes have this warm/cool spectrum as well.” And of course they do. But what does someone say when they’re a warm blonde or a warm brunette?

“Hey, I have some red in my hair.”

Yeah. Sure you do. Welcome to the club.

Cue the Lovable, Quirky Hijinks

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I was nine years old when Disney first released The Little Mermaid. It had a tremendous impact on me.

Strawberry Shortcake, Little Orphan Annie, Raggedy Ann: these were my people. But they were all children, so they were for babies. Insofar as “adults” were concerned, Barbie  and Aurora were blondes, Snow White had black hair, and Cinderella, a strawberry blonde in the movie, was rendered blonde everywhere else, as though her red hair was a shameful secret to sweep under the rug.

(“Shh! Don’t mention the red hair!”)

Prior to The Little Mermaid, the only significant openly redheaded adult character I had encountered was Jessica Rabbit, from Who Framed Roger Rabbit the previous year. And, as I’ve previously discussed, my parents were less than enthused when I latched onto her as a role model.

So along came Ariel (who was hardly an adult, but to a nine-year-old, sixteen is ancient). She was redheaded, she was grown up, and she was “mine.” All redheaded characters were “mine,” up until I started noticing a pattern in the set.

Spunky Ariel challenged her father’s rule and struck her own path. Sultry Jessica Rabbit sashayed her way to whatever she wanted. Quirky Strawberry, Annie, and Ann used their winsome smiles to endear themselves to everyone. But it wasn’t simply their character. The charm was in the hair.

Red hair is a literary hallmark. Like a beacon on a hill, it instantly alerts the audience, “Hey! This character is different and unique and living outside the box!”

Some literary encounters:

  • Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren: Pippi belongs in the same category as Strawberry, Annie, and Ann, except that she’s “quirky” on steroids. Those braids! Those freckles! That name! What’s Pippi up to now? D’aww, there are sure to be some hilarious hijinks from the lovable, quirky redhead.
  • Caddie Woodlawn, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink: It’s another lovable, quirky redhead! And she’s a tomboy, too! What’s that quirky Caddie up to today? Off riding horses or playing with Indians? D’aww, there are sure to be some hilarious hij—hang on. Didn’t I already do this bit?
  • Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: Look! It’s another precocious, fanciful, lovable redhead! And the hijinks! Of course! Anne wouldn’t have been nearly as precocious or fanciful or lovable as a dirty-blonde or a brunette, amirite? Half of her character is built from her hair color. And she hates it. Like, she constantly laments having red hair, to the extent that I started to question my worldview. Was I supposed to hate my hair too?
  • Aerin, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley: Say goodbye to quirks and hijinks. This novel broadened my understanding of the negative side of red hair. Aerin, the witchwoman’s daughter, an outcast from her dark-haired countrymen, faces isolation from her own family because of her fiery locks. She’s actually not quirky. She’s also not out-of-the-box by choice. She’s been shoved out because she doesn’t belong. So, breath of fresh air and depressing all at the same time. Hooray…?
  • The Weasley Family, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling: Oh, look! We’re magic and could probably build ourselves a castle with magic, but we’re a whole lovable family of super-quirky redheads, so we’re going to live in a super-quirky shambles of a shack that we’ll call The Burrow. It’s so quirky! Did we mention that we all have red hair? And that we’re quirky?

Okay, so I might have already reached my disillusionment stage by the time I encountered Harry Potter. I know that people absolutely love the Weasleys, and I probably would have loved them too if they were a family of blonds or brunets, or a mixture of hair colors. But the whole “quirky gingers” vibe put me off because it’s already flippin’ everywhere. And since the only other redhead in the series (if I recall correctly) was Lily Potter—who is dead on Page 1—as a redhead, I found the “lovable, quirky outcasts” just a bit too stereotypical.

Oh, but that’s just one of my quirks, I suppose. It came with the hair color.

(I guess the “lovable” trait takes some actual work, haha.)