On the Destruction of Manic Pixie Dream Girls

by John Green on November 7, 2008

I don’t think any of this constitutes Paper Towns spoilers, but still, those looking to avoid spoilers might not want to read it.

In comments, anonymous writes: “John, I loved Paper Towns, but alas, Margo is a typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” (The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was coined by the brilliant Nathan Rabin of the Onion, with whom I am slightly acquainted.)

In response, let me begin by noting that the author of a novel is not synonymous with its narrator. First-person narration in a novel is inherently unreliable; the moment we notice the narrator’s name is different from the author’s name, we know that 1. the narrator is a creation of the author, and therefore that 2. the author knows more about the story than the narrator does.

So it is a mistake to presume that the narrator’s perspective always reflects what a novel believes is capital-t True. One of the challenges of any first-person narrative is finding ways to point out the narrator’s observational insufficiencies without abandoning his/her perspective.

Margo is certainly presented by Q as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the beginning of PT. Absolutely. But that only acknowledges that some boys believe in Manic Pixie Dream Girls; it doesn’t argue that MPDGs actually exist, or that Margo is one. (The distinction is, I would argue, hugely important. It’s the difference between saying, “Some people believe Sarah Palin would be a good President,” and saying, “Sarah Palin would be a good President.”) 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.

(I should add, by the way, that the Manic Pixie Dream Human is not a girl-specific problem; I can offer up any number of romanticized too-beautiful-for-this-world male romantic leads in contemporary novels, even very good ones.)

So anyway, if someone finishes Paper Towns believing in the MPDG, or if the novel in the end seems to further the bullshit myth of the MPDG, then PT is a failure, at least on that front. (The novel is fighting other battles, too, of course, but a lot of the imagery–the leaves and the whale and the mirrors and the hair always in everyone’s face–does seek to hammer home this point that we must have faith that other people are, in fact, people.)

I actually think the MPDG criticism is more fairly leveled against a novel like, say, Looking for Alaska–in which the narrator, by nature of his circumstances, is never able to see the other as fully human. Some people say the books are similar; I think they are basically opposites, both plotwise and thematically. (What they have in common–smart teenagers who talk fast and do stupid shit–is, frankly, shared by every novel about adolescence I like, from Huck Finn to The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks.)

Of course, I might be wrong about any/all of this. Discussion to continue in comments!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Matthew Hutson January 30, 2013 at 3:40 am

Hello there. I just wanted to say that I’ve finally broken down and started to read your books. I’ve been watching your YouTube videos on History, Science, and Literature for a while now, but I say I “broke-down” on reading your books because I have been avoiding them since I first heard the name “John Green” one too many times for my comfort.

I just picked up Paper Towns from my university library, and I’m enjoying it so far. My friend and I were discussing what I’d read so far, and I commented on the fact that I found Margo to be annoying due to her MPDG characterization. Of course, my friend being a true hipster, automatically gave me an over-dramatic “It’s intentional, gosh.” As if I’m an idiot who has only learned to read recently. I noted that you were using an unreliable narrator as I read, he thought that that skill was beyond me, apparently. I then made the argument that, even if your characterization is intentional and clever, it doesn’t make her initial appearance any less annoying. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I figured she would evolve, so to speak, into more. I compared your characterization to Twain’s use of the N-word throughout “Huck Finn” (ironic, since you mention it above). And also to the hypothetical “just because a painting is intentionally ugly, it doesn’t make it less ugly, it just makes it ugly-with style.”

I really had no point in typing this up to you, but I saw you had a comments section and though ‘What the hell, might as well.”

Yours Truly, or possibly Deceitfully,


Amanda Pavani May 5, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Hi there John. I actually JUST finished reading Paper Towns, after having read Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Starts and An Abundance of Katherines.

When I started reading the book, I was a little disapointed, to be honest. I saw the trope right away, and thought I might not finish it because of it. And I’m glad I did finish the book. The final conversation between Quentin and Margo is deeply interesting and profound. I initially thought, ‘oh well, a teenage couple could never think in such a mature and subjective way’, but then I changed it to, ‘you know, a teenage couple is exactly the kind of people who could possibly have such a conversation’. I started toying with the idea – 20 minutes ago – of looking more deeply into the Maniac Pixie Girl Trope in literature, since I’m applying for a master’s program of literature in the end of the year. Since you are this maniac pixie author, who a dreamt more than once of meeting or communicating two, I join in Matthew’s comment. What the hell. It’s not like I’m posting my hopes and recent impressions on an Omnictionary page, anyway.


Rachel August 7, 2013 at 1:00 am

Dear John,
I have not yet read paper towns but I did just read An Abundance of Katherines and prior to that, Looking for Alaska. I loved both of them, especially the latter, but as you mentioned above, it did seem as though Alaska was a MPDG, created simply as a plot device to enhance the character’s life and not really having a life of her own. However, I guess that in order to thwart the trope that must not be named, you would probably have to write chapters from Alaska’s perspective. I see what you mean now though, it is not that Alaska was a MPDG, but that Miles saw her that way. Because Miles is the main character though, I think that she does become a plot device. It was awesome she was a feminist though and that book was really good.


Javier Matusevich July 31, 2015 at 3:48 pm

I have to say, having seen only the movie, that it twists that concept in such a way that the destruction of the MDPG trope is almost nowhere to be found. I will be reading the book to see whether it’s something of your own making and you should be more obvious about the theme, or it’s the butchering proper of Hollywood that broke the intention.
Anyway, maybe you should be more careful with who you lend rights to in the future, Mr. John Green.


Amy Charles August 27, 2015 at 11:47 am

Hi, John. My daughter’s reading your books now, and yeah, I raise an eyebrow or two at the MPDG business.

Here’s the problem, apart from the usual problems with slathering MPDG on tween reading: it’s just lazy. If your head’s going there, if your characters are simply showing up that way even in another character’s mind, it’s not enough to say “well, this exists in the world”. Sure, it exists *boringly*, in the same way that People magazine exists. But – okay, consider the hippie chick in Rabbit Redux. She never exists outside of Rabbit’s awareness. Rabbit himself, not a brilliant guy. Quite an ordinary guy, which is the whole point of Harry Angstrom. But he is very particularly Harry Angstrom, and the hippie chick is very particularly herself as she shows up in Harry’s world and terrible suburban living room. I mean god knows who or what she is when she goes home, but she’s not exchangeable with anyone else from any other story in her scenes in that novel.

If you’re defaulting to standard MPDG as a fantasy for your character, then your guy is not particular enough, himself enough, and neither is his fantasy. And I don’t actually think that’s a problem of not being literary enough, but of not bringing enough pressure to bear on a single point. After all, I read plenty of horrible crap when I was in my teens, but the characters in Flowers in the Attic and their lurid fantasies are unmistakable for anything but themselves.

The reality is that my kid is not all that sensitive to prose, she wants plot and the relatable, and she likes your books just fine. Millions do. All that’s fine. But I’m saying that your “it’s not me, it’s my character” defense is really a lot of baloney, and that if you’re interested in doing better than that, this is possible. You aren’t stuck at “it has to be this way because it’s in my character’s head”. That’s all.


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