You’re reading this on the internet, so you’ve probably heard of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. You probably have a decent idea of what she is and where she exists in the world of fiction. There’s like a seventy percent chance you immediately associate the term with Zooey Deschanel, and considering most of her well-known characters are in fact some version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. If you know of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, though, you probably also know that everyone hates her. You might have read the title of this article and immediately thought, “absolutely not.” Well, again, you’re not wrong, but it’s also not that simple.
The term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was coined in the mid 2000s by a film critic writing about the movie Elizabethtown, referring to a character who “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 (as she will from here out be known) has been around for a long, long time as an upbeat female character who exists solely to change the life of our male main character. Think Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or even Beatrice from Dante’s Divine Comedy. But the MPDG’s heyday was the 2000s, with Elizabethtown, Garden State, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and 500 Days of Summer, among others. The critic who coined the term has since apologized, because the MPDG has spiraled out of control in pop culture, with the term being applied with reckless abandon to any female character who wears sundresses and plays the ukulele. Which is the first problem with any MPDG discussion: there are two very different definitions of what she is.
The first definition, the way it was originally coined, applies to a type of character: a female character with little to no character arc who is wild and unpredictable, fun and quirky, and exists only as a plot device to shake some sad or down-on-his-luck guy out of his funk and teach him to enjoy life again. The second definition, the one that has become more prevalent in pop culture, applies to a type of person: female, quirky, bubbly, fun, with a penchant for creative hobbies, cute dresses, and spontaneous adventures. The MPDG character often has the traits of the MPDG person, which is how the MPDG person came to be. But the MPDG person is not always the MPDG character, which is where the problems come in. People are quick to call any quirky girl a MPDG, which just isn’t the case, especially if she has her own conflicts and arc, as she often does nowadays. Take, for example, Zooey Deschanel in New Girl vs Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer. In New Girl, she has all the physical elements of a MPDG—she’s quirky and fun, wears cute dresses and has an arts and crafts corner. But we also see throughout the series that she’s a real character with hopes and struggles and a character arc. In 500 Days of Summer, she’s an actual MPDG character—she exists solely for the character arc of the male protagonist.1
The second problem with the MPDG is the question of whether or not this trope is sexist. In some ways, it is: there aren’t really manic pixie dream boys, and the closest male equivalent to the trope is the bad boy or artsy sad boy type, who often fulfills the same purpose as the MPDG for the female lead—teaching her to loosen up and look at life differently. The bad boy, however, has slightly more staying power in the female lead’s life and is often the end goal romance, while the MPDG is more often a disposable detour in the male lead’s life. However. Any main character in a story inevitably has supporting characters, and the MPDG is in some ways just one form of that. Her disposability isn’t necessarily always a point against her, in the same way that the Best Friend is a necessary but ultimately disposable piece of the story. Some genres lend themselves more to disposable stock characters than others, but the characters always exist.
There’s no problem at all with writing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl person. Write quirky girls to your heart’s content, and give them unique lives and personalities and character arcs. That isn’t technically a MPDG anyway—you can’t really have a “dream girl” without the person doing the dreaming. You’re just writing a well-rounded, quirky female character.
Writing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character is a little trickier. If you feel the need to put one in your story, ask yourself why. Does your lead really need to be saved by a disposable love interest? What is she adding to your story that’s better than other options? Why are you writing a character that doesn’t feel real or have a character arc? If your story were gender-swapped, would you still write it this way? Generally if you ask enough questions, you can talk yourself out of writing a pure MPDG character and pivot toward a better, more fleshed-out character, which is most often the better way to go.
Ultimately, my hope is that we can eliminate the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character to the point that when someone says “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” it’s only a quirky girl with no negative connotations. I don’t think the term is ever fully going away—it rolls off the tongue too easily—but I have hope that her function in fiction might disappear in favor of well-rounded characters. Should you write quirky girls? Yes. And quirky characters of any gender. Spontaneous and adventurous is always a fun character. Should you set out to write a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Probably not, but you do you. Just be prepared for the backlash.
For a more nuanced discussion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, including the trope’s effect on real life and whether or not this trope can be accurately deconstructed, listen to To Trope or Not to Trope’s episode on the topic!
1There’s some discussion over whether Summer is a deconstructed Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but since the movie is from the male point of view and Summer is a part of the plot in order to liven up his life, for the purposes of this article, she functions as a MPDG.