Some story elements cater specifically to the wishes of certain audience groups, and that’s what we’re talking about this week. Wish fulfillment can make a story more appealing to the target audience, but too much of it will drive away anyone else. What’s the right balance, and how can you keep your wish fulfillment from reaching toxic levels? Listen and find out.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[opening song]
Oren: This episode was made possible by the support of our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of Political Theory in Star Trek.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: And our special returning guest host…
Johnathan: It’s Johnathan again.
Oren: I can never decide if to say, ‘returning special guest,’ or ‘special recurring guest.’ I feel like we should standardize that.
Johnathan: It could be ‘a returning recurring special guest.’ Why not both?
Oren: Yes, add more titles. That’s a really strong story element you can have, and it fulfills your wish of having a lot of titles at the same time.
Johnathan: I cleaned the chalkboard once in middle school, so, you should add that, ‘chalkboard cleaner.’
Oren: Oh, excellent. Strong work.
Chris: Let’s add ‘Father of Dragons’ and ‘Breaker of Chains’, too.
Johnathan: I am into it. [laughter]
Oren: So, today- Chris, what are we talking about today? [Chris laughs]
Chris: We are talking about wish fulfillment in stories. Which is a fairly important topic, that really does have a big, significant impact, not only on author motivation for writing stories, but also how popular a story is.
Johnathan: Are we talking about genies here? Wish fulfillment?
Oren: Yes, absolutely. This is an entire episode about Aladdin.
Chris: Maybe we should do an episode about Aladdin. [laughter] No, so, when we’re talking about wish fulfillment, we’re actually talking about wishes of the audience, and the way that fiction can make them feel like their wishes are coming true. So, it’s not- a lot of times it does actually translate to the character’s getting lots and lots of things that the character wants.
But it’s actually for the purposes of pleasing the audience, and sometimes, sometimes the writer. Especially in situations where the writer is really writing for themselves, and not for another audience, like in some fanfiction, for example. It can be more like the author is fulfilling their own wishes by writing.
And- I mean, I think the best way is to just talk about what it looks like. How do we know that a story has wish fulfillment in it?
Oren: Yeah, that’s what- I was not a hundred percent clear on that.
Chris: So- and there are a number of different signs. A big one is that the main character has lots of candy- and when we say ‘candy’ at Mythcreants, we’re talking about glorification. Like, a big thing is having cool-colored eyes. [laughs] That is probably one of the biggest- the eyes are not just normal color- eye color, if the eyes are like, violet, or they change color, or they glow in the dark.
People like the idea of having really cool eyes, and so, in a lot of wish fulfillment, characters have cool eye colors. Possibly also cool hair colors, right?
Oren: I can’t read a book now, where they comment on the character’s eyes, and not just kind of groan now. It’s not that it’s individually bad, it’s just so common, and now that I’m looking for it, it’s like, ‘oh, okay. I guess this character has weird eyes. They must be a protagonist.’
Johnathan: Look, as someone with cool-colored eyes, I appreciate representation in my books, with good eye colors.
Oren: That’s fair.
Johnathan: It just makes me feel more related to them. [Chris laughs]
Chris: I use eye colors for love interests. But otherwise, I don’t usually bother that much, cause the assumption with a love interest is that you’ve got like, this staring into their eyes thing happening, and then you’ll actually notice their eye color.
But yeah, colored hair, if the character just doesn’t have serious challenges, or more like, doesn’t struggle to solve problems. It’s like, ‘hey, I’m so powerful, no problem. Bad guy? Pshh, bad guys have got nothing on me. I totally took care of it.’
Johnathan: Everything’s fine.
Chris: And then otherwise, just getting lots of cool stuff. And the reason why- this may all sound vague, but the reason why it sounds vague is that wish fulfillment is very audience dependent. It’s very demographic dependent, and other- dependent on the person, right? Cause we all have different wishes.
So, those are some general trends, but it looks like different things depending on the demographic it’s for.
Oren: Although, there are also some elements of wish fulfillment that have a huge reach, like- one of the ones that’s very common over and over again, is the idea that even though we seem like pretty common, normal people, we’re actually special somehow. And that’s a big part of the lore of Harry Potter, right?
It’s the idea of this normal kid- and granted, in Harry Potter, he’s also abused by his family. But the idea of being just some normal person who isn’t particularly interesting or doesn’t have anything super cool going on, but like, ‘actually, I’m secretly a wizard, or an X-Man,’ or something.
Something will be revealed that will show that this character is super cool, and the ‘One’, or whatever. That’s a huge draw across a big audience.
Chris: I think that has two reasons why that’s so popular. Number one, absolutely for wish fulfillment. That ordinary girl who the hot guy likes, or that farm boy who turns out to be the heir to the throne. Or-
Oren: Yes, farm boys are about eighty percent chosen ones by volume. [Chris laughs] It turns out.
Chris: Or, you know, Joe Shmoe, who the hot chick likes, and then gets to do exciting adventures. I think those are all popular for a number of reasons. Number one is, those characters, again, they are relatable and there is wish fulfillment involved with like, ‘I’m just an ordinary person, but I could be the chosen one.’
But I think it’s also just- the other thing that makes it popular is that people like underdogs. And so, having a character that seems to start off as an underdog just makes it easier to get attached to them.
Johnathan: No one likes seeing someone succeed who like, worked hard to gain valuable skills and technology, and then just applies those in a logical manner. That’s just sort of boring.
Oren: Okay, so, I know where that thought comes from, but I’ve found that what it- people do like that. It’s just that that is hard to pull off. A lot of very well-loved characters are specifically what you’re talking about there, Jim. They’re people who actually worked for what they have, and it’s just that that is harder to do and also pitch the character as an underdog.
So, very often, storytellers will go with the whole like, ‘you’re special because of a prophecy,’ because it’s easier to do that, and then have the character also start off in a disadvantaged position.
Chris: Yeah, if the character actually worked their way up into a position where they had substantial skills, et cetera, then you have to come up with another reason why they’re not doing so well. Like, they got themselves into trouble, and now they’re kind of outcasts, for instance, or something else like that.
And that’s just harder to think of then having them start out at the bottom, and then declaring them special.
Oren: I feel like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are actually a really good dynamic- a good example of the two ends of that dynamic. Cause on the one hand, you have Luke Skywalker, who is special because of who his dad is, and that he just happens to be really strong in the force. And it certainly doesn’t seem like that was anything he personally earned.
Versus Han Solo, who is, at least in theory, good at stuff because he worked hard at it, right? And people like both of those characters for different reasons.
Johnathan: That makes sense.
Chris: Okay, but going back to this specific group thing- cause this is really important. The thing about this is that anybody who is not part of that group, if you fulfill wishes of that group, often is turned off and will not like the story. And there’s no better example than Wesley Crusher. [laughs] [Oren groans]
Wesley Crusher is the ultimate example of this. So, I don’t know about- I know this is true for Oren, too, and Jim, tell me. But when I was a kid, and I watched Next Generation, I liked Wesley Crusher.
Chris: Yeah, because Wesley Crusher is a child wish fulfillment character. He’s there to be like, ‘oh, if I’m young and- if I was on Next Generation’s ship and imagined that I was like, a genius, and I showed up all of the adults.’ Like, you identified with him, you wanted to be him on the ship. It was wish fulfillment, like, you insert yourself aboard the Enterprise.
And that’s exactly what he was written for, strangely enough. That was his purpose.
Oren: I mean, he also hit me at exactly the time when I was starting to get really frustrated that adults didn’t take me seriously. I was old enough to have serious thoughts- obviously, most of them were wrong. But I was old enough to have them, but also young enough that most adults kind of wrote me off.
And so, I was at that exceptionally frustrated moment, and then, here comes Wesley Crusher who, the adults write him off, and then he saves the day literally every time. And I was like, ‘this is amazing, everything I want, this is the greatest character who has ever lived.’ [laughter]
Johnathan: I dodged a bullet on that, cause I didn’t watch enough TNG when I was young; I saw it in my twenties all the way through, so Wesley Crusher was just really annoying and improbable and frustrating to see him be smarter than adults who trained their whole lives to do the science stuff.
He’s like, ‘no, I’m fourteen, but I did it. Never mind. You’re stupid.’ And that just really feels punishing to these otherwise really competent and well-loved characters, to see their expertise and life’s work just dismissively backhanded away by some- and it’s frustrating more because I know he’s a character written and fictional, and not real.
Like, an actual child prodigy of that age, I’d be less frustrated with, because I knew it wasn’t contrived. It’s the contrivedness of his competency that frustrates me. But I wasn’t the demographic, like you’re talking about, I wasn’t fourteen when I saw it, so it felt insulting and frustrating, instead of empowering to me.
Oren: I really want to know how fourteen-year-old Jim would have felt about Harry Crusher now. Harry Crusher? [Chris laughs] Wesley Crusher. Okay, so, here’s something that I’m curious about; I feel like there is a distinction between- and I’m not exactly sure where to draw it, but what I would call legitimate frustration with a wish fulfillment character, and what more or less just- some kind of bigotry or discrimination dressed up as annoyance.
For example, we were talking about Wesley, and there’s- I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Wesley hurts The Next Generation for anyone except his super target demographic. But then, you also have something like My Little Pony, which is clearly wish fulfillment for young girls, and gets a huge amount of derisive hatred from people who are not young girls, mostly older guys.
Although, there is also a demographic of guys who like it, but not focusing on them, people talk about it in very derisive terms, and I think that that is more to do with sexism than with an actual flaw in the storytelling of My Little Pony, and I’m not really sure where to draw that line, and how to arrive at it.
Chris: Yeah, I think it’s good to keep in mind, with all wish fulfillment, that there’s definitely a double standard when it comes to which groups we cater to, and how much privilege those groups have, that because men have dominated so many fields, the stories that clearly have wish fulfillment for men have gotten lots of critical acclaim, and then similar stories for any other group that is not white men have not. Right?
One of my favorite examples of this is The Name of the Wind. So, this book has just gotten an incredible amount of praise and critical acclaim. And I started reading it, and the main character of Name of the Wind, he has red hair. But not like, natural red hair, he has red, red, like scarlet, bright red hair. I’m not kidding.
And he is the most, just puffed up, arrogant character that could possibly be there. And I’ve seen arguments online about this character, and the defenders are like, ‘oh, but it’s a legitimate character flaw.’ But like, arrogance is not a likable character flaw. And it’s clear that this character is supposed to be all that- is supposed to be super badass-
Johnathan: Speak for yourself; I find arrogance extremely relatable. [Chris and Oren laugh]
Chris: That’s good to know about you, Jim. [Jim laughs]
Oren: I definitely feel like the idea that his arrogance is a character flaw is added afterwards. When someone is like, ‘actually, I don’t like this character because they’re so arrogant,’ the person who didn’t really give it any thought before is like, ‘oh, but I did like this character; you’re wrong because his arrogance is a deep storytelling device.’
Johnathan: Sometimes arrogance can be used to like- actually be a storytelling device and get characters into trouble they wouldn’t have been in otherwise and can challenge them. I appreciate arrogance as something to be overcome. To be clear, I don’t like it when it’s used to excuse shitty behavior and then label it as like, ‘oh, that’s his one flaw, is he’s arrogant,’ but it never punishes him in any way. Or them, cause not only men are arrogant.
Chris: Well, I didn’t finish the book because I really did not like it well enough. [Johnathan laughs] But at the same time, it is this character telling his own story, and it’s clear that if- I feel like, any time you have a real character flaw, part of that character arc should involve trying to get past it. And it’s clear by the way that he retells his story that he is still just as arrogant as he ever was.
And again, I don’t have survey data on this, but the discussion I’ve seen so far, there does seem to be some gender patterns behind how well this character is liked. Women really do not like this guy. And it seems like he is a very- definitely a male wish fulfillment character. Again, the kind of critical acclaim Name of the Wind has gotten, I don’t think any book with a similar female character that is meant for wish fulfillment would ever get that much acclaim.
It’s kind of similar to like, Wheel of Time versus Twilight, I’ve compared them before.
Chris: They’re both flawed works, but not terrible works, and they’re both really popular. But Twilight clearly has wish fulfillment for women in it, and it does not have any awards. It is derided across the board, whereas- I mean, people like us criticize Wheel of Time, but the series has a Hugo.
Johnathan: Does it?
Chris: It does. [laughs] What I would say is that I don’t think that wish fulfillment is inherently bad. I think when you have too much of it, it does start to make the story feel immature. That’s the label people usually give to works that are very wish fulfillment-y. But at the same time, it’s still- it makes your work popular, and if you know your target demographic, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to do.
At the same time, whenever we think about it, we just need to keep in mind that there is a double standard, and they are not graded on the same level when we’re commenting on wish fulfillment stories.
Oren: And by the same token, if you are doing wish fulfillment for a white male character that traditionally goes unchallenged, it is something to think about because- universe willing, we are getting less racist, and in a generation or so, your story may not be looked on as kindly as it is now, if that’s the goal you’re going for.
I actually have what I think is a really clear example of wish fulfillment that is fine, while making the people who it is for enjoy the story more, versus wish fulfillment that is toxic.
Chris: Okay, let’s hear it.
Oren: And it is in Stranger Things. Mild spoiler for season 2. So, the first season’s wish fulfillment is these kids playing D&D, and their D&D game actually being important to solve the problem. As a roleplayer, that really spoke to me. I was like, ‘that is so cool, I really wish that all of the hours I spend roleplaying could be useful in solving a serious problem.’ Right?
Chris: Yeah, definitely.
Johnathan: I mean, I’m living that dream, so- I don’t know about wish fulfillment.
Oren: There you go. [laughs] So, it was like, I was really into that. And that’s fine; certainly, it doesn’t seem like anyone was particularly bothered by it. Then you fast forward to season 2, and they have a different kind of wish fulfillment with the same group, which is- a girl gamer wants to join their group.
She doesn’t play roleplaying games, but she plays like, arcade games and stuff, and does all the things that they like, and this is also super wish fulfillment. This is wish fulfillment for nerd dude who want to imagine this perfect woman who is amazing at all of the things that they value, that they can objectify, and that she will want to join their group, and then it kind of- it gets toxic from there.
Because they spend a lot of time being like, ‘oh, I don’t know, man, can we let a girl into the group?’ And that puts her in this weird situation of having to prove herself, and like, why would you want to be in a group with people you had to prove yourself to? That’s weird. So, I just think that that is a good example of how wish fulfillment can start off fine, and then, if you’re not careful, it crosses the line into something that’s- that will hurt your story.
Chris: And I think that is one of the biggest problems with depiction of woman characters in many stories, it’s like- so, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a woman who is sexy. There’s nothing really wrong with it; the problem is that so many women are sexy because the woman characters are there to play a role in a man’s fantasy.
Like, she’s not there for the woman audience members. She’s there for a guy. And it kind of distorts the way that women are depicted on screen and makes demands of women that they live for men, because all the representations of women in media are there for men. And it just does all sorts of other things that do not work out well.
A really good example of this, I think, is Seven of Nine from Voyager. So- and if you compare her to- specifically to Jadzia Dax in DS9. Jadzia Dax is a character who is sexual, and indulgent, and hedonistic. But she’s clearly doing it for her own satisfaction, and it’s clearly not there as part of a male fantasy. She’s an empowered character.
And Seven of Nine is a character that is extremely sexy but does not intend to be sexy. She is supposed to be innocent. So, the entire idea of her talking about sex and being in this super tight catsuit is just very voyeuristic, because she is not intended to be that way. It is not empowering to her. And the suit is designed by a male character, on top of all of that. [laughs]
Oren: Yeah, they let that slip in some random episode; I forget which one, but-
Johnathan: That was the most mind-blowing throwaway line from Voyager. It was like, ‘yeah, I made that suit for her,’ and it’s like, you did what? [Chris laughs]
Oren: What was the point of even dropping that? We all just assumed that she made it herself, writers. Why did you have to dig that hole and then jump into it? [laughs]
Chris: That said, though, there are lots of works that have wish fulfillment for women, the problem is that they’re all labeled as being only for women, instead of for a general audience. Like romantic comedies, for instance, or Twilight, or- you know. But you’ll see things in- I think probably one of the big ones that does have a more general audience is The Hunger Games.
The whole like, ‘there’s two men who are courting her that Katniss has to chose from.’ That is a very, like, woman wish fulfillment thing that is present in The Hunger Games, which is… probably more intended for women, but is clearly very successful among a general audience.
Oren: So, like, it’s definitely- the market is getting more accepting than it used to be, but there’s still a double standard, I think is the takeaway from all of that. Outside of the whole question of sexism, it’s also possible to get so involved in your wish fulfillment that you can forget to build a plot, and that can be a problem.
I want to use the two examples of My Little Pony, and then the animated series Lego: Secrets of Elvendale. [Chris laughs]
Oren: The Lego brand. So, Jim, it’s a cartoon show about elves, who- magic elves who live in a magic elf world, and it’s technically a Lego show, but the Lego branding is super hidden. It’s like, they’re normally drawn characters, but you see a Lego brick under the table, or a Lego brick pattern in one of the trees. It’s actually-
Chris: It’s so bizarre. I can only guess that there’s actual product, like, there’s an actual physical toy, that’s like, a Lego elf thing.
Johnathan: Google will tell me if there is. [Chris laughs]
Oren: It’s kind of ominous. But that’s not actually what I’m here to talk about, is the weird Lego branding. No, it’s that- so, My Little Pony starts off with showing us this really amazing magic world, full of ponies with cutie marks and like, cool fashion design and all of that. But it also starts with Twilight Sparkle finding this prophecy about Nightmare Moon.
So, we get to explore this world, which is clearly wish fulfillment, while it builds a plot at the same time. Versus- Elvendale has a very similar opening sequence, where they just go and explore the elf world for a while. But there’s no plot, it’s just like, ‘hey, let’s go to this guy who raises dragons. Cool, we’re going to do that. Let’s go check out the cool treehouse. It’s like, we’ll do that. Sounds fun.’
And if you’re really into that elf wish fulfillment, then okay, that’s fine. But if you’re not, you’re just like, ‘okay, when is the story going to start?’ So, if you want an example of how you can have your wish fulfillment cake and eat your plot too- that metaphor got away from me, but, you know what I mean. [laughter] Just like, watch those two openings side by side, and you’ll see how it’s done.
Chris: There are definitely stories that, if they are entertaining enough, and if they’ve set tension ahead of time, they can take some time to dwell on the wish fulfillment. I think Harry Potter- Harry Potter’s definitely a wish fulfillment story for kids. One of the reasons why it’s so popular- it does something similar, where we have an opening that focuses on what happened with Voldemort.
And then, we have this very tense opening with the Dursleys, and we talk more about the issues, but then we have a trip right after a whole bunch of things have gone down, and he’s finally been temporarily liberated from his abusive family. [Chris and Oren laughs] Where you have a trip into Diagon Alley, where we spend some time just exploring how fun it is to be in the wizard world.
Johnathan: And to be rich.
Oren: To be rich in the wizard world.
Chris: And to be rich, yeah. He finds out that he has a whole vault of gold. [laughs] And then he gets an owl, he gets a pet owl. [laughs] And you know, all these other things.
Oren: Although, I think it’s worth noting that Harry Potter, in terms of its popularity versus its wish fulfillment- I think, in some ways, it’s actually fairly restrained. Like, when I’m rereading it now, the part that really sticks out as being groan-worth wish fulfillment is how good Harry is at Quidditch.
To the point where like, the only way Harry can lose Quidditch matches is for the match to be canceled, or for him to get attacked by a monster while he’s playing, or whatever. He’s so good at Quidditch that the skill of the other players is like, not even considered a factor.
Chris: It is worth noting, though, that it is the only thing that he’s- at the beginning of the story, it’s the only thing that he’s good at. Which, again, shows the restraint that Rowling had. Rowling, despite making a wish fulfillment story, she really was good at balancing candy and spinach. And Quidditch is clearly over the top, but otherwise, he still- that’s his one area that he really shines.
Until later, he gets good at other things, but-
Oren: He gets real good at Expecto Patronum. It’s very important. [Chris laughs]
Johnathan: [background] He makes unicorns or whatever.
Chris: Yeah. Expecto Patronum is just like, everywhere by then. Everybody’s doing it. All the popular kids.
Johnathan: It’s almost as good as a gun. [laughs]
Oren: Well, again, it’s arguably- it’s at least better than a gun against Dementors, right? There’s at least like, an implication that Dementors can’t be hurt by physical damage. It’s like, specifically what it’s for. But arguments about Harry Potter spells aside- [Johnathan laughs]
Chris: I think wish fulfillment, it is something that you can consider, and actually actively think about when you are formulating a story. I think it particularly falls into what I would call the attachment category. Just talking about like, ‘how are we building audience attachment to the main character, and making them feel emotionally invested in certain things happening in the story?’
But you do have to choose your target audience. You do have to choose which reader group you’re targeting. Which, it’s generally good for marketing, and making things that are popular anyway, but for wish fulfillment, that’s absolutely essential.
Oren: One type of wish fulfillment that I’ve found to have a fairly wide appeal, but is also very easy to get wrong, is various kinds of cool animals. People of all ages seem to really like animal sidekicks. Like, the animals of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and even to a certain extent in Legend of Korra- they weren’t nearly as good there, but they’re still very popular.
People like cool animals who are friends with the main character; it’s like a thing they really seem to enjoy. But it’s really easy for the animal sidekick to accidentally become too powerful, and then just like, suddenly be the main character. That happens in Lirael, that novel, where she’s got the magic dog that, at first, just seems like regular wish fulfillment, and then, as you go through the story, you realize this dog can literally do everything.
Chris: And definitely, when I’ve seen that, part of the issue has been that the writer thinks it’s funny to have an animal in the story that seems like it’s not important, but is actually like, pulling the strings behind the scenes, or is an actual god in disguise, or- like, thinks it’s funny that like, ‘it was the butterfly!’ [Chris and Oren laugh] That kind of, ‘no one suspects the butterfly!’
But I think the thing that is easy to lose track of, is that when you’re doing that, it’s funny for you, and you’re making fun at the expense of your own story. [laughs] Which is not good, right?
Oren: Not generally a great move.
Chris: Not generally a great move. It’s like, choosing an item that is subversive just because of its subversiveness. Unless you’re writing an entire story that is- that’s its purpose. But yeah, in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the Daemons-
Oren: Everyone wants a Daemon. Literally everybody wants one, okay?
Chris: They are super good wish fulfillment because, not only like- when you’re a kid, they shapeshift. Not only do you have a magical companion that you’re psychically linked to, you have a- they shapeshift, so they can turn into different animals. And then when you get to an adult, they choose a shape, but that shape is like, an inner reflection of who you are.
And people love that. I think that’s why the Harry Potter houses are so popular, is, they love the personality-based houses.
Oren: Yeah, if my personality can’t be represented by some weird mix of magical animals, then what am I even doing?
Johnathan: Seriously. I must be a badger, because sometimes, I don’t care.
Oren: Yes, absolutely. Alright, so we are actually out of time for this episode. Thank you, Jim, for joining us.
Johnathan: Thanks for having me again.
Oren: You at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment for us. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week.[closing song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved herself by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?