WTFometer; or, a measure of a story’s bonkersness

I wanted to come up with a good way of looking at some of the stories we’ve been describing, in a more structured fashion – something that would help me compare one story with another, or the early part of a story with the later part, or even the stories in one comic with those in another. Specifically, I wanted to be able to pinpoint the ‘WTF’ feeling that is so prevalent in reading these stories nowadays as an adult – is there a way I could sensibly talk about one story being more bonkers than another, and about the way that it is sublimely ridiculous?

(It’s not just about analysing the feeling of the adult reader – I’m sure that the WTF reaction in 2014 does map onto something that the writers and editors of Jinty wanted to foster in their original readers – an agog desire to read on and find out what will happen next, what will the writers dare give us. Jinty (and other girls’ comics) is a literature of excess not of minimalism, and from what we hear from editors of the time, that was always part of their strategy.)

To do this, I settled on looking at how far both the protagonist and the situation that she finds herself in during the story differ from a sort of assumed default average, or ‘platonic ideal’. I made up a structure of what that average reader of the time might look like: age, gender, family situation, social situation, and so on. This then gives a baseline that the comparison can be made from – we can ask, how far does the individual story (or story episode) take us from that baseline? And we can then compare the story that is set in something very like an average situation, with one or two key differences (the cruel stepmother, the emotional abuse) to the one that pushes the same themes further (torture and near-death), or to the one that pushes into weirder territory (mind-control, time-travel, alternate universes).

Of course, this ‘average’ is an artificial construction – there will have been many readers that were different from this default. Neither is it intended to elevate one option above others – certainly not to say that the white English average girl is more ideal than the non-white non-English counter-example. I also can’t say that I’ve got that assumed average correct, at this inital stage; I’d love to hear people suggest changes and fixes to my first  structure. I am however already finding it an interesting way to look at some specific stories, and to compare them on a much more like-with-like fashion than would otherwise be the case.

Finally, a word of warning – this analysis has nothing to do with psychological realism, or with quality of writing. Literary fiction shows us that writing about people like ourselves, living in situations like our own, can be written well or badly, making for exciting or for dull reading. I am definitely not saying that a story in which characters are more like the default average reader is necessarily going to be a boring story.

What, therefore, are the details of the structure? I have divided it up into 6 parts.


  • What is the background of the protagonist?

The default / average protagonist in Jinty (not necessarily in all UK girls’ comics) is:

    • a girl (a young human female – so a move away from this default could be to have a boy protagonist, or a grown woman, or a non-human such as Seulah the Seal)
    • white (so a move away from this default could be to have a Chinese, Indian, or Black British character)
    • English born and bred (in Jinty, even a Welsh or Scottish protagonist has a hint of the ‘other’, it seems to me)
    • Working or lower middle class (family needs to earn a living, but is able to do so; that is, the protagonist is neither rich nor poverty-stricken)
    • Modern in time (protagonist is a 1960s/1970s girl)
  • What is the underlying social/family/friends situation of the protagonist?

In the story, what is the setup of the main character’s friends and family, and of the society she lives in? The defaults I am using are that she:

    • lives in England (so a story set in Continental Europe, as per “Song of the Fir Tree”, is a move away from this default; a story set on another planet is a much bigger one)
    • two-parent household (a small difference would be a story featuring quarelling/divorcing parents, such as in “Ping-Pong Paula”; a larger one would be one with an orphan)
    • standard family structure (say one or two siblings, some extended family like aunts / uncles / cousins; counterexamples might be where the protagonist is alone in the whole world, or where she has lots and lots of siblings)
    • standard friends structure (say a small group of close friends, vs no friends or lots of friends)
    • standard pets (a single cat/dog/hamster, vs exotic animals or lots of ordinary animals)
    • standard school structure (comprehensive or day school vs boarding school; one with ordinary school policies)
  • What sort of free will or agency does the protagonist have?

Realistically, a girl in 70s Britain is going to have various constraints; no one has an entirely free will to do exactly as they like. At the same time, those girls will still have some normal, expected freedoms. In some stories in Jinty, these basic freedoms may be either massively reduced (in a slave story) or increased (perhaps if the girl is a loner or an orphan).

    • Laws and norms apply (she obeys the law of the land and the usual norms like wearing clothes and being polite to your elders)
    • Has agency in small things (she can decide how to spend her pocket money, probably can decide about things like clothes and hairstyles)
    • Lack of agency for large things (her parents or guardians make big decisions for her, so a story where she has to make all her decisions in the absence of such figures would be a difference from the default)
  • Is the protagonist reasonably safe and secure, or endangered?

Most girls in our default 1970s Britain will have an expectation of being normally fairly safe; they do not live in war zones or go about in danger of their lives. Individuals may suffer bullying or have mental health issues such as depression, but this is not part of the expected ‘default’.

    • Basic emotional security (love and friendship are normal and expected)
    • Basic physical security (may have the odd bump and bruise via sports or play)
    • Basic mental security (anxiety or claustrophobia would be counterexamples)
  • What abilities or talents does the protagonist have?

The ordinary reader isn’t a top cyclist, concert piano player, or even consistently head of her class.

    • Standard real-life talents (not a top class cyclist and so on)
    • Standard physical abilities (no special abilities like being super-strong or being able to fly; but likewise no disabilities either)
    • Standard mental abilities (no special mental powers like telepathy, second sight)
    • Standard intellectual abilities (no super-intelligence, but likewise no amnesia or learning disabilities either)
  •  Other story factors

Now we’re really entering the realm of the fantastical. Of course no real readers could be from the future or the past, or travelling outside their own time.

    • Current time period applies (story takes place in the ‘present time’ of the 1970s/80s, just like real life for the reader)
    • Current physical laws apply (magic doesn’t work in reality)
    • Action is within circumscribed locality (this is not actually fantastical, it just really reflects the fact that a 1970s girl was unlikely to be travelling much further than a British seaside on anything like a regular basis)
    • Current/actual historical facts apply (no made-up countries, robots, aliens, alternate universes, etc)

 

The above will be of little real use without examples, and it’s only the examples that will show whether this whole analysis is pointless or not. This post is already pretty long though, so the examples will follow next.

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6 thoughts on “WTFometer; or, a measure of a story’s bonkersness

  1. Do you take account of how far a story nominally set in the real world differs due to ignorant or contrived writing, as opposed to intended differences?

  2. Sort of, or at least I think I’d like to include that. For instance, hypnotism is one that’s sometimes hard to judge – it’s often used in a far from real-world way to effectively just be another kind of mind control, it’s almost as good as magic potions. Have you got examples?

    1. 18th century people living in a port town who are unaware of the existence of America, a girl being hunted by the police because she picked some flowers, A 14 year old girl being allowed by the authorities to live alone on the street and not being required to attend school. That kind of thing.

      1. Oh yeah. Hmm. I guess it would depend on how much it’s a plot point. The people unaware of the existence of America isn’t something that makes a plot difference as such, it’s just a silly way for the writer to wrap the story up, isn’t it?

        Beattie living alone on the street counts as having more agency than usual for a kid; she would also be marked as having a big difference in the family structure and the two-parent household bit. There’d also be a mark in the difference column for the school as being an unusual set up because she isn’t going to one. I don’t really mind (for the purposes of this) how it’s explained away, if at all, but the fact is that the life she’s living is very different from the average reader’s life.

        Not sure which one you’re thinking of with the girl being hunted because she picked some flowers. If it’s The Forbidden Garden then that’s definitely part of the set-up and would get listed as a big difference from our real world; if it’s an illustration of the unusual severity of the police in that story then again I’d include it in the totting up.

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