Category Archives: story structure

How do you know who’s the hero (in British girls comics)?

I have been thinking about how you can tell who is the hero, or at least the main character, in British girls comics. I’m sure that as readers most of us can tell who’s the hero most of the time, but there are always some odd cases that test the boundaries. Perhaps we will learn something about some underlying rules of British comics storytelling if we have a deeper look?

Below I suggest five key tests to check who is the main character in a story. These tests aren’t anything to do with how nice or kind the person is – they would apply to an anti-hero as much as to the most perfect hero. Rather, they should tell us whether or not the story is about that person.

Reference in title

You would think the title of the story would be a dead giveaway as to who the story is about – but it’s not always as simple as that, of course. The main villain might be the one featured in the title (“Angela Angel-Face“, “Wanda Whiter Than White“) or, particularly in the case of Jinty, the title may be fairly allusive (“The Valley of Shining Mist“, “Waves of Fear” and many others).

For most stories, though, it’s true – the title does give away who the main character is. Often her name is right up front as the first element of the title along with the key struggle of the story: “Gwen’s Stolen Glory“, “Stefa’s Heart of Stone“, “Glenda’s Glossy Pages“, “Cora Can’t Lose“. But is Amanda Blay the main character in “Amanda Must Not Be Expelled“? And in “The Slave of Form 3B“, is the main character weak-willed Tania or the villainous (and rather more interesting) Stacey?

Hearing their words

A more important test than the title of the story seems to me to be whether we know what the character thinks and says. Do we see the character’s words (spoken or thoughts) directly on the page or not?

  • The sample episode of “Amanda Must Not Be Expelled” has Amanda’s words showing (in speech or word balloons) in only 10 out of 28 panels in the episode. Her antagonists, Jane and Marty, have their words or speech reported in 22 of the 28 panels (including ones where Amanda also speaks).
  • The sample episode of “The Slave of Form 3B” does not include any words or thoughts of Tania’s, but only those of Stacey (in the 26 panels shown, we hear Stacey’s thoughts or words in all bar 5).

amanda must not be expelled crop

Seeing their face

Similarly to the test above of whether we hear their words directly, do we follow them on the page and see what they do, in each panel or the majority of the page?

  • You might think that it comes to a fairly similar outcome if you check how many panels the person appears in;  I would expect the main character in a British girls comic to be in most of the panels (and that, by some way). However, in the same episode of “Amanda Must Not Be Expelled”, Jane and Marty are visible in 23 of the 28 panels while Amanda is in 18 of the 28 panels. Amanda is visible in quite a lot more panels (18 panels) than just the ones where she says or thinks something (10 panels): she is a focus of the reader’s attention without actually being the main person that you put yourself in the place of.
  • In the sample episode of “The Slave of Form 3B”, Stacey appears in slightly more panels than she speaks in – there are only 3 panels that she does not appear in, compared to the 5 that she does not speak in.

 

Active doer, or passive done-to?

This can be a bit harder to determine, I think. Does the hero (or the person who might be the hero) kick off the actions and make things happen, or is she ‘done-to’ rather than actively ‘doing’? In girls comics there is a definite theme of the downtrodden underdog hero, whose heroism lies in her endurance and persistance rather than in solving the world’s woes, so this may be a less definitive way of singling out the hero of the story. What happens if we look at the two sample stories to check how active the characters are?

  • Jane and Marty ensure that Amanda gets back to the dorm without being spotted and expelled (foiling her intent), and even sneak back the gown and mortar board that Jane dressed up in, to remove all evidence of what they were up to. But Amanda is pretty active too, by the end of the episode: she takes a pair of scissors from the needlework room and sets out to pick herself a bouquet of the headmistress’s prized tulips, as a way to get herself expelled. Honours are relatively even, though I think that on the showing of this single episode, Jane and Marty feel like the initiators of more action than Amanda does.
  • In “The Slave of  Form 3B” Tania is unconscious throughout the whole sample episode and therefore as passive as she could possibly be. Stacey initiates the action throughout: she hides Tania out of sight of possible rescuers, and she makes it look as if Tania has run away. The teachers initiate a search of the grounds, but again Stacey’s action is the decisive one as she lies to the other searchers to decoy them away from where she has hidden Tania.

Slave of Form 3B pg 1 crop

Who has the emotional journey?

Pat Mills is currently writing a series of blog posts on storytelling, and one of the recent entries is on the Emotional Journey. Many thanks to him for this post, as it was something I nearly overlooked in this series of tests. We can sensibly ask, is there a shape to the story and if so, who does that story-shape belong to? There are a number of fairly well-worn story ‘shapes’ and these also help to identify the main character. ‘Spoilt girl redeems herself’ is one of them, and ‘brave girl beats her bullies by enduring’ is another – and by phrasing the story in this way you immediately understand who the hero is. But another way to think of it is, who undergoes the emotional journey – who is changed by the end of the story? Not all stories necessarily have change as part of their core structure, but many do, and it can provide an interesting contrast to the answers derived from the other tests.

  • To answer this question you need to think about the story as a whole, not just individual sample episodes, so it can be harder to determine unless you know the story reasonably well. I don’t know “Amanda Must Not Be Expelled” very well but Mistyfan has provided a detailed synopsis. From this it does look very much to be the case that it is Amanda who has the emotional journey – going from desperately wanting to be expelled to being glad she never managed it, and from hating even being at school to being proud of it and wanting her team to win. Jane and Marty do not obviously seem to change throughout the story, their motives and psychology remain pretty consistent.
  • In “Slave of Form 3B” then again, when we look at the overall story, the sense of who is the hero is rather different from when we look at the details. Tania, who starts off the story weak-willed and very passive indeed, ends up still pretty ‘done-to’ rather than actively bringing about Stacey’s downfall. It is Tania who is acclaimed by her schoolfellows due to her persistence and survivorship, so at least she is changed from being a timid outcast to being someone that all her fellows know and think well of. Stacey, in contrast, has not changed her motivation or aims at all; if anything she has just become more fixed in her ambitions. The arc of Tania’s emotional journey is rather tacked-on in the final episode or two though, which dilutes the effect considerably.

 

Summary

I called the above ‘five key tests’ but of course most of the time it’s hardly necessary to apply a series of tests to determine who is the hero or main character in a story. For more unusual cases like the two stories chosen here, it can however shed some interesting light on aspects of the story.

  • Is Amanda the main character in “Amanda Must Not Be Expelled”, or are Jane and Marty the real heroes? If you just look at the sample episode then Jane and Marty are acting much more like the main characters – they are the ones that the reader sees and hears, and the ones who move the action forward more substantially. But taking the story as a whole, especially when you consider the intention signalled by the story title, it is Amanda who the story is most ‘about’, as the person who has the significant emotional journey.  Perhaps if we re-ran the tests on who we see and hear, and who initates the action, based on a later episode, she would be more obviously marked as the main character?
  • Is Timid Tania, who is the Slave in question, the hero of “The Slave of Form 3B”, or is it wicked Stacey? Stacey is by far the most active and most visible character throughout the story, though there may be other episodes where she does not dominate the action quite as fully as in this sample epsiode. The final part of Tania’s emotional journey feels very tacked on at the end, though there are earlier points in the story where she stands up for herself to some extent. Even taking the story as a whole it does not feel like Tania is ‘really’ the main character; possibly the writer intended her to be so, but had much more fun writing the frankly rather evil Stacey instead!
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Storytelling in Girls’ Comics: Cliffhanger vs Non-cliffhanger Episodes

In this post I will discuss two opposing points of view in regard to how the endings of episodes in serials were structured. I will also discuss the effects these had on story structure and resolutions.

Pat Mills advises that each episode of a serial should end on a cliffhanger or dramatic high point (personal email). So his stories, such as “Land of No Tears”, have episodes that end on cliffhangers or dramatic high points. For example, in part two of “Land of No Tears”, Perfecta hauls Cassy off for punishment at the end of the episode. The cliffhanger leaves readers particularly anxious because the episode had built up to Cassy expecting a cruel and merciless punishment. But they do not see what it is until part three. A multitude of stories at IPC were structured this way, with each episode ending either on a cliffhanger or being a self-contained episode that ends on a high dramatic point.

There were some IPC stories, such as Jinty’s “Bound for Botany Bay” and Tammy’s “No Haven for Hayley”, that had a blend of cliffhanger and non-cliffhanger episodes. For example, in Botany Bay, Betsy’s story has episodes that end mostly on cliffhangers, but some, such as the ones that depict her transportation voyage, are self-contained ones.

However, the Mandy editors took a completely different view to Mills in this respect. In an interview with former DCT writer Maureen Hartley, she reveals that their rule was “no cliffhangers”:

“I learned that in every instalment the heroine must take some form of executive action. That may seem highly obvious, but it is easy to be distracted from the heroine by other facets of the plot or more interesting characters. Also there must be no cliffhangers. The editors felt strongly that the readers should get value for the money they had paid for the comic and should be given a full self-contained story in each instalment, interesting enough to make them want to read more but not blackmailing them with a cliffhanging ending into buying the next issue”.

http://girlscomicsofyesterday.com/2016/06/maureen-hartley-writing-for-dct-girls-comics/

So in Mandy stories, each episode is a self-contained one, containing action that advances the story in some way. But with some exceptions, such as Mandy’s “The Posy Princess”, there are no cliffhanger endings for the episodes in the development of the story. The only real exception to this rule would be the penultimate episode, which often ended on a cliffhanger. This would be a signal to the readers that it is the penultimate episode, because its cliffhanger ending breaks the pattern of how the episodes are structured. The cliffhanger would be part of resolving the story in the final episode.

A good example is “The Truth About Wendy” from Mandy. In each episode we have a protagonist who tells us, in flashback, how they found out the hard way that Wendy Ware is a scheming girl who plays dirty to get whatever she wants and destroys anyone who stands in her way. They all think at the end of the episode that only they know the truth about Wendy; everyone else thinks she is a sweet girl. But in the penultimate episode, Wendy’s latest victim does not think this way. Instead, she resolves to expose Wendy and get back the friend that Wendy stole off her. This tells us that this is the penultimate episode and not a regular one. So we are all extra eager to buy next week’s Mandy to find out how the truth about Wendy will be revealed at last.

Bad Luck Barbara 5
Non-cliffhanger ending to penultimate episode of “Bad Luck Barbara”, Mandy #985, 30 November 1985.

Not all penultimate episodes in Mandy serials were structured this way. One example is “Bad Luck Barbara”. The penultimate episode is a regular one, with no cliffhanger ending at all. The next episode could also have been a regular one. But instead it is the final episode, and it is entirely self-contained instead of resolving a cliffhanger from the penultimate episode.

And this type of story structuring can be seen in plenty of serials in other DCT titles as well. For example, Bunty’s “Witch!” has self-contained episodes until the penultimate episode while the similarly-themed “Mark of the Witch!” in Jinty has a lot of episodes ending on cliffhangers. And some Bunty stories, such as “Captain Carol”, have self-contained episodes all the way through.

This non-cliffhanger episode structure at DCT meant that their serials tended to be episodic. This did have the advantage of spinning the story out for as long as needed – or cutting it short if necessary. When the editor gave the word, the writer could just end the story in an episode or two because the episodic structure made it easy to end without tying up a lot of plot threads that had been spun along the way. There were some exceptions, where DCT serials were tied up in several episodes that were structured as a story arc. One example is Bunty’s “The Guilt of Glendora”, which is tied up in a span of three episodes.

One disadvantage of stories with non-cliffhanger episodes is that the structure could get boring, annoying and tedious. Sometimes the ending of each episode would end up pretty much the same, such as episodes that invariably end up with the protagonist being disgraced through no fault of her own. Using some variety with episodes ending on cliffhangers would make it more interesting. In this respect “The Posy Princess” was less boring because it often had cliffhangers.

The cliffhanger episodes favoured by Mills enabled the development of story arcs; for example, a conclusion that needed several episodes for it to develop properly. If the story was popular, more threads could be developed to spin it out more rather than just putting in more episodes for padding. But in some cases there could also be more tying-off that would have to be done before the story could end. And if the editor gave a sudden order to end the story, this could result in an unsatisfactory ending. One example is Jinty’s “Worlds Apart”. One gets the impression that towards the end, the story was meant to run for more episodes to really develop the final dream world and the lessons its protagonist learns from it. But instead the ending gives the impression that the story was cut short because of Jinty’s upcoming merger into Tammy. So the conclusion came too soon and left the final dream world nowhere near as developed as it should have been. It all cries out to be reworked.

Witch 7
Cliffhanger ending to penultimate episode of “Witch!”, Bunty #1754, 24 August 1991.

Mandy’s rule non-cliffhanger endings for episodes apparently did not stop readers from buying the next issue. The editors counted on making the self-contained episodes interesting enough to encourage readers to keep buying. And it did work – readers kept buying Mandy and she became one of the longest-running titles at DCT. But the cliffhanger structure at IPC also worked well. And stories that combined cliffhangers and non-cliffhangers certainly added variety to the storytelling structure. They must also have been easier on the writers, who must have found it difficult at times to keep episodes self-contained or end them on cliffhangers.