Writing on Film: Ruby Sparks and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Last week, a customer asked me what the difference is between Fiction and Non-fiction. (Surprised? This happens more often than you’d think.) The easy, mnemonic device to remember this is “Fiction is fake,” and that’s what I told her. But that’s not really what I believe. I think Fiction is often more real than Non-Fiction, because Fiction allows us to explore the mind, motivations and reality of another person. Maybe the character isn’t real, but, in a well-written story, the experience is. In fact, that experience can feel so realistic that we sometimes have trouble separating it from actual reality.


Enter Ruby Sparks, a movie about the blurry line between fact and fiction. The basic plot is this: A writer has trouble writing (I can relate). He has trouble finding love (um, again … I can relate). One night, he has a dream about a girl, and when he wakes up and writes it down, he can’t stop thinking and writing about her. He’s obsessed with creating, and he’s excited about writing again. And then he’s super freaked out, because this girl he’s been writing about — this Ruby — shows up in his kitchen one day, cooking him eggs.




Eventually our author establishes that, although it seems impossible, Ruby is real, and other people can see her, too. They have a great relationship, and he’s finally happy. Well, he’s happy until she starts to change, and that’s when he starts making edits to his manuscript to turn her back into the girl he imagined. Only the edits don’t go as planned, and his attempts to make her love him again only serve to fracture her personality and expose the fiction of their relationship.


The film (a reworking of the Greek Pygmalion myth) explores the sometimes parallel processes of creative writing and falling in love. They can be remarkable similar, really: You start with adoration and obsession, at some point become disillusioned by reality, and end up with either a huge mess or something that’s more beautiful because of your struggles. The film’s treatment of writing questions (Where do characters come from, How much of an author is in each character, Is there a core story that can’t effectively be changed) are interesting, but the real strength of the movie is the way it exposes the narcissism that’s sometimes present in romantic relationships, particularly with its treatment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.


What’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? She’s a female character that has quirks instead of personality, strangeness instead of depth, who exists only to help the male protagonist open himself to life’s mysteries and not to develop into a a character in her own right. This girl is usually played by Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst, or Zooey Deschannel (I’m not saying all their work falls into this category — I’m saying some of it does). Nathan Rabin coined the term to describe “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that 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.”


Zoe Kazan, who plays Ruby, specifically said her character isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but I think that misses the point, because Ruby certainly starts out as one. She walks around in a rainbow of brightly colored tights, doing nothing all day but sketching puppies in the park, singing silly songs, jumping into swimming pools with her clothes on, and making meatloaf for her boyfriend. Her strength is that, as she becomes a real person instead of a character in a novel, she grows into a more complete person. She still does quirky things, but she doesn’t do only those things. The first time we see Ruby, she’s making breakfast for her boyfriend and offering to walk his dog. The last time we see her before she’s edited into submission, she’s hanging out with friends and spending nights in her own apartment. She starts out as that silly stereotype, and then proves that it isn’t a sustainable reality.


But let’s be honest — it’s not just men who are prone to falling in love with an idea instead of a person. I’m not sure if soulmates are a real thing, but I do think that our cultural preoccupation with them encourages us to become obsessed with a template of person instead of falling in love with a real one. It’s a very selfish way to love (I’m not sure you can even call it love), and it doesn’t leave room for growth, either from yourself or from your partner.


Want to meet your soulmate?* Try scrapping your idea of what they’re going to look like, what their hobbies are, and what bands they listen to, and maybe try opening yourself up to another person’s reality instead. Want to see a movie about what happens if you don’t? Check out Ruby Sparks.


*  You should know I’m perpetually single and probably shouldn’t be giving advice on this subject.


Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books.

Email with a purpose Let's Keep in Touch

Good news (and practical tips) for small businesses — we're not into being pushy or spammy.