Making the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Archetype Your Own

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Photo Source: “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” Courtesy Netflix

Elusive as a unicorn and equally as mythical, manic pixie dream girls represent men’s desire to have their emotional needs met by a romantic partner—no reciprocation necessary. Here’s how to spot this archetype, plus ways to elevate it above pure fantasy.

What is a manic pixie dream girl?

This term refers to a female supporting character who solely exists in a story as a catalyst for growth in the male lead. The MPDG tends to enter the narrative just as his life falls apart; her only mission is to help him evolve as a person. 

The term “manic pixie dream girl” was coined in 2007 by film critic Nathan Rabin in his review of Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in the movie. He wrote that the MPDG 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.” (Rabin later expressed his regret for creating the term.)

A manic pixie dream girl is the embodiment of a certain male fantasy: a charming woman who “isn’t like other girls” and has no desires of her own. While she may possess personality traits or a backstory that suggest a fully fleshed-out character, the story gives her little to no space to develop, learn, or advance her own interests. 

As the term suggests, this type exudes an aura of ethereal, quirky unattainability. You can find MPDGs everywhere in popular culture, almost always in stories written and/or directed by men. Here are a few key characteristics to watch out for. 

  • Niche interests: MPDGs often steer clear of stereotypically feminine hobbies. Instead, they enjoy offbeat activities that conveniently line up with the interests of the male lead—e.g., listening to indie music, reading obscure novels, or collecting quirky objects. 
  • A mystical worldview: A manic pixie dream girl has big feelings about what it means to truly live, offering a perspective her male counterpart never would have considered on his own. But she doesn’t always wear rose-colored glasses: Many of these characters have a tragic backstory from which their wisdom stems. 
  • A unique appearance: These women aren’t all red lipstick and curve-hugging dresses; instead, their fairy-like aesthetic only turns the heads of truly “soulful” men. Common looks include colorfully dyed hair, eccentric accessories, and mismatched outfits. The writer wants us to believe that an MPDG isn’t traditionally gorgeous or has no idea how attractive they really are—even though they’re nearly always played by conventionally beautiful actors.
  • Damsel-in-distress disorder: Many (but not all) MPDGs find themselves in need of rescuing, whether the danger stems from an internal or external threat. But she doesn’t get the chance to free herself; instead, she takes a backseat so the man can advance his own emotional growth by saving the day. 

Examples of manic pixie dream girls on film

Here are a few movies that feature supporting characters who fit the archetype.

  • Penny Lane, “Almost Famous” (2000)
    Crowe was writing manic pixie dream girls into his films years before “Elizabethtown.” Take the lovable, tragic Penny (Kate Hudson), a hanger-on of rising rock band Stillwater and the muse of besotted teen journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit). Her only goal is to act as mother and lover both to the band members and their entourage, supporting their rise to superstardom. Penny nearly overdoses on quaaludes late in the movie, but William comes to her rescue.
  • Sam Feehan, “Garden State” (2004)
    When the troubled Andrew Largeman (writer-director Zach Braff) returns to his hometown for his mother’s funeral, it seems like his depression will swallow him whole. That is, until he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a quirky, unpredictable local who listens to the Shins and is prone to telling outlandish lies. Although she has her own challenges, the film only gives Andrew the space to grow from their relationship. 
  • Ramona Flowers, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)
    In this Edgar Wright film based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series, the title character (Michael Cera) falls fast and hard for Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mysterious woman with a penchant for dying her hair every other week and collecting herbal tea. She exists mostly to give Scott a quest: defeat her seven evil exes and emerge triumphant. (O’Malley and BenDavid Grabinski revisited the character in 2023’s “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” which tells an alternate version of the story from Ramona’s perspective.)

Mislabeled manic pixie dream girls

Not all oddball, heart-on-their-sleeve female love interests are MPDGs. In fact, some were specifically written to comment on and eschew the trope. Here are a few who appear to fit the label but ultimately transcend it.

  • Clementine Kruczynski, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)
    Clementine’s bright blue hair and wild-child tendencies seemingly make her the poster child for MPDGs everywhere. But from the very beginning of this Michel Gondry classic, she establishes that she’s not the fantasy that Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) sees her as. Not only does she have her own agency, but she makes decisions that actively hurt her lovelorn ex—namely, literally erasing him from her memory. Though the story unfolds from Joel’s perspective, it becomes increasingly apparent that he and Clementine’s stories are so intertwined that neither can change without the other.
  • Summer, “500 Days of Summer” (2009)
    When shy architect Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel) in this Marc Webb rom-com, he’s immediately smitten by her doe-eyed charm and love of the Smiths. Though he builds up an image of her in his mind as his dream woman, Summer makes it clear from the start exactly who she is and what she wants. Tom steadfastly ignores her commitment issues, and unlike other male leads, he only experiences growth after she breaks his heart. But Summer evolves, too, learning what a mature relationship could look like from their brief romance.

How to elevate the manic pixie dream girl archetype

If you find yourself staring down a role that fits this trope, there are ways to transcend what’s on the page and make the character your own.

Embrace quirkiness. There’s a reason people fall for MPDGs: They’re magnetic and lovable. So lean in to what makes your character unique; play up her quirks and draw audiences in with your mysterious, magical energy. The key, however, is to not make these affectations the whole character. Look beneath the surface: If she’s constantly dying her hair or is drawn to underground art, ask yourself why and build out the role from there.

Dig into the backstory. There’s a very good chance that your MPDG has a tragic past. Use that history to make the character more well-rounded, even if it’s not written into the script. Consider how that trauma affects her physicality, speech patterns, and the way she interacts with the people around her.

Connect with your costar. Your chemistry with the leading man will feel wooden if it’s one-sided. Although the classic MPDG exists solely to charm a less-than-charming guy, work with your costar to find the reason why she’s drawn to him. Elevating the connection between the two characters will draw audiences into both of their stories.