I've recently been watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix. Phryne Fisher is undoubtedly a wish-fulfillment character – almost unapologetically so. She is sexy, bold, and intelligent. Whenever a new challenge is put before her, she reveals a previously-unmentioned skill that saves the day (see the above image where she suddenly is able to fly an airplane). She flagrantly breaks the law in her detective work and yet rarely faces repercussions. And nearly every episode, she hooks up with some handsome young revolutionary.
Every time I watch the show, I am completely aware of how ridiculous the whole thing is – and I continue to enjoy it tremendously. The reality is, if you’re not trying to write great literature, wish fulfillment isn’t always the worst thing. Just about every action movie, every superhero comic, every romance novel, and every white-guy-finding-himself novel contains a heavy dose of wish fulfillment. Why? We had a relevant discussion in the comments of my newspost last week on women in webcomics. As KimLuster put it, “We want our Fairy-Tale Princesses to be pretty!” Part of the reason we watch movies and read comic books is escapism. We want to place ourselves in the shoes of people who are richer, better-looking, smarter, and who lead more exciting lives than we do!
The other reason why I am reluctant to bash Miss Fisher as a wish fulfillment character is that there is a gendered aspect to this. Men have been writing wish fulfillment pieces for themselves since forever. Just think about Captain Kirk, Indiana Jones, Scott Pilgrim, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Ferris Bueller, Ironman…it's almost too easy to list wish fulfillment characters from comics and movies. I love a lot of those characters, and I’m certainly not alone in that. But it feels nice to watch a lady get up to some of the same ridiculous hijinks that male characters have been getting up to for ages.
The downside to wish fulfillment is that you will probably garner a few eyerolls, especially from people who might not identify as closely with your character. I haven’t had this confirmed, but I figure most men won’t enjoy Miss Fisher as much as women (guys, feel free to chime in on this!). And there’s definitely a point at which suspension of disbelief just becomes too difficult for your reader – hence the hatred for “Mary Sue” characters, which I’ve discussed before.
How do you feel about wish fulfillment in popular culture? Is there an aspect of wish fulfillment to the things that you write?
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Wish FulfillmentHippieVan at 12:00AM, March 18, 2016
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Tantz_Aerine at 6:29PM, March 20, 2016
I'd say it depends on how the wish fulfillment is well... fulfilled. :) I watch Mrs Fischer myself. I love to hate some of the aspects and love to love all the rest. If I'd been a bit younger and not up to my neck in RL bullshit, I think the series would offer me a great fun time of identifying with her. As it is, the series itself is eye candy from the settings to the wardrobes, and it doesn't take itself too seriously. So I think wish fulfillment entertainment that does the same, is a-ok!
Banes at 11:27AM, March 20, 2016
Great article! I agree that wish fulfillment is a valid and important part of fiction. Personally I'm very interested in characters who are screwed up in some way...even severely screwed up or dysfunctional. They are characters I would never wish to BE, because of their issues, but they almost always have some traits that I wish I had. If that makes sense. Even with those characters, there is wish fulfillment at play in some ways. Very interesting article and comments!
strixvanallen at 9:50AM, March 19, 2016
Sometimes, I wonder if "Mary Sue" isn't simply the wish fulfilment of teenager girls, and the phrase was create because everyone who isn't a teenager girl feels the need to shame them on it. Of course I'm just wondering it for the sake of controversy. The phrase evolved a little beyond that, and I've tried to define what makes a character a "Mary Sue" before, but, in many places, "Mary Sue" is still used against a wish-fulfilment woman character, wheter she is awesome or not, which is interesting to note.
PaulEberhardt at 5:35AM, March 19, 2016
I think wish fulfilment is one of the most important things in fiction. It's usually that part that really gets readers' imagination into gear and draws them into the story. Whether or not it garners eyerolls is probably just a matter of how adroit you are at pulling it off.
Coydog at 11:44AM, March 18, 2016
They would have done better, IMO, to call it "Adventures" rather than "Mysteries". My mystery-loving mother who can quote each episode of "Murder, She Wrote" would be rolling her eyes in the first fifteen minutes of this one.
HippieVan at 9:30AM, March 18, 2016
@Oz: The mysteries are definitely not one of the stronger aspects of Miss Fisher.
bravo1102 at 8:48AM, March 18, 2016
As said in numerous war movie; sometimes it's not about winning, sometimes it is all you can do to stay alive till tomorrow.
HippieVan at 8:21AM, March 18, 2016
I didn't want this newspost to get too long, but there's definitely a difference between wish fulfillment for the character, for the audience, and for the author. Miss Fisher mostly gets what she wants, yes, but more importantly she gets what the audience wants, and that's what makes it enjoyable. Sometimes what the protagonist wants isn't what the audience wants. If the protagonist is getting what the author wants, that's when you get annoying obvious self-insert characters. Unless your audience also wants what you want, in which case you're golden.
bravo1102 at 7:38AM, March 18, 2016
Then there are the great tales where the protagonist works very hard to make their dreams come true and there is also a very heavy price to be paid. A good old fashioned melodrama.
KimLuster at 4:53AM, March 18, 2016
I also think there's nothing wrong with a bit of wish-fulfillment (taken as far as you want to take it) and I guess the ultimate judge of whether you went too far is if your audience likes it or not! If your character is obviously a clone of yourself (except she's better looking and good at EVERYTHING) but everyone enjoys it - then... well who cares!! ;). All of us agree that it's more mature to not do that, but let's be honest, sometimes 'immature' stuff is hellafun!! But I also agree with Bravo that it's very interesting when the character's themselves have wishes - wishes that get fulfilled in the story, but come with a host of 'extra stuff' or bring circumstances that causes problems for the character! Ex: Disney's Aladdin, Lucy (the movie), Phenomenon (with John Travolta)!
bravo1102 at 2:09AM, March 18, 2016
I've always liked stories where the fulfillment of the wish led to its own series of problems as in the saying "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it." Again I have to point to Twilight Zone episodes as my favorites like "Man in the bottle " or "Three Wishes" or even "Time enough at last"
Ozoneocean at 12:24AM, March 18, 2016
BUT, to look at it in its own right, ignoring the flimsy "mysteries" aspect, it's a good costume series of one of my favourite periods. It's funny, has some good historical titbits and is a reasonably decent action drama. I just wish the writing was a little more clever.
Ozoneocean at 12:21AM, March 18, 2016
I loved the Fisher mysteries initially, but the wish fulfilment aspect got in the way of everything else- specifically characterisation the plotting and the mysteries themselves. Everything was a really thin backdrop for Phryne. That's fine for some genres of shows, but when you have "mysteries" in the title I sort of expect more. Partly I was really wanting it to be another "Nero Wolfe mysteries" type show (excellent Canadian production), because it had Mysteries in the title, it's about a PI AND it's a period costume show.... so many similarities. But I was disappointed on the front. Foolishly so, Kerry Greenwood is NO Rex Stout!