About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.

I’ve Got Your Back: Buddy Stories and Female Archetypes

by Scott Shields

Buddy stories date back to the beginning of literature, and they are a fantastic vehicle for writers to display their characters’ personalities.  Whether it is Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Frodo and Sam, Butch Cassidy and Sundance, or “The Dude” Lebowski and Walter Sobchak, countless male examples abound in all story genres.  Yet when looking for female versions of the classic buddy story archetype, the list becomes substantially shorter and the characters’ roles are often different than those of their male counterparts.

The first thing to consider is the moniker, “buddy story.”  The term “buddy” typically carries male connotations, yet there is really no other word in English to describe close female friendships in this way.  Women often use words like “girlfriend” or “sister” in this way, but these words are not exclusive to describing friendships, and they can carry very different connotations in other contexts.  In recent years, the abbreviation “BFF” (Best Friends Forever) has come into vogue, and this seems to be used primarily by females.  Still, no one currently talks about experiencing a “BFF story” in print or on film.  So for lack of a better term, I will stick with “buddy story” in describing tales involving two female characters on a fictional journey.

Very often, female buddies appear in comic roles.  Mistresses Ford and Page from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor set the precedent for female friends who get themselves in and out of trouble together for the sake of a good laugh.  These character types would later appear as Lucy and Ethel in the 1950s and two decades later as Laverne and Shirley.

What is interesting here is the roles these female comics play compared to their male counterparts.  In comic roles, the male buddies usually have two roles:  the straight man and the fool.  The fool is often brunt of the straight man’s jokes or the victim of other characters’ actions.  There is also a hierarchical structure to these relationships;  one of the guys is clearly in charge, whereas the other follows orders.

This dichotomy of roles seldom exists to this extent in female buddy stories.  Instead, the women are either equal in their foolishness or they are the normal “everywoman” characters trying to overcome the foolishness of those around them (more often the idiotic men around them).  Does this suggest that audiences are uncomfortable with the notion of witnessing a woman being victimized in this way or being made to look foolish?  Or is it simply easier or more natural to cheer on female underdogs as they navigate a foolish and oppressive society together as equals (perhaps a more realistic scenario for women, historically speaking)?

Sometimes female comic roles dabble in the dramatic sphere and depict the various life stages of women.  For example, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell portray good friends who navigate the minefields of men and romance together in the comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams explore teenage friendship in the history-spoofing film Dick.  Likewise, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion features two lifelong friends who have supported each other through the travails of adolescence and adulthood.  Cultural differences are bridged in the comedy-drama Bend It Like Beckham, as are the realities of domestic abuse in Fried Green Tomatoes.

Law enforcement, a long-standing platform for male buddy stories, has its feminine counterparts as well.  The television series Cagney and Lacey broke new ground in its portrayal of women detectives, and in the comedy The Heat, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy play a female odd couple waging a battle against crime.  In this female cop version of The Odd Couple, Bullock’s character plays the straight role while McCarthy plays the uncouth fool.

When surveying women’s roles in dramatic films, none conjure the female buddy archetype better than Thelma and Louise.  In a picaresque story reminiscent of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (a story that mirrors many elements of Twain’s novel), two friends are brought closer together as they race west while dodging the law.  While they are on the highway, life is good.  But with every stop along the way, they find themselves getting deeper into trouble until they run out of road and there is nowhere for them to go but down.  Truly, they are BFFs to the end (or at least to the end of their steep downward journey).

The buddy story archetype has long been rich ground for writers, particularly where male characters are concerned.  Nevertheless, the list of female examples is rather sparse, comparatively speaking.  In thinking about the roles that women have in these narratives, it is striking how many films depict the female buddy archetype not so much in pairs—as is most common when the characters are male—but rather as an ensemble of female characters.  Is this because close female friendships do not exist in pairs very often in real life, or are there other factors at play?  Perhaps this will be the topic I explore in my next article.

How to Run a Writing Group: Could You Give Me a Jump?

The assorted authors on this blog belong to a writing group in Phoenix, Arizona, and we thought we would share some of our ideas and experience. This is one in a series of posts we’ve put together on The Care and Feeding of a Writing Group.

Keeping Creative Ideas Flowing

what are word for?

(Photo credit: Darwin Bell)

Many writers have a love/hate relationship with their craft. When things are going well, the creative rush propels you along effortlessly. When things are not going well, squeezing out words feels like you’re trying to pour cold molasses.

One method my writing group uses to jump-start the writing process during those inevitable dry spells is something we call “keyword exercises.” The idea is this: If someone has developed a case of creative constipation or is otherwise stuck between writing projects, we ask that they write a short piece based on a particular word. The words are usually chosen at random, and the writing could either incorporate the word directly or simply be inspired in some way by the word itself. The goal is to write at least one page about something—anything—because we think that writing something is infinitely more beneficial than writing nothing at all.

The results of these exercises are interesting to read, with the products ranging from rants about personal pet-peeves to full-blown poems or short stories. We’ve sometimes challenged each other to write material in a new genre, or we will place limits on the parameters of the piece (such as writing an entire narrative using only one-syllable words). In fact, these self-imposed limitations often elicit the most creative responses.

There are plenty of variations on these sorts of writing exercises. For example, instead of choosing words at random, we will sometimes generate lists of nouns, verbs, or adjectives and develop those words into a passage of writing. Other times, we pick words from different categories (such as character types, occupations, locations, and situations) and craft those combinations into short scenes or vignettes. Online resources such as name generators and tagline creators are also helpful for compiling these sorts of lists, and some programs will even create plot scenarios for fiction writing.

Another springboard we have used to aid our creative processes is a method inspired by the authors of The Chopin Manuscript (published in 2008). This suspense novel was a collaborative effort of fifteen thriller authors. Jeffery Deaver created the initial characters and set the story in motion, and the other authors each carried the story forward by writing the subsequent chapters. Our writing group did two renditions of this, and you can check both our first Cakepan Manuscript and second Cakepan Manuscript on our blog. 

Even for the most skilled wordsmiths, writing is seldom easy. Our writing group has been fortunate enough to find several useful exercises that have seen us through many barren seasons in the creative desert. But as one of our members likes to say, writing is a lot like pushing a stalled truck down the road. The hardest part is getting started. After that, it’s all about maintaining the momentum.

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Making Santa PC?

English: Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, &q...

English: Thomas Nast’s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough” in which Nast set aside his regular news and political coverage to do a Santa Claus drawing. The popularity of that image prompted him to create another illustration in 1881. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot…

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!”

from “A Visit from St. Nicholas”



I suppose it was only a matter of time.  In an age where fitness gurus saturate the airwaves and Scandinavian policymakers are calling for bans on butter in schools, it shouldn’t be too surprising that someone would take aim at that nefarious corrupter of public morals: Santa Claus.

The Associated Press recently reported that author Pamela McColl mortgaged her house and spent 200,000 of her own Canadian dollars to publish and promote a reworking of Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (otherwise known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”).  Only the new version bowdlerizes some lines McColl deems objectionable: “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, / And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.”

The dust jacket of McColl’s book also includes a letter from Santa stating that “all of that old tired business of smoking” is behind him, and that out of respect for animals, his clothing is now made from faux fur.  The book has been praised by groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.  However, the American Library Association views McColl’s work as nothing less than censorship.

Apparently, McColl’s animosity towards tobacco began when she was eighteen years old and had to pull her father out of his burning bed after he’d fallen asleep with a lit cigarette.  Of course like many anti-vice crusaders, she was a smoker herself when she was young but later kicked the habit.  (As my grandpa used to say:  “There’s nothing worse than a reformed drunk.”)

Personally, I find McColl’s fixation on Santa’s pipe a bit amusing.  I remember the illustrated edition of Moore’ classic poem that my mother read to me as a child—complete with a painting of Mister Claus puffing on a big-bowled Meerschaum while enjoying a brief respite from his night’s busy labors.

Apart from Middle Earth and Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Devil Anse Hatfield, pipe smokers are pretty much a dying breed these days.  So the idea that Santa is somehow inspiring a new generation of toddlers to light up a briar is naive at best, and it is yet another example of political correctness gone awry.  So what’s next?  Non-fat, sugar-free sugar-plums?  Safety guardrails on rooftops and chimneys?  A flame-retardant suit for old Saint Nick?  Or how about a worldwide ban on wood-burning fireplaces?

If McColl had her way, she’d likely have Santa on a regimented exercise plan to trim away that unhealthy layer of flab around his mid-section.  But then again, she’s probably the sort of person who thinks that rewriting Huckleberry Finn for a modern audience is a good idea, too.

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Paralysis of Analysis

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” (Harriet Braiker, American psychologist and writer)

For years I’ve had a recurring dream. I’m on stage in a concert arena drumming for one of my favorite bands. The lights are flashing. The crowd is cheering. And then on cue, we launch into some complicated instrumental break. It’s at this point that I look around and realize that I am not really in this band, and there’s no way I’m talented enough to play the sorts of things I find myself playing. My hands grow heavy, the song falls apart, and the crowd becomes an angry, screaming throng.

I can only guess what Freud would have to say about these dreams, but I’ve always viewed them as a sobering commentary on both my aspirations as well as my limitations as an artist.

In his collection of journals entitled Confessions of a Barbarian, the twenty-five-year-old Edward Abbey ponders the progress he is making on his first novel:

“At times I’m afraid to read what I’ve written, almost superstitiously afraid—and then at other times I do work up enough courage to hastily read snatches chosen at random. The effects are mixed—parts of the book seem hilariously funny, beautifully written, packed and quivering with life. And then I’ll read the same passage again, or another, and it will seem dead as junkyard iron, pretentious and false, weak, thin, spineless, empty and hideous.”

I think all writers who are honest with themselves can relate to these sentiments. We have a vision of what we would like our words to achieve, yet in the process of giving form to this vision, we worry that something has somehow gotten lost. We rework the material—often to the point of draining away its life—because we fear that we’ve missed the mark artistically.

At a certain level, these sorts of self-doubts may be healthy, for they spur us on to perfect our skills. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of talented writers whose work is in a perpetual state of revision, and they never seem to muster the courage necessary to submit their material for publication.

Speaking personally, I realized a long time ago that I may never be as skilled as some of my favorite authors; that level of talent is rare in this world. Yet I still have a voice, and I’d like to think that I have at least a few things to say that others might be interested in reading. Will these pieces be perfect? Probably not, but that’s okay. Like a diamond, it’s often those slight imperfections that provide the most luster.

Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012 from The University of the Arts (Phl) on Vimeo.

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Cakepan II: Chapter Four – Going Down

This is a creative writing experiment, shamelessly stolen from the Chopin Manuscript: a serialized story where each author writes a different chapter. The members of this blog are each writing their own chapter, and we’re calling ours the “Cakepan Manuscript”. This is our second story.

For this story we used a random plot generator, which gave us: “The story starts when your protagonist gets lost. Another character is an anesthesist who is researching something terrible.” You can start reading at Chapter One, and each week we will post a new chapter until we reach the thrilling conclusion!

We hope you enjoy!

Chapter Four: Going Down

English: Combination of two brain diagrams in ...

Image via Wikipedia

“Where are we going?” Russ asked.

“The Morgue.”

The ride down to the basement was a quick one, and Russ noticed that there were twenty buttons marked on the elevator control panel in addition to those marked R and B. Russ felt his stomach rise as they neared the bottom, and when they stopped, the elevator doors opened onto a long, narrow corridor.

They hurried down the hallway and rounded a corner to another secured door. Again, Udo swiped his card across the electric card reader and a set of double doors swung open into a large room filled with metal tables. Three of the tables had corpses on them in various stages of dismemberment.

“I hope you’re not squeamish,” said Udo. Strangely enough, Russ felt oddly at ease amid this gore. He walked over and looked into a stainless steel tray filled with organs: a heart, a pair of lungs, a gall bladder, and a severely damaged liver. “This guy was a boozer,” thought Russ, and he could see from the dissected lymph nodes lying next to the fellow’s open chest cavity that this patient had developed a virulent form of cancer. But how did he know that?

“Check this out,” said Udo as he pulled back the skin on top of the patient’s skull. The frontal bones had already been sawed away to reveal the brain. Yet this was a specimen unlike anything Russ had ever seen before.

“Good God,” said Russ. Instead of a normal-looking brain with its curled and spongy tissue, this brain appeared mutilated—even dissolved. “It looks like someone poured acid into his head.”

“And he’s not the only one,” said Udo as he walked over to the next table and peeled back the face of an old woman. Again, the skull had already been sawed open to reveal the brain tissue, and again, the tissue was pocked with gaping holes like the surface of Swiss cheese.

“What the hell would do something like this?” asked Russ. “Is it viral? No. Bacterial? Maybe. Chemical? Yeah…that could be it. Give me the autopsy reports.”

Udo did as commanded, and Russ skimmed through the details of the medical histories, processing the patients’ previous health conditions, surgeries, prescription medications and dosages—all with a mental dexterity that both baffled and frightened Russ. “Why on earth do I know all this?” he thought. “How is it that I can’t remember where I live or who my family is, but I can look at a cadaver or a medical chart and tell with one glance what killed the poor sucker?” Still, Russ felt some comfort in being able to focus on something and find at least a vague semblance of clarity.

“Are there others?” Russ barked. “Others with brains like this?”

“These two, plus five more that were shipped out last week,” said Udo.

“To be cremated, I presume?”

“Exactly,” said Udo. “They don’t appear to share any pathologies. Drinking killed this one, that woman died of heart failure.”

“What about the others. Any surgeries? Travel outside the country?”

“One had a knee replacement, another a facelift twenty years ago. Ordinary stuff. They all died of the usual geriatric conditions. The only thing they really had in common is that they were all patients here.”

“What kind of patients?”


“These brains don’t show any signs of Alzheimer’s.”

“No, but they all came from the 14th floor.”

This revelation stopped Russ cold. “The 14th?”

“Yep, that’s the Alzheimer’s ward. And there’s one other thing I’ve noticed. They’ve all got a mark at the base of their skulls—just left of the vertebrae. Come look.” Udo lifted the woman’s shoulder so that Russ could see the back of her head. There it was: a tiny blue dot, no larger than a bug bite.

Instinctively, Russ felt the back of his neck and noticed a tender spot. “Do I?” he asked.

“Let’s take a look,” replied Udo.

At that moment, they heard footsteps coming down the hallway, and after a loud mechanical click, the double-doors swung open with a bang.

(Continued in Chapter Five)