Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Throughout the novel, a house is not necessarily a home to the characters. Just as well, sometimes the most unlikely places become some of the most welcoming homes and havens. When Quentin and Margo drive around their suburb, going from house to house to exact revenge, they visit several enormous McMansions that reek with wealth. People’s houses often reflect their personalities, and not always in flattering ways. Jase, Margo’s ex-boyfriend and one of the biggest bullies in school, lives in a gigantic, hideous house with an incredibly elaborate security system.
Several characters have complicated relationships with where they live. Margo runs every so often, but even when she comes back, her parents are not welcoming. She does not feel that her house is a home, as evidenced by the way Mr. and Mrs. Jacobsen analyze Mr. and Mrs. Spiegelman’s questionable parenting techniques in front of Quentin. In a similar way, Radar feels uncomfortable inviting Angela over because his house has been completely overtaken by his parents’ collection of black Santas. He doesn’t have any physical room for his own interests because his parents’ interests are so predominant.
Instead, homes are found in other, more symbolic places. Radar finds a home on Omnictionary, the Wikipedia-esque, crowd-sourced encyclopedia on the Internet. Omnictionary travels everywhere with Radar, and he can escape into it at any time. Margo feels alienated from her family, but she finds a haven in the abandoned minimall, where she camps out after her adventure with Quentin. When Quentin and his friends drive to Agloe, New York, Quentin compares his minivan to a house, labeling sections of the car as the living room, kitchen, and the bedroom. Ultimately, the definition of a home in Paper Towns is more about who or what is in the space rather than what the space is.
The titular “paper towns” turn out to have several meanings that unfold throughout the novel. One definition of a paper town is a “pseudovision,” a suburban development or subdivision that has been abandoned before its completion. (The word pseudovision is a portmanteau for “pseudo,” meaning “fake,” and “division,” which is short for “subdivision.”) Quentin knows that Margo is fascinated with paper towns, which is why he initially believes that she has run away to one of these pseudovisions. However, the definition of paper towns as pseudovisions is a red herring, or a misleading clue. Another definition of “paper town” is a fictitious location that a mapmaker puts on a map to avoid copyright infringement. If mapmakers find a map published by a different company but that includes the fictitious town, they know that their original map has been plagiarized. Quentin finally cracks the mystery of Margo’s disappearance when he realizes that the kind of paper town she has been referring to is not a paper town that seems fake because it was never built, but a town that is actually fake because it never existed in the first place.
Although John Green never mentions this in the book, a “Mountweazel” is another name for a paper town, and Myrna Mountweazel is the name of the Spiegelmans’ dog. There is irony in that the answer for the correct definition of paper town is hiding in plain sight in front of both Quentin and reader the whole time.
Paper towns also come to be associated with any place or person that seems fake, or duplicitous. The first instance is when Quentin and Margo climb to the top of the SunTrust Building, and Margo looks down on Orlando to bemoan that it’s nothing but a fake “paper town.” Margo also refers to herself as a “paper girl,” implying that she feels obligated to behave in a certain way to uphold her reputation or to fill a certain role. When Quentin finds Margo in Agloe and she tells him why she ran away, she admits to thinking that Quentin was a “paper boy” for a long time, because in her mind he never progressed beyond the paper, imaginary version of himself that she wrote into her detective novel. By the end of the novel, the illusion of paper towns and paper people comes crumbling down. Quentin recognizes that he appreciates his town and his roots, and recognizes Margo for the real person she is. Likewise, Margo confesses that on the night of their adventure, Quentin became not just a paper boy, but a real person to her.