Wednesday, June 25

Pwyll, Part I: A Reduction of the Peter Principle and Fictional Leadership

Part of the fun of setting up this posit and axiom system is that I get to give the reader the option of writing a response, while at the same time pondering the depth and direction of my own response. It's all fun and games 'til someone pokes her eye out, of course. The difference between real leadership and fictional leadership is that the consequences of success or failure are not as controlled as we writers like to think.

In the real world, poor leadership can be “spun” as innovative, optimistic, or simply the underdog in an epic conspiracy. When this is attempted in fiction, readers tend to notice. Readers think differently about fictional leadership than they do about “real world” issues, for whatever reason. We demand more sense and order in fiction than we do in truth.

But the question asked was what qualifications do you, as a writer, seek in your fictional leaders?

Pwyll is presented as an adult in this story. Young, perhaps, but not inexperienced. We do not read about his childhood or his education, that we could glean training techniques for future would-be leaders. Think about this, though: he cannot have sprung from the ground, fully formed. Prior to demonstrating his potential for leadership, he had to have both learned how to lead and demonstrated his skills to people who wished to be led. (Celtic lordship wasn't passed from father to son—a candidate had to prove himself.)

Young writers, if your kings, lords, chieftains, etc. are not demonstrating leadership skills, you have a problem. You need to make genuine leaders out of your heirs, rebels, upstarts, and politicians. Simply giving them a title and writing in underlings who say “Yes, sir” or “As you command, ma'am” will not grant them any authority. And this does, indeed, weaken the believability of your story.

One does not have to study international politics to write a king, nor does one have to master the twelve steps of Tae Kwon Leap to conquer the hearts and minds of a people (see below). As a writer, you can base your leaders' training and understanding on your own experiences. Most of us do. (Which may be why some “leaders” you meet in fiction don't reveal their plans, assign responsibilities or boundaries, or take responsibility for their actions.) Learn to use what you know for good.



For example, as a child I participated in a leadership training program (similar to Girl Scouts, but more purpose-driven). I didn't realize that's what it was. I just wanted to spend time with friends, working on projects together, and derived a lot of pleasure out of meeting goals that were age-appropriate. But the brilliance of this program was that the girls learned (a) interesting, relevant information, (b) how to teach this information to a peer, (c) practical application of this information in personal philosophy, and (d) how to both serve and lead in this application. Each step of instruction lead to the next, and each new goal built upon what we'd already learned. All of which meant we had a small tribe of organized middle school mafia bosses running rampant in our church.

I know, I know. Duck and cover.

But this prepared me to see leadership as an ongoing training exercise, rather than a horrible and incomprehensible weight dumped on unsuspecting heads of state. Stephen R. Lawhead's Song of Albion trilogy (upon which I wax poetic regularly) includes Lawhead's—as well as Lewis' and Tegid's—understanding of druidic education, also mirrors this leader-in-training concept. I don't claim any sort of expertise in pagan Celtic faith, but this is a rough outline of Lawhead's take on the religious caste system of his Otherworld:
  • Mabinogi—students who undertake to learn first a lot of oral rote memorization and second the stories included in The Mabinogion. They often do grunt work within the training regimen, though their instructors keep an eye out for students open to spiritual intuition.
  • Filidh—kind of like TAs, in that they help with memorization for younger students, but they also serve the upper ranks. When sent into the community on their own, they serve as storytellers.
  • Brehon—educated civil servants, these might officiate a wedding or build a bridge. They travel with more freedom and responsibility, using their knowledge to help many different walks of life.
  • Gwyddon—counselors and advisers, they combine their education and people skills to shape leadership and direct goals of a clan or tribe. They wander far less than their juniors, and there can be a spiritual element to their service.
  • Derwydd—kingmakers and priests, the soul of the culture is their primary concern. Wherever they teach, be their audience one or a hundred, a farmer or a warrior, they challenge people to think deeply.
  • Penderwyddi—the buck stops here. These men administer all aspects of this system, serving as leaders of an entire hierarchy of wheels within wheels.
  • Phantarch—one seer, or prophet, who has successfully served in all these aspects and is trusted by his peers to pursue and protect the spiritual collective of their people.

Regardless of what kind of leadership or authority structure you use, young writer, you need to have one. You might not be familiar or comfortable with leadership. That's OK. Most of us aren't. You can write about families, or mountain men, or orphaned boys with their father's light-saber, but at some point there will be an authority figure in your story. It might be a parent. It might be a judge. It might be your character, becoming the unlikeliest king. But think about how this leader came to carry his/her responsibilities.

We all come from somewhere, after all. This generally informs where we will go in our futures, though it doesn't have to. As we will see later in the other chapters of Pwyll's life, he sometimes stands on his own and sometimes leans on the wisdom of others.

But that's a story for another day...

Monday, June 9

Pwyll, Part I: A Reduction of the Peter Principle and...

While I would dearly love to post the last of the Twelve Dancing Princesses POVs, I have had a request with time constraints. Here in the Low Country, we have an election tomorrow. There is absolutely NO plan to turn this blog the least bit political, but I happen to know how to use a particular fairy tale when thinking about tomorrow's Boston Tea Party. (Really, shouldn't we all disguise ourselves if we're going to throw out long-nosed liars and loud-mouthed donkeys?)





But first, a sad truth. The Peter Principle is a semi-humorous argument about management and leadership that claims everyone rises to his own level of incompetence. There is a little fact behind this, because if you keep doing good until you hit upon a task you cannot accomplish, you will tap yourself out. That doesn't make people incapable of learning or “doing a thing you think you cannot,” but it does indicate that people who promote others heedlessly are thinking in limited dimensions.



How, then, would one promote someone with purpose and good faith?



Ladies and gentlemen, meet Pwyll. He is a Welsh lord from the Druidic Mabinogian, which was required memorization back in the day. (But only if you wanted to be a lawyer, counselor, civil servant, or religious leader.) This is a long story (a version of which can be found here), and below I break down the first chapter of his life as it specifically applies to leadership qualifications. I don't usually, but this story requires some critical thinking and foreknowledge to get to the meat of what we need.



Oh, and if—like me—you pronounce everything in your head, “Poo-ihl” is a close approximation of proper Welsh pronunciation. (I'm told a full set of teeth is an impairment to getting it right.)



  1. Initiative
    Pwyll is busy getting things done. It's how he first attracts the attention of the Otherworld. He does something wrong, to be sure, but he does not hesitate to take action. 
     
  2. Humility in private
    Pwyll is confronted with the wrong he has done, and he takes his lumps with a distinct lack of arrogance. Catching the notice of the Otherworld is one thing. Impressing the Otherworld is quite another, and Pwyll's immediate apology and offer of atonement is worthy of further attention. 
     
  3. Healthy response to authority
    When Arawn (yup—“Ara-oon”) introduces himself and suggests an impossible task, Pwyll doesn't argue. He doesn't counteroffer or ask suspicious questions. Pwyll is an authority figure to his own people—a position he had earned—and he respects Arawn's authority in kind. 
     
  4. Temporary promotion
    Arawn gives Pwyll his job, his responsibilities, his life for a year and a day. With only one task to perform. Pwyll does three noteworthy things with his time:
    1. Maintains a good system
      Annwn (pronounced “An-noon”) is a well-ordered kingdom with an established system of justice and bureaucracy. Pwyll does not change this system. He makes considerable effort to keep that system in good repair. 
       
    2. ABCD Integrity*
      This isn't in every version of the story, but it is consistent with character qualities Pwyll exhibits in the other chapters. Pwyll has the opportunity to avail himself of privileges and perks only available to this higher position. And he keeps his sticky fingers to himself. 
       
    3. Completes his task
      Pwyll was given very specific instructions about his battle with Hafgan. He does not deviate from these instructions. He doesn't try to be clever in Arawn's absence. 
       
  5. Leaves the office better than he found it
    Pwyll has a year to think about that battle with Hafgan. How a great king like Arawn might have failed before, how these instructions are meant for good and not for evil. When Pwyll faces Arawn's old adversary, he plays it smart.** He not only takes nothing for himself, he serves the greater good of the office he has temporarily manned. 
     
  6. Returns home
    Pwyll is prompt about returning home. He does not extend his stay in the Otherworld. But once he arrives safely back in Dyfed, he keeps the lessons he learned in Annwn—not to mention the confidence of a powerful new ally.



Sometimes, politicians don't meet these requirements. On rare occasions, they will. Expecting this list to be met is a hard line to draw in the sand. Worth the trouble, I should think, but we live in a world where people promote themselves as leaders, rather than the community/country pushing a trusted individual forwards.



For the writers who need a challenge, what do you build into your imaginary leaders? Are your kings and queens granted authority because you need a warm body on the throne, or because they have demonstrated a set of skills that make them worthy of the crown? If you wouldn't use this criteria to find a leader, what qualifications do you seek?













*ABCD stands for Above and Beyond the Call of Duty. Pwyll chooses to keep his back to Arawn's queen during his stay. When the Otherworld king returns home, he is surprised and humbled by the care Pwyll took to be trustworthy. Arawn didn't ask Pwyll of this level of honor.



**There is a big difference between being smart and being clever. Clever requires an audience to see how it has outwitted someone. A lot of arrogance at work, there. Smart has its roots in making the best choice. Though not a rule, it can be exempt from all thoughts of self.

Saturday, June 7

Twelve Dancing Princesses and a Benched Father

There are those who would argue that a fairy tale without omniscience and situational irony is no fairy tale at all. Oh, please. Those are elements that make the reader feel safe—high above the events of the story, so to speak—but they are by no means required. We can still have the wonder and truth of a fairy tale when one clueless narrator hangs on for dear life.

Stories like this one.*

If you sat down to rewrite the Twelve Dancing Princesses from the king's point-of-view, not much of the plot needs to change. You still have a man with a problem, an impossible solution, and an unlikely savior. But in some ways, the king's point-of-view is the most familiar to beginning writers.

In becoming writers, we must begin to observe human interaction. To see new characters, to find different relationships, to explain the chaos in our corner of the universe. For most of us, this kind of watchfulness is no hardship. Being either introverts or antisocial (really, the two are different), we easily settle onto the sidelines and record our understanding of reality. We see patterns, try to predict or even deflect them, and all this time on the bench gives us both a kinship with outsiders and a desire to govern our story's universe a little better.

And while that desire to play God comes out in the king's reactive behavior, we writers must still face the fact that armchair coaches live vicariously. Someone else makes the play, says the line, gets the girl—and our dependency on those outside forces keeps us safe from the risk of failure. Most fantasy depends on a certain amount of this laissez-faire approach. Merlin from the King Arthur legends, who knew everything and served as an advisor and kingmaker. Bob Balaban's character from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who could put all the information together but was neither a brave explorer nor a passionate scientist.

NONE of this is to say that we observers cannot write adventures, myths, or extroverted characters. But when writing from one point-of-view, the author moves into the action. To be part of a scene, a story, and adventure is to miss other parts of life around you. The moment we shift from the sidelines to the play, we cannot see everything. Telling this story from the king's point-of-view, he misses the nighttime adventures. He sits and waits, through one failed suitor after another, and that perspective needs to be respected.

The motivations for an armchair perspective need to be justified, of course. Mourning is believable. The king has lost his loving queen, and perhaps all hope of generating his own son to inherit the throne, so his out-of-control daughters become a believable consequence of his retreating from the field of play. The conflict is pretty straightforward, too. Someone else is making the trouble, and their mess has become his problem. That perspective neatly sidesteps any personal responsibility.

Part of the wonder of a realistic point-of-view, paradoxically, is that it isn't always based on reality. Your narrative character need not be crazy to be out of touch. He could simply only see the world for how it serves him best. A fresh pair of eyes might change the way he sees things—but that would require him to listen to outside sources. Some blinders are put on people by parents, circumstances, education, or beliefs, but some of these blinders are voluntary.

Trickier to define for this benched dad are his goals. Solving the riddle of his daughters' night life is only temporary. Finding a successor addresses his country's needs, to be sure, but not his own. What kind of personal goals would you give this man? Does he need a healed heart? A new purpose in life? To lay to rest old ghosts? The further to the side this kind of character lives from the story's action, the harder it is for a writer to develop and communicate these goals.

Keep in mind, young writers, that a well-rounded character needs to be more than the events you set in your story. He needs a whole life—complete with unanswered questions, strengths and weaknesses, and motivating goals. Not just motivations from the past, but intentions about the future that fuel his decisions.

Even if he's introverted.

Even if he's anti-social.

Even if he doesn't have the starring role.

Even if he reminds you of yourself.

Don't be afraid to think in different directions for your characters. How a character thinks may not be how a story ends up, but the whole of a soul should be represented on the page. This is harder to do when a character has a fundamentally different nature from the writer's, but even more important. Whether writing ourselves or wish fulfillment, we can be real and true with our unique characters.




*I'll only do that once, I promise.

Sunday, April 21

Twelve Dancing Princesses and Too Many Girls


I first was going to address this exercise as three answers to one question, but each answer deserves its own essay. (Plus, we are experiencing technical difficulties here at the hidden hut...) So, for today, just the ladies...

If you attacked “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” from a girl's point-of-view, you face the immediate problem of “Which girl?” Eldest sister? Youngest? Since the eldest is the one who marries, she's the most likely candidate. We'll call her Donna.* Reading this as a youngster, I always identified more with the youngest sister, who gave warnings no one heeded. We'll call her Cassandra.** You could do either, but the objective is to keep the POV in just one head.

Hope you chose wisely. 

In writerly circles, much is made of a character's GMC. Sadly, this isn't a car. It's short for “Goals, Motivations, and Conflict.” The idea being that each character has goals (or needs them), is motivated by something (externally or internally), and struggles with a conflict (which must be resolved). I'm not crazy about using this from a writer's perspective, but it is useful from a reader's perspective. (Why don't I like it for writers? Because in my limited experience, it leads to cardboard characters. I like my people on the page to move freely, and that requires more than this checklist.) Whether you're seeing through Donna's eyes, or Cassandra, it should be clear in the writing what her goals, motivations, and conflict are.

For Cassandra, these are easier. She wants to have a good time (she exhibits considerably less rebellion than, say, Donna)—check, Goal. She is prodded by her sister to “get with the program” (external prodding, rather than her own internal compass)—check, Motivations. She tells her sisters the truth, and they don't believe her (the classic “I told you so” mantra)—check Conflict. This doesn't make her interesting, though. If you wrote from her perspective, I expect she had memories and relationships and personal desires that conflicted with her sisters' plans for a night out.

For Donna, your choices would take her down a different path. Since the end result of the story is her marriage to the soldier-of-fortune, it is tempting to make this more of a romance than a straight forward adventure. But to wind up “happily ever after” with someone she has been plotting to kill, this creates some conflict for the writer. Not for the reader—because, let's face it, she deserves to wind up with someone who can outsmart her. But from a writer's perspective, trying to get inside Donna's head, it is important to see the events of the story through her eyes. Without the benefits of foreknowledge or omniscience.

Donna's goals? To get out of the house! (Honestly, if you had eleven younger sisters, and none of you were married, the chafing to run your own home would be burning by now.) If she can't get married, she'll get jiggy with it.

Donna's motivations? Here, you must decide on rebellion, boredom, or anger. Each primary emotion would fuel a different line of thought, a difference course of action. If you chose another primary emotion, do make it real for the reader.

Donna's conflict? Whether tis nobler to stay a child in her father's house, or accept one of the fools who take up his offer to solve the riddle. Of all the princesses in this tale, she is the one with the power to end the shenanigans. And she never does. Up until the bitter end, she takes the girls out every night. Why? She clearly wasn't overly attached to any of the fellows she and her sisters partied with every night.

These questions and answers don't address every aspect of how to rewrite this story from a lone female POV. But, in addressing the chosen narrator's feelings, decisions, and actions with her GMC in mind, the story should take on a little more drama.

Shelley Duval's Faerie Tale Theatre took a condensed version of the story, available here:

Much more recently, Mattel's Barbie rewrote the story with affectionate sisters, a stepmother, and a legitimized reason for the dancing:

Next time, Daddy dearest will take center stage...








* Why Donna? “Prima Donna” is Italian for “first woman,” and is often used to either describe a principal character or a diva who demands a spotlight at all times.

**Why Cassandra? In Greek mythology, the god Apollo gave Cassandra foreknowledge in exchange for her favors. When she did not give him her love in return, he cursed her to never be believed when she prophesied.  

Monday, April 8

Twelve Dancing Princesses and...


Oh, my good Lord! Where are my manners? To talk about fairy tales and archetypes and various aspects of the writing craft—like plot or backstory—and then NOT mention point-of-view. What was I thinking?

So sorry. On to a proper story...

Part of the wonder of a fairy tale—whether it is oral or written—is in the perspective of the narrator. Rarely is the audience given the impression that a key member of the cast is the one telling the story. This allows the narrator to freely move from place to place, from character to character, without disrupting the framework of the tale. In “Snow White,” for example, we pay a few visits to the Evil Queen's private chambers to see her with the mirror, the huntsman, and the witchcraft—even though Snow White never stops being our protagonist.

Now, not all fairy tales bounce between the good guys and the bad guys. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is one of many stories that follow the fairy tale recipe of opening with the problem, then following the hero (or heroine) as he (or she) solves the problem. In modern story-telling, this technique is frowned upon, because writers are encouraged to be consistent in their point-of-view. (Unless they have a well-established fan base, as many a beginning author may complain.) To begin with a clear, consistent pattern of following the actions and thoughts of one (or a select few) character. Omniscient point-of-view has fallen very much by the wayside these days.

Not always a bad thing. But sometimes limiting, especially for fairy tales.

To pick apart point-of-view, there are any number of stories we could be using. What works about “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in this case is how the story teller keeps secrets from the reader. We uncover the mystery and see its resolution in time with the soldier of fortune hero. Not in time with the angry princesses' reactions, or the king's desperation. And, we have the added bonus of seeing the characters' actions, not their thoughts.

Before I delve into point-of-view, its uses, its powers, and its limitations, you might take a little time to examine this story. How might you tell the story differently if you could only choose one point-of-view? Try once through the soldier of fortune's eyes, once through at least one of the princesses', and once through the king's. A different perspective might force you to restructure the story, so don't be afraid to move events around or create extra ones as needed. A different point-of-view, after all, means working with a different set of information. What's in the omniscient point-of-view is only one version of the truth...

Best of luck! 

Tuesday, October 16

The Devil, Three Golden Hairs, and Some Just Desserts

The great question, when writing one of these, is how much do I assume you've read of the story in question? If I assume none, then I have to rehash the plot. Which bores some people (like me). If I assume all, then I completely skip the plot and trust you to zip ahead with me. Which frustrates some people (who need the structure of the plot). Here's to hoping for a happy medium...

As I mentioned in the last post, the ending of this story is astonishingly satisfying. To get there, however, we do have to trudge the path of the plot's build-up and resolution. Why? Because we, the readers, are in on the dramatic irony of the story. (This means that the reader has more information than the characters.) Often used in omniscient storytelling, dramatic irony gives the reader insight or feelings that the characters themselves lack. In this case, we build up a particular set of feelings towards the king. 

As the antagonist of the story, it is hardly surprising that the king inserts himself early in the story. And tried to kill a helpless baby. Honestly, who's going to love the king after that? In an astonishing show of grace (or fate), the babe survives and grows up to be an admirable young man. Fun, hard-working, lovable, and outgoing, our hero is destined for great things. (Thanks to dramatic irony, we knows of the midwife's prophecy about the child, which only one other character knows about.) 

When the king returns and sets up the hero to be executed, we're already primed to hate the king for this. It is no hardship to cheer the boy and his unexpected friends and helpers along the way, but the king's long shadow hovers over the story. Whatever will become of a good boy who is hunted by such a ruthless jerk? 

The boy then goes on his adventure through the forest, once again propelled by the king who wants to kill him. On the one hand, shouldn't the king get the message that this boy cannot be murdered by indirect means? On the other, however, is our hero going to have to arrange for his own father-in-law's death? Let's hope not...

In the end, however, it is the surprising twist of how the hero handles the king that we find so satisfying. We like that he doesn't stoop to killing the king. We like that he is never faced with the truth of how many times the king tried to do away with him. We like that the king, instead, is punished by his own actions. The boy has only to make good use of the king's greed. 

Parts of this story are found in a lot of modern stories. Especially ones written with boys in mind for an audience. The appeal of outsmarting a devious opponent is universal. Jeffery Archer does it in books like A Matter of Honor or Honor Among Thieves, surprising his readers continually with good, loyal characters who beat the bad buys at their own games. Some modern authors beat the bad guys by destroying the game. Break the rules so badly that the game can never be played again, or kill the one character who makes the game work. (Hunger Games, Matrix trilogy, need I go on?) But as a good writer, how can you get your character out of this bad situation with some good character still intact? Killing a wicked character can feel good, but it's fleeting when compared to a story where good didn't just survive. Good triumphed. 

But that's a story for another day...

Wednesday, May 9

The Devil, Three Golden Hairs, and...


Twice this week I’ve written the same entry on "Jack and the Beanstalk", only to have my computer eat it before I could save it. It will write itself again. Mentioning devils who still live with their mothers last week kind of behooves me to dig into that story this week.
“The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs” is another fairy-tale-less-traveled that I love. The rhythm lends itself to telling aloud—preferably around a smoky fire with a bunch of snickering friends—and the plot takes some nice, unexpected turns. The archetypes in this one are different from what is usually found in fairy tales. This is almost another “soldier of fortune” fairy tale—but the youth of our hero fudges that line. There are actually several similar Russian fairy tales (a culture, like the Celts, with murky ties to age), but the German one is the most appropriate for this week.
Unlikely though it might seem if you’ve never read this story before, many of the motifs are common denominators in modern fiction. Aside from it being an entirely likeable story with easily drawn characters, the story has certain values that are universal.
Given your background, you might find rooting for the underdog the most familiar. Or the rags-to-riches aspect. What I’ll be focusing on this week is why most readers find the ending so satisfying.
What do you think…?