Tuesday, January 31

The Sparrow's Gift and...

Given the plethora of Hansel and Gretel variants that are airing on television, I had expected to tackle another familiar tale this week. This Japanese story enchanted me, however, and struck some deep chords. So, into the wild I go. Please join me... 
“The Sparrow’s Gift” is a fairy tale with a character who changes, which is somewhat rare in fairy tales. We are so used to “stock characters” in fairy tales—evil stepmothers, ugly stepsisters, damsels in distress, etc.—that a story whose whole purpose is the turning of a character seems out of place. These stock characters are easier for youngsters to identify with, so they are the stories we ask for in nurseries and at bedtime. This story, however, is for grown-ups.
Not because it is so worldly or filled with dangerous themes. Rather, because young audiences seldom appreciate patience or kindness towards those who do not deserve it. Many of us cheer when Cinderella’s stepsisters get their eyes pecked out. We want Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged house to eat her up, rather than torment the brave youth. The old woman in this story, however, isn’t eternally punished for her evil deeds. She is exposed to the error of her ways and then—much to our surprise—proceeds to change.
What kind of evil witch is this?
She’s a person, silly. It is easy to blame evil on others when we are young, for bad things surely cannot be our fault. When we are grown, though, we no longer have that excuse. Bad things may happen to us, of course, but a part of growing up is accepting responsibility for the consequences of our actions. The expression “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”—meaning people become set in their ways and are incapable of change—is a convenient lie the lazy give to keep from being responsible.
If this old woman could change, why can’t you? Or I, for that matter?
As a writer, though, the question becomes more academic and less personal. The reader does not know at the beginning of the story that the old woman will change. (In some versions, she does not!) Is it necessary for the writer to create sympathy for the character? Given that most of the story covers the mean-spiritedness of the old woman, how much of her new life does the reader need to see to believe? Is there a formula for this kind of change? Does having her change affect the value of the story?
How much change/need for change does an author need to put into a story in order to give it proper weight?

Sunday, January 22

Ruth and her Model

While my deep and abiding love for fairy tales stems from an overexposure to the more obscure titles, I’m aware that this isn’t the norm for others. Even other writers. (Trust me, I get that look a lot.) So before I go diving into some of the lesser-known stories, I want to make sure we hit one of my favorite cross-overs.
Because any love story epic enough to merit three thousand years of continual publication is worth studying—both as a reader, and as a writer.
Now, the story of Ruth could be classified as history, or mythology (by cynics, NOT by me), or even a fairy tale (though that does stretch the definition a lot), but most importantly it is a model. As such, the more we study it, the bigger it gets. Unfold the story one way, and powerful storytelling tools are unlocked. Unfold it another, and deep symbolism changes your outlook on life. And while I promised myself I wouldn’t reprint the entirety of any story in these entries (how boring would that be—taking all the fun out of your research?), the crucial points of the plot will be covered a time or two. In an effort to keep my nattering to a minimum, I’ll start with a practical application of a model breakdown first. We’ll save archetype analysis for next week. (Yes, if I’m going to slice into an entire story in one sitting, I’ll only subject you to one such post in a week.)
Oh, and links. Here is my two-bit summary. And here is a link to the full text of the story. (For those of you who don’t know the Bible well, Ruth is only 4 short chapters. It’s not overwhelming.)
Model introduction – The cast of characters, and the questions they face.
                Ruth – young, widowed, and a foreigner. Agreeing to marry a Jew in voluntary exile is one thing, but her decision to follow his widowed mother back to her homeland (and there die, a foreigner) marks her as girl of great courage and commitment. Fabulous protagonist.
                Naomi – old, widowed, and emptied of dreams. She followed her husband into Moab, she watched her sons marry foreigners, and now her last wish is to return to her homeland and be no more. The distraction of being loved by girl who insists on chasing Naomi’s God doesn’t cheer Naomi up any. Excellent dynamic character.
                Both women face a long, hard journey. For Ruth, what kind of life can she lead as a servant to a poor, bitter widow? For Naomi, what hope can she find in a world where everyone she has loved is dead?
Model rising action – The events that lead the reader to have certain expectations.
                The villagers – Everyone remembers Naomi and her family. Naomi discourages this as much as she can, wanting to be left to die, but they welcome her back. And the young foreigner of tremendous character. (For surely no weak girl would choose to serve a cranky old woman.)
                The work – Naomi may once have been a woman of property, and Ruth may have once been the daughter and wife of reasonably wealthy city men, but their only sustenance in Bethlehem will come from whatever work Ruth can find. Throwing away her pride, Ruth follows the other poor people out into the fields.
                The prince – Boaz singles Ruth out for attention on her first day. His servants all have good things to say about her, as do the village gossips, but this doesn’t account for his kindness and help. Ruth would have to be dead inside NOT to notice, and even Naomi abandons her sourness to test Ruth’s young heart. Being both modest and honest, Ruth sets to work in Boaz’s fields. She accepts the explanation that he is a close relative, but neither the characters nor the readers think Boaz pays this much attention to every widow in his fields.
                The awakening – not of Ruth’s resilient heart, but of Naomi’s old one. As Naomi recovers her joyful spirit, the first thing she does is arrange a match between Ruth and Boaz. The daughter Naomi never had—or imagined she would want—has come so far and sacrificed so much for her. Foreign though she may be, Ruth has become family and is entitled to whatever Naomi can do to help. And what better help than to marry her off to a generous, wealthy relative who has the good sense to treat Ruth well?
Model climax – The crux of the story, where fate and free will are decided.
                The proposal – It’s one thing for Ruth to say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am” to her mother-in-law. It’s another entirely to sneak onto a threshing floor in the middle of the night and ask someone above your station to marry you! Ruth’s courage proves equal to the task, though she is fortunate that Boaz understands her errand so quickly.
                The problem – The law, the law. Boaz could brush aside the fact that there was a closer cousin. But he doesn’t. He could disparage this situation—or verbalize a wish to keep Ruth to himself. But he doesn’t. Oh, what pins and needles Ruth must be on, to discover that she has proposed marriage to a man who isn’t free to say yes. How do men stand it?
Model falling action – The consequences of the climax and any decisions made.
                At home – Ruth hurries back to Naomi, full of strange news. Naomi knows the law, but she had not underestimated the character of either Ruth or Boaz. And, Naomi correctly interprets Boaz’s parting gift to Ruth. Full bride price. Boaz might not have spoken his commitment on the threshing floor, but she is able to reassure Ruth that his intentions match their hopes.
                At the gate – Boaz wastes no time in bringing his kinsman and the matter of Ruth to court. Both men know the law (that relatives have a responsibility to buy back land), but only Boaz knows young Ruth. The other relative refuses—on the grounds of endangering his inheritance. (This might have been because he was a Levite (who could not marry widows), or because the Year of Jubilee was approaching (when property was to be returned), or because Ruth was a foreigner (curses and laws against that).) Boaz, being a true kinsman-redeemer, would risk all these things for Ruth. Not for her mother-in-law’s land, but for her. (For those who love research, Boaz already had foreign blood floating in his gene pool. Check out Matthew 1.)
Model resolution – Is there such a thing as “happily ever after?”
                Quick wedding – While not precisely a hasty ceremony, Boaz makes his marriage legal and official the moment he is free to do so—that very morning. Wonderfully enough, none of the village look suspiciously on this. The elders offer blessings and prayers, as glad as the village women to have Naomi and her family restored to safety. Since Ruth is as much a part of Naomi’s family as the lady’s husband or sons had been, Naomi gains some welcome additions to her family, instead of losing her newfound daughter.
                Blessed birth – Tradition at the time demanded that the firstborn son of a marriage like Ruth and Boaz’s (kinsman-redeemer) be named after the bride’s first husband. (This would ensure rightful inheritance.) Seeing the devotion and close affection between Naomi and her foster-family, however, the village women make Ruth and Boaz’s son Naomi’s grandson—blessing grandmother, mother, and child for the life they have given the law. (Not only dedication, duty, and obedience, but also passion, patience, and hope.) Baby Obed, grandfather to the future King David, is given back to the woman who brought faithful Ruth to generous Boaz.
Models are rare in the fairy tale world. And all the more wonderful for it.  
Where do you find your models...?

Thursday, January 19

Cinderella and Her Familiar Archetypes

When we last left our heroine, she was a one-dimensional block of inflexible ice that no editor would touch with a ten-foot pole. Or was that her mother...?
Neither, of course.
Cinderella is an archetype. In all her many forms. And most of the characters in her thousands of variations. But today, I’m just going to deal with the basic version—Cinderella, her stepmother, her sister(s), her godmother, the prince. If you want to use this on Katie Woodencloak or Bearskin, the principle is the same.
The word “archetype” is Greek—literally “first molded”, or the original pattern copied forever after. Archetypes are used by psychologists to break people down into manageable bits and pigeonhole them. (No offense. None taken.) They are also used by teachers to determine how to best reach their students. And they are used in literature, by writers who want a story to be both deep and tall. It’s not cheating to use an archetype—you as a writer just need to be sure you’re not letting your archetype do all the work for you.
1. Cinderella is our first archetype. Not so much of a “damsel in distress” as a “persecuted heroine.” She is good, thoughtful (or clever), and usually has animals helping her through rough patches. Persecuted heroines are easy for girls to identify with—we all feel persecuted, sometime.
2. The classic Evil Stepmother. This archetype is so prevalent in fairy tales that the mere mention of a stepmother prods each reader to assume the new parent will be evil. In some versions of this story, the stepmother is cruel. In others, abusive. In yet others, she meets a grisly end. But never is her treatment of Cinderella accidental or careless. She chooses another child to promote over Cinderella.
3. The step-sisters (or regular sisters, in other versions) depend on the variant you’re working from: in some versions, they are cruel to Cindy; in others, one is kinder or both are indifferent. These sisters always side with the stepmother (or parents, in other versions). Siblings don’t always get along, and here we have a good example of a family relationship from a single point of view. If Cinderella is the persecuted heroine we’re going to side with, this is the family we want her to escape. The stepmother (see above) may choose to be dreadful to her child, but that same decision by the stepsister looks very different to the reader. The stepmother may be considered with anger or hatred, but the stepsisters earn contempt. And, frequently, an added epithet of “ugly.”
A parent, after all, can be held accountable for bad behavior. A sibling or peer has no excuse, so the extra incentive of jealousy fleshes out what little personality is required for the stepsisters.
4. In other versions, Cinderella's godmother is a bull, or a sheep, or an old stick. (How the Aarne-Thompson system keeps things together or separate is a whole 'nother discussion...) All that to say, the godmother is the trickiest of all the archetypes in this story. She doesn't show up until absolutely needed, and she doesn't stick around to fix anything in the aftermath. But Cinderella is called a fairy tale because this is where the fairy comes into play. Many a writer's imagination takes flight with this archetype's inclusion. (How could I tell this story without the godmother? What if the godmother never helped--how would Cindy save herself? This is how that sneaky muse beats you over the head and makes off with your sanity...) This archetype is helpful, but not dynamic. She equips Cinderella for the party, but she DOES NOT remake Cinderella or influence anyone's decisions or actions. 

5. Be he charming or sincere, too old or too young, Cinderella must have her prince. Always, this prince is romantic enough to be enraptured by Cinderella’s beauty. But, happily for the heroine and the reader, never is he struck so dumb that he cannot act. This is fortunate. (In real life, some men can be temporarily paralyzed by a pretty girl.) Prince Charming, as an archetype, is romantic enough to swear to marry the owner of a shoe, but also restrained enough to keep from chasing Cinderella until after she runs away. (Again, real life isn’t always this cut and dried.)
Persecuted Heroines, Ugly Stepsisters, Evil Stepmothers, Laissez-faire Godmothers, and Romantic Princes aside, these are stock characters that are hard to avoid when writing. They call to deep parts of the human psyche. More the female psyche than the male one, let’s be honest, but call they do. How a writer makes the persecution realistic and engaging is up to the writer. But these are a few of the archetypes that make for a solid framework on which a good story can be built.
And the better the building, the less damage huffers and puffers can do to it. But that is another story...

Monday, January 16

Cinderella and...

Of all the stories in all the world, this may be one of the best known. So many cultures have a variant of the “little cinder girl” somewhere in their folklore. Two minutes of searching the internet will pull up sites like this, with links to hundreds more stories. All enough alike to merit their own separate listing in the Aarne-Thompson classification system (which identifies stories by elements rather than by names or happy endings). The sheer volume of adaptations in various art forms (painting, film, opera) boggles the mind. Once upon a time, I even had a fellow student ask me to find a version of Cinderella for her from the Bible.*
But why? What is so spectacularly...familiar about this tale, that it would span continents and cross countless generations?
The answer, I believe, is found in character. You see, this is not a story of change. Change in circumstance—sure. But nowhere in this story will you find a single character who changes. No dynamic characters—only static ones.
Writers, be at ease. This does not herald disaster. Modern critics are forever hounding would-be authors about the importance of “character arcs.” Your character must grow and develop, or no one will buy it. If this were the case, Cinderella would not have found so many homes throughout the world.
That is NOT to say that character development isn’t important. That is a topic I’ll save for another story. Cinderella, however, makes powerfully effective use of archetypes throughout the story, which eliminates much of the modern dependence on gimmicks. Readers do not pour through the tale, hoping the stepmother will have a change of heart. No one studies the pages of this story, waiting for the Prince to move to Tahiti and take up pearl-fishing.
We, the readers, want Cinderella to go to the ball. We want her to sweep the prince off his feet. We want justice to be served to her stepmother and stepsisters.
If Cinderella went home from the party, hid her shoe, and contentedly worked for the rest of her “happily ever after”, we would hate the story. Not because we want Cindy to change, but because we want her circumstances to change.
Archetypes get away with this sort of thing all the time in literature. They tap into people’s innermost identities so easily that the writer is excused from having to work to make us like the character. (Can you think of no recent book-to-film phenomena lately where a character so completely typifies, oh, I don’t know, a young woman’s deepest fears and insecurities about herself?) An archetype doesn’t challenge the readers’ beliefs—he or she channels those beliefs into a sweetly secure plane between faith and fantasy.
Archetypes are a gift. More on these next time—where they come from, and how writers can use them—but where can you find archetypes in the books you read? Where can you find them in your own writing?

*The question is—what should I have told her? Prize for the best answer by Friday...

Friday, January 13

The Goose Girl and that Spotted Hanky

When last we left our heroine, she was trapped in a miserable, dead-end job while a catty betrayer took over the life that should have been hers. And all over a lost handkerchief. What’s a girl to do?
Before this devolves into some sort of whiny chick lit, let’s have another look at what that handkerchief symbolized.
In “The Goose Girl”, the queen-mother did everything she could to protect the princess. She gave the princess the safest childhood, the best quality of life possible, and chose a stable, kind family for her daughter to marry into. Then, when she had made as many choices as for her daughter as possible, the queen also surrounded the girl with strong things that should have protected her: a servant, a horse, and a handkerchief.
A servant of both strong will and cunning understanding. A horse who could talk—even after death. And the last of the queen’s gifts: a spotted handkerchief. When the servant saw it float downstream, she knew the princess had lost the queen’s protection. The princess did not lose her own gentle authority (else the wind would not have obeyed her), but she had definitely been careless with the grace others bestowed upon her. Guarding her mother’s keepsake would have been sensible. Insisting that the servant actually obey her orders would have been well within her rights. The princess, however, demonstrated throughout the story that she was not an assertive person.
Contrary to a lot of modern views on heroines, she didn’t need to be assertive. But this pliability did make her a target for selfish, ambitious people—like the servant. And her future father-in-law certainly recognized that great value was hidden somewhere inside the princess—even when dressed as a peasant. The author is able to bring all of these aspects of the story forward because the symbol of the handkerchief means something different to each character involved with it. Hope, for the queen. Mom's tendency to be a worrywart, for the princess. An opportunity, for the servant.
Now, for a writer, symbols are fun clues to plant in a story. The right set of symbols can pull the threads of your tale together in a simple, elegant form that gets your reader's attention. If you overshoot your symbolism, all the reader will see is that you, the author, want to be noticed. The single best way to include symbolism in your story is to not force it.  
Symbols work best if they emerge naturally through the telling of a story, so save your effort on those until after you have finished your first draft of the story. Then, go back and see where things have begun to pull together. In the movie The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan used the color of bright red whenever anyone living touched anything dead. So, young Cole had a red tent he hid in at night when dead people come to visit. And a murderer wore a bright red dress to the funeral of someone she killed. The writer of this movie had other elements that revealed that the dead were present (like frost and visible puffs of air), but the bright red color showed the contrast between people who knew they were alive and people who thought they were alive. This kind of consistent, subtle detail must be planned, of course, but small details are better worked in after the body of the story has been roughed out. So, writers, let your details work for you. If you force details (like symbols), the story will never breathe freely by itself.
Back in "The Goose Girl", the king never knew about the handkerchief. He gladly restored the princess to her rightful place without needing to replace it. But the princess would have known that her mother would only give a great blessing once. Oh, the princess could learn from what she had lost and what she regained. The servant certainly learned a hard lesson, from which there was no profit.
Similarly, the Biblical story of Jacob’s theft of Esau’s birthright has the same sorts of symbols and the same heartwrenching carelessness of certain characters. Of course, one is a story of treachery and redemption, while the other is a story of theft and rescue. But that’s a story for a Sunday...

*I cannot take sole credit for all of this post. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote a ground-breaking book called Women Who Run With the Wolves that focuses on fairy tales and fables. She uses these stories to discuss women's relationships and the "soul heritage" women need to reclaim. According to her. She's a psychologist, not a pastor, but that doesn't make her less of a preacher when it comes to certain issues. The book is pretty dense--more like a psychology textbook, sometimes--but I found some of her notes on "The Goose Girl" helpful. (I enjoy her insight, but I hesitate to recommend her work because it is very worldly, very frank, and sometimes needs to be wisely sifted.)

Monday, January 9

The Goose Girl and...

Roses are red, violets are blue. Think outside the box. Wave a white flag. Don’t go breaking my heart.
We get used to using words early in our lives. We speak a language long before we learn it, asking “Why?” when we hear something where we know the words but not the meaning. So by the time we learn to read, we have built up a shorthand of symbols. Flowers are for girls, and roses are for love, so red roses means someone’s got a girlfriend. Boxes are small containers, so thinking outside the box means to think bigger. White is for peace and flags are for countries, so white flags mean peace agreements between people at war. Hearts are where we keep our emotions, and the world seldom comes with signs that say “You break it, you buy it,” so broken hearts come out of giving someone your heart when that someone dropped it but didn’t buy it. Ouch.
People learn fast.
When the Grimm brothers set out to gather what we now consider their vast collection of German fairy tales, they weren’t looking for original stories. They were studying the German language. They wanted to know why people said things like “Mother Hulda’s making her bed again” whenever it snowed. Buried within each story is a wealth of linguistic information. Some of it is pagan. Some of it is Christian. Some of it is amoral—without any inclination towards bad or good. Some of it is still used today.
Safely tucked between the pages is the story of the little goose girl, a princess who is given no name. Mean people might say she didn’t deserve one. They would argue that a princess who never did anything to rescue herself is not worth a crown or a name. I’m not one of those people.
“The Goose Girl” does wonderful things with symbolism. The first of which being that the author does not explain the symbols in the story. The reader is left to determine the meaning and the value of various symbols.
My favorite symbol in this story is the handkerchief, which had three drops of the queen’s blood. Most people overlook this symbol, because the princess loses it so early in the story. It never comes back. Unlike the lovely Falada, it doesn’t talk. No one wages a war over it.
But none of the story would have happened without the princess losing it in the first place.
The handkerchief isn’t only a catalyst (something that forces a change) in the story. It also carries meaning of its own. The queen mother specifically sent this handkerchief for the princess’s protection. It must have had some power, or else the servant would not have begun her wicked work once it was lost. And, like Dumbo’s feather, the princess does not need the handkerchief back in her possession in order to reclaim her position.
But how do writers incorporate symbols without being too obvious? Or, without losing the reader completely? What symbols do you use in your stories...

Wednesday, January 4

The Ordinary Princess and an Overload of Detail

Where last we left our heroine, we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The whole story hinged on the smallest of details. Without which, we have no story. We had to keep track of what made Princess Amy unique and all the tiny cracks in her universe that serve as proof that it’s all real.
So at this crucial moment of terrible strain—what could possibly be worse?—we as writers should ratchet up the stress of the story and throw in another unexpected twist.
Please, no.
Let’s all calm down, take a deep breath, and step away from the crazy muse beating your head in. I say “yours,” because mine is just fine. I never get sucked into too many details.
 Wait. I’m a writer. Who am I kidding?
As authors, details are one of the biggest pitfalls we face. We can become so fascinated with the level of detail we put into our stories that we can’t tell the story straight. Of course, the other danger is to allow the details to keep you from finishing your story. (And no, for those of you who know who I mean, this is a gentle nudge of encouragement. Not a cattle prod of shame.)
M.M. Kaye, the author of The Ordinary Princess, once said that she first wrote the story in a hurry. Princess Amy, she said, was in a rush to get it told. This is a wonderful example of two things. First, the writer letting the character have a voice. (Which we’ll cover in more detail when we talk about characterization.) Second, the writer allowing the story to have its own speed.
Now, The Ordinary Princess is not a frenzied story. It skips along at a nice pace, completely in keeping with the nature of the fairy tale and the particular charm of the characters. Which is that Princess Amy and King Peregrine love simple, normal things. They are not fancy people who take four hours to dress. They rescue wounded birds and know the names of their servants’ children and love to give presents they made with their own hands.
You see, the details do not have to be repeated over and over, or written in such painstaking terms that their sincerity is unmistakable. The details, however, must be consistent. Find the one thread in all of a particular character that makes him (or her) valuable in your story, and let your details grow naturally out of that character trait. Be it simplicity, or humor, or willingness to sacrifice for others, that most important thing should be the source of all the fun little details. 
Don’t worry. Your readers will connect the dots. You don’t even need to leave a thick trail of breadcrumbs. Just drop a single white stone every few paces.
When the readers turn around, lost in the wonder of the forest you’ve written for them, they will easily see the path home. But that is also a fairy tale for another day...

Sunday, January 1

The Ordinary Princess and...

One of the wonderful aspects of fairy tales comes from their unexpectedness. When we refer to “fairy-tale endings” in the modern context, then we generally comment on how so many of the commonly known fairy tales end the same: Happily Ever After. That’s how we’ve come to understand fairy tales. It’s what we usually take away from the story. A simple, happy ending.
But in between “once upon a time...” and “...they all lived happily ever after” exists uncharted realms of possibilities. A castle, or a hovel? A prince, or a soldier? A good horse, or a bad dwarf? Forest, mountain, desert, sea? Until we start to read, we don’t know for certain.
Surely, we will find characters we know. Boys who want to grow up (or refuse to). Girls who need to be rescued. Good parents. Bad ones. Not every damsel in distress is a weak woman, and not every younger son has the sense the good lord gave him. And on very rare occasions, step-mothers are not all bad. The surprises come in the small details, it’s true, but they give us plenty to think about later.
Which is often the point.
If all the reader takes home from your story is the Happily Ever After, what do you need all the in-between stuff for?
A favorite fairy tale of mine was written as an original almost a hundred years ago. The author was twelve, though she grew up to write historical biographies and contemporary murder mysteries—and a couple historical novels for which she’s still reasonably famous. But The Ordinary Princess was her first, and extraordinarily well done. The fairies in the fairy tale don’t dominate it—they set in motion events that the characters must handle on their own. (As all good fairy tales ought.)
When Princess Amy finds herself in a chilly, lonely forest a long way from home, she summons up the fairy who blessed her with ordinariness and asks, “What shall I do for shelter?” The fairy gives the best sort of answer we can expect from a dear old curmudgeon: “Get a job, just like everybody else.”
Now, once Amy finds a job, she finds a home, and a friend, and eventually her own “fairy tale ending.” What she doesn’t find is an easy way out. That wouldn’t suit any sensible fairy. Neither is it the general intent of fairy tales. Amy isn’t saved from a life of drudgery or a wicked family—she is blessed to find someone who values her for what makes her unique. Her compassion. Her cheerfulness. Her courage. This fairy tale is less about escape and more about discovering how to live honestly.
Like Snow White (among others), Princess Amy doesn’t meet anyone worth following home until after she’s left her own home. So these fairy tale heroines have some things in common. But this time our girl interacts more with her “prince”—specifically about the small, unexpected details that make each other unique.
How many details are too many? What about unexpected twists? Is there a limit, or is it okay to have none at all?