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...



    1. Nice.

      Let me know if you have any others in mind. I have my eye on either "Jack and the Beanstalk" or the (original) "Snow Queen."

  2. I love your analysis. It is really helpful.


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