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...