Tuesday, February 21

Rapunzel and...

There once was a fair maiden, imprisoned through no fault of her own... Very appealing concept. Many aspects of the “Rapunzel” story work for the human imagination. The girl must be beautiful. The witch must be evil. Whoever saves her must be a prince. It’s a story that readers easily invest themselves in, letting their imaginations trot cheerfully alongside the plot. If the story takes an unexpected turn, the reader doesn’t balk.

Why? This is a story with thin spots. And places where readers really should think for themselves. What’s the deal? How is it that centuries of perfectly sensible people would tell and retell this story? Snow White had helpless innocence going for her. Cinderella had that persecution thing down pat. What does Rapunzel have?

Rapunzel has a set of parents who make poor decisions—both for themselves, and for their child. Sad, but true. What else? Rapunzel has a witch—who, by default, must have wicked motives at heart. What kind of mother imprisons her child? (Parents of teenagers, feel free to chime in...) Rapunzel has a prince—who must be young and handsome. Who wants her tower breached by a slobbery old guy? And Rapunzel has a fair maiden—who needs to be rescued.

This is a story that’s been rewritten a time or two, especially in recent times. (Disney princess, number 10) Certain elements of the story stay in, others are inevitably changes. Usually to make Rapunzel more of a “go-to” girl—someone who does more herself, instead of waiting for a savior.

And yet...there are other aspects of the story that are impossible to sweep under the rug, toss out the window, or tastefully erase. Perhaps because the writers aren’t paying attention, but also perhaps because the reader wants these aspects in the story.

Flawed characters.

This, I suspect, is where Rapunzel gets its mojo. The prince may be young and he may be charming, but nobody ever said he was perfect. Rapunzel herself isn’t the pristine, innocent girl found in many of the commonly known fairy tales. Most fairy tales center on characters placed in a set of circumstances. This is a story about characters who generate the plot, instead of being taken over by it.

More on this later, but can you think of stories with characters who make their own trouble? Where the story hinges on the characters putting themselves in sticky situations, even if for the right reasons?

Friday, February 17

Red Riding Hood and an Alternate Ending

When last we left our heroine, she was about to judo-chop the wolf. Be honest—how many of you thought Hoodwinked was a valid rewrite? In that case, what starts as an awkwardly perky musical ends as a well-intentioned crime scene investigation. For fuzzy animals. Who love good health and happy endings. 

Moving right along...

How we—any author—rewrite a story like "Red Riding Hood" begins with perspective. Yes, it will end with an ending. Somewhere, out there. But first the question of the writer's preconceptions and understandings must be examined. 

A child who reads the story may come away thinking, "Wolves are bad. I shouldn't talk to strangers." A young woman who reads the story may come away thinking, "Wolves are bad. Where can I get one?" A grown woman who reads the story may come away thinking, "Wolves are bad. No child should even know they exist."

Unwholesome possibilities, to be sure. 

But a child who wants to rewrite the story will want characters like an interfering woodsman, a caring grandmother—someone to step in and FIX the story. If little Red is a girl in trouble, then she is a girl who needs to be rescued. Grown-ups should care enough about children to look out for them, right?   

Many modern retakes of the story involve, like the satire link last time, a girl who saves herself. Red knows karate, or brews her own pepper spray, or ties up the wolf and sells him for thirty pieces of silver. The "I don't need YOUR help" mentality makes for a very one-sided story, and will have a profound impact on what kind of options are available for an ending. 

I will not be discussing people who want to side with the wolf. That falls under the category of dark fantasy. It's not inconceivable to change the story to defend his point of view, it's just not something I want to encourage. Or, frankly, have time and space to do the argument justice. Maybe later.

In its purest, simplest form, this story is told from an omniscient point of view. This means that the reader sees what’s going on in every scene and is privy to the actions and thoughts of all characters. To choose a side—whether it is young Red or the wicked Wolf—is to shift the point of view. And in so changing how the story is seen, the author changes all possible outcomes. Before picking sides with the little girl, Grandma could have become the hero. Once the author decides to favor the child, though, the story must have an ending that satisfies the needs of the chosen character.

All this is not to say that bad creatures never star in fairy tales. I can think of several fairy tales that deal with people falling into blackest witchcraft and never coming out. But they don’t give the reader anything new to think about. And they don’t feed an author’s soul the way that a properly magical story should. Filling you with possibility, and imagination, and the fantastic union of shared imagination.

Which is why some authors keep coming back to the wolf and his red-caped prey. “Surely there must be a way to resolve this story in a matter that feeds me...”

And surely there is. But that’s a story for another day...

Monday, February 13

Red Riding Hood and...

This, I confess, is an irresistible classic. "Little Red Riding Hood" has tremendous appeal, and has been retold time and again. Each author changes it to suit his or her interests. Odd "interests" in many cases, but people continue to be drawn to the story.

As an author, one has to wonder "Why?"

What does this fairy tale have going for it, that it should be so readily adaptable and that people would continue to want to adapt it? Stories like Cinderella appeal, certainly, but for different reasons. People--yes, usually women--want to identify with Cindy. Red Riding Hood is different. It seems to be retold most often because people DON'T like it, rather than because they do.

In all honesty, this is why many of us embark on the journey of writing. We want a story with an ending that satisfies us. When faced with a story we don't like as much, the temptation of revising it to suit our standards is great.

Now, here is a link to most of the early versions of this story. Historians are quick to point out that there might be older versions, but none were recorded in this format (girl, grandmother, wolf, and woodsman) before the seventeenth century. My absolute favorite version of this story is a more modern satire, which can be found here. I like this because it has an absurd ending, that tells the reader more about the topsy-turvy world inside the author's head than it tells about how people (or the world) really work.

There are a lot of wonderful places this story can take a young author. The heroine's responsibility for bringing trouble upon herself. The gullibility of the womenfolk. The wolf's intentions (and inhibitions). The need (or lack thereof) of a savior like the woodsman.

My question for you this week, is which character would you like to rewrite most? Why? How would you do it?

Friday, February 10

The Six Swans and the Good Guys

Where last we left our heroine, you had her pinned up a tree and were preparing to deconstruct every bit of fun out of her. All without her saying a word. I hope you had fun.
You may have come up with different character traits than what follows. That doesn’t make you wrong. With any written work, a lot of different ideas can be extrapolated from a character's words or actions. Not all of them can be reasonably supported by the whole text. But just because one person presents an argument, that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with a different, equally sensible one.
Because the readers meet the princess first, let’s begin with her. As a protagonist (another ancient Greek theater term, meaning “one who plays the first part” or, more simply, “the chief actor”) is the character that the author most wants the reader to identify with, it makes sense to give more of the princess’s back story. Of course, since she will not have a speaking part for most of the story, the reader needs good reason to cheer for her.
First off, she is good. Modern audiences often put down the “old-fashioned” idea that a main character must be a good guy. This princess, however, has words and actions that support this label. In the beginning, when she knows something bad lives in her home, she flees. Fear is a perfectly good reason to run, of course, but we would think her foolhardy and craven if she stayed. There comes a time, both in stories and in life, when a good guy must get out of a bad situation.
But she isn’t just running away. The princess is looking for a way to save her brothers. This is important, because what she’s not doing is looking for a way to defeat her stepmother. She’s not dwelling on the evil that has infiltrated her family—she’s just focused on rescuing the innocent. To obsess over the stepmother would allow that toxic woman to have power in her life. No, thank you. All of these actions and choices demonstrate her goodness, and set a foundation for the reader to like her as she foregoes speech.
Second, she is diligent. The princess searches for her brothers until she finds them. Then she takes up the very difficult task of making cloth from nettles. (The full-grown weeds have a woody stem, filled with long fibers that can be dried and woven like linen. It makes a cloth that is thinner than silk.) And she sticks to her task until she finishes. Someone reading this can simply scoff at the idea of setting a heroine to an impossible task (like silence), but this girl is persistent. She keeps at the work until it is done. In Germanic culture, industriousness is a very valuable character trait. Making it praiseworthy in a story is a natural part of a fairy tale.
Lastly, she is faithful. This ties in with both her goodness and her diligence, but it is demonstrated more the further into the story we read. She does not have to choose to save her brothers. Having taken up that cross, she tells no one what she’s doing. When she marries the king, she could abandon her project. But she doesn’t. When her mother-in-law brands her a witch, a few words would free her. But she stays the course.
And her husband, to whom she has never spoken, seems to recognize these qualities without knowing her back story. In a lot of the well-known fairy tales, the hero and heroine are not well-matched. The reader knows a lot more about one character than another, and what is learned of these characters isn’t always detailed or particularly deep. Not in this case.
First off, the king is honorable. This is not a given in fairy tales. Some princes are not as charming as we assume. However, this time we have a winner. When the king finds the girl alone in the woods, nothing suggests she is a rich princess. He never looks for her family or father, so we can assume he had no reason to do so. But when he takes her home, he marries her. No one is holding a gun to his head on this decision. He could have locked her in a tower somewhere, without marrying her. (Yes, that happens in some fairy tales.) She did nothing to encourage his pursuit of her in the forest, but he gives her a home and the protection of his name. This indicates he has a deeply ingrained code of ethics that help make him a worthy leader. 

Second, he is just. This is also a quality that shouldn't be assumed. Plenty of people, be they leaders or small fry, will duck responsibility if they don't like the consequences. When his wife is accused of witchcraft, the king puts her on trial. He's not doing this to punish her for her silence. The law of the land demands it, and this king is not going to ignore the law or abolish it just because he doesn't like it. There are a lot of modern...let's call them "celebrities" (some hold elected office, some are appointed by elected officials) who do not exhibit this character trait. Whether by choice or by ignorance. However, here we have a king who serves his laws, rather than a man who uses the law for his own gain. 

Lastly, this king is loyal. This element of him is more personal and complements the princess's character very well. When he imprisons his wife and puts her on trial, he sits with her in the dungeon every day, asking her "What happened?" Nowhere in the text are we given the idea that the king believes the charge of witchcraft. But he does not abandon his wife just because she's in trouble. He has chosen a wife whose history and priorities he doesn't know, but he doesn't leave her when her loyalties are tested. 

Like I said, this fairy tale is one of my favorites. (Clearly, I can blather on and on about it ad nauseum.) If you're going to read fiction, it should leave you better than when it found you. Later on, we'll dive into bad guys and other modern conventions, like making bad guys protagonists or writing flawed characters. Useful, realistic even, but not always uplifting. 

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

Tuesday, February 7

The Six Swans and...

All right, on to the good stuff. Yes, I’ll come back to Ruth. Yes, I’ll do more with Cinderella—particularly this neat American Indian version I came across. However, I love the out-of-the-way fairy tales. This is a particular favorite.
Not because it puts me in the role of a story-teller. (If I’m going to rattle on and on, wouldn’t it be better to tell a story of my very own?) No, “The Six Swans” has a magic that is deeper than witchcraft and better than a warm fire on a cold night. But it is important to use the early Grimm’s edition of this story. There are variants with three brothers (The Three Ravens), or even twelve (The Twelve Brothers), but these versions lack the powerful writing tools hidden in The Six Swans. Even in the short version posted here, what makes this story spectacularly useful is still easily obvious.
Betcha didn’t even notice, did you? That’s ok. You kind of have to know where to look.
See, the beauty of “The Six Swans” isn’t in its archetypes, or its formulas, or any of the handy-dandy guidelines storytellers are encouraged to study. This is a fairy tale with sympathetic characters. The reader wants to love the princess, and is easily persuaded to do so. The reader wants the young king to be charming, and is given no reason to think otherwise of him.
We would love the princess if she were saving three brothers or twelve—or even one. It would be...well...wrong...of a reader NOT to love a character willing to sacrifice for someone else. Saviors, whether they succeed or fail, are easy to cheer for. The king’s character becomes stronger and sweeter, the deeper into the story we go. At first, he could be any good guy in any fairy tale. As the story begins to take some serious turns, though, he blooms into something more serious himself.
Not being very specific, am I?
That’s because I want you to take a stab at this one. You can look up another version online, though I’m old-fashioned enough to recommend an actual book. Read this story, study these characters. There are unique qualities to the two main characters that make them easily remembered and eminently worth taking with you. Home from the library, or incorporated into the baggage of your soul. Look, and you will see what makes them “good guys.”
Yes, of course I’ll have an answer Friday. Doesn’t mean you can’t analyze some characters yourself...

Saturday, February 4

The Sparrow's Gift and Some Spare Change

Where last we left our heroine, she was a bitter, spiteful harpy who saw her faults in everyone around her. Who wants to feel any sympathy towards that?
The answer, of course, is no one.
The wonder and the charm of this fairy tale begin when the old woman changes. It’s the last paragraph of the story. In some versions of “The Tongue-Cut Sparrow”, the story ends when she opens the box of demons. No change necessary for the character in that version. (Didn’t read it the first time around? It’s here.)
This story made me think of several other stories—all of whom have a character who waits until the last minute to change. In some of these stories, it’s believable and even long-anticipated by the reader. But in some of these stories, the change is never noted by the reader. People walk away from the story saying “that’s a bad, bad guy” rather than celebrate the wonder of a life in revolution. Depending on the story, this takeaway value can be either the reader’s fault—or the author’s.
In the Old Testament, the books of Kings and Chronicles both give historical accounts of the same time period, the same events, the same people. If you’ve never heard of King Manasseh, take a minute to read about him here. Most people, insofar as I know, are more familiar with this account. As you can see, he repents in one, but the other ends with God Himself cursing him. I can understand that it is convenient for people to remember him only as a wicked king, but men can be defined by a single moment in their lives, too. The moment he led the team to victory. The moment he turned from a good life, and was stricken with leprosy. The first time he said “I need help!”
These single moments are vital to us. Our lives are frail. Yes, we can trudge endlessly down the same path, never changing our steps or even looking up. That doesn’t mean we won’t look up on the next step, or turn back in the next heartbeat. Humanity is built on such hopes. The times when we turn around or climb to a peak we had considered impossible should be celebrated. Even if only in brief memories.
Characters, however, don’t seem to have that luxury. Words may not be set in stone, but—with a few lines of black ink on a white page—they can carve a complete person into the reader’s imagination. If the words are chosen wrong by the writer, the reader may never know it. But the reader has chosen to accept the writer’s words as an important part of his imagination, so it behooves the writer to give a character enough time to change on the page.
In a short story, like a fairy tale, the last page is enough room to change. Usually. With this fairy tale, the author is helped by the fact that the character’s change is unexpected—because it is sweeter. It’s a welcome surprise, that leaves the reader smiling. For a longer story, the writer has two problems:
                1. How far into the story must I carry this character before changing her?
                2. Do I owe it to my readers to make the reader want the character to change before it happens?
How do you solve these questions in your stories? These are hard questions for writers anywhere, and there aren’t easy answers. Only guidelines. More or less. But that’s a story for another day...