Thursday, April 5

The White Snake and Some Personal History

Where last we left our heroine, we hadn’t met her yet. We were marching to the beat of a different drummer, walking beside a man we’d all met before. He was capable, resourceful, and looking for a place to lay his loyalty. This man can be found in a wide range of genres, appealing to almost every demographic. Except, perhaps, young children.
You have to learn a little bit about loyalty and its value before you can read about its loss.
A soldier of fortune could also be called a mercenary, but this has negative connotations. When you say “merc”, people think of pirates and Hessians and lots of sadly failed coups across the world. Rightly so. But a soldier of fortune has left that business. For whatever wonderful reason, the human mind is more forgiving of and receptive to someone who is looking for a new start in life.
Point number one in favor of “The White Snake”—it’s about a former servant. Servant, farmer, soldier—the man who wants his new life has already had one. Unlike fairy tales about younger sons (a topic for another story, surely), soldier of fortune stories are about men with pasts. Grown-ups. They may not mature or change on the page, but their previous experience tempers their reactions to the fairy tale’s adventures.
Point number two is that this IS a new life. This story isn’t a young prince looking for a new kingdom to take over. Instead, we read about someone whose old life doesn’t necessarily fit with his new ambitions. Some of his old skill set may apply—attention to detail, responsibility, his well-honed ability to delegate—but new aptitudes and talents must be uncovered. Or our hero will die.
Nice and melodramatic, that.
Point number three is this soldier of fortune’s commitment to his new quest. While he comes with a past, it isn’t a past that ties him down. Having served faithfully before, he is now free to commit himself wholeheartedly and with full knowledge of what he’s doing. He might not have every answer for every situation, but he isn’t a man who will abandon his honor.
When we take a look at other soldier of fortune stories, there will be other aspects to ponder. These three from “The White Snake” are relevant because of how often we see echoes of them in modern stories. Heroes, looking for homes. Champions, in search of a cause. And (to paraphrase the immortal Jane Austen) husbands, in want of wives.
These soldiers of fortune are men with pasts, but these pasts fuel their drive to find a future.
As writers, we can get so wrapped around a character’s backstory that it takes up more of the tale than the actual adventure. In “The White Snake,” the servant’s quest to become a king and a husband is the latter third of the tale. Not the bulk of it. One of the side benefits of oral stories—plenty of time to soften the audience’s sympathies toward a favorite character.
The problem of backstory, illustrated with this fairy tale, is one of determining your goal for the story. Because the servant’s history before the kingdom contest is so much of the story, all the author has room for is the conclusion of the quest. We’ll see other soldier of fortune stories where backstory is not provided, and as such the reader can devote much more emotional energy to the “happily ever after” of the characters. Countless how-to books will tell young authors when and how much backstory should be applied, but you must consider the weight of it. If there is so much of it and it is so essential, as in this case, perhaps the story should be more about the backstory than the final quest.
M.M. Kaye, who I mentioned in an earlier post, grew up to write a few other novels. One of which (a personal favorite) starts with five chapters of backstory on one character. Then anywhere between a paragraph and three pages of backstory for each character she introduces. Small wonder The Shadow of the Moon weighs so much. And yes, she does have soldiers of fortune in her stories. Margaret Mitchell, who wrote in a similar vein a generation prior, didn’t dwell as much on the character’s backstory in Gone With the Wind, but she does provide copious historical backstory all throughout the plot.
It’s a style that’s discouraged today, but the problem never goes away for writers. To tell, or not to tell—and how much.
But that’s a question for another day...

Monday, April 2

The White Snake and...

“Once upon a time...” there lived a fair maid. Or a pampered princess. Or an out-of-step girl. To date, every story we’ve discussed all have one thing in common: female protagonists. According to the world population—and the most likely candidate to tell a nursery story—we should not be surprised. If more than half the world’s population is female, and the author of a story MUST choose a central character, then it follows that the majority of fairy tales should star females.
Happily, they don’t always.
Some of the most interesting fairy tales are “soldier of fortune” stories. The main character is generally male, often poor or footloose, and looking for adventure. Or whatever comes his way, to quote an old 70’s song. “The White Snake” is one such tale.
Some stories, when read in their entirety (instead of the chopped-off summaries I provide), are meant to be told aloud. Again, this should make sense. Many old stories were passed down orally, by people who had neither time nor education to learn to read. To help the teller’s memory and the audience’s participation, these stories frequently have a trademark rhythm. Events, or speeches, happen repeatedly in cycles that are easy to remember and mimic.
Now, The White Snake would be memorable even without the rhythm of questions and offers. Even without any names in the story, this is a tale you could pick out of any line-up in any suspicious editor’s office. The frame of the story is not so amazingly unique that it could never be mistaken for anything else. Why, then, could the reader always identify it?
There are specific elements of the story that make it unique—if only for the order in which they happen—but more on that next time. Ponder some stories you know that feature boys (or men) who are strong, smart, and in search of a home. Can you think of a lot, or only a few? Especially in certain genres, these male characters may not be the central protagonist, though they often appear as heroes in certain female fantasy genres.
If we don’t read a lot of this kind of fairy tale, then why do we find so many soldiers of fortune in our modern stories?