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...


  1. I try not to mention a book or film unless I can wholeheartedly endorse it. The two novels I mention in this post are not for young audiences. Both have wartime love stories, which opens up a whole host of possibilities for authors. Some good, some bad. I very much like MM Kaye, but her adult novels were written for adults, and they all have heroes and heroines who make questionable moral choices. Margaret Mitchell has her own set of issues, but her story is more widely known.

    And yes, I did backdate this entry. Easter weekend ate up more of my time than I expected. He is risen!

  2. I am writing a romantic story for an anthology (Enchanted - Yellow Silk Dreams) and was just about to introduce the male side - a soldier of fortune. Probably because the phrase had stuck in my mind from childhood fairy tales. As the heroine steps out to meet this stranger, I thought I would have a quick search on the internet and chanced on this blog post.

    Yes! That's it. I wanted a man, and a man with a past. Good, it helps get my thoughts in order.

    Thank you - but thank whom? I tried but can't find the author. Do drop me a note because I may have something to interest you...


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