Sunday, April 21

Twelve Dancing Princesses and Too Many Girls

I first was going to address this exercise as three answers to one question, but each answer deserves its own essay. (Plus, we are experiencing technical difficulties here at the hidden hut...) So, for today, just the ladies...

If you attacked “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” from a girl's point-of-view, you face the immediate problem of “Which girl?” Eldest sister? Youngest? Since the eldest is the one who marries, she's the most likely candidate. We'll call her Donna.* Reading this as a youngster, I always identified more with the youngest sister, who gave warnings no one heeded. We'll call her Cassandra.** You could do either, but the objective is to keep the POV in just one head.

Hope you chose wisely. 

In writerly circles, much is made of a character's GMC. Sadly, this isn't a car. It's short for “Goals, Motivations, and Conflict.” The idea being that each character has goals (or needs them), is motivated by something (externally or internally), and struggles with a conflict (which must be resolved). I'm not crazy about using this from a writer's perspective, but it is useful from a reader's perspective. (Why don't I like it for writers? Because in my limited experience, it leads to cardboard characters. I like my people on the page to move freely, and that requires more than this checklist.) Whether you're seeing through Donna's eyes, or Cassandra, it should be clear in the writing what her goals, motivations, and conflict are.

For Cassandra, these are easier. She wants to have a good time (she exhibits considerably less rebellion than, say, Donna)—check, Goal. She is prodded by her sister to “get with the program” (external prodding, rather than her own internal compass)—check, Motivations. She tells her sisters the truth, and they don't believe her (the classic “I told you so” mantra)—check Conflict. This doesn't make her interesting, though. If you wrote from her perspective, I expect she had memories and relationships and personal desires that conflicted with her sisters' plans for a night out.

For Donna, your choices would take her down a different path. Since the end result of the story is her marriage to the soldier-of-fortune, it is tempting to make this more of a romance than a straight forward adventure. But to wind up “happily ever after” with someone she has been plotting to kill, this creates some conflict for the writer. Not for the reader—because, let's face it, she deserves to wind up with someone who can outsmart her. But from a writer's perspective, trying to get inside Donna's head, it is important to see the events of the story through her eyes. Without the benefits of foreknowledge or omniscience.

Donna's goals? To get out of the house! (Honestly, if you had eleven younger sisters, and none of you were married, the chafing to run your own home would be burning by now.) If she can't get married, she'll get jiggy with it.

Donna's motivations? Here, you must decide on rebellion, boredom, or anger. Each primary emotion would fuel a different line of thought, a difference course of action. If you chose another primary emotion, do make it real for the reader.

Donna's conflict? Whether tis nobler to stay a child in her father's house, or accept one of the fools who take up his offer to solve the riddle. Of all the princesses in this tale, she is the one with the power to end the shenanigans. And she never does. Up until the bitter end, she takes the girls out every night. Why? She clearly wasn't overly attached to any of the fellows she and her sisters partied with every night.

These questions and answers don't address every aspect of how to rewrite this story from a lone female POV. But, in addressing the chosen narrator's feelings, decisions, and actions with her GMC in mind, the story should take on a little more drama.

Shelley Duval's Faerie Tale Theatre took a condensed version of the story, available here:

Much more recently, Mattel's Barbie rewrote the story with affectionate sisters, a stepmother, and a legitimized reason for the dancing:

Next time, Daddy dearest will take center stage...

* Why Donna? “Prima Donna” is Italian for “first woman,” and is often used to either describe a principal character or a diva who demands a spotlight at all times.

**Why Cassandra? In Greek mythology, the god Apollo gave Cassandra foreknowledge in exchange for her favors. When she did not give him her love in return, he cursed her to never be believed when she prophesied.  

Monday, April 8

Twelve Dancing Princesses and...

Oh, my good Lord! Where are my manners? To talk about fairy tales and archetypes and various aspects of the writing craft—like plot or backstory—and then NOT mention point-of-view. What was I thinking?

So sorry. On to a proper story...

Part of the wonder of a fairy tale—whether it is oral or written—is in the perspective of the narrator. Rarely is the audience given the impression that a key member of the cast is the one telling the story. This allows the narrator to freely move from place to place, from character to character, without disrupting the framework of the tale. In “Snow White,” for example, we pay a few visits to the Evil Queen's private chambers to see her with the mirror, the huntsman, and the witchcraft—even though Snow White never stops being our protagonist.

Now, not all fairy tales bounce between the good guys and the bad guys. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is one of many stories that follow the fairy tale recipe of opening with the problem, then following the hero (or heroine) as he (or she) solves the problem. In modern story-telling, this technique is frowned upon, because writers are encouraged to be consistent in their point-of-view. (Unless they have a well-established fan base, as many a beginning author may complain.) To begin with a clear, consistent pattern of following the actions and thoughts of one (or a select few) character. Omniscient point-of-view has fallen very much by the wayside these days.

Not always a bad thing. But sometimes limiting, especially for fairy tales.

To pick apart point-of-view, there are any number of stories we could be using. What works about “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in this case is how the story teller keeps secrets from the reader. We uncover the mystery and see its resolution in time with the soldier of fortune hero. Not in time with the angry princesses' reactions, or the king's desperation. And, we have the added bonus of seeing the characters' actions, not their thoughts.

Before I delve into point-of-view, its uses, its powers, and its limitations, you might take a little time to examine this story. How might you tell the story differently if you could only choose one point-of-view? Try once through the soldier of fortune's eyes, once through at least one of the princesses', and once through the king's. A different perspective might force you to restructure the story, so don't be afraid to move events around or create extra ones as needed. A different point-of-view, after all, means working with a different set of information. What's in the omniscient point-of-view is only one version of the truth...

Best of luck!