Monday, October 13

Twelve Dancing Princesses and a Steamroller

As time winds down, we are left with one last perspective to examine for our besieged father and his stubborn girls: the successful candidate.

Even though this story is a fairy tale about girls who dress up and go dancing every night, the soldier-of-fortune's perspective is the easiest and most familiar choice for a single point-of-view. Of all the people in this story, he is the only dynamic character. (Read here for more on static and dynamic characters.) Nobody else changes. And even the soldier-of-fortune's “change” can be debated.

He is, unarguably, the most interesting of all the characters in the story. Everyone else is stuck in a rut, only digging themselves in deeper with every revolution of the broken record of their lives. The king's tied hands. The eldest princess's schemes. The youngest princess's fears. The soldier-of-fortune at least shakes things up.

As writers, these are the characters we prefer to write about. J. Alfred Prufrock doesn't eat that peach, after all. Walter Mitty's active fantasy life never changes anything (original story, not the recent film). Thoreau, for all his abstract optimism, left Walden Pond because the work of living interfered with his writing. He wrote about the time there, not about his decades of mooching. Brilliant writers may write about “everyman” and his indecision, but most writers and readers would rather follow the adventures of a “doer.”

Just because you, young writer, are telling a story about active conflict does not mean that your character must be active, extroverted, or loud. All of these character traits make for an interesting journey, certainly, but none of them are necessary. What your dynamic characters do need, however, are small OODA loops.

No, I'm not just making this stuff up. Silly rabbits. John Boyd of the US Air Force developed this cycle—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act—to help people find a way to quickly move forward in a situation. Making good use of this concept does require someone to know what information is important and what should be done about it, which takes study and practice, but a strong dynamic character should not be sitting on his hands. Hopefully, he is busy making good decisions, but dynamics are not just about internal changes like a heart growing, or a vengeance coalescing. Dynamic characters need to be functional in active conflicts, too.

For the soldier-of-fortune, his external GMC is easy to spot. Makes good use of his own OODA loop, too. Goal: solve the mystery. Motivation: new job title/NOT getting his head chopped off. Conflict: active hostility from the princesses. Wonderfully straightforward.

The readers' trust in his ability to handle these physical conflicts is based on the internal conflicts he first handles with efficiency and kindness. When he meets the old woman, he does not hesitate to help her. So when her response is to provide him with the wisdom and the tools to take on the princesses, the reader is not surprised that he accepts the help quickly and moves on to his next challenge. Each decision the soldier-of-fortune must make is done with a minimal of dithering. Very small OODA loop for our hero.

Writing from this perspective doesn't require you to study military strategy. The soldier-of-fortune, however, doesn't come with a lot of internal conflict. Writing him with inner demons means dragging out the story, but it also lengthens that OODA loop. Which means you're now writing a different story. Young writer, feel free to write the story on your heart. But let your characters be true to themselves. Not only to the things you already know. You don't have to research yourself to death when writing someone or something new, but making it real is worth the time and effort.

Let your men be men. Soldiers who doubt themselves don't survive long on the battlefield, so they learn to either ignore their internal issues or resolve them to the individual man's satisfaction. Ignoring an unresolved issue can lead to a whole host of other problems, of course, but that's a story for another day...

Wednesday, June 25

Pwyll, Part I: A Reduction of the Peter Principle and Fictional Leadership

Part of the fun of setting up this posit and axiom system is that I get to give the reader the option of writing a response, while at the same time pondering the depth and direction of my own response. It's all fun and games 'til someone pokes her eye out, of course. The difference between real leadership and fictional leadership is that the consequences of success or failure are not as controlled as we writers like to think.

In the real world, poor leadership can be “spun” as innovative, optimistic, or simply the underdog in an epic conspiracy. When this is attempted in fiction, readers tend to notice. Readers think differently about fictional leadership than they do about “real world” issues, for whatever reason. We demand more sense and order in fiction than we do in truth.

But the question asked was what qualifications do you, as a writer, seek in your fictional leaders?

Pwyll is presented as an adult in this story. Young, perhaps, but not inexperienced. We do not read about his childhood or his education, that we could glean training techniques for future would-be leaders. Think about this, though: he cannot have sprung from the ground, fully formed. Prior to demonstrating his potential for leadership, he had to have both learned how to lead and demonstrated his skills to people who wished to be led. (Celtic lordship wasn't passed from father to son—a candidate had to prove himself.)

Young writers, if your kings, lords, chieftains, etc. are not demonstrating leadership skills, you have a problem. You need to make genuine leaders out of your heirs, rebels, upstarts, and politicians. Simply giving them a title and writing in underlings who say “Yes, sir” or “As you command, ma'am” will not grant them any authority. And this does, indeed, weaken the believability of your story.

One does not have to study international politics to write a king, nor does one have to master the twelve steps of Tae Kwon Leap to conquer the hearts and minds of a people (see below). As a writer, you can base your leaders' training and understanding on your own experiences. Most of us do. (Which may be why some “leaders” you meet in fiction don't reveal their plans, assign responsibilities or boundaries, or take responsibility for their actions.) Learn to use what you know for good.

For example, as a child I participated in a leadership training program (similar to Girl Scouts, but more purpose-driven). I didn't realize that's what it was. I just wanted to spend time with friends, working on projects together, and derived a lot of pleasure out of meeting goals that were age-appropriate. But the brilliance of this program was that the girls learned (a) interesting, relevant information, (b) how to teach this information to a peer, (c) practical application of this information in personal philosophy, and (d) how to both serve and lead in this application. Each step of instruction lead to the next, and each new goal built upon what we'd already learned. All of which meant we had a small tribe of organized middle school mafia bosses running rampant in our church.

I know, I know. Duck and cover.

But this prepared me to see leadership as an ongoing training exercise, rather than a horrible and incomprehensible weight dumped on unsuspecting heads of state. Stephen R. Lawhead's Song of Albion trilogy (upon which I wax poetic regularly) includes Lawhead's—as well as Lewis' and Tegid's—understanding of druidic education, also mirrors this leader-in-training concept. I don't claim any sort of expertise in pagan Celtic faith, but this is a rough outline of Lawhead's take on the religious caste system of his Otherworld:
  • Mabinogi—students who undertake to learn first a lot of oral rote memorization and second the stories included in The Mabinogion. They often do grunt work within the training regimen, though their instructors keep an eye out for students open to spiritual intuition.
  • Filidh—kind of like TAs, in that they help with memorization for younger students, but they also serve the upper ranks. When sent into the community on their own, they serve as storytellers.
  • Brehon—educated civil servants, these might officiate a wedding or build a bridge. They travel with more freedom and responsibility, using their knowledge to help many different walks of life.
  • Gwyddon—counselors and advisers, they combine their education and people skills to shape leadership and direct goals of a clan or tribe. They wander far less than their juniors, and there can be a spiritual element to their service.
  • Derwydd—kingmakers and priests, the soul of the culture is their primary concern. Wherever they teach, be their audience one or a hundred, a farmer or a warrior, they challenge people to think deeply.
  • Penderwyddi—the buck stops here. These men administer all aspects of this system, serving as leaders of an entire hierarchy of wheels within wheels.
  • Phantarch—one seer, or prophet, who has successfully served in all these aspects and is trusted by his peers to pursue and protect the spiritual collective of their people.

Regardless of what kind of leadership or authority structure you use, young writer, you need to have one. You might not be familiar or comfortable with leadership. That's OK. Most of us aren't. You can write about families, or mountain men, or orphaned boys with their father's light-saber, but at some point there will be an authority figure in your story. It might be a parent. It might be a judge. It might be your character, becoming the unlikeliest king. But think about how this leader came to carry his/her responsibilities.

We all come from somewhere, after all. This generally informs where we will go in our futures, though it doesn't have to. As we will see later in the other chapters of Pwyll's life, he sometimes stands on his own and sometimes leans on the wisdom of others.

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

Monday, June 9

Pwyll, Part I: A Reduction of the Peter Principle and...

While I would dearly love to post the last of the Twelve Dancing Princesses POVs, I have had a request with time constraints. Here in the Low Country, we have an election tomorrow. There is absolutely NO plan to turn this blog the least bit political, but I happen to know how to use a particular fairy tale when thinking about tomorrow's Boston Tea Party. (Really, shouldn't we all disguise ourselves if we're going to throw out long-nosed liars and loud-mouthed donkeys?)

But first, a sad truth. The Peter Principle is a semi-humorous argument about management and leadership that claims everyone rises to his own level of incompetence. There is a little fact behind this, because if you keep doing good until you hit upon a task you cannot accomplish, you will tap yourself out. That doesn't make people incapable of learning or “doing a thing you think you cannot,” but it does indicate that people who promote others heedlessly are thinking in limited dimensions.

How, then, would one promote someone with purpose and good faith?

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Pwyll. He is a Welsh lord from the Druidic Mabinogian, which was required memorization back in the day. (But only if you wanted to be a lawyer, counselor, civil servant, or religious leader.) This is a long story (a version of which can be found here), and below I break down the first chapter of his life as it specifically applies to leadership qualifications. I don't usually, but this story requires some critical thinking and foreknowledge to get to the meat of what we need.

Oh, and if—like me—you pronounce everything in your head, “Poo-ihl” is a close approximation of proper Welsh pronunciation. (I'm told a full set of teeth is an impairment to getting it right.)

  1. Initiative
    Pwyll is busy getting things done. It's how he first attracts the attention of the Otherworld. He does something wrong, to be sure, but he does not hesitate to take action. 
  2. Humility in private
    Pwyll is confronted with the wrong he has done, and he takes his lumps with a distinct lack of arrogance. Catching the notice of the Otherworld is one thing. Impressing the Otherworld is quite another, and Pwyll's immediate apology and offer of atonement is worthy of further attention. 
  3. Healthy response to authority
    When Arawn (yup—“Ara-oon”) introduces himself and suggests an impossible task, Pwyll doesn't argue. He doesn't counteroffer or ask suspicious questions. Pwyll is an authority figure to his own people—a position he had earned—and he respects Arawn's authority in kind. 
  4. Temporary promotion
    Arawn gives Pwyll his job, his responsibilities, his life for a year and a day. With only one task to perform. Pwyll does three noteworthy things with his time:
    1. Maintains a good system
      Annwn (pronounced “An-noon”) is a well-ordered kingdom with an established system of justice and bureaucracy. Pwyll does not change this system. He makes considerable effort to keep that system in good repair. 
    2. ABCD Integrity*
      This isn't in every version of the story, but it is consistent with character qualities Pwyll exhibits in the other chapters. Pwyll has the opportunity to avail himself of privileges and perks only available to this higher position. And he keeps his sticky fingers to himself. 
    3. Completes his task
      Pwyll was given very specific instructions about his battle with Hafgan. He does not deviate from these instructions. He doesn't try to be clever in Arawn's absence. 
  5. Leaves the office better than he found it
    Pwyll has a year to think about that battle with Hafgan. How a great king like Arawn might have failed before, how these instructions are meant for good and not for evil. When Pwyll faces Arawn's old adversary, he plays it smart.** He not only takes nothing for himself, he serves the greater good of the office he has temporarily manned. 
  6. Returns home
    Pwyll is prompt about returning home. He does not extend his stay in the Otherworld. But once he arrives safely back in Dyfed, he keeps the lessons he learned in Annwn—not to mention the confidence of a powerful new ally.

Sometimes, politicians don't meet these requirements. On rare occasions, they will. Expecting this list to be met is a hard line to draw in the sand. Worth the trouble, I should think, but we live in a world where people promote themselves as leaders, rather than the community/country pushing a trusted individual forwards.

For the writers who need a challenge, what do you build into your imaginary leaders? Are your kings and queens granted authority because you need a warm body on the throne, or because they have demonstrated a set of skills that make them worthy of the crown? If you wouldn't use this criteria to find a leader, what qualifications do you seek?

*ABCD stands for Above and Beyond the Call of Duty. Pwyll chooses to keep his back to Arawn's queen during his stay. When the Otherworld king returns home, he is surprised and humbled by the care Pwyll took to be trustworthy. Arawn didn't ask Pwyll of this level of honor.

**There is a big difference between being smart and being clever. Clever requires an audience to see how it has outwitted someone. A lot of arrogance at work, there. Smart has its roots in making the best choice. Though not a rule, it can be exempt from all thoughts of self.

Saturday, June 7

Twelve Dancing Princesses and a Benched Father

There are those who would argue that a fairy tale without omniscience and situational irony is no fairy tale at all. Oh, please. Those are elements that make the reader feel safe—high above the events of the story, so to speak—but they are by no means required. We can still have the wonder and truth of a fairy tale when one clueless narrator hangs on for dear life.

Stories like this one.*

If you sat down to rewrite the Twelve Dancing Princesses from the king's point-of-view, not much of the plot needs to change. You still have a man with a problem, an impossible solution, and an unlikely savior. But in some ways, the king's point-of-view is the most familiar to beginning writers.

In becoming writers, we must begin to observe human interaction. To see new characters, to find different relationships, to explain the chaos in our corner of the universe. For most of us, this kind of watchfulness is no hardship. Being either introverts or antisocial (really, the two are different), we easily settle onto the sidelines and record our understanding of reality. We see patterns, try to predict or even deflect them, and all this time on the bench gives us both a kinship with outsiders and a desire to govern our story's universe a little better.

And while that desire to play God comes out in the king's reactive behavior, we writers must still face the fact that armchair coaches live vicariously. Someone else makes the play, says the line, gets the girl—and our dependency on those outside forces keeps us safe from the risk of failure. Most fantasy depends on a certain amount of this laissez-faire approach. Merlin from the King Arthur legends, who knew everything and served as an advisor and kingmaker. Bob Balaban's character from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who could put all the information together but was neither a brave explorer nor a passionate scientist.

NONE of this is to say that we observers cannot write adventures, myths, or extroverted characters. But when writing from one point-of-view, the author moves into the action. To be part of a scene, a story, and adventure is to miss other parts of life around you. The moment we shift from the sidelines to the play, we cannot see everything. Telling this story from the king's point-of-view, he misses the nighttime adventures. He sits and waits, through one failed suitor after another, and that perspective needs to be respected.

The motivations for an armchair perspective need to be justified, of course. Mourning is believable. The king has lost his loving queen, and perhaps all hope of generating his own son to inherit the throne, so his out-of-control daughters become a believable consequence of his retreating from the field of play. The conflict is pretty straightforward, too. Someone else is making the trouble, and their mess has become his problem. That perspective neatly sidesteps any personal responsibility.

Part of the wonder of a realistic point-of-view, paradoxically, is that it isn't always based on reality. Your narrative character need not be crazy to be out of touch. He could simply only see the world for how it serves him best. A fresh pair of eyes might change the way he sees things—but that would require him to listen to outside sources. Some blinders are put on people by parents, circumstances, education, or beliefs, but some of these blinders are voluntary.

Trickier to define for this benched dad are his goals. Solving the riddle of his daughters' night life is only temporary. Finding a successor addresses his country's needs, to be sure, but not his own. What kind of personal goals would you give this man? Does he need a healed heart? A new purpose in life? To lay to rest old ghosts? The further to the side this kind of character lives from the story's action, the harder it is for a writer to develop and communicate these goals.

Keep in mind, young writers, that a well-rounded character needs to be more than the events you set in your story. He needs a whole life—complete with unanswered questions, strengths and weaknesses, and motivating goals. Not just motivations from the past, but intentions about the future that fuel his decisions.

Even if he's introverted.

Even if he's anti-social.

Even if he doesn't have the starring role.

Even if he reminds you of yourself.

Don't be afraid to think in different directions for your characters. How a character thinks may not be how a story ends up, but the whole of a soul should be represented on the page. This is harder to do when a character has a fundamentally different nature from the writer's, but even more important. Whether writing ourselves or wish fulfillment, we can be real and true with our unique characters.

*I'll only do that once, I promise.