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.

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