Monday, January 26

Jack's Beanstalk and ...

When it comes to unique fairy tales, not every nationality has a recognizable trademark. Little Red Riding Hood could happen anywhere. Snow White can't even be claimed by the Brothers Grimm, because the Italians, the Arabs, and the Scots all have multiple takes on the story. Cinderella is best known by the French version, but literally every culture has one. But the English can claim sticky-fingered Jack for their own.

One of the amazing aspects of Jack's story is the very subtle narrative. Jack is young, poor, and not-so-clever. But he is anxious to prove he is quick-witted, at least. The fascinating thing about Jack's adventures up in the sky isn't that they happen. It's that you, young writer, believe this repeat offender when he goes back and steals from the giants. Again and again.

Jack's MO is normal for thieves. If they find a weakness someplace, they will come back and steal again. Just like Jack did. But we excuse him for it, snookered by this notion that he had a family to feed, an astonishing bit of luck in being tricked into buying “magic beans,” and the ultimate whopper of justified revenge. There is always an excuse.

This story is swallowed so completely, especially when we're kids, that we never question whether the narrator is telling the truth.

But why would he? He admits to stealing. Why doesn't the reader wonder if that was his only fault in the tale? Oh, he's plucky. Imaginative. Charming. Altruistic. He's Robin Hood with beans and giants and harps—oh my.

Don't get me wrong. I love a good fairy tale. But Jack's adventures have more in common with Rapunzel than with Cinderella. He's not as innocent as we like to imagine.

How would another character—a disinterested third party—tell the story? Would they side with the giant? Would they know more about where the beans came from? We've spent some time on point-of-view already, so I'm not asking about that. Jack spins the story, though, so that he comes out smelling like roses. It's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He's the guy who got away with murder, and this is the tall tale he passes around to convince everyone that he did the right thing.

As writers, we learn about protagonists and antagonists. Good and bad. How to give one character a little of both sides. And then we get a “modern” idea—let's have an anti-hero. No one's ever made a bad guy the protagonist, so I'll be the first.

Nyeh—more like the seven hundred and third. If Jack could convince you that his beanstalk was fated justification, perhaps anti-heroes with a gift of gab have existed before.

If you were to make an antagonist the hero, would you convince your readers of his courage? Jack's not written without flaws in the beloved children's tale, but the story defends him at every turn. How would you write an anti-hero, young writer? Would your readers see any of his faults, or would he be more like merry ol' Jack?