Thursday, February 19

Jack's Beanstalk of Anti-Heroism

Beans are a magical fruit, as the immature song tells us. Full of protein and complex carbs, they can be used in anything from a simple appetizer to a hearty soup—even a delicious brownie. And while they're easy to grow, none are as cool as Jack's. They're his ticket to a new life. Without the gimmick of his magic beans, Jack would still be a down-on-his-luck farmer's son.

Or the village criminal, who sneaks in through your back door to “borrow a cup of sugar.” Your call, young writer.

Jack needs the beans, though, to make his story work. Most fairy tales can be told without the magic. Countless revisions of classic favorites attest to that. Jack without his beans equals a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. If he's going to sell anyone his ocean-view resort in Nebraska—I mean, his story about how a nobody broke into a fabled, wealthy kingdom—he must dazzle the audience.

If Jack were to simply say that his family needed the money and he took up a life of crime to help his ailing mother, it would read more like the Michael Keaton crime spoof Johnny Dangerously. Funny, but still wrong. And Jack wants your good opinion, so that's not a venue that works for him.

A recent story that mimics Jack's story pretty well is the film 21. Our Jack, Ben, is asked to “dazzle” a prospective employer in an interview, so he spins a tale. He is a wanted criminal, who pinned all his crimes on the man who first dragged him off the straight-and-narrow. A double life, between his normal life at MIT and his wild one in Vegas. A beautiful girl out of his league. A twist at the end, as Ben works to outsmart powerful con men.

And all the cooler, because it's a true story.

Anti-heroes have been making the rounds a lot in current fiction. Some writers think “good guys” are boring. Some writers think there's no such animal as a genuinely good person. Some writers identify more with the antagonists. All of these writers must then jump through hoops to convince the reader to side with their anti-heroic protagonists.

This is where your spin control comes into play, young writer. You are not required to make a protagonist all good. Nor must you trick your reader into loving an anti-hero. But you should be well aware of what you are doing, and know what tricks are at your disposal.

Human nature can be deceived by looks, so if you have a man who is rich and good-looking, your reader will excuse him for a multitude of sins. Yes, really. The Harry Potter fans who love Draco Malfoy. The girls who swooned over a certain sparkly vampire. And even the Jews, who wanted a human king instead of divine governance, who liked Saul for his great height and mafia-like family connections (I Samuel 9 and 10).

If wealth and looks seem too cliched a way to sway your readers over to the side of your anti-hero, you can put Stockholm Syndrome to good use. This has become a common practice in post-modern story-telling, actually, so don't fear that this will seem far-fetched for your readers. It's a fairly simple process:
1. Capture your reader. Hook the audience on the absolute importance of finding out what happens next. This can occur almost instantly, or it may take a long while. Don't rush the process.

2. Hurt your reader. Whether this is accomplished by harming other characters or by writing a foreign worldview is up to you, but the reader needs to be intimidated and hungry for an emotional connection.

3. Make your reader vulnerable. A desire for an emotional connection is a good start, but it's not enough. The reader needs to open up and share in the hopes that the anti-hero will care. Characters in the story who have been victimized by this character can share their fears, pasts, or dreams in order to facilitate this step.

4. Hurt the reader again. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding, or perhaps the anti-hero hears the sob story but responds in an unexpected way. The vulnerability needs to be reinforced by more damage.

5. Share a little. The anti-hero isn't all bad, and here the reader learns about his abusive childhood or the trauma of prison. One piece of information, painting the anti-hero in a sympathetic light, will attach the reader to him. Or her, if you happen to be writing an anti-heroine.

6. More pain and/or violence. But this time, the characters who have been victims of the anti-hero are now fighting alongside their captor. The reader should be swayed enough to want to defeat “the real villain” rather than escape the captor.

If this sounds cruel or manipulative to you, GOOD. It should. Harming and tricking innocent people takes a lot of work and a certain amoral bent. Modern stories are often developed along these lines, and it has normalized a lot of dangerous behavior in popular culture and fiction.

If you've seen Disney's Frozen, echoes of this can be found in the film. Anna is the fun little girl who wants to play with her sister. Who hurts her. Yes, it's unintentional, but that only increases the audience's sympathy. Anna grows up cut off from her sister, starved for affection and attention. Her sister explodes with icy sorcery, stomping on Anna's fledgling romance and rejecting both family and kingdom. Anna chases her, only to have her sister hurt her again. Anna is desperate to be healed and be loved, and her race home reveals unwelcome news: her sister was right to doubt Anna's suitor. (Anna is unaware of her sister's imprisonment and fears for the family, though the audience is kept up to speed.) Freshly sympathetic to her sister, Anna would rather die defending her than break free of her sister's spell.

That's a specific, slanted take on the story, I know. It is, however, a retelling that does not mention by name the anti-hero of the story: Elsa. Hans is a bad guy, no doubt, but Elsa is the anti-hero who is spun to be a victim of her own ignorance and just as hungry for love as her little sister. Much like Jack is only trying to save his family, or he never would have robbed (or killed) a giant.

Anti-heroes have their place in story-telling. Sometimes they are necessary because nothing else will work for a story. In spinning a tale so that the anti-hero “gets better,” the author runs the risk of doing something scary: normalizing evil. Jack makes it okay to steal, as long as the victim is already bad. Elsa makes it okay to neglect loved ones, as long as the intent is to protect. The more normal any evil becomes, the farther an author has to reach to find a new edge to that envelope he/she is pushing. Violence, abuse, and outright horror become increasingly gray areas for the reader, the more excuses the writer provides.

Young writer, use your anti-heroes with care. How you weave a story is between you and your conscience, but have a care for what it will open inside the reader. Some of the thoughts you put in your reader's head cannot be unthought.

Keep in mind, Jack isn't all bad. There are sweet and delightful variants of the story, full of his pluck but without his kleptomaniac tendencies. But that's a story for another day...

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?

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.

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.