Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Princess Bride


You will find an excellent essay by Amy Garvey about rewards and fairies and the "princess culture" today over at Romancing the Blog.
Her take, from the writers's point of view, ties in with Bonnie's posts from the Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) workbook about raising the stakes and building high human worth.
Ms. Garvey points out that many heroines don't really do all that much (ie. Snow White sleeps most of the time); and that the rewards are expressed in terms of economic and social status, provided by filthy rich sheiks or business tycoons in the present, or lordly member of the Upper Four Hundred in the regency periods or a pransome hince in the generic tales.
Even if the story is set in the Scottish highlands, the heroine has the advantage of several hundred clansmen willing to die to protect her drafty, crumbling castle.
Let's leave aside the undeniable status ambitions and the crude mercantile aspects underlying these plots - it's much easier to do good if you have prestige and power after all - as beside the point.
Many of these heroines do little to earn their rewards, their passive virtue , noble character and beauty are considered enough. They, themselves, often constitute the reward, the trophy, which makes one wonder - just whose fairy tale is it anyway?
This implicit chauvenism is also beside my point.
We are often instructed to insure that both our protagonists and our villains are shown to have contrary qualities.
In pursuing that gymnastic balance, that desirable conflict, we may lose sight of the need for our major characters to sustain overall a certain nobility or viciousness of character that justifies their rewards.
Your thoughts?

The illustration shows a lady's evening dress of 1817, btw.

25 comments:

AE Rought said...

It is a delicate balance to be sure. I like the trial-by-fire method of making the characters earn their 'rewards'--a type of temporal tempering to hone their...um (repeatative)...'characters.'

But, of course, I like to put characters through hell anyway, so why not make them grow through their suffering?? :)

Scott said...

I would consider it a failure of sorts to not present any value to both the man and woman involved. I would prefer that both compliment each other somehow, provide assurance where the other needs it, that kind of thing. To just be beautiful and therefore deserving though can create a powerful sense of injustice, when a deserving candidate is passed over for the simple beauty yet vapidness of another.

kmfrontain said...

I agree with AE Rought. I like putting my main characters through hell before they learn their lesson or get their reward/comeuppance, dependant on whether they've been good/evil/careless.

As for balance between an overall goodness/evilness and some other character quirk that is the opposite or sufficiently different as to almost not fit: that I like to do as well. It gives a character their own special flavour, to have a quirk that doesn't quite fit the norm of the "type".

I do make my characters change their minds. If real life people do it, so should characters. I just try to make sure it stands to reason in the story, why they changed their minds. That fits in with a character being good and doing evil, or being evil and doing good. And if the quirk, mentioned above, was sufficiently worked into the story, then this changing of the mind doesn't shock a reader so much, into thinking the action didn't fit the character -- because the quirk made it fit.

I hope I'm making sense. Bit of a ramble this morning.

MissWrite said...

Cool perspective. I think the examining of the older works in all genres much less fairy tales, and today's fiction really shows the changes in societies outlook in many areas. Especially male/female relationships, and the roles each sex played/plays.

Oh, by the way, great, and necessary post yesterday. Blogger wouldn't let me post.

Robyn said...

From what I understand of nobility (at least the English variety) women were expected to be decorative and ornamental to an extent- but also tireless workers on behalf of their people. We just never seem to see the work beyond visiting a few sick folk.

Of course I want to put my heroine through hell. It gets very boring when a princess wins over her husband, his soldiers, the village women, the enemy, and the woodland creatures in the nearby forest by her beauty and charm alone.

Ric said...

I like stronger women - who at the very least, use that strength to help the prince/king/tyrant to save the day. Or take the reins themself and charge forth.

And the complications serve to develop those hidden strengths as she grows to her true identity.

The beauty is only to draw the highest candidates for her hand. If she is only a simple girl, they won't hang around - no one does after the girl says, "So, how big is your castle?"

Bernita said...

Right, AE, the nobility has to be revealed, not assumed.

Yes,Scott, beauty alone is a snare.

Understand, Karen, and the intention for good that results in evil is also a devastating event.

Really does, Tami, I think we need to go beyond the obvious simplicity, both of the tales and their modern reflections though.
Thank you.

So true, Robyn...she's kind to a chambermaid and that's too often it.

Right, Ric, and the stronger heroine requires a stronger, more complicated, male.

Carla said...

The same argument can be applied to Bridget Jones of Bridget Jones's Diary. Despite its modern setting and its status as the originator of 'chick-lit' and so on, Bridget is a ditzy heroine who gets a rich handsome man. I can only think of the one scene at the end, when Bridget thinks of a way to get her mother safely downstairs so that Julio can be arrested, when Bridget actually does anything bright. Lizzie Bennett got the original Mr Darcy by displaying nerve, courage, wit and self-respect; Bridget's Darcy just falls into her lap. Right.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Man, could you imagine being heavy...and carrying around all that dress too! And then they didn't bathe daily...or even weekly!

I have always had a problem with female protags...that are basically "the prize". In my novel, the female protag is a kick butt, Laura Croft TombRaider type!

Bonnie Calhoun said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bernita said...

Exactly, Carla, it's bad enough when the heroine acquires her HEA without working for it but by "being" and even worse when she's Too Stupid To Live.

I think anyone who could afford that dress, Bonnie, was also likely to bathe often.
Noble nothings - if that. Makes one wonder about the hero's brains.Hope your males are not reverse wimps, Bonnie?

anna said...

Funny as I was reading down the responses and got to Bonnie's I too was definitely thinking
Laura Croft. One sided characters are just boring no matter what time or place and unbelievable.
Most people read for escape,
and most of us read the kind of books that let us get there.

as always great graphic Bernita.

Candice Gilmer said...

Immediately as I read this,I couldn't help thinking about a story where the villian had resources and the protag was not so priviledged.

What came to mind was the Disney movie Aladdin, showing, besides how we need to be careful what we wish for, that sometimes the underdog can win.

But as I wrack my brain, for the life of me, I can't think of movies or even books, where the female protag is the one down in the gutter, and she reaps the rewards in the end, not bceause she marries, but because she deserves it for her own noble character...

Maybe my brain is fried... lol

ali said...

I don't mind female characters being beautiful - but if the author goes on about how gorgeous they are, I'd like there to be a reason for it. Like, the character being ambitious and using it to manipulate people for her own ends, or hating her beauty because she'd secretly like to go into a nunnery but her father is determined to make a good marriage (whereas, if she were ugly, she might have a hope).

I don't like beauty without reason.

None of which is terribly relevant to your post, but it's what it and the comments made me think of.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Anna. Think I have to find a copy of that book.Is it a book?

Wonder if Jane Eyre would fit, Candice?Or Mercedes Lackey's Talia?

Hmm, Ali, while beauty is a matter of genes, the fictional reason for a beautiful heroine, I've always assumed, was to justify the attractions and motives of the other characters.

Gabriele C. said...

Hehe, several of my 'more important' female characters (I don't have heroines) are on the eviller side of the coin. :) Of the others, one doesn't have any romance subplot at all, one doesn't get the MC in the end; only Estrild has a genuine romance subplot with happy end - must be the Medieaveal setting. ;)

Bernita said...

Thank one can safely surmise, Gabriele, that your major characters will earn whatever rewards are allotted to them.

SassyJill said...

Something I learned in Theatre School was that when playing a villian you had to "find the good." Meaning even Snow White's evil stepmother had some good in her. Otherwise I doubt her father would have married her.

Same goes for heros, there has to be some "bad." Maybe it is simply that they haven't properly earned their reward. Life is like that, many get things they don't truly deserve... but you're writting fiction here so the more conflict the better!

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, it's not that Julia wouldn't deserve Ciaran (or he her) but I can't see how to make a happy end work in the historical/cultural context of the book. Love does not conquer all.

Julia is a Christian Roman patrician (not to mention married in the second half of the book), Ciaran a pagan tribal warlord north of the Hadrian's Wall whose people already don't like the fact he's somewhat pro-Roman and educated in the Roman way. Julia would be unhappy among the Dalriatans who would not accept her, and Ciaran would not go back to Rome once he's kicked the ursurper of his position out. To get his hold on his people back, he has to make a political marriage like so many in his time.

M.E Ellis said...

Same as Karen, I prefer my MC's to go through hell. Usually at the end they go through more, too.

I'm evil!

:o)

Bernita said...

Well, Sassy, Snow White's evil step-mother,was a sorceress of some power, so it is assumed - if not described - that she put a spell on the poor man, and good had nothing to do with it.

archer said...

I could never figure out what the deal was with Sleeping Beauty. The stupid prince goes through hellfire and brambles for someone who just lies there. Same with Pygmalion, though Bernard Shaw's version is better (there's one where the woman is in the gutter, by the way, and reaps the rewards). I am in love with Esther Summerson, who gets her doctor in the end.

Penelope is the best. She can handle it all.

Carla said...

"I can't think of movies or even books, where the female protag is the one down in the gutter, and she reaps the rewards in the end, not bceause she marries, but because she deserves it for her own noble character... "

Many of the so-called regional sagas have this sort of plot - a spunky fish-gutter who starts her own business and makes a fortune, a spirited housemaid who runs off to London and becomes a successful actress. There was a UK TV series about 20 years ago called The Duchess of Duke Street whose central character was a spunky trainee cook who rose to become a successful hotel owner by her own efforts.

Marie said...

Interesting post, Bernita. I am attempting my first historical novel and I must admit it is rather difficult trying to keep the female lead, who is the narrator of the story, from sounding boring and passive. I know her voice sounds right for the time (12th century) but as I want her to be a strong character with some fight in her (she will eventually turn into a vampire) I am still experimenting with how I can make it sound right and a little evil without losing the authenticity. I don't want her to sound too modern. But it is a fantasy novel, so I suppose I can cheat a little.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Archer, Carla, for those examples.
I never cared for Snow White. The only character I liked was the Huntsman.

Wonderful, Marie!
My first set in the 12th c.too, and I agree, there are pit-falls and dificulties galore.