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Write Now! 3 – Grimm Art of Fairy Tales

  • Posted on June 18, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Kate Bernheimer’s article on The Grimm Art of Fairy Tales  intrigues me in ways I can’t describe. Since I was a little girl, fairy tales have always been a big part of my life. I found comfort in the idea that, like Vassilissa the Fair, my mother would never leave me wanting, and like Snow White, my kindness and general likability would gain me safety. These small morals were the cornerstone to my personality. So of course, I’m obsessed with them now! However, after getting in touch with my love of horror and suspense, I find that the sweet, normal fairy tales of my childhood don’t quite… do it for me anymore.

And after reading Miss Bernheimer’s article, I figured out why. All of them lack something. They lack the original source. They lack the social commentary, the deep, terrifying moral of all fairy tales. Baba Yaga was a warning against disobeying your elders’ wisdom and, at the same time, a celebration of how that wisdom can, at times, be dangerous. Sleeping Beauty was a warning about how sometimes, not inviting the right people can ruin your entire life. The little mermaid did what Romeo and Juliet could not, and warned me away from stupid, single-minded love.

Intuitive logic, Flatness, and Happy endings, the article describes, are the three fundamentals of a fairy tale. to quote:

Intuitive Logic. The fairy tale world does not conform to the rules of this world, outside of a book, but it does have rules. They will not be explained with insistence. A teapot will sing. A path will appear just when children need to escape terrible danger. A girl will outsmart a witch. Your chopped off hands will turn into silver and save your life later. In my early fiction, my characters often argued with those around them that they were misunderstood; when I removed all efforts to justify logic (try removing transitions like “Therefore” and “Because”), my readers stopped arguing the stories were illogical.

Flatness. In many old fairy tales, characters are not very deep, psychologically speaking. Snow White, the target of murderous impulses by relatives (sisters or mother) does not suffer depression as a result. She does have responses however: fear, sadness, etc. They are logical and not lingered on deeply. There is nothing wrong with stories that explore ideas about psychological depth; I like many of these stories. Yet flat characters leave room for the reader. In the space left behind, one can think in new ways – Imagine new planes of existence. By flattening characters out, fairy tales exceed limitations of individuality, uniqueness, and self.

Happy Endings. Happy endings are underrated and misunderstood. In lots of old fairy tales, terrible things precede the beautiful images that begin and end most fairy tales; besides what’s wrong with a little consolation in a world teeming with senseless violence, poverty, grief? J.R.R Tolkien once defended happy endings as a vital technique in literature – reflecting, “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” If I want to end a story about death with an image of a white horse running down a beach, as men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns wander drunkenly into the sea, leaving a pretty girl on the beach, counting pennies in the moonlight – if I can create poetic joy in the words – this is okay. […]

Fairy tales are storybook worlds. You can cast the spell.

The Grimm Art of Fairy Tales,  Kate Bernheimer

Her exercise then is to find a very short, very old fairytale, and break it down into these three instances. I chose Vassilissa the Fair, as it’s my favorite tale. It’s the story of a girl who’s mother, on her deathbed, gives her a doll and tells her if she runs into any trouble, to feed the doll and ask it’s advice. Since this is a fairy tale, Vassilissa of course runs into trouble.

Now, the intuitive logic here, is that the doll will in fact come alive. No one asks how. Or why. Just that the doll, when fed, comes alive and helps the one that fed it. And this help, invariably, always, helps her. When Baba Yaga tells her to clean her house, the doll has it done by the time Vassilissa wakes from a short nap. When Vassilissa runs from the witch, the doll tells her not to speak to the three riders on the white, red and black horses (morning, noon and night respectively.). And when Vassilissa at the first is sent out of her home to get a flower in the middle of winter, the doll is the one that tells her about the clearing in which she finds the 12 men (the months in order.).

Flatness is easy to find, since all we know about Vassilissa is that she is ‘fair’, meaning most likely blonde and pale.  We know she loved her mother very much. But we don’t hear Vassilissa’s thoughts. We don’t find out if she feels responsible for her mother’s death, or if she hates her stepmother and sister for sending her out into the forest each day. We never find out her feelings on Baba Yaga at all. And she’s wholly unaffected by the world around her. Vassilissa is little but a vessel for us to pour our own thoughts and feelings into.

The Happy Ending changes, based on who’s telling the story, of course, but my favorite is the one where the wicked sister goes out to get a blessing from Baba Yaga the way Vassilissa did, and never comes back, and the mother goes out to demand the men in the clearing give her flowers too, and never comes back. Vassilissa is left alone in her family home, to live her life. It’s not as surreal, perhaps as Miss Bernheimer would ask for, but it suited the story.

You can use this technique on any story really, and every story can benefit from these three instances of fairy tale progression. Remove attempts to describe the logic of your world. Let the readers just accept the premise of your story, and if they have questions? Well, that’s what Tumblr is for. Simplify or eliminate Character depth. It can always be added back in later. But for now, see how you can make room for the reader too. Don’t erase the tragedy, but afterwards, give the reader some odd bit of hope, like a pearl found lodged between an old man’s gums, which can then be used to buy passage onto a boat headed for a better life.

Breaking Down Nemesis: Part Two

  • Posted on August 17, 2014 at 11:36 am

For those of you just joining us, here’s a link to part one. For those of you who aren’t, we’re working on chapter two this time, of Miss Marple’s mysterious adventure in Nemesis. In chapter one, Miss Marple read in the newspaper about the death of an old friend. Now, we get to continue!

Chapter two: Code Word Nemesis

We pick up a week later, when Miss Marple receives a letter. Correspondence, we’ll find out later, turns out to be a really important thing to the lovely Miss Marple. And in fact, pretty important too.

She again, notes the details of the envelope. Good quality envelope, London postage, that sort of thing. Broadribb and Schuster, Solicitors and Notaries of the Public. We’ll meet these gentlemen later, I get the feeling. Yay, more characters! So far, we have five characters, one post-humous. So far, the Code is starting to look pretty reasonable. I know I’ve been drawn in. How about you?

The “Courteous and Legal phraseology” asks her to meet them at her earliest convenience, which turns out not to be Thursday the 24th like they suggested. You’ve got to love the thought that Agatha puts into these thought processes. What character have you ever known to DELAY THE DAMN CALL by attending a meeting at a women’s college about adding some new classrooms.

After a quick discussion with Cherry, who seems to enjoy caring for Miss Marple the same way some people teach children to read, Miss Marple decides she’s going to visit them. If only because Mr. Rafiel might have left her something. A very organic thought process, here, something I might think myself. She hopes not for money but for a rare book on flowers, or a nice cameo broach.

Instead of waiting, we are treated to a quick flash forward to a discussion between Mr. Schuster and Mr. Broadribb. As with Cherry and Miss Marple, we learn about these two through their conversation rather than through a flat out description, or even an introduction. The very first bit we hear is this:

“Wonder what she’ll be like,” said Mr. Broadribb to Mr. Schuster, glancing at the clock as he did so.

“She’s due in a quarter of an hour,” Said Mr. Schuster. “Wonder if she’ll be punctual?”

“Oh, I should think so. She’s elderly, I gather, and much more punctilious than the young scatterbrains of today.”

“Fat or thin, I wonder?” Said Mr. Schuster.

Mr. Broadribb shook his head.

Already I like this Mr. Broadribb MUCH more than Mr. Schuster. But maybe that’s just because I really like Miss Marple, and Mr. Broadribb is being nicer. Then, after their impromptu discussion on what they thought she would be like, they fall into a discussion of their employer. Or rather who and what their employer WAS. As of course, Mr. Rafiel is dead. He seems to be considered a very shrewd man. They say he had “Flair” for what he did, as well as a “Great financial brain.”

This makes me want to meet him even more. Too bad he’s already dead. I wonder what finally killed him?

Miss Marple arrives, and Mr. Schuster excuses himself, thank god. We finally get a description of Mr. Broadribb, and it turns out he’s rather melancholy and long of face. Which just makes me like him more, honestly. Good lawyers should be rather down-trodden, otherwise they aren’t doing their job. Anyway, they begin again, by opening the discussion with Mr. Rafiel. I find myself in a state of constant tension. I just want to find out what he left her already, despite knowing that it was a job, thanks to the description of the book.

Miss Marple is then given a letter. She reads it through, and then rereads it. Then, she has this to say to Mr. Broadribb:

“This is hardly very definite. Is there no more definite elucidation of any kind?”

Apperantly, all Mr. Broadribb was supposed to do was give her the letter, and then tells her that the ‘sum of the legacy’ is 25000 pounds. Now, for my american viewers, who may not understand this amount, that’s a little over 41,000 dollars. Which is quite a lot of money for an old lady. In fact, they go on to discuss what she might do with this money, while Miss Marple is in a bit of a shock over it. Or maybe she’s just trying to figure out the letter already.

Then, Mr. Broadribb asked her if the word ‘Nemesis’ meant anything to her. And she explained that she said it once to Mr. Rafiel, and he was amused at her calling herself that. Again, I really want to read that damned book. Both Mr. Broadribb and Miss Marple are left thoroughly confused by the events, and so am I, until a page or so later, when we FINALLY get to know the contents of the letter.

“To miss Jane Marple, resident in the village of st. Mary Mead.

This will be delivered to you after my death by the good offices of my solicitor, James Broadribb. He is the man I employ for dealing with such legal matters as fall in the dealing with such legal matters as fall in the field of my private affairs, not my business activities. He is a sound and trustworthy lawyer. Like the Majority of the human race he is susceptible to the sin of curiosity. I have not satisfied his curiosity. In some respects this matter will remain between you and myself. Our code word, my dear lady, is Nemesis. I don’t think you will have forgotten in what place and in what circumstances you first spoke that word to me. In the course of my business activities over what is now quite a long life, I have learnt one thing about a man whom I wish to employ. He has to have a flair. A flair for the particular job I want him to do. It is not knowledge, it is not experience. The only word that describes it is flair. A natural gift for doing a certain thing.

You, my dear, if I may call you that, have a natural flair for justice, and that has led to your having a natural flair for crime. I want you to investigate a certain crime. I have ordered a certain sum to be placed so that if you accept this request and as a result of your investigation this crime is properly elucidated, the money will become yours absolutely. I have set aside a year for you to engage on this mission. You are not young, but you are, if I may say so, touch. I think I can trust a reasonable fate to keep you alive for a year at least.

I think the work involved will not be distasteful to you. You have a natural genius, I should say, for investigation. The necessary funds for what I may describe as working capital for making this investigation will be remitted to you during that period, whenever necessary. I offer this to you as an alternative to what may be your life at present.

I envisage you sitting in a chair, a chair that is agreeable and comfortable for whatever kind or form of rheumatism from which you may suffer. All persons of your age, I consider, are likely to suffer from some form of rheumatism. If this ailment affects your knees or your back, it will not be easy for you to get about much and you will spend your time mainly in knitting. I see you, as I saw you once one night as I rose from sleeping disturbed by your urgency, in a cloud of pink wool.

I envisage you knitting more jackets, head scarves and a good many other things of which I do not know the name. If you prefer to continue knitting, that is your decision. If you prefer to serve the cause of justice, I hope that you may at least find it interesting.

Let justice roll down like waters.

And righteousness like an everlasting stream.

Amos.” 

And with that, we are at an end for chapter two. Now, I am a fangirl at heart, and usually, in fandoms, when this sort of accord is reached between two people, we start shipping them. Which means that I thoroughly believe that, had circumstances been different, Miss Marple and Mr. Rafiel might have been paramours. Lovers. Sweethearts. Soul-mates. But then again, it might just be me. Either way, these two characters have a great respect and care for each other. They know each other inside and out.

It’s a rare thing to see two characters connect like this. It’s something to emulate, for certain. Also, the characters themselves are really relatable. I seriously want to meet this Mr. Rafiel. I’m also kind of hoping he’s faking his death. I doubt it, because this doesn’t seem that kind of book, but I hope.

Another thing, I find the use of “Cloud of Pink Wool” to be the beginning of our recurring themes. Check number two on the Agatha Christie Code list. I’m close, guys. I’m close. But this is important. Recurring themes have been shown to be very addictive. Memes. Episodic plot-threads. Recurring characters. Simply enough put, Miss Christie is onto something here. Because everyone seems to put these recurring things into their work. Or at least, the smart ones do.

So, your turn! Tell me about the recurring themes in your own work. Memes, inside jokes, the kinds of things that you think your future fandoms will latch onto and turn into an indoctrination method.

9 Ways to Fix your Stereotyped Character – A guestpost by Cindy Grigg

  • Posted on August 11, 2014 at 2:08 pm

So You Wrote a Stereotyped Character…9 Ways to Fix Your Story

 

I’ve recently been doing a blog post series on How to Write Well-Rounded Female Characters, which included a list of 19 Female Character Stereotypes to Avoid.

Since Nicohle and I are swapping blog posts today, I would love to take that list one step further and show how I would fix a stereotyped female character (but the same concepts apply to any character).

Why You Don’t Have to Start Over

If your female character falls into a stereotype, it’s not so much that you’ve written her wrong as that you’re just not done writing her.

Writers revert to stereotypes or tropes rather than fully articulating what makes a character unique. It’s tricky because you may not feel lazy as you write a stereotypical character. You’re still sitting in the writer’s chair fulfilling your daily word count or time quota, but essentially you’re being creatively lazy about who you are writing about.

1. Rearrange what you’ve got. A lot of creativity is a matter of how you arrange the disparate parts of something to make a whole. Which aspect of your character is the focal point? By restructuring which personality traits are pivotal, you could create a more fresh character.

2. Add something to the character that scares, stretches, or otherwise challenges you. If writing about a certain characteristic your character possesses makes you think about the world in a new way, it likely will do the same for many readers.

3. Change how long your character stays a stereotype. Maybe your character can start out as a character but be changed by a new event. Maybe reveal they were hiding their true nature for some good reason. Think: Scarlet Pimpernel.

4. Look around you. Think of the most unique people you know and add some part of their personality to your character.

Rarity gives you an example reaction.

5. Add more weaknesses, flaws,  fears, and losses! I like the trick of thinking, What is the worst thing that could happen to my character? Then consider adding that to your plot so your character has to really solve and struggle.

6. Put your character in strange situations. Brainstorm several seemingly unrelated scenes and put your character in them. Consider crossing genres with this exercise. Put your fantasy heroine in a murder mystery and see how she behaves, etc. You may stumble upon an interesting nuance to add to your story.

7. Change your character’s past or future. If the character seems flat or one-dimensional, hook the audience into caring based on something terrible or wonderful they went through or will go through.

8. Give your character a unique motivation. Most of humanity is motivated to some degree by love of family, romance, personal gain, or moral/spiritual paradigms, for example. But what if you made your character also motivated by something kooky like a love of snails, and wanting to save those snails from extinction, for example?

9. Create personality contradictions. I love giving a character two characteristics that seem paradoxical or at odds with one another, then showing why they are this way.

Both fixing characters or scrapping them will require a lot of editing, so I figure you might as well refurbish your stereotyped character rather than starting from square one.

While it takes more effort, it’s more fun and interesting to write well-rounded characters. For me, this comes down to asking, But who else is she/he?! By consciously steering clear of stereotypes, writing becomes more adventure. More fun.

Cindy Grigg

Cindy Grigg writes speculative fiction and instructional non-fiction. She is the author of the HULDUSNOOPS series, a middle grade mystery and fantasy adventure about Icelandic Huldufolk or “hidden people”. As About.com’s Office Software Expert, Cindy also writes about technology and productivity (www.Office.About.com). Find her writing advice, blog, and other projects she’s working on at www.CindyGrigg.com.

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