Princess, Washerwoman, Warrior, Goatherd: How Real are Your Characters?

From Writer Unboxed:

In traditional storytelling, especially in fairy tales, the main characters often don’t have names. Instead they are referred to only by their roles: the tailor, the shepherdess, the knight, the princess, the giant. When a character does get a name, often it’s an emblematic sort of name, like Snow White (named for her skin as white as snow) or Rapunzel (named for the herb her mother stole from the witch’s garden.) Then there’s Prince Charming, named thus (I guess) because his parents assumed he’d grow up to be much admired, and would learn pretty court manners in preparation for the prince job. Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk) has a real name; but you’ll find quite a few different stories with a Jack in them, and he’s usually making mischief and/or getting into trouble, so that one may be emblematic as well – what about the Jack in a card deck, also known as the Knave? Generally those stories are not big on character development. We may have a dramatic change of circumstances: the goatherd slays the dragon and gets to wed the princess (too bad it she’s not keen on the idea); the tailor is kind to the elves and is given magical assistance as a reward. But an individual human journey that draws us in deeply? Generally not. Maybe fairy tale characters don’t need names.

Legends are different, being almost always associated with a particular location, a notable event that took place (or may have taken place) there, and a person or being: Robin Hood, William Tell, King Arthur. Each of those has some historical basis, but in the cases of Arthur and Robin, the old story has morphed over the years into an elaborate piece of (mostly) fantasy. For Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, this is largely down to a twelfth century Welsh cleric and writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and to a lesser extent to Chrétien de Troyes, a French writer of the same general period. There are many more such examples. The stories are grand, heroic, stirring, and often deeply romantic, and they’ve been retold and rewritten over and over right to the present day. The retellings and reworkings tend to reflect the culture and values of their time; the storyteller shapes the tale to resonate with its audience. Generally the original character names, or recognisable versions of them, remain.

Today’s writers, and fantasy writers in particular, have produced some ground-breaking work when re-interpreting well-known, and often well-loved, traditional stories. A case in point is Juliet E McKenna’s The Cleaving, published recently by Angry Robot (UK). In this compelling novel, the heroic trappings of the Arthurian story are stripped away, and we are confronted with the gritty reality of the time and culture through the eyes of the women in the tale. It’s a challenging read at times, especially for anyone who loves the pageantry and romanticism of the Arthurian legend. It’s also deeply rewarding. These characters are not the idealised figures of legend, but real individuals struggling to take back control of their lives and their world. We recognise their names—Ygraine, Morgana, Nimue, Guinevere—and because the Arthurian tale is so familiar to us, it hits us with striking force when these characters don’t adhere to the old story, or when the author’s vision of that story is so different from the old tale of chivalry and honour. McKenna shows us how little choice women in their situations would actually have had. The interaction between the workers of magic, Merlin and Nimue, is a particularly strong element in this novel. In the legend, Merlin’s intervention governs some key aspects of Arthur’s rise to the throne, and the author’s take on this is fascinating.

I’ve written before about some brilliant feminist reworkings of myths that have been published in recent years. From Claire North, we have Ithaca and House of Odysseus, the first two novels in a planned trilogy, The Songs of Penelope. Genevieve Gornichec’s The Witch’s Heart is a wonderful reworking of Norse mythology with an unforgettable central character. The illustration for this post honours that Norse connection – I couldn’t resist the ravens. Gornichec’s new title, to be published this month, is The Weaver and the Witch Queen, described as a blend of Viking age history and myth. These two authors use the framework of myth, but their characters are fully fleshed individuals, real people whose journeys feel entirely authentic as we share them. For a highly original fairy tale reworking try Alix E Harrow’s Fractured Fables series, or Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.

Times change, and stories change with them. We don’t often listen to someone telling a story these days. Audiobooks are great, but they lack the spontaneity of the tale told by the fireside, which can change in every single telling. If we tell a story, we usually do so in writing, and the stories we absorb generally come to us as in published form, whether it’s as print, e-book or audio. The exception, I guess, might be telling stories to small children rather than reading them. Keep doing this, folks, it’s a great bonding experience! Also, it’s good brain training when you have to make things up as you go.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG notes that a story doesn’t need to be ground-breaking to be interesting. He’ll also note that, while audiobooks “lack spontaneity” so do physical books and ebooks.

19 thoughts on “Princess, Washerwoman, Warrior, Goatherd: How Real are Your Characters?”

  1. Today’s writers, and fantasy writers in particular, have produced some ground-breaking work when re-interpreting well-known, and often well-loved, traditional stories. A case in point is Juliet E McKenna’s The Cleaving, published recently by Angry Robot (UK).

    This is where I hopped off. Sorry, but this has been going on for decades now. There might be some new wrinkles involved, but doing a gritty reboot of a traditional story is not at all new. At this point, what would be “groundbreaking” would be to adapt the tales without going all “Game of Thrones” on them.

  2. If a story “lacks spontaneity,” it’s because the timid, frightened author wasn’t able to push past his or her unreasoning fears and Just Write What Happened as he ran through the story with his characters. Nobody can consciously “think up” anything spontaneous. Spontaneity is a characteristic of real, unscripted life and, in fiction, of the creative subconscious mind.

  3. Huh, with respect to the spontaneity bit, I’m recalling an observation a scholar made about Homer: that in-person he would likely have altered and tailored the Iliad and Odyssey in response to audience reactions.

    There was more than one version of the Iliad, for instance. In some versions Briseis and Chryseis have actual names rather than patronymic bynames (Briseis = daughter of Brises, Chryseis = daughter of Chryses).*** Writing down the stories “fixed” them into one variant only. Once a modern story is published it will be forever “fixed,” and therefore not spontaneous in any meaningful sense.

    Point being, in comparison to an orally-told story by the campfire, a written story (or Audible version) will not have spontaneity, because the author will not be responding to a real-time audience. I … don’t see the actual problem with this, though.

    On the name front — those fairy tales the OP mentions come from the West, during a time where people were more religious. The one thing you notice in the Bible is how frequently people are named based on an aspect the parent (or God) wants to be true of the person. Abram (exalted father) becomes Abraham (father of many nations). Sarai (my princess) becomes Sarah (princess, I guess to everyone else besides her own father). The flaky and mercurial Simon becomes Peter (rock, which stays fixed and dependable).

    Or sometimes, the name reflects circumstances surrounding the child, e.g., Moses, “because I drew him from the water,” and “Ben-oni” (son of my sorrow) because Rachel is dying while giving birth to him. It would not surprise me if the Europeans of old carried a Biblical trope into, say, “Prince Charming.” How many parents back in the day named a daughter Charity or Grace? I actually knew a Chastity (I did not ask if she lived up to the name, or went in a different direction).

    ***IIRC, the idea was that the ancient Greeks felt it disrespectful to refer to a woman by her actual name in public. I’m an onomastics nerd, so I was always vexed by “Chryseis” and “Briseis,” and was relieved to find out their real names, allegedly Astynome and Hippodameia respectively.

      • With respect to jokes, something I read once about why the movies and actors from Old Hollywood put modern Hollywood to shame — Old Hollywood came out of vaudeville. Mae West, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Cary Grant, Judy Garland — they could see in real time, before a live audience if they succeeded or failed with their performances. So they learned fast how to get laughter or tears from a crowd. They learned what stories worked, what “bits” worked, and what didn’t.

        Now modern Hollywood, like so many modern businesses, is divorced from its customers. At my old paper they cited my care and concern for customers as one reason they hired me. If it turns out that certain companies are run by the aliens from “They Live,” that will make perfect sense to me. More so than the “Let’s call our customers Nazis” playbook. I just don’t get that kind of stupidity.

        • A few of the better actors of the recent past have comparable improvisational skills. Marvel’s MCU Tony Stark owes his personality to RDJ. Ryan Reynolds is also reportedly good in rewriting on the fly and, of course, the king of improv, Robin Williams.

          Most recently, a good chunk of Hollywood screenwriters were all aggrieved that Jenna Ortega admitted she rewrote whole chunks of her lines for WEDNESDAY. Yet the show was a smash, her work brilliant, and her changes spot on. Like it or not, she did their job better than them.

          The ability to properly get inside a character’s head (or the audience) is increasingly rare but not yet unheard of. Unfortunately, a lot of studios (Disney!) don’t count it as a required skill.

          • Yeah, I mentioned Jenna Ortega a while back***. And Tony Stark is an excellent example which ties into a post I made in the “Body Language for Leaders” thread. In it, I mentioned a YouTube channel called “Charisma on Command,” where the vlogger examines the body language of characters (TV version of Game of Thrones) and actors (the MCU actors in particular), and in the clips you can get a sense of the aspects of himself RDJ infused into Stark.

            Someone else suspected that one reason Captain Marvel didn’t resonate was because the character’s lines were written as if meant to spoken like Tony Stark. But the writers failed to see the connection between RDJ and Stark, and didn’t realize for some reason that Brie Larson is a dramatic actress, not a comedic one. In contrast, the genie from Aladdin was written from the ground up to be rooted in Robin Williams’ personality; the writers specifically meant for him to play the genie.

            But speaking of comics — in a book on how to draw, Stan Lee mentioned that superheroes are akin to the demigods of Greek myth. And it occurs to me that comics themselves are akin to Greek myth, in that they are frequently told in “variants of a theme.” Different writers do different versions of a given story or character, just like you have different versions of Aphrodite, or Medusa’s origin story (she’s either born a Gorgon, or turned into one depending on which version), etc. So fans speak of “Frank Miller’s Batman, Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil, Chris Claremont’s X-Men.”

            Comics are probably the only medium I can think of where fans could trust “retellings,” simply because the retellings of old were rooted in a love of the characters, and have something interesting to say about them. As opposed to the modern habit of “and now he’s a black lesbian!” But comics and fan-fiction have just taken on a whole new dimension to me, so I “get” them now in a way I didn’t before.

            ***I liked that she did that, partly because I just like when people have unexpected talents. And you’re right, it used to be more common for a good actress or actor to understand a character well enough to do what Ortega did. Apparently Gary Cooper cut a lot of his own lines from “High Noon,” to shape his character the way he understood it. There’s a video of Nichelle Nichols explaining she defied a director’s command to have Uhura behave a certain way. I gather Uhura was supposed to get sassy and throw a stylus to the floor, but Nichols created the character and knew Uhura wouldn’t do such a thing. Nichols said Roddenberry backed her up.

            On the flip side, I now understand how actors and directors can part ways over “creative differences.”

            • Re: Robin Williams’ genie, the story I saw was that he gave them a day’s worth of lines (at scale!), starting with the original script and riffing off dozens of variations. The director then chose what to use. There was a stipulation on how to use the rest which Disney violated.
              He called them out publicly and refused to work with them again for years.

              And yes, comics are definitely modern mythology. To a lesser extent movies and TV franchises that last long enough for multiple (successful) recastings and reboots. Typically SF, so far. TREK, GALACTICA, and the DC characters. So far, both DC and Trek have resorted to the parallel worlds explanation for the recastings and for the most part viewers have accepted (albeit grudgingly) most of the variants.

              In that vein, ADULT SWIM/MAX just started a new animated series that is a delight: MY ADVENTURES WITH SUPERMAN. Anime Superman year one. And it works! (Even if they, yet again, racebend poor mr Olsen. What is it with Hollywood and redheads? The only minus.) Their version of Lois Lane is a homerun. I now understand why Gunn cast tiny Rachel Brosnahan opposite hulking Corenswet. If he replicates the animated dynamic he’ll have the perfect romcom right there. Snippets on youtube for a quick sample but everybody seems to love it.

              So yes, some properties/concepts have enough depth that the audience can enjoy different takes. Christopher Reeve’s Superman is very different from Tyler Hoechlin’s but both work perfectly in their narratives (and times). Dan Jurgen’s Superman and Son run is priceless and it’s a shame Bendis came in and ruined the dynamic of a true (10 year old) superboy. On TV replacing the one kid with twins along the lines of Hercules and Iphicles sort of works. More dramatic tension. But I hope Gunn at some point bring in Jurgen’s version. The masses need to see that version live.

              Unfortunately, not all rellings actually add anything to the mythos and are best swept under the rug. (Miller’s ALL STAR BATMAN, Marvel’s heroes stillborn, etc).

              No doubt some of the lost greek stories were lost because they were teeth grindingly bad. 😉

            • “But the writers failed to see the connection between RDJ and Stark, and didn’t realize for some reason that Brie Larson is a dramatic actress, not a comedic one.”

              That reminds me of the GREEN LANTERN movie where they cast snark comedy specialist Ryan Reynolds and fiorced him to play a snarky rebel character as a bland straight arrow. No jokes?!

              Not sure if the producer or director was at fault but somebody dropped the ball. If they’d let Reynolds be Reynolds the movie might have brought in substantial profits since it wasn’t horrible even then.

    • Such naming still happens in some cultures, such as Chinese, with resulting names such as Academic Star, Morning Boy (parents had a girl, wanted a boy), Victory Piano

      • Agreed, that’s something I’ve always noticed about their names. In Jade Snow Wong’s autobiography, “Fifth Chinese Daughter” she talked about her baby brother, “Prosperity from Heaven.” He’s usually just called “Prosperity” for short.

        I personally like the idea of giving a child a name that’s actually meaningful, as opposed to a random collection of syllable.

        • You can do that in English, too: some Chinese-American English first names:

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