Friday, September 9, 2016

Character Study.

Before getting to the meat of this post, I’d first like to welcome InkGypsy back to the fairy tale blogging circle.  She has been on hiatus for a considerable amount of time but now Once Upon a Blog is back.  I always thought there was a certain amount of symmetry between Gypsy’s blog and mine.  We both cover the pop culture angle but Gypsy’s blog is much more up to the moment while I post a lot more retro reviews.  To use a music industry analogy, Gypsy tends to talk about the new albums that are about to drop while I’m the one digging through the box of old 45s saying “Hey, remember this?  Let’s see if it still holds up!”

But speaking of my fairy tale blogging colleagues, some of them give me ideas for posts even when they’re not trying too.  For example, in the comments of my “Fairy Tale School” post, Kristin from Tales of Faerie said she had no idea so many fairy tale retellings took place in school settings.  I noted that they weren’t so much retellings as character mash-ups.

However, that made me realize something.  To some extent, fairy tale character mash-ups don’t make much sense.

The thing about fairy tale characters is that they’re flat.  Fairy tale characters lack nuance and depth.  They are archetypical in the extreme.  We only know these characters by their positions and their actions.  Sometimes they don’t even have names, they just have designations like the Prince, the Princess, the Woodcutter, the Tailor, etc.  So, the question becomes: why do we love them so much?
Why do we get such a kick out of putting a bunch of these characters or their descendants in the same setting and watching them play off of each other?
Well, I think it ultimately comes down to what we and the writers of these various retellings and mash-ups brings to them.  Fairy tales aren’t the only genre to utilize flat characters.  Nintendo has notoriously resisted giving most of their characters like Mario and Link voices and defined personalities.  Their logic is that their lead characters are avatars that the player can project their own voice and personalities onto.  Mattel has a similar approach with their fashion doll character Barbie.  She’s supposed to be whatever little girls want her to be and thus has no defined character traits.

I think this can backfire too, though.  When a character has so little defined personality, a lot of attention falls on their physical form.  I’ve long held the theory that the reason there is so much concern over Barbie and little girls trying to emulate her appearance is because there is nothing else for them to emulate.  Children will often imitate the media figures in their life.  I know as a little boy I used to pretend I was He-Man or a Ninja Turtle quite frequently.  But with Barbie there’s nothing there to imitate except her appearance.  In order to make her anything to any little girl, they made her nothing.  The same issue falls on popular versions of fairy tale characters.  Disney never went into much detail when fleshing out their early princess characters like Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora.  The extent of who they are seems to be summed up as “pretty and kind”.  With so little else to work with, parents started to worry what the effect of these characters is on their daughters.  That’s likely why Disney went to a lot of trouble to redefine Cinderella in their 2015 movie.
Flat characters can allow readers to project onto them but they also provide with a blank slate for writers to paint on.  In some cases that results in iconic takes on the characters that are often imitated.  Disney’s version of Belle from Beauty and the Beast is a good example.  Disney defined their Belle as an independent-minded intellectual and a voracious reader.  Ever since then, I’ve rarely seen a version of Belle that hasn’t regularly carried a book in her hand.  It can also result in some unusual takes that are creative but might not work for some people.  I’ve encountered a few of these in Bill Willingham’s comic book series Fables.  As you folks probably know, I am a big fan of “Jack and the Beanstalk”.  However, I was always a bit put off by Willingham’s depiction of Jack as a dislikable scumbag.  I understand the reasoning for it.  Jack did steal from the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” and he uses trickery in numerous other Jack tales.  However, Willingham’s Jack was just too slimy for me.  I also didn’t care for his depiction of the seven dwarfs as Snow White’s abusers and slave drivers.  Willingham’s two most popular characters are probably Snow White (who I have a couple of different versions of in my head) and the Big Bad Wolf (who I never had much interest in).  On the other hand, there are versions of the characters I like that others might not.  For example, as mediocre as Shrek 3 was, I have a strange soft spot for that movie’s version of Snow White.  Snow White in Shrek 3 is depicted as kind of a haughty, catty mean girl.  I think that’s hilarious and makes an odd kind of sense.  Who wouldn’t get kind of full of themselves if they were told from an early age that they were the fairest of them all.  I know it’s not for everyone and that interpretation wouldn’t work for every story that people would want to use Snow White in, but I like it.
So maybe what fairy tale characters lack in nuance they make up for in flexibility.  What are your thoughts?  And what are some unconventional takes on fairy tale characters that you really like?  The comment section is below.  You know what to do.


  1. I actually like your take on Snow White. It makes perfect sense with how she ends up helping and taking care of the seven dwarfs. For in doing so, she becomes kind and truly beautiful-inside and out.
    My favorite fairy tale character is Little Red Riding Hood. Her innocence is constantly challenged and you just have to she really that ignorant? I just love delving into the inconsistencies and wishy-washiness of her persona. As well as the Wolf's.
    I also like the Baba Yaga. Especially Patricia Pollaco's take on her.

    1. I've got a couple different versions of Snow White rattling around in my head. I like the "mean girl" version for a high school themed character mash-up. But my other take on her is as a little girl who was raised by a septet of dwarfs (I always wanted to swap the pseudo-parent/child dynamic Disney had in their movie).

  2. Thank you for the kind mention Adam. It's good to be back. :)

    More importantly, re this post: *surges to feet and applauds* Brilliantly put!
    I agree very much with the flatness onto (into?) which we project ourselves, to be both familiar/comfortable while at the same time an extension into places we might not be quite prepared to go... (yet). If at any time it gets too much, there is that safety net of "just a story" (which is observable in children when they hear fairy tales). But that isn't the whole of it either. After having observed our reflection in these initially flat characters, even if we backed away from it, these tales are never quite as safe as they used to be - they're more "real" and connected to us, making them precious in a way wonderfully written and fully formed characters cannot...
    My most recent favorite take on FT characters: "Indexing" (& sequel) by Seanan McGuire. If you're not aware of it, it's a fascinating delve into tale - and people - types and how they manifest in 'our' world (plus it's adventure/procedural/ so it's a very fun ride). Bluebeard's wife got a really interesting spin. In this version, she never gave in to her curiosity so remains happily married, while aware of the risk. She also has a unique talent in opening locks, and has to keep a close watch on her impulses so she doesn't enter the wrong space... (dun, dun duuun!)

  3. I don't want to gt into Barbie too deeply, as this is kind of off-topic and quite the complex topic to dive into, so jst my two cents: I don't necesarilly see it as a bad thing, that Barbie doesn't have a distinct personality. If anything, a toy that wasn't designed with an established story line or character can encourage creative play, whichis an important part in child development, more effectively. That said, Barbie falls into an odd in between category, where she is supposed to be an established character, but doesn't have much personality to back it up, so I can see your argument.

    I also think that Disney's Snow White does have a distinct personality, more so than the other pre-Renaissance princesses.

    What does it say about a person who's first instinct upon entering a house is cleaning? Especially when that person - that child - has lived in domestic servitude for a long time (most her life?). What does it say that a person lacking a maternal figure takes up a maternal role towards the people she meets almost instantly? And what does it say that part of being a maternal figure for them is apparently roping others in for housework and - quite condescendingly! - educating them about personal hygiene? What does it say if a person who has been essentially a slave for most her life (?) has constructed a saviour figure in her head to rescue her from a situation that she can't escape from (or does she only believe that?) on her own, but is afraid when he actually shows up?

    Some of this holds true for the other princesses too, one difference between Snow White and Cinderella being that while Snow White still dreams of rescue, Cinderellahas toned down her dreaming to a more realistic level: A night off. Perhaps it is because she is more mature, maybe it's that the emotional abuse hs been going on for longer. Aurora is certainly the weakest character of the bunch. The glimpses of character we see are realistic enough for a teen, she even gets to rebel a little, but she's not allowed enough time in her own movie to show us more than these glimpses.

    I'm not sure on how much of this psychologicalization is *intentional* mind you, but it does paint an interesting and semi-realistic picture. Except maybe for the perpetual cheerfulness. Perhaps a character that was designed for an era when women did have similarly little agency in her own life as Snow White had - or at least were made to believe so, has no place in our modern world, but she is still fascinating, if only for her reflection on the historical circumstances she was created in.

  4. Well, there's Neil Gaiman's The Sleeper And The Spindle, in which a young queen, never named, but obviously Snow White, leaves her young groom on the eve of her wedding, puts on armour and goes off with the seven dwarfs to investigate something weird going on in the next Kingdom, where people have started falling asleep. And the sleeping princess isn't what the fairytale leads you to expect...

    And Jim C Hines' Princess series, in which Snow White is a sorceress who wears a choker of mirrors to help in her magic, Sleeping Beauty, after being woken by that rape, has become a very successful assassin and both of them help Cinderella to rescue her Prince, who has been kidnapped by fairies working with the nasty stepsisters. In the sequel, they all work together to save her kindly mother-in-law who has been sent into a deadly sleep by the Little Mermaid, who has become insane since her betrayal...

  5. Oh, and Tanith Lee did a wonderful Snow White story, in which Snow White was a born vampire and the Queen was trying to save her. And the Prince who finds her has holes in his hands...

  6. The manic, free-associating version of the Genie in Disney's Aladdin has value for a few reasons, not least that Robin Williams was such a talent. I also think it makes good sense for the genie to be, well, at least slightly insane. How else would one be after alternating between living inside a small object for millennia, and serving as a slave for whatever random jerk happened to rub the lamp. It's amazing that he's as well-adjusted as he is, really.
    Regarding Barbie, I had a few as a kid and I remember I actually did tend to assign characters to my various 'blank' Barbie dolls, rather than to other toys, when making up stories in my head, so that I could play them out later with the dolls if I wanted to. I loved my other, more specific toys too (eg Aladdin figurines), but I found it easier to project different stories onto the Barbies. (Although, this also lead to most of my made-up stories from that time consisting entirely of blonde, white casts... even I got bored with that after a while!)

  7. I agree with you on the Snow White in Shrek the Third being one of the best characters. I love the point where her song changes from a sweet chirp, calling her little birdie friends, to a heavy metal riff, sending the birds hurling at the guards like lethal projectiles.
    I think it's the very flatness of fairy tale characters that both defines folktales (it's one of Max Lüthi's characteristics of the folktale) and makes them so attractive for not only endless repetition, but "expanded versions". As you're saying, they're a blank slate - we can identify with them, and let our imagination roam. A few years ago I wrote a novel-length retelling of "Puss in Boots" - one of my basic questions was: Why is the miller's son so passive that he lets the cat boss him around and do all the active work? My solution is that he's a poet, a dreamer with his heads in the clouds. It was a lot of fun to try to make all the basic elements of the written tale (the Grimms' version) fit with this "real" character that I built the miller's son into. One of these days I'll publish it; then you can tell me what you think of it. (Or if you want to read it in its current version, let me know and I'll send it over to you for a beta read.)

  8. Oh, and dare I mention the show "Once Upon A Time" as a fairy tale character mashup that's both unconventional and at the same time highly conventional (according to current mores and the Disneyfied understanding of what fairy tale characters are)?