Ah Pantomime, a British favourite that is as inexplicable to foreigners as the seasonal World Championship TV Darts. Here we have stories that are hard-wired into the global consciousness, spattered with the all the ribaldry that cross-dressing, double-entendre and pop cultural references can provide. Characters, too. In the best traditions of Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop and so on, the principal good guys are as bland as possible while the principal baddies get all the laughs, all the drama and a good 75% of the applause.
It’s hard to sit through a performance of Cinderella without that visceral conflict between, on one hand, the warm satisfaction of a boy-meets-girl happy story, and on the other a slightly uncomfortable sense that humble, kind, decent girls are not supposed to exist as role models any more. We, an enlightened society, should be immune, surely, to the likes of Cinderella, Chaucer’s Griselda, Snow White, Cordelia and so on, preferring the post-post-feminisit/ post-ladette / slightly-ironic-kick-ass-but-can-still-raise-a-family-single-handed while-running-a-global-business sort of girl. Just as we hate to love the trad male hero, the provider, the defender, the man committed as much to his only love as to his bench-press.
How we treat these classic types or archetypes, how we use the audience reaction to them and how we spike the realism with just enough of those traditional elements to get the optimum, joyful brain-reel, this is where we make our writerly decisions. This is how we use our cultural background to best effect. What do the traditional types provide and what is our path to understanding them, using them without abusing them?
There is something about this visceral appeal of the rags to riches story line, however, especially as it concerns the hero and heroine, destined, through their own inner decency to find each other at last and end the story with the kind of symbolic union that needs no sequel to ruin it. That of course is half the point. The ending is an ending. It’s a closed story and not just in terms of the means through which conflict is resolved and all proairetic and hermeneutic threads satisfactorily tied. It’s closed in that there is no future for these characters, we don’t want Cinderella 2 (The Unwanted Wedding Presents) or the Return of Cinderella (Now with Bigger Balls). We don’t want it and, more importantly, it doesn’t exist – at least it doesn’t exist until Disney wants a re-franchising exercise. We don’t walk out of the panto wondering what became of the happy couple, whether it will continue to grow as a satisfying relationship, whether there are twists, arguments and increasing accommodation troubles at the palace. The reason is, of course, that these are not people, they are characters and at the close they cease to be, but in a way which is not entirely in the consciousness of the audience.
Not only does the narrative have this bounded, neat and implicitly satisfactory existence, the characters both draw attention to and distract attention from the fact that they are characters and not people. It goes against the grain to the audience who invest in a book, play, film or story, of course. Unless an author wants to play invasive games, then our favourite way of enjoying a story is to lose the sense that it is constructed and, importantly, that it is constructed of characters that are in no way real. As Robert McKee wittily points out, the characters in a story are no more real people than is the Venus de Milo. For some reason though, unlike gallery-imprisoned sculptures, this fact is harder to be aware of while still enjoying the narrative experience.
(At least it’s hard for those who want to enjoy the story; on the other hand it’s standard practice for dispassionate literary critics – always among the coldest dealers in textual engagement as is nicely hinted at by Stephen Fry in his Michael Young character in Making History – the point there being that it’s easier to study history because you don’t weep at the plight of Talleyrand or Lenin, but you do, or should, if you’re swimming through the warm waters of a marvellous story with Jane Eyre or Sebastian Flyte.)
Often we’d like the characters to be ‘real’. In fact some apprentice critics are happy to treat literary personages as though they are, calling up motives and psychological drives as though they were flesh, bone and brain. The fact is they are not – or not entirely. Against this brake on our engagement with literary characters as though they were friends we do note the alternative reality of narrative engagement as we follow what Brook calls “the internal logic of the discourse of mortality” (Reading for the Plot, p.22.) Narrative represents the real, and deals with it in ways that are in some ways more real in that they are more distilled, more clear, more invested with an archetypal truth that we are aware of as real human beings but which we have limited opportunities to access for ourselves.
Another angle to look at this from is nicely cued up for exploration by H Porter Abbot, who, in a very readable set of chapters on narrative, truth and reality, shows with illustration from a range of erudite sources how gaps in fiction almost demand filling with readerly assumption. “Are real people characters? Or is character something that only exists in narrative?” (Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd ed, 135ff.)
Making use of archetypes
It’s important as a writer to think through what you are creating or constructing as you set about your work, and there are lessons to be learnt and profit to be made from our most ancient archetypes.
Cinderella needs to have exactly the set of traits she is given year after year in the pantomimes, exactly the traits she has in the traditional stories. Even in contemporary workings of the story, in Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill (1999) for example, an odd character-point of short temper or feisty urban-survival skills do not interfere with the underlying nature of who this female character is and what the union with the love interest means to us as an audience.
There are plenty of great ways to fracture the model of course, Jeanette Winterson-type reworkings of fairy tale, with the humorous and cunning reversals that serve to displace the archetype and make us question it, but perhaps serve also to bolster the mission of the archetype even as it enjoys rebirth in new guises, new genders, new love-propensiities.
As far as the recognisable Cinderella, the un-tampered-with Cinderella, there are ways to appreciate what she does for a narrative. Of course, watching or reading through stories with characters who are so wholly un-rounded can cause an odd wince, but this rarely spoils the pleasure of the experience as long as you go in knowing what you’re getting. The most enjoyable narrative experiences trade on the universally understood value of the archetypes, the basic plots. Here is a pattern that helps us understood what is at work when the same storyline is staged with more rounded characters. Does someone win love through actions that are based on selfless virtue, are they kind, supportive, open to possibility? If so then you have chosen to write on a principle that is established here in the fairy tale, get out Vladimir Propp and study hard.
The presence of these archetypes fulfils a primal need for us as readers. While at many turns realism is suspended and we would like to think they may have other facets behind our immediate perception, the fact is that Mr Darcey does not fart on first dates, does not fart at all, in fact has as much tackle for farting or fornicating as the average action man. There’s something about this that we need, something in this non-human idealism. Cinderella mustn’t have her archetypal status brought into questions by any human failings – so, sorry but no periods, mood swings and no shagging on the kitchen table however fit Buttons happens to be. It destroys everything and we’re left without the story that we set out to enjoy.
If you’re going to subvert the archetypes, this is something to flag up early rather than a late surprise.
And, let’s say it again, these are not real people. These are characters. What we can take from this is that you should be prepared to prune your characters of their humanity wherever necessary. Sometimes a bit of that archetype can come through, even as you’re trying to establish their believable realism. Be critical in your decision making here, and don’t be afraid to ask what the character is there for, what is their purpose in the plot. This is especially true if you’re trying to sneak someone in from your own experience of real life, trying to get your own back on that bastard at school who put you down. The chances are that 14 year old bastard has actually become as much a pantomime baddie in your own mind as anything you’ll see in a black costume over Christmas – so, think carefully how you’re going to deal with his reality and his status as an archetype.
You can test the reality of your characters, but don’t worry if they seem to lack reality in many ways. They should. They’re not real. There are things they don’t need to fret about, things they don’t need to do.
Do your characters even have a faee? Again this seems an obvious point, but one that we are slightly uncomfortable with. Even rather closely described characters don’t come with a proper face. How many story characters are just a moustache or just a slash of lipstick – synecdoche is an obligation, but it’s also the writer’s best friend. You may find your characters are just a set of emotions or a set of actions. Be happy with it. Of course it’s also a large part of the disappointment many people experience with film versions of a favourite book. That disappointment can be carried back into the book, where an actorly face now haunts what was a more personal engagement with a less precisely defined character.
What are we constructing? How human is it? What deep primal need does it fulfil?
While we’re fiddling with Cinderella, it’s worth looking into what we can usefully call the ‘anima’ but holding onto some differences in the way writers will use this term compared with Jungian psychologists.
The anima for Jung is that subconscious female element within men [women have the animus although they’re not quite in parallel]. It evolves and conditions perceptions of and engagement with the opposite sex. As a word it comes from a Latin word for ‘soul’.
For writers it is a character with a function in plotting, a character which seeks out union with its other half. In tragedies this search will be thwarted; in happy-endings that union will have some statement of success (often marriage or some other token of physical togetherness that suggests irreversibility). The anima is best recognised in the forms which, like Cinderella, are predominantly nurturing, kindly, innocent in that they have no quest for power over others. Often this is the source of most open creativity. Invariably there will be an association with truth, both true to self and true to others. It is regularly a young person, sometimes a child, invariably but not necessarily female.
Brooker develops this understanding of the anima throughout his masterwork The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004). We become increasingly conscious that the anima is not an ideal woman or even a real woman, but a representation of something other, something impossible and something which we are only partially conscious of but would like to believe existed in ourselves.
“ultimately she stands in both a personal and a universal, supra-personal way for the heart and soul of man… that mysterious ‘other half’ who enshrines both the centre of man’s identity and tens essence of life itself.” p.300.
This is the importance of the archetype and the basis of that warm satisfaction in plots such as Cinderella where delightful heroine marries delighted hero. It is not a real situation, not a prescription for real life nor a dissection of it. It is something that needs to happen for the reader because it represents a union within the self and (I urge anyone to read The Seven Basic Plots for this) is part of the reach towards universal being that transcends the individual.
As far as archetypes go, we can drag them which way we chose for our own purposes, but the fact remains that they have a clear functionality and are worth being aware of for this reason.
We don’t care what happens after the marriatge (and as I said, this is what makes sequels so thoroughly obnoxious) our characters come together in a marriage for reasons other than those with which real people come together in a marriaae. To impose our reality on them is at best to miss the point.
Tips for writers
- Don’t get bogged down with how real your characters really become in your hands. They are something for others to hang their meanings on.
- Don’t walk characters through your head, writing down their dull actions as you go along. These characters have a purpose to make your/their story engaging.
- Seek out what is archetypal about your characters and your plots. While this will never be reproduced ‘raw’ there may be interesting things to learn.
- Readers do like archetypes, even sub-consciously. If you’re going to subvert the archetypes, this is something to do carefully not glibly.
- Write yourself a practice tale of simple archetypes every so often. You’ll be surprised what you learn.