Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Character and Storytelling as Synthesis

The other day, I was watching Beauty and the Beast. It's hands down my favorite Disney movie, without question. I love Gaston as a villain. I love The Beast. I love Belle, who is equal parts nerdy and stubbornly independent. The only problem is, while Belle is the lens through which we see the story, the leading lady, if you will, there is no real evolution of her character. The focus of change stays with Beast. He's the one who starts out horrible and slowly morphs into something more civilized. He's the one who ultimately becomes so changed that out of love for Belle, he releases her, in spite of the fact that he faces his own ruin by doing so. He evolves from a selfish being, to a selfless one, unable and unwilling to even defend his own life when Belle leaves him. He has nothing left to live for, right?

But what about Gaston? How did he become the villain he is? We have such a complete character arc for Beast, but ultimately Gaston is left as a relatively fixed character, not unlike Belle, though she at least does have the benefit of travel and engagement with new places/characters. Gaston though begins and ends in the same place. Selfish, self-satisfied, and arrogant, which of course results in his implied death as he plummets from the castle. He wants Belle, whether she wants him or not, but he clearly doesn't have any understanding of love or any interest in anything but his own desires. Does he even, truly, realize that Belle doesn't want him? Or is that such an impossible idea that he rejects it outright-- she just doesn't KNOW she wants him yet, perhaps? Certainly it seems like something he's capable of, that kind of trick of the ego. Even going after Beast doesn't really strike me as anything all that changed. Gaston is established from the opening of the movie as a premiere hunter. What better game is there than this Beast in the forest? Even if Belle weren't involved, I think he would have gone after the prize of hanging Beast's head on his wall.

But even as a sketch of what Gaston could be, he's still a compelling villain. Maybe because of how much isn't there. This is exactly the same thought process that occurs when I'm reading about gods in mythology. So often we're given this one dimensional sketch, this account of what a god has done or what a hero has gone through, and we're left to wonder what brought them there, what were their motivations in getting involved to begin with? Did the encounter alter them at all? What made Theseus agree with Pirithous that they both should have wives who were daughters of Zeus? What made Pirithous think he had the right to steal Persephone from Hades? What did Helen think about everything that happened because of her? Did she regret that ultimately she was torn from Theseus's hands, given the outcome? Did she wish she hadn't ever been returned to Sparta? What possessed Aphrodite to promise a married woman to another man? And what made Zeus decide he was sick of having so many heroes running around the earth? Did he in fact stage manage the entire Trojan War for the purpose of wiping out huge numbers of his own people, or is that just a vain hope of man to find meaning in the chaos that resulted?

When faced with these bare accounts, I can't stop myself from exploring the characters of the players, delving into further reading about their lives in order to find meaning in the fragments that are in front of me. When reading fails me, that's when I know it's time to write. But I wonder-- what makes what I do, exploring these established characters, heroes, villains, gods, histories, anything other than fanfiction?  What is fanfiction, besides the compulsion to explore created characters in greater depth? Or is that the definition of writing and storytelling? The other thing I wonder, in all this talk about having characters which are fully formed and fully developed no matter how small their roles are, is are we taking away from the reader? Not to excuse bad characterization, but is it really a flaw to give the reader something to imagine and wonder about? Something which might drive them to create a story of their own?

I think what it comes down to is that writing and storytelling are just synthesis. A way to understand and process everything from our own personal emotions, to social issues, to the entirety of the human condition. So when we see a character like Gaston, half-explained or static, the compulsion to synthesize the information we're given into something we can understand is what drives fanfiction. But when that character is in the public domain, or a part of our cultural heritage and development as a people (as opposed to pop-culture of the times) it becomes more acceptable to reach for that understanding through storytelling.

What are your thoughts, fellow writers?


  1. Never cared for B&TB because I liked the guy much better as the beast. To me, he became feminized and emasculated by the Beauty. But I guess that's the point.
    Anywho, you've hit on the secret of villainry. They don't change. They only try harder.

  2. I don't think he was emasculated so much as he was just depressed. He gave up his chance to be human again for her happiness-- I don't think there's anything unmanly about self-sacrifice of that magnitude.

  3. I love Disney- I actually have a whole slew of blog posts I planned on Lessons from Disney, but just haven't gotten around to them yet.

    I know people who don't like the overall message of Beauty and the Beast- stick with a nasty guy and he'll suddenly turn out great. But I like it. My favorite villains are Maleficent (pure evil!) and Jafar (mean, but kind of funny too). I'd never thought of Belle as static, but you're kind of right. Until Tiana came along with Princess & the Frog, Belle was my favorite Disney princess. The others are mostly just spoiled brats who disobey their parents or have no character.

  4. I don't think there's anything sudden about Beast's transformation. He spent years, presumably, in misery after being cursed, and then however long with Belle-- I think if it had been a book, there would have been a lot of stuff in the middle that got cut for brevity.

    I still haven't seen Princess and the Frog! I missed it in theaters :( Hoping to see it soon! But yes, you're right, a lot of the Disney princesses are much flatter characters than Belle is, and Belle is not all that deep herself.

  5. I think a big part of what distinguishes new myths from fan fiction is the way the existing stories are protected. Legends and myths of all cultures are sort of fair game for re-interpretation because they've existed for so long and been re-interpreted so many times before (via oral traditions, transformative works such as plays, that kind of thing) that they truly belong to everyone.

    While often re-interpretations themselves, more recently told stories are still fresh enough that they're connected with the most recent interpreter (and protected by copyright laws in most cases) and so the fan fiction author's exploration of those characters is compared directly with "the way it's supposed to be" of the movie/book/what-have-you.

  6. I think Adam hit on the main issue with fan fiction today: the original authors are, for the most part, still around to continue working with their characters. It can be problematic to create stories that may end up directly conflicting with established canon. However, what it really points to is again as Adam said, the modern notion of "the way it's supposed to be" as opposed to a more antiquated conception of myths and legends being open to revision. If someone had suggested to Euripides that his Electra was wrong because it didn't match the one presented by Aeschylus, he would have been confused by the whole argument.

    Looking at it one way, the entire Star Wars universe of books is all glorified fan fiction. It just happens to be sanctioned by the original author, who I believe still retains creative control in some form or fashion. Perhaps the most damning thing about fan fiction is that a lot of it is written by people who are fans first and writers second if at all. The lack of quality control gives the whole thing a patina of illegitimacy that undermines what may be a perfectly reasonable art otherwise.

    I would also like to note that Beauty and the Beast is my favorite Disney animated feature as well, despite Belle's relatively static nature. I highly recommend Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley for a nice version of the story as well.

  7. Synthesis, Mythos, Archetype, Memoir. It's all related. Our desire to see something familiar in the characters we read (or create) is palpable. If you think about it broadly, it may be because of the intrinsic loneliness of the human condition - the fact that as social as we are, we really only share intimately within ourselves. Every other act is translated from mind to body to body to mind, and there's a LOT lost in those four translations. So when we develop (or imagine, or synthesize) a character, it's a very intimate act. We're in directly in touch with the idea of him/her, unencumbered by real life. Whether we do that forward in time (as with fan fiction on a pop-culture character) or backward in time (as with exploring a myth or a legend), we're really looking for intimacy. It's the safest place to look for intimacy, because those characters can't hurt us (unless, of course, the Gods and Heroes and Legends are real, and you tap into their archetypal powers and they come to life and visit you...but that's another story!)

  8. Adam: I think you've put your finger right on it-- the cultural ownership of things that have been changed and formed and reformed, pieces of myth and story which have never known a single absolute definition, and have never been told the same way twice vs. things which have been set in stone (via copyright or authorial presence). Maybe this is the greatest difference between the world before the printing press and the world after?

    Valerie: I didn't think about Star Wars while I was writing this, but I should have-- there are authors who make a very good living writing sanctioned fanfiction for established franchises. I'm not sure why I forgot about them, but when I was thinking fanfiction I was thinking of your latter references, to those which are so often "fans first and writers second" (or third, or fifth) that is illegitimate. For a long time, fanfiction was my secret shame, but I doubt very much that Kevin J. Anderson or those like him consider themselves to be tainted or find any shame in writing Star Wars books. Do they even consider it to be fanfiction? It would be interesting to ask them!

    UJ: I think individual books and stories are like self-contained languages, lenses through which we can glimpse the world with a different map laid over the top. The opportunity to see things through different eyes. Even the reading is an act of intimacy, and no two people experience the same thing when they engage with a story or a book-- You're right that there is often a lot lost in the translation from what the writer intended, to what made it to the page, to what the reader reads and forms in their mind, but I think it is the giving of that vision, that opportunity, which is the most important element. An outreach and a desire to share something of worth with others.

    I think the reality is that the power there won't hurt you either, unless you try to control it or force it into something it isn't. But you're right, that is another story, and I can only speak from my own experiences.

  9. I would love to have been able to make a living by writing books for the Expanded Star Wars Universe. In a lot of ways, it is glorified fan fiction. When generally distinguishes Star Wars and other franchise writing from regular fan fiction, in my eyes, is quality.

    I see a lot of fan fiction is the beginning of writing. Many fan fiction writers are thoroughly amateur. They're new to fiction, young, and/or otherwise not writing at a high level. Some of them have great ideas, and if nothing else they're practicing how to write. With proper feedback, they get much better!

    As a teacher, I noticed that most fan fiction writers read and wrote at a more advanced level than their peers.

    Jumping topics a bit, I agree that a large difference between fan fiction and fiction involving mythologies or classical characters is that the original writer is still around.

  10. I totally wrote fanfiction in the beginning, while I was playing at writing and learning what it was about-- but it was mostly just an extension of having imaginary friends from those same franchises, and I never really understood it to be fanfiction until much later!

    I don't think that there really is anything wrong with fanfiction at all, it's a good testing ground and a great way to stretch yourself as a writer, playing with characters you already know well and seeing what you can do with them within the confines of the universe they inhabit--or out of it.

    I imagine it's some kind of dream come true to write franchise novels for some authors-- and it's got to take a lot of work and a lot of compromise to get things right in Star Wars, with all the people who have voices along the way. I don't envy those writers at all.


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