Saturday, November 7, 2015

Writing Goals: Fairy Tales

I love when a project turns out like it's supposed to, and I think The Lay of the Princess and the Lady Beneath developed nicely into the sort of story I wanted it to be, as well as being a fairly decent poem.  Certainly not the kind of classic they'll be studying in courses on epic poetry for years to come, but a fun little diversion for a reader to encounter by chance. 

At three hundred and forty lines, it isn't quite epic length anyway.  But it is the longest poem I've ever written, and would take some time to recite by a campfire.  Or anywhere, really.  I felt like it was something important to try, especially when it's easy enough to write three short lines and call it a poem.  Some of my best poems are short, of course, but so are some of my laziest (and I won't presume to criticize anyone else's).

So I let the poem grow, far beyond my initial estimate of just over a hundred lines, in order to accommodate the things that I thought needed to be included for the story to breathe.  I took my time (something I don't really need practice at, I'm sure) and the course of the plot was changed substantially along the way.  Originally it was to end more bleakly, as hinted at in the fourth stanza, with the elves destroyed and the princess being doomed to remain imprisoned, undiscovered by her would-be.  But my attempts at making the story more interesting, and my consideration of the characters' motives, inevitably led me away from a sad ending.  Call me a softy, I just didn't want to do that to any of them.

One decision I made early on was to emphasize the actions of women in the story, and try to shift them outside of stereotypical feminine roles in the fantasy/fairy tale genre.  To be sure, of the five principal characters there are two queens, a princess, and a witch, but the fifth is a warrior and described simply as such.  All of them are women, and I don't believe I had cause to use the word "he" even once in the entire thing.

So the main characters are all women, something I didn't necessarily mean to do from the start.  I had considered making at least one of the elf "bad guys" male (either an Elf King or Elf Wizard), but I ultimately chose not to.  I figured that since an all-male cast would be plausible given the genre conventions, an all-female cast would be just as much so.  That's not so say that there are no men in the story's world.  Certainly about half of the humans in the castle scene and about half of the elves in Elventown are men and boys.  Maybe the unnamed elf guards assigned to keep the princess from escaping are men.  Maybe not.  I honestly don't know.

In fact, I might have given my fellow men a little token representation by explicitly identifying the masculinity of a minor character.  But by the time I was mostly done with the story, I had decided that I did not want to explore the question of a man's place in this ad hoc fantasy society.  The royal inheritence is implied to be matriarchal, with ruling queens as the default, but that's as deep into that political question as I wanted to go.  I suppose that a prince might become a sovereign king if a queen had no daughters, sort of the reverse of many real world systems, but maybe not; it doesn't matter because there is no prince in the story.  The ambiguity was intentional: the most important thing is the plot and the fact that every significant role in the plot is occupied by a woman or girl.

Also intentional, and I admit this is a bit of a copout, is just what kind of women are at the center of the story.  I don't really like physically describing characters beyond what is necessary, partly because I don't feel confident in doing so without being awkward.  However, I did want it to be clear that the people of this world were not as white as certain backwards fantasy aficionados imagine the people of their favorite worlds to be.  In thinking of how the witch should present the gift to the princess, I thought she might try to flatter her with a reference to the color of her skin.  Thus the reference to rosewood, which comes in a few different shades, none of which are particularly pale. 

As author, I abdicated the coloring job for each character to the mind of the reader's imagination.  I only hope they all take the hint that the princess is unlikely to be the only brown person in the whole nation.  It is a purely fantastical country that doesn't correspond to any real place, but like most real places you can be sure there is some diversity in its ethnic makeup.

So the truth is, I didn't really flesh out the world as much as I would have tried to if I were writing a prose tale.  There isn't much of a backstory beyond the princess's lonely childhood and the simmering rivalry between the overground and underground kingdoms.  There are hints of an Elvish language, but no words are depicted.  Some indication of the mechanics of spells is described, but it's not terribly specific.  The climate and geography of the country are almost entirely undescribed.  I never even bothered to give the soldier a rank.  As a die hard fan of the Tolkien approach to world-building, I have to say I'm a little disappointed in myself on that count.  This was really only an experiment, I know, but it could have been so much more.

But after all, I had my priorities: an interesting and authentic-seeming fairy tale with a female-centric cast, rhymed as diligently as I was able.  It struck me about halfway through that the recurrent rhyming words "queen" and "fifteen" could easily become obnoxious, and in addition to varying them with substitutes throughout I intentionally dropped them completely during the battle scene, when the princess is momentarily out of the spotlight.  As I resorted to rhyming dictionaries and twisted for new words, I often felt like I was repeating myself to the point of tedium.  But once I read the whole thing straight through, I realized that, at the very least, it wasn't as bad as I thought.

So mechanically, at least, the poetry is sound.  Whether it is at all authentic-seeming, to say nothing of interesting, really isn't for me to say.  I think I did an alright job, and I hope any readers agree.  The story leans on a few genre tropes, and I think it subverts a few others, and somewhere in that mix might be something resembling originality.  In any case it was fun to write, and I hope I come around to revisiting this experiment some time.

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