Creating A Fairytale World

To a modern audience, what makes a setting feel ‘fairytale’? What is it about the tone, style and plot? I argue here that what makes a fairytale setting feel ‘fairytale’ is mostly the ‘fairytale logic’.

Just as we know, almost intuitively, that a particular narrative is a fairy tale when we read it, it seems we know immediately that a particular film is a fairy tale when we see it.

Jack Zipes (1996)

[Fairy tales display a distinctive quality] in the sense of a characteristic, instantly recognizable feel or style […] recognizable in the level of structure and content as much as language.

Jessica Tiffin (2009)
cover is by Hans Helweg
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Town Musicians Of Bremen Fairy Tale Analysis

The Musicians of Bremen, John Parr Miller, 1954

“The Town Musicians Of Bremen” is a folktale that goes by various similar names. Its plot structure is so strong that many storytellers writing series for children borrow this story at some point.

The “Town Musicians of Bremen” tells the story of four ageing domestic animals, who after a lifetime of hard work are neglected and mistreated by their former masters. Eventually, they decide to run away and become town musicians in the city of Bremen. Contrary to the story’s title the characters never arrive in Bremen, as they succeed in tricking and scaring off a band of robbers, capturing their spoils, and moving into their house. “The Town Musicians of Bremen” is a story of Aarne–Thompson Type 130 (“Outcast animals find a new home”).

Wikipedia

I like the art in the version below, based on the scarier (non-bowdlerised) story collected by the Brothers Grimm.

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Cumulative Plots and The Fifth Story by Clarice Lispector

the fifth story clarice lispector

“The Fifth Story” (1964) is a work of microfiction by Ukraine-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-1977). I tend to analyse short stories by looking at their dramatic arc, but what of a story like this? Surely “The Fifth Story” does not fit traditional ideas of what makes a complete narrative.

I also love when I read a story for adults which helps me to understand how children’s story works. (It more often works the other way, to be fair.)

If I could persuade the fiction writers of the world to do one thing every year, it would be to read the winners of the Newbery Medal and other awards for best children’s literature. Writers of children’s fiction know that the apparent simplicity of the novel is anything but simple to write. Yet, their accomplishment offer superb models of all elements of craft.

Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover

In understanding the strange narrative of “The Fifth Story” I’m guided by Jane Alison, who offers this story as an example of what she calls a ‘fractal’ narrative shape in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. (I’ve written a lot more about plot shapes in this post.)

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Stone City by Annie Proulx Short Story Analysis

stone city

“Stone City” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1979, collected 20 years later in Heart Songs. Some of Proulx’s short stories are like compacted novels, and “Stone City” is one of those. The story of the humans is wrapped by the story of a fox, looking in from a slight distance. “Stone City” is a good example of what some literature academics call ‘delayed coding’.

For writers, “Stone City” makes a good mentor text:

  • If you’re building a story which is partly from the point of view of an animal. The fox is linked to a human character, Noreen Pineaud, who is described as like a fox. “Stone City” is therefore a good example of how to make use of animal imagery and, more importantly, how to link this imagery to the Anagnorisis part of a story.
  • For description of a setting which is a character in itself:

It was an abandoned farm vine between two ridges, no roads in or out, only a faint track choked with viburnum and alder. The property, shaped like an eye, was bordered on the back by a stream. Popple and spruce had invaded the hay fields, and the broken limbs of the apple trees hung to the ground.

The buildings were gone, collapsed into cellar holes of rotting beams. Blackberry brambles boiled out of the crumbling foundations and across a fallen blue door that half-blocked a cellar hole.

  • A storyteller narrator, who tells a story within a story, jumping back and forth in chronology, with events linked thematically rather than by time.
  • Related to the storyteller voice, in this story Proulx is especially economical with language. Instead of saying, ‘A bell tinkled and Brittany came into the field to pick [the birds] up. Banger followed close behind. Then he said  said…’ Proulx leaves out the ‘Banger followed close behind’ detail. We infer that if Banger has started talking, Banger is now on the scene.
  • Perhaps this is only noticeable because I recently read all the first and second volume of Grimm fairytales back to back, but there are subtle fairytale elements in “Stone City”. For instance, the way Banger’s dog sleeps behind the stove. This is where old people almost about to die spend their days in Grimm fairytales. Then of course there’s the Hansel and Gretel plot of finding an unexpected dwelling in the middle of the wilderness, the ‘sugarhouse’ of Banger is almost reminiscent of the gingerbread house. When Banger turns off ‘accidentally’ and takes the narrator home for dinner, was that really an accident, or on purpose? The nearby fox, circling the town, waiting for a chance to pounce/trick.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “STONE CITY”

The following provides a summary of what happens from Karen Lane Rood. I’ve emboldened the parts which give a clue as to the narration and structure:

“Stone City” examines several acts of revenge that have wider consequences than in “On the Antler,” as the narrator, a newcomer to Chopping County, gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. He learns that the abandoned farm everyone calls Stone City was once the property of the first settlers of the county — a “real old family, and a real bad family”. During the lifetimes of the current residents, old man Stone was known as the “meanest bastard” and his children shared a reputation for being wild and mean. One of those children, Floyd Stone, finally brought the wrath of the community on the whole Stone family when—after waiting for a seventy-three-car train to pass—he shot and killed the man standing on the caboose. Several hundred law men converged on Stone City and tore down a flimsy house to get Floyd and arrest him. Then the local starred and feathered the rest of the Stone men. Old man Stone retaliated by burning out Banger, one of the leaders of the mob, killing Banger’s wife and child in the process.

Floyd was eventually electrocuted, and by the time the narrator arrives in town, the Stones seem to exist only as a fearful memory. The narrator hears much of the Stones’ story from Banger, a talkative man known for his skills as a hunter. He lives alone with his much=loved hunting dog and seems to have been motivated for his part in the mob by an earlier act of violence. While hunting with the narrator in the abandoned Stone City, Banger explains that he used to hunt there as a child, and that once old man Stone chased him away “with number six birdshot. Still got the little pick scars acrost my back”.

When Banger’s dog is found dead in a trap set for foxes near Stone City, Banger blames old man Stone. In fact, the trap belongs to the son of Floyd Stone’s illegitimate son, a teenager who might have found the dog in time to save it if he had tended his trapline more diligently. After Banger moves away, the narrator discovers that Banger had bought Stone City for back taxes years earlier. Still, the narrator concludes, “The Stones owned it and they always would”. Proulx, however, suggests the vanity of any concept of human land ownership within the larger context of geological time. The story is punctuated with a series of vignettes about a fox whose range includes Stone City. Too smart to be caught in a trap, the fox survives to father another generation in a new den built under a cellar foundation in Stone City.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
NARRATION

“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

In narratology terms, “Stone City” is a story within a story, within (or alongside) the story of the fox. Annie Proulx employs this method for other stories in this collection, including “On The Antler”, though in that case the narrator seems to be a long-time resident of Chopping County. This time she’s chosen a newcomer, which makes sense for this particular narrative. Both stories feature a storyteller character aside from the narrator storyteller themselves, but in the case of Stone City, the newcomer status of the narrator allows for realistic revelations which delve into the dark underbelly of the community. When the narrator is a newcomer to an arena, this allows the reader to sit on the shoulder of the narrator and make discoveries in a simulation of real time.

Metadiegetic (Level 1): The story of the fox who finds a new home.

Diegetic (Level 0): Without any awareness of the omniscient fox, the narrator moves to Chopping County and gradually comes to understand the complex interrelationships of the people in the community. A narrator who exists — in full or in part — on a different story level from the other characters is more commonly known as a ‘storyteller’. This narrator will tell us the story of Banger, who tells us the story of Stone City…

Hypodiegetic (Level -1): Refers to the embedded narrative in which Banger tells the narrator (and us) the history of Stone City. Any character who produces a further narrative within a narrative is a hypodiegetic narrator. Banger is the hypodiegetic narrator.

OTHER STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES

FORESHADOWING

“Stone City” is one of very few stories that Proulx has written in the first person voice. Significantly, the narrator is an outsider who cannot comprehend the complexities of the life he has adopted. As in The Shipping News, family secrets and hidden traumas emerge only gradually, so that the truth is revealed to the narrator in fragments, which he has to piece together. In that respect, the outsider may also be seen as an image of the reader, to whom Proulx assigns a great responsibility. Because these stories, as well as Proulx’s novels, do not rely on a strong plot, the reader has to be on her guard at all times, since what appears to be a descriptive passage, for example, may turn out to be the key to a mystery that unfolds as the story progresses. At the same time, the reader cannot know which of the story’s elements will turn out to be clues, nor is it certain that all mysteries will be solved by the end.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

In writing terminology, Annie Proulx is using the techniques of foreshadowing and a take on the good ole red-herring. By giving us extra descriptive information she is lulling us into enjoyment of the language. I have to read her stories at least twice before I understand what’s going on — she tricks me into enjoying the descriptions, and then I’m surprised. I have to go back and check why. This mirrors the experience of the narrator, who has come into the community, probably attracted to the landscape, and only afterwards thinks, oh hang on, something’s not right here and why did I not pick it up?

In order to get away with this you really do have to be a master of the descriptive passage. I feel this is Proulx’s greatest strength.

But scholars have pointed out that Proulx’s exact method of foreshadowing takes a specific form. They call it…

DELAYED DECODING

In Heart Songs Proulx also introduces a technique that she has used to great effect in most of her writing. She very often presents the readers with the effect long before she reveals the cause, so that various elements in each story appear inexplicable until the moment of revelation. A similar technique was used to great effect by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and following Conrad scholar Ian Watt. I will be referring to it as “delayed decoding”. Delayed decoding is a realistic narrative device to the extent that it mirrors the way in which we may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. As such, it creates both suspense and a sense of bewilderment when used in narrative. At the same time, however, it is also an indication of the fact that the author has control over her creation, and chooses to manipulate her material in such a way as to suggest that characters’ lives are unfolding in front of our eyes, when the truth is that their fate had been decided before the author began to write. Delayed decoding may assert the author’s power, but…it also allows the reader to interpret the text more freely.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

Stories employing this technique do require more work from the reader. When the reader is invited to ‘interpret the text more freely’, we are invited to participate in the creation of the story ourselves. We need to ask ourselves:

  • Whose truth is true here, in the world of this story?
  • How do I want it to end?
  • But how would it realistically end?

Annie Proulx has been called a ‘fatalistic’ writer. She gives us the impression that once a setting is set in place and peopled with characters, their lives are set in motion and there’s no changing their path. I believe this particular technique is what gives us that sense of fatalism, or at least contributes to it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “STONE CITY”

There are three different main characters in this story:

The viewpoint character, also the unnamed narrator. Most of what we know of the viewpoint character we deduce by the way they notice things — as usual (though first person narration is not usual for Proulx), we have an ambiguously gendered (though masculine sounding) character with enough world-weariness to be middle-aged or older. He likes to go hunting, though is entirely self-taught. His aim is to get a local to show him. In this regard, this could be the character of Earl in “The Unclouded Day“. (But these stories are not obviously interlinked, so I’m not arguing that, exactly.)

Banger, a local personality who tells the story of yet another character, Old Man Stone.

Banger was about fifty, a heavy man, all suet and mouth. At first I thought he was that stock character who remembered everybody’s first name, shouting “Har ya! How the hell ya doing’?” to people he’d seen only an hour before, giving them a slap on the back or a punch on the arm—swaggering gestures in school, but obnoxious in a middle-aged man. I saw him downtown, talking to anybody who would listen, while he left his hardware store to the attentions of a slouchy kid who could never find anything on the jumbled shelves.

We, along with the narrator, soon learn that Banger has a significant ghost — “His place burned down and the wife and kid was fired right up in it. He got nothing left but his dog and the goddamn hardware store his old man left him and which he was never suited to.”

Old Man Stone, the main character of the hypodiegetic level.

Next question: Who undergoes the character arc? Who get the anagnorisis? That’s who I focus on here.

SHORTCOMING

The narrator is new to the area, dependent on local knowledge and equipment (such as a dog) to help him hunt.

DESIRE

To hunt — that’s the conscious desire. Underneath — as judged by the reader given the information — he sees through pretensions of rural toughness but at the same time he is susceptible to the same himself. He wants to be part of this world. Ideally he wants a hunting companion to feel more at home in this world, but he has trouble finding a companion when he makes an out-of-sorts comment about the local hunting expert with the sorry backstory.

OPPONENT

When Banger takes the narrator to his house to eat birds it’s not clear whether Banger is an ally or an opponent.

PLAN

Narrator tries to find a companion, can’t. Goes hunting by himself. Once shot, he can’t find his bird, which puts him off that part of the woods. So he finds a new hunting area, which happens to be where the local hunting expert also hunts.

BIG STRUGGLE

There is a big struggle scene in the story-within-a-story, in which Banger describes the memory provoked by finding the knife. The state police turn up for the arrest of Floyd Stone ‘for the murder of whoever he was’. (To Banger and the story, the victim is not important.)

The narrator’s own big struggle is similar to the big struggle scene in another story from the same collection, “In The Pit” — one man goes to another man’s abode and accuses him of something he hasn’t done.

ANAGNORISIS

Even to the bastard descendants the Stones were predators. They could not help it any more than Banger, fluttering in suspicious apprehension, could help being their victims.

There’s a fatalistic outlook to that epiphany. The epiphany itself turns humans into animals — hunted and preyed, and explains why Proulx turned a human character into a fox/chicken (alternately — with a fox face and a feather stuck to her cheek). Humans live like animals out here, where everything is wild and dangerous.

NEW SITUATION

I heard that Banger moved to Florida, to Arizona, to California, all earthly paradises to Chopping County.

In the spring I sold my house to a retired couple…

There’s nothing in Chopping County for Banger now, and the narrator, having immersed himself in Banger’s narrative, feels the same.

But the story closes as it opens, with the fox. The fox has taken up residence inside Banger’s abandoned sugarhouse with the distinctive blue door. This underscores the Anagnorisis of the narrator (that humans are animals).

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Lizzie’s Tiger by Angela Carter Analysis

Lizzie's Tiger

Have you ever run away from home? I tried at the age of two — so family legend has it. I escaped the house and ran, fast as my chubby legs would carry me, to the main road. I wore nothing but a nappy and bib. (The streaking part is always emphasised in retellings as if this is especially egregious.) When my parents found me they demanded to know where I was headed. So I told them like it was obvious. I was off to see the lions.

After reading Carter’s short story “Lizzie’s Tiger” I’m glad I never made it to the circus. Things might’ve turned out very differently for my parents if I had. Instead, my father built a massive gate between house and road — inaccessible from both sides to a small person. This gate terrified me in a way lions didn’t. A few years later, when I started school, I made it my morning mantra to ask for the gate to be open in time for my return. (Five year olds used to walk our own selves home back then.) I was terrified my mother would forget, in which case I’d be locked out forever. Obviously. My mother was actually pretty good at remembering to open the gate. She forgot just the once. I screamed and screamed and the entire neighbourhood thought naturally of blue murder. Eileen Austing from across the road came to my rescue. I could not be consoled. I even wet my pants.

But lions though? I had no problem with them. Lions and tigers are the stuff of fairytales — to a child they may not even be real.

Angela Carter’s fictional characterisation of a young Lizzie Borden felt the same about tigers as I did of lions. Carter’s short story “Lizzie’s Tiger” reads almost like a child’s fairytale — until it suddenly doesn’t:

  • The main characters are two little girls who we meet at the ages of 13 and 4.
  • They’re freshly orphaned, like many fairytale children.
  • The youngest has a childlike desire — to see the circus for herself.
  • The adult in her life — the father — refuses to help her, so like any good child character, she sets out on her own, into the world — her own mythic journey.
  • Angela Carter’s story is almost like the inverse of The Tiger Who Came To Tea — in the picture book, a tiger comes to the house. Tiger and child indulge in a carnivalesque adventure together. In this short story for adults, a child leaves the house to find the tiger, who is not the slightest bit anthropomorphised. This is a proper tiger. Child Lizzie is at an actual carnival, but one of the adult, debauched kind.

SETTINGOF LIZZIE’S TIGER

Angela Carter had the gift of turning setting into character.

That cottage on Ferry — very well, it was a slum; but the undertaker lived on unconcerned among the stiff furnishings of his defunct marriage. His bits and pieces would be admired today if they turned up freshly beeswaxed in an antique story, but in those days they were plain old-fashioned, and time would only make them more so in that dreary interior, the tiny house he never mended, eroding clapboard and diseased paint, mildew on the dark wallpaper with a brown pattern like brains, the ominous crimson border round the top of the walls, the sisters sleeping in one room in one thrifty bed.

On Ferry, in the worst part of town, among the dark-skinned Portuguese fresh off the boat with their earrings, flashing teeth and incomprehensible speech, come over the ocean to work the mills whose newly erected chimneys closed in every perspective; every year more chimneys, more smoke, more newcomers, and the peremptory shriek of the whistle that summoned to labour as bells had once summoned to prayer.

“Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter

Note various other techniques.

  • First point — a lot of writers advise against using adjectives. But count the adjectives and tell me Carter didn’t deserve to use every single last one.
  • Imagine a camera. Carter starts off with a long shot of the cottage, slowly zooming in from large furniture right down to mildew. Then back out to include the inhabitants of the bed — including our heroine. Why did Carter zoom in on the very small? Because Lizzie herself is very small.
  • ‘Pattern like brains’ and ‘diseased paint’ not only carry the negative connotations of axe murder, foreshadowing an event which is not included in this particular snapshot of Lizzie’s life, but also personify the building itself in classic gothic fashion. In Gothic literature, houses are alive. They will swallow you up, absorb you into the walls, and provide shelter to beasts.
  • In the following paragraph Angela takes the camera high above in an establishing shot — usually, in film, we get the establishing shot first. But in writing the camera is far more fluid. A fictional camera is like an electron, jumping from place to place. This foreshadows Lizzie’s journey from the shelter of her own home — her own bed — into this wider world containing people reminiscent of pirates. Why the focus on the chimneys? Because this is a view from above. Again, with focus on the miniature — a small town containing an even smaller girl, who will do big things.
  • Again we have the personification of the town in the ‘shriek of the whistle’. This phrase is idiomatic so it’s easy to gloss over, but it’s typically people who shriek — not whistles.
  • In the final sentence of this description of setting, Carter reminds us of the fairytale, timelessness of this event. This may be about a particular event in a particular year, but by reminding us that this is a town which has recently transitioned from an early modern town ruled by the church into an industrialised centre of manufacturing. This is the story of a girl in flux; it’s also the story of a town in flux. The most interesting stories happen in times of big change. This is a story set in the stages between 2 and 3.
FOUR STAGES of civilisation
  1. The Wilderness (e.g. the forest of fairytale, caves, deserts)
  2. The Small Town or Hamlet (civilisation on the edge of wilderness)
  3. The City
  4. The Oppressive City (which includes suburbs, which often looks like utopia until the ‘snail under the leaf‘ is revealed.)

Why is this connection important to the story? Because Lizzie herself is in transition. This is presumably her first foray out into the world, from the ‘village’ of the home into the ‘city’ of the circus, which collects a wide variety of characters and shoves them together.

The snapshot continues:

The hovel on Ferry Road stood , or rather leaned, at a bibulous angle on a narrow street cut across at an oblique angle by another narrow street, all the old wooden homes like an upset cookie jar of broken gingerbread houses lurching this way and that way, and the shutters hanging off their hinges, and windows stuffed with old newspapers, and the snagged picket fence and raised voices in unknown tongues and howling of dogs who, since puppyhood, had known of the world only the circumference of their chain. Outside the parlour were nothing but rows of counterfeit houses that sometimes used to scream.

“Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter
  • When writing from a child’s point of view it’s essential to describe the world as a child would see it. Hence the gingerbread, straight out of a fairytale. Later, we’re told ‘a hand came in the night’ to hang up posters advertising the circus. This too is very fairytale-esque — to young Lizzie there is no person attached to actions. She hasn’t learnt to humanise people, and evidence may point to her never learning this skill. Moreover, this depicts Lizzie’s view of the world as full of bugaboos. The phrasing also suggests she’s drawn to these bugaboos rather than driven back into the house.
  • I had to look up bibulous: ‘excessively fond of drinking alcohol’. This is a form of pathetic fallacy. The people inside the houses drink. Not the houses themselves: human attribute transferred to nearby object. Carter makes use of this same technique when she tells us the houses scream. This works because to a small child, it would seem the houses scream. A small child may not think any further.
  • The lean-to houses remind me of an illustrated picture book of The Pied Piper which sits on our shelf. It also reminds me of Tim Burton’s sensibility, but most of all, this is how buildings really were built in the medieval era. Before modern building standards, houses really did lean into each other. The roads between them were narrow, and they often held each other up. They collapsed. This would have felt very precarious, but maybe not to them. As for me, if I could time travel for a day back to the medieval era, I’d be very wary of setting foot inside the buildings!

The buildings of medieval Troyes have been restored to meet modern standards, but I’ve seen old photos in books which show us genuinely medieval buildings leaning into each other. A contemporary snapshot offers a little insight into the leaning nature of medieval streets. Even now, this street seems to lean into itself.

Troyes Champagne Street Scene

SYMBOL WEB OF LIZZIE’S TIGER

Of all the stories I’ve studied, I’m reminded most of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party.

  • Both are about a young female character who leaves her home on a mission
  • To end up in a foreign part of town
  • Coming face-to-face with death.

The similarities might come partly from the details I read about Fall River. At the time of the murders, Fall River was starkly divided into the rich people who live on ‘The Hill’ and the (largely) mill workers who lived down below in a much more culturally diverse mix. This rich/poor divide doesn’t come to the fore — dig down another layer yet — this is about the powerful versus the powerless. Lizzie is powerless because of her size, but her temperament will later compensate. We are told she is not a fearful child.

STORY STRUCTURE OF LIZZIE’S TIGER

“Lizzie’s Tiger” is a classic mythic structure and I’ve written so often on that I feel I know the main (masculine) variety inside out and back to front. This time I’ll zoom in on the most unusual points.

Like all heroes embarking on a big journey (big mostly because Lizzie’s so small), Lizzie meets a variety of characters — some help her but end up contributing to her downfall. (The group of street kids.) Another sexually abuses her. (The lion tamer.) Another man, this time benevolent, helps Lizzie to achieve her goal of seeing the tiger.

The interesting structural aspect of this story is the anagnorisis phase. On the one hand, Carter is really clear that some kind of anagnorisis has happened:

Lizzie’s stunned little face was now mottled all over with a curious reddish-purple, with the heat of the tent, with passion, with the sudden access of enlightenment.

“Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter

But none of this makes complete sense until the final sentence, when we get a big revelation. (Big revelations are known as ‘reversals’ — we’re encouraged now to see the entire story differently.) Perhaps you know more about the Lizzie Borden case than I did, and you picked it up much earlier. As for me, I had to look this person up online to check she was who I thought she was. Angela Carter seemed fascinated by Lizzie Borden — and I don’t know when she wrote them, but the fascination may have spanned years. Lizzie Borden was the main character in “The Fall River Axe Murders”, included in Black Venus (1985), and this one was included in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993).

In a nutshell, Lizzie Borden entered pop culture as the notorious main suspect in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother. This happened in the beautifully symbolically named Fall River, Massachusetts. She was acquitted, as it happens. In any case, if you know that about Lizzie Borden, you know what the character’s revelation was in this short story: Hypothetical young Lizzie has realised that she contains great power within herself. She is the tiger. In fact, you don’t need to know about Lizzie Borden to have picked that much up. It’s clear from various clues within the text that the tiger is Lizzie’s animal analogue:

  • Lizzie is strangely entranced by it
  • Both she and the tiger are abused by the tamer (though at this point, only the tiger has exacted any sort of revenge, in the form of scars)
  • Lizzie ends up wearing a similar mottled pattern to the tiger.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Roald Dahl wrote a similar story about Adolf Hitler as a baby. When he reveals the identity of the baby in the story, the writer asks us to examine whether we still have sympathy for this small child. If we saw Adolf Hitler as a baby and knew what he’d turn into, would we save his little life?

Likewise, an episode of Black MIrror asks us to examine our empathy after withholding the culpability of the empathetic main character until the last few minutes of the story.

These imaginings of notorious people as children are always about empathy. Do horrible adults deserve empathy? How much? Are any of us really responsible for the things we do, or do life circumstances send us forth along a path which seems full of choices but is actually more fatalistic?

Some reviewers have complained that Angela Carter treated her characters like specimens for analysis. Lizzie’s Tiger may be a good example of that. Stories like these are inevitably about the role nurture in shaping personality, sometimes attempting to home in on the moment in which a good child turned bad. In reality, there are rarely such defined moments. We like to think there are. We like to see them in fiction.

SEE ALSO

The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter

Lemon girl young adult novella

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I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew Analysis

solla solew

This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss.

Solla Sollew is plotted using classic mythic structure. A character goes on a journey, changes a little along the way, meets a variety of friends and foes (and some who are both), ends up in a big big struggle and then either returns home or finds a new one. Yesterday I looked closely at The Gruffalo, which is also mythic structure but less obviously so. The day before I looked closely at The Gingerbread Man, which is pretty classic mythic structure except Gingerbread Man never meets any helpers along the way (and spoiler alert, he doesn’t live to learn anything from his journey). I figure it’s time to present a solid, classical mythic structure picture book with all of the most basic elements.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I HAD TROUBLE IN GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Our first person narrator is also the main character, because he’s telling a story about his own journey. This is an old creature looking back on a time when he was young. We know this from the first sentence, ‘I was once carefree and happy and young’. That makes the little brown guy an extradiegetic narrator. He’s ‘outside the universe’ of the story, because he’s looking back on a time long since passed. (‘Extra’ means ‘outside’.)

What even is that creature? Dr Seuss’s creatures are deliberately ambiguous, part human, part animal. Why so many animals in picture books? Well, there are a bunch of reasons.

What’s wrong with Little Brown Guy?

Main characters have something wrong with them which the author shows right at the start. (Perfect characters have no growing to do, which means no character arc and no story.)

Brown Guy is dissatisfied with his lot. This is understandable in a way. I felt sorry for him when his backside suffers not one but two injuries. The bigger problem is his ‘grass is greener on the other side’ attitude. He thinks Solla Sollew is going to be sooo much better than his home.

WHAT DOES THE LITTLE BROWN GUY WANT?

He wants to get away from the annoyances of his home, specifically the Quilligan Quail, the Skritz and the Skrink. He has heard there’s a place where there are very few troubles. That place is known as Solla Sollew.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

One Wheeler Wubble

Brown guy meets a variety of characters along his journey:

  • The One-Wheeler Wubble: At first he seems to be a friend, but he turns out to be a bit of a frenemy when he persuades Brown Guy to do all the work of pulling himself and his camel along.
  • Dr Sam Snell: Tries to be genuinely helpful by telling Brown Guy about the bus, but the bus has had four punctures and isn’t coming.
  • Horace P. Sweet: The manager of the bus company isn’t in the story, but because his note advises walking, he’s a foe.
  • The Midwinter Jicker: Dr Seuss doesn’t tell the reader what’s so bad about the Midwinter Jicker, but we’re told he ‘came early this year’ (like cold and flu season), and that ‘it’s not going to be very comfortable around here’. This is a great example of an author withholding information to create brief intrigue. You don’t need to tell the reader absolutely everything.
  • The family of owls and mice: An unlikely, and therefore funny, combo. (Owls eat mice, don’t they?) This is where Brown Guy takes refuge for the night in bad weather, but Brown guy finds it difficult to get any sleep with them around. (The next morning the mice do get eaten and there happens to be a flood, foreshadowing the Brown Guys’ big struggle to come.)
  • General Genghis Khan Schmitz: At first he seems like a friend, coming to Brown Guy’s rescue, but it turns out the General wants to use Brown Guy as a foot soldier in a big struggle, furnishing him with only one bean as bullet. This makes him most definitely a foe.

Note that the big struggles escalate in intensity, and that Brown Guy meets a variety of outright enemies versus helpers (who are sometimes helpful but there’s always a catch). This is what classic mythic structure looks like.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

In a mythic structure plot, the plan is ‘Go from point A to point B for some specific purpose’.

But even before he leaves, he’s come up with a plan which doesn’t work:

Solla Sollew plan changes

It’s very common in stories for characters to change their original plans. This picture book is longer than most modern ones, which tend to clock in about 300-400 words. In those newer, shorter picture books there is often no time to change plans, but Solla Sollew is 2,130 words. (And was published in 1965, for the record.)

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle in this story is a literal big struggle, which is what makes it classic mythic structure.

He narrowly escapes down a hole.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

When he gets to Solla Sollew he learns that this is not a magical, mythical place with very few problems — it’s a massive problem just getting in the door!

He changes plans at this point. He hears about a place with NO problems. He is tempted to go with the fed-up doorman to Boola Boo Ball. But this is the part where we see he has learnt his lesson: He knows from experience that Boola Boo Ball won’t be all it’s cracked up to be. So he decides to return home — better the devil you know.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

He’s now got a club to fight off those annoying creatures at home. This is symbolic: Rather than running from his problems he’ll stay and fight them, because no matter where he went, he would always have problems to deal with.

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The Gingerbread Man Story Structure and Analysis

The Gingerbread Man Little Golden Book

I recently looked into The Magic Porridge Pot (a.k.a. Sweet Porridge), part of a whole category of folk tales about pots of overflowing food. Related, there is another category of folk tales about food that runs away. In the West, the most famous of those would have to be The Gingerbread Man, but have you also heard of The Fleeing Pancake? Best name for a folk tale ever.

Ladybird’s version of ‘The Big Pancake’ (1972) art by Robert Lumley
Ladybird’s version of ‘The Big Pancake’ (1972) art by Robert Lumley
This 20th century advertisement offers a clue as to why the anthropomorphised runaway foods stories may have come from.
This 20th century advertisement offers a clue as to why the anthropomorphised runaway foods stories may have come from.
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Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Levels

diegetic levels

When discussing ‘diegetic levels’ of a story, imagine a ground floor. Level zero. All events and characters featured on this level are part of the story. Level zero is the normal, basic narrative level in a text. A story may not have any other levels, but it will at least have a ground floor. This happened, that happened, the end.

As for the other levels, think of ‘meta’ as above and ‘hypo’ as below the ground floor (level zero).

It can get even more complicated than that — in which case a story will often be called ‘experimental’. Technically a story might have a meta-metadiegetic narrator, or a hypo-hypodiegetic narrator beyond the hypodiegetic narrator etc.

Writers don’t tend to think in terms of diegetic levels. This is a set of terms scholars of literature use. It’s up to the person studying texts to decide which level is level zero. In some stories this is pretty obvious; in the experimental texts, not so much. The cycle of the Arabian Nights are famous for their narration which extends in both meta and hypo directions, in which level zero (primary) narratives are embellished with a vast variety of myths and also with historic and daily events. When discussing these texts, scholars can use these diegetic levels to help convey how the narratives (fabula) relate to each other.

When writers talk about all this, they tend to talk about ‘framing‘. A frame is any structure which puts boundaries on a story about to be told.

Metadiegetic narration refers to a secondary narrative wrapped around the primary (ground level) narrative. The secondary narrative can be a story told by a character within the main story or it can take the form of a dream, nightmare, hallucination. It can be imaginary.

This style of narration is typical of idyllic fiction. e.g. Winnie The Pooh. In the Pooh stories, there is a metafictive father telling these stories to a metafictive son over and over again. This wraps the level zero (ground level) story, set in The Hundred Acre Wood. (In general ‘metafiction’ is fiction which draws attention to the fact that it’s fiction.)

A contemporary example: George and Harold are the metadiegetic narrators (and illustrators) of the Dogman adventures by Dav Pilkey. The author has drawn attention to the fact that this story has been created, in this case by two boys who are part of the ground level story.

The story within a story is common in certain fairytales of yore. “The Wee Bunnock” (from Scotland, of course) is a variation on The Gingerbread Man and opens like this:

[LEVEL ONE STORY] “Grannie, grannie, come tell us the story o’ the wee bunnock.”
“Hout, bairns, ye’ve heard it a hunner times afore. I needna tell it owre again.”
“Ah, but, grannie, it’s sic a fine ane. Ye maun tell’t. Just ance.”
“Weel, weel, bairns, if ye’ll a’ promise to be guid, I’ll tell ye’t again.
But I’ll tell you a bonny tale about a guid aitmeal bunnock.

[LEVEL ZERO STORY] There lived an auld man and an auld wife at the side o’ a burn…

Many of the Grimm fairytales don’t open with a metadiegetic storyteller, but they do close with one, sometimes obliquely. That’s because these tales come from an oral tradition, and the ‘oralness’ of the storyteller hasn’t been one hundred percent omitted in the earliest writing-down of it:

  • Now my cat’s run home, for my tale is done.
  • But I don’t know how the two little demons were able to free themselves.
  • And whoever doesn’t believe me must give me a gold coin.

Stories with embedded stories sometimes serve to give the audience a helping hand in figuring out what the story’s about. The narrator is figuratively holding the audience’s hand. “I’m telling you a story, and I’ll also tell you how to make sense of it.” Embedded stories from the oral tradition tend to work like this because the oral tradition is good for conveying moral messages. Fairytales were big on morality, sometimes spoofed (a la Charles Perrault.

In modern children’s literature, use of various diegetic levels often points to a fairytale setting or a callback to fairytale times.

“How about a story? Spin us a yarn.”

Instantly, Phoebe Winterbottom came to mind. “I could tell you an extensively strange story,” I warned.

“Oh, good!” Gram said. “Delicious!”
And that is how I happened to tell them about Phoebe, her disappearing mother, and the lunatic.

As Sal entertains her grandparents with Phoebe’s outrageous story, her own story begins to unfold — the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother.

When I first came to this country, I felt so alone. A young immigrant girl joins her aunt and uncle in a new country that is unfamiliar to her. She struggles with loneliness, with a fierce longing for the culture and familiarity of home, until one day, her aunt takes her on a walk. As the duo strolls through their city park, the girl’s aunt begins to tell her an old myth, and a story within the story begins.

A long time ago, a group of refugees arrived on a foreign shore. The local king met them, determined to refuse their request for refuge. But there was a language barrier, so the king filled a glass with milk and pointed to it as a way of saying that the land was full and couldn’t accommodate the strangers. Then, the leader of the refugees dissolved sugar in the glass of milk. His message was clear: Like sugar in milk, our presence in your country will sweeten your lives. The king embraced the refugee, welcoming him and his people.

‘Once upon a time, in a dark city far away, there lived a boy called Walter, who had nothing but his name to call his own …’

The handwritten book, with its strangely vivid illustrations, has been hidden in the old house for a long, long time. Tonight, four kids and their teacher will find it. Tonight, at last, the haunting story of Walter and the mysterious, tragic girl called Sparrow will be read – right to the very end …

A mystery, a prophecy, a long-buried secret. And five people who will remember this night as long as they live.

But in modern stories, the interpretation of an embedded story is generally left up to the audience. A writer may offer up an embedded story to serve as a contrast for moral values. The didactic paragraph at the end will be left off, except in the case of spoofs e.g. Modern Family, SpongeBob SquarePants. These sit-coms always end with a morality wrap-up.

Stories with various levels are often called by writers Story Within A Story narration, also known as Embedded Narrative or Show Within a Show at TV Tropes.

Stories with these extra layers to them may feature an “extradiegetic” narrator who appears on a different level of the story by not in the ground level story.

Stories with levels of narrative (sometimes called fabula, to use the word of the Russian formalists) are sometimes used to create an effect of ‘mise en abyme‘, a favourite feature of Postmodernist storytellers. (Think of two mirrors facing each other in a dressing room.) Experimental stories can hypothetically extend forever in each direction: a story within a story within a story within….

Dummies for Dummies For Dummies

Examples of Stories With Various Levels

I’m sticking to obvious examples here, avoiding the complicated and experimental.

  • Anne of Green Gables is the ground level story of an orphan who finds a home with two older siblings lacking joy in their lives. Anne Shirley is a hypodiegetic narrator when she tells Marilla about, say, her visit to the concert. Anne is a character inside the ground level story when she tells this story. If Anne had written Anne of Green Gables as a memoir, say, and the story opened with, “I’m about to tell you the story of when I met Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert” then she would be a metadiegetic narrator.
  • The Ghost in the Mill by Harriet Beeecher Stowe begins with, “Come, Sam, tell us a story,” said I, as Harry and I crept to his knees, in the glow of the bright evening firelight; while Aunt Lois was busily rattling the tea-things, and grandmamma, at the other end of the fireplace, was quietly setting the heel of a blue-mixed yarn stocking.
  • The Canterbury Tales — A tells a story about B who tells a story about C and so on. (A free, open access, scholar-produced onlyne resource wyth the work of more than 30 experts: The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales)
  • The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison is a modern post-apocalyptic novel with a Canterbury Tales structure to it. A main character meets others on her journey and they either tell her their stories or she steals their diaries.
  • In The Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade’s stories keep the Sultan from killing her. In the end he marries her because she’s such a good storyteller. Like the Canterbury Tales, this corpus of narrative is a standout example of diegetic levels and often studied by scholars.
  • In a crime novel or courtroom drama, a surprise witness may have a tale that solves the case.
  • Any story in which a child asks an adult to tell them a story is working on (at least) two diegetic levels.
  • Mary Alice is the hypodiegetic narrator in Desperate Housewives, although when she is shown in the ground level story (in flashbacks before she had died), she is an (intra-) diegetic narrator.
  • In Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman, a father goes to the shop. That’s the ground level story. When he comes home he tells the children a tall tale. The father is the hypodiegetic narrator of this tall tale.
  • In The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse, Beatrix Potter keeps the Battle scene off the page by having one mouse character tell another about it. (It would be heinous to show a cat killing a canary.)
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Badjelly The Witch by Spike Milligan (1973)

“Badjelly The Witch” is better known as a radio play than as a picture book, at least to any New Zealand child of the 80s. There wasn’t much in the way of media entertainment back then, and I looked forward to Radio New Zealand’s Sunday morning children’s show with Constable Keith and Sniff the German shepherd, who was also voiced by Constable Keith. (I didn’t realise this until much later!)

This ‘duo’ issued safety warnings and life lessons to children but also offered quizzes where you could ring in (I once even got through!), and these gags and lessons were interspersed by a selection of radio plays, mostly British, the number of which I can count on the fingers of one hand. This meant that Badjelly the Witch, performed by the comedian author himself, was played pretty much every single Sunday morning to children throughout the country.

There was also a radio play featuring snails who spoke in deep, slow voices about lettuces, but I can’t remember the name of that. There was another about a train — I think it might have been “The Little Engine That Could”. As you can see, Badjelly the Witch was the radio play which left the strongest impression on my childhood. It is read by a British male narrator who chuckles at the jokes. The radio play underscores the fact that Milligan’s narrative voice is primed for oral recitation: Like fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood of yore, and nursery rhymes with punchlines such as “wee wee wee, all the way home!Badjelly The Witch is meant to be performed rather than recited.

BADJELLY THE WITCH, THE PICTUREBOOK

My copy has a purple cover and is full of line drawings rendered in ‘naive style’, epitomised best of all by the literal naivety of Milligan’s six year old daughter, who drew the opening double page spread. The author has handwritten the story himself and has fun with the font, turning words into pictures in places.

There is something particularly apt about the line drawings which display nothing in the way of ‘good draftsmanship’.

That’s not to say that professional illustrations don’t draw in this style. Here’s an example obviously done by a pro, retaining Milligan’s style:

Badjelly The Witch newly illustrated

Like the illustrations, this is not a ‘careful’ story. This is a narrative which makes fun of narrative. We even have God coming in at the end, in a lampoon of deus ex machina. There is no moral. Badjelly The Witch follows classic myth form and draws its influence from various sources, but there is no moral lesson. No significant anagnorisis. Pure fun. So why not have fun with the drawings, too? You won’t easily find a ‘serious’ illustrator who introduces the cat with the back, tail-up view, but that’s what Milligan does.

Badjelly the Witch Fluffy Bum The Cat

A professional illustrator would most likely introduce Lucy the cow wearing a straw hat, since that becomes her identifying signature (learned later in the story), but Milligan doesn’t bother with such details. There is no playing with perspective — aside from the cat, who is presented backwards, all characters are face on or side on, which always lends a folkart vibe to a picturebook. Jim the Eagle is the first character we see depicted in semi-realistic style.

The following illustration is a landscape of the castle with the eagle’s body in the foreground. This illustration shows an individual and unique composition.

In short, it’s a hodge podge affair.

And this is the thing about stories in which characters go on a journey. They meet lots of characters, none of whom are related to each other, and these stories tend to be quite fragmented, as a category. Hell, why not the illustration style, too?

INFLUENCES

  • The Wizard Of Oz — the mythical journey along a ‘path’ (through the forest etc.), the evil witch, and the tin lion, which feels like an amalgamation of the tin woodman and the lion of L. Frank Baum
  • Enid Blyton — especially when it comes to alliterative, onomatopoeic sounding names such as ‘Binklebonk’. The escape from the castle is similar to the first chapter of The Wishing Chair.
  • Fairytales — the journey into the forest, the pastoral scene (house with a thatched, straw roof), the importance of the cow to the family’s fortune (a la Jack and the Beanstalk), brother and sister huddling together in terror as they are about to be eaten (Hansel and Gretel), asking after a cherished thing who has run away (The Gingerbread Man)
  • Bible stories — in Badjelly the Witch we even have God as a character
  • Like Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan finds humour in casual putdowns based on somebody’s physical appearance — the children’s teacher apparently has ‘legs like tree trunks’, and also in humiliating revenge (the giant is down-troued and runs off to Barebottom Land). This was a particular kind of adult male humour of the mid-twentieth century — few female writers then, or today, make jokes about a giant whose eyes go all around his head ‘so he can see the pimples on his back’.  Milligan also seems to find sausages very funny.

(Perhaps female comedian writers for children are just not getting published as often. Even today, the big name comic children’s writers tend to migrate from celebrity world, e.g. David Walliams or from a television background e.g. Mo Willems, Jon Klassen. While the publishing world is relatively open to diversity, the same can’t be said for broadcasting and showbiz.)

STORY STRUCTURE

SHORTCOMING

The iterative portion of the narration tells us who the main characters are, where they live, about their pets. The story switches to singulative at the inciting incident: One day they went out to the barn to milk Lucy, “but Lucy was gone!” They won’t have any milk unless they find Lucy, so they set off on a quest to find, quite specifically, a cow. This is also known as a ‘Grail Quest’. (The more concrete the goal, the more like a Grail Quest it is.)

DESIRE

They want to find their cow so they can continue to have milk on their eggs. (I’m not sure who does this, unless they’re talking about scrambled eggs?)

OPPONENT

The children meet various opponents along the way, but the BIG BADDIE is of course the Wicked Witch, a trickster character who easily pops the stupid children into a bag.

More than in a myth for adults, these children meet a lot of allies along the way — characters who genuinely help them. This reduces the opportunity for conflict, which we keep being told audiences need, but Milligan still manages to insert conflict by means of humour. For instance, Rose doesn’t know which end of the jovial worm is his head, so the worm will put on a hat. They meet a shark crossing the river (another mythical symbol) and because the worm is the strongest worm in the world, the shark is bopped on the nose and takes off to the Shark Nose Hospital. In this world, every type of establishment exists, as and when you need it.

PLAN

To walk along the road into the forest until coming across Daisy the cow. They will ask everyone they see if they have seen a black and white cow wearing a straw hat. If they are friendly and jovial, people will help them. And this is exactly what happens.

BIG STRUGGLE

The children face a number of big struggles and face near death when they are locked in the castle. The witch plans to eat them with peanut butter for breakfast.

ANAGNORISIS

When the parents are scared of the eagle, carrying Lucy and the children to safety, it is clear that the children have achieved a sort of maturity via their trauma in the wild, whereas the parents who remained at home are still locked in fear.

NEW SITUATION

They ‘lived happily ever after until next time’.

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Story Structure: Opponents In Fiction

Henry Gillard Glindoni - The Tiff

Every interesting main character in every story needs a worthy opponent. The opponent makes the main character interesting. The main character learns through their opponent. The opponent attacks the main character’s great shortcoming. The main character deals with their own great shortcoming and grows as a result.

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.

John le Carre
Nemesis by Agatha Christie cover illustration by Tom Adams
Nemesis by Agatha Christie cover illustration by Tom Adams

OPPONENT AS SUM TOTAL OF FORCES

So something happens to a central character that throws them off the beaten track and forces them into a world they’ve never seen. A beanstalk grows, a patient collapses, a murder is committed. All of these actions have consequences, which in turn provoke obstacles that are commonly dubbed forces of antagonism the sum total of all the obstacles that obstruct a character in the pursuit of their desires. These forces accumulate from this initial moment as we head towards the climax of the story.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

THE MINOTAUR VS HUMAN LAYERS OF OPPOSITION

Usborne World Of The Unknown Monsters, 1977
The illustration above shows the Minotaur opponent (the twister) and the human opponents in a single frame.

The Minotaur is a really scary creature from Greek mythology — a part man, part bull monster who lives at the centre of a labyrinth. Because the Minotaur is so very scary, we can use him as a stand-in for any type of Big, Bad Baddie who threatens your main character’s very life.

Instead of the big bad opponent of Theseus, we might instead choose the bucentaur fought by Hercules or the dragon fought by Siegfried. Doesn’t matter. We’re talking about some kind of monster who stands in as the archetype of all mythic combat.

In most of the best stories the opponent will be another human but it can also be ‘nature’ (e.g. in a disaster movie). Where the opponent is ‘nature’, like in Twister, the Minotaur layer of opposition comes from the cyclone.

Twister by Angus McBride 1963

Three Days On A River In A Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams is a good example of a picture book narrative in which the main opponent is ‘nature’ rather than other characters: First it rains, thenthere is a gale, then the canoe almost overturns in the current of the river. Friction between the campers is hinted at, but they basically band together and fight against the opposition of weather and water current.

The problem with Minotaur opponents is that they aren’t inherently interesting. In fact one can easily be switched out for another — there is little to distinguish between a troll/ogre/tsunami/wolf or any number of mythical, archetypal villains.

The logline of It Follows sums up your archetypal Minotaur villain: It doesn’t think. It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up.

It doesn't feel. It doesn't give up.
It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up.

So what the storyteller needs, as well as the Minotaur, is a layer of human opposition. In the case of Twister, we have the rival storm chasers who serve as the humanised opponents.

In Arachnophobia, the spiders make for creepy but uninteresting opponents because their motivation isn’t to kill everyone — that just happens as default. They have no morals for us to judge. This is what makes Minotaurs (or spiders) uninteresting. Instead, the writers created a conflict between the old doctor and the bright young city slicker coming in to an unwelcoming community, where the older doctor refuses to step aside.

Importantly, not all stories contain a Minotaur layer of opposition. Traditional mythic stories do have this layer, but the new big struggle-free mythic form does not need one, because the main character thinks and feels their way through a difficult journey. She doesn’t fight a big, bad Minotaur.

Roger Ebert used the phrase ‘mad-dog killer’ to describe this kind of opponent.

Mad Slasher Movies: Movies starring a mad-dog killer who runs amok, slashing all of the other characters. The killer is frequently masked (as in “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”), not because a serious actor would be ashamed to be seen in the role, but because then no actor at all is required; the only skills necessary are the ability to wear a mask and wield a machete. For additional reading, see Splatter Movies, by John (“mutilation is the message”) McCarty.

Ebert’s Guide to Practical Filmgoing: A Glossary of Terms for the Cinema of the ’80s
Alice and Martin Provensen. The city is nice but it’s scary. In stories for children, cats are often Minotaur opponents.
PROBLEMS WITH THE MINOTAUR OPPONENT

Part of the reason I believe these new big struggle-free mythic forms are so important is because the concept of the Minotaur Opponent speaks to an adaptive but problematic aspect of human psychology: We like to imagine uncontrollable events in humanised/monster-ised form.

An excellent example of this can be seen with the clarity of hindsight in early to mid-14th century Europe. This was the era when witch trials began. The concept of the witch’s sabbath came about for several other reasons, but what made the popular concept of the evil witch really take off? A little ice age. This created a climate crisis. No one could sow their crops let alone harvest them. This had a huge impact on social networks of the period, and no doubt had psychological effects, too. These days we might call it PTSD. Many people felt alienated from their communities.

Rather than feel helpless, people invented a scapegoat. In order for a scapegoat to work, first you need a narrative. Here’s why my crops are failing, my kids are starving and my livestock has foot rot: There are witches in my village.

This belief is easier to deal with psychologically than the belief that humans are utterly powerless under the forces of nature. It gives people something to do: Medieval Europeans could regain a sense of power by surrounding their houses in witch marks, by performing counter magic and coaxing witches down their chimneys so they could burn her in their cooking pots.

In short, the witch was a significant Minotaur Opponent of early to mid 14th century Europe. As we can see from just this one example, the Minotaur Opponent is an extremely powerful storytelling technique, to the point where such stories can influence people’s real world beliefs.

The Minotaur layer of opposition continues to work so nicely in stories today because it both drives ‘regular’ people apart as well as uniting them together.

But we do need to remain wary of our tendency to translate this Minotaur Opposition into real life, especially with another climate crisis hanging over our heads.

In everyday English we now use the word ‘bogeyman’ to describe a monster who is not the real monster.

CAN A CHARACTER BE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMY?

You might be asking yourself at this point, can the main character be ‘their own worst enemy’?

The antagonist is … the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal. The detective and ‘monster’ templates illustrate this well, but antagonism can manifest itself in many different ways most interestingly when it lies within the protagonist. Cowardice, drunkenness, lack of self-esteem all will serve as internal obstacles that prevent a character reaching fulfilment.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

However, if your main character’s ONLY opponent is their own self, you’re in for a tough job. Sure great stories can be created in which the main character is their own worst enemy. An excellent example is Larry McMurtry’s Hud, from his novel Horseman, Pass By. That said, McMurtry knew that in order to show the audience that the character of Hud is his own worst enemy he had to do it via conflict with other characters. He couldn’t just put him on a farm alone. Even in The Martian by Andy Weir, the story was improved with the addition of other people the base back on Earth, and the backstory which included the other astronauts. The Martian environment is plenty oppositional enough, but doesn’t make for the best story.

In very short stories, such as children’s picture books, a main character can be their own worst enemy and the story works well. Two examples are After The Fall by Dan Santat (recent) and The Chicken Book by Garth Williams (classic).

Where the character is their own worst enemy, that part goes under the ‘psychological shortcoming’/’moral shortcoming’ banner, not under this one.

If you are writing a story in which the main character’s biggest enemy is themselves, you are writing what’s commonly known as a ‘Man vs. Self’ story. This article at Now Novel has some specific pointers on how to do it.

Woman's Home Companion August 1933 Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cat & Dog Puzzle
Woman’s Home Companion August 1933 Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cat & Dog Puzzle

OPPONENTS AND GENRE

The opponent will depend on the genre/type of story you’re writing.

In the simple detective story they’re catalysed by the murder; in the medical drama the patient. […] In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

Since ‘nature’ makes an uninteresting opponent, even when the opponent is plenty strong enough the writers will concoct human antagonists. In Twister the hurricane is the main opposing force, but none of the characters are getting on with each other, either.

If there’s a killer or an evil mastermind bent on planetary domination then they are, obviously, the antagonists [often called ‘villains’]; the patient may not behave antagonistically, but they effectively embody the illness that will be the true enemy in the drama. The antagonist is thus the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

RULES OF FICTIONAL OPPONENTS

They call it a conflict and with my limited grasp of the English language, the prefix “con-” is bad. Why can’t we just have a “flict”?

EJ (@cottone120) November 29, 2019

An opponent is not necessarily an enemy.

I always felt like you had to be important to have enemies. Example: Historically, Germany has had more enemies than Luxembourg. Margo Roth Spiegelman was Germany. And Great Britain. And the United States. And tsarist Russia. Me, I’m Luxembourg. Just sitting around, tending sheep, and yodelling.

John Green, from Paper Towns

The opponent is the character who wants to prevent the main character from reaching her goal.

The relationship between opponent/main character is the most important in the story.

The best opponent is the necessary one. The opponent is the character who is best able to attack the great shortcoming of your main character.

The main character will either overcome that shortcoming or be destroyed.

Opponents and mystery are closely related because a mysterious opponent is more difficult to defeat. In average stories, the main character’s only task is to defeat the opponent. In good stories the main character has to:

  1. Uncover the opponent and
  2. then defeat her.

In thrillers and mysteries there has to be some kind of mystery set up to compensate for the missing opponent (who is there, but behind the scenes). Detective stories purposely hide their opponents until the end. Until then, the audience needs something to replace the ongoing conflict between main character and opponent. In this kind of story you introduce a mystery at about the time you would normally introduce the main opponent.

It pleases contemporary filmmakers and thus audiences to think they are much more sophisticated than this, but cruelty continues to be the mark of villains, the thing that lets the audience know who they are supposed to be against. […] Innocence is central to determining whether the behaviour is cruel or not.

Howard Suber

Other characters [apart from the main character] in a story can act heroically — not just the designated main character. Even villains and baddies can very effectively portray heroic qualities. Every rounded character should manifest a touch of each archetype (The Shadow In The Hero).

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Frequently the main character and villain’s actions look very much alike. It’s what these actions are for that determines whether we think of the character as being obsessed or committed.

The Power Of Film, Howard Suber

It’s often said that the best cops would make the best criminals — by chance they’re working on the right side of the law. Crime drama makes the most of this. In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a good cop because he has an intuitive understanding of what motivates the criminals he’s working with. The audience sees Jimmy himself go against the rules and resisting the hierarchy that exists within the police force.

Keep the opponent AND main character TOGETHER

This goes against commonsense, because when two people don’t like each other they tend to go in opposite directions. But if this happens in a story, the writer has great difficulty building conflict. The trick is to find a natural reason for the main character and opponent to stay in the same place during the course of the story.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie is forced to spend time with Darcy when Mrs Bennett forces Jane to ride to Bingley’s mansion. There, she catches cold, and Lizzie must go and see her. Darcy happens to be there and flirting takes place after dinner, in which social convention dictates they share the same room.

The antagonist opposes the protagonist not just once but throughout. In this way the antagonist helps define the protagonist in the same way you invoke a shape by colouring in everything but that shape. Note that the antagonist needn’t be another character — it traditionally is, yes, but any persistent conflict can be truly antagonistic. A looming house foreclosure, a cancer diagnosis, a tornado made of biting squirrels.

Chuck Wendig

In memorable movies…the strongest guy around is not likely to be the main character.

Howard Suber
OPPONENT AND MAIN CHARACTER ARE EQUALLY POWERFUL
Art by Leslie Thrasher 1935

VILLAINS

A villain is a subcategory of opponent. An opponent equals anyone or anything that stands in the way of your main character getting what they want. A villain is ethically and morally bad. Villains tend to be power hungry, lazy, abusive, greedy all of the seven deadly sins.

The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994. The most unambiguous villain is the character who wants to control the entire world.
The Carnaval A Book Of Poems by Sef Roman Semenovich and Leonid Roshidaev 1994. The most unambiguous villain is the character who wants to control the entire world.

The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.

Alfred Hitchcock

In traditional main character stories there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ (better known to adults as main characters and adversaries, or protagonists and antagonists). The activities of the main characters are sanctioned by society whereas the activities of the adversaries are considered wrong. Apart from pickpockets/thieves, the following groups tend to be depicted as adversaries in stories, because their ways of making a living undermine our perceptions of how decent society works. For example:

  • Smugglers e.g. from a Famous Five novel
  • Pirates in picture books pirates as just as often the sympathetic viewpoint characters, which is weird given that in real life they are criminals
  • Gypsies also oft-utilised by writers from the First Golden Age of children’s literature e.g. Enid Blyton
  • Highwaymen Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat is a picture book example.
  • Wolves Since wolves became an endangered species recent stories often turn the wolf into the victimised character.
  • Foxes Straight out of Aesop, foxes are like wolves only more wily
  • Witches and other supernatural, folkloric creatures

Note that only two genres require a villain: mystery and thriller.

I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.

Stephen King

What puzzled me about villains was why, when they were masquerading as respectable citizens, their essential no-goodness wasn’t as obvious to people on the screen as it was to me in the stalls. How could Pinnochio be so stupid as to be led astray by the patently wicked Fox, or Snow White not know the Queen was up to no good? Had the Queen been flesh and blood and not a cartoon she might well have been played by Joan Crawford, who was always something of an enigma to me. I never liked her, and with her gaunt face, protruding eyes and instinct for melodrama she seemed the embodiment of evil, yet she was often cast in the role of heroine… Claude Rains was another puzzle. He was determinedly silky and seldom unsmiling, sure signs that he was a baddy, though not always. […] Banal though the general fun of films was, I learned, as one learned in fairy stories, about good and evil and how to spot them: the good where one would expect only degradation and squalor, and treachery and cowardice to be traced in the haunts of respectability. I learned about the occasional kindness of villains an the regular intransigence of saints but the abiding lesson had to do with the perils of prominence… Films taught you to be happy that you were ordinary.

Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories

People have a need to believe that bad things are done by bad people. And what is bad? Isn’t this defined as anything outside the common good, which is further defined as whatever the majority see as good? Why must the villain wear a black hat? Because if he didn’t, how would we know he was the villain?

Stephen Dobyn, from The Church Of Dead Girls

Charlie Jane Anders has some counter advice to a popular chestnut given to writers when creating villains, and I agree it’s time we need to say this:

One piece of writing advice I hear a lot is, “Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy. Everyone’s the hero in their own story.” Which is true, I guess. But I worry people understand this to mean “every character needs to have sympathetic, relatable motivations.” Which is NOT true. 

There’s no shortage of people in the world who enjoy being cruel to people who are more vulnerable than they are. There’s plenty of people who think of the world purely in terms of dominance and power, or who pride themselves on being able to “do what has to be done.” 

In my writing, I’m very interested in the problem of evil, and a lot of my stuff features well-meaning people who make horrible choices. But I’m not interested in excusing destructive behaviour, or necessarily sympathizing with it. Not all villains have to be lovable/relatable. 

George RR Martin is very good at showing the internal monologue of people who do monstrous things, without softening them at all. Meanwhile, Shakespeare famously has one of his villains declare his undying hatred, “yet I know not why.” Not everybody is equally introspective. 

Bottom line: evil is real. Cruelty is real. We have to grapple with them in our fiction, whether it’s a lighthearted romp or a grimdark adventure. And I don’t feel like sympathetic evil is always the right choice, depending on the story. /END

@charliejane

Charlie Jane Anders also advises writers to avoid the following when creating villains:

  1. Villain who are passive until the last few minutes of the story
  2. Inversely, villains who are super powerful all through the story, then implausibly start making mistakes right at the end (allowing the hero to win)
  3. Villains whose behaviour make no sense, doing whatever the story requires them to do in the moment.

I would add that commercially successful blockbuster movies don’t go out of their way to avoid those traps. The clown of I.T. is number three to a tee, but that is one successful franchise.

Related Links On Villains

VILLAINS AND GENDER

Villains are traditionally gendered male. A female villain is seen as just that a ‘female’ villain. Her gender is something extra. This means that decision makers can decide at any time that we’ve at ‘peak female villainy’.

CHAOS RATHER THAN VILLAINY

Often it is chaos, rather than evil, that is the enemy.

Howard Suber

You’ll find those attributes (chaos and evil) are embodied in people, or especially in children’s literature as people stand-ins such as talking animals.

In other words, the opponent isn’t necessarily of evil intent. The opponent isn’t necessarily a ‘villain’. Case in point, the frenemy opponent. Someone who pretends they’re on your side, but they are not.

THE FRENEMY OPPONENT

Elmer Cecil Stoner friends never you space pirate
Elmer Cecil Stoner

Sometimes the opponent tries to fake as an ally to the main character but their wishes are at odds with the main character’s. This character exists partly to showcase a contrasting value system, for example, the main character is loyal, the frenemy is disloyal.

The frenemy opponent relies on a storytelling technique involving a mask. The mask of ‘friendship/mentorship’ will come off before the story is over.

OPPOSITION DOES NOT EQUAL THE APPEARANCE OF OPPOSITION

THORN OPPONENTS

‘The thorn in the side’ is a low-level opponent who doesn’t really have the power to fully stand in the main character’s way, and who can even make the audience side more fully with the designated main character.

Examples of thorns:

  • The annoying kids in children’s book casts, such as Fregley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
  • In a detective story it’s that member of the public who wants to get in on drama and offers theories and speculation as fact to the detective trying to solve the case.

OPPOSITION CONVEYED IN PICTURE BOOKS

In an illustrated work, there will be an image in which the main character comes face to face with the opposition.

Take a look at the Hansel and Gretel illustrations below, by Gustaf Tenngren. Hansel and Gretel move through the book from left to right, absolutely typical for Western style literature. The witch is their opponent so she faces the other way.

But! When fortune is reversed and the children step forward to win the day, Tenngren reverses the direction of the witch. The children continue to face ‘forward’. Their mythic journey into the woods has not been stymied by that pesky witch.

Below are some examples from Little Red Riding Hood.

Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

Matthew Cordell’s Wolf In The Snow is a much more recent revisioning of Little Red Riding Hood, demonstrating that this layout is still very much used, because it is effective.

Gila Monsters Meet You At The Airport is an interesting example because these opponents exist to give the reader a parallactic view of two places, using two very different points of view. The effect is to help young readers challenge their own preconceptions.

THE LITTLE BLACK FISH (1986) Inge van der Storm
THE LITTLE BLACK FISH (1986) Inge van der Storm

In The Fog, the scene where humanity really sees the importance of nature is so central to the story that it’s used for the front cover.

The Fog picture book cover

The scene where the mouse meets the Gruffalo is another example, but illustrator Axel Scheffler has made it look 3D with inclusion of the tapering path.

And here is an example from Blueberries For Sal.

from Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
from Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

FURTHER READING

Popular film culture has been using facial injury as a shorthand for evil for so long that many filmmakers no longer treat scars as injuries, but as decorative features.

Despite appearances, not all people with scarred faces are movie villains
Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Header painting: Henry Gillard Glindoni – The Tiff