Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Off with his head... nicely
First off, thanks to all of you who turned out in Pittsburgh! I was delighted to see you!
Now for the post. On July 19, 2012, capng wrote, ...my WIP is told from the view of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. She's pretty evil at the beginning of the book (and conceited, too!), but gets better as the book continues. How do I make readers dislike her but still worry for her? Or is that even possible?
Sure, it’s possible. End of post.
Just kidding. I’m giddy from muddling through Hurricane Sandy. Our little backwater didn’t get the worst of it, only a few hours of no power (and we have a generator). No trees on the house. Reggie (the dog) survived confinement without eating the couch or us. Hope all of you are okay, too.
Yes, it’s possible, and fun; it’s delightful to fool with the emotions of the poor reader.
If the Queen of Hearts is going to improve, then the seeds of her better self already exist. One way to make the reader care is to reveal the tender shoot in her that will grow slowly into a more likable character. For example, suppose Queenie pets her flamingo before using it as a mallet in the croquet game, and she clenches her jaw and looked pained when she hits a hedgehog. The reader glimpses a kind person locked up in there, even as she’s being cruel. Since this is told from her POV, she might wish for a gentler way to play croquet. If only, she can think, the mallet and ball don’t have to be alive. Then, because she isn’t good yet, she can add, But I must have my game. And the fresh air is excellent for my complexion.
When the reader learns that the flamingos and the hedgehogs are plotting against her, he doesn’t entirely want her destroyed. He’s rooting for her to have a chance to reform.
If she’s fun on the page, glorying in her evil, the reader will enjoy being in her company and won’t want anything to remove her from the story. Queenie in the example above is fun, and I hope Bombina, the fairy in my favorite Princess Tale, For Biddle's Sake, is too, regardless of her fondness for turning people into toads. She’s not precisely evil, since she adores Parsley, my main character, but before Parsley comes along, she’s a fairy criminal. Here’s a sample:
Once, when her footman Stanley failed to open the carriage door quickly enough, Bombina turned his bushy red beard into a purple Fury-Faced Trudy toad. It looked funny, hanging upside down from Stanley's chin. Bombina laughed, and Parsley would have too if Stanley hadn't looked so shocked.
Admittedly, the book is lighthearted, which may make my task easier.
However, there’s little humor in Vollys, the dragon in The Two Princesses of Bamarre. She’s evil, but she’s good company, and the reader sympathizes with her. She also loves my main, Aza. So loving someone can help make even an evil character likable.
It’s an advantage to be telling the story from Queenie’s POV, because the reader sees everything through her eyes. Her narrative might go something like this:
I pronounced judgment, “Off with his head.” Diamond Jack’s eyes darted to my dear husband, Kingie. Two guards grabbed Jack’s arms, but didn’t pull him away. We waited for the pardon that would surely come.
Kingie, who liked everything just so, was pulling a loose thread on his doublet. He may not have heard my sentence.
I repeated, louder, “Off with his head.”
“Darling,” Kingie said, holding out the thread and issuing no pardon, “the silk is unraveling. Help me.”
What to do? I felt the blood drain from my face. I didn’t want this, but if I pardoned Jack - I couldn’t! My reputation would be destroyed. “Take him away.” I gestured to the guards, whose faces had paled too. Jack’s lower lip trembled. I looked away and heard them march him off. “Sweetie...” I fumbled in my purse. A shudder ran through me, and I could hardly control my hands. “I have a scissors.”
She’s behaving terribly but she’s suffering, and I think the reader has to empathize. If the story were told from Jack’s POV, she would probably be a lot less sympathetic.
Character worry is a great goad to reader worry. If Queenie is anxious, the reader will likely be too. Suppose Diamond Jack has powerful friends... Queenie is terrified of the consequences of his death, whether he actually dies or not. She’s bewildered about her husband’s failure to come through with a pardon, and she’s unable to break free of her bad queen persona. In every possible thought direction, there’s trouble. The reader paces mentally while she paces physically.
The key is making Queenie someone the reader can inhabit comfortably, can see himself in, even when she behaves badly. If she’s stuck in a position she doesn’t like but can’t figure out how to get free of, the reader thinks, Oh, yeah. I’ve been stubborn about something I didn’t really mean, too.
I just googled “making difficult characters sympathetic.” A link suggests three conditions that will guarantee sympathy: a noble goal; obstacles to its achievement; a great love or passion, which will humanize the character. This is a tad formulaic but interesting. It might work if our character isn’t annoying. Let’s take the sentences above. If Queenie doesn’t seem to like Kingie, we’re going to have a hard time liking her. If Kingie is just her husband, not her dear, if she thinks, Kingie, whose pitiful brain was often distracted by nonsense... instead of Kingie, who liked everything just so, the reader may prefer a cockroach’s company to hers. With thoughts like this, she’d be unsympathetic even while curing cancer against all odds and being sweet to her poodle.
Here are three prompts:
• Queenie inherits a kingdom that’s impoverished by defeat in war. Her glorious goal is to raise her people out of poverty. The obstacle is that the peace treaty calls for costly tribute. Her passion is for music, and she’s an accomplished violinist. Her flaw is that she will not tolerate dissent. Write a scene and make her likable.
• Turn her around in the next scene and make her impossible to like.
• Write “Sleeping Beauty” from the POV of the fairy who wants Sleeping Beauty to prick her finger and die. Make the fairy likable. You can use the three conditions I found online. As you write, you may discover that you have a new story on your hands. Keep going.
Have fun, and save what you write!