I don’t mean simply multiple appearances of said person in a variety of different hist-fic books, shows, or movies. I mean different works both devoted to that person, whose portrayals clash in some significant way.
Take for example the legendary King Arthur and Guinevere. Countless versions of their story have been told, many of them giving vastly different depictions of the main characters. I mean, the 2004 film stars a strapping young Clive Owen alongside Keira Knightley—as opposed to The First Knight, which embodies Arthur in a majestic-but-aged Sean Connery whose marriage to Guinevere is nothing short of cradle robbery. Oh yeah, and then there’s Camelot…
This really is no surprise, though, considering how longstanding of a legend King Arthur and his knights are.
Having first seen the movie The Young Victoria, written by Julian Fellowes (the same guy who wrote Downton Abbey!) and starring Emily Blunt, I got a very different impression of the woman whose story was later adapted in the BBC series Victoria by Daisy Goodwin. Of course, there would be some variations, as one is a standalone movie that only presents the beginning of her marriage and reign, whereas the other follows her life for three seasons (and counting).
There were definitely some points of overlap, probably due to known historical facts. In both, she is portrayed as a very independent, determined woman who spoke her mind freely. We also see her reluctance towards motherhood and her strong temper—two documented facts. But the thing that did not seem consistent between the two—in fact, was disturbingly inconsistent—was the nature of her marriage to Prince Albert.
Julian Fellowes captured one or two quarrels between the couple in his feature film, which suggested Victoria’s capacity for overreaction and irrational behavior—but it seems this is the norm in the world of BBC. It’s a rare moment when Victoria and Albert aren’t in a tiff over something.
I guess this confused me because I had never thought of their marriage being particularly tumultuous. After doing some research of my own, it seems like there might actually be something to this portrayal of constant conflict. Granted, some of these articles give only cursory (and potentially sensationalized) glances at the facts, but it made me wonder. Either the movie glosses over reality, or the show over-dramatizes reality, because the two depictions of Victoria are not entirely compatible.
Obviously historical fiction/elaboration is not inherently unethical, but it holds the power to either baptize or demonize a figure of the past.
Of course some figures have nobler legacies than others, but even the best and the worst of them were still human. When you’re telling stories about real people, the goal shouldn’t be to glamorize them beyond reason, and it shouldn’t be to simply state the cold, hard facts—that’s what documentaries are for. If you’re going to get creative with someone’s biography, it’s best to do so in a way that brings them down to earth or speculatively fleshes out their personality. Because no matter what other information might be missing, we know they were humans… and so is your audience.
This is probably an odd question, but it occurred to me the other day after finishing a journal entry. I haven’t journaled regularly in a long time. But when I paged through the spiral-bound, indigo-bluish notebook that has pencil-scrawlings from ten-year-old Shiloh and on, I noticed that almost every significant life event was in there. Not only that, but also what I thought or felt about it at the time it happened.
In a way, I can visibly trace the development of my internal character over the years.
Good heavens, at least I hope so. But why is that unnerving?
I guess because I think in terms of stories. Narratives.
In any story you read or write, you have a window of insight into each character. You may not have each character’s full biography or autobiography, but you usually have enough information to make some intelligent assessment about him.
You might know why the misfortunes befall him in the first place, while he’s left wondering.
You might see how his behavior changes as he grows older.
You might even be there when he dies.
But unless the story is told as a first-person narrative (literally documenting the character’s thoughts) or from an omniscient perspective we never know exactly what’s going on in his head.
Let’s consider historical fiction for a moment. In any fiction based on a real person, we are usually given the actual deeds of the person… explained by whatever motives the writer attributes to him/her. The writer has enough factual information to describe what the historical figure did—but, unless the person left behind detailed memoirs, the writer must infer the why. And the why that the writer comes up with is what frames the person as either good or bad within the story.
We see what other people do. They may even give reasons for their actions. But at the end of the day, we only have what they say and what they do. Nowhere are we given an objective window into their mind that shows us their real motives. We may not even observe them long enough to form a consistent impression of them. We may always be left speculating about their motives.
My journal contains my motives. If someone were to read it, they would see exactly why I made those hard decisions that marked turning points in my life. But they won’t. All they will see is the course of action I took—and the results.
People can’t read our minds, nor do they usually read our diaries. The “character” you are in life is, for practical purposes, determined by what you do. Those around us are left to deal with the consequences.
This is all another way of saying, from a literary perspective, that what we do with our time here matters. It matters because it shapes reality. And it matters because it defines the quality of our character in the narrative of life.
Imagine you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, engrossed in a movie or show. The characters are unique, the plot is gripping, the tension is building, and then suddenly your worst subconscious fear comes true—
Where did the originality go? The fresh energy?
No matter how interesting the first half-hour or so was, much of what follows grows stale, because you already know exactly what is going to happen 90% of the time.
Enter the princess… you know she’s going to fall in love with either the most eligible prince or the least-eligible-but-most-attractive outlaw.
Enter a member of the opposite sex that annoys the protagonist… you might as well save the date for their wedding.
Enter a wise old man… you know he’s going to give the protagonist the answer to all his problems, but it will just take the entire movie for the protagonist to follow the advice.
Well, you get the idea. Introducing a cookie-cutter scenario can take the wind of an otherwise unique story.
I ask this because, as both a reader and writer, I find it hard to draw the line between necessary tropes, or conventions, that establish the genre of a story and the tropes that feel like a sheet of recycled paper. One set helps raise some general expectations for the story, while the other makes the plot painfully predictable.
For instance, a windswept town with about 27 tumbleweeds rolling by gives “Once Upon a Time in the West” the familiar feeling of a Western. And yes, it ends with a gunfight, so it’s definitely a Western. But the mysterious and gradual development of the plot and characters almost feels like a Charles Dickens novel. While you have your typical handful of outlaws and gray-hats, you have no idea what they’re all going to do to each other and who’s going to get the girl in the end. And then, about halfway through, you think you know what’s going to happen based on how the trope pattern goes—only to find out you were wrong.
Then you have the cult film “The Princess Bride” (which, by the way, is equally hysterical in its novel form!). This story commits just about every fairy tale trope you can think of, and delivers you the ending you expect all along… but it intentionally delivers all this in an unexpected manner. As a satire, it never ceases to surprise you with its cheeky dialogue and self-aware humor, making it anything but your run-of-the-mill princess story.
I think this is a hard question to answer, but I suspect it has something to do with defying the expectations that a trope raises. In other words, if you introduce a scenario or a set of characters that triggers the audience’s anticipation of a predictable pattern, you have to surprise them in some way. Whether that means making the star-crossed couple realize they’re actually related (ahem, Star Wars) or having both the heroes ride off into the sunset without the girl (okay, I just spoiled Once Upon a Time in the West for you, but you should still watch it!), there has to be something that the audience doesn’t see coming. Otherwise, why should they bother continuing?
Some tropes are definitely more overused than others, but I think even the most recycled ones can be redeemed by an unexpected resolution or twist in the story’s plot.
Do you agree?
What are some tropes that make you yawn as soon as you see them? What books/shows/movies fall into predictable patterns too often?
Are there any stories that you think maintain their originality, even with a couple of tropes?
I’ve spent the past three weeks unpacking the character foils found in the TV series The Last Kingdom, and I promise next week we’ll move on to something else. 🙂 But I couldn’t help spending one more post on perhaps the most central foil relationship in the whole series: the relationship between Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Alfred the Great.
In fact, I think their constant fluctuation between friendship and rivalry makes up the main drama of the first three seasons.
Uhtred is pagan, Alfred is a devout Christian.
Uhtred is torn between loyalties, Alfred has a single-minded drive to unite England.
Uhtred is physically robust, Alfred suffers constant physical ailments.
Uhtred is passionate and often wrathful, Alfred remains cool and cunning.
Even after leading Alfred’s men into battle and fighting alongside the king himself, Uhtred struggles to maintain a stable relationship with Wessex and its ruler. As I watched them oscillate between loyalty and suspicion, I couldn’t help wishing they’d just get along. Why couldn’t they just respect each other?
Alfred recognizes Uhtred’s merit as a warrior early on, but soon Uhtred finds himself behind bars for not following the Saxon rules within Saxon territory. This becomes a point of leverage for Alfred—in fact, it marks the beginning of the cycle that keeps Uhtred coming back to Wessex again and again, despite his wish to leave. Alfred repeatedly solicits Uhtred’s sword through manipulation, even going so far as to arrange a marriage for Uhtred that will steep him in debt. Each time Uhtred gets himself into trouble with Wessex, Alfred’s “clemency” consists of making him swear service to him for yet another duration. But why does he do this?
First of all, he knows he needs Uhtred. But, as a Christian king whose authority is new, Alfred fears having to rely on a pagan whose military prowess outstrips his own. So in order for Alfred to feel comfortable keeping Uhtred close, he must keep him in the more dependent position.
Uhtred, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be the free lord of Bebbanburg, independent of any other ruler or kingdom. Naturally, he chafes under the constant state of dependency in which he finds himself with Alfred. Eventually he begins to fear he will never be released from Saxon hold—a fate his Danish friends Ragnar and Brida frequently warn him against. And yet even after Alfred’s death, Uhtred once again promises service to Wessex: this time to see Alfred’s son Edward secured as king.
So much that they fear one another’s hold.
It’s tempting to say that they might have been good friends if they didn’t need each other—and yet they never would have willingly entered each other’s lives if they had no such need. Two such opposite men would never seek out one another’s company and confidence. They were forced to out of necessity.
And so it seems that same necessity and co-dependence is both the cause and the bane of their ever-turbulent, yet ever-present relationship.
Less than friends, more than rivals… this tension alone was interesting enough to make me keep watching.
Do you find that complicated relationships between characters make a story inherently more interesting?
What are some other books/shows/movies where you’ve seen an unending dance of tension between two main characters? Do you think this dynamic makes the story more true-to-life?
It’s easy to chock it up to a good vs. evil conrast, but it seems that the more complex and realistic the characters are, the less purely good or bad they are.
Last week we talked about how good writing in the TV series The Last Kingdom avoids typecasting characters as one-dimensional reflections of ideologies. Lady Aelswith and the nun Hild are both devout Christians, yet one of them serves as an antagonist and the other as a support to the lead protagonist—the pagan Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Although the two women hold firmly to their faith, their dispositions and roles in the story are nearly polar opposites, making their characters foils to each other.
We first meet Aethelwold as the profligate son of King Aethelred, Alfred’s brother, in the second episode of the first season. We quickly learn that, although the son of the king, Aethelwold has approximately zero chance of inheriting the throne upon his father’s death because of the consistently irresponsible life he leads. Even when he protests the legitimacy of Alfred’s kingship and promises to reform his own ways, it’s obvious that he has no intention of doing so—as he repeatedly winds up hung-over in a haystack.
Essentially, his behavior undermines his claim to the throne so that we understand perfectly why no one listens to him. As a result, he begins to look for support beyond Wessex’s borders where his wayward reputation is unknown, while using his knowledge of the kingdom’s internal politics to subvert Alfred’s military efforts.
Uhtred, having grown up as a Dane, had to earn his keep from a young age—whereas Aethelwold has used his protection as the king’s son as a safeguard for his licentious behavior. But as I looked at the two characters more closely over time, I realized they had some notable points of overlap:
A strong sense of pride.
Irreverence toward the Christian religion.
Difficulty (deserved or undeserved) overcoming others’ suspicions against them.
I could go into more depth explaining these, but I think there’s one commonality that deserves special attention because of its implications for the entire narrative: the fact that both of them have been denied their “rightful” titles.
This may seem like a superficial trait—it’s definitely a circumstantial one—but it sets the stage for every other contrast drawn between Uhtred and Aethelwold. Looking at their position as disinherited lords, we might initially expect them to see some of the same behavior as they go about trying to secure their rights.
The fact is, even though they overlap in the other areas I mentioned (pride, irreverence, etc.), the way they handle these issues and govern themselves is almost always opposite.
Aethelwold’s pride leads enables him to betray others when expedient, whereas Uhtred’s pride forces him to remain loyal.
Aetheulwold feigns piety, while Uhtred can’t even pretend to be Christian.
Aethelwold has to trick people into trusting him, while Uhtred lets his integrity speak for itself.
At one point, Aethelwold attempts to lure Uhtred into a joint scheme to recover their claims, arguing that their similar status binds them together as equals. Uhtred responds that no equality of external circumstance can make up for such an enormous discrepancy of internal character.
Although the two do not clash swords until the end of the third season, I think the development of their characters as foils throughout the series drives home this very point. Uhtred’s courage and Aethelwold’s cowardice, Uhtred’s loyalty and Aethelwold’s treachery, Uhtred’s integrity and Aethelwold’s deceit—all of these contrasts consistently prove that no man’s conduct can be dismissed as an inevitable result of the hand he was dealt.
In a sense, Aethelwold is right: he and Uhtred were dealt the same hand. But it is how they play their cards that makes one of them a villain and the other a hero.
Do you find this way of juxtaposing a hero against a villain to be compelling?
What are some other ways you’ve seen writers develop meaningful contrasts between heroes and villains?