Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fairy Godmothers

I'm reading a book with a fairy godmother. No, not Cinderella. Let's imagine a poor hero who has a lot of bad things happen to him, and he makes a few mistakes, and he ends up losing his job, and he gets really depressed and instead of looking for another job, he starts building birdhouses in his backyard. Just because. Using his hands, hammering nails-- it helps him forget his problems and ignore his financial trouble.

Then a man comes into the yard and says he runs a chain of home stores and happened to be driving by and saw the birdhouses and loved them, and wants a thousand of them to sell in his store. And oh, here's half ahead of time to help pay for materials. (Nothing is ever said, by the way, about zoning ordinances and the need for business insurance. But then, in fairy tales, those things aren't factors.)

Hero can't believe his luck!

Neither can I.

Come on, come on, come on. The fairy godmother worked for Cinderella because that was a fairy tale. Magical things are supposed to happen in fairytales. But a realistic contemporary novel about the struggles of a modern man in a complex world?

It's not just that the fairy godmother reaching out and anointing him with the magic wand of wonderfulness teaches him nothing and in fact bypasses the whole struggle/conflict/pain/change process. Not every book has to be about changing in the face of adversity (though that's usually not a bad story), but the story should still be entertaining... and this isn't. The fairy godmother solves the problem in a moment, and that's not long enough for fun to happen in the story-- no chills, no thrills, no emotion, no anger, nothing much, because a moment just isn't long enough.

And in this case, the moment of exaltation-- "The fairy godmother saved me!"-- isn't much of a happy payoff for slogging through 300 pages sympathizing with this poor guy and his vicissitudes. the reader will want more of a buildup, more of a thrilling ride to a crisis, a longer climactic event. So why not try to make the resolution of the conflict the result-- direct-- of the actions and reactions of the protagonist? It's harder to plot that then bringing in a fairy godmother, but the story will be a better read if you work at it. :)

I know most of you would think this was cheating -- a deus ex machina. But I see it all the time in submissions and contest entries, so I think there must be a desire among many writers to show miracles happening.


Devon Matthews said...

LOL! Sorry, but I suspect it's not so much a desire for miracles as it is lazy writing. Or...maybe the people who write these kinds of stories actually have someone in their lives who bail them out when the going gets tough. For the rest of us, we're still forced to do the hard plotting and writing with no magical shortcuts. Which is unfortunate. ;o)

Edittorrent said...

Or maybe they just long for a fairy godmother and know it will never happen, so they have to write it. :)

I have a theory that some writers believe that magical events are more fun-- and in romance, say, that comes out as a series of coincidences bringing them together and smoothing their way, say (which actually can work in a comedy). Or maybe "destined love", you know, they were lovers in a former life and so there's an instant bonding. And some readers also love this sort of story. Sleepless in Seattle was pretty successful. :)

Not my sort of story, and I think it has a lot to do with worldview. Platonic vs. aristotelian, maybe?
Alicia Aristotelian

Edittorrent said...

Fairy tale vs. heroic journey, maybe.

I think one of the common (but not omnipresent) elements in a fairy tale is the notion that virtuous behavior leads to redemption -- the fairy godmother rewards Cinderella for her cheerful disposition.

And it's not necessarily a bad thing to want to believe that virtue will be rewarded, that talent will be recognized, that people will reach out and help the deserving.

But is it good fiction? Eh. Depends on how it's written, I guess.


Edittorrent said...

Yes, if it works, it works. :)
But there are high-percentage and low-percentage attempts, and probably writers ought to know what they are doing. If they can say, yeah, I realize this is a fairy godmother, but I'm writing a fairy tale, and I want to show ...." Well, that's a story that will probably be worth reading.

But "A fairy godmother? What do you mean? Oh, the guy who bought all the birdhouses? Well, how else could the hero solve his problems?" indicates that the writer was just taking the easy way out and didn't think it through.

green_knight said...

That's not a fairy godmother. That's about the worst thing you could do to the poor guy, give him hope and then completely crush him.

If he's experienced and clever and making something that's not too complicated, he'll do what, two birdhouses in a day? So, on his own, doing a thousand will take him about fifteen months, with a few days off for Christmas and such.

The guy won't wait that long, and he'd have birdhouses stuffed into every corner of his home, which *so* will ruin his chances of finding a girlfriend.

So what he needs to do is to set up a workshop and find employees who can do some or all of the work. They need to be trained, they need to be supervised. Oh, and he needs to do all the taxed and paperwork or else he'll be in dire trouble.

How long do you think his advance is going to last? If he has to invest in the business *and* pay off his creditors *and* try to live off it?

How long before that contract is cancelled?

I can see this work very well as the inciting incident of a book: hero gets fired, wishes for a fairy godmother, *gets* fairy godmother, and then has to deal with the fallout.

And believe me, it's gonna be bad.

Anonymous said...

Well, that was my reaction to the first Harry Potter book. It seemed to me that Harry's powers were just given to him and he didn't have to go through any internal struggle to use them. All the conflict was external.

Didn't keep her from selling a lot of books, though. . .

Riley Murphy said...

Theresa you say:

And it's not necessarily a bad thing to want to believe that virtue will be rewarded, that talent will be recognized, that people will reach out and help the deserving.

Then ask: But is it good fiction?

The cynic inside me answers: It's just plain old fiction, but the idealist within me adds: a fiction that should be reality.

Carole McDonnell said...

The weird thing is that flaky miracles and fairy godmothers often do happen in real life. In real life they're hard to believe because they are so rare. And there is a lot of "Oh my gosh! Did that really happen? I can't believe that just happened!" kind of thing. The moment of awe is important in real life. But it's hard to write that kind of thing in fiction. . . because the moment of awe is not what makes good fiction. And many writers simply do not wish to make their heroes suffer. That's what's I find annoying about the deus ex machinas fairy godmother stories. . .the author's refusal to make a character live a tough life and learn from it coupled with the author's insistence that said character is actually suffering terribly. I don't mind a little wishfulfillment now and then. But the whiff of untruth annoys the heck outta me. -C

PatriciaW said...

But Alicia, miracles do happen. Thus, they are reality and writers should write about them.

I think that what writers forget is that after the Fairy Godmother yanked Cinderella out of her dreary life, she popped her back into it. Her miracle was short-term, and then she had to live in a world knowing that there was a better world not far away. Finally, she had to rely on the hero's quest to find her to pull her out of her life permanently. What if he had given up?

So everything wasn't peaches and cream for Cinderella just because she had a Fairy Godmother. That's what makes for an interesting story.

Unknown said...

Alicia, this was a great post!

Riley Murphy said...

PatriciaW: Honestly? I’d be on-board with him giving up. LOL!

Okay, I can hear the gasps but really, am I the only one out there that thinks a guy running around the kingdom with a freaking shoe to find the woman of his dreams - had to have been nuts? I mean, he did spend a magical night at the ball with her and he can't remember what she looked like? And just suppose your spinster Aunt Mabel's foot had fit into that glass slipper - would he have done the honorable thing and have married her? Um, I doubt it. And if Cinderella had been given the privilege of seeing how the other half lived - what's to stop a girl (who had to have some other redeeming qualities besides the perfect shoe size) to go and carve out a better life for herself.? Why did she need a man with poor eyesight, to step in and 'save her'? Miracles? I’d like to believe they could happen – but to follow green_knight’s logic: if we took a look at ‘Cinderella’s miracle’ as deeply as the hero in the post - she’d be dealing with other issues as the wife of Mr. Shoe fetish, right? Enter the messiness of life - now we’re talking ‘not all peaches and cream’ here. So, the ‘miracle’ in this equation I believe, would be revisiting the old kingdom twenty years later to see how the two of them were holding up. I mean, they based their whole union on one night and a, if they’re still married (I wouldn’t even stipulate happily) there’s your miracle! Um, this of course, is my inner cynic talking. :)

em said...

I call it the savior complex. Whether it's the fairy Godmother, the guy from the home store or Prince charming - how nice that a particular character is chosen for the 'saving'. I agree with C - as writers we aught to be sure that the character is actually suffering enough to get such a reward. And once they do they learn something from it!

Murphy?! Where do you come up with stuff?! I read your pitch on zombies! Classic!:)

Julie Harrington said...

Well if this doesn't just nail why I had a problem with a book I read a few months back! It was a good read and I enjoyed it, but the ending solution to the problem (essentially where the heroine was going to continue getting $$$$ to fund her charity work) wasn't her solving the problem so she could be with the hero worry-free. It was *given* to her by a fairy godmother type figure/benefactor. Through the hero. It just... *sigh* Disappointed me. I wanted to see her come up with a solution, stand on her own two feet and really show she could do it by herself instead of having the hero find the solution and fix everything for her.


green_knight said...

Anonymous, Harry Potter is the wrong example:

- Magic is part of him; he just didn't know about it
- it's integral to the story. If Harry Potter didn't have magic, we'd be reading books about Neville
- it's caused him problems in the past: the Dursleys hate him, he's gotten into trouble over his unruly hair and emergency teleport
- it's setting him up for *big* trouble - he's the logical person to take on Voldemort
- he is neither super-talented (as wizards go, he's not all that skilled) nor does he get any noticable advantages from that skill

While HP isn't free of deus-ex-machina moments, Harry's Magic isn't one of them.

Anonymous said...

Could also be that a writer was writing something that actually happened, without realizing that it makes for unbelievable fiction. I ran into a wonderful story someone posted for critique. Heroine was in dire need. Broke, she was desperate to do something. Writing was solid, and I liked the character. I wanted to know how the character was going to solve the problem. Then an insurance check arrived from her late father. Ending was spoiled. When I mentioned the problem with the ending, the writer got very offended. Turned out the events really happened to her.

Riley Murphy said...

You inspire the craziest shit! Does this inspire you? Just wondering.

Edittorrent said...

GK, yeah, I like your story better! Be careful what you wish for... that's a great theme. :)

Edittorrent said...

Patricia, well, yeah, miracles happen in real life, and we love them when we read feature articles about the fisherman who found his wife's engagement ring in a fish, etc. But we love them because they really happened.

Miracles in fiction didn't really happen, and are usually just a shortcut, though I like that idea of awe.

But you're right-- miracles early in the book can be a good way to actually surprise the character (and reader) with conflict later.

Also not all miracles are, on the face, good. My favorite film, It's a Wonderful Life, has an angel appear after the first act-- literally miraculous, and he grants the hero's dearest wish... and it's disastrous.

So just like coincidence, maybe miracles are okay early on, if they cause more conflict?

Edittorrent said...

JT, I was just watching Little Dorrit, and I swear, England must have been crawling with mysterious benefactors, because they were appearing constantly and paying off big debts and saving everyone. :)

But that was Dickens, and he was writing in the 19th C, plus he did other things so well... And he can have all the miracles he want, because he actually made Sydney Carton and that poor little girl go to the guillotine in what has to be one of the great tearjerker scenes in literature-- no fairy godmother there.

Anyway, I was sort of amazed there was poverty in Victorian London, with all those mysterious benefactors. :)

Edittorrent said...

Garridon, good things just happen sometimes (like bad things)-- some wonderful guy really does rescue the girl just as she's about to jump off that bridge and marries her and they have a family and are happy forever... or some guy wins the lottery just in time to pay for mom's kidney transplant....
But you are so right-- that's not good fiction.