Archetypes are ubiquitous, yet misunderstood. All writers innately know how to use archetypes, yet many don’t realize that’s what they’re doing and don’t understand how they fit into literature as a whole. So let’s have a conversation about archetypes: What they are, what they aren’t, and how to use them.
Archetypes, in literature, are universal elements that show up over and over in various cultures across the world and throughout time. It can be any type of story element: A character (eg, the evil overlord), a plot (eg, the coming-of-age story), a symbol (eg, the forbidden fruit), and so on. Technical definitions of what archetypes are and how they work get complex and contentious, so I’ll keep it simple: If you can immediately name half a dozen drastically different works that use the same element, you’re looking at an archetype.
The most common misconception about archetypes is that they’re clichés. They are not. A cliché is a storytelling device that gets overused until everyone is tired of it. An archetype is a storytelling device that people never get tired of, no matter how often it’s used. For instance, a dragon kidnapping a princess is a cliché, so much so that for decades now we’ve expected any story along those lines to have a twist, such as the dragon kidnapping the prince and the princess needing to rescue him. But the dragon and the princess themselves are not clichés, because they are elements that we enjoy seeing in stories again and again*.
Many people think that, because they’re common and easy to use, archetypes are therefore bad and a sign of weak writing. It’s true that they are often used by beginners and weak writers and that they appear more often in the genres that the establishment considers less reputable (fantasy, romance), but there’s an important distinction between “things that bad writers do” and “bad writing.” After all, bad writers usually copy good writers.
Conversely, there’s the Jungian school of thought that archetypes tap into something universal deep in the human psyche and resonate with people in a way no other story can. This line of argument says that all characters and plots should be based on archetypes and that, the farther away they stray from well-established story types, the weaker they’ll be. I think this is also nonsense. An archetype is one type of character or plot that we know from experience works well, but there can be any number of less well-trodden ways to write a story that will resonate just as strongly or more so. Archetypes should never become rules to limit people.
Archetypes are like recipes. Some people always use recipes when they cook. Other cooks prefer to freestyle. Neither method is better; it’s entirely a matter of preference. Beginners and people who aren’t good at cooking are best advised to stick with a recipe, but it would be ludicrous to conclude that recipes make bad food or that really good cooks don’t use recipes. On the other hand, the fact that good recipes make delicious food doesn’t mean you need a recipe to make good food, and lots of excellent cooks never use a recipe.
I myself tend to be a freestyler, both when cooking and when writing. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with archetypes. They’re a fundamental storytelling tool that has been used, at one time or another, by practically every writer, and whether you prefer to use them or not, understanding archetypes is essential to being a writer.
*Okay, I don’t like the princess, but the question of problematic archetypes is a different conversation.
First image is (left to right) Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Orcus from Dungeons and Dragons (4th edition), the Horned King from The Black Cauldron, and the Lich King from World of Warcraft. Second image is The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. Third image is from Wikimedia Commons.
I don’t like princess stories.
I don’t like princess stories even if the princesses kick ass, even if they reject their princessy obligations and just want to lead normal lives, even if they’re gorgeously well-rounded characters with staggeringly complex psychological profiles. The issue is not the execution. The issue is the premise.
My problem with princesses is this: When we tell stories about princesses, we imply that the stories of ordinary girls aren’t worth telling.
Consider the dustup about Marvel’s lack of Black Widow merchandise, which included replacing Black Widow with Captain America or Iron Man in toys based on Black Widow’s movie scenes. Disney, who owns Marvel, provided the justification that they don’t need to market superheroes to girls because the Disney Princesses already have the girls’ market on a lockdown. Presumably this is also the reason they will have released 8 movies starring blond guys named Chris* before giving us a single female superhero movie (Captain Marvel) in 2018.
One can argue that princesses and superheroes are equally unrealistic fantasies, but let’s look more carefully. Marvel’s superheroes come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are gods or billionaires, but others are dweeby high-school students or 98-pound weaklings the army wouldn’t take. Characters like Spider-Man and Captain America suggest that anyone with the right character could become a superhero (given the right spider bit or supersoldier serum). But princesses are princesses by right of birth–there’s no corresponding common narrative that anyone can become a princess**.
So where are the stories about dweeby high-school girls, or any kind of regular girl who isn’t royalty? In the Disney canon, which I’ll stick with because the Mouse is always an easy target, there aren’t many.
If we look at animated non-anthology films from the studio’s inception until the end of the Disney Renaissance (1937-1999, ending there because Pixar films subsequently muddle up the accounting), there are 29 films, 16 starring male characters, 8 starring female characters, and 5 costarring both male and female characters (eg, Lady and the Tramp). Of the films led by male characters or by both male and female characters, only two, The Sword in the Stone and The Lion King, are about royalty. The other protagonists come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from street urchins to inanimate objects. Of the female-led films, five out of eight either start or end the film as princesses, six if you count Pocahontas, a chief’s daughter. Fully half of the female-led movies are about royalty, a vanishingly small percentage of the population even within the movies’ settings.
There are also differences between Disney movies about male royalty and Disney movies about female royalty. Both The Lion King and The Sword in the Stone are thematically about what it means to rule and what makes a good king. Large portions of both films are devoted to older mentors giving the young princes the skills and knowledge they will need when they take the throne.
On the other hand, there is no Disney princess movie about what it means to be a good queen; Disney princesses rarely become queens. Instead, becoming (or reclaiming one’s title as) a princess is usually a goal or reward for the protagonist, and often simply a trait given to the leading man as a shorthand way to make him a good catch. Moreover, until contemporary Disney gave us Tangled and Frozen, most princess stories followed very similar romance-based arcs. Both these factors suggest that the preponderance of princesses is not a matter of careful thought, but rather the result of ingrained assumptions.
There are a couple of examples where a commoner becomes a princess, but these only entered the canon in the 90’s with Belle. More common are the princesses or aristocratic girls who are reduced to poverty, thus maintaining the narrative that they have an inherent right to the title. This is a feature of nearly every iteration of Cinderella, the implication being that poor servant girls whose fathers weren’t aristocrats don’t have any right to expect their lives to get better, not even by magical means.
The reason we need to expand our vocabulary of female-led stories beyond princesses is not that there’s anything wrong with pretty dresses, castles, or even marrying princes. The reason is that princess stories create a narrative that girls have to be from privileged backgrounds in order to be the hero. And that’s one story we can afford to stop telling.
*Chris Evans (3 movies), Chris Helmsworth (3 movies), and Chris Pratt (2 movies).
**Except for Sara Crewe. We love you, Sara.
So if you follow me on Twitter, you may have picked up some vague hints that I kinda liked Mad Max: Fury Road. And you may have guessed that I would have something to say about Imperator Furiosa. Well, you’re wrong. I’m going to talk about Nux.
Nux is the film’s most unexpected character. While Furiosa is unusual and well executed, she still belongs to a recognizable archetype. Nux does not. Spoilers follow.
The opening sequence is fairly standard. Max gets captured by and tries to escape from a horde of warboys. The warboys seem like typical movie mooks: Identical, unthinking, and expendable, decked out with scary makeup. But we soon see that Fury Road‘s treatment of the warboys is anything but typical. When Furiosa veers her truck off the road to make her escape, a warboy from her entourage thumps on the window and asks what she’s doing. It’s a throwaway moment, but in contrast to so many armies of mooks that do nothing but mindlessly attack, it’s refreshing to see one behave like a normal human being by noticing when something out of the ordinary happens and wondering if anything is wrong.
And the warboys are normal human beings. They aren’t clones, zombies, robots, or mutants. While they fight for Immortan Joe with suicidal devotion, they aren’t mindless. We discover this in the next scene, when Nux is introduced. He’s a half-dead warboy being pumped full of Max’s blood to keep himself alive. When Immortan Joe discovers that his “wives” have run away with Furiosa, he rallies the warboys and the chase is on. Nux asks his friend what’s going on and, when he finds out, he begs and negotiates to go along, even though his friend thinks he’s too sick.
What an unusual scene. It’s as if the battle for Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers began with all the orcs marching towards the fortress, then cut to a couple of orcs back at the camp talking about what they hope to accomplish in the battle. In this exchange, Nux demonstrates a range of humanizing emotions: Excitement, disappointment, frustration, and most of all, a desperate, childlike desire for affirmation from Immortan Joe, despite all evidence that he’ll never receive it. He already demonstrates complexity far beyond the cardboard cutouts from so many movies.
The warboys die in great numbers, like mooks in any action film. But Fury Road supplies them with a motivation — and it’s a deeply understandable and sympathetic one. Genetically impure, warboys are doomed to short, painful lives. They want to be remembered and they want their brief existence to have meaning, but in Immortan Joe’s Citadel, the only way to do that is through a spectacular death in battle, after which they are promised entry into a glorious Valhalla. When a warboy sprays chrome on his face and yells “Witness me!” before a suicide attack, he doesn’t see himself as disposable cannon fodder, but as a warrior fulfilling his destiny.
For Nux, however, that’s only the start of his journey. He repeatedly attempts attacks that should have left him dead, but instead he finds himself in the hands of the people he was trying to kill, having failed humiliatingly at his one life purpose. The wife who finds him, Capable, could have easily killed him, but instead she shows him something he’s never experienced before: Compassion. She introduces him to the idea that his life might have purpose beyond a violent death, setting him on a new path that carries him through the remainder of the movie.
Nux’s character arc is a rebuttal to the idea of toxic masculinity. Raised to be a warboy, he spent his whole life saturated in a culture that glorified violence, but embracing that culture only lead to death, and it immediately rejected him when he failed to live up to its expectations. It’s the women who see him as having value beyond his utility in combat. Once freed of the restraints of toxic masculinity, he proves to be helpful, resourceful, and self-sacrificial.
There’s an interesting counterpoint between the character arcs of Nux and the wives. The wives are kept in a very helpless “feminine” state, and once they escape, they must learn survival skills to hold their own in a dangerous world. Conversely, Nux begins the movie as a very “masculine” character, and in order to find his place in the world, he needs to learn gentleness and vulnerability.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a triumph of feminist storytelling for far deeper reasons than simply because it has a tough female protagonist. It’s feminist because of the plurality of ways its characters relate to or deviate from traditional conceptions of masculine and feminine. And central to that is Nux, who shows that growing from a boy to a man takes more than a fast car and a pile of guns.
Star Wars is such a genre-codifying franchise that sometimes it’s hard to remember that it had its own influences. In fact, Star Wars drew heavily from many sources. When compared with them, some of its most famous moments turn out to be directly copied from its predecessors. Conversely, elements we now take for granted turn out to be striking departures from formula that deconstruct the earlier works — none more so than Princess Leia.
Star Wars’ main influence was early 20th century pulp, franchises like Buck Rogers and John Carter. The interplanetary action-adventure of Star Wars is immediately recognizable in these earlier works, complete with spaceships, ray guns, and aliens. The iconic Star Wars title crawl is based on the nearly-identical title crawl from the Flash Gordon serial.
Pulp is loads of fun and well worth checking out now that large amounts of it have entered the public domain. But before Star Wars, this genre had largely been abandoned. Science fiction literature had moved away from pure escapism toward deeper ideas and harder science, and in film, it was the realm of the B movie. Star Wars brought soft sci-fi adventure roaring back into the mainstream. Delightfully, the snake would eat its own tail as old pulp franchises enjoyed a revival — this time emulating Star Wars.
But back to Leia. Even for the time, pulp was never what you’d call progressive. A typical pulp heroine, like John Carter’s Dejah Thoris pictured below, was beautiful, emotional, scantily clad, and prone to being kidnapped. Some were fighters, like Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers, but their fighting skills were rarely used and inevitably they, too, needed to be rescued. They rarely, if ever, had their own goals or motivations outside of their relationships with the heroes.
Leia’s introduction in A New Hope is typical. A princess has been captured and the heroes must rescue her. But the instant Luke meets her, the formula goes out the window. Instead of acting grateful and emotional, she greets Luke with a snarky one-liner. Quickly realizing that her new companions don’t have an escape plan, she immediately takes command of the group. This makes sense; she’s a princess and a diplomat, so in a group comprised of a farm boy, a smuggler, two droids, a Wookiee, and her, she’s the natural leader. Besides, she’s the one with the goal: Stealing the plans for the Death Star was her plan, and throughout the second act, Han’s and Luke’s goals are subordinate to hers, not vice versa.
Throughout the series, Leia proves herself to be smart, resourceful, a gifted leader, and a crack shot with a blaster. (When she shoots, she hits a higher percentage of the time than Luke or Han. Go ahead and count.) None of these traits are informed; we actively see all of them. Never shying away from danger, she plays an active role in various missions, even shrugging off a wound during the battle for Endor. She takes crap from no one and gets a large portion of the most memorable lines. In contrast to the fainting damsels of pulp, Leia is unflinching and defiant when she faces her enemies.
Leia’s adversarial relationship with Han is somewhat reminiscent of the relationships in pulp stories, whose lead pairs often did a lot of fighting and making up (a necessity for maintaining a relationship arc over the course of a long series). But in those stories, the woman was nearly always in the wrong, getting angry over the mildest of perceived slights and leaving the hero baffled. As often as not, she would storm off or make some other rash choice and end up captured, allowing the hero to get back in her good graces by rescuing her. In contrast, Han and Leia’s bickering is a natural result of their equally bullheaded personalities. Leia certainly never bursts into tears or gets in trouble as a result.
But let’s address what you’re all thinking about: The slave Leia outfit. This is another direct homage to pulp, where such outfits were common, such as the one below from Flash Gordon. (In fairness to pulp, sexualized outfits were not universal; Wilma Deering, as a soldier, wore a sensible uniform similar to those worn by the male characters. In fact, Wilma probably deserves more credit than I’ve given her. But I digress.) The image of a half-naked female character chained at the feet (or tail) of a villain would be right at home in a pulp movie.
But the context differs. How did Leia get there? She wasn’t kidnapped so a male character could rescue her. Quite the opposite: She was captured while attempting to rescue a male character. And who saves her? She saves herself! Not only does she kill Jabba the Hutt unarmed and unaided, she does it with her own chain, turning the tool of her oppression into the tool of her victory.
To be clear, none of this means that Star Wars is a feminist or exceptionally progressive franchise, because it really, really isn’t. But Leia is a progressive character who consistently takes the patriarchal tropes of her origins and turns them on their heads. Her presence in such an important work set the standard that sci-fi heroines would be tough and capable, not flighty and helpless. For forty years now she has been inspiring girls, and I hope she continues to do so.
An epistolary novel, for those who don’t know, is a novel told through documents written by the characters, usually letters, but sometimes also journal entries, newspaper articles, emails, postcards, notes passed in class, and whatever else the author might think up. It’s an unusual and immersive storytelling format. It’s also a challenging format with its own unique difficulties that don’t apply to traditionally narrated books. Not just the obvious difficulty of creating a plausible scenario for why the characters would be sending each other book-length accounts of their activities, but the subtler difficulty of creating something that functions both as an engaging novel and a plausible letter.
It turns out that novels and letters are fundamentally different forms of writing. Letters don’t sound like novels. How are they different? That’s where computer science comes into it.
There’s a concept in computing called endianness. Jonathan Swift fans will recognize the name but not the concept. Endianness refers to the order in which data is stored or transmitted: Either biggest value first (big-endian) or smallest value first (little-endian). For instance, if a computer were transmitting the number 123, a big-endian system would transmit the digits in the order 1-2-3, while a little-endian system would transmit them in the order 3-2-1.
This concept can be readily extrapolated from computer communication to human communication. For instance, American dates (month-day) are big-endian, while European dates (day-month) are little-endian. (American full dates, month-day-year, are middle-endian, which I think we can all agree makes no sense at all.) Languages can also have endianness: in Russian, for instance, you tend to put the most important information at the end of the sentence, making it a little-endian language. Is everyone lost yet? Great, back to epistolaries.
Now we see the difference between novels and letters: Endianness. Novels tend to be little-endian, gradually revealing information over the course of the story and saving the biggest reveals for last. Mysteries are the most obvious example: You begin the story with few facts about the murder and gradually learn more and more, culminating in the big reveal of the murderer’s identity. This makes for an engaging read, keeping the reader curious to find out the next bit of information.
Letters, on the other hand, are big-endian. Since they’re primarily meant to convey information, rather than to entertain, after the initial pleasantries they usually present the key information first and any elaborating details afterwards. An invitation might read “You’re invited to my birthday party. It’s at my place on June 7 starting at 5 PM. Please don’t bring a present.” If the sentences were in the other order, the invitation would be incomprehensible.
This presents a difficulty when combining the two formats. Nearly any narrator would logically follow the big-endian convention when writing a letter, but it wouldn’t make for a very interesting story if the hero began the account of zir final showdown with the villain by saying “I fought so-and-so and I won” and only then relating the details. (Writers of non-epistolary novels aren’t totally free of this problem: Spoken dialogue is also big-endian. Many novels feature the kind of circuitous dialogue that would have the listener smacking the speaker upside the head and telling zir to get to the point in real life.)
There aren’t many solutions to this problem. Elizabeth Wein found a clever answer in Code Name Verity: A narrator who doesn’t actually want to communicate with the person she’s writing for, and who thus has a good reason to put off mentioning the important information as long as possible. This strategy works beautifully, but unfortunately isn’t generally applicable; it doesn’t even apply to the second half of Code Name Verity. I sidestepped the issue in the laziest way possible by writing a half-epistolary and using traditional narration for the climax. But the most common solution is to simply dispense with realism and let your narrator adopt a more novel-like voice as the story progresses. Practical, but not entirely satisfying.
The lack of well-established strategies for narrating epistolary novels is probably simply a factor of the lack of modern epistolaries, lost in a tide of changing communications. Still, epistolaries are an immensely enjoyable format, and I hope there will continue to be authors who rise to the challenge.
So long had life together been that now
the second of January fell again
on a Tuesday, making her astonished brow
lift like a windshield wiper in the rain,
so that her misty sadness cleared, and showed
a cloudless distance waiting up the road.
So long had life together been that once
the snow began to fall, it seemed unending;
that, lest the flakes should make her eyelids wince,
I’d shield them with my hand, and they, pretending
not to believe that cherishing of eyes,
would beat against my palm like butterflies.
So alien had all novelty become
that sleep’s entanglements would put to shame
whatever depths the analysts might plumb;
that when my lips blew out the candle flame,
her lips, fluttering from my shoulder, sought
to join my own, without another thought.
So long had life together been that all
that tattered brood of papered roses went,
and a whole birch grove grew upon the wall,
and we had money, by some accident,
and tonguelike on the sea, for thirty days,
the sunlight threatened Turkey with its blaze.
So long had life together been without
books, chairs, utensils—only that ancient bed—
that the triangle, before it came about,
had been a perpendicular, the head
of some acquaintance hovering above
two points which had been coalesced by love.
So long had life together been that she
and I, with our joint shadows, had composed
a double door, a door which, even if we
were lost in work or sleep, was always closed:
somehow its halves were split and we went right
through them into the future, into night.
-Joseph Brodsky, Six Years Later, 1968
Happy sixth anniversary, Jordan, and happy World Poetry Day.
The Internet Archive recently dealt a crippling blow to productivity with the release of its MS-DOS games library, which includes some 2,400 games from the DOS era. While the original Oregon Trail is the collection’s crown jewel, it also includes another beloved piece of nostalgic edutainment: All the original Carmen Sandiego games.
For those who did not grow up in the DOS era, this is a series of geography games where you play a detective hunting the henchmen of the Villains International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.) as they attempt to make off with various improbable landmarks and national treasures. The flagship game, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego (1985), was quickly followed by Where in the USA, Where in Europe, and Where in Time. A second generation from the early 90’s, the Deluxe versions, rehashed most of the original games with better graphics and more clues and introduced Where in Space. Except where otherwise mentioned, I’ll be discussing the Deluxe games, because they were
the ones I played as a kid the more influential series.
They were top-notch games, frank about their educational content but still effortlessly entertaining, featuring witty writing and surprisingly addictive gameplay, and introducing one of the most recognizable game villains of all time. Wildly popular, they also spawned a highly successful gameshow spinoff and a cartoon.
But I’d like to talk about another way in which the games were a triumph: Representation.
The 90’s were a good time for representation in America. Rita Dove was poet laureate, Toni Morrison won the Nobel prize for literature, and women were making active progress into male-dominated fields, progress that would stall and even regress over the next twenty years. At the time, expanding educational programs to cover a wider range of human experience was a laudable and noncontroversial (if not always successful) goal, a goal reflected in educational media from the era, such as the Magic School Bus and Reading Rainbow. The Carmen Sandiego franchise fits naturally into this landscape.
The games make many choices that increase representation. The player is an AFGNCAAP* about whom the game makes no assumptions. NPCs are demographically varied. Most of the dossiers list traits alphabetically, so female is listed before male, and Carmen’s gang contains the same number of men and women. The latter is not only good representation, but also sensible game design, preventing the reveal of the criminal’s gender from narrowing the suspect list too much or too little — yet not every game makes that choice.
Naysayers often try to duck the representation question by claiming that they’d be accused of racism if they portrayed minorities in villainous or criminal roles, but the Carmen Sandiego franchise’s commonsense approach easily disarms this objection. Women and minorities appear as criminals, but they also appear as police chiefs, judges, and witnesses from all walks of life. One of the V.I.L.E. henchmen can be a black skateboarder without evoking the stereotype that inner-city kids are up to no good, because V.I.L.E. henchmen are just as often old white men in golf carts, and because black youth also appear in benign and helpful roles. (Where in the World is the least successful here; lacking the resources to include NPCs tailored to each country, it falls back on archetypes that could reasonably be anywhere, such as “translator” or “exchange student,” and those skew European.)
Although full of playful humor, the games never rely on stereotypes. Their character-based humor more often comes from contrasting traits, such as making the mohawked bruiser also a French chef.
Where in Space, with its cast of aliens, is an interesting case. The criminal roster lists three genders: Male, female, and androgynous. Departing from a strict gender binary is a highly unusual and progressive move; unfortunately, the female characters all sport gender markers such as eyelashes and red lips and several fall into stereotypical roles, such as stewardesses and lounge singers. Absent these characteristics, the NPC witnesses and informants are presumably all male. Still, the franchise’s inclusiveness shows up in other ways, such as the presence of women on the lists of astronomers and authors.
And then there’s Carmen herself. While her original incarnation was a green-eyed, auburn-haired spy from Monaco, she quickly took on her iconic appearance, which is more clearly Hispanic. A crime boss might seem like an unlikely role for a positive example of representation, but as The Mary Sue points out, she’s an educated, successful leader, a rare role for a Latina. Her nonviolent brand of thievery, inspired by the love of the chase rather than desire for acquisition, makes her closely allied with the (invariably white and male) hero-thief archetype. She’s cool, clever, and collected. Plus she has great fashion sense.
The Carmen Sandiego games do raise their share of unanswered questions. Such as: Is ACME maybe not that competent?
But overall, they were great games, and their deliberate use of representation gave them a feeling of inclusiveness that made them equally appealing to girls and boys of all backgrounds.
And we may have even learned some geography.
*Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventurer Person
All screencaps taken by me.
I’ve participated in three Twitter pitch contests (#PitMad September 2014, #PitMad December 2014, and #PitchMAS December 2014) with my manuscript, Among the Red Stars, and between them, I racked up 24 favorites from agents and editors, so here I am to spill my secrets. How can you “machine” your Twitter pitch to make it more successful. What factors can you control to improve your chances, and what factors don’t matter?
To slake my need for sincerity, I’ve finally seen Angels in America. I am so done with cynicism. We need more media that isn’t afraid to be open and honest, which is to say, we need more media like Angels in America. This post is not a review because there is no need for me to add my voice to the critical and audience consensus that it is amazing. So instead, this is simply a collection of reactions. Spoilers follow, but seriously, just go see it.
As a writer, Angels in America scares me. It scares me because the absolute best writing sits on that raw edge of emotional intimacy, an edge which I am afraid to approach for fear of revealing something too personal about myself and for fear of looking ridiculous. Angels in America walks that edge without hesitation.
And what strikes me is how essential it is for a masterpiece like this to hit the intersection of great writing and great acting. The writing is beautiful, but in the wrong hands it could easily become silly and campy for the very same reasons it’s good: Because it’s so utterly sincere and because it never keeps anything at arm’s length. But the uniformly talented cast keeps it together, pulling you constantly into the emotions of the moment so that, even in the play’s exaggerated fantasy sequences, you never have a chance to wonder if what’s happening onscreen (or onstage) is a little bit goofy.
No wonder actors love this play: It’s full of monologues. Monologues have fallen out of fashion as media has moved towards realism, because they’re not a realistic type of speech. But adhering to strict verity in dialogue does a work a disservice, because the point of fictional media — books, movies, and plays — is not realism. It’s truth. And, as every fiction writer knows, truth and reality are not the same thing. Angels in America, with its six-hour runtime, gives its characters ample time to explore and elaborate on ideas in ways that ordinary dialogue does not allow.
This dichotomy between truth and reality also plays out within the story. Prior struggles with the fear that he’s losing his mind as he tries to figure out if his visions are real or imaginary, but in the end, he finds his peace not by addressing the reality of the message, but by addressing its truth. We never do find out if the angels are real or not, because that isn’t the point.
If Angels in America has a flaw, it’s being a product of its time (the late 80’s to early 90’s) and of its movement (the gay rights movement). Which is to say, it’s pretty heavy on the white guys. Harper is well-developed, but Hannah, the only other important female character, is primarily part of Joe’s and Prior’s stories, and I can’t help noticing that Belize, the only character of color, is also the only male character who doesn’t have an arc. Still, topics like race and especially religion are handled well and the play is sensitive to all its characters.
And it’s about the only play I’ve ever seen, certainly the only miniseries I’ve ever seen, that ends with a benediction.
One last observation: Louis is a jerk. I hate that brand of self-flagellation where your own failure to be a decent person becomes the reason you think you deserve pity. Prior is right not to take him back. (It’s interesting — and refreshing — that a story with such prominent themes of love and hope ends with everyone single.)
Among the cliches that often turn up on lists of novel openings to avoid is the car ride. I don’t know about you, but speaking as a reader, that isn’t something I would have guessed. It’s neither as overdone as the waking up scene nor as obviously stupid as the looking in a mirror scene. There are, however, good reasons to avoid it. Let’s have a look.
An obvious first point: There’s nothing about cars, per se, that makes for bad openings. So let’s expand the rule to include similar types of scenes:
- Flying on an airplane
- Walking to school
- Moving to a new house/apartment/dorm
Collectively, we’ll call these travel scenes. The most obvious reason these should be avoided is because they’re banal and uninteresting, but that’s not really much of an argument; the slice of life genre concerns itself with the mundane and can be fascinating. So there’s more going on.
Let’s expand further by returning to our old friend, the waking up scene. What category encompasses both it and the travel scene? Simple enough: They’re both transitions from one state to another. We can now formalize the original rule as follows: Don’t begin a story by transitioning from one place our state of being to another. And we can consider why.
One problem with transition openings is the lack of stakes. Not only are these scenes mundane, but we know how they’re going to end, and in many cases, such as the airplane flight, it’s a captive environment. What’s our investment in an opening where a character is driving to work? Are we worried zie won’t make it? The actual story can’t begin until the protagonist gets to the end state. (This illuminates some exceptions to the rule: A kidnapping scene, for instance, could be a car ride with very high stakes.)
The other problem with transition openings is slightly more subtle. It’s that the opening is wasted establishing something that isn’t going to be used in the story. Take the moving scene. If the protagonist leaves zir home in the first chapter and doesn’t return, any time spent describing the home is basically wasted*. Consider the notorious opening dream scene. It has the exact same problem: Whatever is described in the dream sequence immediately becomes pointless when the character wakes up and the actual setting must be described all over again.
So there you have some of the reasons why a car ride makes a bad opening. Cars are not the problem. Lack of meaningful stakes and establishing a scene that will then be immediately abandoned are the problem, and both of those are things that you should avoid in your opening, regardless of whether it begins in a car or not.
*Purists are going to point out that there are reasons to describe a location other than because you’re going to spend time there; for instance, describing someone’s room tells you about zir personality. True, but that’s a low-value use of precious words in the opening, where every word counts.
Image from Spirited Away.