Iconic Romantic Heroines – Intro

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I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a good romance story. It’s not surprising since Disney has been inoculating the female population with their fairy tale versions of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty for generations now. Add in the role models created by Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and the Bronte sisters, and it’s understandable that woman have been thoroughly conditioned to look for a story with a distinctive type of heroine. Within that genre though, there’s an elite echelon of the iconic romantic heroine.

She’s not quite as daring as a Super Hero, but she needs a specific set of qualifications to become a cultural institution. Moreover, those same qualifications are what lead her to the happy ending. That’s the first rule of a satisfying romance; the heroine gets her man at the end, even if he’s only a poster board character barely mentioned until the final act. She doesn’t want him in the middle or at the beginning either. The post-wedding storyline is where real life begins and that’s what we’re trying to get away from.

The primary characteristic of every romantic heroine is purity of motive. She must be oblivious to all evil intentions. Snow White was so naïve she never figured out the jealous Queen wanted her dead.  Sleeping Beauty was unconscious for most of the story, no chance of an impure aspiration there.

But, what makes one heroine the perfect image of what young women aspire to while others stay in the shadows as vague, ill-defined personalities?  That’s what the next series of posts will be about. A look at those female characters who have become iconic romantic heroines, the first among equals, the ones who embody the secret desires and fantasies of what we wish all women could be.

If you have a favorite, let me know.

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Wonder Woman: She’s Always A Woman To Me

Who Is Wonder Woman?

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This is another in my series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. This time I’m looking at Wonder Woman, the Amazon princess who was crafted from clay to become a symbol of freedom and female strength.

The Hero

Wonder Woman has had a wide range of backstories, but what has remained consistent is her status as a princess of the Amazons, a group of warrior women with little or no need of Men.  Diana is endowed with incredible strength, breathtaking beauty, and a deep compassion. She ventures into the world of Men to help them and further the cause of peace and equality.  Her weapons are indestructible bracelets which she can use to deflect bullets, a lasso of Truth that no human can resist, and sometimes a quite silly invisible jet. Her sheer strength puts her on par with Superman, but she would much rather find a peaceful solution to a battle than resort to blows.

Why we love her

She’s a woman, she’s unapologetic, and she holds her own with the most testosterone laden of males in the world. She is dead sexy and supremely competent. She stands out in a crowd, and underestimate her (especially as a Her) at your own peril.

Yet she doesn’t work the same way as her contemporaries. Wonder Woman is more of a defender than an aggressor as she deflects bullets and subdues people with her lasso. She’s here to protect us, and keep us safe even in the face of our own stupidity.

Part of her different approach is because Wonder Woman fights for more than Justice. She fights for Truth. We love to see the villains wail as their plans collapse in on their heads, but having them face their own demons and hidden truths is a defeat even more basic. It’s a blow in support of the feeling we all have (or want to have) that there is an underlying Truth to the world that we can find if we just scratch deep enough.

As A Character

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Wonder Woman is a woman, and unfortunately that aspect of her character overshadows everything else.  William Moulton Marston was only considering a new hero that fought not with fists, but with love. The idea to make the hero a woman was tacked on the end of the process. As if being female was one of her super powers. An afterthought.

Unfortunately, the result was that Wonder Woman’s gender became not just a part of who she was, but her defining trait. It is easy for even casual fans to picture Superman’s or Batman’s personalities, but Wonder Woman?  Sometime she is portrayed as curious and helpful, trying to learn about the world of mortals. Other times she is angry and scornful of males everywhere. There is little consistency, and what is there isn’t very crisp. Many young girls who cite Wonder Woman as a role model couldn’t tell you what she stood for, or know that this feminist icon’s original role in the Justice League of America was as its Secretary.

This is one of my key issues in discussions of equality – if people are truly equal should the traits in question really matter?  If you point out someone’s race in trying to ensure they are treated equally, doesn’t the very discussion create a distinction that now dominates the conversation?  If Wonder Woman is really “just as good” as a male super hero in ever respect, why does her gender ever get held up as a defining trait?  She is just good at what she does, end of story.

Couple her over-emphasized gender with her history of not-so-subtle bondage references and her staggeringly patriotic bathing suit outfit and you have a legacy of issues that only super strength could shoulder. None of the other popular female heroes over the past 70 years have had anything even close.  The superhero genre is still dominated by white, heterosexual, muscular males, but thanks to Wonder Woman that ultimate Boy’s Club was cracked open. The price she paid is that she will always be known, defined, and limited, but what – rather than who – she is.

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Palimpsest by Gore Vidal

Palimpsest is Gore Vidal’s first memoir. Early on in the book, he makes the point that this is not an autobiography, but a memoir. Too many autobiographies read like an excuse for the author’s failings and a platform for their supposed triumphs, as though they are getting their two cents in before someone else gives the final accounting. Vidal offers no excuses, even admitting in the beginning that he chose the title, and later realized he had been mispronouncing the word for years, and didn’t fully understand the origin of its meaning.

In Palimpsest he plays with time like a magician, deftly moving from one place to another, never losing the reader, an uncommon fluidity where most memoirs follow a strictly age based progression. There was no prose for prose sake, or lyrics over substance, yet his writing draws the reader in as though you were spending an evening listening to incisively funny repartee. He had me chuckling in the first few pages. Essentially, he’s the guy at a cocktail party you’d most like to spend the evening with.

He has an almost clinical insight into people and it doesn’t hurt that he’s known some of the icons of his age. His slant on Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Jackie Onassis (they shared a stepfather) and countless other characters of his time are priceless. There is no lack of dysfunctional family dynamics, either. Though he doesn’t use his upbringing as anything more than a travelogue of how he got where he is. He continues to be the most erudite voice of the anti-establishment. You can catch vintage Vidal on YouTube sparring with William F. Buckley on a sixties talking head show in a game of wordsmanship.

For all his wittiness and fascinating stories, the real value is that his memoirs chronicle how his life as a writer evolved. At a critical juncture early in his career, he decided to go ahead with the publication of his third novel, The City and the Pillar, over the objections of his agent. It contained overt homosexual overtones and true to form, the publishing industry blackballed him for the content. That he chose truth over conformity, and the commercial success that comes with it, was a defining moment. It seems the writers who only give their audience exactly what’s expected end up being trapped by their success.

His decision led to Hollywood and Broadway, experiences that ultimately made up for the early rejection. It is what allowed him the freedom to produce a wide range of work, from Myra Breckenridge (a one finger salute to the entertainment industry), to Visit to a Small Planet, and historical fiction, Lincoln, being his most famous.

Palimpsest is a gift from Vidal.  He shared the essence of who he is with clarity, style and honesty. Isn’t that what art is all about?

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In the Beginning…

Few facets of writing are as important as an opening line. While every story needs well-drawn characters and an engaging plot, nothing will deter a reader faster than a lousy first sentence—particularly in short fiction. Thus, your job as a storyteller is to hook the audience at the beginning of your tale and give them a reason to keep reading. There are a number of ways to do this, and since imitation is one of the best ways to learn, here a few examples to consider.

Short and Simple

Some writers begin their narratives with simple, declarative sentences. For example, Tolkien plunges us into the world of the Shire and Middle Earth with the line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Likewise, Virginia Woolfe’s opening, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” displays both her protagonist’s commanding personality as well as the author’s own self-assured style.

Here are some other declarative openers that carry plenty of punch:

“The small boys came early to the hanging.” (Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth)

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” (Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It)

“I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one.” (Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men)

“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22)

Conjuring Up Questions

A short declaration sometimes has the effect of plunging the reader right into the center of the action, such as in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat: “None of them knew the color of the sky.” Or consider Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber: “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Both of these openings encourage readers to ask questions, and it is these sorts of questions that will coax the audience into joining the author on the narrative journey.

Here’s another opening line that begs all sorts of questions: “When my nose finally stops bleeding and I’ve disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in” (from Richard Russo’s Straight Man). What caused the narrator’s bloody nose, and why is Teddy such a cheapskate? It’s another twenty pages before these questions are answered, but by then, Russo has the audience firmly hooked.

Grand Vistas

Sometimes an author will begin a story with a sweeping comment about the human condition, such as in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.”

Other writers, such as John Irving, will essentially sum up their entire story in an opening line: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (from Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany). It took Irving several drafts to get this one right, but the statement conjures up a host of questions that are not answered until the book’s final pages.

Who’s Talking?

Consider using your opening passage to establish your speaker’s voice, such as these two narrative gems:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye)

Listening to these two openers conjures up vivid notions about who is telling the stories—which is precisely what a good narrative should do.

What Not to Do

Here’s a real yawner of an opening line from William Paul Young’s bestselling novel The Shack:

“March unleashed a torrent of rainfall after an abnormally dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge from eastern Oregon.”

Are you kidding me? A weather report? Wake me when it’s over. (Believe it or not, this book has sold over three million copies. But then literary quality is not always a prerequisite for commercial success. Look at Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer.) Now there’s nothing wrong with beginning a story in the throes of a howling snowstorm, but writing something that sounds like a script from the Weather Channel’s teleprompter is probably not the best way to go.

The bottom line is this: If you want people to read your story, it’s important to capture the audience’s attention from the opening line. Put the reader in the middle of the action, or provide them some questions or ideas to ponder. Quality screenwriters know this rule well, and if you’re writing a short story or a novel, the same principle applies.

So, I’ve shown you a few of my favorite opening passages. What are some of yours?

Off to a Great Start

Oak fractured by a lightning. Allegory on the ...
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Every now and then I’ll run across an opening sentence that blows me away.  It’s as though the author caught a lightning bolt and nailed it to the first page.

The best opening sentence that I’ve seen in recent years was from Molly Giles’ short story Pie Dance.

“I don’t know what to about my husband’s new wife.”

The incongruence is what grabbed me. It catches the reader off guard and draws them into the story.  That’s a great beginning.

Another stand-out first line that has stuck with me for years is from Charles Bukowski. His short story titled A Couple of Gigolos opens with “Being a gigolo is a very strange experience, especially if you’re a non-professional gigolo.” I knew I was in for a fun ride and I wasn’t disappointed. The sentence structure is part of why that line is so effective.

I’ve been slowly working my way through Italo Calvino’s short story collection, Difficult Loves. Some of the stories are better than others, but the other day, I noticed an instant connection to the one titled Adventures of a Clerk.  The first line is “It so happened that Enrico Gnei, a clerk, spent the night with a beautiful lady.”  The context was crystal clear and that’s what pulled me. Knowing the character’s a clerk is a non-starter, but knowing he’s a clerk who got laid serendipitously by an attractive woman immediately threw me into the heart of the story.

Each of those opening lines shows the emotional state of the main character, besides giving some context about who the character is. They also established the tone, whether irony, whimsical irreverence or a sense of good fortune, and used the heart of the matter as their launching pad.

Don’t expect to catch a lightning bolt right off the bat, though.  Occasionally the first line will magically appear, but more than likely it comes after the first draft is complete because sometimes it takes getting to the end to understand how to craft that lightning bolt.

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