Great Stories: It’s a Wonderful Life

I’m going to continue with the Christmas theme for just one more week, with another very popular story we tend to associate with the season (even though its Christmas setting is rather tangential to the story). Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life had a rather peculiar trajectory to achieving its current iconic status, from mixed reviews upon its initial release, to relative obscurity for decades, to a sudden revived interest when its lapsed copyright led to repeated airings on television in the 1980s. It’s been criticized of everything from Communist sympathies (because of its negative portrayal of the banking baron Mr. Potter) to unrealistic sentimentality to, on the other hand, bleak nihilism. Sheesh.

I love it, meanwhile. It’s the tale of a man who hits rock bottom, who is then offered a new perspective on his life (by supernatural means), and moves forward with renewed hope and appreciation. In this regard it’s very much like A Christmas Carol, but instead of a bitter misanthrope who needs to learn how to live his life better, it’s a dreamer who has given so much of his life to others, often at the expense of his own dreams. Rather than seeing where his life went wrong, he needs to see the true worth of all the sacrifices he’s made, and the joy he has brought to so many people. Like Dickens’s classic tale, the basic idea has been parodied in many mediums. There is something so evocative about a person viewing a world where they never existed, and thus realizing how much life is worth living.

The movie was based on a short story, “The Greatest Gift,” though the details of the protagonist’s life were expanded greatly beyond the original story. In a rather rare storytelling structure, the bulk of the film is exposition, a prolonged flashback within the frame story of a guardian angel learning about George Bailey, the man he has been assigned to save. This works primarily because each of the incidents within the flashback are miniature stories in their own right — George saving his little brother from drowning, or rescuing the pharmacist from drunkenly sending out poisoned medicine, or falling in love with Mary, or stepping in to save his father’s business instead of going to college.

We quickly recognize what sort of person George is. He has big aspirations for himself, but when it comes to a crisis, he will inevitably make the selfless choice. He has permanent hearing loss from saving his brother. He never gets to travel. He never works anywhere except the struggling Building and Loan. He doesn’t even get to go on his honeymoon. And this is generally where the nihilism argument comes along. What a bleak life, full of broken dreams and crushed hopes. George spends his life always settling for less, setting aside what he wants in favor of everyone else’s needs.

And it’s true that there is an inherent darkness in the story of a man who is seriously contemplating suicide. However, while George has periodic episodes of resentment and bitterness throughout the film, he’s generally a very upbeat, exuberant man. If you’re at all familiar with Frank Capra’s filmography, you’ll know that he doesn’t make relentlessly bleak movies. One of the reasons I enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life is because it’s so fun. There’s the scene when George and Mary dance backwards into a pool; there’s the happy rapport George has with just about every townsperson in Bedford Falls; there’s the glee at his war-hero brother’s homecoming without any trace of envy, even though his bad ear prevented George from serving in the war himself. George is not a generally sad person. He’s cheerful right up until the moment of crisis, when $8000 goes missing.

Of course, I don’t think it’s just the missing money that sends George to the brink. In moments of extreme fear and tension like this, it’s only natural for every old resentment to spring up. He sees a future of ruin, disgrace, possible imprisonment; and wonders if it was inevitable, if his whole life has been a slow-moving trainwreck leading up to this point. Potter puts the blunt, coldhearted thought into words — “You’re worth more dead than alive” but he’s only voicing what George’s darkest self has already been thinking.

The bleak tone of this suicidal moment is counterbalanced by the whimsical appearance of Clarence, a sort of angel-in-training. I suppose this why the film has its detractors from both angles — too dark, too lighthearted. Well, the balance works for me. We need a little humor and whimsy at this point in the tale. And how fitting that Clarence rescues George from the immediate crisis at the bridge by jumping into the water himself — knowing, as always, that George will make the selfless choice. (Indeed, in George’s distressed state, he might have briefly convinced himself that ending his life is the selfless choice for the well-being of others.) But it wasn’t enough merely to prevent George from drowning himself. He’s still in a dark place. Maybe he doesn’t really want to be dead, but maybe it would be better if he’d never been born.

So Clarence shows him. Oh, this part can be a little melodramatic. Pottersville is a nightmarish landscape, like something out of the Twilight Zone or the “Mirror, Mirror” episode of Star Trek. It does seem a bit of a stretch to imagine that one man could single-handedly prevent all of this. But that’s not really the issue, because for George, the most unsettling thing is finding himself a stranger among his home and loved ones. Nobody recognizes him. His familiar home is empty and abandoned. His wife screams when he tries to embrace her. And their children don’t even exist. Even if nothing else had changed about Bedford Falls, this alone might be enough for George to regain an appreciation for his life, to beg for the chance to live again.

What’s really remarkable about his return is that he’s back to his gleeful, exuberant, upbeat self even before the $8000 issue has been resolved. “Isn’t it wonderful; I’m going to jail!” he exclaims, because he’s reunited with his wife and children, they know him, and nothing can shake his happiness. Of course it’s all the more rewarding when we get to witness the outpouring of support from his friends and family. Justice in its more traditional sense never happens. No one learns that Potter has the money; he never gets the punishment he deserves. But we see a different kind of justice. After a lifetime of service and giving, George is the recipient of a mountain of generosity.  It’s only natural for everyone to give a little back after he’s given them so much.

When his brother Harry calls him “The richest man in town” at the film’s end, it’s far more than a reference to the enormous pile of cash sitting in front of him. George will never be wealthy in the worldly sense. But he is surrounded by the richness of friendship and camaraderie, a town full of people who love him because of the good and caring man he his. Maybe it’s a sentimental story, but so what? It’s a good sentiment.

 

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Great Stories: A Christmas Carol

I’ve decided to start a new series for this blog. I’ll be selecting stories that I love and examining what makes them work. In order to be a capable storyteller myself, I want to understand the anatomy of a well-told story. The series will include books, television shows and movies, because a good story is a good story whatever the medium.

Since Christmas was only a few weeks ago, I’m going to start with a classic of the holiday season: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This tale is so well-known it has thoroughly permeated our pop culture. Scrooge has become a part of our vocabulary, evoking images of miserly misanthropes. The plotline has been parodied in many a Christmas-themed episode or movie, and everyone can quote Tiny Tim’s catchphrase, “God bless us, every one!”

Why does it work? Setting the story during Christmastime probably helps. As the Hallmark Channel would happily attest, having a Christmas backdrop can bring in an eager audience for even the weakest of stories. But I’m sure it’s more than that. It’s more than a story about a man who learns to love Christmas. It’s also more than a ghost story, though Dickens certainly has a knack for creating a spooky atmosphere (it could be argued that his phantom-like Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a precursor of such robed and faceless figures as ringwraiths and dementors). At its heart, it is about a man who changes — a miserable, bitter, nasty old man who learns to be kind, joyous and giving. And there is the implicit promise that any and all of us are capable of such change as well.

Let’s take a look at the structure of the story, which is one of its strongest points. Dickens has written much longer and much more meandering novels. But A Christmas Carol is tightly composed, seldom straying from its purpose, and it’s quite satisfying to see how the story plays out. Each chapter or “stave” is associated with a ghost, with the exception of the final stave, “The End of It.” First comes Marley’s Ghost, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. And each ghost is the catalyst for an important stage in Scrooge’s journey to changing his character. But first Dickens must establish how Scrooge’s character is at the start. He accomplishes this quite efficiently by showing how Scrooge treats those around him — his clerk, his nephew and some men asking for charitable donations. To each he is curt, harsh and unsympathetic. Some of his responses are downright appalling. Any fool who proclaims Merry Christmas, Scrooge declares, should be “boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly in his heart!” And those who won’t be put in debtor’s prison or the workhouses had better die, “and decrease the surplus population!”

The ghosts certainly have their work cut out for them. At the very start of the book, the narrator says he must emphasize that Marley was dead, or else nothing thereafter will seem wondrous. But I would argue it’s the emphasis of Scrooge’s unrepentant misanthropy that makes the tale truly wondrous. To see just how awful he is at the beginning makes his transformation that much more meaningful.

It will not be an easy transformation. When Marley’s ghost appears to warn Scrooge of what awaits him upon death, Scrooge is appropriately horrified, but that’s not enough to make him mend his ways. For starters, he’s still not convinced it’s anything but a dream. Beyond that, he doesn’t know how to change. He’s made a habit of his selfish behaviors over the years, and he can’t just switch them off. Fear of a dreadful afterlife is not enough to fix his problem. He needs direction.

So the ghost of Christmas past arrives and shows him his childhood. Why? The first scenes that Scrooge witnesses are not happy ones. He is forced to recall all the lonely Christmases he spent at school, away from home. Well, I believe that part of the reason Scrooge became so cold was as a means to protect himself from further pain. And if he wants to start feeling anything again, he must first acknowledge that pain. To soften his heart, it must first be broken.

Once he starts to open himself to tender emotions again, particularly upon recollection of his long-dead sister, Scrooge is ready for a happier memory — the party at Fezziwig’s. If this was the first memory he was shown, he might have been indifferent to it. Now that he’s melted some, he’s delighted. And for the first time in ages, he measures the worth of something not by how much it cost, but by how much joy it brought to others.

More heartbreak must come, however. Pretty much every adaptation of A Christmas Carol includes the scene wherein Belle breaks off their engagement, but very few include the following scene from the book, which shows her happily married to someone else, surrounded by loving children. Scrooge must confront this reality, and recognize what he lost when he devoted his life to the pursuit of money.

Then the Ghost of Christmas Present comes, and what a jovial figure he is. Showing Scrooge countless scenes of Christmas merriment (again, most adaptations are limited to just the Cratchit home and Scrooge’s nephew’s party, but there’s so much more in the book) and sprinkling his happy seasoning everywhere. And yet it is this ghost who has some of the most cutting lines in the book — sarcastically quoting Scrooge’s own words to show them how harsh they truly were. When Scrooge is shocked to learn that Tiny Tim will not survive another year unless his family’s situation changes dramatically, the Ghost echoes the disdainful line about “decreasing the surplus population.” And in a truly chilling moment when the Ghost reveals the ragged children under his robe who represent Ignorance and Want, and Scrooge wonders if there is nothing to be done for them, the Ghost repeats “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” The contrast between Christmas cheer and kindness and the darkest instincts of humanity is made painfully clear to Scrooge.

Then the final Ghost arrives. Wordless, faceless, pointing one bony figure to communicate its unsettling message. Someone has died, and no one cares — no one except some thieves who profit from what he left behind, and some of his debtors who are painfully relieved to have their debt transferred to someone kinder. Scrooge must know the dead one is himself, but he can’t face it until he’s directly confronted with his tombstone. The fear is not merely that he must die some day. The fear is that he will die utterly unloved and unmissed — that a penniless child like Tiny Tim brought more happiness to others in his brief life than Scrooge ever did in all his years.

After all this — a better understanding of his past, a view of what Christmastime can mean at its best, and a grim view of what he most wants to avoid — Scrooge is finally ready. “I am not the man I was” he exclaims at his own graveside, and what a wonderful summation of his change. What a wonderful contrast we see when he wakes, finds that it’s not too late, and begins his new life. He laughs and prances about like a child; he is kind to everyone he meets; he follows through on all his promises of generosity and goodness. Does he win back his lost love? No, he can’t rewrite the past. He must accept what he lost of his own free will. But he can create a far better future. It’s never, never too late to change.

If this tale were told in a more cloying manner, it might be hard to stomach. And it’s not a perfect story. Tiny Tim is the very stereotype of the patient, angelic disabled child. There are other things I could nitpick. Still, Dickens employs wit and detailed imagery to create an engrossing, entertaining story that continues to resonant over a hundred years later. I read it every Christmas Eve, and I haven’t gotten bored of it yet.

Blog Post: Based on a completely and totally untrue story!

There’s a particular storytelling trope that really gets on my nerves as a writer, and I wanted to explore what bothers me so much about it. It usually shows up in TV episodes and movies, which are presumably written by writers, and yet it demonstrates such a fundamental misunderstanding of the writing process.

It usually goes something like this: there’s a new book that has become fantabulously successful, earning the writer fame and fortune and acclaim for their ability to come up with such an incredibly creative, original story. But the the truth comes out — the writer didn’t make it up at all! It actually happened, in real life, to their friend/co-worker/childhood acquaintance!! Oh, the scandal, the outrage! The writer is a complete phony and hasn’t a creative bone in their entire body!

Sheesh.

This is nonsense. Coming up with ideas is just one fraction of what a writer does. It might even be the easiest part. That’s not to say that’s okay to use someone else’s ideas or someone else’s life experiences without permission and without giving credit. Of course a writer who doesn’t acknowledge their sources would be unethical. But that kind of thing rarely happens (in fact, it’s far more likely that the writer of some shocking “non-fiction” memoir is revealed to have fabricated much of their supposedly true story). Because guess what? Real life experiences, as I’ve said many times before, do not automatically make good stories. Not without some careful crafting to make them into a readable narrative. And that is where a writer’s primary skill lies. Not in coming up with ideas, but in transforming those ideas into good stories. Whether the story is fiction or non-fiction (and yes, obviously, if you’re writing non-fiction, it’s dishonest to market it as fiction), its success will depend almost entirely on how well it’s written.

When people claim that there aren’t really any new stories, that might sound depressing. But all it really means is that so much of human experience is universal, that the same sort of stories keep appealing to us over and over. It’s not a writer’s job to come up with something completely and entirely new — it’s their job to take something familiar and make it new all over again. Was Harry Potter the first story about a secret magical world and a boy gaining the power to defeat his parents’ nemesis? Of course not! Pointing out its similarities to previous fantasy stories doesn’t prove that it’s weak or unoriginal. Take a look at how the story is told, and you’ll see why it was so successful. On the other hand, you could find plenty of stories with clever premises that just weren’t told very well, so all the cleverness in the world couldn’t save them.

Was Shakespeare a plagiarist? Well, from a legal standpoint, our modern copyright laws didn’t exist. He wasn’t doing anything that plenty of other writers weren’t also doing. (I am not suggesting we get rid of copyright laws. They protect the very real work that writers put into crafting stories, and prevent others from stealing credit and money.) But sure, he didn’t come up with every plotline entirely from his own head. Was he unoriginal? Lacking creativity? Hardly. The way he told stories, familiar though they may have been, was so inventive, interwoven with humor and philosophical discourse and witty wordplay, that he made the stories new again — to the point that most modern audiences assume he must have come up with those stories himself!

So is the ability to come up with original ideas irrelevant for a good writer? No, not at all. Innovative premises are vital to keeping things fresh. But they are only ever a beginning. Coming up with the idea for a book is the first step. Then you have to actually write it, and hopefully write it well. After that, as long as you’ve given credit to any sources of inspiration, any fame and fortune and acclaim that you receive has been justly earned.

Obscurity

Here’s a confession: I want to be famous.

I’m rather particular about the sort of fame I want, which is I why I haven’t gone and done some tremendously humiliating thing in public. I don’t want notoriety, and I have an over-developed sense of shame, so negative attention isn’t acceptable. I’d like the fame to arise from something I’ve accomplished rather than something that happened to me. I would very much like to be a best-selling writer, but I’d also be happy with recognition of any other talent; say, finishing a jigsaw puzzle in record time, or the ability to cobble together relatively impressive costumes with cardboard, duct tape, scrap fabric and safety pins.

I am not very proud of this desire. Pursuing fame for its own sake is pure folly. I know this. I try to seek for nobler motivations. If I can get my books published, maybe they can have a positive impact on a wider number of readers. If I have any kind of notice from the public eye, perhaps I can use that platform to speak up about things that matter. If there’s any good reason to seek greater acclaim, it should be in that direction. But there’s a childish, all-too-pushy part of my brain that cries shrilly, “I want people to notice me! Lots and lots of people! And I want them to looove me!”

If I have any sense at all, I should be glad that I’m unlikely to ever be famous. Any celebrity could tell you that fame is rather a two-edged blade. For all the acclaim and adoration, there are plenty of other people who despise you, resent you, criticize every single thing you do. You have no private life. Everything is scrutinized. Of course I don’t want that. I want an imaginary scenario wherein I receive all the pleasant perks of fame and none of the downsides.

But because I’m an overthinker, I want to pick apart this desire and figure out what’s really motivating me. I don’t have to look too far. As I explored earlier, in my heart I’m just an insecure little girl seeking validation. Fame, from that simplistic standpoint, seems like the perfect solution — an endless source of enthusiastic approval.

And even though I know I can’t set on my hopes on external approval, I could really use a little now and then. Motherhood can be a thankless task. The long-term rewards are significant, but in the moment you’re not likely to get much acknowledgement or validation for what you’re doing. In my personal situation, with my children at school most of the day, my role is more of an all-call type. It leaves me a lot of time to wonder what, exactly, I should be doing with myself. If I were a famous writer, the answer would be easy. Write. Provide my adoring readers with more of the books they love. (Now is the time for any hypothetical published writers to laugh hysterically, because the truth is, getting published just makes everything more complicated.) Instead, when I write, it’s with the looming awareness that it might only be for two or three readers. I might never get published. I will probably never be famous.

There is a quote from historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that has been, I believe, a trifle misused. “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” The assumption seems to be that it’s a dig at well-behaved women, living their meek and quiet and unimportant lives. Now, if it’s used as a rallying cry to fight injustice and call out oppression, that’s perfectly fine. But never to disparage those meek, quiet women. If they’re not recognized by history, the problem lies with the historians, not the women. Do we only value someone because they were well-known? Do we really believe that’s the only measure of a person’s worth?

If I want to recognize and honor the worth of obscure women, I should do it for myself as well. I’m not likely to “make history.” I may only ever be important to a very small circle of people. My husband, my children, my extended family and friends. But what I do matters. It matters to them. And it matters to me. No amount of fame can add to or diminish that fact.

Though it would still be awfully nice to get noticed…..

Belief

One of the primary tensions in writing and/or reading fiction is the tug between wanting complete immersion in a fictitious world while also accepting that it is, at its heart, a fabrication. We often talk of the willful suspension of disbelief, and that is certainly important for the enjoyment of fiction. But whose job is it to enable that suspension? Is it entirely up to the audience, as the term implies? Or should an artist be expected to ease some of that burden by creating a generally believable world?

As is usually the case, I would say there should be a reasonable balance. Yes, the artist ought to share some of the burden, but the reader or viewer must contribute their own willingness to believe. And it’s going to differ drastically, both from one genre to another as well as from individual to individual. In science fiction, we’re generally willing to accept spaceships with capabilities far beyond anything that our current technology allows, but we’d probably look askance if they existed in a story set in the present day. We allow, and even expect, science-defying magic in a fantasy novel, but you couldn’t write a tale set entirely in the mundane world and then toss in a magic spell right near the end without it having an incredibly jarring effect upon the reader.

As for individual tastes, everyone has their personal deal-breakers — consider, for example, this cleverly-titled exploration of the author’s architectural pet peeve. For the average viewer, ignorant of the actual nature of suspension bridges, these inaccuracies won’t be a problem. But for him, it’s impossible to let it go. It’s not clear whether filmmakers are aware of the gross engineering inaccuracies they’re perpetuating, but I suspect that even if they are, they don’t worry about it much. Because you can’t cater to every single viewer, and for the purpose of an exciting story, they’d rather have a cool-looking destructive scene than worry about accuracy for a tiny percentage of their audience.

And honestly? This focus on being realistic can be carried too far. I think especially in the more fantastic genres, I see a lot of trying to force real-world parameters on characters and situations that simply don’t fit. It’s one thing to playfully imagine which of the Myers-Briggs personalities match up with your favorite fictitious people, but it’s quite another to claim that a character’s behaviors are invalid because they don’t match up to a psychological profile. Unless the writer is an expert in psychology with the intent of creating psychologically-accurate characters, I don’t really think that’s a fair basis on which to condemn a story. They can’t be psycho-analyzed because they’re not real.

It could be that we want to take our fiction a little too literally. In my view, the thing that makes literature so wonderful (and the fantasy genre in particular), is its endless opportunity for metaphor. There is no such thing as a evil ring that takes control of you the more you use it, so creating a psych profile of Gollum or Frodo would be a trifle disingenuous. On the other hand, you could imagine the ring as a metaphor for addiction, or mental illness, or any wide variety of things. It’s up to your personal interpretation, but as Tolkien was very adamant of reminding us, he was not writing an allegory — a simple fable with one-to-one correspondence between fictitious and real-world tropes. Is the Lord of the Rings about World War I? Sure, if you want it to be. But not universally. And to become fixated on some small detail of the story, feeling it doesn’t match up with its real-world counterpart, will often lead to you missing out on the beauty of its vast metaphorical meanings.

As I acknowledged earlier, this doesn’t give the author a free pass to write whatever implausible thing they please and put all the blame on the readers if they have trouble wrapping their minds around it. Creating a world should be done with care and consideration, with as much inner consistency as is fitting with the specific genre and style of storytelling. But a reader has to contribute something as well if they want to accept this imaginary world. If you have trouble accepting truly fantastical and extravagant scenarios, that’s fine — maybe you’re better off reading non-fiction. Or historical fiction, or whatever level of suspended disbelief you’re able to bring. But if you’re going to read anything with the intent of being transported to another world, you’re better be willing to believe in the spaceship that’s taking you there. How’s that for metaphor?

In Defense of the Happy Ending

Happy endings have a pretty lousy reputation in modern culture. They’re considered childish, naïve, and worst of all, unrealistic.  Let us all gasp in horror at the audacity of creating fictitious scenarios in fiction, of all places!

Obviously, I find this viewpoint simplistic at best and downright nihilistic at its worst. Why don’t we dispel, right away, the myth that darkness and grittiness and doom and gloom are more realistic? Real life is not composed exclusively of bad endings. Nor, I acknowledge, is it composed exclusively of good endings. It’s not really composed of endings at all. Endings, and beginnings, are all matter of perception, of constructing a sort of narrative out of the rather random happenings of reality. You might dispute this by pointing out that birth and death are rather obvious starts and finishes in a story. Sure. But you could just as easily argue that if you were creating a family saga, one individual’s birth or death could mark merely the beginning or end of a chapter, only one part of a much greater, overarching generational tale. The beginning and end of a war could be a self-contained story, or it could be one more step in the broader chronicle of a country’s history. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Stories are, by nature, fabrications. Whether they’re purely fictional or an artful presentation of historical facts, they must be crafted into a narrative that requires a deliberate shaping by a writer.

So dark stories are not more realistic than optimistic ones. But we’re not really talking about literal realism here, are we? A plain, unfabricated relation of events as they tend to happen wouldn’t make much of a story at all — “He got out of bed. He brushed his teeth. He ate breakfast. He drove to work. He had a conversation with a co-worker that will have no bearing on future events” — but we do want to offer something that our readers feel is realistic, even if it takes place in the most fantastic of settings. We want to ease a little bit of that burden of suspension of disbelief.  And when a story has no complications, no significant obstacles to overcome, nothing but an easy happy ending, it doesn’t feel very satisfying. It doesn’t feel realistic. I think, at the end of it all, that’s what people mean when they say happy endings aren’t realistic.

Obviously, as an avid reader and writer of speculative fiction, I’m more willing to suspend my disbelief than otherwise. I don’t mind if the worldbuilding is fabulously unrealistic compared to the actual world, as long as it has decent inner consistency and an engaging story. In fact, I’d rather that the story didn’t hew too closely to real-world happenings. Why? Well, if I wanted to read stories that matched up with reality, I wouldn’t read fiction. I want a narrative; I want meaning. There is something deeply imbedded in human nature, I believe, that drives us to create narratives out of the random, chaotic happenings of our lives. To fabricate stories that reflect reality but have a more deliberate point, something more than “Life’s hard; then you die”; to make sense of reality by stepping outside of it for a while. Some people label certain types of fiction as “mere escapism,” spoken with a contemptuous sniff. But I fully embrace the notion of escapism as a positive feature of fiction. Its purpose is not to deny the existence of real life, not by any means; it gives us a place to examine all the deep questions of life from a fresh perspective. And if it’s truly good fiction, then it allows us to come back to reality with a renewed ability to cope with it.

Grim and gritty fiction, I feel, has very little to offer me in terms of coping with the real world. It presents just as fabricated a view on reality as optimistic fiction, but it leaves me bereft and hopeless instead of invigorated and hopeful. Even if the world really were as dark and pointless as such fiction seems to say, why embrace that? Why wallow in cynicism without relief? And for heaven’s sake, why do fantasy authors insist on claiming that the truly brutal stuff, particularly the violence against women, is a conscientious choice to hew to “realism” when they’ll happily include wizards and dragons and zombies? I’m not buying it, guys.

I’m not calling for stories without conflict. Those are hardly stories at all. (Though I might argue that a better word is complication. A good epiphany-tale, for example, has little conflict but plenty of complications as a character rises nearer and near to enlightenment.) I want to see the characters struggle and strive; that’s how I relate to them, as someone who’s struggling and striving through life myself. But I want to see a purpose to the struggle. I don’t want a happy ending that hasn’t been earned, but if it has been earned, then those characters darn well better get it.

I might as well include an example from my favorite thing to obsess about. The original trilogy of Star Wars has a happy ending, not because it ignores the existence of darkness and evil, but because it stares that evil right in the face and conquers it. It’s bittersweet, full of sacrifice and loss, but it is an earned, much-deserved happy ending. (Which is why, among many other reasons, I reject the Disney movie’s notion of “Ha ha just kidding nobody really lived happily ever after.) On the other hand, the prequel trilogy was written as a tragedy, and I fully expected a sad ending. Not a despairing, nothing-matters-what’s-the-point-of-trying ending, but sorrow with only the promise of hope many years in the future. It would have been unearned, not to mention bizarre, if Episode III hadn’t ended in tragedy. Different stories call for different endings. But there’s an enormous difference between a story of relentless bleakness where there’s no real distinguishing between the consequences of good or bad behaviors, versus a story where bad choices lead to sorrow. Yes, I like my stories to be moral. Not obnoxiously moralistic, but definitely moral.

Lucas himself sums it up pretty darn well: “Being a pessimist doesn’t seem to accomplish anything…if I wanted to change the world it was no use saying how awful our society is or how stupid. The way to make things progress is to point people in the right direction, to show how wonderful life can be. Tearing things down, being pessimistic makes people simply accept the conditions that prevail. Whereas if you give them hope and point them in the right direction, things are more likely to get better.”

Fans of Tolkien might have already recognized that I also share a lot of his ethos when it comes to the purpose of stories. I’m going to finish with a quote from him.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Strong

It’s time for a rant.

We are living in a marvelous era of compelling female characters. Thanks to the outcries of a vocal audience of girls and women, along with a (slowly) increasing willingness to support female storytellers, we see princesses who don’t need rescuing, women warriors who save the day with maybe just a little help from their male sidekick and/or love interest, and so many more narratives for ladies that revolve around something other than romance.

That’s great. But I’m mightily peeved by the oversimplification that can arise from such stories. One of them is a meme that was making the rounds and causing me an irrational amount of anger. It pictured Robin Wright’s Amazon character from Wonder Woman and Carrie Fisher’s recent portrayal of Leia Organa, with a caption saying something like “So great to see my childhood princesses become generals.”

Now, obviously, I’m going to be over-sensitive about this, since I have opinions about Disney’s current batch of Star Wars films, oh boy do I ever. But stick with me; I’m going somewhere other than just another bash-fest about Disney Space Movie (though a little bashing is inevitable).

I realize that when it comes to memes, we’re not really looking for a complicated explication of character development. We’re looking for something pithy, easily understood and easily passed along. I get it. But SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET AND I HAVE TO FIX IT. Ahem.

First off, the comparison of the two pictures is misleading, since we’re talking about two completely different characters for Robin Wright. Princess Buttercup was part of a very memorable movie, but alas, not much more can be said for her. She has a few awesome moments, like jumping out of the ship to escape her kidnappers or shoving (she believes) her lover’s murderer down a steep hillside, but for the most part she is the object of desire between Westley and Humperdink, acted upon rather than doing the acting. So of course playing a fierce warrior in Wonder Woman is going to be a major upgrade.

Leia, however, was already awesome. She was fantastic long before she changed titles. And if you want my excessively biased opinion, she was way better as a princess. Because she upturned every single expectation of the damsel in distress. Yes, Luke and Han rescue her on the Death Star, but she’s not weeping helplessly in her cell. She had willingly embarked on what was basically a suicide mission, transporting the space station’s stolen plans while pursued by Darth Vader himself. She’d done everything she could to get those plans into the right hands before being captured, and she subsequently refused to betray the location of her fellow Rebels even under torture and threat of death. She doesn’t want to die, but she’s ready to face it.

Then, when she sees the possibility of escaping, she takes charge from the two lunkheads who didn’t plan a way out. She’s resourceful, inventive and daring; she has a snappy retort for every attempted insult or disparagement. From the moment she showed up on movie screens, Princess Leia was a revolution. And she didn’t have to change her title to do it.

To be frank, General Leia is just sad. All her supposed awesomeness is implied but never proven. It’s lazy writing, frankly, giving her a new title as a shorthand for character development. Instead, her role is a massive disappointment that turns all her triumphs in the original trilogy into tragedy. Most of her scenes are reactions to something yet another man has done to screw up her life, either her son or her lover (husband? the movie never tells us) or her brother. She’s someone that men have abandoned. That’s the primary thing that defines her, reacting to things that other people do. What a sad, sad, removal from the woman full of determination and hope at the end of the original trilogy. It breaks my heart to know that Carrie Fisher’s health issues required a somewhat subdued role and ultimately stole away her chance to finish the trilogy. It breaks my heart especially because the fiery, inspiring, trope-defying princess was replaced with…a general. That’s a demotion. Princess hire generals and tell them what to do!

I could pontificate on what I would have rather seen (JEDI MASTER LEIA, COME ON PEOPLE) but instead, I’ll explore why we all seem to accept it as a given that being a general is an upgrade in awesomeness. It’s a military rank. It implies fighting prowess as well as leadership. Well, those are all fine. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that only men can be generals. Heavens, no. What I do find troubling is that we’ve been fed the lie that traditionally masculine roles are the strongest and the most worth doing. And now that we’re seeking more stories about strong women, which is great, we’re leaning heavily toward giving women characters only those traditionally masculine roles. Which is not so great. Because there are so many different ways to be strong.

Something that I’ve always loved about Princess Leia is that for all her toughness, she’s also warm, caring and gentle. She comforts Luke upon the loss of Obi-Wan (even though, for heaven’s sake, she’s just lost a whole planet). She values her relationships and connections with others. You get the sense that even while she’s a highly competent fighter and leader in the Rebellion, she’d really rather be a diplomat. A peacekeeper. Like her mother.

And Padmé’s character was not universally well-received like her daughter was. There are plenty of reasons for that, and I can’t possibly explore all of them, but I suspect that part of it came from the audacity of giving Padmé softer roles. Like falling in love rather rashly. And spending most of the third film being pregnant. And dying from the sheer emotional weight of her entire universe imploding, how dare she. Even though there are plenty of instances showcasing her strength and courage (for example, passing along a heritage of hope to her children with her dying breath), they are too often overlooked because she doesn’t enter every situation with guns a-blazing and a steady supply of witty one-liners. Would people have been more excited if she was General Amidala? Maybe. But I, for one, am very glad she wasn’t.

I find her portrayal to be quite inspiring. Not that I’m looking to follow Padmé’s unfortunate trajectory, but I appreciate the notion there are different kinds of strength. And sometimes, strong as we are, we can be overwhelmed. That doesn’t make us weak. It just means we live in a hard world. It’s all right to cry. It’s all right to be soft. It’s all right if you’d rather be an diplomat than a warrior. Sometimes the situation calls for a sword (or lightsaber) and sometimes the situation calls for an impassioned speech. Or a helping hand. Or kind words, or a smile.

I understand that fighting prowess can serve as metaphor for other kinds of strength in storytelling, particularly in fantasy, but I fear that we’re taking it a little too literally. I fear that we tend to demean anyone who’s not particularly keen on violence. And me? I can play around with toy swords and sabers, but I’m about as physically imposing as a goldfish. I don’t have that kind of strength. I do strive, however, to cultivate a different kind of emotional endurance and resilience. And that’s a trait of all my favorite characters, female or otherwise.