Someone once asked me why I don’t write about princesses or other “royal-types” in my fantasy books. After all, to date my fantasy novels have all been fairytale retellings, and don’t fairytales ALWAYS have princes and princesses and similar characters of royal blood (albeit sometimes with a “hidden” lineage) as major characters?
Well, no. For one thing, my retellings are based on Hans Christian Andersen fairytales and if you read a great number of them you’ll notice something interesting — Andersen’s protagonists tend to be ordinary people. Sometimes poor folk, sometimes middle-class, but almost never royalty. In fact, Andersen is more likely to make fun of royalty (The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea, for example) rather than celebrate them.
This is reason number one why my retellings feature village girls and tradesmen and soldiers and others without a drop of royal blood. (Even my Snow Queen is actually just a village girl, although a rather brilliant one, who has been given powers by a sorcerer). In doing so, I am paying homage to Andersen’s original stories.
Reason number two is less based in my source material, and more based on my own life.
You see, I am not special.
Of course, when I was young, I imagined I was unique, with hidden talents or abilities that had simply not yet been revealed. I dreamed of the day when my “specialness” would become undeniably apparent to everyone.
Because isn’t that the basis for so many of our stories – the ordinary person who turns out to be extraordinary? Just think of Luke Skywalker — a simple farm boy, living on a planet of no great importance. He was the least likely person to become the “Jedi Knight” who would save the Republic. But he had hidden, special, abilities that only appeared when he had reached a certain age. (And a secret heritage that bequeathed him unique talents).
There’s certainly nothing wrong with such stories. I mean, haven’t we all thought of ourselves as that person? An ordinary human, living an unexceptional life, until one day … some event or individual or challenge unlocks our true potential and proves our “specialness.”
But then, for some of us, time passes and we grow older without unlocking this super-special side of ourselves, Eventually, we must (regrettably) accept the sobering fact that we are not, and never will be, a “Chosen One.”
I will never be such a person, I know. I am rather ordinary, when all is said and done. Which is perfectly fine, if a little less exciting than I might wish.
And that’s reason number two why I choose to write characters who are not the princess, not the possessor of hidden talents, and not the secret heir to riches and power. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with stories that use those themes — I still love many of them. But I personally feel a need to create something different, to show that ordinary people can be part of interesting stories too. Maybe someone not-so-special can show their worth in ways that don’t require supernatural abilities or unlimited access to power. Perhaps the least likely person can become the hero or heroine. (Which is one reason why some of my favorite characters are Frodo and Sam from LOTR and Meg Murray from A WRINKLE IN TIME and its sequels).
Those are the stories I have always loved the best, and so — those are the tales I like to write. Stories about people are not inherently “special,” but who can still do extraordinary things when challenged by circumstances or fate.
I am not special, and neither are most of my characters. But we are, I hope, interesting! Just like most other people in the world, if you really think about it.
Finishing this with one of my favorite quotes from LOTR:
“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam, “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same; like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”
“I wonder,” said Frodo, “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings