Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Humble Cinderella

Several days ago, they topic of Cinderella came up on another blog. I won’t go into the details of that discussion, but one of the things I mentioned was that in all of the versions of Cinderella we see a selfless girl of humility and quiet strength. Some of the other commenters disagreed with that. I didn’t say that there, but I’ll say it here that to disagree with that is like arguing with a sign post. In all of the versions (not just the Disney version), Cinderella is treated like a servant by her step-mother and step-sisters. In the Grimms’ version, when her father wishes to bring the girls a gift, her sisters ask for fine things, but Cinderella requests only the first twig that brushes her father’s hat. She plants the twig at her mother’s grave and waters it with her tears. She is described as “pious and good.” While the stories don’t come out and say, “Cinderella was humble,” they don’t have to. The stories show us her humility and selflessness.

As storytellers, there’s much we can learn from the Cinderella story. One thing is that we should reveal the character through her actions rather than just through description, but there are other things as well. Notice the opposites in Cinderella. As we move into the second act, we see that lavish treasures are poured upon Cinderella. In the some versions, this comes from a fairy godmother. In other versions, this comes from a tree. She gets everything she could possibly want and yet we’re okay with that. The reason we’re okay with it is because it has already been established that Cinderella has been denied these things. Because she takes her treatment in humility and subjection, we cheer for her when she is given these things, but when her step-sisters were given similar things, didn’t like it. Before we can shower our characters with gifts, we must establish that they are deserving of those gifts or they will be hated like Cinderella’s step-sisters.

Part of the reason we can get by with showing characters like Cinderella with gifts is that we know she isn’t going to use them selfishly. It goes against their very being. We’ve all seen rich people of humble beginnings who haven’t allowed their wealth to change them. Instead, they remember where they came from and continue to help those in need. That isn’t always the case, but when we look at a character like Cinderella, that is what we expect of her because she is good.

There’s a scene I remember from Due South. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but the statement is that some people believe that every man has a price, but in fact, every man has a line that he will not cross as any price. It’s a matter of integrity. As writers, we often ask the question of what price would convince a character to take an action that he normally wouldn’t take. Would he kill a man if his daughter was in danger? Can he be bribed to overlook the flaws in a building design? But there are some things that a character will never do.