The Problem with Sleeping Beauty

Lately, I’ve been rewriting the old story of Sleeping Beauty. Mostly as an exercise in revision and partially out of curiosity to see how humor will work with the tale. It’s been a slow task due to being rather sick over the last few months. Life! It happens, doesn’t it?

One interesting thing I’ve noticed about the writing process is the difficulty I’m having, as a man, writing a story from the first-person perspective of a woman (Sleeping Beauty herself). I never imagined that that would be the single most difficult aspect of this project. It requires a great deal of focus to maintain her voice in a proper literary register. At least, I hope I’m hitting the right register with her.

I’ve written female characters before in my other books (notably, Levoreth Callas, Giverny, Fen and Sibb in the Tormay books). However, those characters existed in a wider setting of other male characters and great swaths of prose. As such, I never found them difficult to write (perhaps due to the leavening effect of the other characters, etc?).

With this observation in mind, I noticed something interesting several days ago when I read Madeline L’Engle’s Ring of Endless Light. I’ve read the book several times before when I was much younger, and I’ve always admired the story and her writing. L’Engle is a fantastic writer in general (usually–I’m not fond of some of her later books); stories like Swiftly Turning Planet, Young Unicorns, Wrinkle in Time, etc., are superbly written. In Ring of Endless Light, though, I noticed that her two main romantic male characters, Adam and Zachary, felt rather labored. As I considered it further, I realized what the problem was. They were both somewhat female in perspective. It was as if they were the female ideal of what a romantic male should be, rather than allowing them to be male and assert themselves naturally.

The more I thought about this, the more I started to realize that every single new romance that I’ve sampled over the last year on Kindle (sampled out of curiosity to see why and how someone is selling well, etc) is plagued with this same weakness. The romantic male leads come across as more female than male. They’re creations fashioned in the likeness of their creators (women writers), despite their tattoos and torn jeans and leather boots. It’s a fascinating pitfall to observe, and it’s one that I’m desperately trying to avoid myself as I write the character of Sleeping Beauty.

While it might be nice to imagine, if you’re a woman, a romantic male lead that is sensitive and patient with small talk and remembers flowers and talks with adverbial modifiers such as gently, wistfully, softly, etc., you might stop and consider letting a bit more of the real world form your Edward. I only hope I can achieve such distance and dispassionate approach with Rosamonde Baden-Lennox (the real, historical Sleeping Beauty who, if you must know, is not at all impressed by the legends that have grown up around her story).

8 thoughts on “The Problem with Sleeping Beauty”

  1. The problem with Sleeping Beauty is that she sleeps…

    One way of dealing with viewpoints that is often effective is to write the longer piece as a series of short stories and then to combine them as the chapters of the story. Each “short story” will obviously have one central character, so the major characters all receive a turn. That way you automatically achieve different primary viewpoints.

    The process is time-consuming though, as you have to take a break between the chapters to think yourself into the next character. If your mind is organized, if you have the experience not not have to write the story chronologically, you can save time by writing all the pieces from the viewpoint of each character together, then when you have them all fit them together in chromo-order.

    1. Ha… yes, she does sleep. Sort of an obstacle to building character when someone’s always snoring away.

      Your approach would probably work much better than what I’m doing (primarily telling via Sleeping Beauty herself), but it sounds like a lot of work! I’m feeling too lazy these days.

  2. Hah! Sleeping Beauty! I’ll be writing my Master’s thesis on that chick! (And a few of her fellow princesses.) You’ve just totally nerd-sniped me.

    If you want to do some comparison studies on the SB story, here’s some parallel tales: The “Sun, Moon and Talia” is especially interesting, as the prince (or king, in this case) does rather more than kiss her. Ahem. And if you want to watch a cheesy German movie (shot in some real-live castles with great scenery) for inspiration, or perhaps for finding out what not to do, there’s one here: I do like the German name for her, Dornröschen, Little Thorn Rose. It’s a real name, not just a label like Sleeping Beauty.

    I’d think that the main problem with retelling the SB story her is that she’s the ultimate passive female – her role in the story is to sleep. But then, the prince doesn’t do anything either; he just shows up, the rose hedge parts, he walks in and does his kissy thing, the end.

    As for the problem of writing characters of the opposite gender, it brings up a huge lot of questions. Females written by males tend to have the same problems that you describe with the opposite configuration – sexy kick-butt warrior chicks who never do anything so inconvenient as get pregnant or want to actually talk to the hero are a dime a dozen in adventure or fantasy stories. I wonder if it’s not so much a matter of “writing the character in your own image”, but writing them in the image of your own gender so you can understand them better, or writing them the way you wish men/women were (that’s especially the case in romances). It makes the story popular with readers of your own gender, because they’re likely to have the same wishful thinking which you’re fulfilling for them.
    Out of curiosity, what do you think of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey? He’s one of my favourite fictional sleuths, but I wonder if he isn’t a prime example of what you’re talking about.

    Oh, and if you want to read a really well-written woman character by a male author, Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe from “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is excellent. In fact, his Isabel Dalhousie is great, too; his women characters are really good, the men not really. Which makes me wonder why that is.

    You’re quite right, of course, writing a character of the opposite gender is hard to do – I’ll be curious to see how you pull off Sleeping Beauty. (But if you have her waltzing around a clearing in the woods, singing “I know you, I danced with you once upon a dream,” I’ll have to come shoot you. You know, just a warning.)

    1. Little Thorn Rose is a great name. Much better than Sleeping Beauty (I renamed her in my story: Rosamonde Baden-Lenox). Yes, her passivity is a problem in the original story. She’s pretty much a non-entity; though, aren’t there longer versions of that story in the older originals?–she gets married, has kids, has to fight her evil mother-in-law ogre, etc. I’ve deviated fairly drastically from the original, so she’s definitely not passive in my version.
      Yeah, male writers have the same problem: they consistently churn out Barbie-style women dressed in tight black leather, killer skills, eagerness to hop in bed, etc. Predictable stuff.
      I actually just finished reading a Wimsey novel a couple days ago (the one where he gets a job as a copywriter at a marketing agency in order to crack a drug smuggling ring–great story). He’s an interesting one to consider in light of my complaints. I suppose he does come across a bit effeminate at times, but he’s a mess of contradictions in terms of typical gender expectations. He’s fairly callused to other people’s feelings (in the story I just read, his brother-in-law almost gets murdered in one scene [only suffers concussion and broken collarbone] by a thug who thinks he’s attacking Wimsey; Peter is pleased and amused by what happens to his brother-in-law…very much a masculine schadenfreude reaction).
      Yeah, Ramotswe is an amazingly well-written character. I’ve always been impressed by her. She’s decidedly female, but incredibly complex at the same time. Smith totally pulled that one off, that’s for sure.
      So, what’s the question in your thesis??

      1. The thesis is going to be on adaptations of the fairy tales, starting with (or including) the Disney films, and what the adaptations have to say about how we (or the adapters, as it were) see life. It’s that discussion we had before, about “What are stories *for*?” I’m working on a paper right now about Snow White in this context; just re-watched the Disney version (boy, that chick gets on my nerves! Talk about airhead… and the prince is twice as bad), and will be contrasting it with the 1916 silent movie, “Mirror Mirror” and “Snow White and the Huntsman”. The thesis is going to be a similar thing about Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, and The Frog Prince.

        “Sun, Moon and Talia” is one SB version that has the full treatment, ogre mother-in-law and the works. Or wait, maybe the ogre is the first wife (!) of the king/prince? Yeah, it’s a bit convoluted. You pretty much *have* to make SB more active, and ditto for the prince; as is, in the Grimms’ version, things just happen *to* them rather than them taking action. I look forward to reading yours!

  3. my two cents: just make it LONG – Tormay long – flesh out every bit as much as you can and are able. i will pre-buy it.

    1. I’m afraid it’s only going to be a really long short story. Probably around 16-18,000 words. The next project, though, is going to be long. Another medieval-ish fantasy, but not set in Tormay.

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