Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Fairy Godmother

It's Enchanted, Inc. question and answer time! I was asked about the fairy godmother in Damsel Under Stress. The question was more about why she dressed the way she did, with each outfit layered on top of the other, but to really address that, I need to get into where the character came from, so I'll just do All About Ethelinda.

When I wrote Book 2, Once Upon Stilettos, I didn't know if there would be more books. The publisher had bought the first book and a sequel, and although I'd planned more books, I wouldn't know if the publisher would want more until the first book was published and they saw how well it sold. I had the second book written and turned in before the first book was published, and that second book had even gone through copy edits before they made a decision about more books. Because of that, I tried to give some kind of closure at the end of the second book, in case there weren't any more. And so, I got Katie and Owen together at the end of book 2. I'm not sure I would have done that if I'd known from the start that there were sure to be more books. But I did, and it was too late to change things by the time I got the go-ahead for more books because it required more than changing the ending. I'd have had to make subtle alterations through the whole book.

That meant I had to deal with the fact that they were now a couple when it came to the third book, and I didn't want to run into the Moonlighting syndrome where getting the couple together saps all the energy from the story. This wasn't a romance (in spite of the fact that this is the aspect of the story that a lot of readers seem to respond most strongly to), so the main conflict didn't have to be between Katie and Owen. Their relationship wasn't the main plot. But I still worried that a lot of the energy in the story would be gone if they were just together, and that was that. I didn't want to have some silly misunderstanding break them up, but I needed some kind of monkey wrench to throw into things.

The idea of what I could do came from an unrelated line of thinking. I have had a spectacularly unsuccessful love life. We're talking Epic Fail territory here. I've had very few real relationships, and none of them have gone well. I've also had a string of really bad dates that never quite made it to the relationship point. Even the dates that went well managed to go nowhere. I have been known to moan that what I really need is a fairy godmother. But then I have to wonder if that would even work, considering that of all the times people have tried to set me up with someone, it's never gone well. I've never had a set up where I could see why the person thought we'd be suited for each other. It's always been more along the lines of "You have so much in common! You're both single!" or, worse, "He's probably not your type, but he just needs some confidence, and you're nice." So, it would be my luck that if I got a fairy godmother, she'd be incompetent, and she'd probably show up after I met Mr. Right. I remember that I was thinking along those lines one evening while making dinner, and then I had that "Ding! Ding! Ding!" moment where I realized that this was what I needed for my book. I was dealing with a world where a fairy godmother could exist, so I could make the metaphor literal. The second Shrek movie had done the evil fairy godmother, so I decided to go with one who wasn't evil, just misguided and not very good at her job. I'd worked with people who had done one good thing once in the past and who were still resting on their laurels -- they'd won an award for something ten years ago and they'd never updated their skills or grown beyond that, but they never let you forget their past success, either. They assumed that because they'd been right in a big way that one time, every other idea they came up with was automatically brilliant.

Like my former co-worker who had a shelf full of trophies and a wall full of awards for work she'd done in the 70s and 80s (she'd worked there forever) but who was practically incompetent in the 90s. She had to get someone else to print documents for her because she couldn't work the printer. She never turned off her computer because she didn't know how to turn it on. She treated the computer like a typewriter, so instead of deleting when she made a mistake or changed her mind about what she wanted to say, she'd leave the mistake, type a row of Xs (as though she was x-ing through the mistake, but since the computer doesn't let you type over something it just came out as a line of Xs after the mistake) and then type the corrected version. When she used spellcheck, she automatically accepted all corrections, even on names. That meant that to edit her work (which was my job), I'd have to get out the faculty directory and figure out who Dr. Moron Whiner really was (I didn't make that up, but I won't use his real name here to protect the innocent). I never saw White-Out on her monitor screen, but I would not have been at all surprised. She might have been a good writer at some point, but you had to be a mindreader to figure out what she'd written when she used a computer. Asking her did no good because even she couldn't figure out what she meant when she looked at it, and she'd get offended if I asked because she was an Award-Winning Public Relations Writer and I was just an entry-level peon, and what did I know?

I figured that a fairy godmother might do something like that. Have a success as big as Cinderella who goes down in folklore and gets movies and Broadway musicals made about her, and she might figure that covered it all. Anyone who tried to argue with her plans would be reminded about Cinderella. And, of course, she'd have spectacularly bad timing. She might even deliberately show up after the couple is already together so she could take credit for them getting together -- except, of course, that her efforts to get them together could actually drive them apart. She wouldn't update her tactics at all to take into consideration modern times. If dragons were good for getting couples together back in medieval times, then they should work today.

I think to some extent that she was the personification of all of Katie's doubts and fears about relationships. I haven't met a guy as awesome as Owen, but I suspect that if I did after my horrendous track record, I'd be suspicious and insecure. If I haven't managed to work things out with any reasonably normal men, I'd doubt my ability to make things work with a gorgeous, powerful, wealthy man. I mean, the guy down the street doesn't want me, so why would Mr. Perfect? Someone showing up to offer to help me would only make matters worse. I didn't want Katie to spend the whole book whining about her insecurities, so I channeled all that into another character who could raise the question and add to Katie's stress levels.

I'm not entirely sure where the layers of clothes came from. That was just always there. I suppose it was a way to visually represent the fact that she'd never moved on from the past -- instead of removing the previous clothing and starting fresh, she was just layering things on top, and everything was worn out. I never really delved into it, but I figure she was rotating clothes, wearing her entire wardrobe at once and just moving layers around. It only just now occurred to me that there might be some Heidi influence there. That was one of my favorite books when I was a small child, and for some odd reason, the thing in that book that really struck my imagination was the opening scene where Heidi is being brought to live with her grandfather and she has to wear all her clothes at once for the trip (I guess because she didn't have a suitcase). I remember acting that out with my play dress-up clothes, putting on multiple dresses in layers. I don't know if I ever tried to leave the house wearing more than one dress, but I wouldn't be surprised if I did because I was that kind of kid. I recall the "wear everything you own for the journey" element from a few other books, and I guess I responded to that because I was an Army brat and we moved a lot. I don't know whether I thought that wearing all your clothes was better or worse than packing them in a suitcase, but I found it oddly fascinating, and there is a possibility that my brain dredged that up from my subconscious and used it on Ethelinda.

As for what you'd see if you weren't magical or magically immune, I figure she was just the kind of frumpy old woman who layers a lot of ill-fitting sweaters, like a sweater vest over a long-sleeved crewneck sweater, with a big, baggy cardigan over that, and then a longish shapeless skirt, sagging stockings and sensible shoes.

Any more questions about the series? I'm doing this every other Wednesday as long as I have questions.

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