On this episode, we are discussing the iconic classic and possibly most quotable movie ever, The Princess Bride. And then we’ll end with a critique of one lucky author’s query.
Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! This movie uses a framing device where there’s a young boy who’s sick and his grandfather visits him to read a story. The story he reads is what makes up the majority of the movie. Two young people, Buttercup and Westley, fall in love, and Westley goes off to make something of himself so he can marry her. Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, and a few years later, Buttercup becomes engaged to the prince. Just before her wedding, she’s kidnapped, and the stranger who comes to her rescue is none other than --TWIST!--Westley, who’s not really dead and is now in disguise as The Dread Pirate Roberts. After their reunion, the couple must defeat the prince (who wanted Buttercup killed to start a war he can profit off of) and make their escape. It ends with Buttercup and Westley kissing, presumably to live happily ever after.
Carly: We’ve both seen this movie a million times and clearly love it. Instead of starting with our overall impressions, I think we should start with our favorite quotes. What’s yours?
Jeni: OK so I am going to take favorite quotes to mean ALL of my favorite quotes, not my one single favorite, because I can’t pick just one. Well, not all of them. It’s too much. Let me sum up...see what I did there??
Carly: Well if you’re going to cheat, I’m going to cheat and choose the entire Miracle Max scene. “true love is the greatest thing in the world - except for a nice MLT - mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean” or “Have fun storming the castle!” or “I’m not a witch, I’m your wife!” all soooooo good.
Jeni: No more rhymes now, I mean it
Carly: “Anybody want a peanut?” OK. We can keep that up all day. Let’s talk about what this movie does well that writers can use in their writing.
Jeni: Honestly, so so much. But the thing that jumped out to me the most, after having watched it so many times but never really analyzing the story, was character agency. I was really impressed with how all of these characters have agency. Sometimes that conflicts, sometimes it helps them work together, but they always have that agency. And I think what’s so good about this movie is how different the characters are in terms of personality traits, arcs, and characterization--but they all manage to have agency. So, before we dig into how character agency is used in this movie, let’s talk for a minute about what agency is and what it isn’t. (Insert gif here of Inigo saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.) Agency is one of those concepts that can be hard for writers to understand. I explain it as it means the characters push the plot forward with their decisions and actions. This means your main characters have to actively make choices and act on them, not let other characters make all the decisions to sort of passively stand by as things happen to them. Carly, what would you add to define agency?
Carly: Exactly. Agency can also be referred to as having active characters, and not passive characters. I say this all the time in advice. You want your characters to drive the plot forward, not have the world and the plot solely act upon them. Now being active characters doesn’t mean they need to be kick-ass, running around killing everyone. They can choose to do nothing, but then the world needs to react to their decision. Active characters make choices that cause the world to respond and the plot to react to their choice. Their decisions can be in response to other characters and other plot points or obstacles, but it still needs to be a decision. If the plot just happens to them, if they have no hand in where the story goes, they become weak characters with no agency. Character with most obvious agency - Westley/the man in black/The Dread Pirate Roberts - this is what most people think of when they think of agency. He is a pirate, pirates are the epitome of agency. They do what they want when they want. Westley goes off to make money in order to marry Buttercup, and that kicks off the whole story. If he hadn’t left and “died” she never would have been in this situation. Then he fights three battles to rescue her. From there, the story seems to act upon him more. Partially that is because other characters are making stronger choices, but in fact, he is doing a lot. He chooses to go along with Buttercup when she sacrifices herself to save him, he doesn’t let the torture break him, and most importantly, when he is still half-dead he comes up with a plan to get inside the castle and rescue her, while being unable to fight or even walk. He uses words and fear as weapons to defeat Humperdink. Other characters are making choices around him, but he is contributing to moving the plot forward, he isn’t purely letting those choices happen to him.
Jeni: The one who really stuck out to me when I watched it this time is Buttercup. It’s easy to see her as a weak person because a lot happens to her and she doesn’t physically fight back. She just kind of flops down a lot. And compared to the other characters who act on their motivations through fighting or other physical means, she seems passive. On top of that, throughout the movie, she’s kind of stuck. I hear from authors pretty frequently about how their characters don’t have agency in the beginning of the story because their arc is to learn to fight back more or because they are in situations where they don’t have many choices or much control over their own lives. Buttercup is a great example of a character like that. She doesn’t have a lot of options in terms of fighting back, really from almost the beginning of the story. It’s not shown but is implied that she doesn’t have much choice in whether or not she marries the prince. Then she’s kidnapped and held with her hands bound. Then back to marrying the prince, who we now know she really doesn’t want to marry, especially with Westley back. But despite all that, she shows agency in what she CAN control. When she’s kidnapped, she tries to escape by jumping overboard. Later, she bargains to save Westley’s life when the prince catches them outside the fire swamp, despite Westley trying to talk her out of it. And through the whole movie, she has a sharp tongue and isn’t afraid to use it as a weapon. So even though she can’t physically do much, she makes choices to take what actions she can, and what’s more, it’s pushes the plot forward. All those attempts to control her own fate fail. And this is such an important point--don’t be afraid to let characters fail. Sometimes their attempts will succeed and sometimes they won’t, but how they handle the consequences is how they continue to show agency and move the story forward.
Carly: Okay so next we have Inigo, Fezzik, and Vizzini. Our band of misfit criminals. Let’s start with Inigo. He is doing a job, but he constantly chooses to use those jobs to his advantage. He is on the lookout for his father’s murderer. And he sticks to his code throughout it all. He chooses to not take the advantages the plot gives him and fights the man in black on his own terms. And then he chooses to stand up and fight against the six-fingered man by getting the man in black to help them break into the castle. He is driving the plot by bringing Westley back to life. And he is driving his own story by following his motivations all the way until the end. Fezzik makes choices too. He won’t do what Vizzini says and sneak attack the man in black. And then despite being part of the brute squad sent to clear out all criminals, he saves his friend and sobers him up. He may be supporting the other characters, but he doesn’t blindly follow, he makes choices out of love and empathy. Finally we have Vizzini. I love him because despite being a bit of a villain, he is just doing a job. He doesn’t seem evil. He just wants to kidnap a princess and get away with it so he gets paid. He has no skin in this game. He is a morally grey character that you can’t help but love. He has simple motivations: to get paid and to be the smartest one in the room. All of his choices show us who he is because they reveal his motivations. He is constantly talking down to his team because he is the “mastermind” and he sets up his big moment based on his own hubris. He sets the stage for a battle of wits, sure that he can win. His biggest character agency moment is when he distracts Westley with his “hey look over there” moment and he switches the glasses. He assumes he knows which one is poisoned. And instead of just picking, he swaps the glasses because he wants to show how smart he is. He wants to fool Westley. This is a small moment, a small decision, but it shows his arrogance, his utter confidence in himself. He looks down on everyone and having him make this choice shows that. Characters need agency to not only move the plot forward, but to show what is important to them. We learn about their motivations and their goals by the decisions they make and the inherent meaning in those decisions.
Jeni: OK so we have to talk Humperdinck because he’s the villain. And he’s such a good villain because he’s so arrogant and deceitful but also has this real cowardly streak. He’s clearly used to getting his own way and having all the power to make his choices happen. I mean, he is the prince, after all. His most interesting moment, and possibly his funniest as well, comes at the end when his arrogance leads him to listen to Westley’s whole “to the pain” speech and Humperdinck chooses to give himself up rather than risk being disfigured. In terms of agency, it’s interesting because he could definitely have physically defeated Westley but he isn’t sure so doesn’t take the risk. He doesn’t know what will happen to him, whether they will kill him or leave him for his guards to find after they’ve escaped, but he’s so arrogant he’d rather risk dying than disfigurement. His choice reveals his character, what’s most important to him, and he acts on that. This is such an important part of agency. In order for the characters’ decisions and actions to make sense to your readers, they have to come directly from what is most important to the character. This ties into their emotional wounds, their goals, a lot of other stuff we don’t have time to really get into today, but this is an important way to show who your character is--how they use their agency, which choices they make, and in the case of your POV characters, make sure you’re showing how they deliberate their options, come to their decision, and how their emotions play into that decision as well.
Carly: This month we have a query from a YA fantasy that touches on fairy tales and books, so I can definitely see how it relates to this movie. Jeni, what did you think?
Jeni: So this query has a problem I see in a lot of queries. It doesn’t really touch on the main character’s arc. I can imagine a lot of authors thinking, “What do you mean I have to touch on the character arc too? I only have a couple hundred words as it is!” But this isn’t as hard as it sounds. In the first paragraph, we need to see what the protagonist’s emotional wound is. This is the internal problem they have to overcome through their involvement in the events of the plot. It might be that they feel lonely or don’t belong or have no belief in themselves. The good news is you don’t need a whole paragraph for this. Just a few words or a short sentence is enough, and you can definitely work it into the rest of their normal world. We just need to see what the main character wants more than anything else and why. Then in the final paragraph of the summary, we need to see how they will have to face that emotional wound to resolve the plot. Again, you don’t need a lot of words for this. The best place for this is that final dilemma that’s often set up as “The main character must choose option 1 + face down their inner demons or option 2, which means they will fail to achieve the goal of the plot.
Carly: Exactly. I think we often refer to this as missing internal stakes. It is the why of the character and we’re missing that here. The big problem I’m seeing here is that they were trying to explain the world too much in their limited word count. Queries are hard, they need to be concise and they need to hit on a lot of information. Setting up the world is nearly impossible. Instead, only show us what is important to that character wound and the main plot. In this one we’re trying to understand a magic system that very much has implications on the plot. But we’re getting bogged down with details. Keep it as simple and basic as possible when it comes to magic. We need one line to explain the main character’s powers and what that means to the world in general. After that, focus on the plot and the stakes. I like to have a little flavor added in to differentiate your world, but make sure it is only a couple of words that are tied into the plot. Wherever you can use voice to add in these little world-building flavorings, do it. But keep them simple and focused. Pepper in those little details, but don’t feel the need to explain them, let us be intrigued by them. And then toss out all the rest of your magical rules, we’ll figure them out as we read the book.