February 6, 2019

Flawed Characters Create Compelling Connections: Teaching by Example with Beauty by Robin McKinley

If you are just discovering this post, head over to Part 1 first. In that post, I covered Beauty’s narrator & point of view, voice (and style), theme, worldbuilding, and magic system. 

Characters are the breath of life in a story. They make the plot events matter. But creating a character is hard, especially when the character needs to have a realistic personality and, simultaneously, be intriguing. It’s a tall order!

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As a fictional “human,” a flawed character is relatable.

Readers enjoy relatable characters because they “show” it is possible for a person to grow and change. It’s hard to change, but possible.

That relatability helps create an emotional connection inside the reader. When that happens, the door to the reader’s mind and heart is opened to more readily receive the story’s underlying message. In short, creating flawed characters helps your story have greater impact.

Let’s take an in-depth look at Beauty’s main characters. While we will be examining five different characters, the story’s focus is about the relationship between Beauty and the Beast. As such, these two characters have flaws. The other three characters are part of the supporting cast. They are dimensional but don’t change. If they did, their changes would pull focus from what Beauty and the Beast learn.

*This review contains spoilers for the purposes of helping aspiring authors master writing craft.*

Characters:

Both Beauty and the Beast have a positive-change character arc. At the beginning of the story, they both believe something wrong and work hard to be free from that wrong belief. At the end of the story, they are changed for the better.

McKinley also constructed the remaining characters with a realistic personality and clear motivation, which narrator Beauty portrayed through her perspective. The cast is well-balanced with two exceptions, Beauty's father and her "handmaid."

Beauty

Beauty is an endearing character. In the now-story, she is surrounded by a sweet, loving family. She is complex, balanced and strong, yet less than perfect, being her own worst enemy.

Beauty’s character is not cliché in the least; instead, her internal conflict evolves into realistic character maturation, unfolding a subtle confidence and healthy pride of her own decisions and actions.

From an early age, now-story Beauty desires to be beautiful. She allows the negative opinions of others, including societal constraints, to feed her unrequited desire and, ultimately, define her, despite the difference of her family’s loving behavior.

Throughout the book, now-story Beauty’s preoccupation with her plain, awkward looks—yes, in her own way, Beauty is vain—provides a lighthearted look at negative self-perception and its little realized effect of settling in life.

Narrator Beauty’s narration reveals a conscientious, good-natured, and selfless mindset in both her and the now-story Beauty; despite now-story Beauty’s intellectual capabilities, she lacks arrogance and doesn’t view her book-disinterested family in an inferior light. She treats them as equals regardless of their interest, education, or background. They accept her for who she is and she does the same.

Beauty is utterly devoted to her personified horse, Greatheart, and considers him to be her closest and only friend. At a critical moment in the story, she puts her safety before his, which is surprising but logical—thus revealing he is a gimmick of principle to expose Beauty’s psychological state to the reader.

McKinley intentionally used him this way to diversify the delivery of Beauty’s internalizations. This prevents monotony in the predominant setting of the isolated castle as there is only one other visible character in residence (the Beast).

Now-story Beauty’s journey concludes in a logical, well-paced manner when her eyes are opened to the non-impact beauty has in her life after responsibility takes its rightful place.

Incongruencies about Beauty

On a minor note, there are three incongruencies about Beauty’s behavior. The reader is told Beauty behaves a certain way but is consistently shown an opposite behavior.

I have listed them in order of occurrence so you can see how the first two instances act as support for the third instance. Unfortunately, their support is weak because they are statements rather than shown observations.

In the book’s beginning, narrator Beauty states now-story Beauty is spoiled and has a way with her father. The reader is never shown this spoiled and manipulative behavior. 

After the family has moved to the forest, now-story Beauty has a conversation with her brother-in-law, Ger. She states that his superstitious rationale to make her keep out of the forest “can’t scare her into obedience…that it would only make her mad.” Ger mentions her temper and reluctantly explains his superstitions further. Then, narrator Beauty states (to the reader) that if she was persistent enough, she could wear Ger down to teach her typical male-dominant tasks. The reader is never shown this temper or manipulative behavior.

After her father relays his fateful meeting with the Beast, Beauty decides she will fulfill the cost of the rose. She convinces her father (and family) in a short argument, insisting she “always gets her way in the end.” While this explanation enables the plot to move forward, it is forced and out of place. Again, the reader is never shown this spoiled, railroading behavior.

In these instances, I believe the intent was to show now-story Beauty growing into independence and not letting societal conventions limit her, which would align with her character arc.

However, demonstrating this through the off-kilter statements and events does not align with Beauty’s established behavioral precedent. She consistently thinks and acts in a conscientious and humble manner, both towards her family and the Beast.

Beauty's Character Arc Foundation

Now that Beauty’s character has been examined, let’s look at the root of her nature and the lesson she needs to learn. Below is the foundation of her positive-change character arc (structured two ways from K.M. Weiland and Michael Hauge, respectively): 

The Thing She Wants: To be beautiful 
The Thing She Needs: Take responsibility to accept herself and thus make her own life choices 
The Lie She Believes: Beauty (the physical descriptor) is the equivalent of worth and choice

Her Deep Need: Be responsible for herself (who she is and what she does)
Her Wound: Negative perception of worth and capability from an enabling family, governess pity, and societal constraints
Her Belief: Being plain means her worth and choices are out of her hands
Her Fear: She will never have the freedom to do as she wants

The Beast

McKinley gives us a sophisticated and refined Beast, who is still familiar yet has great depth of personality. This section is much shorter than Beauty’s because the reader is never in the Beast’s head, only in Beauty’s. Even though we do not have access to his thoughts, his change is evident through his actions.

Narrator Beauty gives the reader a first impression of the Beast’s character when she retells her father’s fateful experience. His struggle with conditional benevolence reaches an all-time low when he blackmails Beauty’s father for his life. Operating under a wrong belief, he is unable to resist this choice opportunity to resolve his dire predicament.

When she goes to live at the castle, narrator Beauty shares her now-story perspective about his actions. His words of trust, kindness and freedom are tested multiple times to prove if he really has left behind his selfish ways.

In his third and most desperate dilemma, the reader sees his growth reach maximum success when he embraces true sacrificial-based love.

An Incongruency about the Beast

On a minor note, an issue about the Beast’s actions is revealed at the end of the book. It comes into light when he reveals the “mystery” Beauty puzzles over. This is better explained under Characters – Beauty's "Handmaid."

The Beast's Character Arc Foundation

Now that we have an idea of who the Beast is, let’s examine the root of his nature and what he needs to learn. Here is the foundation of his positive-change character arc:

The Thing He Wants: To break the curse
The Thing He Needs: To learn true sacrificial love
The Lie He Believes: He will never be freely loved because of his appearance

His Deep Need: To love regardless of the cost
His Wound: Cursed as a hideous beast for his prideful behavior
His Belief: Trickery is the only way to gain a woman’s love
His Fear: He will never be human again

Beauty's Father

Early in the story, Beauty’s father’s business failure drastically alters the family’s lifestyle. He picked himself up after the hard blow and moves forward. He decides to move north to ensure the well-being of all his children, who accept his authority to do so.

In short, Beauty’s father is shown to be a loving and responsible parent who does not let his children railroad his parental authority.

An Incongruency about Beauty's Father

On a minor note, there is one incongruency with his established behavioral precedent.

When Beauty decides she alone will “pay” for the rose, her father is quick to surrender to her short argument. He protests in their brief argument but it feels half-hearted.

I believe the intent was to make a way for Beauty to be able to leave so the story could continue. However, because of the prior incongruencies with her stated spoiled behavior, along with his passive behavior, the scene comes across oddly.

In reality, Beauty’s father would never let his daughter go in his stead to pay for the rose; he would do everything in his power to prevent his child from leaving.

Beauty's "Handmaid"

When Beauty goes to live at the castle, she is assigned a “handmaid,” which is an enchanted breeze, later revealed to be two invisible servants named Lydia and Bessie.

After developing the ability to hear their conversations, Beauty struggles to understand their vague references about a certain topic, labeling it a “mystery.” She never solves the “mystery,” which is later revealed to be the literal terms of the enchantment. 

An Incongruency about the Mystery

In the book’s conclusion, the Beast explains why Beauty was confused by Lydia and Bessie’s vague references. He states the two invisible servants have a “common-sense attitude towards everything,” and that “the terms of the magic were something their silver-polish and dust-under-the-rug consciences couldn’t understand.”

While the explanation is clever in its own right, it is incongruent with Lydia and Bessie’s actual conversations, which reveal sharp understanding about the natural and magic worlds. Unfortunately, the reader never learns the real answer behind their vague phrasing.

Additionally, the Beast’s explanation also raises the question as to why he himself is never explicit about the terms of the enchantment with Beauty. He clearly understood what they were from the beginning. I suspect this angle was simply missed when planning the solution for Lydia and Bessie’s conversations.

***

Flawed characters are not only fun to create but also enjoyable to experience as a reader. Showing that complexity is difficult but well worth the effort. The reader experiences a more fulfilling read and remembers the character you created.

Compelling characters are difficult to create. If you’re writing a story, what challenges have you encountered with your main characters?

In the 
next post, we’ll wrap up by examining how narrator Beauty's pace affects the unfolding of her romance with the Beast, the use of tension, and plot timing!

Using Beauty as a study text, I analyze why Robin McKinley was able to successfully recreate Beauty and the Beast. As McKinley knew flawed characters were relatable, I identify what makes Beauty’s primary characters tick and explore their character arc foundations. Part One focuses on the narrator and voice while Part Three breaks down romance, tension and plot.

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