Wednesday, December 14, 2011

VP4W Retrospective

The Virgin's Promise for Writers

Looking back on the arc of Kim Hudson's Virgin's Promise, we've come a long way. You might be tempted to say it's only the story of someone in a community who, constrained by a web of expectations, finds a way to grow into their dream, make a new place for themselves, and make the community better in the process. But that's both too curt and a touch dismissive.

First, like the Hero's Journey, the phases in the arc of the Virgin's Promise are each significant because each represents a failure point--that is, a test of character where a different decision puts an end to personal growth and returns the protagonists to their Dependent World. The personal transformation in both cases requires courage, determination, and stamina but in very different ways. While the hero faces an antagonist who is evil because his actions threaten the village, the Virgin faces antagonists who are good, or at least well intentioned. Even if the Kingdom suffers from a festering evil, the Virgin is only in danger after she exposes and challenges that evil. The Hero's courage to persevere in the face of a life-or-death threat is very different from the Virgin's courage to persevere in the face of well-meaning people who want her to accept her place in the community because they believe its the best way to make the most people happy.

Second, like all stories of real change, the process involves a number of necessary steps. In any particular case, the person going through the transformation may move quickly from one particular phase to another, but they short-circuit the transformation if they skip too many steps. Take the simpler example of grief: going from denial straight to acceptance means you didn't actually grieve. So too, if the Virgin goes from Opportunity to Shine to the Kingdom is Brighter it means that the web of expectations wasn't that constricting after all.

The necessity of the majority of the phases in the arc is clearer if we map the phases into a three-act structure.

Introduction (Establishing Context)
The Dependent World
The Price of Conformity
Opportunity to Shine (the Inciting Incident)
Act I (first try/fail cycle)
Dresses the Part
The Secret World
No Longer Fits Her World
Caught Shining (First Failure)
Act II (second try/fail cycle)
Gives up What Kept Her Stuck
The Kingdom in Chaos
Wanders in the Wilderness (Second Failure)
Act III (final try/succeed cycle)
Chooses Her Light
Re-ordering (Rescue)
The Kingdom is Brighter (resolution)
It is, however, not simply a matter of trying three times. The transformation occurs through the process of trying, growing, and failing in each cycle. Put another way, the Virgin given an Opportunity to Shine is capable of taking the small steps that bring her to The Secret World where she has a safe place to grow, but would wither if thrown into the challenges of Wanders in the Wilderness.

So what does it mean?

Beyond the obvious application to fictional character development, there are lessons for our own development, both as writers and as individuals.

Perhaps the most important for both life and fiction is that true change is neither quick nor easy. There is no growth without pain. It may be the acute pain of direct conflict or the chronic pain of a transformation that comes only after a long, slow process.

Moreover, failure is not only common but necessary to the process. That this is so is clearer in the the arc of the Virgin's Promise because her goal, particularly through Caught Shining, is not to change her world but simply to make a better place in it for herself. Her failure to balance the increasingly conflicting demands force her out of the places that are comfortable and safe into new territory where she must discover and draw upon resources she never knew she had.

Knowing these things won't make your cycles of growth less painful. But in recognizing them, you can take solace in the knowledge, even as you Wander in the Wilderness, that you're not alone and that if you find the hidden reservoirs of strength to stay true to your dream the Kingdom will be Brighter.

Image: Simon Howden /

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