Jane Espenson discusses fairy tales, strong female characters and what makes a good villain tick.
Once Upon A Time and Once Upon A Time Wonderland are shows that not only celebrate the female heroine, but also give us interesting villains that go beyond a stereotype. One of the show’s writers, Jane Espenson, recently shared her passion for both series and explained her writing process for the shows’ characters and stories.
FGC: Once Upon A Time is known for its strong and independent female characters. In fact, the characters are the exact opposite of the Disney princesses that we’re familiar with. When you started to go into writing these characters, was this a priority?
JE: It was never articulated, but, obviously, Eddie [Edward Kitsis] and Adam [Adam Horowitz], in regards to the pilot, already had it all shot, approved, and everything. Before you hire a staff, that’s how it always works. So they had already done that sort of conceptionalization of Snow White – having her grab for the sword. She grabs for Charming’s sword at the wedding when Regina comes in. And I think that one gesture was so important. I think that one move really defined that this is a different Snow White. Snow White does not traditionally reach for weapons. Our Snow White does.
The fact that the females are all so strong is actually sort of an inheritance from fairy tale tradition. If you try to come up with male characters from fairy tales, you’ve got Rumpelstiltskin and a bunch of princes. But if you start thinking about women, you’ve got all those witches and all those princesses and they’ve got different characteristics. Fairy tales have fairly thin and thready creatures. They aren’t full of character development, but you sort of get that Goldilocks has this inherent curiosity and desire for things to be just right. Cinderella has the wish for something beyond her world.
Fairy tales are about girls with dreams. Maybe because they’re part of a female narrative tradition, but it’s kind of built into fairy tales – that the women are the ones who are striving and doing things. Even the witches, they’ve got gall and the’re pro-active and they make apples and stuff. Who makes apples?
FGC: Speaking of which, I love Regina and Rumpelstiltskin. Their characters straddle that line between good and evil. When you’re writing those characters, how do you make sure that you’re keeping the viewers guessing as to what those characters’ motivations are?
JE: I try to identify with every character as I write them. So if I’ve got a bad person making a rationale for why they’re doing this bad thing, I want to believe it. I want to go, “This is what I would do if I were in their situation.” If I were this man and I felt that this was something I had to do, here are the reasons I would give for doing it. So I think as long as you put yourself in those shoes, those characters will always seem grounded and reasoned. I think if you don’t like a character when you write them, you get in big trouble. So you’ve got to believe in your bad guy when you’re writing him.
For keeping people guessing, if you make a complex enough character, so you just don’t go, “Well that person always does the wrong thing.” Regina tends to do the wrong thing, but for really identifiable reasons. Rumpel, his reasons have been, to this point, about finding his son, so he’s got very good reasons for doing what he does. But he’s playing the long game. So it’s very hard to tell how the steps he’s taking now all fits into his long game. And that keeps people guessing just by the nature of the fact that he’s been working for hundreds of years on this project to get to his son, so it’s a pretty complicated project.
FGC: Is there anything in particular in season 3 that we haven’t seen yet that you’re really excited for fans to see?
JE: All of season 3. It’s so amazing. I just turned in, the day before yesterday, a pass at some scenes I’m working on for the episode that ties up the first half of the season. And where we’re headed at the end of this arc, it is so good. So stunning. So satisfying. I can’t wait for people to see where we’re headed.
FGC: You’re also writing for Wonderland. So far, it’s feeling completely different from Once Upon A Time. How different is it from Once and are there any similarities?
JE: It certainly takes place in the same universe – that same sense of magic and creatures, but what I think is added is that sense of Lewis Carroll wordplay. We’re really respecting that. We all went out and re-read the books. There’s a line in the second episode that just aired where Alice has a different outfit on and the Knave says “Where did you get the clothes.” And she says, “The clothes horse came by.” And there’s some stuff coming up in an episode I wrote that’s got some good puns in it. And the mallow marsh, I wrote that part of the season premiere. And I was like, “It’s a marsh filled with marshmallows!’ That, like, kills me. I love a good pun.
So it’s got that, in addition to quite a dark tone. So it’s got a mixture of the light and the dark. It’s different from the original Once, but it’s like two flavors of pie in the same pie shop. We’ve also got Jafar and we’ve got these great villains. I think you’ll see them becoming more grounded as you get to know them better. But the wordplay continues in the most delightful way.
FGC: When you go into writing for both Once Upon A Time and Wonderland, are the writing sessions similar or different, and how?
JE: They’re really different. The two writers rooms are very near each other, on the same floor of the same building. When one room gets really loud and excited, we can hear it in our room. From both rooms. But they function very differently. So the Once room is quieter. Somebody from the Wonderland staff said, “Everytime I walk by your room, you guys are sitting there, thinking.” It’s the room where we sit and we think. And one person, the head writer, does all of the writing on the board and does most of the pitching to the guys. It’s very elegant.
The other room [Wonderland] is much more “AUGHHH!” People are shouting stuff out and everybody does their own writing on the board and it’s just more – I discovered that one’s a dancer and one’s an athlete. And they’re both good and they both come out with this great product. But yeah, very different dynamics in the two rooms.
Don’t miss Once Upon A Time on Sundays at 8/7c and Wonderland on Thursdays at 8/7c.