In the fairytale, readers don’t learn that much about what makes Rapunzel tick. We know that’s she’s beautiful, with long golden hair, and that she has a lovely voice and likes to sing. More significantly, as far as her character’s concerned, she’s been raised by a vengeful and controlling woman. One who took her from her parents as punishment for theft, and then locked her in a tower at twelve.
How would Rapunzel turn out after such a strange and isolated childhood? When the Prince turns up in the fairytale, we see that she’s innocent and sheltered. Though initially scared by the first man she’s seen, she comes to trust and embrace him very quickly. And then naively gives away the fact that he’s being visiting to her guardian, who cuts off her hair and throws her out.
In ‘Let Down Your Hair’, my Rapunzel is called Sage. Sage narrates the story, which is set in the present in an unspecified English-speaking country. When planning the novel, I was worried about how Sage would come across. Would anyone buy that a 22 year woman could be so ignorant of technology and popular culture? How could I make so sheltered and naive a character both plausible and likeable for readers?
What ultimately helped me find Sage’s voice was remembering a girl I met who was studying classical music. She was 19 or so, but her tailored trousers and blouse looked like something a 50 year old woman might wear to work. When she spoke, her voice was so serious and formal she sounded like she was delivering a eulogy. I asked where she’d gone to school, and she said “My parents educated me themselves. They don’t approve of schools.”
The writer in me was fascinated. I asked her what it was like being home-schooled, and it was like I’d opened a stiff and bitter floodgate. She didn’t mind at the time, she said, because they told her terrible things about schools, and she’d felt grateful and lucky to be spared them. It wasn’t until she turned eighteen and went to university that she realised what they’d done.
On the academic front, her parents had done a wonderful job. She spoke two languages, played several musical instruments, and topped every subject she studied. On the social front, however, she’d found they’d basically guaranteed that she couldn’t connect with her peers.
All the other students shared so many experiences that she could never have. Teachers and classmates and uniforms. Learning in a classroom with their days sliced into periods and lunchtimes and marked by the ringing of a bell. Childhood books and TV programs they’d all watched, slang they shared, songs they all knew the words to. “I grew up in the same country as them,” she said, “but I felt like I’d come from another planet.” I asked what she’d do if she had her own children, and she said, “I would send them to school.”
Many years later, that short conversation was crucial for developing Sage. Like her, Sage is homeschooled, and does brilliantly at university but can’t connect with her peers. She only starts feeling at home in the world when Ryan (the Prince) accepts her as she is and takes her under his wing.
I never met that girl again, but I sometimes wonder what became of her. I’m not sure whether she’d be flattered or horrified by the character I based on her at 19. Even if I managed to track her down, I don’t know that I’d dare to tell her. But I hope she’s no longer as bitter as she was. I hope she found her Ryan.