I need a montage
February 25, 2014 6:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for fairy tales, myths, and similarly imaginative stories where the heroine or hero triumphs because of their perseverance or dedication to developing a skill, not because of an inherent personal characteristic or being "the chosen one."

I'm in a very unglamorous phase of (hopefully eventually) becoming a skilled artist; the phase where you are really trying to get good at something but you are painfully aware of how short your efforts fall, every little skill increase takes a gargantuan amount of effort, progress is being made but often in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of way, failure and rejection are all over the place, and (while you are privileged/lucky enough to not actually be a starving artist) you are sure not making any money from what you hope will be your profession someday.

It turns out that a lot of the stories I've felt inspired by in the past contain a "chosen one" sort of narrative: the young heroine (or hero) succeeds because they are a special kind of person, from birth, who is pure at heart enough to disperse whatever obstacles come their way. This story is definitely not working for me anymore.

So, I'm looking for stories whose heroines succeed because of their diligence, perseverance, and grind-y skill developing, not because they are INHERENTLY GOOD AND/OR CHOSEN FROM BIRTH TO BE THE SPECIAL ONE. (Heroes are okay too.) I'm interested in fairy tales, myths, and other stories with mythic resonance; not real-life examples.

A few things sort of along the lines of what I'm looking for: the basic martial arts fantasy of going and training in the mountains for 20 years before becoming a skills master. (Though specific examples of this would be great!) Lyra Belacqua of His Dark Materials needing to re-learn how to read the alethiometer at the end of The Amber Spyglass. And...that's kind of all I got right now.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by fast ein Maedchen to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Un Lun Dun by China Mieville is pretty much all about this. (It skews younger than the books you mentioned.)

Indeed, this book is the trope namer for this concept on TvTropes.
posted by jeather at 7:04 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride practiced fencing for 20 years so he could avenge his father.
posted by Skybly at 7:05 AM on February 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly has a witch who's got to study her craft everyday.

Ladies of Mandrygyn by Barbara Hambly has a bunch of women and girls training to rescue the kidnapped men of their city.

Un Lun Dun by Neil Gaiman has a funny side kick who's the actual hero.
posted by spunweb at 7:07 AM on February 25, 2014

Phyllis McGinley's lovely little story, "The Plain Princess." There's a copy here (use the search function).
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:07 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

the basic martial arts fantasy of going and training in the mountains for 20 years before becoming a skills master

That right there is Kill Bill. I think it's actually in the 2nd movie that it takes you back to Beatrix's training days.
posted by phunniemee at 7:11 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

A Knight's Tale. That's all about "changing your stars" or working your way up from where and what you were born. Granted, there's a bit of a deus ex machina at the end but I still think that results from William's determination and work. And there are a lot of training scenes.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:14 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Gwenhyfar by Mercedes Lackey features a heroine with some gifts; she goes for what's considered the "lesser" one and has to spend a long time training to become a competent warrior.

Actually, now that I think of it, that's basically what happens in Tamora Pierce's Alanna too, she has to get through a ton of hard work and practice to get to become a knight and that's most of the series. Same for the Protector of the Small series by the same author, which takes place a couple decades later in the same universe.
posted by NoraReed at 7:18 AM on February 25, 2014

posted by juniper at 7:19 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Six Swans is a Brothers Grimm tale, and used as the basis for the book Daughter of the Forest.

"Six brothers from a King's first marriage have been turned into swans by their hateful stepmother. The brothers can only take their human forms for fifteen minutes every evening. In order to free them, their sister must make six shirts out of asters for her brothers and neither speak nor laugh for six years."
posted by Requiax at 7:20 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take wander through the Discworld. There are lots of "chosen ones" who find that fate is pretty useless - Rincewind is a wizard chosen by a powerful magic spell. It crowds out all the other magic in him, making him useless as a wizard, so he gets really, really good at identifying danger and running away from it. The witches perpetually hone their craft, and evolve in their roles as they age.

The Night Watch were pretty much the dregs of the city, who struggled insanely hard to turn their weaknesses into virtues - even Carrot Ironfoundersson turned his back on destiny in favor of hard work and a humble station, and arguably achieved more than he could have as The Chosen One.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:25 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Magicians and its sequel The Magician King (both by Lev Grossman) have a strong emphasis on the idea of working your ass off to learn magic. The second book particularly resonated with me because one of the characters has to work even harder, self-teaching without access to the infrastructure of formal schooling.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:25 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm looking for stories whose heroines succeed because of their diligence, perseverance, and grind-y skill developing, not because they are INHERENTLY GOOD AND/OR CHOSEN FROM BIRTH TO BE THE SPECIAL ONE.

What about both? Because most such stories do involve Our Hero putting in a stupid amount of hours before they're ready to take on the Big Bad. They may be Chosen by Destiny to be the only one who can defeat Ultimate Evil, but Destiny doesn't always let them skip out on the grindy part of it. Take Star Wars. Both Luke and Anakin/Vader are Special, but (1) we get to see both of them doing a lot of tedious training, and (2) the difference in the way they turn out can arguably be attributed to how diligent they were in said training. Anakin wants the shortcut, goes for it, and Everything Is Ruined Forever. Luke tries this once, loses a hand, shapes up, and returns to the slow-but-steady grind of becoming who he's been Chosen to be. The whole moral of the story is that the only virtuous way is the slow, incremental, "grindy" way, and that shortcuts lead to disaster.

A lot of fantasy settings with magic work this way too. Even if only certain people can use magic and most others can't, most settings still require mages/wizards to spend years honing their craft before they can do anything useful. I'm reminded of Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind. Kvothe does seem to somehow have unique powers, but he also needs to spend an enormous amount of time in training, both in the use of sympathy and in fighting skills. Heck, even the Potterverse can't make up its mind about this, as Harry both seems to be destined to succeed no matter what he does and to be constantly at a disadvantage because he's not the world's best student.

Why not just have access to Special Powers be purely a matter of dedication? Well, mostly to answer the question of why everyonein the setting isn't a powerful magic user. True, hard work is a barrier to entry, but magic is usually so damned useful/powerful/cool that it would make sense for almost everyone to gain at least some proficiency. Adding in some kind of arbitrary You Must Be Special fixes that, if you can be okay with the handwave.

Does that change things for you at all?
posted by valkyryn at 7:38 AM on February 25, 2014

I wouldn't personally recommend it, but The Fountainhead fits the mold, if that's your thing.
posted by mkultra at 7:39 AM on February 25, 2014

Soonie and the Dragon MIGHT appeal. Soonie isn't a princess, she's a very practical no-nonsense young woman who is orphaned at the start of the book, and is forced to go out into the world and seek her fortune.

The difference is, though, that where other fairytales have the heroine just sort of blunder into good fortune, here Soonie realizes she's gotta work for it, and takes PRIDE in working for it. The first thing she does is to clean up and repair and paint the gypsy caravan she's been living in with her grandmother, and teach herself how to fish. And on her trip, she makes her fortune by singing, dancing or telling stories or doing some housework for people as she goes from town to town, and is happy enough to make just enough for a couple of potatoes or some stew meat because she's got her caravan, she's got her pony and her dog, she did some honest work, and that's good enough for her.

Later on in the book she camps out near a village and gets some work each day doing day labor for different women whose wastrel sons or grandsons or nephews are shirking in their duties; in each case she then goes to the village dance and gets flirted with by a different guy, only in each case she then finds out that he was the lazy guy in question from earlier in the day, and at each point she tells them to buzz off 'cause she ain't having that.

She does later on get her reward, and there's no definitive "montage of doing work", but it is definitely a case where honest work and practicality is what is being rewarded rather than magic or fate or anything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:41 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Tamora Pierce recommendation above. Also Robin McKinley's book The Hero and The Crown has extended parts where the heroine is working with an older horse to bring him back into fighting shape, and experimenting with a ton of combinations of an ointment formula to painstakingly figure out which one works for her needs.
posted by PussKillian at 7:41 AM on February 25, 2014

TV Tropes: level grinding. It's not as broad as I was hoping, but it makes note of Groundhog Day (not exactly a hero, but perhaps a decent fit).

Also outside the specific scope of hero/heroine: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis - Ten Thousand Hours is really about this:
Ten thousand hours
I'm so damn close I can taste it
On some Malcolm Gladwell
David-Bowie-meets-Kanye shit
This is dedication
A life lived for art is never a life wasted


The greats weren't great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great cause they paint a lot
The second section is clearly covering what you're interested in, but the first alludes to it. Ten thousand hours is a reference to Malcolm Gladwell's oft-repeated 10,000-Hour Rule in Outliers.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:41 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

heroines [who] succeed because of their diligence, perseverance, and grind-y skill developing

I'm gonna go out on a limb and add Legally Blonde.
posted by Mchelly at 8:52 AM on February 25, 2014

Came here to recommend Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series. Looks like I'm thirding that in this thread!
posted by stompadour at 8:56 AM on February 25, 2014

Response by poster: These are great suggestions, thanks everyone! Keep 'em coming!

valkyryn, I agree that "chosenness" and skill grinding don't have to be mutually exclusive, but for the purposes of this question I'd prefer any chosenness to be as de-emphasized as possible.

(And it's true, mkultra - I'm not a Fountainhead kind of person...)
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 9:00 AM on February 25, 2014

posted by ian1977 at 9:08 AM on February 25, 2014

This is perhaps less mythical than you're looking for, but there's one particular character who inspires me in exactly this way -- Captain Martin Creiff from the BBC4 radio sitcom Cabin Pressure.

Let me tell you about Martin. He's wanted to be a pilot since he was six (before that, he wanted to be an airplane). Unfortunately for Martin, he has none of the natural ability or swagger that would make such a thing easy for him. He struggles every day with the insecurity and frustration of not being good enough to do the thing that he feels like he was born to do. But damn is Martin a hard worker. He saved up money for flight school, studied every night, and took the exam to get his pilot's license.

He didn't pass the first time. He didn't pass the second time, either. But he kept working until he finally passed -- on the SEVENTH try -- by memorizing the entire flight manual. Now, as is pointed out in the series, no airline is eager to hire a pilot who took seven tries to get his pilot's license. But he finally landed a job with a small charter airline, and in a comedic but poignant twist, accepted a salary of $0 in exchange for the title of Captain.

He's fulfilling his dream, in a sense. But that dream is hobbled by the fact that his first officer Douglas has the confidence and the talent and the in-crowd old-boy swagger -- basically, everything Martin lacks. And it drives him crazy. Not to mention the fact that everyone constantly mistakes Douglas for the captain; the fact that Martin lives in a tiny room in the attic of student housing; and the fact that he is forced to work as a man with a van on his days off, just to make ends meet.

The truth is, Martin isn't a very good pilot. But here's the thing -- he's not a bad pilot either. More than once in the series, a crisis arises in flight and Martin handles it smoothly with total aplomb. He's competent. He's working to get better every single day. And at the end of the day, he can say that he is an airline captain. He is kind person, he's honest, he's persistent, and he is an incredibly hard worker.

There's so few characters like Martin in popular media -- so often, the narrative is that once you discover what you're meant to do, it comes easily, and you discover some deep well of untapped talent that allows you to sail to the top.

Except in real life, it doesn't always work like that. Sometimes when you start off at something, you're just awful at it. And you stay awful for a long time, and it feels like everyone else gets the hang of it way faster than you do, and you just get frustrated at your own lack of progress. And these times, I think, show a function of passion that we don't see all that often. Sometimes, it's a force that reveals your inner talent, but sometimes it's the only thing that keeps you playing the game, failure after failure. And it means a lot to see a show confirm that.

As lighthearted and inconsequential as the show may be, it has real heart and truth to it. I've found inspiration in Martin many times, and maybe you can as well.

(You can find most of the episodes on YouTube, if you want to give it a try. I recommend listening to them in order.)
posted by mekily at 9:13 AM on February 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh and Cats Eye by Margaret Atwood is about the life of a woman artist, the work she's done on her craft, and the relationships framing her work.

Charles de Lint is Memory and Dreamscape does a lot of the same work
posted by spunweb at 9:44 AM on February 25, 2014

I think Merida in Brave fits this quite well.
posted by blurker at 10:04 AM on February 25, 2014

The manga/anime series Hikaru no Go is kind of what you're looking for, and kind of not; the titular character is a teenage boy semi-possessed by the ghost of an ancient Go master. At first he sees this as a cheap way to win a lot of Go games, later realizing he has the opportunity to develop his own substantial genius for the game through hard work and tutelage.

So...on the one hand, he's a Chosen One because he's an unrealized Go genius, hence we later learn that the ghost appearing to him and him only is Fate or the Cosmos putting things in place etc., but on the other hand it's only apparent that he's the Chosen One after Hikaru himself decides to work really, really hard on his game.

Bonus: most of the other supporting characters are extremely hard-working and talented and their triumphs and passions are not irrelevant to the storyline.
posted by daisystomper at 10:12 AM on February 25, 2014

Have you seen the Lego movie yet?
posted by mdn at 10:19 AM on February 25, 2014

Kiki's Delivery Service is my jam for this mood (Miyazaki said he was channeling his struggles as young animator in that one).

Seconding knitting shirts for swan brothers stories-- Hans Christian Andersen has a version.
posted by Erasmouse at 10:40 AM on February 25, 2014

Wax on, wax off.

Karate Kid is a little unrealistic in that he is good enough to win the tournament match in a ridiculously short amount of time. But I always liked the scene where, after he is forced to endlessly repeat a seemingly unrelated, tedious task (sand the floor), it is revealed that he has achieved muscle memory essential to mastery of karate.
posted by rekrap at 10:46 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Slap*Happy's Discworld rec is a good one, and I will point you directly toward Terry Pratchett's "The Wee Free Men."

Tiffany Aching's gift is making cheese. She's really good at it. But she's also very, very angry that a supernatural creature has stolen her brother, and that people are so cruel to oddly-behaved old ladies. Her weapon is a cast-iron pan. She is not chosen. But she knows she has a job to do even if she's not equal to it and not, technically, a witch yet. It's a funny, well-written, and, yes, inspirational fairy tale about the cheese-maker/little witch that could, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. You can read an excerpt here.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:00 PM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, this is neither a myth nor a fairy tale. But I was always very impressed to hear how British solo yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur loved sailing from a very early age, and saved up her school lunch money for three years to buy her first boat. And I'm not sure whether that was Primary School or Secondary School lunch money. That's discipline and determination.

"When she broke the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005, Ellen MacArthur was not just the best woman, but the best period, in the sport."
posted by glasseyes at 2:27 PM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

'...similarly imaginative stories...' so...fiction? Here's the thing: perseverance and persistence are - in fact - boring. Ask any musician with a daily practice or competitive athlete. I think real-life narratives will scratch that itch better. Off the top of my head, this guy, rowed across the Atlantic and rollerbladed from Florida to Colorado (further later, I think). This guy took his med school entrance exams in a shack in sub-Saharan Africa. She won the Iditarod. Regular folks who accumulated knowledge and skill. OTOH...

Ender, Petra, and Bean practiced their asses off.

Father Emilio Sandoz spent his life becoming a premiere linguist.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:43 PM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Legally Blonde! It's got two training montages that are about studying!
posted by cadge at 3:29 PM on February 25, 2014

Also, I know you said you don't want real life examples, and in fact the wording of your post makes me think you've already seen this, but I simply can't resist linking to Ira Glass's excellent, excellent piece on exactly this topic.
posted by mekily at 10:33 PM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Robin McKinley's heroine in Chalice is unexpectedly required to fill the role of local magic-binder-togetherer (sorta?) when the previous m-b-t dies unexpectedly. The heroine has no clue what she's doing and no training, and has it work it all out on her own. She's nominated for this job because of her innate power (so she's slightly chosen) but she has no idea how it works, and the onus is on her to find out.

It has a fairy tale vibe and is slow-paced. (Maybe a gradual montage is just what you need?) I'm a McKinley fan since childhood, and this is one of my favourites among her novels. It held up to a second reading for me.
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:27 AM on February 26, 2014

Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain." Taran starts off as an Assistant Pig-Keeper, and over the course of five books discovers his past. Book four, "Taran Wanderer" details the bulk of this effort, and features exactly the sort of hard-work montage you are looking for as he travels from job to job. One of my personal favorites.
posted by JDC8 at 11:32 AM on February 26, 2014

Kenichi: Mightiest Disciple
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:10 PM on February 26, 2014

“If you trust in yourself. . .
and believe in your dreams. . .
and follow your star. . .
you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy.”

A very strong nthing of Discworld in general and the Tiffany Aching series in particular.
posted by C^3 at 2:16 AM on February 27, 2014

Also, try "The Eyes of the Dragon" by Stephen King. It features the Chosen One trope, but then he gets thrown in jail and has to grind to escape.
posted by sirvinegar at 12:32 PM on February 27, 2014

First episode of Samurai Jack.
posted by rock'em sock'em puppets at 4:55 PM on March 1, 2014

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