The Look of a Leader

Last weekend, I saw Black Panther (directed by Ryan Coogler). The phrase kingly bearing came to mind as I watched Chadwick Boseman play the titular character.

Don’t worry. I won’t give any spoilers about the film. This post isn’t so much about the film as it is about the phrase I mentioned above.

Dictionary.com has this definition of kingly:

stately or splendid, as resembling, suggesting, or befitting a king; regal

Not that you needed that term defined. I looked it up, because I thought of the preconceived ideas many of us have about how kings/queens or other significant leaders should look and act—what we think “befit[s] a king.”

When you think of a king/queen (fictional or nonfictional), do any of the following adjectives come to mind?

• Decisive
• Intelligent/Skilled
• Charismatic
• Bold
• Honorable
• Tall/Attractive
• Wise

They do in my head. T’Challa of Wakanda (Boseman’s character, the 1966 creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) fits all of the above. But he is a fictional king. So why, I asked myself, do I have the idea that a person with a “kingly bearing” fits those adjectives (or at least most of those)? Probably because of Saul, Israel’s first king. Check out this description, which I found in 1 Samuel 9 (in the Bible):

There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people (vv. 1-2, ESV).

A month ago, I watched a 2006 PBS documentary on Marie Antoinette, written and directed by David Grubin. Marie Antoinette, as you know, was married to Louis XVI of France. But the historians interviewed in the film probably would not have used most of the adjectives in the list above above to describe Louis XVI. Biography.com had this to say about him: “He was introverted, shy and indecisive, a lover of solitary pleasures such as reading and metalwork.”

Louis XVI of France when he was the Dauphin of France.
By Louis-Michel van Loo – Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4936896

There are many other kings in history who don’t fit the mold either. I’m sure you can think of several whose tyranny or abdication of leadership to more forceful individuals made them a blight on history. But whenever I inject a king or a leader equivalent to a king into a fictional story, I have the image of a Saul or a T’Challa. (And yes I know that Saul was not considered an ideal king. But he had that “kingly bearing.”)

Watching the movie and thinking about my views on “kingly bearing” made me realize that I need to go beyond preconceived ideas when I create characters. It’s not enough to have a character “look the part” (i.e., merely having traits borrowed from other similar characters), which can make that person seem cliché. He or she needs to be fully realized—warts and all.

Kitty knows that she has the look of a leader. Don’t let the cupcake fool you.

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther photo from trends44.com. Kitty photo by L. Marie.

37 thoughts on “The Look of a Leader

  1. This makes me wonder if most kings in history fail to meet this criteria. It feels very romanticized considering we’re talking about people who tend to be flawed. This ideal could be born more out of fiction or royal propaganda than reality. That’s why we see it more in fiction and mythology.

    • I wondered that too. Usually when actors are chosen to portray kings, they have the ideal. Even if their characters are evil kings, they might still have that “kingly” look.

      I agree about the propaganda. Some royal portraits seemed designed to make the kings look more powerful and stately than they probably were in real life.

  2. I don’t write kings. I once co-taught a writing workshop on character, and the other teacher pointed out that there are four types of protagonists — the leaders or Chosen Ones, the ordinary person or Everyman, the underdog, and the anti-hero. He was an avid writer of anti-heroes. I’m attracted to ordinary people and underdogs, so regal bearings don’t work for mine.

    • I’m also attracted to the ordinary, Lyn. But I have noticed that any leader types I have usually have a certain look. I’m trying to get past my preconceived ideas.

  3. Thought you might enjoy this Fiction Prompt from Poets & Writers:

    February 26 is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. To honor the occasion, try writing your own fairy tale with a contemporary twist. If you need some inspiration, examples abound of stories influenced by the magical logic and archetypes of fairy tales. In Robert Coover’s “The Frog Prince,” for example, a woman marries a frog and kissing him offers her a hallucinogenic experience. The anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books, 2010), edited by Kate Bernheimer with Carmen Giménez Smith, is filled with diverse approaches to the retelling of classic fairy tales. What elements of modern life or progressive point of view will you incorporate into your tale?

    Happy National Tell a Fairy Tale Day! 😀

  4. My view of kings (historical, not fictional) is that they are a mixed bag ~> some are self-indulgent egotistical spoiled rotten brats. Others stepped reluctantly onto the throne for the good of their country and countrymen.

    As writers, we need not follow a single stereotype. We can create and craft the specific character needed to advance our story.

    • Great advice, Nancy. I agree that many historical kings have been a mixed bag. It’s so interesting that fictional kings differ in some ways (though many are just as lacking in character as some fictional kings).

  5. Ever since watching the series Reign, I’m obsessed with stories about historical Kings and Queens. I researched Mary Queen of Scots because the show is mostly fiction. I had to find out what really happened to her. Both her real persona and on the fiction show, she had “kingly/queenly bearing.” Whoever wrote for the characters on that show did a wonderful job of showing “kingly bearing” in the lead characters, serious flaws and all. Not to mention, the actors themselves.

    Have a nice weekend, L. Hopefully it will warm up like they’re saying. But, I just got home and it’s still cold.

    • I need to watch that series, Lori. I love learning about rulers from the past. Their lives are so different from ours. Mary Queen of Scots would be interesting to learn about!

      I was glad to watch the documentary on Marie Antoinette. She was not as unforgivably villainous as I once thought. Granted, she was clueless about the economic state of her people, which is what led to her downfall.

      Hope you have a good weekend too!

      • Hey L. If you watch Reign, just make sure you know that a lot of it is fiction. I researched to find out what was true and what wasn’t, which I recommend. It was interesting to learn that the parts that had some fantasy came from real claims that the French court back then was into the occult. They were also really advised by Nostradamus. However, a lot of the drama that takes place (in the show) in the French court did not happen. Still super fun to watch.

      • Okay. Thanks for the head’s up, Lori. It’s interesting that so many shows are about royalty. I can’t help thinking of Victoria and The Crown.

      • Yes, you’re right, lots of shows about royalty these days. It’s probably a trend. I don’t usually follow trends, but this one I like. 🙂

  6. Ha! It’s probably living under a monarchy that does it, but some of the words I think of in association with kings wouldn’t be fit to print! 😉 But I think my fictional idea of kingly would be Aragorn, and he’d fit all of your words. There are of course a few less desirable kings even in LOTR though…

  7. In some West African countries kingdoms are not only comprised of ‘leaders’ but often are the keepers of the tribal histories and again, often through music…And the lineage is female. More info can be found in the book: ‘The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe’ by Nwando Achebe.
    Sat in on a class last year with my middle child (PhD candidate in African Educational and Peace policies specifically Mali/Cote d’Ivoire and in indigenous languages) where the prof was the daughter of the author. So fascinating and still ‘living’ history.

  8. When I think of kings I think of two: the Biblical King David and the legendary King Arthur. Honorable, but not without flaws. As a teenager, I was captivated by The Once and Future King, first seeing the movie Camelot (on assignment for the school newspaper 🙂 ) and then spending a weekend reading the book (which gives you an idea of how my dating went).

    • I also thought of David and Arthur, Penny, especially since David was not like Saul.

      I read The Once and Future King many years ago. Sooo good! Yeah, I can imagine how your weekends were, since that book is not short!

      • Thinking of expectations for a king I also thought of Arthur-not as the wise warrior King but the early Arthur in the story-the young boy who nobody expected to pull that sword from the stone.
        My favourite Arthur books are the Warlord Chronicles trilogy that start with The Winter King.

      • I love that part of The Once and Future King when he was “Wart.”

        I’ll have to check out the Warlord Chronicles! I’m in the mood for a good trilogy.

      • It’s great-though it’s been quite a few years since I’ve read it I found it to be a more earthy telling than the magical Camelot version. I recall that I loved it. In fact I think I’m edging closer to a revisit!

      • Yes he’s depicted as a warlord rather than a mystical King, and I think Lancelot doesn’t come out of it too well! No spoilers though 😀 I will reread it.

      • Wow. I like the idea of him as a warlord.
        I have to ask you, why do you think Guy Ritchie’s film version of King Arthur flopped when the character is so beloved in literature?

      • I haven’t seen it yet. Have you? I did hear that Merlin didn’t feature, maybe they are holding him back for a further film.

  9. You know me, the most non-movie going friend you have, but when I saw a commercial for Black Panther, I immediately thought of you. 🙂 When I think of kings, I immediately think of honor. I’m glad Kitty knows…I knew she would! 🙂

  10. Louis XVi was probably like you describe him, Linda, but not only . He was a scientist, a geopgraph and he made a powerfull French Navy which blocked the British along the American coasts and allowed the victory of the American Insurgents . Beside he gave money znf troupd to the insurgents. So the Americans can say thanks to this king who was openlminded ; bUT THIS HELP ruined the French finances and this is one of the causes of the Revolution. (
    Love ❤
    Michel

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