Friday, April 11, 2008

10 Things I've Learned From Reading Fairy Tales

10. Females make good villains. In many of the modern fairy tales, the villain is the evil stepmother, out to ruin the future of the pampered princess. In romance fiction, more often than not the villain ends up being male. The books where the villain is female are the ones that usually have the best unexpected twists and turns.

9. In modern fairy tales, the hero or heroine learns something vital about themselves. We're talking character arc, which is as important to romantic fiction as it is to Belle from Beauty & The Beast.

8. "Once Upon A Time" could be today, tomorrow or five-hundred years ago, depending on your interpretation. Take me to a place I don't know, describe it well and hook me, and I'll believe anything you have to tell me. As it is in fairy tales, world-building in any novel is important to making the story believable.

7. Fairy tales are not just for kids. Most modern day fiction is based, in some part, on the classic fairy tale structure of good vs. evil. Classic fairy tale story lines - Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince - can be retold in a thousand different ways and still be as exciting as the originals. It's all in how it's done. And readers love to see the familiar redone in a brand new way. (Think: Ever After)

6. Not every princess needs to be rescued. Sometimes it's the prince who needs to be saved. Taking a classic fairy tale and turning it upside down is a new twist on an old story.

5. Popular paranormal & fantasy fiction has its roots in classic fairy tales. Elves, dwarves, magicians, werewolves, fae, goblins, witches, giants and talking animals aren't new but date back to at least the 1500's when cultures used fairy tales to explain their beliefs in witches and demons. Arabian fairy tales are recorded as far back as the 1200's. And the oldest known written fairy tales stem from Egypt c 1300 AD. Think you're writing something new and different? Think again.

4. Children's fairy tale movies are a great source of research for a writer. Say what you will about Disney movies, but the writers at Disney do a good job with internal/external conflict, character arcs and basic plots. If you haven't yet figured out story structure, watching simple fairy tales are a good way to learn.

3. Not all fairy tales end happily. And romantic fiction - depending on the genre, the series, etc. - doesn't necessarily have to end 100% happily either. Especially in series books where there's some kind of external struggle which over-arcs from one book to the next, so long as the protagonists have their own miniature-version of happily ever after, your reader will be pleased. Just don't leave them hanging.

2. Because of the HEA factor, people tend to dis romantic fiction just like they do fairy tales - for being far-fetched and unreal. Hence, the "fairy tale romance" or "fairy tale ending". Considering fairy tales are so deeply rooted in history and every culture on the planet, I now consider the romance industry's comparison to fairy tales as a compliment rather than a put-down.

And finally,

1. Modern fairy tales appeal to readers for the same reason romantic fiction does - because in a world where things go wrong on a daily basis and everywhere you turn, bad things are happening, it's nice to know there's a place you can go to have the promise of the "happily ever after".

For a list of classic fairy tales including title (with link), year, author and where the tale is from, check out this link.

Wanna test your fairy tale IQ? Check out this quiz and tell us how you did.

What's your favorite fairy tale? And have you learned anything significant about writing from fairy tales?


Paty Jager said...

Way to go, Eli, now I feel even more inferior! LOL I have read very few of the classic fairytales. The only ones I know are the Disney versions since my children devoured those movies. I took the quiz and got a poor 18%. I hadn't even heard of most of those fairytales!

As for my favorite- I don't really have one. But I like how you so analytically deduced the information for this blog. Wish I had a brain- Hey wait, is The Wizard of Oz a fairytale? If so, I'd vote for that- afterall the scarecrow and I have a lot in common.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

LOL, Paty. Yes, The Wizard Of Oz is considered a fairy tale. That's one I can honestly say I have never liked. All those flying monkeys??? ***shuuuuuuddddder*** Gave me nightmares as a kid and still does.

Alice Sharpe said...

Nicely written, Eli!

I am a big Grimm's fairytales fan. I wrote a term paper in high school on the two brothers who moved through villages collecting the stories (which were based on folklore.) They were usually, if I remember correctly, cautionary tales, or tales of wonder, like the cloth that could be spread on the ground and would be covered with food.

Alas, I took the test and got only 45%! Thankfully, I have two very old Grimm's Fairytale books sitting on a shelf directly to my left, books so old their bindings are coming loose and pages slip out. It's time to reread them....

I like the linear way Disney interpreted the tales, added music, and made for HEA, but it's true, they do take out the rough edges that give the tales their original depth. However, that said, keep in mind the original tales were not just for children, and children, of course, have not always been treated as though they do not know or understand the seamier side of life. But that's a different story and some children today know things no child should be burdened with.

I believe I digressed. Fun blog!

Alice Sharpe said...

Is the Wizard of Oz a fairytale? I don't think of it as one. Baum wrote the series of books for a child he knew -- a relative, a niece or daughter, I can't remember, and not that long ago. Are you sure it's classified as a fairytale?

I'll have to look that up...

Alice Sharpe said...

Eli, okay, I was wrong, The Wizard of Oz is a fairytale as you knew and I falsely accused of being an impostor!

Back to the drawing board...

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Yeah, Alice, TWOO is considered a fairy tale by some, but, that said, the line between fairy tale, folklore, fable and myth is very blurry. It's near the bottom of the list I linked.

And you're right, the original fairy tales were not intended only for children. That came later - during the 19th & 20th centuries. Older, classic fairy tales often had sexual references (Think: Rapunzel) and violent subject matter (The Juniper Tree had its cannibalistic stew cut in later versions to make it more "child friendly").

Karen Duvall said...

I'm a huge fairytale fan! I haven't read them all, but I've always been intrigued by legends and lore that have obvious themes and moral endings. Sigh. Fairytales are what made me fall in love with storytelling.

That said, I'm actually not well-versed in Grimm. I love all the classics, the most familiar stories. I have to say Cinderella is my absolute favorite! And the movie Ever After is such an excellent rendition of the tale in a more realistic way, but still with all the same problems that befell poor Cinderella (Danielle De Barbarac in the movie version).

I'm sure I've absorbed a lot from fairytales to influence my writing. No doubt about it.

As for Oz? Love the story! I consider it a fairytale due to all the symbolism and iconic references, the classic good vs evil, the quest. It follows Vogler's Hero's Journey exactly. But the flying monkeys scared me, too, as a child. In my book, I base my gargoyle Shui on them, except that Shui's wings are webbed, not feathered.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Karen, I love how modern fairy tales are turned upside down these days - movies like Shrek, Enchanted, Happily Never After - all contemporary takes on the children's classics.

And oh, boy...your gargoyle is modeled after the flying monkey's in Oz????? Okay, when your book is pubbed I will not be able to read it at night. Or in a room with only a little light. Or within five hours of bedtime...

wavybrains said...

I love fairy tales. I always liked fairy tales with a happy ending (versus kids being eaten (Red Riding Hood) or shoved in ovens (Hansel and Gretel). I also like Fairy Tales with an active heroine. I think Beauty and the Beast is probably my all-time favorite.

If you are interested in an analysis of fairy tales, "Women who run with wolves" is an amazing book about the psychology of women that uses Fairy Tales.

Genene Valleau said...

Good post, Eli!

I've mostly watched the Disney version of fairy tales -- over and over and over thanks to the grandkids -- and did notice the Disney writers do a very good job of character arcs, and plots.

I don't really have a favorite, though Toy Story sticks in my mind as having great character arcs and lovable heroes with flaws who eventually do the right thing in spite of themselves. It's not one of the classic fairy tales. Sometimes the older fairy tales were kinda scary, as others have mentioned (witches eating children, etc.)

I've definitely used fairy tales in my writing and have done a presentation on doing this to hit the major highlights of a story and make sure all the basic parts are included.

I chickened out on doing the quizzes. What kind of a grandmother would I be if I didn't know most of the answers? Figured it was just better I not know! :)

Very interesting post!

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I like Beauty & the Beast, too, Wavy.

Did you ever read The Paperbag Princess? Hilarious feminist view on the princess society thinks needs to be rescued.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I love Toy Story, Genene. The only problem I have with Disney is that for some reason they don't like mothers. ;) It seems the mother is always either 1) dead (or eaten as is Finding Nemo) or 2) the evil stepmother. Very few of the Disney versions of fairy tales have the mothers hanging around.

I loved your presentation on using fairy tales in your plotting, Genene. I was thinking of you when I wrote this blog.

Genene Valleau said...

Geez, Eli, you're right about Disney and mothers! They must have mostly male writers.

That was related to the other comment I was going to make. I've taken to heart your point that females make good villains. In the series I'm planning, I'm going to come up with a female villain and see where that takes the plot. That's a very intriguing idea.

However, I don't want to use the evil stepmother or kill off the mom. I want to be more creative than that. Thanks for that tip.

Alice Sharpe said...

Ditto on the mother thing -- perhaps it's because a child without a mother is vulnerable and vulnerability is the hallmark of a compelling character. Loosing a mother is a very traumatic event and a girl being raised by a father and having to rescue him seems to be one of the themes. Plus, in olden times, women's life expectancy wasn't good -- women died in childbirth, etc., and men tended to remarry...

I've had a female bad guys. In the last one, everyone thought it was her husband but it was really her. I'm going to stick in one in one of these books, too...

thanks, Eli.