SERIES INTRO: As a speculative fiction writer, you need to know your genres. Why? Knowing your genres makes it easier to find your readers. Even if you’re not excited by the thought of marketing your book, knowing your readers helps you make the right creative choices. And, let’s face it, you save a lot of time if you can make those choices earlier rather than later.
The idea behind this series is to give you a tour of the sub-genres you’ll most often find within the different spec-fic genres. It’s a whistle-stop trip, so buckle up and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to read the rest of the posts in the series: fantasy, science fiction, horror, magical realism, superhero fiction, alternative history and alternative reality, dystopian literature, post-apocalyptic fiction, surrealism, cyberpunk and steampunk.
Classic vs Contemporary
Let me start with a confession: I’ve never been a big fan of fairy tales. As a child I thought the characters were always too flat, and the stories had a disgusting whiff of social control about them.
Then I grew into a dysfunctional adult who had a lot of psychoanalysis. Among other things, the analytic process taught me about the real value of fairy tales, especially for writers.
I also discovered the more attractive, subversive appeal of contemporary fairy tales.
In this post, I’ll share some of what I learned. Read on, safe in the knowledge that – unlike my psychoanalysis – it won’t take ten years or cost you the equivalent of a medium-sized house in the Midlands.
What Are Fairy Tales?
One thing’s for sure – fairy tales aren’t kids’ stuff. Behold the gore, cruelty, sexism, speciesism, racism and tragedy in The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (translated by Jack Zipes), and you’ll probably think twice about reading them to your littlies at bedtime.
As Professor Eric Rabkin points out in his excellent lecture series Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind, traditional fairy tales are simply stories which have been transmitted through generations via the oral tradition.
These oral origins account for their ear-worm quality, as in the well-known opening, ‘Once upon a time …’, and the equally famous (but actually not very common) ending, ‘… and they all lived happily ever after’.
The fact that fairy tales were told aloud rather than written down also means that they exist in many different versions. You’ll see what I mean if you compare the Zipes volume of fairy tales with Philip Pullman’s more child-friendly collection Grimm Tales: For Young and Old.
They exist across different cultures, too, and have their roots in classical mythology, or perhaps in something even deeper.
But my take-home message is that contemporary writers of speculative fiction can and should use traditional fairy tales to create their own contribution to the sub-genre.
Why Write Fairy Tales?
You should consider harnessing the power of fairy tales if you’re a writer who wants to …
Influence or comment on society
Fairy tales are undeniably powerful. Indeed, it has been argued that the purpose behind the Grimm brothers’ own collections was to promote a unified German culture. In the twentieth century, writers like Angela Carter – in The Bloody Chamber, for example – used fairy tales as a basis for fiction that overturned oppressive social norms. There’s plenty of scope for twenty-first century writers to follow suit.
Take an archetypal approach to character
Yes, the characters in traditional fairy tales are indeed flat. But that’s because they’re archetypes. Yet contemporary fairy tales (such as Joanne Harris’s Chocolat) are populated with archetypal characters who have life and vitality while still appealing to our collective unconscious.
Touch readers at a profound level
In his landmark work The Uses of Enchantment, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim argues that fairy tales work on our unconscious, helping us navigate challenging life events and periods of change or difficulty. Contemporary fairy tales can work well at this level, too: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a moving exploration of existential crises such as childlessness, ageing, isolation and loss.
Build on a tried, tested and highly systematic framework
It’s clear that traditional fairy tales are formulaic. In fact, they’re so predictable that the Russian scholar Vladimir Propp managed to outline their common elements in his book Morphology of the Folk Tale. But this doesn’t mean that your fairy tale needs to lack sophistication, life or surprise. After all, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is really a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, but it could never be called flat or derivative.
The Anatomy of Fairy Tales
Propp’s book is well worth reading if you’re interested in finding out exactly what makes fairy tales tick. To give a very quick overview, he claims that every fairy tale contains the same 31 narrative elements (which he calls narratemes).
Even at first glance, it’s clear that Propp’s scheme has something in common with the hero’s journey, albeit with extra details.
Importantly, the narrative functions are divided between eight main character categories. The action is traditionally led by the male hero, whose function is to set the world to rights by winning the hand of the heroine, and the favour of her father.
But of course, that’s just a starting point. It’s up to you to create your very own fairy tale ending. What does happily ever after look like to you? Get writing.