I love fairy tales, and not just the Disney ones. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney and their recent takes are worth a long look. However, the classic fairy tales provide stronger lessons for writers. I suppose by now you’re wondering how. How, with such shallow characters and simplistic plots, could these stories teach us about writing in today’s world? How, when they are for children, can they teach us about writing more mature content? The answer is easy: they’re not simple and they’re not just for children.
As an undergrad I took more than my fair share of classes on fairy tales, including a comparative literature course. In these classes I read more than the ones our (American) parents read to us. The gritty originals, non-European tales, and the more obscure of the European stories filled the syllabi.
These classes helped us to read fairy tales as more than the stereotypical image of a “fairy tale.” We examined the stories as symbols of different cultures and time periods. Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, all of these classic tales have been explored in many time periods and many nations. The various versions of the same story or the same archetype reveal the shifting of values and attitudes both across time and geographically.
I’m sorry, I got off-track. I’m so enthralled with studying fairy tales, legends, myths, and folklore for their cultural implications that I get a bit carried away.
I consider fairy tales early incarnations of short stories. They began as oral tales and so were simplified to make them easier to remember, but they’re short stories nonetheless. Plots, characters, themes, they have all the basic elements of a good short story.
The deceptively simple surfaces of fairy tales make them the perfect tool for studying these elements. The plots are straightforward, allowing us to examine narrative arcs; the characters are simple and yet captivating, giving us the bare bones of a good character while leaving room for development; the themes are multilayered, some clearly exposed to the audience and others hiding beneath the surface, teaching us about subtext. Most importantly, whatever we dislike in a fairy tale helps us learn what to avoid in our own writing.
For example, I’m not a fan of most Snow White stories. Some of them, even some older ones, have intriguing additions that others do not but many of them, in my opinion, are frustrating. I despise her passivity. For some deep-seeded psychological reason that I can’t identify, I can get past that flaw in most Sleeping Beauty stories, but I absolutely hate it in Snow White tales. The older I’ve become and the more I study fairy tales, the more I dislike Snow White’s passivity. Perhaps it’s not even her passivity I hate as much as her utter lack of agency.
That’s why, even when a female character is passive overall, I find a way to give her some agency. Sometimes it’s as small as internally complaining about an invasive male or as significant as her ordering a man to get out when he doesn’t get the hint. I’m tired of passive female characters having no agency, probably because I worry that I’m so passive that I let myself get stepped on, and so I work to incorporate female characters with agency, whether they are passive or aggressive.
Fairy tales may be considered “children’s stories” nowadays but they haven’t always been that way. They were once oral tales told by adults to keep themselves entertained while working and were later adapted to serve as cautionary tales for children. They can teach us a lot, and not only about the times and cultures from which they come. They’re worth re-reading as adults and as writers to learn more about the bare basics of our crafts. Besides, they’re entertaining and easy to read, a good break from our everyday stresses.