Fairy tale fad

First off, I got an email this week from The Alliance for Independent Authors saying that “you have been nominated to receive a ‘Top Website for Self-Publishers Award’ by our members.” This stamp of approval goes to blogs or websites, and in this case I have to assume that the recognition belongs to the blog (which is part of my website). And lots of the credit goes to you, faithful readers, for your insightful comments and important questions. Kudos all around!

On December 22, 2012, Tiki Armsford wrote, I was just noticing earlier how books and movies based on fairy tales are starting to become more and more popular (something that’s incredibly joyful for me, since I love fairy tales with a passion) and I was just wondering what your take on this is? Why you think they’re rising in popularity, and what are some tips you could give to someone who’s considering adapting a fairytale?

I’m ashamed to say I’ve read few of these new books and have seen none of the movies or tv series, but I have a few ideas.

Fairy tales deal in universals: love, jealousy, rage, fear, death, beauty, acceptance, good, evil, and probably more. They provide instant entry into these deep topics. Take “Snow White,” which may beat out all the competition with seven out of nine: love (Snow White’s mother, the dwarves, the prince), jealousy (the queen), rage (ditto), death (Snow White), beauty (ditto), good (ditto, the hunter, the dwarves, the prince), evil (the queen).

Universals appeal, obviously, because everybody relates.

In “Snow White,” we’re glad when the evil queen dances in those red hot slippers because she represents parts of us (of me, certainly) – the rage and jealousy – that we’d like to kill off (even though we can’t entirely). We go back to the tale because those disowned parts keep cropping back up in us.

In “The Princess and the Pea,” to pick another example, the MCs virtues come through despite her unpromising appearance – soaked through, hair plastered to her scalp, nose probably running. We get confirmation from her for every time we’ve been misunderstood and underestimated.

Coming at it from a more commercial direction, I think film makers and tv series makers (not so much book writers, in my opinion) look for the familiar to help them find the enormous audiences they need. Many kids today don’t read the original tales, the Brothers Grimm or the Perrault versions, but they read picture book adaptations (or sit cozily in a lap while the story is read) or they see a Disney recreation. The stories are in our bones. This is a leg up for those who survive only if lots and lots of people watch. I don’t mean a criticism; if the stories are well told, I’m happy.

And then there’s magic. If I were an animator, I’d bet magic would be my favorite thing, a license to go wild. And even in live action, I suspect the special effects possibilities are vast and irresistible. And audiences love the wonder.

I do, too. I love fooling around with magic. My editor was disappointed that there wasn’t more in Beloved Elodie, which has become Stolen Magic. So I worked in a few things, and boy, did I have fun! And I felt the story perk up.

The most helpful aspect of fairy tales for me, probably the reason I go back and back to them, is that they provide a rough story framework. Plot may be more important to me than any other story element, but I struggle with it. A fairy tale structure helps me make the plot work.

Let’s look at “The Princess and the Pea” again, which became my The Princess Test in my Princess Tales. The original tale is simple, only a few pages. I can tell it even more briefly: A king and queen want their son to marry a true princess, so they devise a test: the young lady will spend a night of luxury atop twenty mattresses, and underneath the bottom one lies a pea. If that tiny pea disturbs her sleep, she is a true princess and deserves the hand of their son.

There. Two sentences.

But look what’s locked up inside those few words. What sort of character could possibly feel the pea? What made the king and queen come up with such a test? What does the prince think of it? What’s going on with all the princesses who show up for the trial? Isn’t it humiliating?

I came up with one solution, but there are many ways to go, and now that I’m thinking about it, I’m getting really curious about the damsels who failed the test. Where did they go next? Did they have a kingdom to go back to? Are they really not princesses because they failed?

As for tips, I look for lapses in logic. I haven’t attempted “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” a fairy tale I love, because it’s perfect, in my opinion. The plot makes sense, and the characters behave reasonably within the context of the story. In many of the stories I fool with, the damsel is passive, and my job is to give her gumption. But here, the slave girl Morgiana takes action and saves the day.

If the story is kind of a mess, I’m in my element. I pointed out the absurdities of “The Princess and the Pea,” but there are other absurd stories. And they’ll strike you differently from the way they appear to me. Love in fairy tales is a target for me. It happens too fast and for the wrong reasons: beauty, handsomeness, rank. Even goodness can be lame. I like a little idiosyncracy mixed in with pure goodness. So those are the places where I get to work.

If you love a story but you’re also mad at it, that can get you going. For instance, my picture book Betsy Who Cried Wolf grew out of my irritation with the grownups in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” for abandoning the boy when he clearly isn’t old enough for the responsibility he’s been given.

There are some fairy tales that I haven’t figured out how to approach: “Rapunzel,” “Aladdin,” and “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” They interest me, so who knows? Maybe I’ll figure it out. Or you will. Fairy tales are free for all of us to play with.

Here are two prompts:

• Try your hand at “Aladdin.” What strikes you as illogical? What can you make of it? Write the first scene, including the sort of detail and realism that suits a novel, moment by moment. Write the scene when Aladdin rubs the lamp.

• Think of the bare bones of a fairy tale: damsel or lad in distressed circumstances, some magical element, possibly a fairy, probably a prince or princess, possibly an evil character or several, who may have magic on his side. Put them together to create your own fairy tale.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I love the new title for your book!!! I've also noticed that you have put out several Aladdin prompts lately… Are you thinking about using that plot for a new book? I really wish today's children would read Perrault or Grimm…. there is so much that they are missing!

  2. Congrats on getting nominated! You and your wondrous blog definitely deserve it. (The way you respond so well to your followers is an example I wish to follow when I put my own blog up one day.)
    There is something appealing about adapting old fairytales. I think I might try it sometime, and Rapunzel is looking to be a good choice…

  3. Congrats on the nomination!

    When you talked about the Princess and the Pea I found myself thinking that the Bachelor tv show is kind of the same story. 🙂

  4. Congratulations, and I love the title "Stolen Magic." I can't wait to read it–do you have a sense of a publication date? (Sorry, no pressure.)

    I'm loving the fairy tale discussion, because I agree that there are certain universal elements that make them so interesting to us. The best fairy tales, I feel, have "gaps" to be filled in and played with, which makes writing them so much fun. Another tip that I feel results in a successful fairy tale retelling is to play with genre: look at "Rapunzel's Revenge" by Shannon Hale or "Briar Rose" by Jane Yolen. Placing fairy tales in entirely different contexts–my examples show Western and historical fiction influence, respectively–can totally change how we look at a familiar story.

  5. Wonderful Post Mrs. Levine. I love fairy tales for many reasons, but especially for the fact that there is magic and strange creatures. I love dragons and sirens and water sprites and tree people and I especially love strange powers. When I read fairy tales, I have a vague idea of what will happen, and I love a fairy tale with an un expected twist, or logical (If there is indeed such a thing as logic in magical worlds) explanations for the things that bothered me. I think my favorite fairy tale re-tellings would be The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, Fairest, by our own Mrs. Levine, Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George, and Entwined, by Heather Dixon. All of these are wondrous. I hope to someday have someone say something similar about my own books, though, at this snails pace, that won't be anytime soon. By the way, this is a little random, but Mrs. Levine, you are the one who inspired me to become a writer. I read you Princess Tales, (They are Treasures, absolutely splendid!) and I realized that they were really quite simple, just well written, and that I could do that too. Before reading The Fairy's mistake, I had never read a fairytale retelling. So, I have you to thank for my love of retold fairytales. Thank you sooooooooooooooo much. Oy, that was a long comment. Oh well. I think I'm probably noted for my long comments by now, ever since I've found your blog.

  6. I love what you said about fairy tales having "gaps" in logic and filling them in. My favorite Snow White adaptation personally is Snow,Glass, Apples, the one that Neil Gaiman wrote from the perspective of the Step-mother Queen. You never quite see the story in the same light again.

  7. the lapses in logic are the among best parts of fairy tales…I love how retellings can tease at them, make the lapses humorous, or come up with story elements to explain them. I love seeing creative ways writers handle them–or coming up with my own for stories I'm writing!

  8. What you said about not being able to retell `Ali Baba' because it's already perfect -that's how I've always felt about `Puss-In-Boots'. I was really excited for `Tale of Two Castles' because I wanted to see how you'd play with it. 🙂 I found it really interesting that you stepped outside the story for your major characters -making them kind of an audience for the fairy-tale proper. It tied in with Elodie's acting, and the whole mystery idea of trying to sleuth out what really happened.

  9. Congratulations on the nomination!

    Fairy tales are SUCH fun to play with! They come with so many ready-made assumptions, you can turn them upside down, or twist them inside out…

  10. Fairy Tale Logic:
    1. Everything talks.
    2. Everything helps. If you can't solve your own problems, turn to the nearest tree, fish, thorny bush, stone, fox, or river and they'll do everything for you.
    If you want to read a truly messed up fairytale, look up The Two Kings Children. This is where logic goes to die.

  11. This one may not be as strange or illogical, but it's certainly the most horrific: I believe it's called The Juniper Tree. The goriest one I've ever read… I don't believe Disney will be touching that one anytime soon!

  12. I love the new title for your book! I can't wait to read it!! And congratulations on the award–you have definitely earned it!!
    One of my most favorite retellings of a fairytale is called "Princess Ben." It's a version of sleeping beauty, but it changes it so much that it's a completely different story. It actually makes Sleeping Beauty not so…well boring while she just waits for her prince to show up. I would highly recommend it!

  13. I have a few questions. The more people that answer the better. It's kind of like a poll.
    Question 1. What do you all think about using royalty or nobility as MCs?
    Q2. Do you think having a princess/prince/or various other heirs to a throne running from a usurper.
    Q3. Is having a long lost heir to the throne fighting to reclaim it to common
    Q4. Are revolutions against tyrant kings or other tyrannical rulers/dictators/governments too clichéd
    Q5. Are revolutions on the whole too common
    Q6. Which is best: ugly MC, Plain MC, Pretty MC, Devastatingly gorgeous MC
    Q7.What is the best hair/eye/skin color combination? (In your opinions)
    Q8. Do you like lots or little romance in your books
    Q9. Do you like magic in stories with creatures like dragons and harpies in them
    Q10. What do you think about made-up creatures
    Thanks in advance to anyone who answers these questions. It will help me bring together a book that has recently fallen completely apart.(I just love it too much to let it die.)

    • I hope you manage to revive your story! Here are my answers:
      Q1: Go ahead. There may be a few cliches you'll want to avoid, but overall I have no problem with reading about a royal.
      Q2: Hmm… I think I agree with Bibliophile — fleeing from a usurper is done often, so if you can change something about that situation, do.
      Q3: It is common and yet I'd also say it's not. There are a lot of similar themes, like fighting to prevent a villain from overtaking a nation. I personally don't get tired of general themes along those lines, as long as the author gives it a new twist.
      Q4: Ditto (like Bibliophile said).
      Q5: Ditto again. Do something original with that revolution. You'll probably have to get quite creative though. 🙂
      Q6: That depends on the story, and whether you want the character's looks to work as an advantage or disadvantage for her. If her nation is very absorbed in appearances, then make her plain or ugly. If looks are more of a side issue in your story, and she is already burdened by multiple disadvantages, then perhaps she should be pretty. I'd steer clear of devastatingly gorgeous, though. It just seems cliched (as fairytales go), and some readers may have a harder time liking or identifying with her.
      Q7: I like a lot of combos, but off the top of my head… Black hair, Caribbean blue eyes, and medium skin tone. Golden brown hair, dark brown eyes, medium skin tone. Auburn or red hair, green eyes, pale skin.
      Q8: That depends what kind of book it is. In this kind of story, I think you could go either way. A little is fun and can be a great plot thickener (or it can even lighten the tone, depending on whether you make the romance humorous). If it's a lot, then steer clear of cliches and sappiness please! (I don't know about you, but I find most romances rather predictable.)
      Q9: I love fantasy elements! Especially dragons. 🙂 Magic is fine too, if done right.
      Q10: I also love made-up creatures. I have quite a few of those in my own books. I'd say go for it!

    • Since most of us aren't royalty 😉 I think readers have fun reading about it.
      3-4 are common but there's a reason for it. Just try to put a new twist on anything. As far as revolutions being cliched, there are so many happening around the world right now that you can see that they are still relevant.
      6 – I remember reading somewhere that in general readers sympathize with a MC who isn't too ugly. (Of course there are exceptions.) If we want to think well of readers, lets decide it's because they often think of the MC by themselves and no one wants to think themselves completely ugly. 🙂 If you want to pick devastatingly beautiful, just make it a hinderance in some way. Like she can't get the knights to do anything because they're too busy mooning over her.
      8. I would say if you are doing MG, then very little romance. If you are aiming for older readers, 14 and above for YA, then you probably want to have a fairly solid romance plot but I myself prefer G rated. 🙂
      9-10. I like magic creatures. When you make up creatures though, I suggest you read a lot about mythical creatures as research. Often things based on some research will seem more solid than something you pull completely out of the blue, not always. But if you're having some trouble feeling comfortable with some creatures you've already made up, that might help.

      Good luck! It sounds like a really fun book!

    • Thanks Everyone!!! (Extra question: What do You all think of magical powers? You know, like, Strength, the ability to see invisible stuff, and [my personal favorite] being able to tie knots into any thing; including iron bars.) Thanks again. I'm trying pretty hard to steer clear of clichés. One hundred years ago, all heroines seemed to be beautiful and blonde and all heroes tall and dark. Now it's a little different. Even so, most of my characters aren't blonde, or tall and dark or overly gorgeous. So far, so good. I've heard some people say that they find magical abilities way too clichéd, so I'm asking for opinions. My story pivots on the magical abilities of my MC and her siblings. I am also wondering if red headed heroines are clichéd? Anyone? What is the most clichéd hair color? And is it better for her hair to be curly or straight or what? (I thought about making her bald, but it didn't seem to fit with the story.) Thank you all SO much. I am so grateful that some of you answered my questions. I am taking your input to heart. Thanks again!

    • Magical powers: well, that all depends on what you do with them. I generally stay away from sorcery type of stuff (Harry Potter, etc.) unless it's associated only with the bad guys. But abilities like strength and tying knots in anything (that's a new one, by the way!) I have no problem with. In fact, I can think of several books I've read that handle that kind of thing very well. (The Berinfell Prophecies series by Wayne Thomas Batson, for one.)
      Hair color: I'd say red is sort of cliched… Maybe? I don't know. When I think about it, pretty much every hair color seemes cliched. Perhaps that's because there are only so many natural colors to choose from. 😛 Curly, straight, doesn't matter to me. Hair seems to be something you can play around with pretty much any way you like!

    • Elisa, The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones, is a book that pokes fun at the standard Fantasy cliches. It's a great way to learn common things to watch out for, and it's funny too.

  14. Elisa, in answer to your poll; cool idea by the way, I think that using royalty as a MC would work just fine. Having heirs to the throne flee when they sense their doom is near is perhaps too often done, maybe they could feel forced into it by a sense of duty. I think that in common fairy tales it is uncommon for long lost heirs to fight to reclaim thrones, but the theme is used pretty often today, as well as the next question's. Ditto for question 5. For question 6, ti depends on the MC's personality. An ugly person is either prejudiced or very subdued, Plain people are generally kind and slightly humble, Pretty people are just a little stuck up and are dying to be with the in crowd, gorgeous people are, as a norm, very snobby. If you made your MC gorgeous and kind, then you will definitely be very fairy tale cliche. I love pale or tan skin with black hair and striking violet eyes. No I'm not goth. Another good combo is brown hair and deep blue eyes with medium skin tone. I love romance in a fantasy novel, but not if its sappy. I think it works best as a side plot, like romance normally is in real life. I LOVE DRAGONS, and unicorns, and fairies. Unicorns are vastly underused, I think, in todays fantasy. Just don't make them forces of nature. If you make up a creature…. good for you. I have no prejudice on that account merely awe that you are imaginative enough to do so.

    I hope that this was helpful, and good luck finishing/ repairing your book!!!! If you ever get it published I would love to read it, sounds like a new fave.

    • Thank you! Great advice. I'll keep it in mind. I like romance all right, but not the falling-over-Way-head-over-heals sort. Sappy stuff is absolutely horrible. I'm thinking about making MC's sister gorgeous. And maybe a little stuck up. Either that or she's a tom-boy who couldn't care less and lets her hair tangle. Oh yah, and there's a dragon AND a unicorn. And greckles. (They are, as you might have guessed, made up. Their evil little troll-people. Sort of. More or lessly. That's the best way I can describe them at the moment.) My MC isn't technically royalty, but her father was a close relative of the king. She is running from the throne-stealer, but only to save her siblings and there won't be a revolution after all. They become kings and queens of another place. (More on that later, possibly.) And I'm debating about her and her brothers' and sister's magical powers. (I might go into more detail about that later too.) It's kind of complicated.

    • I like the plot you have above, very interesting. About your earlier query on hair and power cliches…I think that the most commonly used hair color in fairy tales is blonde. Dirty blonde and blonde even pop up very often in modern retellings, like The Goose Girl. Probably another cliche shade is brown. It seems to me that every fairy tale author, in order to be different from the original tale, uses brown hair because its so common. Personally, I think that auburn and black are underused for heroines, black especially is allocated to evil girls; or girls that are mercenary. Blonde can be used for bad girls, but is never used for mercenaries, except for like, Zelda.

      Powers are AWESOME!!!! I love the powers Riordan gives his demigods, but control over elements is used too often. I like the knot tying idea, it is probably the most unique power I have ever heard of!!! 🙂 You should definitely use that!!!

      Your Greckles sound like Dahl's Gremlins, just wiki it or read The Marvelous Tale of Henry Sugar anthology to find out more is you don't know what I'm talking about.

  15. I'm noted for writing scary stories. Most of them were written for adults. Not erotic or anything, just language and some scenes. My grandson wanted to read them so I started writing scary stories for kids.

    Somehow fairy tale stories caught my interest and I'm writing them as you suggest. Messing them up (probably not exactly your suggestion) I liked Fractured Fairy Tales from the Rocky & Bullwinkle show. So to take a fairy tale and rewrite it is a challenge but also lots of fun. I even put free ones on my site.

    I couldn't tell by your book Writing Magic – but I gather it helps in this area? I couldn't find a way to email you.

    Anyway just found your site and had to pop in and give a shout.

  16. Elisa–Thanks for the questions! You got us all going! My opinion is that all the possibilities are possible. Originality comes in the telling, in the surprises you work in, in the pleasing characterizations.

    B.D. Knight–Welcome to the blog! WRITING MAGIC is a general writing book with only one chapter on fairy tales. There's more on the subject here on the blog.

  17. Is Peter Pan under the copyright domain? Or can we write our own version without anyone's permission?

    My best friend who is an aspiring writer was interested in doing a Fairies Book like you did, but into a novel. She was wondering if it was OK to let the fairies live in a tree, be around the size of your hand, and all have different talents without it actually being the Disney Fairies, so no Tinker Bell or Vidia or anyone else in the Disney Books? Or would that be exactly the same as the Disney Version?

    And if you are writing a fantasy story with a setting of four regions of the seasons- winter, spring, summer, and fall- would that also be too much like Pixie Hollow?

  18. I THINK that PETER PAN has just entered the public domain. But using all the similar elements to Disney FAIRIES sounds risky unless, of course, she were writing for herself and not for publication.

  19. Oops! I deleted my comment by accident!

    So from the ones that I have listed, would one or two be OK? E.g lives in a tree, and all have different talents? Or would one or two different ones would be OK? Mrs. Levine, what do you think would be OK to use?

    These are Pixie fairies by the way, so they are naturally the size of your hand?

    • I have little fairy stories that I tell my little brothers and sisters. They love them. My fairies are named after things in nature. They sort-of have talents. Though, not like Mrs. Levine's fairies. Some are tree-tellers, others are water-ones, some are animal care-fors and others are guardians-of-light. My fairies aren't pixies, but they are six inches tall. They are born with the gifts (Or talents, whatever you decide to call them) of their parents. They have multi colored hair and wands. Some live in trees and some live in hollowed out rocks and water-ones live on rafts that float on water. Most of them live in a general vicinity, but water-ones leave in the fall, to places where the water doesn't freeze up. I'm not exactly planning to write books on them or anything, so if you like, you can use some of my ideas. Mostly I just tell the stories about them to my two youngest siblings. Hope this helped.

  20. Hi! I am a 23 year old fan. I first read Ella Enchanted when I was in elementary school, and Two Princess soon after. I am just now discovering your blog. I read this first post, and I am an even bigger fan, if possible. I love how your thinking about "the fairy tales making sense" is literally illustrated in Ella Enchanted, when she reads the tale of the Shoemaker and the elves who leave a note too tiny for him to see, but they had to go assist a giant with a tiny bug problem. You insipire me with your stories of true heroines and love that developes on more than the "prince charming" effect. Prince Charming becomes Char, a unlikely sorcerer falls for a girl who can sew beautifully and has a great heart with real fears, like many of us have. Thank you for your stories. I re-read them, even as an adult. Now I am going to make notes about Alladin and Repunsel. 😉

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