Why Fairy Tales?
There’s this terrifying moment in conversations, when I meet someone new and they find out I’m a writer. To be fair, I’m very introverted, so conversations with new people always have the potential for terror and/or embarrassment, but there’s a special kind of apprehension that I feel when I’m honest about my chosen profession. Up until that point we might talk about books, or ask each other about reading preferences, but when they find out I write they want to know if I’m published, and, if so, what kind of books. And then I wince a little bit because reactions to my answer are varied. “Fairy tales,” I’ll say, while wondering whether anyone will take me seriously now that I’ve admitted it.
Despite the occasional dismissal, I don’t regret my choice. I’ve always loved fairy tales. When I was very little I would beg my grandmother to read them aloud, and when I was old enough to read them for myself I devoured as many as I could find. I’ve watched many of the movies, read multiple versions of different tales, and still enjoy a good retelling, but, up until I began to write, I never really considered what drew me to fairy tales. Why do I feel compelled to read what is essentially the same story, over and over again? The characters are often shallow, the plots frequently lack depth, and there are few surprises, aside from the clearly absurd or logically impossible. It wasn’t that I hoped for a different ending. In fact, I still sometimes experience a bizarre compulsion to make sure that my favorite stories still turn out the way I remember them (which partially explains why I’ve seen all five hours of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice over fifty times—don’t judge). So where is the attraction?
I had this question in mind about four years ago, when I decided it was time to take my writing seriously. Ever since high school, I had been filling notebooks and eventually computer files with character ideas, plot outlines, and scenes that never went anywhere. This time, I was going to write a novel…and finish it! (Said the compulsive procrastinator with too many ideas.)
I chose to base my first novel on Cinderella, a story that I freely admit I picked because I was annoyed with most of the other versions I’d encountered. When I began to write Traitor’s Masque, I planned for it to be short and simple. I knew what I wanted to change and how I wanted everything to turn out. I think I even had a cute little baby outline that I foolishly thought would be simple to follow. And, somewhere in the process of finding out that writing a novel was neither short nor simple and that stubborn characters can make an outline irrelevant, I also found an answer to my question. What is the true magic of fairy tales and why do I love them?
For me, the magic of fairy tales has very little to do with godmothers, or sorcerers, or flying carpets. In fact, I believe that much of the compelling nature of these stories lies in the very quality that I once found irritating—the sparseness of the original narratives. There is so much we don’t know, and in those empty spaces between the words lies an entire world waiting to be discovered.
It was probably my frustration with the story of Cinderella that drove me to find those spaces in the first place. As my characters began to grow and develop incredibly stubborn minds of their own, I realized how very little we know about any of the characters in fairy tales. Very little, that is, aside from what our own imagination supplies. When we read about Cinderella’s stepmother’s cruelty, Rumplestiltskin’s bargains, or Falada’s talking head, we often find ourselves providing our own explanation. When I was a child, the stepmother was cruel because she was clearly a terrible person who deserved a hideous fate. But as I wrote the character of the stepmother for Traitor’s Masque, I began to wonder what else could be hiding in the empty spaces of her story. What could be driving the stepmother’s obsessive devotion to her own thankless children above all else? What pain might she be hiding, and what does she see when she looks at her stepdaughter?
I think it may be the familiarity of the basic narrative that allows us to ask these questions. We know where the story is going in the end. In fact, we are often counting on it. There is a form of security in reading a story where we already know the end, and within the comfort of that knowledge, there is space for exploration. A space to both hunt for the pieces of the story that we know and explore the wonders of a story that is new.
At least, new in some sense. I’ve read many times that there are no new stories. Many of the fairy tales we know have been told in different versions across many different cultures, and I believe the same is likely to be true no matter whether we write fairy tales or science fiction or mysteries. But there is so much space between the words, not only for the writer, but for the reader, that even the oldest and most familiar of stories can be an entirely new experience when we approach it from a new perspective.
I learned a lot from writing my first book. I learned that I like big words too much, that I have a soft spot for characters who can make me laugh, and that it can be unexpectedly satisfying to write dialogue for a charming and handsome villain (no, I don’t recommend crushing on Rowan, he’s quite despicable, but he’s also a great deal of fun!). Now, after finishing three books, there is so much left to learn that I feel like I’m still a baby trying to figure out how to crawl, never mind all that walking and running that other people are doing. But, in the process, I’ve discovered how much I love this thing called story-telling—an uncovering of the treasure that can be found where the old and familiar meets the new and undiscovered.
Someday, I hope to write stories that are not based on anything in particular, except maybe a strange dream I once had, or that brilliant idea that occurred to me while I was in the shower and therefore couldn’t possibly write any of it down (which is always when the best ideas happen). But I suspect my love for fairy tales will not be going anywhere anytime soon, whether I am reading them or writing them. I will always have the happy suspicion that this time, when I read those same few words, I will be seeing them through a different set of eyes, and find a whole new story begging to be told.
Just as soon as I do the mature adult thing and finish whatever I’m working on at the time…