There Is, There Was, There Will Be: On Creating a Fairytale Story
There's been radio silence here because the next post I wanted to do, and felt like I probably should do, I was scared to write. It's not even just that I hate confrontation and have no desire to argue with people on the internet, but I'm just generally tired of making the same points ad nauseum; I'm very aware that no one actually cares about fairytale storytelling but me. And Guillermo del Toro.* I could do a whole series on his fairytales. And likely will, now that I think of it.
But I digress. The point I mean to make is that criticism of genre storytelling needs to engage with the story within its medium; criticising a fairytale for using fairytale storytelling devices is just a bad faith engagement with the story.You don't have to like fairytales, but the fact that you dislike something doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. A fairytale story can use those devices badly, but to criticise it for using them period is to misunderstand how a fairytale story is created.
The crafting of fairytale stories can involve a lot of different devices - there is no one formula for a fairytale. Fairytales and folklore from all over the world and every period of time have many different themes and styles, and the influences of time have become part of the art of creating a fairytale story. One example is that all of these stories originated in oral tradition. That tradition includes using a generic hook to begin and end a story, which survives to written versions to this day. Beginnings such as "Once upon a time," "There was and there was not," "A long time ago, far, far away," and endings such as "And they lived happily ever after," "A mouse did run, now my story is done," "Snip, snap, snout, this tale's told out," and Perrault's traditional ending morals originated in oral storytelling, a cue to the listeners to start or stop listening. The particulars vary greatly, but there's a very well-established tradition of using stock phrases to begin and end a fairytale story.
One fairytale storytelling device that holds a very tricky place in contemporary media is the custom of using character tropes in place of individuals. While you have your occasional Cinderellas and Snow Whites, mostly characters in fairytales are there primarily to serve a purpose, to inhabit a role. Even Cinderella and Snow White aren't really as unique as we generally like our characters nowadays; Cinderella as a character trope fits under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther fairytale trope classification as #510, The Persecuted Heroine, and Snow White is #709 under Tales of the Supernatural. You can peruse the entire list here. The ATU list comprises 2400 character and plot tropes, and every single fairytale fits under one or more of them. In modern re-tellings and fairytale-inspired stories, multiple tropes might be pulled from, synthesised, and/or subverted to create a new story, or tell an old story in a new and different way.
It's because fairytale storytelling relies so heavily on tropes instead of individuals that I think a lot of people have trouble with fairytale storytelling, especially in non-fairytale settings, today. The conceit is that you use these tropes to tell a particular story, giving the characters inhabiting the tropes different personalities, putting them in different scenarios and situations to make a different point, to illustrate a different message - but the characters themselves, as people, don't matter as much as the purpose they serve. This often reads to modern audiences as lazy or inconsistent characterisation, which, if it isn't a fairytale, is a valid criticism, but if the story being told is a fairytale, that's a misunderstanding of the rules of the genre. Fairytale characters aren't there to be people, they're there to serve a purpose.
There are exceptions to this - Disney desperately wants their fairytale princesses to be read as individuals and tries to varying degrees of success to make their princesses actual people. Particularly from the 1990s onward, they've been focusing more on making their fairytale characters individuals. It's perhaps the way fairytales are evolving now, to incorporate actual characters into these stories - the problem is that at the end, it still has to be a fairytale, and the endings for these characters are sometimes a bit laboured when we try to fit them into existing narratives. Which isn't to say there aren't interesting things being done with adapting fairytale plots to accommodate these characters, but it's an ongoing process, and it's very new.
For this to work, you really have to know the writer intends for you to read this character as an individual, and this is where it gets muddy. There are some modern fairytales that do favour individualism, and there are some that don't. If we expect it from all modern fairytales, we're going to be disappointed.
There are also a lot of elements of fairytales that, when used in modern fairytales, are perceived as out-of-place. The utilisation of these elements and tropes exists to signal to the reader that this is a fairytale and thus the familiar tropes should be understood. Whether the story intends to subvert a trope or not, either way will require the reader to be familiar with the trope in the first place. Utilisation of things such as magic and helpful animals shows the reader that this story takes place within a fairytale narrative, and thus the rules of the fairytale genre are in effect.
Fairytales aren't exempt from criticism, and particularly modern fairytales have their work cut out for them. Creating a fairytale is hard work, and sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it works in some ways and not others. But refusing to engage with a genre story on its own terms makes it impossible for you to accurately and meaningfully discuss the story. The same goes for any genre with its own customs, rules, and storytelling devices; if you don't understand the medium, you can't legitimately engage with it. Criticise a story for its missteps and politics, criticise the message the story uses its devices to portray, but don't say 'fairytales are bad storytelling' and think you've made a point. If what you mean is that you don't like fairytales, fair enough - but as any good fairytale heroine will tell you, you need to say what you mean to keep yourself out of trouble.
* My favourite genres are fairytales, horror, and musicals, so, not to be dramatic, but can we just talk about how The Shape of Water is my favourite thing that has ever happened?