A Quest For A Genre: Fairy Tales

For days, they passed over hills and valleys. The landscape turned from mountains and pine trees, to deserts and rolling fields of sand, to glaciers and frozen ridges, to broken cities and fighting robots. Still, their search was incomplete.

As the pink hues of dawn warmed another day, the grandfather pointed to the horizon. “There it is, my child! At last, we have reached the Land of Fairy Tales.”

The girl peeked over the edge of the basket, glimpsing through the clouds and over the hills. In a clearing children were playing in a cottage made of sweets, in a meadow a girl wearing a red cloak frolicked, by a brook a beast strolled with a beauty. Yet, on the hill was a spiked castle, dark clouds thundering around it. In a valley lay a suburban cul-de-sac with cars driving through, a letter-carrying owl zipping past. A few skyscrapers rose from the forest, a werewolf and a man leaping between them while fighting to the death.

“Are you sure, Grandpa?”

In the epic quest to climb Mt. Publication, I have been exploring what genres to list my first self-published book, The Truebride And The Shoemaker, once I release it into the world. 

I began my search with the most obvious: Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Fairy Tales, but am perplexed by the eclectic mix of books listed.

In no particular order, here’s a sample:

Dracula by Bram Stoker

This is a fairy tale?

The Ocean At The End of the Lane and American Gods by Neil Gaiman

It’s Neil Gaiman. It’s strange and fascinating.

47 Ronin by John Allyn

A fantasy Samurai adventure

City of Bones (A Harry Bosch Novel) by Michael Connelly

A crime thriller

Classics such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Frank L. Baum’s Oz series, Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carrol and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

And, many books with scantily clad people in romantic poses. These include variations on mermaids, werewolves, demons, angels, and classic fairy tale princesses.

Red Riding Hood from ABC’s Once Upon A Time.
The outfit is still more tasteful than some of the covers.

(I am sure the Dresden Files, Terry Pratchett’s Disc World, and The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer are in the genre list somewhere.)

I stared at the web page, wondering how all of these are fairy tales.

Classic Peter Pan and Grimm’s fairy tales are essential. Books featuring mermaid exotic dancers and ‘beasts’ who are really brooding male models with six-packs are at least based off fairy tales, even if not something I am into. 47 Ronin has Japanese fairy tale elements combined with a samurai tale. Neil Gaiman has a fairy-tale-esque style to his storytelling, and so many of his books are modern fairy tales.

As for Dracula and a City of Bones? The first is classic horror, and the second is a crime thriller. Even in the fun post-modern mish-mash our pop culture can be, the last two are not fairy tales.

I am looking at this genre to see if my book is a good fit. When a reader is looking for a similar book to read, where are they going to turn, and how will they find my book nearby? Yet, looking at what Amazon lists, I feel like my book is a triangle and many of the other books are squares, octagons, spheres, and tesseracts.

Finding the right genre can be similar to comprehending a 4-dimensional shape.

There are really three kinds of fairy tales: modern fairy tales, classic fairy tales, and re-tellings or derivations of classic fairy tales.

Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline, Stardust, and The Ocean At The End Of The Lane are all modern fairy tales. Their plot and characters are completely separate from classic fairy tales, but they mix fantasy with the normal, every day.

Classic fairy tales are the originals by the Grimm’s Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, as well as fairy tales from other cultures, such as the Arabian Nights.

Re-tellings, of course, are versions of fairy tales set in other places. These are countless, and range from Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, ABC’s Once Upon A Time, to the many Disney animated princess movies. Any setting and twist on trope is possible as these tales play on the audience’s prior knowledge of fairy tales.

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)

This helps explain the eclectic nature of the genre according to Amazon’s listing, but does not explain what makes a fairy tale different than other types of fantasy?

I propose a true fairy tale has the following elements:

  • The protagonist is a common, every day person.
    • Even in “princess” fairy tales, things are done to make the princess accessible. Snow White is forced to clean and be a servant. Sleeping Beauty (in several versions) lives in the forest, not knowing of her royal heritage. Cinderella is not a princess until the end. Rapunzel is usually a daughter of common parents, and a prisoner in a tower.

Just regular girls being fairies

  • Something magical enters the common person’s life, changing it.
    • Usually, the change effects the protagonist’s horrible home life – via a step-parent, foster parent, or destitution

  • Protagonist’s life, and often station, is usually improved by magicalness
    • Sometimes, the magic element is the antagonist. For example, the witch in Hansel and Gretel. However, in many versions, they have a better relationship with their parents after the traumatic event of nearly being eaten.

Our lives are better, because we have fancy hats!

  • In the end, justice is usually served. Good wins, evil is defeated, and a happy ending is achieved.
    • While Hans Christian Anderson often prefers a more tragic, bittersweet ending, there is always a glimmer of hope. For example, while the Little Mermaid fails to gain her prince, her efforts have allowed her to be a spirit floating on the wind, doing good deeds, with the opportunity to gain an immortal soul.

All of Disney’s versions of fairy tales and princess stories follow this format. While there are sometimes complaints over sentimentality, simplicity, and portrayals of femininity, it is undeniably appealing. Frozen follows these classic tropes, while pushing and teasing cliches, and has just joined The Avengers in an elite club of movies that have passed one billion dollars at the worldwide box office. (Also, “Let It Go” has nearly spawned it’s own franchise.)

I think the key element that draws us to fairy tales is the focus on hope. Some original fairy tales go into dark and twisted worlds, and some re-tellings follow those paths. Yet, even after travelling through a labyrinth of death, thorns, and unending mazes, there is still hope.

And so, once my book is ready, I will proceed with hop and list it under Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Fairy Tales.

How do you define fairy tales? How do you decide what genre to list your book under? Have you ever been bewildered by books listed together under a genre or under a ‘you may also be interested in’ suggestion? How many versions of “Let It Go” have you seen on your Facebook feed?

Other Notes On Fairy Tales

A review of The Blue Sword by Robin Mckinley, describing the book as “For me this is the classic fairy tale I wish I read when I was younger.”  – from sporadicreads.com

Fairy Tale of the Month

Introvert Fairy Tales

An exploration of mermaid tales from The True Fairytale.

Side Note:

I would like to take a moment to pay my respects to Aaron Allston, who passed away last week. He was a giving author, providing support and advice to other writers. He wrote the Star Wars: X-Wing: Wraith Squadron Series, one of the most fun and lively series in the Star Wars universe, and one of my favorites. His influence and presence in the Star Wars fandom will be missed.

22 thoughts on “A Quest For A Genre: Fairy Tales

  1. Nice post–I love fairy tales! Sometimes it’s the age group that determines where a book falls. In the library I work at, all of the adult science fiction and fantasy is mixed together, whereas our children’s’ books department has a fairy tale section. Sometimes it doesn’t matter in the end. My first novel (ages 10 & up) is sometimes found in the children’s section, sometimes in YA and I’ve even seen it a few times in the adult section of bookstores and libraries. Good luck with your quest!

    • Thanks! I think it is funny how many genres a book can be placed in. Maybe this is one of the reasons librarians are so important – because they can find the books placed in random categories.

  2. I love fairy tales, too! I think you did a great job breaking down the components of what makes a story fairy tale-like in nature. I agree about it being weird that Dracula is listed under fairy tales. It’s so not even close, but everything else, totally. I didn’t even know you could search for fairy tale books like that on Amazon! I’m so excited now. ^_^

    I haven’t seen Frozen yet, but I’ve already fallen into a “Let It Go” Fan club. Lol!

  3. Aaron Allston will definitely be missed by all of us fans. 😥
    I love fairy tales and really enjoyed your analysis; you definitely nailed some of the basics of the genre.

  4. I enjoyed this a lot, as one who occasionally writes my own fairy tales. There is a deceptive simplicity to these stories that gives them their staying power.

    I would add that, in a fairy tale, there is a stark morality. Characters are either good or evil — none of this wishy-washy excuse making stuff. Good characters are never corrupted and evil characters are never redeemed. Also, it helps a lot if there’s some kind of really cool magical gadget, like the tinderbox or the glass mountain.

    • I also love the apparent simplicity of fairy tales which allows other layers to shine through.
      I do have to disagree a little. Most villains aren’t redeemed, but some of them are. As for magical gadgets, those are always fun.

  5. Great post and very true. Fairy tales are not exactly the books you found there 😀 It’s hard to always define books by genres nowadays I find, especially as so many take bits of so many genres!

    • There is so much intertextuality going on that sometimes its hard to find were something begins.
      I am curious what would happen if the publishing industry decided to be more strict with genres, and where books would really fall.

    • This being my first foray into publication, I’m hoping the book will be ready by my birthday in mid-April, but it’s looking more likely to be the end of April. I’ll give a more definite date once I hear back from my cover artist and others.

        • I’ve decided to do a hybrid approach to publishing.

          This book is the first of a series I am self-publishing throughout this year. Part of the goal is to make make enough money to pay for groceries while I attend grad school.

          In between, I am working on polishing two other books and will be querying those with literary agents / publishers – hopefully, by the end of the year.

          You know what, I should probably just do a blog post fully answering this question.

  6. I must say, I love that .gif you have with the cube turning in on itself. I saved it locally on my hard drive so I can look at it whenever I have time to become mesmerized again by its subtle rhythm. Beautiful. Also, love how you talked about the various kinds of fairy tales. I had no idea. I think it’s a great thing to know they types because it aids in bringing to light what I’m reading whenever I pick up something new that states on the front cover “fairy tale”. Anyway, great post!

    • The .gif is from the Wikipedia entry on fourth-dimensional shapes. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      There are probably as many variations on zombie tales as there are variations on the theme of fairy tale.

      Thanks again for stopping by. I always enjoy your comments.

  7. An articulate, well considered article. I see your point about the lack of adequate genre definition, but if your book is good, its audience will find it. I certainly hope so and wish you well on your publishing endeavor.

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