I love fairy tale retellings. I read a lot of them growing up and a few treasured stories are the reason why I write today. I’ve taken a lot of what I’ve learned from fairy tales to craft my own retelling, Speechless. There’s so much material to work with because . . . there’s no material, if that makes sense. If you go back and read some of the originals, the stories lack details that make the characters realistic.
For example, in The Wild Swans, a young princess is mute in a forest looking for stinging nettles to make shirts to break a curse. That’s already a mouthful. The king from a nearby kingdom sees her and immediately takes her home as his wife. He doesn’t even know her name. She bears his children. What kind of relationship did they have?? These sort of questions led me to write a modern retelling of the story to fill in these plot holes and really exploring these characters.
As someone who reads and writes fairy tale retellings, I thought it would be fun to share a few tactics that show how to truly nail a fairy tale retelling. Since there are so many routes, I’ve tried breaking it down into categories. For those who want more specific ideas, I’ve created a Freebie with as many examples as I could think of.
Change Their Personalities—Not the Events
These types of retellings keep a lot of the same plot points but they breathe more life into the characters. I would consider Speechless to be an example, because I came into it knowing that I was retelling a tale that most people wouldn’t be familiar with; if I deviated too far from the story, then it wouldn’t seem like a retelling anymore. Anyway, to retell but keep your story original, explore each character and how they truly fit in the story. Ultimately answer: “What do they want, and why do they make certain decisions?” These sort of novels are almost like a huge writing prompt. Here are a few tactics to consider.
Change the POV—Have you ever read a fairy tale from the villain’s perspective? We get so much more context on why the villains are so nasty to the good guys. The good guys might still be inherently good or innocent, but we at least understand that what the villain does isn’t out of pure cruelty or spite.
A good example of a villain’s POV is “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Niel Gaiman. This short story shows the evil queen’s perspective on her marriage to Snow White’s husband and why she despises the princess. All the story elements are still there, but just tweaking the perspective makes you think twice (at least three times) about Snow White’s innocence.
Explain the Story or Spell Dynamics—Why does Cinderella bother being a servant to her evil stepmother and step sisters? Gail Carson Levine used Ella Enchanted to explain just that. So many heroines in fairy tales are just downright dutiful. It was a way for people to identify the good guys; if a person was attractive and pious, they were 100% good and you were supposed to root for them. The opposite was true of the bad guys: they’re ugly, jealous of the main character, and plain ol’ wicked.
Levine answered the simple question, “Why is she always so obedient?” and it became a story with heart. It also adds meaning to the ending where Ella is able to break the curse herself by refusing to be ordered around anymore. Just don’t want the film adaptation. We don’t talk about the film adaptation.
Each of these examples still retain the same scenery: you’ve got the medieval backdrop and ruling systems, but your readers learn more about the main characters and they are more than just a blonde with long hair. Sometimes all it takes is to pick one symbol or metaphor in the story and flesh out its meaning.
Change Just About Everything Except the Names
Some of my fairy tales involve deeper thinking and creative license to shake up what we “think” we know about the story. These types of fairy tales keep just a basic skeleton of the story and recreate something new and refreshing. They aren’t necessarily there to retell the story, but add flavor to that universe that the readers are familiar and comfortable with. If you want to write a story similar to this, here are a few routes to take.
Only Give Brief Nods to the Story—Some retellings read as 80% standalone and 20% based off of something. What Is Lost by Lauren Skidmore is an example of this. For example, the main character (who you can recognize as the wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood”) has his own story and motives. Then he teams up with an assassin who hides herself in a red cloak. The rest of the novel is a guessing game: who represents the grandmother in the woods? Who’s the huntsman? There are nods to the original story, but doesn’t intend to follow the story point-for-point. The symbols are there to remind readers that your story is a retelling, but it’s still super cool and engaging.
Engage in a Completely Different Genre—This is arguably one of the most intriguing ways to retell a story. Fairy tales transcend time is because readers still admire the characters and learn from them. Therefore, it’s really fun to watch a good writer spin a tale about a traditional European character and put them into a different world.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer is probably the most popular example of this. Cue futuristic Japan setting. There’s just something appealing about a book about Cinder, who happens to be a cyborg. Everything about the time period, setting, and circumstances still gives you the “rags to riches” feeling, but the story can take us in more creative directions.
Another favorite example is Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor. If you’re a fan of Alice in Wonderland, this is probably one of the most impressive adaptations I’ve ever seen. Each of the characters are there, but they’re much darker and deeper because of the somewhat Victorian steam punk/futuristic setting they’re in.
Cater to Your Audience’s Age—We know that fairy tales were once meant for kids; they were meant to entertain or teach them lessons. However, retellings are still really popular with teens, young adults, and regular adults. Some retellings are wildly successful because they cater to older readers to give in to the darker side of these stories. I’m talking deeper and darker than Disney, folks. One of my favorite examples is the TV series, Once Upon a Time/ONCE.
The show is catered to adults, and therefore shows an older cast who have very adult problems. They thrust just about every fairy tale character into our world and watch them face our problems: being a single mother, enduring the foster system, infidelity, living life unfulfilled, and not being happy despite their best intentions.
To create an interesting, sexy, dark, or refreshing tale, consider cutting out the kid-friendly stuff and start exploring the adult-friendly motifs of a story. The point here is to make it more relatable to adults to show that the fairy tale world isn’t always innocent, convenient, or 2-D.
Switch the Gender or Appearance—Fairy tales should be accessible to everyone, not just people of European descent. Many books would be interesting with genderbending and inclusion. Some authors add these unique characters as backdrop just so they can say “strong female character, check” or “quirky dark girl that’s bisexual, check.” People enjoy seeing themselves as the hero of their own story; appearances, gender, and sexual preferences can help us better understand these characters.
I honestly haven’t seen many novels yet with this sort of retelling element, so be sure to send me your suggestions! However, Once Upon a Time (it’s my favorite TV show, Leute) has a few characters that have pulled this off interesting ways. There’s an episode or two that feature Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk” as a woman (Jaqueline), for example. Rapunzel, Ursula and Ursula’s father are African-American. Ruby (Red Riding Hood), Mulan, and Dorothy (Wizard of Oz) are lesbians, and their attraction is a major part of their story arc, too. Imagine what our stories would look like if we bent our imagination in this direction.
These are just a few examples of fairy tale retellings that I think really get the job done. They’re still really popular and loved by all age groups, so give it a shot! Before you go, click below to grab your freebie worksheet to learn more specifics about writing a retelling:
Did I forget any good examples? What makes a good fairy tale retelling? Please share your favorites below, because I’m always looking for a good retelling.