3 Ways to Craft Magical Retellings That Are More Than Fairy Tales

July 14, 2022

Happily-ever-after is overrated.


Growing up, I was a Disney princess fangirl. My eight-year-old imagination swirled with sparkles, tiaras, and talking animals. Someday I wanted to live in a castle with a massive library like Belle and fall in love with Prince Charming (at first sight, of course).


Then BOOM! I left childhood and reality cracked a hole in my nonexistent prince’s armor.


No fairy godmothers would be waving their wands over my manuscript and sending it to an agent in pristine condition. No Prince Charming would be sweeping in and saving me from big, scary rejections. No enchantress would be casting a spell over my keyboard so it’d type my book for me (but a writer can dream, can’t she?).


Writing is hard. Life is harder. It’s full of tragedies, grueling work, annoyances, setbacks, frustrations, and disappointments. Nothing at all like a fairy tale.


Fairy tale retellings have become increasingly popular over the last several years—from Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted to Marissa Meyer’s Cinder to Kara Swanson’s Dust. But what is the value of this subgenre besides marketability, and how does it relate to real-world issues?


The Power of Fairy Tale Retellings

Fairy tales can seem like fluff that only serves as an escape for readers. After all, magic doesn’t emanate from pointed sticks, and abuse victims can’t solve their problems as easily as donning a glass slipper. Our Christian Storytellers Manifesto seems to confirm that perspective, declaring our resolve to “infuse storytelling with truth” and “portray the full human experience in all its beauty and depravity, not to glorify or endorse sin but to accurately reveal the brokenness of the world.” How can entertainment that’s fanciful and idealistic achieve those standards?


Studying how fairy tales have evolved over the years may help answer that question. When most people think of fairy tales, they picture the classic Disney films. However, the original tales are far more grotesque than the spin-offs available on DVD today.


Mermaids turn to sea foam. Stepsisters cut off their feet to fit into the glass slipper. Cinderella commands doves to strike her enemies’ eyes, leaving them blind. And if you research the historical events and legends that inspired the tales, you’ll uncover even more sinister themes that wouldn’t be suitable for children.


The originals are the dark shadows of our culture’s modernized, sanitized fairy tales.


Does that mean the writers of centuries past had a stronger grasp of realism? Not necessarily.


The original fairy tales may be more honest about humanity’s fallenness, but the absence of beauty, wonder, and heartfelt emotion is as much of a distortion as a well granting wishes that ease all of a character’s hardships. We’ve witnessed God’s majesty in creation and salvation, so shouldn’t we be the first to acknowledge that beauty is more potent than ugliness? Realism and wonder are not mutually exclusive. Impactful stories dive into the darkness but also rise up into the light.


Fairy tales’ capacity to blend light and darkness holds a special advantage. Because of the subgenre’s whimsical nature, writers can transport readers to breathtaking destinations, turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, and awaken the child inside all of us, guiding us to Neverland or the bottom of the sea. On the other side of the spectrum, fairy tales can give us goosebumps as we sink into a sunless abyss and encounter rotten-to-the-core villains, foreboding symbols, and evil that ripples across the plot.


In essence, fairy tales rely on two types of magic: the bright and the beautiful, and the deep and the dark.


Maintaining equilibrium between the two can be difficult, but Sara Ella’s Coral excels at the task. That’s why we chose it for our 2022 summer book study. Through a series of posts over the next ten days, we’ll explore how the novel authentically and empathetically depicts complicated issues:


Now, let’s learn how to perform literary magic, shall we?


1. Balancing the Magic of Characters

The Light Magic

Coral focuses on depression and suicide, but the abundant supply of optimistic characters offsets the heaviness of those topics. In addition, Sara Ella sprinkles many positive traits into the various characters’ personalities.


Hope, with all of her spunk, is a constant reminder of the message Brooke needs to hear: “You are not nothing.” Merrick, though misguided at times, shines in his devotion to his sister. Brooke’s grandma, the sole person in her life who actually cares, is another source of relief, as well as Grim and Nikki, whose playful flirting stands in contrast to Brooke’s dysfunctional relationship with Merrick.


The Dark Magic

Coral includes its share of negativity too. Cynicism skews Brooke’s judgment, and Merrick is reckless. Coral/Brooke’s immediate family members are prideful and insensitive. Although Hope is a beacon that cuts through Brooke’s gloom, she still struggles with thoughts as bleak as her friend’s. Merrick’s mom is irresponsible, and his dad is cold and distant.


How to Wield Both the Light and the Dark Magic

One of the core components of fairy tales is good versus evil, probably because the starkness of the two extremes communicates morals that children can easily pick up on. The genre is known for its flawless princesses and dastardly villains. The kindhearted Cinderella and the narcissistic stepmother. The gentle Snow White and the vain, vengeful Queen. The gracious Belle and the arrogant Gaston.


Readers do need characters who are purely light magic (such as Grim and Nikki) and purely dark magic (such as Duke and Coral’s father). But a realistic, compelling fairy tale imbues characters with both types of magic, leaving only a few who are strictly one or the other.


In recent years, Disney’s screenwriters have tried to soften the lines with characters like Flynn Ryder, a cocky thief, and Anna, a clumsy, awkward princess. Is that enough? Although I don’t intend any disrespect to Disney (I love the films and think they contain many valuable lessons for storytellers), I would argue that a character’s complexity can be taken even further.


The attractive and talented oppressed princess is a common fairy tale trope. You can combat this cliché by injecting dark magic into your protagonist’s veins. Maybe she’s secretly selfish or unforgiving. For an even more interesting dynamic, she could grapple with the same vice as your villain. In Coral, multiple characters fight depression in different forms and in different ways. It embitters Jordan and leads River and Hope to suicide, but Coral/Brooke accepts help for coping with her grief and moves toward healing.


For your villain, you’ll have to reverse the application and incorporate light magic instead. To go beyond a caricature who wears a black cape, he needs to be as human as your protagonist. Allow him to experience a range of emotions and occasionally do good deeds. Don’t forget to develop a backstory for him either.


What if Lady Tremaine mistreated Cinderella to keep her from becoming as spoiled as her own daughters? What if the Queen in Snow White longed to be the fairest of all because her husband abandoned her for another woman? If those stories had delved into the villains’ motives and pasts, their actions would have been more meaningful.


Though Coral lacks a central villain, redeeming qualities appear in otherwise unlikable characters. Near the end, Jordan texts Brooke to wish her happy Thanksgiving, revealing that she does care about her little sister. And even though Mrs. Prince left her children when they needed her most, she isn’t described as cruel or unfeeling. Mr. Prince, however, is harsh on his son, but only because he’s concerned about his welfare.


None of these characters are villains, but they do have flaws that cause them to hurt others. All of your characters, whether good or bad, should display a dichotomy that reflects the brokenness of the human condition.


2. Balancing the Magic of Plot

The Light Magic

In one of the sessions for our Authentic Characters Summit, Josiah DeGraaf says, “A healthy relationship isn’t just about the dates or big events—it’s also about enjoying everyday life together. Similarly, in our stories, readers need to see multiple sides of our protagonists, and some of those sides only come out when the characters are doing mundane activities.” Coral definitely exemplifies this concept. Simple delights like Mary’s gooey brownies, strolls along the beach with Hope, and tea time with Merrick show readers what normalcy looks like for the characters.


The Dark Magic

As lovely as the calm scenes are in Coral, storm-churned waves still crash in. Three characters attempt or succeed at committing suicide, Mrs. Prince flees from her problems and breaks her family’s hearts, and Merrick hides from his father for weeks. During the portion of the story in the mermaid’s POV, sailors drown and chronic disease sets in.


How to Wield Both the Light and the Dark Magic

I’ve noticed that the covers of fantasy novels tend to be grim, and I’m sure the publishers chose those designs to give off an epic vibe. However, darkness is not eye candy. It must be present for realism’s sake, but when an author twists it to seem appealing, readers will be misled. Sin and tragedy in stories should sting.


Coral never romanticizes suicide, instead exposing the pain it leaves behind. River’s death triggers Brooke’s mental illness, and Hope’s determination to end her own life severs her family. Similarly, your characters’ mistakes can touch every member of your story’s cast. Even if a wrong doesn’t have immediate personal consequences, it will adversely affect loved ones and extend to strangers. How can anyone call that exciting or cool?


The counterforce of the light magic also prevents readers from relishing (or suffocating under) all of the angst. Since your goal is to entice readers to turn pages, you may be tempted to exchange peaceful scenes for more suspense. But you’re writing a fairy tale retelling, not a thriller. Are readers anxious for Lady Tremaine to assign Cinderella more chores? For Hans to betray Anna? For Aurora to prick her finger? No, they crave the sweetness of the Fairy Godmother transforming Cinderella’s dress so she can attend the ball. Or Rapunzel and Flynn rollicking through the city, dancing around the maypole, and eating cupcakes.


We live in a fallen world and witness suffering every day, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Family members behave thoughtlessly, friends stab us in the back, and coworkers gossip about us. But the world was once whole, and remnants of its former splendor still gleam through the cracks.


So let goodness pulsate through your pages with as much passion as the tragedies. Dwell in it. Cherish it. You’ll remind readers that joy is within reach if they search for it.


3. Balancing the Magic of Endings

The conclusion of a fairy tale is where the magic is the strongest, captivating readers’ memories for years afterward. Out of all the genres, fairy tales, in my opinion, carry the most potential for resonant endings. The traditional happily-ever-after may seem trite, but it provides a glimpse of the eternal bliss that awaits us in heaven. Coral conforms to that pattern, except with a tinge of sadness that keeps the story afloat in reality.


The Light Magic

Brooke grows more stable after receiving therapy. She finds her writing gift, new friends, true love, and direction for her future. Merrick reconciles with his father and discovers his calling. In the final scene, both protagonists kiss as the sun slips beneath the glittering surf. The atmosphere is warm and wishful—like a fairy tale.


The Dark Magic

No one can claim that Coral doesn’t have a happy ending, but it isn’t picture-perfect. Friends and family surround Brooke as she adjusts to college and a steady routine. But in the midst of it all, Hope is gone. Nothing can bring her back. Plus, Jordan is still aloof, Merrick’s mom hasn’t returned and likely never will, and Brooke’s father refuses to welcome her back.


How to Wield Both the Light and the Dark Magic

When you’re outlining a fairy tale, you might feel obligated to plan an iconic happy ending. But instead of wrapping everything in a neat bow, I challenge you not to untangle all of the mess. For example, if you’re writing a Beauty and the Beast retelling, you could have the Belle character marry a prince who has a few beastly habits he needs to work on. If you’re writing an Alice in Wonderland retelling, you could have your Alice exit an alternate dimension that’s as warped as when she dropped down the rabbit hole. Or, if you’re writing a Cinderella retelling, you could have her decline the prince’s proposal because she needs to nurse her ailing stepmother, who isn’t as nasty as rumors say she is.


Besides being unrealistic, rosy endings can be disheartening to readers. Everyone longs for their dreams to come true, for love to be requited, and for evil to be vanquished, but we may not see those outcomes in our lifetimes—and the endings we do experience aren’t without loss. When we enter our teenage years, we bid farewell to the carefree play of childhood. When we say “I do,” we lay self on the altar and accept the responsibility of being joined to another human being. When we move to a new town, we miss the people and comforts of our old home.


To truly offer readers hope, you need to give them an ending that’s attainable. One they can envision happening to themselves or others, not one they can only imagine happening in a Barbie princess movie.


I Want to Be a Part of Your (Story) World

“For it is only in darkness that one is forced to seek the light.” –Sara Ella


I’m still a fairy tale girl at heart. I still adore happily-ever-afters and castles and knights in shining armor. But I also know that fairies and magic don’t exist in the real world.


However, true love, wonder, bravery, and hope do exist, and if I can capture and release those truths through a fairy tale retelling that consoles hurting people and makes them believe again, then perhaps the genre is not so unrealistic after all.


Maybe, if we look deeper into the reality we live in, we’ll find a truer and richer magic than in all of the world’s fairy tales.


Return on Monday when Josiah DeGraaf will draw insights from Coral about depicting depression. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What are some of your favorite fairy tale retellings, and why do you enjoy them so much?

1 Comment

  1. Kristianne

    I’m so excited about this series! I read Coral last year and enjoyed it so much. I agree that Sara Ella did a wonderful balancing light and dark in the book, without either being too heavy.


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