Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What’s In a Fairytale?

All stories have a fundamental base on the archetypal character: the hero (male or female) in contest with forces over which she/he must triumph to achieve a specific goal. This story line holds for literary writing as well as for all genre fiction. In a story, from cultures all over the world, the human hero is set tasks to fulfill in order to win the contest and the prize.

In the traditional fairytale, according to Vladimir Propp, Russian folklorist, there are 31 functions (tasks/stages) the hero of a folktale passes through in order to fulfill his/her mission. After the introduction of the main character (the protagonist), some of the elements include: the absence of a member of her/his family (Snow White, Beauty, Cinderella have lost their mothers, the Prince is alone in his castle, etc.); the hero is warned to avoid some action/event/place; regardless, the hero violates the warning and confronts the villain; the hero is tested and receives help from some agent (magical or wise); the hero is wounded; the villain is defeated; the hero returns and claims his/her prize.

Compare any work of fiction to these basic elements and we are hard-pressed to find deviations that negate the premise that all stories follow, to some degree, this structure. Folktales, fairy tales, campfire tales, ghost stories, romance novels, mysteries and so many more efforts with which we communicate with our fellow travelers are ways we express our experience and give encouragement or warning.

The Grimm Brothers spent much of their lives collecting stories from across the eastern areas of Europe, particularly from the Czech Republic and the Balkans. Our fascination for the fairytale is evident in the popularity of fantasies such as The Hobbit, horror stories such as The Shining and Carrie, the proliferation of the many remakes and re-tellings of Peter Pan and all of the Disney re-tellings of the Russian folktale, Cinderella and similar “poor girl to princess” tales.

We are most invested in stories that engage our deepest hopes and fears. We, as readers, want the “happy ever after” ending, the positive result, and the assurance that virtue will, eventually, defeat evil. But we also like the battle, the more grueling (and gruesome) the better. Our heroes must suffer, and greatly, before we are satisfied that they deserve their victory and are content for them to receive their reward.

My favorite fairytale is the perfect example of Propp’s 31 functions. Is yours?

1. ABSENTATION: A member of a family leaves the security of the home environment. This may be the hero or some other member of the family that the hero will later need to rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. The hero may also be introduced here, often being shown as an ordinary person.
2. INTERDICTION: An interdiction is addressed to the hero ('don't go there', 'don't do this'). The hero is warned against some action (given an 'interdiction').
3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale). This generally proves to be a bad move and the villain enters the story, although not necessarily confronting the hero. Perhaps they are just a lurking presence or perhaps they attack the family whilst the hero is away.
4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc.; or intended victim questions the villain). The villain (often in disguise) makes an active attempt at seeking information, for example searching for something valuable or trying to actively capture someone. They may speak with a member of the family who innocently divulges information. They may also seek to meet the hero, perhaps knowing already the hero is special in some way.
5. DELIVERY: The villain gains information about the victim. The villain's seeking now pays off and he or she now acquires some form of information, often about the hero or victim. Other information can be gained, for example about a map or treasure location.
6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim's belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim). The villain now presses further, often using the information gained in seeking to deceive the hero or victim in some way, perhaps appearing in disguise. This may include capture of the victim, getting the hero to give the villain something or persuading them that the villain is actually a friend and thereby gaining collaboration.
7. COMPLICITY: Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy. The trickery of the villain now works and the hero or victim naively acts in a way that helps the villain. This may range from providing the villain with something (perhaps a map or magical weapon) to actively working against good people (perhaps the villain has persuaded the hero that these other people are actually bad).
8. VILLAINY or LACK: Villain causes harm/injury to family member (by abduction, theft of magical agent, spoiling crops, plunders in other forms, causes a disappearance, expels someone, casts spell on someone, substitutes child etc., commits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments); Alternatively, a member of family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc.). There are two options for this function, either or both of which may appear in the story. In the first option, the villain causes some kind of harm, for example carrying away a victim or the desired magical object (which must be then be retrieved). In the second option, a sense of lack is identified, for example in the hero's family or within a community, whereby something is identified as lost or something becomes desirable for some reason, for example a magical object that will save people in some way.
9. MEDIATION: Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc./ alternative is that victimized hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment). The hero now discovers the act of villainy or lack, perhaps finding their family or community devastated or caught up in a state of anguish and woe.
10. BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action. The hero now decides to act in a way that will resolve the lack, for example finding a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise defeating the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero as this is the decision that sets the course of future actions and by which a previously ordinary person takes on the mantle of heroism.
11. DEPARTURE: Hero leaves home;
12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc., preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);
13. HERO'S REACTION: Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary's powers against him);
14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
15. GUIDANCE: Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
16. STRUGGLE: Hero and villain join in direct combat;
17. BRANDING: Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
18. VICTORY: Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
19. LIQUIDATION: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed);
20. RETURN: Hero returns;
21. PURSUIT: Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
22. RESCUE: Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognizably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: Hero unrecognized, arrives home or in another country;
24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: False hero presents unfounded claims;
25. DIFFICULT TASK: Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
26. SOLUTION: Task is resolved;
27. RECOGNITION: Hero is recognized (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
28. EXPOSURE: False hero or villain is exposed;
29. TRANSFIGURATION: Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc.);
30. PUNISHMENT: Villain is punished;
31. WEDDING: Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).
CF: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valdimir_Propp


  1. Such an informative entry. Thanks, Leigh.

  2. Wonderful post, Leigh. Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Fran and Sandy. I found this information very helpful when I found it after a workshop offered by San Francisco Area Romance Writers. I've always been a fairytale enthusiast but the fundamentals of story-telling are the ground upon which we all work.

  4. Fantastic. You've got a basic outline for most plots there. It's all in the details of time, place, character, and events that we hang on that structure!

  5. Thanks, Karen. I've loved fairy tales from the first day I learned to read. I had no idea how important they would be to my career.

  6. Hi Leigh--
    Great reminder of the importance of fairy tales. Very interesting post.