In cultures all over the world, there are timeless stories. Often these are oral stories we might hear from parents or grandparents. Most of them have a moral bend—instructing the listeners to be kind, to have compassion and to stay hopeful. A lot of these stories get lumped in under fairy tales.
There’s a lot of reasons why fairy tales and children’s stories remain so popular. Their elements show up even in modern storytelling. This isn’t just aimed at children’s movies either—the entire romance genre and its respective subgenres hinge on having a happily ever after. Even Star Wars has a call to fairy tales in its opening crawl: A long time ago, in a galaxy far away.
Depending on the fairy tale, you may know how easy it is to twist them. Red Riding Hood is a classic example of this—in some cases Red is gobbled up by the wolf and only saved by a passing woodsman. In others, Red fights back and frees her grandmother from his stomach by using a woodcutter’s axe.
The same can be said in many other fairy tales. Cinderella either gets help from the mice she feeds, or from her mother’s spirit. Her awful stepsisters aren’t immune either. Rather than breaking the shoe by forcing it on their improperly sized feet, older versions have them cutting off parts of their feet to fool the prince.
This should tell you how easy it is to twist a fairy tale. What if rather than harming themselves to fit the shoe, the sisters had tried to create another glass shoe? What if Gretel hadn’t freed her brother?
And, in the modern age where we know things like computers and cars and many other wonders, what happens when you change the genre of the fairy tale?
Can you imagine a sci-fi retelling of the Goose Girl? How would a vampiric Cinderella work? Would Snow White be able to solve the murder of the seven dwarves?
Also, consider swapping the characters. Could Rapunzel find an escape from the Giant’s Beanstalk? Would the sister of the six swans be able to outsmart the wolf of the three little pigs?
Fairy tales have been getting twisted and turned about since they were first told. How would you twist these classic stories?
Dialogue is a powerful tool, but it’s very rare that anyone—even characters—will come out and say exactly what they think or feel at any given moment. Instead, body language and action can help convey these things.
As an exercise: Take a moment and write a slice-of-life flash fiction, showing how your characters interact with each other. What are some of the little, daily ways they show they care about each other? How might their innocuous habits be used to show dislike of each other? Which of these things are done deliberately, and which do your characters do without consciously thinking about it?
Of the three cornerstones of storytelling, characters have to put up with a lot. Not only do they have to respond and react to the movements of plot, but they do so within the constrains of their setting. Their motives are constantly questioned and everyone almost always wants to know what their goal is.
It’s no wonder your characters should and do feel a lot of things. From joy to disgust to rage and even hopelessness, your characters have an entire gamut of possible emotions. As a writer, your job is to help portray those emotions. Body language absolutely should be something you familiarize yourself with, and so should the array of human emotion.
For that, I recommend an emotion wheel.
You might also see this referred to as the wheel of feelings. In essence, it breaks every emotion down into its basic elements—Embarrassment is rooted in hurt, which has roots in anger. Confidence takes a base in pride, which in turn stems from happiness..
Essentially this functions as an extended thesaurus, not only giving you an accurate word for what your character is feeling, but giving you an idea of why they might be feeling that way, and how they might express it. Both disgust and boredom can be conveyed by having a character support their head on one hand, either with a sneer in place (disgust) or a blank expression (bored).
Keep in mind that emotions are fluid and aren’t necessarily bound to follow a logical order. Not only does sadness turn into fear, it can also turn into disgust or even hope. Just as easily, happiness can turn into anger.
As an exercise: Go to any stock photo site such as pixabay or unsplash and search for a base emotion—anger, fear, sadness, happiness, disgust or surprise. Pick out three different images and analyze them. What are some of the similarities in the models’ body languages? What are some differences? What higher-level emotions might each model be feeling? Write down those cues and clues as a reference the next time you have a character feeling a particular emotion.
One of the most alluring things about reading fiction is the glimpse it gives us into other worlds and possibilities. Although most of us probably won’t get into a swordfight with a tyrant, or travel to another world, we can read about the possibility of doing just that.
Unfortunately for us writers, we still have to come up with some idea of what that possibility might mean. The trifecta of writing includes characters, setting and plot. We might have an idea of one or even two, but what happens when we just don’t have any ideas for that third part? This is where you might find something like flash fiction coming in handy. Take the ideas for plot, setting or character you have, and start asking questions.
Think of things like how an average joe, everyday character might be forced to take part in your main conflict. What’s the first major law someone from another country or world might break, intentionally or unintentionally? What do the basics of life like grocery shopping, housekeeping and even hygiene look like for your everyday people? Jot down at least three or four questions and write a page of a scenario that answers those questions.
This even works for fiction stories that take place in the real world, without the addition of magic or anything else. Start asking questions about who might uncover a secret? What secrets might they uncover, either from their family and friends, at their job, or from a passing stranger. How do they discover these secrets? How do they handle this new information? How does it affect their life?
If you’re really struggling, it might also help to take a scene or a chapter from another story you’ve enjoyed, and rewrite it as if it’s happening to your characters in your setting. Use that other scene as a skeleton structure. Copy the basic elements such as number of characters present, general location (like house or hospital) and major goals or events of the scene.
Even though these exploratory pieces may never make it into the story itself, it still gives you as the writer a good way to immerse yourself in the possibilities of your story. Your readers may only get a glimpse of the story’s possibilities, but the more details you can find, the more enticing the glimpse will be.
Characters are often the first thing a reader falls in love with. Building a detailed and dynamic character can be difficult. Thankfully, there’s plenty of ways to practice.
As an exercise: Pick someone you know in real-life. Describe them as the main character in a story. Think about how they act, walk, talk and any habits or quirks they have. You can also try writing them as a villain for an added challenge.
Then: Insert them into a short story. Try rewriting a fairy tale to feature them or even putting them in the place of a character in a show or book you enjoyed. How does the story change to accommodate them? How do they solve some of the conflicts of the story?