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?
Music is a universal force. No matter where you go in the world, part of the culture includes songs, instruments and the like. Which is why it should come as no surprise that music can also provide a lot of inspiration.
Music, like literature, breaks down into genres. Folk, R&B, country, classical—genres in music as extensive as genres in literature. Each one is earmarked by content and style differences. Sometimes they can bleed together in unexpected ways—again, something literature does as well. Consider your style and genre. What sort of music fits the way you write?
In many cases, lyrics can also tell a story. Whether it’s rock’n’roll or jazz, the words often tell of a situation, event or even a full-blown story. Try it with some of your favorite songs. What stories do they tell?
One way to help use music to inspire your storytelling and worldbuilding is by creating a playlist for a given story or set of stories.
Character Playlists. Think about what your characters might listen to themselves? What are their favorite songs to sing? Which ones make them dance around when they think no one is watching? Also consider which songs reflect their internal conflicts and personal feelings about a situation. What sort of lullabies would they have heard as children?
Scene Playlists. If you’re having trouble getting a scene to work properly, think about what sort of music you’d want playing in the background during the movie version. For action scenes, it can also help you by giving you something to choreograph the scene too. Listening to those songs as you’re writing can help you set the mood and tone by matching the mood you want for the scene.
Inspiration Playlists. When all else fails, think about what you’d want as the theme song for your characters, the TV-adaptation, or even what sort of music video your characters would make for the song in question.
I’m curious. What songs are on your playlists? Let me know in the comments!
Gandalf. Eragon. Daenerys. Polgara. Raistlin Majere. Some of the most easily recognizable characters in the fantasy genres have names that stick with you. Naming a fantasy character only seems simple because it comes with extra considerations. To start with, you want a name that is easily readable. At the same time, you also want something that matches your setting. How do you create a fantasy name that won’t make you or your readers trip?
Check your setting. Obviously if you have an entirely created world for the story, you don’t need to worry. You’re free to create and come up with a naming system as you please. In the case of urban or low fantasy settings you may want to consider using a name from somewhere around the globe. This is especially the case with historical fantasy, where you should be conscious of the time period you’re working in.
Keep Creativity Simple. There’s really nothing worse for me as a reader than coming across a name that is either a, too long or b, is practically unpronounceable. Typically, length can be solved by giving the character a short-hand nickname but that’s not always the case. Names don’t just identify someone, they also serve a useful tool for parents to help redirect and teach children–i.e. the infamous middle name getting hauled out when you’ve done something wrong. Simplicity is the key here: in other words if you can’t comfortably shout it in one breath, neither can a parent. Veto that name.
For the unpronounceable names, that’s where simplicity really matters. You don’t need to jumble every single letter in the alphabet to get a good fantasy name. Nor do you necessarily need to pull out the x, y and z (unless it fits, of course) just to make a name more ‘fantasy friendly’.
Some things to avoid when trying to spell your names:
- Hard consonant changes. Your hard consonants are the ones that need your teeth, or throat to make properly. T, K and D are prime examples here. T and D both share the top of the mouth to say, so saying them one atop the other is difficult. A name like Ted solves this by placing the ‘e’ between them and softening the word overall. Use this to your advantage.
- Strings of vowels. This one isn’t a hard and fast rule but it is one to keep in mind. For the most part in the English language, vowels play off one another. Ay/ah for when a is accompanied by e, ee/eh when e is accompanied and so on and so forth. Which is where the trouble comes in when you have names that have multiple vowels lined up: they get harder to pronounce and you can have multiple variations of a single name with the same spelling. (In prime example here, my name is Alyia and I’ve heard at least half a dozen different variations on pronunciation throughout my life, most of them centered around those last three letters. Notice how all three of can play a vowel role?)
- Unnecessary letters. You might think that’s an obvious thing. I’ve already told you to avoid long names, but in this case, I mean letters that don’t actually do anything besides add to the word aesthetically. Fantasy names have a bad habit of picking up y, x and z and it’s not always necessary. If you’re going to use Jayn instead of Jane, you haven’t changed the sound at all, just altered the spelling and created an unnecessary debate on how it’s supposed to be pronounced among your readers. Another bad habit for fantasy names: the apostrophe. The apostrophe itself doesn’t have a sound, which makes it generally necessary, especially given that in the middle of words it usually just indicates missing letters. If you’re using it to hide your overlong fantasy name: It hasn’t worked.
If you’re not sure how your fantasy name will come across, write it down on a piece of paper and ask people you know how they would pronounce it (I’d recommend doing this individually so as to not spoil it when any of them hear it from others). Write down how each person pronounces it, or if they have any notes like ‘that’s hard to read’ or ‘I’m not sure’. If it takes them a while to puzzle out of you’re not getting a majority answer of how you wanted it to to sound, you might want to reconsider that name.
When trying to create a story it can sometimes feel as though we have to keep within a given set of conventions. Genres are often built on these expectations and are what most readers look for in a story when searching store shelves for their next read. At the same time, ignoring the standard tropes and turns allows us instead to explore a story in a unique light.
Artistic license allows us to twist a story as we see fit, especially as we see new ways to retell a story and to send a message more fitting to the times we live in. Rather than following the same plot lines you might for rescuing the princess from the dragon, what happens when your valiant knight instead finds the princess is the dragon? Or perhaps the dragon is dead, or never existed at all? Rather than rescuing her perhaps the knight must instead solve her murder.
For an exercise try setting a timer for fifteen minutes and writing freely. You can use a prompt or just any ideas you have in your head. Try to ignore any genre or plot conventions.