By Sarah J. Maas
Odds are, when you see the words “Fairy-tale retellings,” you’ll have one of two reactions: 1) Roll your eyes and groan or 2) Clap your hands and jump for joy. Okay, maybe No. 2 is a bit extreme, but as someone whose “To Be Read” list is overflowing with fairy-tale retellings, I get pretty excited about them.
In fact, I love fairy-tale retellings so much that most of my novels and short stories are retellings. QUEEN OF GLASS is a Cinderella re-imagining on an epic fantasy level. A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES, another YA fantasy trilogy, is a retelling mash-up of “Beauty and the Beast,” “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” and “Tam-Lin.” A FARAWAY LAND, my adult fantasy novel, has an original plotline, but half a dozen fairy-tales make a cameo appearance. My short stories include “Chaperon” (a “Little Red Riding Hood” retelling), “Humbert” (a “Frog Prince” retelling), and “Why Not Me?” (a retelling of “Hansel and Gretel” from the witch’s POV).
So, obviously, I have a thing for fairy-tales. But a writer-friend of mine once remarked that people who do fairy-tale retellings are just being lazy. To phrase it lightly, I got really pissed off. I got pissed off for the same reason I get pissed off when people say fantasy novels aren’t “real” books. Writing both fantasy and fairy-tale retellings requires a huge amount of imagination and creativity. Huge.
Because, even though you’re retelling a story that wasn’t your idea to begin with, you have to make it original. You’ve got to make people believe in it, give people something they haven’t seen before. I’m initially drawn to stories with unanswered questions—stories with gaps in them, stories where the characters are pretty 2-D, so I can easily insert my own characters into their place.
Imagining the fairy-tale from a different angle is another way I’m called to write. Neil Gaiman’s short story, “Snow, Glass, Apples,” is a perfect example. A retelling of “Snow White,” the story follows the POV of the wicked queen, who is trying to rid the world of Snow White, who happens to be a vampire. This might seem TOTALLY out of left field, but think about it: haven’t you ever wondered why the wicked queen wanted to kill Snow White so badly? Fine—she was vain and jealous, but seriously: she destroys herself attempting to bring down this young woman! Casting Snow White as a vampire suddenly clarifies the story—it’s a creative answer to a question lingering between the lines. I bought it—and frankly, it made me unable to look at “Snow White” the same way again.
That’s what a good fairy-tale retelling should do: it should make you reconsider your preconceived notions of the story. But it can also go the other way: retellings can be a viewpoint for how we perceive our world. In Jane Yolen’s BRIAR ROSE, Yolen uses the story of “The Sleeping Beauty” as a lens for viewing a young woman’s Holocaust experience in a concentration camp.
Regardless of whether your retelling takes place in this world, or an imagined one, it’s your characters that ultimately make or break the retelling. Give us an awesome plot, yes, but give us human characters—give us the people we don’t get to see in the legends, give us a Fairy Godmother who is little more than a slave, give us a gay Cinderella (see Malinda Lo’s ASH). It’s the characters that will carry your retelling, the characters that will answer the unasked questions—the characters that can even make us believe that your version is the true one, and the original tale is just a watered-down version of your narrative.
But before you begin writing your retelling, do your research. For a good chunk of popular fairy-tales, Wikipedia offers a list of retellings/references/uses, and will often list novels that feature your fairy-tale. Read up on them; see what the author has done. There are certain retellings that are untouchable. “Swan Lake” is one of my favorite fairy-tales, but I know I can never trump the mind-blowing awesomeness that Mercedes Lackey did with her novel, THE BLACK SWAN. Nor will I ever be able to touch Arthurian myth, having read THE MISTS OF AVALON. But that’s just me: I don’t want to write anything unless I know it will be original and fresh, unless I have complete confidence that I’m bringing something killer to the table.
That being said, don’t be afraid when you see that other authors have done a retelling of your chosen story. If the story calls to you, write it. I’d wager it’ll be pretty different from that other author’s vision. That’s part of the reason why fairy-tales have survived: they’re eternal; they offer us a wealth of potential stories and unanswered questions. Fairy-tales speak to us; they touch upon our primal fears and hopes, our nightmares and joys. Don’t be afraid when a fairy-tale speaks to you.
And do me a favor: if someone tells you that you’re being lazy by writing a fairy-tale retelling, please hit them.
Sarah J. Maas is the author of several novels, including QUEEN OF GLASS, a high fantasy retelling of Cinderella. Her agent currently has her novel on submissions to editors. Sarah resides with her fiancé in Los Angeles. You can visit her blog here.