Fairytale Character Archetypes

Even modern stories make use of the stock characterisation of fairy tales, otherwise known as ‘fairytale archetypes’. There is no need to shy away from using these. Audiences love them. The trick is to expand upon them, or, according to your purposes, to subvert expectations and challenge the reader’s prejudices.

In fairy tales, famously, character is destiny. Who the personages are, and what happens to them, are completely inseparable. You can predict what will happen to a good princess, just from the fact that she is a good princess. Her identity in the story maps out her future. Conversely, her goodness has no other aspects except those that are revealed by her marrying a handsome prince. That’s all her goodness really means; though we will of course have seen it in action  in acts of kindness or victimhood at the beginning of the story, so we know that it is there. In true fairy tales, as opposed to literary hybrids smuggling in the techniques of the novel, there are no individual characters, only types.

Good princess; bad princess.

Witches.

Fairy godmothers.

Genies.

Kings who set tasks for suitors.

These beings do not exist in the environment of the child who, at the same time as hearing about Snow White, is also thrilled by stories of door-opening. But the vocabulary of types is actually easier to acquire, in some ways, than knowledge about the child’s own world, because the fairy-tale world is so perfectly self-explanatory. Every appearance by a witch is a complete, sufficient demonstration of what a witch is. In life, knowledge of other people’s natures is both important and relatively hard to come by; it depends on a long loop of inferences moving gradually from the things people do and say, to conclusions about what they’re like. Children can afford to be much less cautious about the information in stories — much quicker to decide. Arthur Applebee asked a group of pre-school children to tell him the characters of a list of animals. They were more certain of the stereotypical personalities of animals they could only have met in stories, such as brave lions or sly foxes, than of the characters of dogs or cats, where experience of specific dogs and cats came in to complicate the picture. Story characteristics are prepared for reception, so to speak; they’re consistent, they don’t contradict themselves, and they’re dispensed at the pace that understanding demands.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford

Vintage Paper Toys

CHARACTERS ARE ‘NOT ACTUALLY CONSCIOUS’

“Conventional stock figures”: there is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad. Even when the princess in “The Three Snake Leaves” inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband, we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious.

They seldom have names of their own. More often than not they’re known by their occupation or their social position, or by a quirk of their dress: the miller, the princess, the captain, Bearskin, Little Red Riding Hood. When they do have a name it’s usually Hans, just as Jack is the hero of every British fairy tale.

The most fitting pictorial representation of fairy-tale characters seems to me to be found not in any of the beautifully illustrated editions of Grimm that have been published over the years, but in the little cardboard cut-out figures that come with a toy theatre. They are flat, not round. Only one side of them is visible to the audience, but that is the only side we need: the other side is blank. They are depicted in poses of intense activity or passion, so that their part in the drama can be easily read from a distance.

Philip Pullman, The Guardian

 

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