FABULISM: WHAT IS IT?
In fabulism, fantastical elements are placed in an everyday setting.
It’s called ‘fabulism’ because authors are playing with realism by making use of elements of fable.
For the definition of a fable, see here.
COMMON FEATURES OF FABULIST FICTION
- emphasis on idea or theme
- settings in other times, places, but not necessarily “historical”
- exoticism: the extraordinary over the ordinary, the unusual over the usual.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter is a collection of fabulist stories.
COMMON FEATURES OF CHILDREN’S FABULIST FICTION
Looking at the marketing copy and reader descriptions of these books a few tropes are common to this category of books often called ‘magical realism’ or ‘fabulist’:
- The protagonist often has a super power, which as often as not is the flipside of a weakness. Sometimes it’s an original kind of superpower which hasn’t been used by Marvel and you haven’t seen it in fairytales. For example the ability to see words shining above people’s heads.
- It’s often the sort of magic that lives next door. Or in the kitchen.
- Moving house is a common introduction to this kind of story. The child used to live in the ordinary world but now the parents have moved them to this island, this rickety house, this dilapidated mansion.
- Witches/trolls/mermaids etc. exist alongside humans, perhaps living secretly. Their secret lives can be an allegory for some kind of exclusion which happens to groups of people in the real world.
- Fortune-telling is often a thing.
- Luck can be a reliable, real thing, influenced by charms and whatnot.
- Fate is also a thing, but can be thrown off-course by a savvy young protagonist. Related to fate, the moon features large in many fabulist stories.
- Some stories have a fable/folklore/legend quality to them, taking modern people back to a time when humans really did believe the world was made of magic. There might be some direct link to the ancient past emphasised in the story e.g. finding something ancient or learning something about history in school or perhaps it’s simply working out some family history.
- Wish fulfilment in these stories is often about getting a bully back using magical powers. Hence, the school or neighbourhood bully is often the villain of the story (rather than say, dragons, in a work of high fantasy). This is the wish-fulfilment of a typical superhero story.
- Time travel which affects individuals at the personal (friendship/family) level. These kids aren’t out to save the world — they’re trying to subvert personal tragedies and relationship breakups.
- Serious issues such as drug-use and bullying can be made heartwarming by the injection of fabulism.
- They’re quite often set in a real-world big city such as L.A., London or New York City, but can also be set in a realistic little town which mimics a real place. Or they might be set in a deliberately magical sounding place with a poetic name.
- A character may need to keep their magical powers secret, or magic might be a widely accepted part of the natural storyworld. Sometimes only the children know about the magic because the adults are too busy to notice it.
- The fabulism in children’s books often creates an atmosphere which feels cosy and snug and whimsical.
- There is often a ‘wise woman’ or a ‘wise man’ or sometimes the child character is wise beyond their years. Other fairytale archetypes can be mapped onto contemporary characters.
- Fabulism can be a part of any genre — sometimes it’s a mystery, sometimes it’s used to solve a crime, sometimes it’s a story about human relationships.
- Flying is pretty common.
- There’s quite a bit of sickness. Recently dead parents, cancer, rashes, and other horrible life journeys which is made a little easier with magic.
- Fog is popular, too. You never know what lies inside the fog. Could be anything.
- Orphans are common too, though orphans are common right throughout children’s literature.
- In a smalltown setting, fabulist stories are probably full of eccentric characters with strange powers, habits and hobbies. In a children’s book, these adults are probably quite childlike themselves, whereas ‘regular’ adults have forgotten how to be playful and observant.
- Perhaps the storyworld used to be far more magical than it is now, but something happened and now it’s up to the child character to break the curse or to bring full magic back.