A Guide to Fantasy and Fairy Tale Fiction for Self-Published Authors



The TV show, Once Upon A Time, has become popular in the last few years and established a large fanbase. The show takes well-known fairy tale characters like Peter Pan, Cinderella, Snow White, and many others and plants them in a modern setting with a very fantastical feel. Recently, the insanely popular Elsa and Anna from Disney’s Frozen were added to the show’s long list of characters. I’m not a fan of the show, but I can easily see its mass appeal. Fairy tales are making a strong comeback in mainstream movies, shows, and fiction. Many of the familiar fairy tales I heard as a child are being reinvented and retold to accommodate the sensibilities of a 21st century audience. But the question that often pops up in my mind is whether or not we can categorize these new fairy tales as “fantasy” as many are so quick to do.

Fairy Tales Defined

Fairy tales have been around for hundreds of years and most people are familiar with stories penned by the like of Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Carlo Callodi, and others. Many of these stories were folk tales that were disseminated orally over the course of many years before being written down. Fairy tales often featured fairies, fey, or other mythical creatures. Each story usually had a moral element or lesson it was trying to teach, hence why most fairy tales were aimed at children. Fairy tales tend to be simplistic in plot and shorter than a novel. Think of any fairy tale you know and it’s fairly straightforward. Cinderella must get back home before the clock strikes at midnight, Snow White must not take the apple from the evil witch, and Rapunzel must let down her hair to allow her handsome prince to ascend the tower.

Another defining aspect of fairy tales is that they tend to be regional. Tales like Arabian Nights were clearly intended for a Middle Eastern audience and the same goes for a story like Hansel and Gretel. The characters in these tales would never be defined as epic heroes since there conflicts are localized and the outcomes only affect the characters themselves or very few people in the story.

A Fantastical Contrast

When we examine fantasy fiction in comparison to fairy tales there are numerous similarities. The fantasy genre readily features mythical creatures like elves, fairies, dragons, etc. and magic can be an important component of a fantasy story just like a fairy tale. Despite these similarities, I would argue that the genre of fairy tales is wholly different than fantasy, or at least should be considered a sub-genre of the overarching fantasy genre. There are many elements in fantasy that are missing in fairy tales and here a few:

    • Fantasy does not always have a straightforward moral message
    • Fantasy is often concerned with an epic or saga not a single contained story
    • Fantasy settings do not usually take place on a magical version of Earth, but on fantastical realms outside of it (think Middle-Earth, Narnia, or Earth-Sea)
    • Fantasy stories often have deep histories, genealogies, and/or cultures attributed to characters, creatures, and peoples within their worlds
    • Fantasy is often concerned with conflicts and stories that impact the whole of a civilization or world within the story rather than localized events (i.e. Cinderella’s conflict with her stepmother and the fate of her status versus Frodo’s conflict with Sauron and the fate of Middle-Earth)

There are more that can be added, but I think you get the gist. Fairy tales should be identified as short, concise stories with straightforward outcomes whereas fantasy stories are longer, more complex, and not always clear-cut.

So when someone asks you whether the new Maleficent movie is a fairy tale or fantasy, what’s your response? Or what are some of your favorite fairy tales that you thought were considered fantasy and vice versa? Leave a comment below and let’s discuss!

  • What about a story called “The Thirteenth Child” this is a novel but it contains elements both of fantasy and fairytales. There is a solid point regarding morals and such, however the book involves the solving of a larger problem about the survival of magic in the colonies.

    • Interesting! It could be a good melding of the two genres. Sometimes the dividing line isn’t always so clear and some might argue that a book like the Hobbit by Tolkien could fall more on the side of fairy tale than fantasy.

      • Daniel, I’m attempting to write my own epic tale and it’s so wonderful to know the difference between fairytale and fantasy, I had no idea and I’m a novice. I have grandchildren and so I’m interested in these things because I’m always looking for the story that would convey timeless truths in a genre that their little minds can grasp. Keep doing what you are doing information like this really helps.
        Hope Jaye

  • I believe that you have attempted here to define labels from a subjective pointof view. And, really, that’s all anyone can do with these subjects. The term Fairy Tale has been used with varying definitions throughout its existence, and even contemporaries rarely agreed. Therefore, the patterns you put forth are not set within the facts of history, for there has never been a consistent pattern.
    Since you mentioned The Hobbit, it should be acknowledged that Tolkien himself wrote an essay on Fairie stories. His contention was that such terms must only be applied to tales which actually contained their namesake. For instance, Peter Rabbit is a beast fable not a fairy tale. However, even the most die hard fan must admit Tolkien was very subjective in his view point too. It is a cleaner and more logical way to define, but the use of language (especially the English language) is rarely logical.
    In the end, your best point was to leave it open to discussion. For, although like you I would like to have set definitions for Fairy Tale and Fantasy, I know my own view is also subjective.

    • Thank you for sharing your feedback! While I do agree that there is some subjectivity in identifying these two genres, there are specific conventions that readers expect in every genre. Epic fantasy for instance relies on the quest trope and grand politics to really define that subgenre, whereas a fairy tale like Cinderella would not utilize those same tropes unless it was a complete reimagining of the story–in which case, it might be re-classified as fantasy. So while there may be a degree of subjectivity among the classification of genres, the use of established conventions meet readers’ expectations for each genre. Omitting those conventions will quickly turn off most readers to the story.

  • Very interesting topic! I googled this question and after reading your blog I think they are the same. I’m writing my last fantasy/fairytale story about a magical land of dolls who are alive and happy in their own little world that I created. The dolls have been there since the beginning of time, but every half century or so evil enters the doll land. There must be a magical confrontation to keep the land free of evil. I’m writing the 5th and final book. Each book is a short read from 78 pages to 212 pages. Not a full-length novel, just stories I like to make up. I call the chronicles my fairy tale books. Is this a fairy tale or is this fantasy?

    • Thanks for commenting! I think the world you’ve created definitely takes elements from each genre. The length of the stories might place it more on the fairy tale side. And congratulations on getting to the final book in the series! 🙂

  • Wait, where are the do’s and don’t’s?? Come on ppl. I want to be a writer when I grow up and I’m interested in fantasy. I have a great way of writing, ppl say, but I want advice. Please?

  • Hi Daniel, you’ve written a great guide here. I wanted to chime in with a resource I’m part of, if you don’t mind! Fairytalez.com is an online collection of over 2,000 fairy tales, folktales and fables, all presented ad-free. Our website has the tales indexed by author and region, with a reading level and time for each. We want it to be a great resource for fairy tale fans!

    We’ve also started to deconstruct fairy tales on our blog. I invite you to check it out!

    As a writer myself, I’ll get your free guide, thanks for the offer!

    Best,

    Bri @ Fairytalez.com

  • Thanks for sharing! This is an interesting conversation to bring up in writing circles. I define my writing as mythopoeic, not so much creating new myths, but extensively drawing on existing material and “filling in the blanks” so to speak. However, there is a great deal of crossover between myth and fantasy genres and readerships. In fact, the only difference may lie in their origins, myths of course having religious backgrounds for cultures around the world.