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Flash Fiction — Fairy Tale Archetypes

fairy tale archetypes

Whether you’re familiar with fairy tales and archetypes or not, what does the illustration above make you think of? How does it make you feel? What kind of story — in 1500 words or less — could you tell based on that image?

What are fairy tale archetypes?

An archetype is a character, idea, symbol, setting, situation, or challenge that reflects a universal human condition. People around the world in any culture or nation have commonalities. We all strive for food, shelter, livelihood, protection of loved ones, and a better life.

We want freedom from suffering and illness. Protection from those who would harm us. Benevolent leaders, kind parents, and happy, well-behaved children. Friendly communities. Love and a sense of belonging. Fairness. Justice. Immortality or, at least, a reward when this life is over.

The stories we tell reflect these desires and many more, and at the center of those stories are characters fighting for or against forces that hold us back. And in any story, especially in fairy tales, one or more archetypes is usually present.

Fairy tales are symbols, metaphors, and explanations for the unexplainable.

Fairy tales have been passed along for hundreds or even thousands of years, whether orally or in written form. And we understand them almost unconsciously because they’re based on archetypes. We see ourselves or others in them because they have universal appeal.

Did you know the “Cinderella” fairy tale exists independently in at least twenty-three versions and five continents? Yep. And that’s partly because the story reflects a universal human condition: historically, for a woman to move up from her situation, she needs a man to rescue her. That’s been changing, of course, and there have always been exceptions, but it still exists, and that’s why the story remains popular.

“Cinderella” features a few archetypes: the persecuted heroine, the evil stepmother, and Prince Charming, among others. Who hasn’t felt persecuted, at least a time or two?

And in “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Anderson, archetypes include the quest or journey, the friendly beast, the savior (a reverse damsel in distress), the devil, the evil one with a good heart, and the ice queen.

The photo prompt above is an illustration from “The Snow Queen.” I’ve known it since childhood from the My Book House collection of children’s stories, but it’s probably used in other books as well.

The ice queen archetype (not snow queen though that’s the title of the story) is beautiful and beguiling. She’s also haughty and removed from anyone or anything that could hurt her, but she’s lonely. To ease her solitude, she captures children or wanderers, and she might punish someone she’s jealous of or believes has hurt her. Characteristics of the ice queen can overlap with the evil queen, which you probably know from “Sleeping Beauty.”

We all know someone who seems made of ice; it’s a stereotype and sometimes an insult. Just remember people aren’t archetypes even though your characters might be.

I’ll write more on fairy tale archetypes another time, but if you’re curious, here’s a good introduction to archetypes in literature.

About flash fiction

All writers need writing practice, and flash fiction based on a photo or other prompt is a great way to expand your creativity and maybe even break through writer’s block. And it can build confidence, too, especially if you’re a beginner. The best part is that it doesn’t require a big time commitment.

Flash fiction, also called short shorts, sudden fiction, and microfiction, is a general term for complete stories under 1500 words. Most often, flash fiction means a story of fewer than 400-500 words.

Why write flash fiction?

Composing an entire story in such a short space requires careful structuring, plotting, and word choice. Plus, you’ll get practice “showing” action rather than “telling” what happened while keeping descriptions to a minimum.

And opportunities to enter contests and get paid for your efforts are plentiful. A Google search with keywords like flash fiction contests or flash fiction submissions 2018 will turn up plenty.

Give it a whirl!  And you never know. It might be the start of a novel or a non-fiction essay.

Questions and comments are always welcome.

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