“Fairy tales are about trouble, about getting into it and out of it, and trouble seems to be a necessary stage on the route of becoming. All the magic and glass mountains and pearls the size of houses and princesses beautiful as the day and talking birds and part-time serpents are distractions from the tough core of most of the stories, the struggle to survive against adversaries, to find your place in your world, and to come into your own, difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”
~Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby
I recently read that paragraph on a friend’s post and I’m picking up the book this week. Solnit’s perspective is spot-on, and I like how she talks about trouble, which could mean the protagonist getting into trouble or trouble finding the protagonist, and how it creates a learning experience. I’m specifically reminded of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. It was one of those stories I read over and over until the book opened right at the spot it knew I’d return to. Not a particularly encouraging story, but fascinating to me nonetheless. There was a story without a happily ever after. In fact, it had a rather twisted theme, but for some reason it interested me as a kid because it was so different from a lot of fairy tales or books that were out there. It was difficult.
Difficult, the way I see it , means trouble, as Solnit says, but I want to expand it for the sake of this post. A difficult story can be one with perilous circumstances or just sad experiences. The key is that these plot points provide enormous growth potential–for the character and the reader. And though the story may feel dark, it’s not completely devoid of hope.
In addition to Andersen’s twisted tales, I preferred books that involved characters who had major odds or serious grief or difficult life circumstances to conquer, whether fantasy or realism, it had to have some kind of emotional core that dealt with parents, siblings, or even best friends. The cute pink covered books were completely uninteresting to me. And for the most part, my tastes in reading have not changed at all. When I read kids books now I still prefer the ones that really tug at the heartstrings. Anything by Kate DiCamillo, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness are a couple that come to mind. Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, Charlotte’s Web and others like The Secret Garden or Little Women, where life (or plot) hands a character a grievous circumstance or two and the main character doesn’t turn to sea foam like The Little Mermaid. A truly good story, for me, is one that makes me think/question or cry. Although I am okay with a completely sad ending as well, as long as it’s earned. Little Mermaid, when read as an adult, reads more like an instruction booklet on how to be a good little girl–it’s a bit creepy and not entirely earned. But it’s an older style of writing and that’s a different blog post.
About two years ago I listened to a lecture by Matt de la Pena and he spoke about the necessity of darkness. He talked about how kids need the dark stories and he’s absolutely right. Far too often, adults, parents, teachers, even other writers, think that children need to be supplied only with lovely, beautiful stories that illustrate life’s finer moments. While it’s true that beautiful stories that focus on pleasant things are valuable, the opposite is also valuable. After all, both exist. And often side by side.
What was very true for me, even though I didn’t quite know this as a kid—sad or darker stories can actually comfort a child, remind them that they are not alone, that their lives aren’t the only ones confusing or sad or downright messed up. Because that child’s life doesn’t look anything like those pink covered novels about cupcakes. She doesn’t have a whole lot in common with those girls whose life is about finding the best dress for the first day of school.
Stories that provide characters who not only survive, but reach some kind of peace despite their flaws or their flawed circumstances give a child confidence that she, too, will find her way through it all. It may not have a Disney ending, and it may not be entirely happy, but she will find hope in it because all she really needs to know is that she will be okay.
So write your stories—fantasy, sci-fi, realism, apocalyptic with a twist of steampunk pirates, whatever they are—with this in mind: it doesn’t have to be a perfect ending or a fairy tale romance or an everybody wins scenario in order to encourage, teach, or comfort a reader. It doesn’t have to have some kind of moral or religious lesson at the end, like the way Andersen tended to wrap his tales, but a glimmer of hope is good thing. Regardless of style, craft an authentic story with an authentic ending and your readers will cling to the emotional impact of it, they will feel the truth that’s in all good fiction—and maybe they will even discover that they will be okay.