Hello, everyone! This is my first time guest-blogging on JL, so let me introduce myself. I’m Tahlia Merrill Kirk, creator and editor of Timeless Tales Magazine. Our magazine’s mission is to breathe new life into the classics by publishing stories and poems that reinvent fairy tales and myths.
Our current theme is Snow White, which means I’ve been spending hours upon hours reading submissions about pale skin and ruby lips. Seriously, I’m starting to hum the Into the Woods song as, “The skin as white as milk, the lips as red as blood, the hair as black as crows” (listen here) . To turn my insanity into something productive, let’s talk about certain pitfalls to avoid when retelling Snow White. Here are the biggest challenges that this fairy tale presents to writers:
1. Getting Beyond the Disney Version.
We all grew up with Disney pumped through our veins, so it’s naturally the first image that comes to mind when thinking about this fairy tale. Even if you’ve only watched the movie once, like me, you still have the songs and iconic scenes imprinted on your brain.
If you read Allie’s blog post about the differences between the original fairy tales and the Disney movies, you’ll have a pretty good idea about why this is a problem. For example, you do NOT need to name your dwarves Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, Doc, etc. If you’d only seen the Disney movie, you might fall into thinking these names are permanent parts of their characters, but in fact, there’s no reason you can’t name your dwarves Granite, Stone, Silver, etc. Remember, the whole point of a retelling is to challenge assumptions; do some research and see where it takes you.
2. So Many Characters to Juggle.
With seven dwarves, an original queen, the new queen/stepmother, a king, a huntsman, a prince, and, oh, yeah–SNOW WHITE–you have a potential of thirteen characters…fourteen if you want to give the magic mirror a personality! That is far too many to fully develop in a novel, let alone a short story.
Every writer is going to have a different approach to getting around this hurdle. The obvious answer is that you won’t feature every character, but the specifics are up to you. Are you going to start the story in the middle and focus on Snow’s relationship with her dwarven roomies? That’s still 8 characters, so maybe you’ll want to send half the dwarves to the Bahamas for a vacation so you don’t get bogged down. The possibilities are endless.
3. The Romance With a Prince Who Arrives at the End.
Okay, so this is assuming that you include the prince in the story (totally optional) and that you want him to have a romantic relationship with Snow White (also totally optional). The problem is, if you follow the original plot, he doesn’t show up until the end of the story, making it hard to build any sort of relationship. This is why so many retellings have the huntsman as the love interest, since he shows up much earlier in the story and has a meaningful interaction with Snow. Your story might make the prince a childhood friend or a penpal. Or maybe you’ll start the story with Snow’s awakening and follow them as they navigate through the ups and downs of their new relationship. Just remember, it’s important to get around the ickiness of the prince falling in love with a girl he believes is a corpse!
4. Writing a Story About Beauty Without Buying Into the Obsession.
Oh, man, where do I even start? This is a tough one to explain, but there’s a fine line between writing a story where the characters are obsessed with physical appearances and a story where you are feeding into this destructive view. “But—” you may say, “Clearly, this is a fairy tale about the dangers of vanity! The stepmother is the one obsessed with beauty and she’s portrayed as evil.”
Ah, but does the fairy tale ever give value to any of Snow White’s other attributes? Sure, there are her skills in cooking and cleaning, but those are quickly tossed aside once her prince comes along. Oh, and if you think that Snow has kindness going for her, I’ll remind you that the original Snow gets her revenge through torturous punishment of her stepmother.
So when you’re writing your version, consider how much importance you put on Snow’s appearance (or the dwarves’ appearance for that matter, since they are perpetually defined by their height). I’ve read multiple submissions that get to Snow’s funeral and it seemed touching how all the dwarves are crying their eyes out until I realized that the author had given Snow’s character ZERO lines of dialogue and ZERO meaningful actions. Make sure your characters aren’t just attractive props in your story.
If you want a great example of a retelling that consciously targets our culture’s definitions of beauty, I recommend Gail Carson Levine’s Fairest. Her protagonist has all the traditional features, but they actually don’t make her drop-dead gorgeous:
“I was an unsightly child. My skin was the weak blue-white of skimmed milk, which wouldn’t have been so bad if my hair had been blond and my lips pale pink. But my lips were as red as a dragon’s tongue and my hair as black as an old frying pan.”
It’s okay to be average looking! And Spoiler Alert: She still finds love!
5. Glorifying Whiteness.
Along with the potential for objectifying your protagonist, you might want to tread carefully when praising her white skin. Just because her name is Snow White doesn’t mean she must be default Caucasian. Now, I’m not saying you need to make your Snow White Hispanic or African American (although, you should definitely consider the possibility!), but do be aware that there’s a whole lot of symbolic meaning around the color white that becomes problematic when applied to a person’s skin tone. Your story’s plot might hinge on Snow being beautiful, but I’ll bet it doesn’t hinge on how she’s beautiful and will work equally well if she’s olive-skinned versus pale.
Hopefully, these points give you some food for thought (they’re not poisoned, I promise!). If you want to read our completed collection of totally rockin’ Snow White retellings, sign up for our newsletter via our website to be notified when it goes live this summer. This will actually be Timeless Tales’s 5th Anniversary Issue, so it will be chock full of extra-special goodies. While you wait, might I suggest reading one of our previous issues? We’ve covered everything from Arthurian legends to The 12 Dancing Princesses.
All right, now I have to get back to sending out rejection and acceptance letters. Thanks to Hanna and Heather for inviting me to your little corner of the internet!
Though a part-time editor by day, Heather Hayden’s not-so-secret identity is that of a writer—at night she pours heart and soul into science fiction and fantasy novels. Fueled by chocolate and moonlight, Heather is currently working on Upgrade (the sequel to her first published novel) and an as-yet-untitled series of fairy tale novelizations.