We thoroughly enjoyed this hangout, but one of the resolutions that came out of it was that I need to invite fairy tale experts Alethea Kontis and Theodora Goss to come and hang out with us on the same topic sometime!
The first questions we asked were, "What makes a fairy tale world recognizable?" and "What makes it stereotypical?" We agreed that fairy tale worlds are often magical, but don't always have a strict magical system. They often have talking animals, some of which turn out to be enchanted people! Characters tend to be archetypal, and there is an oral narrative feel to the story. They are similar to folk tales, and possibly a subset of folk tales with particular features. Folk tales also commonly have talking animals and magical births, as well as people who can be swallowed whole and still emerge alive.
A fairy tale world tends to have magical properties, though spells can be cast in it. There can be witches.
I mentioned Alethea Kontis because she is an expert on fairy tales and blends lots of them marvelously in her books.
Glenda mentioned that typically, fairy tales feature a pre-modern context rather than a modern technological setting. Obviously, modern versions like Once Upon a Time have begun to change that. There have been a lot of changes in fairy tales over time, though. The older forms of fairy tales were much darker, with more deaths and violence. The old tales also had a teaching aspect. Some of these qualities have been updated in the form of urban fantasy, but urban fantasy can have more consistent and systematic rules. We speculated that Magical Realism might be closer to fairy tales in the way that it imbues the world with magical properties.
In a fairy tale world, the characters may not know all the rules, but the author should. I mentioned our earlier discussion with Laura Anne Gilman about her book, Silver on the Road. That story has many things in common with fairy tales, in that it features localized place magic, and a very organic magical system.
We also noted that fairy tales often have their own particular logic, which is not the same as that of other kinds of stories. There is a level of trust established between the storyteller and the listener that makes certain kinds of events and reasoning possible. We spoke about how Spirited Away, the film by Hayao Miyazaki, utilizes some of this same fairy tale style logic, with rules like, "hold your breath across the bridge," that have no reasoning behind them, yet are accepted as part of the way the world works. There is also the idea of not looking back, which occurs at the end of the film, and also in quite a lot of stories going all the way back to Greek mythology with the story of Orpheus. There is a common inventory of talismanic objects, places, and relationships (including childless parents and parentless children!).
Mythology, folk tales, and fairy tales are all related to one another in many of their features.
Che asked if we had ever seen fairy tales within a magical secondary world. None of us could think of an example. Legends are relatively common, but they often turn out to be real.
There is a very common trope, in fact, of the world in which gods and magic are real. If you live in that kind of world, do you extrapolate from it at all? Do your teaching tales take a metaphorical form when magic is real? Would a place like our world be mythical to them?
When you are working with a type of story, often what you see is that there is a prototype form that the world or story takes, based on a shared set of features - but not all of those features are always shared. Thus, it's possible to avoid European defaults and still have a story with the same power and flavor as a fairy tale.
Thanks to everyone who participated! I hope you will join us tomorrow to talk about body modification and worldbuilding. We'll meet at 10am Pacific on Google+.