Some Things to Know if You Want to Use Folklore in Your Writing

So you want to write a fantasy novel, and you’re thinking of basing it on some sort of folklore. Maybe you’re writing a fairy tale retelling. Maybe you’re creating a mythology system very similar to one from our world. Maybe you’re writing your entire novel around an urban legend. But folklore, fairy tales, mythology, legends… Are you sure you know what all these terms mean? Like, really, absolutely sure?

Because I was sure I knew, until recently (I had been fascinated all with this stuff since childhood). Then I decided to pursue a Master of Folklore degree at one of the best universities for it (Memorial University of Newfoundland, in case you’re curious), and I came to realize how little I really knew. But after a year in the program, I’ve had many things cleared up for me.

Let’s look at some of the terms, shall we?

The broadest one is “folklore” itself. Folklore encompasses the culture of a community (the people, or folk), however they wish to define themselves. A community can be as large as a continent or as small as a school club. The lore belonging to these communities can be anything they practice or create: stories, songs, dances, proverbs, jokes, memes, games, material objects, traditions, events, you name it. If it was man-made, then it can probably be considered folklore.

In the writing world, though, we typically make more use of a culture’s stories than anything else to inform our own work. There are a few main types of story:

First, let’s look at folktales and fairy tales. They aren’t always the same thing. Folktales are stories told by a group of people (the folk). Fairy tales can come from the culture of a certain group of people, but they can also be made up by just one individual. For example, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy tales, such as “The Snow Queen,” but they didn’t all come from Danish culture or from any other culture for that matter. Many of them just came from him. Now that they’ve been around for a while and been retold in lots of ways by different people (as in the case of the adaptation of “The Snow Queen” into 2013’s Frozen), Andersen’s tales can be considered folktales. When they were initially published, however, they were just fairy tales. The Grimm’s fairy tales, on the other hand, are also folktales because the Grimm brothers collected them from other people, who had heard them from other people, who had heard them from other people, and so on within Europe.

Legends are not the same as folktales and fairy tales. Legends have at least a kernel of truth to them, or are believed to have a kernel of truth to them. This is not the case with folktales and fairy tales; they are entirely made up, entirely fantasy. For example, “Snow White” is pure fairy tale. No one thinks Snow or her stepmother or the dwarves were ever real. The tale was meant to be entertaining and impart lessons. The stories surrounding, say, Robin Hood, are legends. Why? Because many people believe that he existed at one time. And it’s entirely possible that he did. The stories about him are so far-fetched that they must have been embellished over time, but they very likely have their roots in actual events or a person who existed. There probably was a mysterious vigilante during the Crusades who happened to be an excellent archer. He probably wore a hood to make it harder for the authorities to find him.

Urban legends are a subset of legends that are set in more modern times, but they do not necessarily have to have an urban city setting. Robin Hood is not an urban legend — he’s an old one. Sasquatch is an urban legend (even though he supposedly lives in the forest). Slenderman is also an urban legend.

Now we come to myths, and this, in my opinion, is the trickiest one to pin down. Myth, in our society has come to mean “false,” as in “5 Myths About Gingivitis” or some other sort of article you’d see floating around on the Internet. But before “myth” came to mean “false,” it meant (and still does mean) “sacred truth.” The stories we think of as myths (most people are probably thinking of Greek mythology right now) were not necessarily believed as literal truths, but more as reflections of truths about a society’s values or about human nature. Myths don’t necessarily have to be full stories — they can also just be beliefs or values.

So those are the main story types from folklore — the culture of a community. A word of caution, though. When you use stories from a community that isn’t your own, be sensitive about it. Understand that those stories may be incredibly important to that group of people, and they wouldn’t want those stories to be misrepresented, especially by someone from outside of their culture. You may have the best intentions — after all, those stories are clearly important to you, too, if they spoke to you enough that you want to write about them — but intention isn’t all that matters. Ensure that you are using the stories with reasonable accuracy. Make an author’s note if you intend to take poetic license and stretch the truth for the sake of your story. And never, ever demonize another culture.

I would also argue that you should be sensitive in writing using stories from your own culture because that culture does not belong solely to you. Other people within your community may not appreciate the way you portray them or their lore. It’s impossible to please everyone, though, so don’t necessarily let someone else’s qualms stop you if you feel like there is a truth that needs to be told. For example, I grew up Roman Catholic, and if I wrote a story about my negative experiences with this, some other Roman Catholics might be offended by it. However, my experiences and my story would still be valid, no matter how much they bothered others.

If you want to be culturally aware and sensitive, I would recommend using a sensitivity reader after you’ve drafted your novel a few times. They may be able to point out things that never would have occurred to you to re-evaluate. However, recognize that the people of any given community are not all the same. What might offend one person might not bother another at all. Your sensitivity reader might even miss things that might bother some other people. It happens.

Can you think of any folklorish story types that I’ve missed, or any other relevant points I’ve forgotten to make? Let me know in the comments!

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