Writing Asexual and Aromantic (Fairy Tale) Retellings

Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week's off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It's time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

Writing Asexual and Aromantic (Fairy Tale) Retellings

Probably the works I’m most well-known for are the Fairytale Verses, which are queer verse novel retellings of fairy tales. To date, I don’t have many published and the ones I do feature asexual and aromantic characters at the centre. As such, I figured that it was a fun idea to look at how one can retell fairy tales with asexual or aromantic characters.

I find that some people struggle to understand how that can work, given that the ultimate goal of so many fairy tales is a happily ever after and that at the very least physical attraction (i.e. lust) is a major part in how characters get together. So I wanted to talk about that and discuss it for a while.

First of all, I should note that writing asexual or aromatic retellings isn’t all that different from other kinds of retellings. Sure, if you’re retelling a romantic fairy tale (such as Cinderella), you’ll need to bear in mind that the attractions between the main characters won’t look exactly the same as they would for an allosexual retelling, but that’s pretty much it. You’re still going to have to hit the same main storytelling beats that every retelling does.

How obvious those beats are depends on what you’re doing with your retellings. Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace, for example, keeps its beats fairly obvious. This short novel is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, though you’ll find no stolen roses in this version.

You will, however, find the library that Disney’s version made so prominent. More importantly, though, you’ll find the narrative beats. Yên takes her parents’ place. Vu Côn, a dragon, is seen as a Beast with her compassion and caring nature only gradually revealed. Yên is allowed to visit her family. There is a time-limit on the narrative[1]. Love is part of the emotional arc for both characters. Yên is, in many ways, a prisoner. Yet, other than those, the story is wholly and truly De Bodard’s own and knowing the original fairy tale it’s based on almost detracts from the experience because it doesn’t allow the book to stand on its own.

Another example is Zoë Marriott’s Shadows on the Moon, which is a retelling of Cinderella. Like De Bodard’s novel, Shadows on the Moon takes only the narrative beats rather than some of the core iconography. There are no glass slippers in this retelling, and love between Cinderella and the prince is far from the narrative’s mind as the blurb makes clear. Yet, like the fairy tale it’s retelling, Suzume goes from being a fine and rich lady to a servant girl and, from there, to a ball where she becomes the princess. She goes through multiple transformations, echoing the way the original fairy tale has her attending the ball multiple times and the angle of revenge that Suzume takes and the depiction of self-harm are arguably based on the way the original tale also included those.

Both of these stories rely on using familiar narrative beats to tell their own story. This approach makes it incredibly easy to retell a fairy tale in whatever way works for your story because you’re not constrained by much more than a roadmap of narrative events.

Alternatively, writers can keep much of the visuals rather than the narrative beats, such as in Elora Bishop and Jennifer Diemer’s Sappho’s Tales, which rely more strongly on the visual beats the stories use than on the narrative beats. The retelling, Seven, is a mash-up of Snow White and Bluebeard. It features no princes and no wicked witch poisoning apples. But there are apples. There is a Huntsman in the woods. There are seven helpers. It is nothing like Snow White and yet, like the previous two retellings discussed, it is undeniably and unmistakable Snow White.

Writing an asexual or an aromantic retelling of a fairy tale (or any other literary classic) offers up these same options and these same ideas. Simple, really.

If you’ve read my retellings, though, you’ll probably have noticed that I prefer to stay relatively close to the original, incorporating both narrative beats and visual beats. Sea Foam and Silence even goes so far as to include one of the story’s visual beats in the title. Retelling The Little Mermaid with asexual and aromantic characters was surprisingly easy because very little about the mermaid’s desire to be human seems tied to lust. Even in Anderson’s original version, she’s interested in humanity long before she rescues and falls in love with the prince. It takes very little to shift the idea that she’s romantically and/or sexually attracted to the prince into one where they are close friends instead. From that, the main question becomes what to do about the resolution that readers will expect.

Either they will expect Disney’s happily-ever-after between the mermaid and the prince, or they’ll expect the original tragic ending where the mermaid becomes sea foam (and, from there, a spirit trying to gain a soul). It becomes a question of what to do about the witch’s bargain. I opted to broaden the interpretation of love. I stuck fairly close to the narrative beats in the original, even incorporating the mermaid’s sisters pleading with her to return to the sea and the mermaid refusing out of love.

With The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion, I struggled even more. The fairy tale I was retelling, King Thrushbeard, is not a particularly friendly one for women. Or, indeed, a good role model of how to build a healthy relationship. (Seriously, Thrushbeard does nothing but lie to his wife in order to teach her a lesson in humility.) So any retelling that posits the relationship between the princess and her husband as a good and healthy one actually needs to think long and hard about how it incorporates some of the beats that make King Thrushbeard the fairy tale that it is and not, say, All-Kinds-of-Fur, which also features princesses pretending not to be princesses.

A better example would be how The Godfather and Godfather Death are different stories despite having many of the same beats to their narrative. Both feature a father looking for a godfather for their latest child. Both choose a man who is not all he appears. Both are given a way to perform miracle cures, based on whether Death is standing at the head of the bed or the foot of the bed. Both have the main character enter the home of the godfather. Neither has a particularly happy ending. (Godfather Death has a particularly sad one.) Those are both the same type of story, so the similarities aren’t a coincidence.

My point is solely that if an author wanted to retell either of these in a way that makes it clear which version they’re using they have to be aware of the differences and find a way to emphasize those.

Like I said at the beginning: retelling a fairy tale or any story to put asexuality or aromanticism at its core is little different from any other kind of retelling. You’re still working with the same beats. Fairy tales are so much more than their ending and, ultimately, it’s not the ending that makes or breaks a successful retelling. What makes or breaks a retelling is whether or not the author succeeded in their goal when they chose to write a retelling at all for themselves and for the reader.

Retelling the story in a way that incorporates asexuality or aromanticism may involve rethinking how societies look at romantic relationships, friendship, and love and how that affects the characters and the relationships in the fairy tale, but it is no different from any other kind of change to the tales and just as needful to research those changes to pull the retelling off well.

[1] Lest this sound like something Disney made up: other, older versions, allow Beauty to return home but stipulate that she must return within a set number of days or bad things will happen.

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