What All Writers Can Learn from Folktales (Writing Exercise)

Diane Callahan
12 min readJul 19, 2022
The title text “Writing Lessons from Folktales” is overlaid on a Warwick Goble illustration of Beauty and the Beast, with a beautiful woman looking down at a man with the head of a beast.

“The spirit of the woods — the Bwca. I saw him once, when I was a child . . . He can look like whatever he wants to. But his true form is a sharp-eared thing, a hairy thing, a little like an old man and a little like a child, with a snout of a nose and paws for hands. If he likes you, he’ll help you. If he doesn’t like you, he’ll make your life a misery.”

“The Bwca” is Daniel Morden’s telling of a Welsh folktale. Like the mythical hobs or brownies, the Bwca will gladly do chores while humans sleep if rewarded with food — or, in this story, milk.

Cover of “Weird Tales from the Storyteller” by Daniel Morden with an image of a creepy-looking gray creature (the bwca) with blond tufts of hair carrying buckets over his shoulders.

Folktales like this can ignite our imaginations and reveal facets of human nature. Fairy tales, fables, legends, and myths are related categorizations that fall under the folklore umbrella.

FOLKTALES: stories passed down through a culture orally that aren’t attributed to a single author. FOLKLORE: body of stories passed down through a culture orally; FAIRY TALES: usually include magic, fantastical beings, and kingdoms; FABLES: feature anthropomorphic animals and often deliver a moral lesson; LEGENDS: larger-than-life events, places, or people (folk heroes), sometimes thought to be based on fact; MYTHS: stories with a religious or spiritual basis that explain the world around us

Generally speaking, folktales are stories passed down through a culture by word of mouth that aren’t attributed to a single author. They often revolve around superstitions, fantastical situations, and life lessons that feature humans rather than animals as the main characters. Folktales create new ways of interpreting the world around us.

Cover of The Types of International Folktales with the caption: “The Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU Index) is a catalogue of folktale types used in folklore studies . . . originally composed in German by Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne (1910), the index was translated into English, revised, and expanded by American folklorist Stith Thompson (1928, 1961), and later further revised and expanded by German folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther (2004).” (from Wikipedia)
“The Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU Index) is a catalogue of folktale types used in folklore studies”

In any story, writers design challenges that force their characters to confront their worst fears and insecurities. In folktales, those fears manifest as creatures that exist in the physical world.

Left: A woman with a braid carries a lighted skull on a stick as she wanders through the woods. Right: An older woman with a sour look on her face sits on top of a falling tree in a forest.
Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga from Russian folklore, illustrated by Ivan Bilibin