A fairy tale is a short, fantastical story. Fairy tales are primarily defined by their abstractness and lack of fine detail. The location is left completely to the audience’s imagination, and the story often takes place “once upon a time.” Even the characters are vague, often with no more than one or two defining traits. Snow White, for example, is described only by the colors of her hair, skin, and lips. Sparse description allows fairy tales to target a wider audience than might otherwise be possible, and to draw attention to general themes rather than individual characters.
In addition to the vague setting, a fairy tale must also include elements of magic. This magic, however, is never a startling thing. In the story of Little Red Riding Hood, she is not surprised by the talking wolf, nor are the many other instances of talking animals considered strange within their stories. This is what differentiates fairy tales from other types of fantastical tales. Another distinctive feature of fairy tales is that they do not often contain overt religious themes. The Grimm Brothers wrote in many references to Christianity and God in their book, but prior to their work, many of the fairy tales contained only vague religious references.
Fairy tails often contain morals or lessons, as well as a triumph of good over evil. The conflict is often more brutal than might be considered appropriate nowadays for children. The antagonist is often killed in an exceedingly painful or cruel manner, such as the wicked queen in Snow White, who is made to dance in red hot iron shoes. At the time when the stories were first collected, this would not have been a shocking addition to a story for children, though it is worth noting that fairy tales were originally targeted at both adults and children equally.