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What are the Characteristics of Folktales?

Stone Soup

Many folktales have survived for centuries as they were passed down orally from generation to generation. To withstand the tests of time, these stories had to be highly engaging, easy to share and very memorable. Today some people tend to dismiss folktales as mere children’s stories, but folktales offer so much more than simple, entertaining stories.  
Folktales for kids share a number of common characteristics. Folktales follow straight forward story lines with traditional, easy to follow plotlines. Developmentally, young children haven’t acquired the cognitive skills to appreciate irony or more complex story structures. Folktales are sometimes criticized for being “flat” or too simple and lacking nuance. But this criticism misses the point that makes these timeless stories so appealing to kids. The simple plotlines, make it easier for kids to follow the action, remember critical details, tell characters apart, and understand consequences.
Although the main characters generally take the form of humans or animals, they may also be imaginary, and in some cases, possess magical powers, Each protagonist or main character in a folktale confronts a major conflict or series of problems that he or she must resolve. These challenges require a protagonist to make decisions in order to solve a problem. “Good” decisions lead to positive outcomes, while “poor” decisions lead to negative or unwanted outcomes.

Examples of “good” and “poor” decision making is effectively used in the plots of The Drum, The Little Red Hen, Growing Gold, and Feathers. 


In many stories, a smaller or physically weaker character has to confront a stronger opponent. Kids love underdog or trickster characters who outwit a larger, stronger, more experienced opponent since kids are typically smaller, with less power than adults. In some folktales, tricksters take the form of a rabbit, mouse, insect, or bird who must be clever to survive.


A good example of a popular trickster character is Conejito. In this Panamanian folktale, a young rabbit must outwit larger predators in order to return home safely. Another trickster tale is When Turtle Grew Feathers, a popular story from the Choctaw Nation. The plot is similar to the well-known story of the Tortoise and the Hare and features Turkey who adds an interesting twist.


Since folktales focus on how the character(s) confront a challenge or series of obstacles to solve a problem, they also demonstrate moral lessons and illustrate the core values that a culture holds in common. These aspects of folktales combine to reinforce a culture’s core values and traditions.


Another key element is that folktales often take place in natural settings, like forests, fields, bodies of water, mountains, villages, or trails. Since these places would be part of a culture’s natural surroundings, a child would already be familiar with the settings of the plot, giving the story more meaning and credibility.


In summary, folktales for kids typically include these characteristics:


  • Shared orally for generations

  • Follow straight forward plotlines

  • Incorporate simple characters

  • Solve a central conflict or problem

  • Demonstrate decision making

  • Reinforce consequences

  • Highlight shared values or moral lessons

  • Take place in natural surroundings



For more information, please visit What is a Folktale.


You can also find differentiated lesson plans and worksheets correlated to the Common Core Standards.

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