On the meaning of the "fey"

Last week I was invited to guest post at shvetufae's LJ during her annual Three Days of Fey. The subject was: What qualities define the fey? In case you missed it, here's my response: In answering Shveta's question, I could launch into a whole litany of characteristics associated with fairies, but instead, I hope you'll excuse me for beginning with the dictionary.

Yes, the dictionary. My dictionary of choice is Webster's New World College Dictionary, which is fairly standard for American copyeditors (I was once a copyeditor). I'm starting here because even though I write about fairies in Ash and my next book (set in the same world), I've noticed that writers all over the place write about faeries.

I chose to write about fairies with an I because it's a more standard spelling; it is less exotic than faeries with an E. (This may amuse you later when I talk about what I really think about fairies.) I basically wanted to evoke an old-school fairy tale feel with Ash, and that involves spelling fairy the way it's spelled in Grimms'.

However, when I began writing Huntress (it doesn't come out till spring 2011), the word fairy started to bug me. I didn't want to switch over to faery, but I needed a word that sounded older, more all-encompassing, and even less exotic.

So I started calling them the fay.

Not fey with an E, as in Shveta's Three Days of Fey, but fay with an A. Now, let me share their different definitions with you (from Webster's):

fey — 1a. fated; doomed to death (archaic except in Scottish usage) 1b. in an unusually excited state, formerly believed to portend sudden death 2. strange or unusual in any of certain ways, as, variously, eccentric, whimsical, visionary, elfin, shy, otherworldly

Compare that to:

fay — 1. a fairy 2. (archaic) faith: used in oaths 3. (shipbuilding) to fit closely or exactly; join

It was clear to me instantly that the fairies in my book were fay, not fey, especially because fey with an E has long been used to describe effeminate gay men. I don't mind that usage; in fact, I think it can be wonderfully evocative, particularly because there are gay people in my books. But I wanted to distinguish my fay from those who act feyly, if you know what I mean.

So, where was I? Oh yeah, now I know how to spell fay. But who are they, exactly?

And here's where you'll laugh, because despite all my concern about not wanting the words about them to sound exotic, the fay in my books are exotic. They are the ultimate otherworldly, foreign, strange, queer folk.

In fact, I found it quite useful to emphasize their exoticism, because it allowed me to describe my human characters in comparison. You see, in Huntress, the humans look Asian. They are not actually Asian, because there is no Asia in that world. But they have dark hair, brown eyes, and skin that can be more golden than white. But because every human in that world looks like that, it's not unusual. When I describe a new character, they basically have the same coloring as everyone else, and thus it's difficult to make sure that a reader understands that these characters are not "white" (as in European-looking).

My solution has been to stress the differences between the fay and the humans. The fay are indeed very pale; they have white-blond hair and colored eyes. They are totally foreign to my human protagonists. Everything they do, from the way they walk to the food they eat, is incredibly strange to my human characters.

In my books, I have constructed the fay as the Other. Encountering the Other helps the human characters to construct their own, human, identities: as people with darker skin, darker eyes, black hair as opposed to white, and as short-lived mortals.

I think my concern with spelling is mostly about choosing where to use the exotic. Which effects do I want to create with these words? I want the fay to be, in their own way, as normal as possible. Their differences emerge only when they encounter humans.

And that moment of encounter, when identities are challenged, is a fascinating place to tell a story.

To leave a comment, I invite you to head over to Three Days of Fey and join the conversation.