Fables: Definition, Characteristics & Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. What is a fable?
  2. Characteristics of fables
  3. How to identify a fable
  4. Examples of famous fables
  5. Analysis of fables

Imagine you're curled up on your comfy couch, a book in hand, and you're diving into a world where animals talk, trees whisper secrets, and every adventure ends with a lesson. Welcome! You've just entered the magical world of fables. Our guide today explores the definition of fable, its distinctive characteristics, and some famous examples that have charmed audiences for centuries. Ready? Let's embark on this journey together.

What is a fable?

So, you might be wondering, "what exactly is a fable?" In basic terms, the definition of a fable is a short story that typically features animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities), and that illustrates or leads to a particular moral lesson.

The Origin of Fables

Originating from the Latin word 'fabula' meaning 'story', fables have a rich history that dates back to ancient times. Renowned Greek slave and storyteller, Aesop, is often credited with popularizing this genre around 600 B.C. His stories, known as Aesop's Fables, have been translated into countless languages and continue to educate and entertain us to this day.

Defining Features of a Fable

  • Short and Concise: Fables are usually brief — just enough to captivate the reader's interest and convey the moral message.
  • Non-human Characters: They often feature animals or inanimate objects as characters, each embodying certain human traits.
  • Moral Lesson: Every fable ends with a moral or a lesson that's applicable to real-life situations. This is usually stated explicitly at the end of the story, serving as food for thought for the reader.

To put it simply, the definition of a fable is a succinct, didactic story that uses anthropomorphized characters to teach a moral lesson. The beauty of fables lies in their simplicity, yet profound wisdom. They engage, entertain, and educate, all within a few short lines. Now, isn't that quite the storytelling feat?

Characteristics of fables

Now that we've covered the definition of fable, let's focus on the unique characteristics that make a fable, well, a fable. These traits help us identify and appreciate fables in all their wisdom-wrapped subtlety.

Depiction of Animals and Inanimate Objects

One of the most distinguishing features of fables is the use of animals, objects, or natural elements as characters. But they're not just any characters — they talk, think, and act like humans! For instance, think of the cunning fox, the stubborn mule, or the wise old owl. These characters often stand as symbols, representing different human traits and behaviors.

Moral of the Story

Every fable comes with a neat little moral tucked at the end, making it a kind of literary fortune cookie. This moral lesson, often explicitly stated, serves as a guiding principle, a nugget of wisdom, or a life lesson. It's like a lighthouse guiding us through the stormy seas of life.

Simplicity is Key

Unlike other literary genres, fables don't beat around the bush. They're all about keeping it short, sweet, and to the point. The storylines are simple and straightforward, yet they pack a powerful punch. This makes them accessible and relatable to readers of all ages — from eager kindergarteners to wise grandmas.

Universal Themes

Fables often deal with universal themes, such as truth, justice, kindness, and greed. Despite their ancient origins, the life lessons they offer remain relevant even in today's fast-paced, digital world.

So, to sum it up, fables are short tales with big messages. They use simple, anthropomorphized characters and universal themes to teach us valuable life lessons. The next time you spot these characteristics in a story, you can confidently say, "That's a fable!"

How to identify a fable

Now that we're familiar with the characteristics of fables, let's move on to how you can identify a fable when you come across one. There are some key elements that can tip you off that you're in fable territory.

Look for Non-Human Characters

One of the first signs that you're reading a fable is the presence of non-human characters. These characters can be animals, plants, or even inanimate objects. However, these characters won’t just be acting like animals or objects — they’ll be talking, thinking and behaving like humans. So if you see a fox trying to convince a crow to drop its cheese, you can bet you're dealing with a fable.

Find the Moral

Fables always come bundled with a moral or a lesson. Sometimes, this moral is stated explicitly at the end of the story. Other times, it might be slightly hidden within the narrative. If the story you're reading ends with a clear life lesson, there's a strong chance that you've just read a fable.

Simple Plot

Fables are known for their simplicity. They usually have a straightforward plot that revolves around a single event or conflict. If the story is easy to follow and wraps up neatly, it may well be a fable.

Timeless Theme

Even though fables have been around for centuries, their themes remain timeless and universal. They deal with fundamental human values and experiences. If your story is shedding light on some aspect of human nature or behavior, you might be reading a fable.

Remember, not every story with these elements is a fable, but these clues can certainly help you identify one. Identifying a fable is like solving a fun literary puzzle — and now you have the key pieces!

Examples of famous fables

Now that we know what a fable is and how to identify one, let's explore some famous examples. These well-known fables have transcended time and culture, teaching us valuable lessons about life and human nature.

"The Tortoise and the Hare"

One famous fable that might come to mind is "The Tortoise and the Hare". In this classic tale, a swift hare mocks a slow tortoise for his lack of speed. The tortoise challenges the hare to a race, and while the hare initially leads, he becomes overconfident and takes a nap. The tortoise, however, keeps going and ultimately wins the race. The moral of the story? "Slow and steady wins the race."

"The Boy Who Cried Wolf"

Another popular fable is "The Boy Who Cried Wolf". In this tale, a shepherd boy repeatedly tricks the villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking his sheep. When a wolf actually does appear, no one believes the boy's cries for help, and the sheep are eaten by the wolf. The lesson here? "Nobody believes a liar...even when he is telling the truth."

"The Fox and the Grapes"

Let's not forget "The Fox and the Grapes". This fable revolves around a hungry fox that tries to eat some grapes hanging high up on a vine but cannot reach them. After many failed attempts, the fox gives up and decides that the grapes were probably sour anyway. This story illustrates the concept of "sour grapes" — pretending that something you cannot have is not worth having in the first place.

These are just a few examples of the many fables that have been told and retold over the years. Each one provides a simple but powerful message about life and how we should live it.

Analysis of fables

Having looked at the definition of fable and explored some renowned examples, let's now turn our attention to analyzing these fascinating short stories. Analyzing a fable can not only deepen our understanding but also allow us to appreciate the craft behind these timeless tales.

Identifying the Moral

At the heart of every fable is a moral or a lesson. This is usually stated explicitly at the end of the story, but in some cases, it might be implied. When analyzing a fable, ask yourself: "What life lesson is this fable trying to teach?" For instance, the moral of "The Fox and the Grapes" is a critique of rationalization — we sometimes pretend to despise what we cannot have.

Examining the Characters

Fables often feature animals with human characteristics. These characters are typically one-dimensional, representing specific traits or attributes. When analyzing a fable, consider how the characters embody certain qualities and how their actions and decisions reflect these traits. For example, the hare in "The Tortoise and the Hare" embodies overconfidence and complacency, leading to his downfall.

Exploring the Narrative Structure

Most fables follow a simple narrative structure: setup, conflict, and resolution. Analyzing this structure can provide insights into the story's progression and the ways in which the moral is conveyed. For instance, in "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," the setup involves the boy's repeated lies, the conflict arises when a real wolf shows up, and the resolution comes when the boy's lies have consequences.

By analyzing a fable in these ways, you can gain a clearer understanding of its message and the techniques used to convey it. Remember, fables are more than just entertaining stories — they're tools for teaching important life lessons, and their simplicity is part of their genius.

If you enjoyed exploring the world of fables and want to learn more about storytelling through visual art, check out Mirelle Ortega's workshop 'Storytelling In Illustration.' This workshop will provide you with valuable insights and techniques on how to effectively communicate stories and narratives through illustration, enhancing your understanding of fables and storytelling as a whole.