Looking back on the books and authors that introduced us to our favorite literary genres can be a fun trip down memory lane. That nostalgia can bear even more meaning for writers. Sure, those authors built the foundation for our reading tastes. But if we consider our “relationship” with their work closely, we can also discover how their stories or writing have influenced ours.
Today, let’s discuss the first five authors we read in our favorite literary genre, or the genre we prefer to write in. I’ll go first with my first five fantasy authors (since fantasy is more than just my great literary love), as well as one takeaway from each that has impacted my writing. Then, you can respond by either commenting on this post or writing about it at your own blogs. This isn’t just for fantasy writers, by the way. Book bloggers and avid readers of all genres are welcome to jump in – so, please do!
The First Five Fantasy Authors I Read (In the Order I Read Them)
J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit)
I’m part of the generation of Tolkien fans that read his work after seeing the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. (I know, shame on me, right?) Since LOTR was the story I knew best from him, I started with that series, then read The Hobbit shortly after. After that, my life as a writer and reader was changed forever. And while I promised to offer one takeaway from each author, I can’t write about Tolkien without sharing three – because that’s how important his work has been to me.
First, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories were my gateway to fantasy literature. Apart from K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, I didn’t read any speculative fiction when I was in middle or high school. (Yet my younger brother was assigned The Hobbit in 9th grade. Go figure.) Once I read Lord of the Rings, I wanted all the fantasy books I could get my paws on. And being a “visual” reader who pictures each scene, I easily lost myself in Middle-Earth and all its peoples and events. So, not only did Tolkien’s work open the door to a whole other literary realm for me, but it also beckoned my imagination in the wildest, most breathtaking way.
Tolkien’s work also reignited my general love of reading. I went through a period in high school when I HATED reading. The books assigned in English class didn’t interest me, so I felt robbed of the joy that reading had given me for so long. Then when I read The Lord of the Rings in college, that spark returned. I didn’t just want to read more fantasy – I wanted to read more, period. In that way, I’ll always be grateful for Tolkien and his writings, because they reminded me that reading really can be fun.
Finally, I can’t discuss Tolkien’s influence on my writing without mentioning his world-building. The history, conflict, languages, and cultures he created for Middle-Earth make it rich and realistic. His posthumous collections (think The Silmarillion) especially show how well he understood the workings of his invented world. That meticulousness – not necessarily Middle-Earth itself – is what I aim for in my own world-building. I’ve even created separate documents to flesh out that world-building outside the story (and to avoid info-dumping in the WIP itself). And once my stories have been published, if readers find the worlds within them believable and immersive, then I’ll know I’ve done my job.
If you’d like to know more about Tolkien’s influence on me, check out my Tolkien Talk interview at Pages Unbound here.
C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia)
C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia was a no-brainer for my next fantasy series. I was already familiar with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe after watching the animated film and the PBS mini-series when I was younger. Plus, as I discovered later, Lewis and Tolkien were members of the Inklings, a writing and literary discussion group affiliated with Oxford University. How amazing is it that two of fantasy’s most influential authors were friends, colleagues, and readers of each other’s work? 🙂 So I snuggled up with the movie tie-in omnibus edition (pictured right) and fell in love with Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and all the others.
If anything, C.S. Lewis’s stories taught me that heroism knows no age limit. The Pevensies, their cousin Eustace, Jill Pole, Shasta – they’re all children, and they play pivotal roles in their stories. I still remember watching the TV adaptation of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe years before I read the book, and thinking how COOL it was that there were stories where kids my age could talk to animals, fight evil witches, and save the world. (Tolkien’s work explores a similar angle, where everyone – including everyday people – can be heroes.) That idea resonated with me again not only as an adult, but as a writer. In my future stories, I want to feature a wide range of characters as protagonists – not only in age (teens or adults), but also in background and societal roles.
J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter Series)
Like with Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, I was late to the J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter party. I didn’t read any of the books until after I had seen the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during a charity event. I didn’t understand all of it without the context of the first two movies – but my goodness, did it grab my attention with its school setting (Hogwarts) and young characters learning how to wield magic. So I plunged heart-first into the books; and by the time the first Deathly Hallows film was released, I had finished reading the series and fallen rhapsodically in love with it.
What did I adore most about the Harry Potter books? The characters. Of course I felt endeared to Harry, Hermoine, and Ron; and was touched by their loyalty to one another. But I also loved Dumbledore, Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, Dobby the House Elf, Hagrid, Professors Lupin and Snape… A huge chunk of the supporting cast, in other words. They all had distinct personalities, quirks, and emotional wounds. Thus, J.K. Rowling’s stories showed me the importance of making every character memorable and (above all) human. The protagonists aren’t the only ones who are driven by desire, hurt by others’ actions, or paralyzed with fear. So, the writer needs to understand their supporting characters inside-out, from their personal histories to the motivations for their actions.
Phillip Pullman (His Dark Materials Trilogy)
I still remember the day I discovered Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I was browsing through a local bookstore when I came across the book with this cover. Between the title and the trio of a little girl, polar bear, and mouse, I wanted to know more about the adventure that would bring those drastically different characters together. Then when I was buying the book, the bookseller said, “Oh, did you know a Golden Compass movie is coming out later this year?” That prompted me to start the book that evening – and the rest, as they say, was history. Not to mention my inner child wanted a daemon badly. 😉
The Dark Materials Trilogy was my first fantasy series with a female protagonist, and she stuck with me long after I finished it. Lyra Belacqua is equal parts daredevil, scholar, silver-tongue, and devoted friend. Even though she was half my age when I read The Golden Compass, I admired how she fixed her sights on rescuing her playmate Roger and (to avoid spoilers) was just as devastated as she was at the end. Lyra might not meet the definition of a kick-ass leading lady, but she shows courage and vulnerability in other ways that make her unforgettable and endearing. Now, when I think of creating my own characters (either male or female), I use Lyra and other protagonists I love as “models” for clear motivations, fears, and inner strength.
Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle)
Oddly enough, I don’t recall how or where I first heard of Ursula K. Le Guin and her Earthsea novels. I know I was looking for more fantasy stories, either current or classic. Regardless, I stumbled upon A Wizard of Earthsea after the other four authors and series mentioned above. That book (and the entire Earthsea cycle) changed my life in ways that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings had, and then some. Because by reading A Wizard of Earthsea, I discovered the author who has become my all-time favorite.
For starters, Le Guin knows how to build worlds as thoroughly as Tolkien and other fantasy greats. Earthsea in particular features a soundly developed magic system and deeply rooted cultures that vary depending on where one travels. Le Guin also made an effort to set her invented world apart from others. Its archipelago setting, racial diversity, and influences from the Bronze Age (as opposed to Middle Ages) and Taoism – no other place in literature is quite like it, and I delighted in my every visit there. Thus, Le Guin’s stories reminded me that if I imagine my story taking place in a “long-ago” time and location, I should look for logical ways to make it stand out from other fictional worlds that readers may be familiar with.
And the quality of her writing. If A Wizard of Earthsea wasn’t the first novel where I lost my heart to an author’s writing style, it was certainly the strongest such experience. Le Guin’s prose is eloquent, lyrical, and succinct. Only a few sentences demonstrate how fully she understands the power of precision and the beauty of cadence. This applies not only to the Earthsea novels, but also to Le Guin’s science fiction novels, essays, and poetry. (Yet another reason why I love her work: its versatility.)
So when I edit my own stories, I pay attention to word choice, the flow of thoughts and sentences, and the overall “economy” of the writing (i.e., making every word count). In other words, I want to draw out the qualities I love most about Le Guin’s writing in my own. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to emulate her style – because let’s face it, I won’t ever be able to write as magnificently as she does. Instead, when I think of high-quality writing, I think of how Le Guin and my other favorite authors achieve it, then strive for it in my own way.
Who were the first five authors you read in your favorite genre? What impact did they have on you as a reader? If you’re also a writer, how did those authors influence your work?
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