When people think of the fantasy genre, they immediately envision stories of wizards, elves, or fairies, a heinous two-dimensional villain bent on destroying the world, and somewhere a naive “chosen one” is being sent on an epic quest. This standard fantasy trope was made popular by the works of J.R.R Tolkien, regarded by many as the father of modern fantasy. Others may disagree, but it doesn’t retract from the fact that passing notions of the fantasy genre land there first.
When I tell people I write fantasy novels, I get one of two reactions. Non-fantasy enthusiasts stare at me with a mixture of disappointment and mild disgust, and their eyes send a clear message: not interested.
By contrast, fantasy enthusiasts immediately perk up. They assume that because I write fantasy, I am an expert by default. Plainly put, they think I worship the genre. They think that I grew up reading it; that I know all the works of all of the authors in the genre; that it’s the only genre I read; that I’ve studied the most effective ways in which to write the genre; that fantasy is the best genre in the world and everyone else should love the genre too. (If not, there is something clearly wrong with them.)
It is true that I have authored a fantasy trilogy. However, it may come as a surprise to many that I have never held a lasting interest in stories involving your typical array of fantasy characters: dragons, wizards, elves, faeries, goblins, werewolves, vampires, and the like. Truth be told, I’m still not.
I didn’t grow up reading fantasy. There were a few choice fantasy books, movies, and tv shows I was drawn to in my teens and early twenties, mostly for their fantastical, visionary story ideas, but they were few and far between. Naturally, I had an affinity for the Harry Potter series. Not because I was a 90’s kid growing up with Harry, but because I identified with him in ways that only kids from a difficult home life can: his anger, his longing to feel loved and accepted, and his never ending war against the impending darkness that sought to destroy everything he loved and cared about.
The genre I first fell in love with was horror. As a kid, I loved reading Goosebumps (1992–1997) by R.L. Stine. There were 62 books in the original collection and I owned every single one. By the time I turned 12, Goosebumps wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I needed something stronger, more potent. I remember perusing the horror section of my local library one day and came across the book Night Shift (1978), one of Stephen King’s most celebrated short story collections. Unbeknownst to me, it would alter the course of my imagination forever. I checked it out and started reading “The Boogeyman”. That story scared the living daylights out of me — I didn’t read another horror story for six months.
When the trauma finally passed, the horror genre became my crack cocaine. I devoured approximately 2/3 of King’s work, along with novels by Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe.
I eventually broadened my literary horizons. In my late teens, I explored the Greek, Latin, and English classics, the world of poetry, eccentric political journalists such as Hunter Thompson, and soon ventured into the more moody, brooding, manic-depressive side of literature, the likes of which included Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.
So Why Fantasy?
I have always been drawn to stories that mix fantastic and realistic elements to create a whole other world; stories that seem more appropriate to the imagination than to reality. Strange and exotic, imaginative and fanciful, they are remote from reality yet oddly familiar. The horror genre offered me this through its vast speculation of how good and evil wrestled with each other. Sadly, the malevolent force in horror stories are never truly defeated. Faithful to the genre, evil either continues to exist (albeit pushed back into the shadows), subversively gains the upper hand in the end, or wins out altogether.
People raised in abusive homes find ways to escape the darkness they cannot get away from. I escaped into my imagination. The horror genre set a stage where I could war against an evil that I couldn’t understand and didn’t know how to defeat. When the main characters faced down evil and miraculously managed to save their friends, their home town, or even themselves, I vicariously shared in their success. The evil wasn’t gone forever, but for a short time, I had gained the victory.
After leaving my toxic home environment, I finally began to heal from the abuse I had been trapped in for so long. Out of this healing, new characters and imaginings began to grow in my heart, and my desire to write and create worlds of my own returned — stronger than ever. During this time, Spirit of the King (2020) grew from the seed of a creative writing experiment. I knew what themes I wanted to explore and who the main characters were, but I didn’t know which genre would be the best stage to build the story on.
The fantasy genre allowed me to create a fantastical world of my own, where I had absolute freedom to create the characters I wanted. Unlike other genres (i.e. Mystery/Crime, Westerns, Action/Adventure, Historical), I was not bound by the rules that govern stories set in our real world. At a whim, I could change the laws of my created universe to suit the needs of the story.
Within the fantasy genre, I am free. And my characters are free. In our freedom, we have absolute control to do and be whatever we want. I can let them play freely across my mind without restraint. I don’t have to conceal them as something else. In my philosophy as a writer, I believe the characters always come first. They never fail to build a world around themselves.
Explore The Sub-Genres
Author Jeff Coleman believes that, despite its fantastic elements, the fantasy genre actually teaches us about reality.
“Fantasy is, in fact, an exhaustive study of humanity.”
He believes that fantasy teaches us about real people; how to appreciate the extraordinary within the ordinary; how to accept difficult truths; and how to approach and solve real problems.
If you’ve never explored the fantasy genre, I encourage you to broaden your horizons and read a book in a fantasy sub-genre that speaks to you. Australian writer and avid reader Nicola Alter crafted a brilliant blog post highlighting the basic sub-genres, and offers a few recommendations for good measure.
I am currently writing my fourth fantasy novel. And guess what? I still have no passing interest in stories featuring wizards, dwarves, elves, werewolves, or vampires. That’s okay. There’s a lot of readers out there that don’t, a lot of readers out there that do, and, thankfully, there are great fantasy books that honor and showcase these characters in a splendid way.
I am committed to finding works of fantasy that I truly enjoy and that inspire me to create new worlds.
Amy Hay is an independent author of fantasy fiction and seeks to share unique, powerful stories with her readers. Her work has been described as moody, transformative, psychological, and genre bending.
She is the author of the Spirit of the King trilogy and is currently working on her fourth novel.