The Stories That Shape Us

There are a lot of things that influence us as children, things that help to shape us into the people we will become. Friends, family, television (oh, you rotten temptress), religion, and sports, just to name a few.

For me, it was books. Specifically science fiction and fantasy books. They got me through boring afternoons and kept me up too late at night. They took me to faraway (and sometimes imaginary) places and introduced me to people different than myself. As such, I credit books for much of who I am today, for better or worse.

My foray into fantasy lit began at a tender age when I found a dog-eared copy of Kothar and the Wizard-Slayer on my father’s shelves and devoured it almost instantly. (Not literally. We weren’t that poor.) Soon I moved on to the adventures of Conan, Elric, and John Carter. While my friends were spending time with child-detectives and kids with dogs, I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fearless warriors against foul sorcery, prowling the dank streets of Lankhmar, and rescuing damsels on Mars. This may have affected my developing psyche somewhat….

After years of reading (between bouts of whacking trees with wooden “swords” and slaying invisible dragons), I developed a taste for storytelling. I tinkered with short stories and poetry as a teen. The stories were complete rip-offs of the authors and games I loved, while the poetry ping-ponged between horrible, elaborate epics and sonnets of unrequited ardor. So my main subjects were sword-and-sorcery, mythology, and angsty romanticism, but surely that would fade in years to come, right?

Not so much. Fantasy has evolved over the generations. Forty-thousand-word books with thin plots and flat characters are no longer accepted by most adult readers. Over the past twenty years, the genre has seen an explosion of big, beefy novels — often spanning 5-, 10-, or even 15-book series — featuring enormous casts of characters that are explored down to their shoe sizes and breakfast choices. One of the problems I encountered in my fantasy writing was connecting these mammoth tomes to my personal idea of story. It took many false starts before I found my voice to tell a classic story with modern technique (and still keep it under 150k words to satisfy my inner pulp-lover).

But we all have these inner voices, grown from the seeds of the stories we read as children. Whether that was The Lord of the Rings, Dragonlance, or Harry Potter has a lot to do with what we expect from the genre. And too often we often perceive our narrow experience of SFF (or literature in general) to be the only experience. We deem certain kinds of stories to be “good” while everything else is inferior, hardly realizing that we are shaped by our time and place, and by the stories we loved as children.

Or, at least, that’s my story.


Jon Sprunk is the author of Shadow’s Son and Shadow’s Lure (Pyr Books). He lives in central Pennsylvania where is he currently sweating over the manuscript for his third book.

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