Fairies are the stuff of myth and folklore from long ago; and they have been rather active in the fantasy genre. Fairies, Faeries, Fae, Fey, Fay—we see all the different types of spellings and representations. In fiction, we generally see two types of fairies: the small sprite or pixie (like Tinker Bell) and fae folk (human-sized). Children’s fiction tends to use the small fairies more so than teen and adult fiction, which leans more to the human-sized fae folk.
The depiction of small fairies in fiction ranges from kind to mischievous to evil. The fae folk take on the same depiction, depending on the author’s story, but we mostly see the fae as good-looking humans with magical abilities. The fae are more likely to turn up in Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance; however, books like Jack Vance’s Madouc and Michael Swanwick’s dark fantasy, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, are some exceptions. Also the fae character, Felurian, in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear is another example in the epic fantasy genre.
Emma Bull’s 1987 Urban Fantasy book, War for the Oaks is a story of good and evil faeries at war with each other. Much of it takes place in the real world; and the fae require a willing mortal in their war to bring mortality to their immorality, so that they can have a proper war of killing each other. But, of course, the book is more than that.
Raymond E. Feist’s horror/dark fantasy, Faerie Tale, depicts faeries in the many forms of Irish folklore, from tiny sprites to the human-sized. In this story, the real world and the faerie world are intertwined, and there are faeries with a malicious intent against mankind.
The fairies described above are a far cry from Disney or The Spiderwick Chronicles, but so are most of the fairies in the genre, from YA fiction to “adult” fiction. Most of the fiction involving fairies are fairies mixing in our world, and/or characters from our world going into their world. Two popular YA books, Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tale series and Aprilynne Pike’s Wings series, both center around a teen girl who discovers that she’s an actual faerie. Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series has the same kind of protagonist, yet she finds out that she’s half faerie. The bestselling Meredith Gentry series by Laurell K. Hamilton is probably the most popular in the Urban Fantasy genre, where the main character is a faerie princess dealing with political intrigue in her faerie world and private investigating in the real world. The Meredith Gentry books border on erotica, and I dare not read them, because of such content.
Books for the younger readers, like the Artemis Fowl series, the Dreamdark series, and the Faery Rebels series, put sprite-like fairies in more adventurous stories. The Artemis Fowl books actually divide fairies into a family of eight different types (elves, dwarves, goblins, gnomes, pixies, sprites, centaurs, and demons). The Dreamdark books have a fairy that hunts devils, and the Faery Rebels books deal with a faery realm on the verge of extinction.
Another popular YA series is the Fablehaven books by Brandon Mull. I thought Mr. Mull did a great job of depicting fairies in his stories, giving them the usual image of tiny, exotic, mysterious and feisty creatures. But they can also be well accomplished warriors as well.
There are many other books with their different spins on fairies and fae folk, and the fantasy genre has its quiver full with tales for all types. For me, personally, I would like to see more of the sprite/pixie fairies cast in epic fantasy in some creative ways. Imagine fairies in books like The Malazan Book of the Fallen series or A Song of Ice and Fire series. I don’t know how that would work, but if done well it would be pretty cool (or not).
I would like for the influences of folklore, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Disney to kind of fade out a bit, so that this modern time of fantasy could expand a little more on the myth and carve out some interesting fairy characters. It’s been done with many other types, like demons, dragons, werewolves and vampires. Just the fact that some of the folklore about fairies is based on them being a race of creation that kind of got caught in the conflict between God and Satan, and they were neither allowed into heaven nor allowed into hell. How would a race of beings caught in such an unfortunate position react—not only to mankind, but to God, angels, Satan and demons? That could be an interesting story, if done well, and from the fairies’ perspective. That’s the great thing about fantasy fiction; you can take mythology, reality and imagination and just let them create something fantastical.