Growing up I was always fascinated by mythology, folklore, ancient civilisations, and the Middle Ages. I was also very young when I discovered both J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. Between my preoccupation with mythology, folklore, ancient times, and the Middle Ages, and my love of Tolkien and Howard, it was perhaps natural that I would be drawn to other fantasy writers. From my teens onward, I have read many, many fantasy novels. And some of those novels were by writers who have come to have a lasting influence on me.
Among those writers is Michael Moorcock, whose tales of Elric of Melnibone have always fascinated me. Moorcock created Elric in direct opposition to REH's Conan and other barbarians like him. Elric is an albino, physcially weak, and sickly. Making up for his physical weakness is a keen mind and a cultured intellect. Elric is the emperor of Melnibone, his family having ruled the empire for literaly centuries. Both his curse and his boon is the sword Stormbringer, a sentient and evil black blade which devours the souls of those it slays. This gives Elric the strength he needs, but also wracks him with guilt over those whose souls the sword has devoured. Elric is a tragic character, one who feels he must stray from the cruelty and selfishness of his Melnibonean ancestors, but who at the same time feels a duty to his ancestry. The Elric Saga is about as far from either Tolkien or Howard as one can get. Indeed, while Aragorn and Conan are heroic figures from the beginning, Elric is an anti-hero who must evolve into a hero.
Another fantasy writer who had a large impact on me was Fritz Leiber. Leiber was a contemporary of both Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. Among his most famous works is perhaps Conjure Wife, which has been made into three different features films (Weird Woman, Night of the Eagle, and Witches Brew). Despite the fame of Conjure Wife, it is his series of short stories and novels centring on Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser that I love the best of this works. Fafrd and the Grey Mouser first appeared in the novelette "Two Sought Adventure" in Unknown, August 1939. They were an unlikely team to be adventuring together. Fafhrd was a huge, hulking fellow, who at time was not very bright. The Grey Mouser was rather smaller, but gifted with both cunning and wit. Unlike Howard's heroes (Conan, Kull, and so on), neither Fafhrd nor the Mouser is superhuman. They often get beat in fights and they don't always get the girl. Unlike Tolkien's heroes, neither Fafhrd nor the Mouser are moral paragons. They have their moral weaknesses and can ocassionally be guided by sheer selfishness. Ultimately, what sets Leiber's heroes apart from other fantasy characters is that their sense of humour. Both Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are able to laugh in themselves. This is a good thing, as the situations they get themselves into can sometimes be quite funny. Anyhow, I always liked the way that Leiber portrayed his heroes as more or less human, neither wholly good, but hardly evil, with their own weaknesses and foilbles.
Stephen R. Donaldson is another writer who has had a big impact on me. Donaldson wrote the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a pair of trilogies featuring one of fantasy's few anti-heroes. Covenant is a leper, constantly suffering and shunned here on Earth, who finds himself in another world called the Land. There he not only finds himself in perfect health, but the only thing standing in the way of Lord Foul, the villain bent on undoing the Land. Covenant is an unlikely hero. He can be selfish. He can even be impulsive. And while Donaldson's work has been compared to Tolkien, it actually has as much, if not more, influence from Shakespeare and Mervyn Peake (of Gormenghast fame). The original trilogies were published between 1977 and 1983. I have heard that there is going to be a third trilogy, but I don't know if the first book in that trilogy has been published yet.
Another fantasy author who has had an influence on me has been Katherine Kurtz, author of a series of novels centred around the Deryni. The Deryni are an ancient race with magical powers (apparently some form of psionics) existing in a world not far removed from medieval Europe--indeed, Catholicism even exists there! Kurtz's work is filled with all sorts of political intrigue, both on the side of the various nobles and on the side of the Church. They are also marked by very strong chararacters and an eye to accuracy in the details of medieval life. In fact, this is what sets Kurtz's work apart from that of many other fantasy writers. Kurtz's world feels as if it could have actually existed. It is easy while reading one of her Deryni books to forget that one is reading a fantasy novel rather than a historical novel.
All of these writers have had a significant impact on me. They are much of what inspired me to be a writer. And I feel all of them are very different from the Tolkien and Howard imitators whose books often fill the racks. I would recommend their books to anyone.