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Escaping the "Tolkien Trap"

Discussion in 'World Building' started by P.A. Trujillo, Mar 16, 2020.

  1. P.A. Trujillo

    P.A. Trujillo Dreamer

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    I love J.R.R. Tolkien. He is an incredible writer and an extremely creative world-builder. It was his writing that inspired me to turn my creative energies to fantasy writing.

    That said...

    Do you find yourself defaulting back on Tolkien's pre-established tropes and race archetypes? I know I do. How do you keep your depictions of tried-and-true fantasy races/tropes original?

    Personally, I'm trying to go straight to the source: the original mythology. I don't want my dwarves to look like Peter Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien's dwarves; I want my dwarves to have customs and architecture that's reflective of the Germanic/Norse cultures from which the myths and legends originated.
     
  2. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Originality by itself is pointless. Especially when it comes to worldbuilding. In the end, a story is a story, and what matters is what characters are doing and saying, and how they are doing it. Creating new creatures and magic systems that never were used before don't really help anything in that regard.
    I find to have very few Tolkienian influences in my writing, which I think is because I don't really read any fantasy in that style. In the Sword & Sorcery branch, writers usually reference earlier works that predate The Hobbit. They also often get somewhat derivative in their own way, but there are no orcs, dwarves, and glowing swords to be found anywhere.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I’m of the opinion that just using fantasy races that are about human like they work as character options in a video game is already drawing on Tolkien. Whether we use elves and dwarves is kind of a small point by comparison. Whether the elves are particularly different or the dwarves particularly Scottish is also immaterial to me.

    If they are humanoid and have human intelligence and form nations and are presented to readers as equals to human then we’re in the kind of setting that follows the Middle Earth model.

    And that’s okay.

    Fantasy doesn’t need to look like that. But it can.

    The thing is, making your own races or adding your own twist looks original on the surface but probably isn’t, at least to me. It’s the same mold.

    And the mold is fine. But “being original” means breaking the mold. And that’s much harder than it sounds.
     
  4. Gospodin

    Gospodin Minstrel

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    Nope. But, I was never an LotR boy. I'm a DUNE boy. I write mainly Science Fantasy, but I'm coming from the Science side, crossing over to the Fantasy side, not the other way around. Also, I haven't "gamed" since the collapse of 1983.

    My stories sometimes smell a little like Anne McCaffrey or Marion Zimmer Bradley. Early, strong influences. If there are tropish underpinnings showing through the fabric, they come from that tradition. I've never written a story set in Faux Northern Medieval Europe and I have next-to-no contact with the race archetypes of Man, Elf, Dwarf, Halfing, Orc, etc.
     
  5. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think sticking your own interests and personality into your setting is how you make it different. Linguistics and British folklore were Tolkien’s interests but they’re not mine. His scholarly approach to things is his personality but it’s not mine. He liked the English countryside and simple living but I don’t.
    I like his stuff but I don’t like the stuff it’s made out of.

    Also, I believe that avoiding his characteristics for the sake of originality is a bad idea. It’s always better to decide what you want to write before you decide what you don’t want to write.
    If you put your own personality in your work on the deepest level, it will be original.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2020
  6. I don't think much about any other author's interpretations of any race, fantasy or otherwise, when I set out to tell a story. I'm not worried about an accurate portrayal by anyone else's standard (though I DO give some thought to cultural characters that I may draw upon)

    Our world's myth and folklore is absolutely filled with so many fantastic variations on fae, elves, trolls, dwarves, nature spirits and a host of other mythical creatures.There is so much out there to pull from that has barely been touched by modern writers that I never found it necessary to allow my characters to take on too much of anyone else's interpretation (unless it fit my story). Being from Slovak/Russian ancestry, i tend to draw a lot from that part of the world but I never stick to the tried and true aspects, or even the names of those stories when I develop fantasy characters for my own use.

    I think, if you began with the Germanic/Norse foundation and then, instead of allowing Tolkein or anyone else to slide on in, consider everyday people you know or may have encountered in life, and how some of their little tics, mannerisms, sayings and idiosyncrasies might be plucked, exaggerated and molded to fit with your story's races or cultures, you'll end up with something that isn't quite like anything else out there. :)

    Good luck!
     
  7. P.A. Trujillo

    P.A. Trujillo Dreamer

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    I see what you mean; I guess that's why Tolkien wrote a story for this languages; because there's no real point in creating a new language if there's no one to speak it, even if they're fictional.

    I've yet to encounter any fantasy fiction that isn't even partially inspired by Tolkien. What books/writers would you suggest?
     
  8. P.A. Trujillo

    P.A. Trujillo Dreamer

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    That is precisely what I'm trying to avoid in my fantasy world: humans should absolutely NOT be interchangeable with any other species any more than a cat is interchangeable with a racoon. Yes, they're both mammals, but the way they think, their instincts, etc. should be worlds different. Anyway, doesn't it seem logical that any sapient species would have the same level of intelligence as a human? Why wouldn't they?
     
  9. P.A. Trujillo

    P.A. Trujillo Dreamer

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    My problem with works that are derivative of Tolkien is that they are only skin-deep. It seems like some of the tropes that Tolkien pioneered are cliches now because hack writers don't have the originality to blaze their own trail.

    But I believe that you are right about the author's interests and characteristics being interwoven into their writing, thus making it their own. That I can agree on.
     
    OberonLordofSylva and Yora like this.
  10. P.A. Trujillo

    P.A. Trujillo Dreamer

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    See, I have to disagree with you here. I can't stand it when authors invent aspects of fantasy races from scratch, because they get even farther and farther away from the original myths from which they originated.

    Example: island-dwelling dwarves. NO. Why? Because dwarves are an invention of Germanic cultures, and thus have no real place in other parts of the world (unless there is a mythological equivalent in said part of the world).

    Again, I personally do not like to draw from interpretations of other authors because their connection to the original mythology is dubious at best. I prefer to draw the bones of my interpretation from the original myths and legends and from there I can take creative liberties as needed.

    I like this advice. I definitely try to draw inspiration from the people I know, the characters and plots I see and read in movies, tv, books, etc.
     
  11. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and think that they're interests align so much with Tolkien that there's bound to be similarities. Or they don't know how to bring themselves into the genre which is more likely. Or, even more likely, they think Tolkien's stamps are what makes the genre what it is. They just can't imagine a different kind of fantasy, I guess. They probably don't read anything outside the Tolkien family of fantasy literature.

    I definitely don't think it's laziness and I'm not sure if I would chalk it up to lack of originality. More of a lack of concern for originality. Which is hardly a problem.
    Maybe they just don't want to blaze their own trail.
     
    P.A. Trujillo and Yora like this.
  12. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Archmage

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    The thing is, as soon as you include a dwarf, elf or orc in your work people will start seeing Tolkien influences in your work, no matter how original you make your dwarfs or elves. You can only get rid of that by doing something so different with them that you are probably better off calling them something else in the first place.

    If you mention a dwarf, people will have an image in their head. He's probably short, broad, on the grumpy side, with a beard and an axe, preferring to live underground. You can deviate from that a bit. I've got a dwarf without a beard (and another character remark on the fact with some grumbling about it being a city trend for young kids....). Or you can have the character wield a sword or dislike living underground.

    But people will still first picture the short bearded guy with a love for gold if you mention a dwarf. If your dwarfs are 2m tall, green, live on a cloud and they hate gold and metals then yes, people will not see any Tolkien influence in there. But they will also be utterly confused and you're better off calling them something other then dwarf.
     
  13. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

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    I would have to say that the archetypical dwarf, for me, came not from Tolkien nor even Germanic myth, but from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Say 'dwarf' to me and I'm likely to picture Grumpy, Sleepy, and the rest of the gang, simply because I encountered them long before any others of their kind.
     
    P.A. Trujillo likes this.
  14. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Since you mention it, it’s a little odd that elf and dwarf have become the standard words when history has dozens of words for these concepts. Just the idea that we’re using these words and not the others is kind of Tolkien.

    As an aside, we say Tolkien, but it’s as much about D&D and Warhammer as it is Tolkien. D&D in particular is built around the idea of taking elves and dwarves and dropping them into your own customized campaign setting, which is great for gaming because, you know, character options.
     
  15. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

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    I never read LotR and only vaguely remember watching the movies because I saw them as a kid, so I only remember a handful of scenes at best.

    I think I was more indirectly influenced by Tolkien by drawing from works that were directly influenced by him.

    However, most of the fantasy I like is anime and JRPGs, so there I also subconsciously take influence from there.

    Lately, I've been more interested in science fantasy and therefore combing futuristic technology with things like magic, castles, knights, etc.

    You can also always look outside of Europe for inspiration, as the majority of fantasy is based on Medieval Europe.
     
    OberonLordofSylva likes this.
  16. elemtilas

    elemtilas Inkling

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    I find the irony rather delicious here! After all, you're trying to avoid "Tolkien's pre-established tropes" by going straight for the mythology; yet, where did Tolkien nick, like, 99% of his material from? Norse mythology. Finnish mythology. English mythology.

    It's my opinion, and probably quite the minority opinion, that the only true way to avoid Tolkien's ánything is to veer away from the mythology and fully embrace the pointy-eared forest dwelling stereotypes of the post-Tolkien fantasists.
     
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  17. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    No, I think you got to go further back. Go straight to the roots of fantasy: dreams. That’s where myths, fairy tales, folklore and all that junk started. It’s the original fantasy from before even language existed.
    Dip into your subconscious and slip whatever you find into your work and it’s bound to be unique, original and fantastic. Though probably nonsensical but, y’know, you can fix that in editing.
     
  18. OberonLordofSylva

    OberonLordofSylva Troubadour

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    I know I'm new here but I'd like to offer the method I use to make my creatures original. What I do is take the core traits of a fantasy/mythological creature and just twist it. For example, the core traits of an Elf are: absolute jerk, loves nature, good at magic, feminine appearance, pointy ears, and possibly Fae. For my Elves lets say the culture focuses on perfectionism, this gives them a reason to be jerks and supports the notion of them being Fae by giving them a justified reason to outsiders not like outsiders. "Loves nature" and "good with magic" can be combined into a sort of druidic tradition which can complement their culture. Perhaps the root of their perfectionism is an attempt to emulate nature? The "Elves look like girls" thing could be as simple as different beauty standards. Maybe long hair is a status symbol, it is in my world. You could leave out the pointy ears if you want to and still have a solid foundation with this. What's more this process of deconstruction and reconstruction can be applied to just about anything!
     
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  19. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    That’s not a twist, deconstruction or reconstruction on the convention. You’re just giving an in-universe justification for the convention that you yourself defined.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  20. P.A. Trujillo

    P.A. Trujillo Dreamer

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    What in the everloving heck makes you think that all elves are jerks??? That is patently absurd. Where in Norse mythology is that characterization? True, elves were often characterized as malevolent demonic beings, but just as often they're beneavolent angelic creatures. It's an invention of modern writers (and an asinine invention, I might add) that elves think that they're high-and-mighty and better than mortal creatures. Guess what? They ARE better; at least, miles more powerful.
     
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