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Escaping the "Tolkien Trap"

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

  1. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    I just had a realisation reading this topic which made me laugh. But Tolkien's real elves actually aren't Tolkien elves.

    The Tolkien elf trope is a mix of D&D and lord of the rings elves. Those are the nature loving, girly, whimsical creatures people think of.

    Real Tolkien elves in the Silmarillion are very different from that. They're badass, headstrong craftsmen who went to war against a God. So, if you want to know how to do different elves, read Tolkien...
     
    Aldarion and P.A. Trujillo like this.
  2. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think think it was Warhammer that popularized the idea of jerk elves and it makes sense that modern writers would want to portray a “superior race” as looking bad since the idea of “superior race” is something modern readers would find abhorrent.

    It amuses me how offended Tolkien would find you calling Morgoth “a God”.

    I think you guys are getting pedantic. “Tolkien elves” mean the elf archetype that descended from Tolkien. The humanoid RPG type of elves. The beautiful long-lived humanoids with an affinity for magic and an obsession with their own hype.
    That whole lineage of elves in fiction is what people mean by “Tolkien elves”.

    As oppose to the cutesy Keebler Christmas fairy elves or the ethereal otherworldly elves of Norse mythology.

    But debating terminology won’t really get you any closer to finding a new spin on an old idea.
     
  3. OberonLordofSylva

    OberonLordofSylva Troubadour

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    Sorry. I was just sharing the way I try to make a creature. What I meant by "elves are jerks" was that elves usually have pride and/or xenophobia as a fatal flaw. I wasn't trying to insinuate that all Elves are jerks, I was just trying to shorten a lengthy paragraph.
     
  4. elemtilas

    elemtilas Inkling

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    Well, sure! That's what I do by nature. (And Tolkien by admission did the same on occasion as well, with his Dream of Atlantis.)
     
  5. OberonLordofSylva

    OberonLordofSylva Troubadour

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    I'm sorry can you elaborate on that? I don't really get what you're trying to say.
     
  6. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Well, you’ve heard of “a briefcase full of money”? That’s a cliche.
    You can’t say “the briefcase has money in it because someone robbed a bank and put the money in the briefcase” and then call that a deconstruction or twist or whatever. That’s just explaining why the cliche exists in-universe.

    A twist would be if characters are trying to get the briefcase without knowing there’s money in it. Or the money itself isn’t what they’re after. Or it turns out the case was empty all along.
     
  7. OberonLordofSylva

    OberonLordofSylva Troubadour

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    I see now. Thank you, I'll avoid using the terms I used now.
     
    WooHooMan likes this.
  8. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    As others had already said, do not try to "emulate" anyone. As a kid, I tried emulating Tolkien due to my obsession with Lord of the Ring. I ended up rejecting all the worlds I thus created as worthless garbage. Only when I went back to the source did I do something actually worth the effort. And even then, I ended up with approach significantly different, and thus the result significantly different, from Tolkien's. Tolkien's interests lay in linguistics, folklore and mythology; mine are history and mythology. There is overlap, and thus also some similarity in the worlds thus created; but also enough difference that I will not end up being just another "Tolkien clone" (if anything, my world is more similar to what was done by Martin and Turtledove, but again with differences as I drew on Roman, Byzantine, Hungarian, Croatian and Ottoman history as opposed to British and Byzantine history, respectively).

    And that is my advice: do not worry about escaping "Tolkien trap". Do not worry about being different. Turn inwards - towards your own interests, personality and so on - and you will be different.

    They also have beards...
     
  9. Snowpoint

    Snowpoint Sage

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    If you do use classic races. Call them what they are.

    If your whole point is to put your own spin on them, just give them a new name.

    Like the example earlier of an Island dwelling dwarf. You are already so far removed from the classic idea, just give them a new name and let them be their own thing.
     
  10. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

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    One of my defunct settings switched around elves and dwarves so that the dwarves lived in forests and the elves lived underground. The dwarves also had pointy ears. The only thing that had in common with standard dwarves were that they were short and had beards.

    The elves were otherwise ordinary elves, just underground.
     
    Avery Moore likes this.
  11. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

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    I think people care more about the story of the characters overall and I hate giving opinions like this because who am I to judge others on what they write? But since you asked I'll be 100% honest. There will always be an audience for those stories, it just wont include me. If I want to read things influenced by Tolkien, I just read Tolkien because I can never get bored of those books and no one can match him, for me writing about those beings and that setting.

    Those beings existed long before Tolkien made them his own. But I still associate elves, dwarves, dragons and Orcs so much with him that I find it hard to read other people's versions or copies. Fantasy is possibly the Genre where you are the least limited to what you write about,and people limit themselves to what's been done time and time again. I have found myself rolling my eyes every time I read a synopsis that clearly draws from Tolkien to the extent it's obvious. Maybe what these people need to do is acknowledge their love for him, then more on and draw from other things? More and more people are drifting of the status Que for fantasy and doing something new. So read the new stuff. People's work becomes similar when they just keep reading the same thing and never branching out or opening their minds to new possibilities. There are so many amazing mythical creatures from all cultures that don't get used to their full potential. Wizards are cool but there are other magical people that remain mysterious and open for exploration.

    I love elves for their personalities and ethereal qualities. I like Dwarves for theirs. Dragons are just awesome and I don't know anyone who thinks differently. Look at what you love about those beings. Write a list. Then cross out the qualities you like that define elves. Choose three qualities from your list for each that are left. Then begin thinking up your own races giving them these qualities. Keep changing and developing them until they barely look like an elf any more. Is my only advice if you still want to stick to those sorts of things. Maybe what you need is a total change. Just to break it. Read a wider variation of novels in different genres. Try combining them. Take a crime thriller, add fantasy and you have the Dresden Files. Just think outside the box more.

    But in the end, you'll either have to branch out and write something new or accept what you like to write and own it! I hope this is helpful and all the best.
     
  12. Avery Moore

    Avery Moore Dreamer

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    In the world I'm currently working on, I'm using a pretty basic Tolkienesque type world... But about 1,000 years into the future, where almost all the magic has died out. Humans have basically bred all the other races out of the picture. Orcs and goblins have been hunted to extinction. Elves and dwarves have become so interbred with humans that you can barely tell the difference. Basically, we screwed the awesome magical world up so bad that all that's really left are undead things like ghosts and vampires, or man-made things like golems and gargoyles.

    In general though, I'd say why use the Tolkien world when there's so many awesome magical races to choose from? Who needs elves and dwarves when we've got dryads, nymphs, fauns, centaurs, banshees, selkies, succubi, sirens, and that's just the European stuff. China has all kinds of awesome mythical beings. Not to mention Egypt. Those guys are creative. ^_^
     
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  13. The Finxi

    The Finxi Acolyte

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    I have experienced this also. There was nothing really I could do but focus on my intent and on my honest self reflections. Maybe you could focus on one aspect. Like what did I really want to have for creating this fantasy story? For me, it was to systematize fantasy to the limit, to the extreme. Yes there were still hints of Tolkien in the systems, but I intended mine to be known for and be centered around the systems and not the Tolkien elements. I worked through perfecting everything, and it naturally turned out to be a stand-alone aspect -reborn as it's own fantasy 'genre'. What was your take of the monotony of fantasy? Did you want to approach it to "study" it? Did you see yourself as a discoverer, an explorer, a linguist, or perhaps a 'clerk'? This was just my take on it.
     
  14. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

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    Can't say that I've fallen into the Tolkien Trap to my knowledge. But then again I think that reading beyond the fantasy genre and perhaps also try stories set outside of a Western setting could help to show you how to fly.

    I mean one of the most influential things I ever read was material on Tekumel which really showed me that its possible to fly.
     
  15. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

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    There's so much history outside the Medieval era, both before and after it.

    I'd personally like to see more Bronze Age fantasy as it would be perfect for a world of myths and fantastical creatures.

    Tolkien drew from mythology, and most other authors just copied his races.

    One of my worlds was your standard Medieval European setting, but it had more of a JRPG influence since those were my main inspirations and I never actually read a standard fantasy novel before that point.
     
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  16. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Looking through this thread, I’m going to make a proposition: what if the Tolkien trap isn’t a problem anymore?

    The internet and people generally being more worldly and open to new things have caused the average fantasy fan’s pool of influences to become much wider. Plus there are more vehicles for the genre today (it used to be limited to books but now we have movies, video games, tabletop games, etc.) and it is much easier to get media from outside of the west, especially from Japan.

    So maybe the Tolkien trap was an issue in the 80s/90s and after the LotR movies came-out but perhaps the trend is already waning due to the natural evolution of the genre. Meanwhile, there’s currently some new and more harmful trend getting going that is not being address because the bunch of us are concerned with a trend that’s basically on its way out.

    I remember when I was younger, I would hear old people complaining about how malls were turning people into shopping zombies, video games turn kids antisocial and tv addiction was a serious concern. But none of them could have predicted what the internet would become. So today; malls are basically dead, video games are a social activity through online multiplayer and tv is basically on its way out thanks to streaming.

    Going through this thread, I don’t get the impression that the current or next generation of fantasy writers would have much of an issue with avoiding the Tolkien standard.
     
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  17. Patrick-Leigh

    Patrick-Leigh Sage

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    Personally, I look at all kinds of takes on the various fantasy races, then I decide which things I would like to keep the same and which things I'd like to change. I also take into consideration things like the nutritional needs of their bodies and alternative ways for them to use certain attributes that they generally are depicted as having.

    For example, with my Orcs, I took the conquering army aspects of Tolkien's rendition of them and the size and skin color of World of Warcraft Orcs, tweaked their appearance a bit here and there so they were not a copy-paste job of either type of Orc, then thought about what sort of things the average Orc in my setting would need to live in relatively good health and comfort. I concluded that they would need more food due to their greater size and muscle mass, so that led me to the decision to make them capable agrarians, since I concluded there was no way they could sustain a large population solely by stealing food from other people. So, my Orcs are talented at cultivating hybrid crops with higher yields as well as animal husbandry. (This also means they can breed better war mounts.) Then I considered how to handle their military forces differently than what I've seen in other story settings. So, instead of savage barbarians, my Orcs are well-disciplined, well-organized legionnaires who are a lot like the Roman Empire in terms of efficiency.

    Dong some research on how the Romans did things, I learned that one of the reasons they built so many roads was to keep their soldiers busy and out of trouble during times of peace. That got me thinking about the other ways that my Orcs could be using their superior strength. I realized that they would probably do the same thing and have their soldiers improve old roads, build new ones, construct dams and levies, and do all sorts of work on infrastructure to keep them occupied. Then it hit me that a lot of the roads my Orcs built and improved are probably still in use.

    My point in all this is to show that you don't need to go to a lot of trouble to come up with new takes on the classic fantasy races. You just use some basic logic, throw in a dash of historical, agricultural, and scientific knowledge, and do the math. You'll come up with all kinds of interesting ideas if you take that approach. If you want to stick to the way these races were depicted in mythology, that's fine, but I don't see why you should limit your options too much. It's not a crime to make your Dwarves sailors because any society that lives around water is going to need people who can manage boats of one kind or another. You want them to live underground? Fine, but there are bodies of water underground, and you can make them as big as you like and have them sail on those. Like I said, you can restrict yourself as much as you want, but it's best to give yourself at least some flexibility. Most of all, though, try to challenge yourself and have fun while you're at it.
     
  18. elemtilas

    elemtilas Inkling

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    I honestly don't think it's been a real problem for quite a while. I think it was certainly an issue in the 1970s and 80s. Maybe 90s. (Mind you, that didn't stop me from reading scores of fantasy series at second hand!) I think fantasy as a genre has changed grown quite a lot. The early writers who seemed to draw so heavily on Tolkien have given way to many newer writers who while drawing inspiration don't try to fit their works into a mold.


    Now, I think the natural consideration that follows from your proposition, as I see it, is: what if there never really was a Tolkien Trap to begin with?


    It's my opinion, but it seems that when we get down to it, JRRT wasn't really writing "fantasy" as we know the genre today. Or rather, fantasy writers since Tolkien aren't writing in the same genre of fairy story that Tolkien was working with. He is said to have been a pioneer of fantasy, but I wonder if his peioneership isn't one of inspiration rather than practical exemplar.

    True that. Plus the whole concept of self publishing, art hubs, writing hubs and so forth. And it goes both ways. It's much easier for those of us who would be extremely unlikely to even crack the door at MegaPublishers to find an audience of more than just ourselves to read what we've come up with.

    Could be. What new and harmful trend are you thinking of?

    Indeed. Or at least they're more aware of these kinds of issues and can put the great writers to better use as inspiration rather than recipe books.
     
  19. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    The new trends going on right now, we’re probably not even going to be aware of what they are until they’ve taken full effect.
    It could be something like a shift towards “grimdark” or it could be a predilection towards in-depth worldbuilding or the influence of shounen anime. It could even be the concerted effort to avoid conventional “Tolkien” fantasy or defying fantasy conventions.
    Who knows? It could be anything.
     
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  20. elemtilas

    elemtilas Inkling

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    Predilection for in-depth worldbuilding...coo I'd finally be en trend!
     
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