Friday, December 05, 2008

Copying Tolkien

In the realm of fantasy, the most common of clichés is to borrow from Tolkien. I wanted to take a moment to explore this phenomenon if for no other reason than to better understand myself as a fantasy writer.

Regardless of how much we’ve read in our lifetimes, some of us find the world of fiction so fascinating that we determine to add to it. What we choose to add is more than likely a decision based on what we like to read, and for some of us, that preference includes fantasy. Our ideas of fantasy must be formed from some definition of the genre, a definition we often discover through examples. As we endeavor to create new stories, we reference our known definition of the genre, and I think the rigidity of that definition could be based on the volume of fantasy works we’ve been exposed to.

Tolkien’s works, particularly The Lord of the Rings, have such popularity and notoriety that we are highly likely to read them once we begin exploring the fantasy genre. (In some cases, we must read his works as part of a classroom assignment.) Once we’ve read them, they become part of our fantasy definition, but that may not be all that happens.

When we enter Middle Earth, there’s something magical that occurs. One of my college professors who taught a literary course on speculative fiction had read The Lord of the Rings several times, and he said that it was a world he always enjoyed returning to. Tolkien’s creation is vivid and detailed, and as writers, we want our own work to be just as captivating. We want memorable places and endearing characters.

As beginning writers, we recall the strongest elements of Tolkien’s world, and we try to imitate them. Perhaps we use elves and dwarves or a struggle against a dark lord. In our attempts to write like Tolkien, we inadvertently copy his world. (I know there are writers who decide to go directly into his world in the form of fan fiction, but I believe that most fantasy writers are striving for uniqueness.) As we grow, we learn how to avoid certain types of clichés, but this takes time, and through this maturing period we often submit our works to various magazines and book publishers, wondering why we’re being called cliché (if we’re called anything at all).

How much can fantasy fiction resemble Tolkien before it becomes clichéd? How much can anything in fantasy fiction resemble known fantasy tropes before it becomes clichéd? I would like to see more experienced authors attempt to write high fantasy to stretch the limits of these two questions. I think high fantasy can be done well without duplicating Middle Earth, even if it seems as difficult as destroying the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.

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