Monday, May 2, 2011

Been There, Done That

Let's say you grew up on Dungeons & Dragons (or other similar role-playing games like MERP). You love that type of world and you now want to write about it. You people your world with all the elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, and dragons that you loved so much from your gaming days. You know in advance that a lot of readers will be turned off by this, since they've seen it a few times before and these readers never like to read anything similar to what they've read previously, but you aren't worried about that because you know there are still lots of readers out there who do like these types of stories.

So, you write and you write, and eventually you finish. Then you are dismayed when all your beta readers keep telling you how so many scenes remind them of Tolkien. How can this be, you say, since you were not thinking about Lord of the Rings when you wrote your story.

Well, it's simple really. Tolkien did it all (or pretty close to it). His books were so in-depth that as far as taking a party of mixed races and having them move about on a map (in pursuit of a grand, epic adventure, naturally), you are pretty much out of luck if you don't want anyone to draw any parallels to Tolkien. Want to move from one place to another? Okay, have the characters walk. Oops, Tolkien did that. Ride horses or ponies? Check. Ride in a cart? Check.

How about you come to a river? Take a ferry across? Nope, he's done that. Find a ford? Been there, done that. Ride a boat down the river? Cross on a bridge? Check and check.

Swamps or marshes? He's done it. Forests? He's done it all. Mountains? Cross in a pass? Find an unknown path? Find caves that lead you through it? He's covered them all. You might as well just have some big eagles swoop down and pick you up, but he's done that, too. I guess you could have the characters rig up a hot air balloon to carry them across, but that, at least to me, is a more modern version of fantasy than suits my D&D-inspired tastes.

I got some spot-on feedback on my book recently, and I am grateful as heck for it. I will really be able to examine some scenes and figure out a way to make them a little more unique. The only way it bothered me was in knowing that I had already tried to avoid Tolkien's more famous stories, yet some scenes still reminded the reader of parts of The Hobbit or LOTR. The fact is, much of my story was inspired not by either of those books but rather by the part of Beren's story in The Silmarillion where he escapes from Dorthonian by crossing under the mountains. That piece of his story always stuck with me, because Tolkien teased us by saying that Beren endured much horror during the crossing, but he didn't go into specifics. I always wanted to do a story that dealt with an extremely hazardous crossing beneath a mountain range. I didn't intend it to be like Moria.

The problem is that there are only so many realistic variations of passages under a mountain, and Tolkien pretty much hit them all. Rough stone, worked stone, small rooms, big rooms with pillars for support, chasms, bridges...there's not much else you can realistically work with, yet Tolkien did all those.

My reader was right, though. I may not be able to avoid Tolkien altogether, but I can at least ensure that big moments of the journey don't fall within similar settings. In other words, if I currently have an important battle taking place on an underground bridge, it's probably best to move it to someplace else so it doesn't make readers think of the ending of the Fellowship movie or book. It would have been embarrassing to me to have the book published and only then to hear from readers about such similarities, since I didn't know they were there, so to this friend I say, "Thank you."

To those who would say, "Well, don't use elves and dwarves and such.", I can only respond that this is my passion. I spent years playing D&D and living within this type of world. I always rued the fact that no one was ever publishing any stories set in such a world that dealt with it in a truly serious manner. Tolkien took his world very seriously, and that's why so many love him. The official D&D or Dragonlance novels? Not serious (at least in my view).


  1. To coin a phrase, 'there is nothing new under the sun'.

    There will always be something that reminds a reader of something else. The only thing we can do is acknowledge the influences and work with them rather than against them.

  2. Martin, I do think I need a forward when I publish to warn off those who don't want to see anymore Tolkienesque fantasy. I doubt it will stop them from ragging on me, though!

  3. Perhaps part of the problem is your beta readers? If they are complaining that your book is too Tolkien-esque then they can't be part of your target audience. You should find readers among those who do long for more Tolkien-esque fantasy. They are out there. They made Terry Brooks a bestseller.

    Also, I'm not sure if I should mention this, but I don't think Beren passed under any mountains. The Silmarillion says that he climbed "into the high reaches of Gorgoroth, the Mountains of Terror" and doesn't mention him going beneath them at all. At least, I never got that impression when reading it myself, which is why what you said surprised me.

  4. You may be right, Sarah, and perhaps I have long misinterpreted that section. Since his earlier writing about Ungoliant had made me believe that her 'children' found lairs beneath those mountains, I always interpreted the little Tolkien wrote about the journey to mean that he traveled both up and under the mountains. I thought I read some other articles or such that explained that Beren also traveled under the mountains, but has been long since I read them and my memory may be playing tricks on me.

  5. yep. that's a hard one. tolkien really did do everything, didn't he? but i agree- best to avoid the battle on the bridge. oh ted! that must be hard!

  6. I don't think Tolkien owns elves and dwarves, but you have to accept that there will always be people who will make the comparison to his masterpiece. As long as you can make the characters in your story uniquely yours and come up with a setting to match, I think you can brush off the criticism.

    But, uh, if you have a fight on a bridge with a creature wielding a whip of fire and your wizard fall into the abyss, then you've got a problem. :)

  7. I find that a lot of times such comparisons are initial gut reactions and not genuine in-depth analyses of your writing in comparison with the other work. It's a superficial checklist of "this event happened in A and it happens in B thus they are alike."

    I wrote a book where the main character is Poseidon and he stole from another "god." The book was compared to Percy Jackson for no other reason than it had the name Poseidon and the act of thievery. It is frustrating to say the least (I had stronger words at the time).

    If you you have doubts and want to know just how in-depth their assessment is, ask them "How so?" and see if it's a superficial similarity or if they've picked up on genuine like themes.

  8. I do think he had some legit points; places where I hadn't been thinking about Tolkien but once he picked them out, I could see what he meant. I do think it will strengthen it to know about those points and rework them. I am not at all unhappy to have this pointed out to me, because I think I am a better writer now than when I wrote those parts, so I think I can improve them. It's just frustrating to truly not be thinking about Tolkien when I write but still manage to draw too close to him in some ways.

  9. You can still put your own spin on it. Just think how many worlds were created for D&D alone.

  10. You know, Ted, you always talk about very few quality Tolkieneque books, and I have very same problem with ASOIAF. To me, nothing seems to compare. But if you go around asking, people say: "oh there are tons of books almost as good as ASOIAF", and they mention books by Hobb, Bakker, Erikson, Abercrombie and Rothfuss. While all of those authors write solid fantasy, it's not at all like ASOIAF! It sure is pretty gritty, it sometimes employs multiple POVs, but... that's about it!

    I feel like I'm in love with ASOIAF so much as a reader, I just can't accept anything else anymore.

  11. Who cares? Really, do you? Find your own voice. Ok so some of this has been done before, but NOT with your voice. We all speak in a unigue language, don't let anyone stop you from using yours!

  12. I'm loathe to comment on this, because I know the crit you're talking about, and though I haven't read all the comments, I'm confident there is some merit to them, because of the source.

    And I've not read those scenes yet, so I can't state my own opinion either way ... yet.

    But I can say this, in very general terms: you can't write about orcs, elves or dwarves, traveling over, under, or around the surface of a planet because Tolkien did it first? Bullshit.

    The only race that Tolkien REALLY owns is Hobbits, and Gary Gygax stole them anyway, making them halflings in D&D, and no one gave a damn.

    Okay, sure, your point about the showdown on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum is well taken, and I suppose that scene would feel a little contrived, depending on the players, but otherwise I don't see a problem with writing in a Tolkienesque world.

  13. Another point: it was pointed out to me, by a reader, at some point, that my story is a lot like Harry Potter. Poor kid, sent off to a special school, gains some powers. Does that mean I ripped off Rowling? No. Does it mean the book won't sell? Maybe.

    Eragon is a lot like Star Wars, too. And I know there are some people that hate those books, but you can't deny the success they've had.

  14. This question always puzzles me because Terry Brooks was criticized for directly ripping off Tolkien (the first book anyway) and he got published and went on to become very famous. Go figure.

    Having not seen the passages you are talking about, I can only give general advice. Exploit your differences. Novels are still being published about elves and trolls, so this shouldn't be a problem. If you have any particulars that are similar to T., change them. This way, you can avoid these types of criticisms.

    Lastly, is there a way you can describe, say the walls of the caves, in a voice that's original? First person? Which character of yours has a totally unique voice? (Not sure what POV you've chosen.) Sometimes merely changing POV helps a story become unique.

    I'm sure you will figure this out, and I wish you all good luck in doing so.

  15. Lots of great responses, thank you all. The great thing that the reader did for me was to point to specifics that I hadn't fully seen myself, so he gives me the chance to fix these things up front.

    Sasha, I know what you mean about ASOIAF, as I feel similarly. Martin's work is just so far ahead of anyone else today, yet I can still enjoy other writers.

    JM, exactly. Brooks and McKiernan did outright rip-offs of Tolkien ideas, yet sold very well, and I actually enjoyed those books. My plot points aren't as blatant as theirs, but I do have a few uncomfortable similarities that I would like to work out. Also, I think that having a forward that explains that I purposely did an homage to Tolkien will at least warn off those people who don't want to read such work.

  16. IMO, the thing to watch out for when you're inspired by RPGs is not Tolkien. It's the RPG "feel".

    Running a fun RPG is completely different from running a novel. No one loves gaming more than me, and I've been in more RPG campaigns than I can count. I'm sure you know the process well: the game master makes the setting, NPCs, and plot to please those five or six people at the table. And only them.

    But the process of entertaining six gamers, in an artificial environment where no one else matters, is very different from entertaining hundreds or thousands of readers, most of whom will never meet each other.

    You're familiar how illogical it is, on multiple levels, for people to fault your work for calling it "derivative of Tolkien". That's simply not a bad thing! I think some people who say that, are maybe not thinking it through, and really mean that they're afraid of the story being too derivative of RPGs.

    Because too many people think they know Tolkien, but haven't actually read Tolkien. To them, Tolkien = D&D.

  17. siebendach, I agree completely. For instance, Quag Keep was a decent D&D novel, but it was too gamish. I don't believe I have that issue at all in my novel, and no one has ever brought it up. I'm pretty proud of that, at least!