So You Want To/Be the Next JRR Tolkien
Like JRR Tolkien himself, you could teach yourself dead languages at the age of seven, march off to war with your friends and see them die, begin writing of a better world on a battlefield where death is the only victor, return home to find your childhood ideals ruined in the name of progress, spend twenty years immersed in the dusty recesses of academe, then finally set pen to paper and make the words sing...
...or you could take the easy route, and just read this simple guide.
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
- 7 Extra Credit
Your chosen genre is High Fantasy, so magic is essential. You also need a memorable Big Bad, and a hero to defeat him. The setting will be generic high medieval, or a world of your own creation. Start the World Building by drawing up a map, but try to do a little research on geology first so you don't put a swamp next to frozen tundra and spiral-shaped rivers that don't lead to the sea without any justification.
Once you've got the map, it's time to write the history. Start with the present day, and work backwards.
The mode of writing is Romance, in the technical sense, which means go easy on the psychological realism. The characters, and their deeds, are larger than life, verging on the archetypical.
Decide how much magic you want, and what rules it follows. Tolkien had very little magic, so he could be fairly vague about the precise rules. In fact, while his main characters used magic items, they never had powers for themselves - and using the strongest magic item they had was a bad thing. Gandalf's magic was justified by his being (roughly) an angel, and if your eyes are sharp you'll realize that he doesn't use it all that much, or indeed in some occasions where you'd think magic was called for (leading to a potential parody: a "wizard" who continually claims to have powers but never does any magic - until even the other characters notice).
If you want more magic you'll need to think about how it impacts society as a whole, and battles in particular, and you'll need to be specific about the rules. Magical healing means no plagues and a population right on the edge of what the land will support. Easy mind control means extensive precautions by royalty against subversion. A regiment of wizards, acting as artillery, means no massed charges. Like modern armies, the enemy soldiers would have to spread out so one fireball couldn't kill them all.
Magic should feel like an intrinsic part of the society, something that they've lived with since the beginning of time.
Pick a Big Bad. Something suitably epic. Popular choices are Undead wizards, demon lords, dark gods, and Eldritch Abominations. The Undead can have a tragic background, but are relatively low powered. The main difference between demon lords and dark gods is where they live.
You'll need a convincing portrayal of evil, not just The Theme Park Version, or you risk readers sympathizing with your villain. Make your Big Bad's crimes clear, and make them grand. It doesn't just cross the Moral Event Horizon, it corrupts the happy-go-lucky flower people past the same line, turning the green meadows into a Garden of Evil in the process. Spend some time contemplating the long litany of man's inhumanity to man, then come up with a crime that epitomizes your view of evil.
Alternatively go for moral ambiguity. Make the Big Bad understandable, reasonalble or even sympathetic. If you world is dark enough even make your hero the real villain. It's traditional to use fiction to demonstrate morality, but you don't have to. Resist the urge to make the values of the heroes sympathetic to the audience and get them excited in other ways. To some, doing this will invite certain accusations. Maybe people will even agree.
Decide if you want the Big Bad to appear in person at all. If they do, you'll need to take extra steps to maintain their mystique.
Give your Big Bad some chief minions. Tolkien went for 9 interchangeable Nazgul, but a Quirky Miniboss Squad and The Dragon are also good choices. They can serve as spokesmen for the Big Bad, defeating them gives the heroes a minor victory, and they can each represent a different facet of evil.
The Big Bad will also need an army, but this is mostly decided by the choice of Big Bad. Undead wizards usually prefer zombie hordes, spirits, and the occasional monster. Demon lords have The Legions of Hell. Dark gods have conventional armies of fanatics. Eldritch abominations have both mortal cultists and nameless horrors.
Decide how the Big Bad will die. It shouldn't be in single combat with the hero; that's a different genre. Betrayal by The Dragon or The Renfield, and being undone by their own hubris are both popular choices.
Be very sparing with benign gods. If they stay off-stage, people will ask why they aren't more helpful. If they come onstage, the heroes will rather quickly get overshadowed. The heroes could be gods themselves, but that's difficult to carry off. This is an aspect of the theological problem of why evil exists, on which whole oceans of ink have been spent in futile debate. You're not exactly likely to come up with a good solution, so just brush the whole issue firmly under the carpet.
If you're going to include Elves, don't make them perfect. If they are beautiful, superstrong, immortal, intelligent, magically and technologically advanced, and also morally superior, then they're effectively minor Gods, with all the story-construction difficulties that implies. They would be an entire race of God Mode Sues.
Tolkien did give his elves flaws, but that backstory is in the appendices. You can put it in the main text. Have bards sing songs about the Elven civil war. Have dwarves complain about their ancestral grudges.
To be more general -- if you include multiple races or sentient species in the setting, be sure to give all of them balanced qualities. A high race of perfect, superstrong, magical, hyperintelligent catgirls is just as bad as a Mary Suetopia of elves. On the other coin, the race of piggish, bestial, always chaotic, dark-skinned, stupid, evildoing people has Unfortunate Implications as well. (Tolkien himself fell prey to that one, although he at least tried to fix that once he realized it.)
A purely good race can work, if there's a reason they can't be involved in the main action. Perhaps they're dryads, who die if they go more than ten yards from their trees. Perhaps they're empaths, who faint in the presence of even minor violence. Such races can be powerful symbols of innocence, to be protected, though the imperfect heroes may find them insufferably sweet.
Purely evil races can also work, if they're the creation of a Big Bad, but they should have some positive qualities, such as bravery or loyalty to a cause, qualities that would be admirable if they weren't in the service of evil. Tolkien came to regret portraying Orcs as purely evil and spent the last years of his life trying (and failing) to make sense of the trope.
Take a more cyncial slant. Paint your Anti Heroes as Well Intentioned Extremists prepared to Shoot the Dog to achieve their ends. Conversely, give your Big Bad some redeeming features, or even make them good but misunderstood. Use a Tech Level other than Medieval Stasis (but be careful of winding up with Totally Radical or Zeerust if you go that route).
Tolkien gave us a major subversion in his choice of quest. Most quests are about obtaining something. This was a quest to get rid of something. The One Ring and its connotations of sin and power lust needed to be turned down time and time again during the journey, until its ultimate rejection in the fires of Mount Doom. And even then, it left a mark on the one who had struggled with the temptation.
Most races with a Vestigial Empire seem to just take it in stride in Tolkien's work, as are races who are all sweetness and light. Try having an elf who remembers being waited on hand and foot by "lesser folk", and make him a bitter, sarcastic chain-smoker.
"Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose,though doom shall come and dark conquer."
more proud the spirit as our power lessens!
Mind shall not falter nor mood waver,
—Tolkien's phrasing of what he called the "Nordic theory of courage", on the basis of a famous passage from The Battle of Maldon.
Tolkien combined this with the victory of the meek, ordinary people rising to the occasion, which fits well with modern sentiment.
For alternatives, think about the nature of heroism, and of courage.
Give the Big Bad a symbol, and wrap it in dread. It doesn't have to be black; almost any colour can be given negative associations. Red, of course, is the colour of blood and fire. Green is the colour of rot and decay, of fetid swamps and gangrenous flesh. White is the colour of sun-bleached bones, and the blinding light of the desert sun. Blue - that's tough, but why not align it with the sin of Sloth? If you want a real challenge, try pink (hey, Rowling pulled it off... at least with an underling).
For the good guys, pick something to match your aesops. Tolkien had the stars, and moments of beauty in the dark places, which symbolize and inspire hope in the face of adversity.
Good versus Evil is your overarching plot, but not the only one. Give each hero a character development arc, and throw in a major war.
Give some thoughts to the various archetypal plots: Start with Hero's Journey by Campbell, then move into Structural Archetypes by Walker and The Seven Basic Plots by Booker. Any of these plots can serve as the backbone of your story, or you could mix-and-match the elements until you get what you want. But sticking by a classical structure can definitely help you achieve the epic feel of a true masterpiece.
You've got an entire world to fill up. Sketch the coastline, lay down some mountains, and a great river, then start on the countries. The Empire goes at one edge, with Mordor in its middle, and the Evil Tower of Ominousness at its heart. Position at random the Vestigial Empire, The Kingdom, the Hidden Elf Village, and the hero's home village, then fill the rest of the map with wilderness including The Lost Woods, a desert, a swamp, and plenty of ancient ruins.
For added realism, put the towns in sensible places; the junctions of major trade routes, the mouths of rivers. In the populated areas, villages should be a day's journey apart.
To set against the Big Bad, you need an ensemble of Heroes, usually one from each country or race, and a mentor to recruit and advise them. Give them each a different motivation for joining the good fight.
Tolkien's fellowship was all male, but a few women may increase the appeal. Bear in mind, there's nothing wrong with an all-male cast... so long as you're aware of the fact that the people who update your masterpiece will invariably believe it's a flaw no matter how crucial it is to the plot. But if you're going for an all-male team of heroes, avoid the trap of making any female supporting characters token and lifeless. Female relatives of the cast, female mentors (and wise women), and the like should be well developed even if they're only around for a chapter before the team moves on.
Furthermore, that "one representative from each race" thing leads to some Unfortunate Implications, since we judge the entire race based on the one representative we see. If one elf is bigoted, surely all elves are bigoted. If one dwarf is against magic, surely all dwarves hate magic. If one halfling is surly, surely all halflings... you get the picture. You can set this up and then subvert it when the party encounters more elves/dwarves/halflings ("I expected you to be totally anti-dwarf." "Nah, that's just Bob. Bad experience when he was a kid"). But consider using more than one elf, dwarf, halfling, fairy, Vulcan, Klingon... yeah. Willow gave us two brownies to play off each other, but they were almost the same character; on the other hand, the many Nelwyn characters were just as distinct as the humans were, because their character wasn't based entirely on their race (contrast Willow, Meegosh, the wizard, and Burglekutt).
Also consider having multiple cultures per race. Just knowing a character is "human" doesn't tell you if he's capitalist, socialist, or anarchist, or what his religion is, or how he votes, or how he dresses... knowing that he's "Hispanic" doesn't tell you much more than "human" does, especially if you don't know from which group of Hispanics he hails (and no, "every Hispanic I ever met was X, Y, and Z" doesn't count as useful information here). It may tell you how certain people respond to him. So why should "dwarf" tell you much more than "human" or "Hispanic"? Get some variety into the mix!
- The Lord of the Rings itself, of course.
- David Eddings had fun with his work in The Belgariad and its sequel
triquint...ilogy... thing, The Mallorean. While the plot is not particularly original, the characters have to be seen to be believed. And yes, he fell prey to a few Unfortunate Implications... don't let that keep you from studying his work.
- The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon. A strong, vital sense of realistic detail in how the world works, along with memorable characters and a well-wrought Character Arc as the sheepherder's daughter Paks goes from military recruit to war veteran to Paladin recruit to Christ figure. With a bit of Joan of Arc somewhere in there. Moon doesn't pull any punches, so this trilogy is for mature readers only - but not a single intense moment is gratuitous or pointless, as each moment, good or bad, carefully shapes Paks into the person she needs to be.
- For a Young Adult version, try the Deltora series by Emily Rodda, an amazing landscape fraught with unbelievable perils and unexpected allies (who may hide perils of their own). Also worth checking out: Her Rowan of Rin series.
- Since George R. R. Martin has been hailed by some as the 'American Tolkien', you might want to check out the work that earned him that title: A Song of Ice and Fire. It is fantasy with a deeply cynical and gritty edge.
- The Dune series by Frank Herbert. It is the best-selling science fiction series of all time, with a world spanning over 20,000 years of history. Themes range from politics, economics, ecology, religion, sociology, linguistics, and philosophy. Many compare it to Lord of the Rings, matching it in scope and world building, and commonly said to be the science fiction equivalent of Tolkien's work.
- Babylon 5: possibly the best TV Space Opera ever. Has memorable characters and cultures, and draws heavily from many sources including JRR Tolkien himself. Has an extremely well developed universe and powerful themes developed over a continuous plot spanning five seasons. In some ways it is High Fantasy. only Recycled in Space.