Tolkien didn’t do Fantasy Writers any Favors

Cover of "The Silmarillion"
Cover of The Silmarillion

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. What I really mean is Tolkien‘s elaborately crafted setting didn’t do us any favors but the title was getting wordy. That’s not to say that, like many readers, I don’t love his setting. I do adore it, from its linguistic elements to the ring with its history back into the earlier ages of the world. It’s all great stuff and much of what makes The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) the story it is.

The disservice is that such a setting is not a requisite for a good fantasy book or even a long running series. Especially for those of us who come to writing through refereeing fantasy roleplaying games, it can be a time-consuming pitfall. You see, having enjoyed Tolkien’s appendices, The Silmarillion, and other assorted bits, it is easy to take this level of detail as a requirement for a good fantasy setting, when it isn’t. It worked for Tolkien but let’s not forget he was a philologist and university professor: he created this great world as much as for a hobby as for his novel.

You can tell the setting only matters so much because Tolkien actually put very little of it into LOTR. Certainly some is present, but only enough to serve the story. There’s even less of it in The Hobbit. Granted that was an earlier book but it is interesting how little of his great setting shows up in the Hobbit, yet we still love it.

It is easy to forget that and dive into creating an elaborate setting for your own D&D campaign or novel. If you like creating settings, go to it. I love it myself. The thing is neither your D&D players nor your readers are really going to ever appreciate an intricate setting because it won’t matter much to their enjoyment of the game or book (unless you happen to become the next Tolkien but, while fun to daydream about, that might not be a great goal for allocating your time.) These days, most readers seem extremely reluctant to read even a word  of appendix, and who can blame them after so many tedious examples of ones, post-Tolkien?

If you want to be a successful fantasy writer, you certainly do need a good premise. But beyond that, elaborate setting history is dangerous. A the very least, it is a distraction, keeping you from spending your precious time on writing your fiction. More insidiously, if you do create all that wonderful history, you might find it sneaking into your book as unnecessary backstory, sapping the very life from your novel.

So, enjoy Tolkien’s world for the wonder it is but have a care before making one yourself.

7 thoughts on “Tolkien didn’t do Fantasy Writers any Favors

    1. Thanks for the comment and I can sympathize since backstory is my particular bane.

      I always think I have it manageable with each draft but so far, it still gets called out by my critiquers. My initial reaction is usually, “but what remains is essential” but after letting it set for a while, I’ve always found more that can be omitted, delayed to later or delivered in a less expository manner.

  1. Good point. I once read Ursula LeGuin saying that when she was writing Earthsea, she didn’t know what some of the lands she’d named were like until she went there with her characters. I also dislike it when writers seem to want to “show their homework” on the setting. That said, what Tolkien and LeGuin and others did well was know the parts of the world they did go to: the traditions behind their way of life, and how the setting fits with the culture (like the Rohan horse-riders, or the traditions around Gondor). The setting is vivid because it connects nature and culture in a compelling way, that is also relevant to the story.

    1. It’s a tough call because there is certainly such as thing as too little setting depth. Myself, I’ve been creating worlds (for D&D) for decades and I have a good sense for what matters and what doesn’t. But I’m also relatively recent to the “deep settings are not necessary camp”. It was D&D and not writing that made me realize there was such as thing as too much- if the players didn’t really care, why spend the effort on it? Put another way, in gaming and writing, one needs the illusion of depth, not the reality of depth.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I agree. There’s an art to having a good setting and using it to tell your story but not having the setting BE your story. It’s all too easy to use something just because you’ve got it. Lately I’ve found myself saying very little despite reams of info lying around and I think the approach has served my stories very well. I’m writing short stories, so that’s part of it, but I hope to continue the practice with novels, where you can sometimes get away with some exposition, but I generally find that lame to be writing. And reading, too, sometimes.

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