A fine line separates inspiration and imitation, or so the saying goes. Writers struggle to define this boundary more than most artists—they are, after all, rearranging the same twenty-six letters in various patterns judged to be the most pleasing to the mind and ear. The number of plots guaranteed to captivate readers is also limited (falling in love, freeing the kingdom, solving the mystery). Since fantasy writers have immersed themselves in the worlds of their literary heroes from childhood, they cannot help subconsciously modeling their own stories off them.
Thus, it is unsurprising that many books seem to be penned by copycats, or just another Lord of the Rings rip-off. Nevertheless, original fantasy works with fascinating new species are still being written and enthralling audiences. What are these authors doing differently?
To answer this question, let’s examine the staple of high fantasy: the common elf.
How Tolkien Reinvented the Elf
These mythical beings predate recorded history and intersperse Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, Germanic, and Scandinavian tradition. It is therefore impossible to substantiate their general appearance and character. Some examples include Shakespeare’s tiny and mischievous variety; the huge, “elven” Green Knight of the Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain; and the fair light elves and black-as-pitch dark elves of the ancient Norse tribe. To further complicate matters, the term was often used unchangeably for “fairy.”
Professor Tolkien, a gifted linguist and historian (as if being a revered author wasn’t enough), took this miscellaneous collection of myths and epic ballads and contrived his own strain: the Middle-Earth Elf. These beings were tall, angelically beautiful immortals with an unfortunate habit of killing each other over shiny jewelry. They were iconic enough to re-conceptualize our culture’s perception of the species. Whenever you mention an elf nowadays, people automatically picture either Tolkien’s version or the horrid, red-and-green Christmas breed.
The Professor did not create elves. He instead made a legend his own. He developed elven languages, histories, and culture to the degree that one could easily mistake The Silmarillion as an account of a historical people group. His elves have since been replicated by authors such as Christopher Paolini and Markus Heitz, and though their works are engrossing, they lack the novelty of Tolkien’s world.
Avoid this blunder by reinventing the source material instead of simply cloning it. Ways to accomplish this include forming your world’s own religion(s), defining the magic system in place, and expanding your cultures and subcultures.
Introduce Diversity into Your Fantasy Race
Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series also amply demonstrates the principle of making legend your own. Because dragons have existed in mythology since at least biblical times (see Revelation 12), representing them uniquely seems an even greater challenge than reclaiming elves.
Yet, Cowell’s books brim with a myriad of fantastic beasts: colossal sea dragons, lazy little hunting beasts, and pompous macrodragons that feed on honey nectar and the blood of their enemies. Her creativity is only surpassed by our own Intelligent Designer, who didn’t give us just one monkey species, but blessed us with over 260 types.
If you’re struggling to imagine more than one variant of kelpie, searching Google Images for monkeys, cacti, or beetles can offer inspiration. You’ll quickly be reminded of the incredible genetic variety on our planet, while also realizing you’re restricting yourself by featuring only one kind of gnome in your story world. Another option is to research obscure fantasy creatures with the aim of adding diversity to your world’s zoological population. I have, for example, always thought that gremlins (small, mischievous creatures blamed for aircraft engine failure by early British mechanics) would be a promising story inclusion.
Beyond biological variety, enormous potential for cultural variety lies within a species. Look at humans. Our world contains 196 independent countries, 6,500 spoken languages, and approximately 4,000 religions. No author could hope to match that level of world building, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Also consider the difference in appearance and language between the aboriginals and the first European settlers on various continents. First-hand accounts reveal that both sides found each other so strange that they doubted the other was truly human. This could be depicted in a fantasy setting by showing extreme distrust between two kingdoms of minotaurs, or a more advanced species of dragon mistaking another for a flightless lizard.
Create Your Own Races
You could always opt to populate your story world with creatures you fabricate and abandon the traditional—and possibly tiresome—giants and trolls. Andrew Peterson pulls this off remarkably well in his Wingfeather Saga, delighting readers with memorable creatures such as flabbits and thwaps and toothy cows. However, this isn’t entirely different from what Tolkien and Cowell did—Peterson merely equipped cows with large teeth and carnivorous appetites.
The downside to this route is that readers can be overwhelmed by long descriptions of new characters, places, and species popping up on every page. Since 99.9 percent of all fiction revolves around humans (and we still haven’t tired of reading about them), the risk of boring readers with more dragons and elves should be minimal.
But the threat of getting lost in the crowd of competing fantasy worlds is real indeed. If you’re writing about dwarves, prove to readers that you’ve done more than watch The Hobbit. Your dwarves must be authentic, living beings. The result doesn’t necessarily have to be new, but it must be yours.