I love reading fantasy stories, but I frequently find that most fantasy seems to directly emulate the world built by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I want to build a fantasy world, what can I do to make this world my own? I want it to fit into the fantasy genre, but to still be unique, without confusing the reader. How can I do that?
It's important to understand that Tolkien did not invent elves and dwarves and a fantasy land called Middle Earth. He was strongly influenced by the myths and religion of the ancient Norse people (Vikings, Kelts, whatever you call them). Elves, dwarves, giants, trolls, gods (called Aesir), Asgard and Midgard (= Middle Garden, see a pattern here?) are all part of this ancient lore.
The reason why many authors fall back onto the Middle Earth pattern is that readers can connect more easily with a world that seems familiar and is known to some extend. They want to read about great adventures and interesting people, but most don't want to learn a completely unknown world with completely unknown species to understand the actions and reasoning of the protagonists.
That's why most of the fantasy books I've ever read incorporate creatures and aspects of ancients myths into their worlds:
- Elves and dwarves of the Norse mythology
- Pans, fauns, centaurs or minotaurs of the Greek and Roman mythology
- Dragons, angels, vampires and unicorns of European or Asian mythology
- Golems from Jewish mythology
- Some more exotic creatures of ancient Incan or Mayan origin
- Anthropomorphic variants of well-known animals like cat-people or lizard-people
In fact, I know of only a handfull of popular fantasy species that are not based on some very old mythology.
Of cause you can create a completely different world with completely different species, but you have a lot of explaining to do and either the reader associates an unknown creature to any of the traditional fantasy species or they might not build much rapport with any character of the unknown species at all.
If you want your world to differ from from Tolkiens, don't add typically Tolkien species. But I suggest keeping the well-tried concept of borrowing creatures from older myths.
You see a pattern because Tolkien is very popular. Movies, games, memes, and oh, the books. It has established its presence around you. More popular than, for example, Lighting Thief books based on Greek mythology.
And for a long time Tolkien was more popular than sources he draw from (like YElm mentioned). In Poland for example Hobbit was book that kids should read in school. While the Norse mythology was just barely mentioned.
In Academia it's called "Wrongly attributed intertextuality". When people don't know about the source so every work based on it is assumed to be based on first known work.
What creators can do is switch roles. So the Orcs are the hard working ones, the elves are the egoistic assholes and pesky Halflings is locust.
They change social constructs. So use XIX century one. A working class, middle-class and nobility. Gods can be made into "deus ex machina".
You can research and reach into not so used tropes. Like Umberto Eco in Baudolino.
Or try to came up with different explanations for well known ones. Like Templars and Assassins in Assassin Creed.
Witcher games that are based on Sapkowski books draw far more (in world settings) from Slavic folklore, characters than the source material did. It also incorporates different myths (like Lovercraft one in Witcher 1).
So the bottom line is that I would urge you to research the sources and then create from that. You can change the apple tree from its roots but from its fruit you will only receive one type of apples.
Elves and Hobbits and Orcs
The reason everyone seems to look like Tolkien is that they use his creatures.
There's also the D&D effect. Dungeons and Dragons has a vast world and rule set to work with, but it's significantly based on Tolkien, this means that major series like Dragonlance are effectively the written up notes from a role playing game, based on a form of D&D, and hence in turn on Tolkien.
All you have to do is create your own world with your own creatures and keep well away from his legacy in that regard. Even to the point of keeping everyone human. You could also look back further into the folklore that Tolkien himself based many of his creatures on.
- There were elves in folklore, but they were not like Tolkien's elves, in fact they were really not very nice, Pratchett's elves are far more true to the originals.
- Orcs and Hobbits are entirely his own invention.
- Trolls exist but again they're different.
- Dragons you're fairly safe with.
- Dwarves come out of German folklore, they're also relatively safe but it may be better to avoid them.
Be especially wary of creating creatures just like Tolkien's but giving them another name.
That question is super broad, I'm not sure it's a good fit. But for a quick answer regardless : just ignore all of the classic Tolkien codes. Remove the Orcs, Elves (or elfs) and dwarves, remove The True Fight Against The Darkness, the old mages, the Ancient Evil. Remove dragons, if you have to. As long as you have a medieval-looking world, heroes, and a tiny hint of magic, I'd say it counts as fantasy.