This is an article about a very famous book. See if you can identify it.
It’s a complex story of politics and war, but although there are several factions, most of them align pretty clearly on the side of Good or the side of Evil.
Since the story is complex, there are several main characters, of whom the most important is a King without a kingdom, waiting for the right moment to reveal himself and reclaim his title.
The secondary heroes include a pair of brothers, both of whom try, but only one of whom has the strength of character to resist evil and be a powerful force for good. There is a kindly old King whose daughter is another hero, and who rides to war against his wishes.
Other major characters include great wizards who battle in dark towers, antidiluvian horrors in deep chasms, and the Kings, Queens and Princelings of Godlike Elder Races, whose time has passed and who cling to their old ways.
It is, in fact, a very traditional story, inspired by the Norse, English and Welsh sagas, but there are odd flashes of Christian symbolism, and many people see in it parallels with several of the major events of the first half of the twentieth century.
In fact, this story reveals and exposes the profound truth about how characters function in the process of both telling and reading a story – the way in which the story is mediated through the characters.
If you haven’t identified the story, its because I have described it through its heroes, rather than through its central characters. Through its main characters, rather than the characters that the reader follows through the events of the story.
In many ways, this classic fantasy epic is about what most heroic fantasy is about: discovering that the adult world is not what we thought it was as children.
As children, we thought that the adult world was peopled by tall, high, elegant and all knowing near-gods. We thought that they were commanding and powerful. We thought ourselves small in stature and they tall.
Growing up, those of us who achieve maturity realize that these all-knowing all powerful Gods do not, and never did, exist. Our parents are only a little less clueless than we are, and most of us catch them up – some of us become wiser or more knowledgeable than our parents. Some of us become richer, some of us become more powerful.
But many can’t quite shake the impression that once upon a time there was a world where the grownups really did know everything. Where the ancients know more than we ever could. Where the Aztecs built spaceships and the Egyptians conquered death.
In the book in question, the central characters, around whom all these momentous events take place, literally look up at everyone around them, because they are Hobbits.
It’s actually remarkably common, especially in great books, that the character that the author thinks is going to be the main character is, through the drafting process, gradually pushed into the periphery, as the author discovers that there is another character who better represents what the author wants the story to show.
Tolkien’s education, however, gives him another option. Knowing so much about the ancient sagas, he uses them as a landscape – recognizing rightly that people love hearing about fragments and elements of the ancient sagas, but that the kind of heroes they describe are not the kind of heroes he needs to tell the story he wants to tell.
He wants a story about ordinary young people discovering the vastness of the world beyond their doorstep. And the best way to do this is to paint an enormous cyclorama, where there is so much detail that you could never communicate all of it to the reader, but in any case don’t want to. Because this is not a story about what heroes do, but about what they are.
By making his main characters Hobbits – who in accordance with the central motif of Bilbo’s story, don’t know what they are themselves capable of – he makes the likes of Aragorn, Faramir and Eowyn into secondary and largely symbolic characters.
Bilbo’s poem about Aragorn can famously be read two ways – obviously it’s about Aragorn hiding his true nature, but it’s also about the way that as children we take the adult world at completely false face value.
Ultimately, LOTR shows the Hobbits discovering themselves, and growing (in the case of Merry and Pippin literally) as a result of their experiences. Do the heroes grow? Eowyn… maybe. Aragorn? Nope. Faramir? Nope. Boromir… ha! Gandalf – pull the other one! Gandalf and Saruman are your two Grandfathers. The one you think you know and the one you know you don’t. The friendly one and the stern one.
I’ve already written about how Robert Louis Stevenson uses vanilla central characters as a means of connecting with bigger, more dramatic secondary characters.
Tolkien’s technique is similar, but more complex in both aim and execution. Recognizing that the true purpose of storytelling is to educate while entertaining, he’s also well aware of a generation of literature for young boys dominated by the work of G A Henty and his ilk, which taught the boys that they should wish to emulate and become heroes in the classical sense – and fight and die for dominance and acquisition.
This might seem like a very cynical recasting on my part of the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, but I’m well aware that I’m looking at it through 21st century eyes. And today’s writers could still learn plenty from Henty, even if they perhaps ought not give it to their sons to read!
Tolkien’s work – much of which, remember, was written while his son was at war (in North Africa?) – is a definite and conscious move away from this, presenting the young men going to war as naïve and immature, through the Hobbits.
But most importantly, the fact that the Hobbits will never grow tall means that they literally can’t become like the heroes of the story – Aragorn and Faramir are men, Gandalf is Maia, Legolas is an Elf; this separation by race is a clear message to the reader: the grand, dramatic, tragic heroes are in the past.
Hobbits are allowed, encouraged even, to remain ordinary. And those that are touched by that world of classical heroes, the Bilbos and the Frodos, eventually have to pass into the West.
The lessons for those who are learning to become writers is that in the greatest books, characters are serving a purpose beyond entertaining or inspiring the reader – in fact, the reader’s experience of the characters is often profoundly different from the purpose that they ultimately serve.
I think this is revealed by the recent movies of Tolkien’s work. The adaptations were made for an audience for whom war, although it dominates the TV and online news; although it features in the movies and TV dramas, is no longer a central aspect of the lives of the majority.
Very few “developed” countries have conscription, and war as a profession is a minority profession. This has made it possible to see LOTR as an adventure, and has also driven the near necessity of moving Tolkien’s shadowpuppet heroes in front of the semitransparent cyclorama that shrouds them in the books, and thrusting them into the center of the action.
Today, people want to see those sexy heroes close up. And modern audiences want the Arwens and Tauriels too – understandably.
Indeed you could argue that the war in Jackson’s LOTR films is deliberately overshadowed by individual heroics.
What I’m hoping to show here, as in the previous article about characters, is that the best stories are not built around characters that have been carefully preconcieved for their appeal. Tolkien constructed his characters to fulfill specific roles in a story structured around his central intent.
Nor, indeed, are the best stories conceived as a thrill ride for some compelling or attractive characters. Tolkien constructed his story to fulfill the purpose of his central intent.
The absense of female heroes in Tolkien’s stories – just like the need to invent them in the movies, is understandable because Tolkien’s intent is to “retire” the boy’s adventure heroes and classical heroes who had been used to inspire earlier generations to go to war.
He wants to show that not only can ordinary people (*cough* the smallest people) be courageous and heroic, but that they are often called upon to be so; and that they should be able, enabled, helped, to remain ordinary.
Nicholas Kahler, author and the business brain of Narrative Path, will always ask at this point: how can an author use this insight to improve his writing?
Writers often tell me that it is in talking to me, or other editors, or other writers, about their work, that they discover how their characters are playing this high level role, of representing a key component of their message. Often, when thinking this way about characters, we can give them labels that indicate their archetypes – hero, mother, everyman, warrior, activist, student, philosopher, poet – and on recognizing the archetype, see how the character fits into the structure of the book.
In practical terms, this often results in some winnowing. The number of characters can be reduced, because we realize that there is more than one mother; more than one dutiful son, more than one witch… obviously, sometimes this is exactly what you want. But it helps to be aware at a level above the story, where characters are symbols, where they represent some aspect of being human, some facet of many people’s behavior or personality.
For me, what arises from this is the “Archetype and Saga” analysis – a means of viewing your story from very high altitude, that will enable you to see it as a whole. Writers are generally down among the vines. It isn’t hard to lift your head high enough to see the whole vinyard, but this will really give you a bird’s eye view; you’ll see the rows of grapevines, and the gentle curve of the hill.
First of all, take your 6 most important characters (don’t do this for more than 10; 3 is probably best). Give each of them a one-word descriptive name, that corresponds to an archetype:
Remember these are not words that describe the character’s job or main activity, but their role in the story. There are a number of ways to find it. Any of the following work well:
Imagine the character was in a fairytale. Would they be the fairy? The frog? The annoying booted cat?
Imagine the character was in a Western. Would they be the sherrif? A bounty hunter? A “saloon girl” ? A gold digger? A snake oil salesman? A frontiersman?
Imagine the character was in Star Wars. Which character would they be?
None of this means you’re being unoriginal. Your originality is at lower levels, among the leaves and stems.
Your originality is in how these characters interract to teach a lesson (that passes, if you do it right, without the reader noticing) and to tell a story.
Professional Literary Editor and Creative Writing Teacher. If you want help of any kind with your book, you may contact me here. I recently launched a course to teach you everything I've learned about writing novels in the last 8 years. It's called Read Worthy Fiction, and you can find it on Udemy.