Tag Archives: Lord of the Rings

Authors Lie to Tell the Big Truths

When we pick up a work of fiction, we are seeking to lose ourselves in a beautiful lie. While some readers are driven by the need to escape their reality, most use fiction as an emotional exercise, a way to live vicariously through the adventures of another and stretch the limits of what is possible in our own lives. This latter sort of reader won’t be satisfied by fantastic worlds and flashy plots. While they may be entertained by these elements, they want to sink their teeth into some deeper meaning, a truth that resonates not only with the story, but with their own experiences.

The first step in delivering this deeper human truth is establishing a sense of empathy between the readers and the characters. No matter the culture, or even the species, of the protagonists and points of view, their motivations and choices must ring true. Would we be willing to accept a teratogenic dwarf that cons his way into the admiralcy of a space mercenary fleet? Sure, no problem. However, if Miles VorKosigan were to suddenly give up his military dreams and decide to become a farmer? We’d call shenanigans. Readers invest in characters, not stories. We must see them struggle against impossible odds and make choices that lead them to victory. No matter how fantastic the persona, it is only when our characters are true to their natures and goals that we as readers can invest in their struggles.
Once our readers invest in character, they will begin to look for a link between the protagonists’ fictional journey and the questions and struggles they face in their own lives. Sometimes these truths are topical and current. As an example, I can write countless blog posts about racism, discrimination, prejudice, and fear, but for the most part will have a hard time convincing those who disagree with me. Rather than arguing with my audience, I could make my characters argue for us. Furthermore, by couching my argument in the terms of a fantastic lie, I remove ego and defensiveness from the equation. After all, I am talking about my characters, not about them, right? I could make my protagonist an anthropomorphic bunny who is trying to break a species barrier and fulfill her childhood dream of being a police officer. I pair her with a fox conman and force her to question her own views of predators and foxes in particular, with whom she has had bad experiences in the past. As she questions her prejudice and preconceptions, so will the audience. In so doing, I use my fantastic lie to proxy larger, current social struggles and make an argument for diversity and inclusiveness that is more likely to achieve meaningful success than a thousand angry blog posts.

However, as writers we aren’t limited to current social questions. There are some truths so profound to the human experience that variations on their stories are repeated across generations and cultural barriers. We want to believe in a world where a hobbit from the Shire can face and destroy the greatest evil of his world because sometimes we feel small and powerless. We want to see Aragon and Arwen marry because if they can find a way for their love to survive war, distance, and hardship, then our own romantic futures aren’t hopeless. We want to return to the Shire with Sam because we need to believe that all the chaos and pain of living is for a greater purpose – home and family. Though we might not have the perspective to see the arc of our own lives, we can spend hours, days, or weeks with a story to gain the catharsis we need to push through our own struggles.

As writers, we rely on our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to work our storytelling magic. However, no matter how fantastic and entertaining we may be, our stories must ring true on a deeper level for our readers to commit to the tale. It is only when our characters are believable, empathetic, and when their decisions and struggles resonate with our own experiences that we can truly connect with a story. Readers want to believe the lie, not only because they seek to escape reality for a time, but also because in so doing we seek to understand the truth of our own world.

A Preciously Complex Character

A guest blog by David Heyman.

 

GollumGollum. It had to be him.

When I learned that this month’s theme was memorable characters, Gollum from The Lord of the Rings grabbed my imagination just as surely as if it was the One Ring itself. His was the first name in my head, arriving independent of any thought process or reasoning.

But why Gollum? Initially, even I wasn’t sure.

Sure – he’s a great character, as I’ll discuss below. He’s hardly my Favorite Character from Literature of All Time though. Heck, he’s not even my favorite character from The Lord of the Rings! (That would be Sam, and I have a soft spot for Gimli as well.) To discover why Gollum was my first choice, I ended up on a journey of my own- -and I learned quite a bit.

At the age of 8 or so I was first handed a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring by my grandfather. I was probably too young for the story at that point, but I dove in anyway. I’m pretty confidant I glossed over a lot of the songs and longer meetings, but I was still sufficiently enthralled to check out The Two Towers from the library and continue the story. Along the way, I had been assigning ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ tags to the various characters, taking a particularly strong liking to Frodo, Sam and Strider. There were hints of Gollum in that first book- -whispered mentions of a threat, enough so that I knew he would be a problem for our heroes when he arrived. I was prepared to hate him, the way I hated Sauron and Saruman and all the bad guys.

By the end of The Two Towers though, I found that not only did not hate Gollum, I kind of liked him. I felt sorry for him, I found myself hoping Frodo would find a solution to his problem that didn’t force Gollum (and Smeagol) to lose. This gave me my first real clue as to why Gollum was my go-to character choice. He was my first complex character as well as my first likable villain.

For my pre-adolescent brain, this was a game changer. Gollum was a bridge to more adult stories and motivations. He was the first step on a path that led me out of children’s books and into increasingly complex fantasy stories.

(As an aside, the timing for this could not have been better. I first read Lord of the Rings after I had seen Star Wars, but before Empire Strikes Back came out in theatres. Gollum sufficiently prepared me to accept and relish the more complex character Darth Vader becomes in the second movie.)

Gollum is an antagonist for Frodo, but he cares not a whit for the machinations of the main villains like Sauron and Saruman. In one sense, his motivation is much simpler and easier to understand: he simply wants has precious. Gollum’s love of the Ring to me is heartbreakingly pure: even as it destroys and corrupts him, he wants nothing from life other than to possess it, to look at it and appreciate it. To everyone else in the story the Ring is either a burden or a Tool. It may be part of his essence, but even Saruon needs the Ring in order to accomplish larger goals. Gollum alone seems to value to Ring for itself.

This made him fascinating to me as a new reader encountering this type of character for the first time. Because his motivation was both simple but also independent from the main story, he felt like a much more direct threat to Frodo and Sam. He was unpredictable, murderous and chaotic, not to mention clearly quite mad. Yet he was also sad, pathetic and at times even capable of kindness. Was it all a ruse? Was he really just a slave to the Ring, or was Gollum truly capable of redemption, of becoming Smeagol again? As a reader, Gollum kept me on edge because he was impossible to predict. He served his own agenda, his own master and whenever he was on the page, anything might happen.

In preparing for this blog post, I realized that Gollum has greatly influenced me as both a reader and a writer. I have a strong preference for ‘grey’ characters with complex motivations. I like my villains to be a bit tragic, to have some kernel of good inside them as well as having their actions come from a place of pain rather than greed or lust for power. I adore antagonists who operate outside the main plot, who serve no master other than their own needs. Even on the hero side I like a little dark edge there, some place deep inside where they resemble the villain more than they care to admit.

All of this creates more tension through unpredictability, which leads to experiences I like to read about as well as write.

I realize now all of that started for me with Gollum, once a simpler creature who found a most extraordinary present on his birthday- -a present that would transform him into a character for the ages, and my personal guide into more complex characters.


Dave writes both novels and short stories in the various genres of speculative fiction. His other passions include his family, gaming and reading about mountaineering. Sleep is added to the mix when needed. You can visit him at daveheyman.com

Taking Strides in Character Development

A guest post by by Sean Golden.

I was probably twelve or thirteen years old when I met him. So many years ago. Yet I remember the moment vividly. Harsh laughter rang through smoke-filled gloom, in a room packed with intimidating strangers. Mugs of beer and tankards of ale banged on the tavern’s rough-hewn tables.

He leaned back into shadow, travel-stained boots crossed at the ankles in the flickering firelight, his head shrouded by a weathered hood. A sudden glimmer of burning tobacco reflected from dark, brooding eyes as he drew on a humble pipe. A palpable aura of danger and strength surrounded him. Even in the crowded, noisy tavern, his mere presence quieted those near him. At that moment I knew I had encountered someone special, someone I would never forget.

And I never have. Strider rapidly became my favorite character in Lord of the Rings. In a book filled with memorable characters, Strider was the one that resonated with me, and still does to this day, over forty years later.

When I first heard that Lord of the Rings was going to be made into a major motion picture, my biggest concern was how any actor would be able to bring the Strider in my head to life. I had low expectations, especially when I saw who was cast. The Strider in my mind was going to be a difficult thing to capture on film. That Strider was no Hollywood hunk. Far from it, his visage was rough and intimidating. He was dangerous, mercurial, and tortured by an ancient legacy of unbearable shame.

In the end I thought Viggo Mortensen did a fine job in the role, and I enjoyed the movies greatly, but the movie Strider was a pale shadow of the Strider in my head. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to come up with an actor today who could remotely portray the man I met that memorable day so long ago. Perhaps the closest would have been Clint Eastwood, at the height of his Spaghetti Western fame.

There are many reasons Strider struck such a chord with me. His ambiguous introduction, his raw, animal presence, his mysterious past, his wit and wisdom, all of that factors in. He is heroic, but in a reluctant, almost surly way. He struggles with self-doubt, a mere mortal man in a world filled with demigods and monsters.

In short, he is a complex and multi-faceted character who is on a personal journey of self-discovery in a dangerous and confusing world. His plans are frequently thwarted by powerful enemies, and even by betrayal. He falters. He worries. He doubts. He takes chances. And in the end, he finds himself.

Having said all of that, what did I learn from Strider that I’ve applied to my own writing? Have I been able to create any character as compelling? Probably not, after all, Lord of the Rings is rarely missed in any list of the greatest stories ever told. But I did learn a few things that I hope have informed my own creation of characters. Here are some of them:

  • Conflicted characters are interesting. Self-doubt is something we can all relate to, and we tend to like characters with whom we can relate.
  • Actions speak louder than words. Strider may be conflicted, but he never wavers in the face of danger. When he does make a decision, he is fully committed to it.
  • Compassion and empathy can be as compelling as combat. In fact, as shown when Strider, Legalos and Gimli relentlessly pursue the orcs who captured Merry and Pippen, compassion and empathy can be downright epic.
  • It can help your story if the most interesting character isn’t the protagonist.
  • Every character deserves a story arc of their own.

There are other memorable characters I could have chosen as the subject of this article. Some of them aren’t heroic. In fact some are the opposite of heroic. Holden Caulfield, for example. Others I could have chosen include: Elizabeth Bennett. Fivver. Katniss. Peter Parker. Ahab. Meg Murry. Atticus Finch. Scarlett O’Hara. Tyrel Sackett.

But I chose Strider for many reasons. One reason is because most people I know, when asked who they thought was the most memorable character in Lord of the Rings, would choose Gandalf. A few might pick Frodo. And both of those are definitely memorable characters. Tolkien had a gift for creating memorable characters.

I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to why Strider stuck with me in such vivid ways. I’m not sure I can identify why even today, forty-plus years later. Since it is my goal to create similar characters, it’s a consequential question. The best I can come up with is that something in my image of Strider resonates with me. I like him. Every time he came on the stage, I was thrilled to see him. And he never let me down.

So that’s what I want to do in my own writing. I want to create characters who evoke such strong emotional responses from my readers that their eyes light up whenever that character is on the page. Maybe they love the character, maybe they love to hate the character. But either way, they love to read about the character. And reading is what it’s all about in the end.

 

SeanGolden-pub-shot-2Sean Golden is many different things. Father, husband, writer, programmer, project manager, gamer, crafter, fisherman, amateur astronomer and too many other things to bore you with. He took a year off from the grind of corporate cubicle farms to write “Warrior” and “Warlock,” both available on Amazon.com. The third book in the series, “Warlord” is in the final stages of writing now. Sean has a BS in physics from Louisiana State University and had the second highest rated rogue on his World of Warcraft server after taking down the Lich King, and then retiring from raiding.

Get out of the Way

turtlesRather than discuss what I would tell my earlier self, I decided to write about what I tell my children.

From age six to about nine or ten, I spent my days with two turtles, Sammy and Willy. They travelled the ocean stirring up trouble, then mystically transformed into astronaut bears who made it an effort to visit all the forests of the universe and then somehow mutated into aliens that went to scout camp. My friends grew as I grew and helped me experience fantastical adventures.

When I wasn’t with my turtle-bear-alien friends, I explored the realms of Narnia and Middle Earth. I lived on a boxcar and ate fried worms. I travelled to Oz over and over again and eventually sailed with Captain Ahab.

I remember when I announced to my dad that I had discovered what I wanted to be when I grew up. I made my case:

– I was good at writing
– I loved it
– Other people liked reading my stuff
– And I was guaranteed to be successful because every book I had ever read was written by someone famous.

“Tell me one author that isn’t famous?” I demanded. He didn’t refute my claim, but persuaded me to go into the computer industry (we didn’t call it IT back then). I didn’t discuss my writer dream with others after that; I kept it tucked away in the back of my mind.

When I was a junior in high school, my papers were decorated in red with nice big Cs and Ds on top, quite the change from my sophomore year of A+s. From the encouragement of my tenth grade English teacher, I wrote more and took greater risks with my craft. My eleventh grade teacher didn’t like my exploring beyond the lines. I know I deserved the negative marks; I misused semicolons and my vocabulary wasn’t very strong, but the red ink didn’t teach me why my sentence structure suffered or how to fix it, just that it wasn’t good. During that year I slowly became disenfranchised with writing.

More than a decade passed. I didn’t go into IT, but business. Occasionally I’d hear my turtle friends calling from the recesses of my mind, begging me to let them out to play. I’d entertain them every now and then, but mostly I told them that I was too busy.

Another decade passed. A friend of mine from high school (quite possibly in that same English class) had a book published. My turtle friends woke up. Then I heard that my neighbor had written a short story for an anthology. I asked her about it.

“Do you write?” she asked.

“I used to.” Sort of. I want to. I really want to.

“If you’re serious about it, you should come to Superstars.”

My turtle friends begged to go and that was it. I was hooked, living my boyhood dream.

Since attending SWS, I’ve written a dozen short stories and one novel. I write everyday. I write a lot. I write to escape; I write to understand. I write for fun and for serious. But mostly I write to inspire.

A tribe helped free my turtles. I believe that It Takes a Tribe, to become a successful writer, as Nancy discussed earlier this month.

My son just turned nine. He’s been writing since the age of six. He’s fought dragons and explored alien worlds. He hangs out with friends known as the Knights of the Shadow Kingdom.

To him, I say, cheers. Write on my friend, write on.

Another son just started Junior High. He told me yesterday that he knows what he wants to be when he grows up—a photographer.

To him, I say, cheers. Let me know what I can do to help you. I believe in you.

Another son just started high school. Some of his teachers are “tough”. He tells me that their teaching is “all wrong”. We’ve explored his perception and identified that their teaching is—different.

To him, I say, cheers. Don’t get discouraged because you don’t understand. Fight to learn, fight to understand, and fight to be understood. And most of all, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do or be what you want. I’m here for you and support you. I know you can do it.

I think that the greatest thing we can do for young people is to get out of their way.

Unfortunately I can only go back in time in my stories. I would love to have not waited twenty years to do what I always wanted to do, but as the saying goes, it’s better late than never. Cheers. Write on my friend.