Shadow and Character, part II: even The Lord of the Rings

DownloadedFileTo sum up from 9.16 post: As a writer it is hard to figure out how the story works and where it goes when characters are too good. This is because the story happens in the places where the characters have to deal with something – their own issues, what they’ve made of their life, or what they’re going to do about a situation or another person — and if characters have everything all worked out, they have nothing to deal with.

Of course their difficulties could come from outside themselves –  from an evil sorcerer, or a corrupt society’s injustice and cruelty, or bad luck, or illness, or war, or a natural disaster. Then the character’s interaction with that shadow, that darkness, would give the narrative a direction. But even in the Lord of the Rings, where Sauron and his orcs and trolls and Black Riders are totally evil, and could supply all the narrative movement – since they are so obviously worth fighting against – what makes the story move in such a way that you must keep reading is that the good guys are not perfect, but flawed. Frodo starts out by dithering around the Shire, saying goodbye to his favorite places and waxing nostalgic instead of hitting the road and getting on with his quest, while Gandalf gets the wool pulled over his eyes by a fellow wizard who has gone to the bad but is Gandalf’s superior, and puts his faith “in a fat man who only remembers his name because people shout it at him all day” to send the crucial message that would get Frodo on the road. Too impatient to find a better messenger, Gandalf drops the ball, very nearly catastrophically. He gets taken prisoner and gives their enemies from Mordor a head start. When Aragorn shows up alone to help the hobbits at the Prancing Pony, he appears scruffy, secretive, and threatening – he is not a pretty face, and has so little charm and plausibility that the hobbits initially mistake him for one of the bad guys (although Tolkien gives the reader enough clues to suspect otherwise). And the hobbits themselves are so reliant on bourgeois conventions of appearance that they nearly send away their last hope of help. In the midst of this mess created by less-than-perfect protagonists, the trilogy takes off.

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