Tolkien’s 5 Tips for Creating Complex Heroes


Image courtesy New Line Cinema

Tolkien’s letters are rich with information about J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing process.  I wrote a post last week about Aragorn being Tolkien’s example of an epic hero, and someone posted: “But Frodo Baggins is the hero of the LOTR trilogy, right?”  I would argue that he is not, but only one of three or four characters who together make a great hero for the epic story.  Today I will focus on Frodo.

To begin this post, I thought I would pull a quote from a letter Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher on January 30th, 1945.  In it, he discusses something quite interesting: “There are two quite different emotions: one that moves me supremely and I find small difficulty evoking: the heart-racking sense of the vanished past (best expressed by Gandalf’s words about the Palantir); and the other a more ‘ordinary’ emotion, triumph, pathos, tragedy of the characters.  That I am learning to do, as I get to know my people, but it is not really so near my heart, and is forced on me by the fundamental literary dilemma.  A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving” (p. 110).  Throughout the epic, Tolkien is expressing this “literary dilemma” which is the idea that many of the motivations for characters are hidden in stories that will never be told.  Tolkien’s characters, particularly Frodo, have hidden purposes that do not reveal themselves right away.  The character of Frodo is indeed a mystery in that he is motivated by the smallest things, and in the end is a failure, according to Tolkien’s own words.  The following are some truths about Frodo, tips from Tolkien about creating complex heroes from the master’s own pen:

1.  Complex Heroes Must Suffer - Tolkien writes in a letter to Peter Hastings, September 1954: “Suffering and experience (and possibly the Ring itself) gave Frodo more insight; and you will read in Chapter 1 of Book VI the words to Sam. ‘The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make real new things of its own.  I don’t think it gave life to the Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.'”(p. 191).  Great characters need to suffer.  If the character is suffering, they are learning how to cope, and if there is one thing readers can connect with it is going through difficult things.  As Frodo suffers we all feel sympathy for him.  We watch as he is twisted by his suffering and bears up well for a great while until finally succumbing to it at the precipice of Mount Doom.  If the Hobbits are the everyman characters, then Frodo is an example of what an everyman would experience if placed in such a difficult strait.

2.  Complex Heroes are Rewarded for Suffering - Tolkien writes in a letter to Naomi Mitchison on September 25th, 1954: “…in this story it is supposed that there may be certain rare exceptions or accommodations (legitimately supposed? there always seem to be exceptions); and so certain ‘mortals’, who have played some great part in Elvish affairs, may pass with the Elves to Elvenhome.  Thus Frodo (by the express gift of Arwen) and Bilbo, and eventually Sam (as adumbrated by Frodo); and as a unique exception Gimli the Dwarf, as friend of Legolas and ‘servant’ of Galadriel” (p. 198).  Frodo is rewarded for his many sacrifices.  It is important that the character who suffers find reward for all the suffering, even if that reward is brief or small.  Death can be written as a reward.  The book I am writing at the moment has a few deaths, but those deaths are usually something of a reward for the character, a rest after a long life of trouble (I also have one senseless death which later is seen as a welcome rest).  Frodo’s passing into the Grey Havens was a welcome reward for him.  Tolkien also writes in a letter to Michael Straight (Jan. or Feb. 1956) that “though every event or situation has (at least) two aspects: the history and the development of the individual (it is something out of which he can get good, ultimate good, for himself, or fail to do so), and the history of the world (which depends on his action for its own sake) – still there are abnormal situations in which one may be placed” (p. 233).  The suffering makes for a better character that is more grounded in real world emotions and issues even if the character is from a fantasy world.

3.  Complex Heroes Fail – Tolkien writes in the letter to Michael Straight quoted above: “Frodo was in…an apparently complete trap: a person of greater native power could probably never have resisted the Ring’s lure to power so long; a person of less power could not hope to resist it in the final decision.  (Already Frodo had been unwilling to harm the Ring before he set out, and was incapable of surrendering it to Sam.)  The Quest was therefore was bound to fail as a piece of world-plan, and also was bound to end in disaster as the story of humble Frodo’s development to the ‘noble’, his sanctification” (p. 233-4).  Later, in a letter to Eileen Elgar on September 1963, Tolkien wrote: “Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end, he gave in, ratted.”  Tolkien goes on to write about why he had Frodo fail: He says we must “percieve the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal is enmeshed.  [‘Simple minded’ people] tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgement (since it is present in the Divine nature).  In its highest exercise it belongs to God” (p. 326). He also writes in a letter to J. Burn on 26 July 1956: “No, Frodo ‘failed’.  It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene.  But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistable by incarnate creatures, however ‘good'; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us” (p. 252).  Frodo’s failure was necessary for his redemption.  Our heroes must have fatal flaws in order to make them real and engaging.

4.  Complex Heroes Have Fatal Flaws – It is clear from the letters that Frodo’s decision not to kill Gollum was his fatal flaw.  In the letter to Michael Straight (quoted above) Tolkien writes: “Frodo’s own ‘salvation’ is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury.  To ‘pity’ him, to forebear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.  [Gollum] did rob him and injure him in the end – but by a ‘grace’, that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing any one character could have done for Frodo!  By a situation created by his ‘forgiveness’, he was saved himself, and relieved of his burden” (p. 234).  Of course not killing Gollum was Frodo’s fatal flaw, but the flaw was used for a purpose to bring about Frodo’s redemption.  It is important when creating main characters to give them a fatal flaw that deepens their structure and motivation and gives them greater purpose.  If a hero is flawless they are weak and worthless.  Readers identify with flawed heroes because we are all flawed in some way and it encourages us to do better in our own lives.

5. Complex Heroes are Ordinary People - Tolkien writes in a letter to Eileen Elgar (quoted above): “I do not think that Frodo’s was a moral failure.  At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum – impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted.  Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had producted a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved.  His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honor; and his exercise of patience towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed” (p. 326).  Frodo is indeed an ordinary Hobbit, and in turn an ordinary everyman.  It is important that our complex heroes be characters that are everyday normal people thrust into extraordinary circumstances.  I think about the men who charged into the World Trade Center buildings after the planes crashed into them, and countless other real life heroes who have given their lives for something precious, and realize that these kinds of people (ordinary people) are the kinds of people who make great heroes for our novels as well as our world.  Instead of creating flat, lifeless characters for your novel who don’t really connect with the reader, why not create ordinary people and then throw them into extraordinary circumstances.  This will automatically develop a multi-layered reading experience for the reader and will be a life-changing experience for the writer as well.

All quotations taken from:

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 1st ed. Massachusetts: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. Print.

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20 thoughts on “Tolkien’s 5 Tips for Creating Complex Heroes

  1. Roger, loved your post and reblogged with the following comment: Whew…read these tips culled from Roger Colby’s excellent blog on writing. He gives us J.R.R. Tolkien’s 5 tips on how to create a complex character. So relieved to know that Pia, the protagonist of my work-in-progress novel KRISHNA’S COUNSEL, is one helluva complex chick…who turns simple and profound in the end, fortunately…

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  4. It is always interesting, to me, to read what Tolkien thought about his writing process. Very enlightening. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Great post! “A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving.”

    That, in a nutshell, is exactly why I’ve loved all the Tolkien stories over the years- that sense that there are an almost infinite number of other stories layered underneath the ones we’re told. Which is why parts of The History, The Silmarillion, Children of Hurin, Unfinished Tales, etc. all resonate so strongly, too. And even with those, even when the explanation and back story for each is told, there remains a sense that there are tales behind those, and behind those, ad infinitum (or “all the way down”, in the Turtle cosmography)!

  9. Great post! “A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving.”

    That, in a nutshell, is exactly why I’ve loved all of Tolkien’s stories over the years- that sense that there are an almost infinite number of other stories layered underneath the ones we’re told. Which is why parts of The History, The Silmarillion, Children of Hurin, Unfinished Tales, etc. all resonate so strongly, too. And even with those, even when the explanation and back story for each is told, there remains a sense that there are tales behind those, and behind those, ad infinitum (or “all the way down”, in the Turtle cosmography)!

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