Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Creating Epic Heroes

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One of my most popular posts is Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers, in which I glean from J.R.R. Tolkien’s letters of his wisdom about writing.  Today I will delve into his letters again, but will focus on the epic character Aragorn and ask Professor Tolkien how he created great characters.

1.  Motivational Mirrors – Tolkien writes: “I think the simple ‘rustic’ love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s [Aragorn’s]) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves’, and sheer beauty” (p. 161).  Tolkien says that the motivation of Aragorn’s character was driven by his love for Arwen just as Samwise was driven by his love for Rosie.  Rosie and Arwen were people who anchored the characters in something so that there was something at stake.  Tolkien mirrored the two sets of lovers in order to emphasize the stronger of the two, namely Aragorn.  It is important to give your hero something that motivates them, and then as an added emphasis, mirror that motivation in another character that most would consider minor.

2.  Create Opposites – Tolkien writes: “Gandalf’s opposite was, strictly, Sauron, in one part of Sauron’s operations; as Aragorn was in another” (p. 180).  Sauron is Aragorn’s opposite in that one is destined to be King of Gondor while the other is desperately trying to rule over all of Middle Earth.  Aragorn is pure, noble and brave while Sauron is evil, deceptive and has others do his dirty work for him.  In a way, Sauron’s evil shines a light on Aragorn’s goodness, even when he is known as Strider and seems like a rogue.

3.  Give the Hero a Past With Purpose – Aragorn’s love for Arwen is something only told in the appendix of Tolkien’s text, but it becomes a secret motivation in his past for his fight against the darkness.  Also, Tolkien writes that because of Aragorn’s Elven past, he has abilities that a normal Man would not: “a difference in the use of ‘magic’ in this story is that it is not to be come by by ‘lore’ or spells; but is in an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such.  Aragorn’s ‘healing’ might be regarded as ‘magical’, or at least a blend of magic with pharmacy and ‘hypnotic’ processes” (p. 200).  Aragorn’s past, only hinted at in the text, adds a richness to his character that we see come to fruition at the end of the epic.  His use of “magic” is a hint at his past and gives us a clue as to his secret regal nature.

4.  Give Your Hero Something to Restore – When writing about the White Tree of Gondor, Tolkien writes: “It later appears there had been a ‘hallow’ on Mindulluin, only approachable by the King, where he had anciently offered thanks and praise on behalf of his people; but it had been forgotten.  It was re-entered by Aragorn, and there he found a sapling of the White Tree, and replanted it in the Court of the Fountain.  It is to be presumed that with the reemergence of the lineal priest kings (of whom Luthien the Blessed Elf-maiden was a foremother) the worship of God would be renewed, and His Name (or title) be again more often heard” (p. 206-7).  This passage of the letters not only shows that Tolkien had sometimes a biblical purpose for his narrative (although he denies it elsewhere) it also shows that Aragorn was intended to restore something that was lost.  Aragorn embodies a hope that he will restore the glory of Gondor and bring about peace.  The suspense lies in his internal struggle to become king.  Will he shirk his title to run with the Elves in the forest or will he rise to the challenge?  The restoration of the White Tree is something that gives Aragorn a destiny.

5.  Give Your Hero a Mysterious Nature – Tolkien writes “Strider sitting in the corner of the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo” (p. 216).  The character of Strider/Aragorn was a character that Tolkien created as a mysterious protector.  He begins to build his story as an afterthought and then makes him a central character in the novels.  His backstory came in pieces, and when we read the text we find little bits about him as we go, unlike Frodo who is known intimately.  Little details about Aragorn’s past emerge slowly and carefully, as if Tolkien is tossing bits of bread out to the gulls.  This creates a mysterious nature for Aragorn that is effective and powerful, and when we see him at the end of the tale as king we are amazed at how Tolkien strung us along.

6.  Give Your Hero a Life Without Guarantees – Tolkien writes: “Here I am only concerned with Death as part of the nature, physical and spiritual, of Man, and with Hope without guarantees.  That is why I regard the tale of Arwen and Aragorn as the most important of the Appendices…” (p. 237).  Tolkien’s inclusion of the story of Arwen and Aragorn’s love is never guaranteed to work out.  When it does in the end, we are relieved and we can finally stop holding our breath.  If we guarantee that our hero will make it to the end of the story without any peril or any stakes, we will have a flat hero indeed.  The reader needs to fear for the hero’s life.  They need to wonder if things will ever work out with their interpersonal relationships.  There must be an overwhelming element of risk.

7.  Keep Readers In the Dark – Tolkien writes: “Obviously the chief problem of this sort, is how to bring up Aragorn unexpectedly to the raising of the Siege, and yet inform readers of what he had been up to.  Told in full in its proper place (Vol III, ch.2), though it would have been better for the episode, it would have destroyed Chapter 6.  Told in full, or indeed in part, in retrospect would be out of date and hold up to the action (as it does in Chapter 9)” (p. 258).  Tolkien did not tell us everything about what happens to his heroes, only what is necessary to move the story along.  Here he is an advocate of keeping things simple and not boring the reader with all the details of what happened to Aragorn along the way.  Cut huge unnecessary sections of your novel that give tedious explanations of what happened along the path in order to move the story along and not “destroy chapter 6.”

8.  Let the “Message” Worry About Itself – Tolkien writes: “As for ‘message’: I have none really, if by that is meant the conscious purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, of preaching, or of delivering myself of a vision of truth specially revealed to me!  I was primarily writing an exciting story in an atmosphere and background such as I find personally attractive.  But in such a process inevitably one’s own taste, ideas, and beliefs get taken up” (p. 267).  Tolkien sometimes seems contradictory, swearing that he did not mean anything by his narrative but at the same time acknowledging its allegorical nature.  He does acknowledge here that even though he was simply trying to write an “exciting story”, his own personal beliefs and ideas rose to the surface in a way that was unobtrusive or obvious.  Sometimes writers try too hard to preach to us about the way they think we should live.  Tolkien did not worry about that, but let the narrative subtly waft the message to us on a cool Rivendell breeze.

9.  Stay True to Your Characterization – When writing about the scene where Aragorn and the Hobbits flee the Prancing Pony, Tolkien writes: “Leaving the inn at night and running off into the dark is an impossible solution of the difficulties of presentation here (which I can see).  It is the last thing that Aragorn would have done” (p. 272).  Tolkien is responding in this letter to his editor who did not understand why the hero Aragorn would flee the Black Riders and not attack them.  Aragorn is not afraid of the Black Riders.  He would face them in a heartbeat.  It is the safety of the Hobbits for which he has concern.  Not once does Aragorn go outside his nature in this epic tale.  He is always stalwart, brave and wise even in the face of danger.  When we think he is doing something cowardly, he is actually doing something necessary.

10.  Your Hero Must Be Willing to Sacrifice – Tolkien writes: “It was also the Elvish (and uncorrupted Numenorean view) that a ‘good’ Man would or should die voluntarily by surrender with trust before being compelled (as did Aragorn)” (p. 286n).  Aragorn takes huge risks throughout the epic, facing off against the Black Riders on Weathertop, seeking the help of the dead warriors, charging into the depths of Moria, galloping toward the gates of Mordor, and countless other tasks.  If your hero is not willing to sacrifice their life for their goal (even if that goal is simply a life of happiness or a goal set more in the real world) then that hero is not strong enough and needs work.

All quotations taken from:

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

More “Tips from Tolkien”:

Tolkien’s 5 Tips for Writing to an Audience

Tolkien’s 5 Tips for Creating Complex Heroes

Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

17 thoughts on “Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Creating Epic Heroes

  1. Pingback: - Book Frivolity
  2. I always thought that the greatest love story was that of Frodo and Sam; a pure relationship of innocence. Sam left Rosie to follow Frodo and would have gone with him into the west; he put his love for Frodo before Rosie. Fascinating post’ thank you. Julie.

  3. Except (and this is why JRRT is often imitated and never duplicated) Aragorn isn’t the main hero. He’s the hero of the romance element, romance in its oldest, medieval sense, but that’s the *subplot*. Frodo, the *chief* protagonist, stumbles into that subplot, and the dissonance between his story and Aragorn’s–between a more modern, psychological conflict in the guise of fantasy and a traditional romance–is the central genius of The Lord of the Rings.

  4. As I read along, I tried to analyze whether these points have been applied to my hero. I found one or two are missing–that I have to work on–and others are already applied, much to my relief. Thanks for posting this. This is very helpful for an aspiring adventure/fantasy writer such as myself. 🙂

  5. This post could not have been written at a better time. I’m reworking the characters in two stories that I’m working on, one of which is planned as a full-length novel. Reading your analysis of Tolkien’s techniques for maintaining character (especially in a multi-volume epic like LotR) is great inspiration. You rock, Roger! Keep the Tolkien stuff coming.

  6. Brilliant post, Roger – I was as lost in your hero character study as I am when reading (or watching) Tolkien’s masterpiece! 🙂

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