Lessons from Writers – J.R.R. Tolkien

Every book you read can teach you something to help improve your writing from pitfalls to avoid to examples to follow, and in this series of blog posts I’m going to talk about the authors that have had the most impact on me and my writing, and what I took away from them. First up: J.R.R. Tolkien.

lotr-coverJRR Tolkien is the reason I love fantasy. From the time my uncle gave me a copy of The Hobbit in the fourth grade to when I read the Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales looking for more Middle Earth to consume after I read the Lord of the Rings, I was hooked on fantasy. It was the stepping stone that gave me this wonderful, fantastical world that is Fantasy. Everywhere in Tolkien’s world there is some new magic to find, whether your traipsing through the Old Forest hoping Old Man Willow doesn’t take a dislike to you, or crossing the Dead Marshes and trying to avoid the lure of the candles. I learned the joy of awe and wonder.

photo_14601_0-5But it wasn’t just my love of Fantasy that I learned from Tolkien, he taught me one of the greatest truths: nothing is free, everything truly great from saving the world to saving the shire is paid in pain. Your character’s journey shouldn’t be easy. Things shouldn’t just fall into their laps. They have to reach and struggle to overcome the obstacles placed before them. And those obstacles should have a lasting effect on the character. Everyone is changed in Lord of the Rings, but none more so than our erstwhile hero, Frodo.

silmarillionTolkien served in the trenches in WW1, and it shows as Frodo marches into his own literal hell and walks out carrying not only physical wounds, but emotional wounds. And not just Frodo, all the Hobbits were marked, changed, suffering their own PTSD. They return home and find they cannot talk about their experiences to anyone, because only when you’ve gone through suffering can you understand it. Tolkien learned the lesson that nothing is free, and he taught it to his characters.

Do not be afraid to let your characters suffer. Do not be afraid to let your characters be scarred by their obstacles. If it comes too easy then where is the tension? Where are the stakes? How can your readers care if they know your character is going to succeed easily.

And that’s the last lesson Tolkien taught me. If your readers care about the characters you’ve written, the world you’ve created, than you works will be remembered long after you’re dead.

10 thoughts on “Lessons from Writers – J.R.R. Tolkien”

  1. You are right. Our characters do need conflict. We have to be careful not to get so attached to our characters that we shy away from allowing them to experience pain and challenges. Great article!

  2. Great writing advice to push your characters. There’s drama, tension, and danger in doing that — and readers can root for the characters to succeed. How do you root for someone who floats through life, gets everything they want, and doesn’t need to overcome obstacles. There’s a power in overcoming challenges. And this post is a reminder to force characters to do that, to give them those victories.

  3. I came across this page while going through my connections lists I have been putting together in the past few months. I quite like the page and reading it gives me the idea that probably I too share a common thought with this theme that is being focussed on in the post. It is a good thing when you are not bothered about allowing your characters to face hard experiences until they establish the roots where they are made comfortable.

  4. A different lesson for writers: know what you write about. And when making up, make it up consistently.
    Hr made a world, with a complete history

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