Misdirection in Your Writing: Samwise Gamgee was the Real Hero of Lord of the Rings

Let’s be frank: Frodo was kind of a whiny turd who failed his mission and betrayed the most loyal character in literature.

Tolkien, in his brilliance, befuddled us into believing that Frodo Baggins was the hero of LOTR, when in reality it was his gardener who accomplished the greatest act of the Third Age.

MISDIRECTION. The old Oxford professor of languages understood this subtle, difficult-to-master writing art.

While many writers will mislead their readers through unreliable narrators, or narrators who are uninformed or misinformed, Tolkien took another route—a longer, winding path—to misdirecting his readers. He chose to share his tale in Third Person, following primarily Frodo, and secondarily a few supporting characters, when all along it was the sidekick we should’ve been focusing on.

This was misleading, because Frodo possesses few of the qualities of a hero. Sure, his journey is tragic, and he chooses to take the hard road, but he is, for the most part, a reactive character that rarely seems to put himself out there for others, and indeed never seems interested in the well-being of others. The fact that he takes on a quest may seem noble, but as Tolkien makes clear through some clever phrasing, the Shire-folks’ decision was made almost without his heart and will:

‘At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.’

Frodo’s decision seems almost guided by a higher power (perhaps by one of the Power’s of which Tolkien was frustratingly vague and evasive in the LOTR.)

All throughout his journey, Frodo depends entirely on Sam. Sam cooks, comforts, hunts and fights for Frodo, without complaining. It is Sam who tries to protect Frodo from the deceptions of Gollum/Smeagol. And finally it is Sam who fights off Shelob in what might be the most moving scene in the entire Trilogy. Sam displays the courage of Strider without the training and muscles. He shows the loyalty of a true friend, one who would die for another.

Do we need even mention that moment on Mount Doom? (Tolkien had a knack for character names, but seriously, Mount Doom?)

‘I can’t carry it for you—’ even though he had done just that after poking Shelob ‘—but I can carry you!’

I still get writer tingles just thinking of that scene.

If all these actions of Sam ‘the Gardener’ Gamgee are not enough to convince us that he is the true hero and main protagonist of the tale, Tolkien brings this truth home by concluding the entire series with Sam. He returns home from seeing Frodo off to the Havens, and then settles into his chair by the fire, puts his feet up on a stool and declares: “Well, I’m back.”

It’s as if Tolkien is finally admitting that it was Sam we were following through Middle-Earth all along. There and Back Again: a Hobbits Tale may tell of the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo, but it is Sam who finishes it, Sam who comes back again.

Frodo never really returned home. He was too damaged, too emotionally broken to have psychologically survived the Fellowship’s horrorshow of a quest. Sam, on the other hand, improves his life on returning to the Shire. After facing off against orcs and giant spiders, proposing to Rose Cottonwood proves to be an easy and enjoyable privilege. He becomes mayor of Hobbiton, produces a brood of happy healthy children, and, when he is good and ready, is honored by being allowed to cross over to the Havens—having been, for a brief but noble time, a ring-bearer.

Misdirection. Tolkien knew that if Sam were directly shown to be the main character, we would:

  • Quickly grow weary of his unshakable loyalty to a lesser character
  • View Frodo as a poor friend and borderline antagonist
  • Wonder why Frodo was even going on the Quest

Frodo’s journey and struggles were intriguing because we were led to believe he was the hero of the tale, and so when he struggled and grew too weak and weary to continue, we felt his weariness. And it was Sam who picked us up. Sam’s energy never seemed to flag. He never wavered in his devotion. Placing him as the clear protagonist would not have worked, because he is almost too good of a person be taken seriously. Frodo is very much affected by the stories’ events; he has weaknesses, and so we can easily identify with him. We understand heavy burdens. Frodo is the everyman. Sam is the almost-un-relatable hero we both aspire to and have a hard time believing could exist for real.

The brilliance of misdirection—when done skillfully in a novel—is that it adds an element of unpredictability to the narrative. If you cannot rely on the narrator, or if the author is intentionally misleading you, the epic finale will come as a pleasant surprise. No spoilers spelled out for you the way amateur writers would have done.

In my YA fantasy W.A.N.D. I incorporate misdirection (SPOILER ALERT!) by leading readers to believe that the Mythics are the main antagonists, when it is something altogether darker and even more threatening lurking behind the scenes which forces Nick into making certain decisions. The need of a wand is even more important because of this lurking menace. By misdirecting readers, I add an unstable unpredictable element. This–I believe–adds depth and intrigue to the book.

When you go to practice your own misdirection remember what Tolkien said: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Don’t be afraid to be swept off by your writing. You never know where it might take you.

Scrooge and Marley: How to Write Character Arcs

‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

With these marvelous words Charles Dickens opens his great classic A Christmas Carol. A few passages later he drives home the importance of his opening line by stating:

There was no doubt Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.’

(I double-dog-dare any modern author to employ such a conversational tone in his novel.)

If the tale is about Scrooge, why does Dickens open with a mention of his dead partner? There are two reasons:

  1. Marley’s own story arc acts as a warning to Scrooge, a black mirror to his miserly life
  2. The mention of a dead character prior to the introduction of living players in the story delivers a glaring metaphor, showing us that, in some ways, Scrooge is already dead

Why is this important, you ask? What does it have to do with character arcs? (If you check out Darcy Pattinson’s post on ‘3 Types of Character Arcs’ here you might see the answer from another perspective, and that’s always good.)

Well, the entirety of A Christmas Carol is a beautiful blatant example of an extreme character arc. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the lesson I am about to relate.

The Art of Arcs

Without a good arc, you risk delivering a flat character. His entire tale will feel pointless. If in the end he has learned nothing, overcome nothing, or has not even changed his perspective, then there is no arc, and your readers will come away with a negative impression of the entire story, no matter how well crafted it may be.

Once Dickens has established beyond any doubt the doornail deadness of Marley, he moves into a delightful description of Scrooge. ‘Oh, but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, clutching, covetous old sinner!’

The next several pages are devoted to reinforcing this description, with wonderful encounters between the old sinner and his nephew, donation seekers, and poor Bob Cratchit. Each encounter serves to establish the base starting point of our main character. Dickens takes great pains making sure we are fully educated on Scrooge’s miserliness. (Indeed, he is so successful in this endeavor that Scrooge’s expressions ‘Bah’ and ‘Humbug’ have become part of our vernacular.)

Is Your Book Arcing Enough?

In your books, make sure to follow the example Dickens sets of establishing your Main Characters’ deepest nature. This nature should be firm. Your character should be fully devoted to his personality and/or worldview; this ensures that there doesn’t appear to be any hope of a change in his nature, which will in turn make the change (or arc) that much more impressive when it happens.

Veronica Sicoe has written a nice outline of the different kinds of arcs, pointing out that ‘the hero’s journey’ is not the only arc out there.

It is vital to his potential arc that we know who your MC is from the beginning. You can do this in any of several popular and successful ways that successful and popular novelists have used:

  • Write riveting early encounters between your MC and supporting characters
  • Open by showing your MC in a strange or unique position: alone in prison, climbing a mountain by herself, jumping out of a plane, or perhaps simply lounging around while others work their tails off
  • Your MC is deeply frustrated with life, and strives valiantly (or psychotically) to change it, and yet, every time he tries, he chooses instead to help those around him. The arc for such a tale will be his finally seeing the good in his life and accepting it, that he is already the richest man in Bedford Falls and that his is truly a Wonderful Life

The above are just a few basic examples. You’re a writer—if the examples above don’t get your creative juices flowing, go ahead and make up your own way to establish your characters’ personality.

The Change

Now, once you’ve shared the firm foundation of your MC, you’re going to need to bring it home and deliver the meat of your tale. This of course involves putting your characters through the ringer. There are thousands of ways to do this, and they are all fun and satisfying to write. (We writers just love beating the crap out of our creations.)

Even if you’re just beginning to write, I’m sure you’ve read hundreds of books and possess at least a handful of ideas on how to go about roughing up your darlings. The arc, or change in their circumstances or understanding of their circumstances (as in George Bailey’s case in It’s a Wonderful Life) happens because of their suffering. So don’t overlook or rush through this vital portion of your work.

Bring in supporting characters who force your MC to face his fears or prejudices or weaknesses.

Scrooge changed because the 3 Spirits forced him to face memories he had long neglected, and a future he had refused to think about.

Without his terrifying ordeals, without his suffering and being forced to face truths about himself, Scrooge would not have changed. His arc would not have existed. His entire worldview changed precisely because he was made to look at the chains he had forged, the mistakes he had made, the neglect humanity had suffered because of him.

‘I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!’

Scrooge’s arc happened only after he suffered through darkness and faced his own mortality. Death casts a long shadow, but it is this very shadow that lends meaning to life.

When George Bailey tried to commit suicide, fate (or heaven, or an angel named Clarence) intervened, and showed him what he had been blind to before. These two tales with their supernatural elements may be extreme examples of character arcs, but they also provide us with beautiful templates for our own books.

So when you next sit down to watch the movies, whether it’s the George C Scott or the Muppets version, pay close attention to when exactly Scrooge’s perspective begins to shift and he begins to value life.

Good luck with your writing—may it be big and sexy all the year round!

For another dynamite character arc with supernatural elements, you might want to check out The Light of Lexi Montaigne. This psychological thriller also features the best full-circle story I’ve yet managed to write. It’s one of those rare books where you don’t quite see all the pieces to the puzzle until the final page, and then you go ‘Ohhhh, now it all makes sense’ and you go to read it again.

The No. 1 Reason Your Kindle E-Books are not Selling

You follow all the expert advice you can find. You perform every last task, from editing to book description polishing to Goodreads promotions. You’ve even gone through the effort of setting up a writing blog and started blogging about writing. But despite all your hard work, you only have a trickle of e-book sales coming in. What gives?

Great Kindle E-Books

You’ve been writing long enough that your Kindle e-books are of high-quality, from three-dimensional characterizations to solid plot to consistent descriptions to fluid viewpoint transitions. Your work may not be quite up to snuff with the big dogs like Martin, Maas, Taylor, and Sanderson, but it is clearly superior to most of the self-published dreck out there.

And yet those best-selling novelists and your inferior quality classmates are all selling more books than you. It’s infuriating!

Ninety percent of the time, the reason this happens is because of lack of exposure. Continue reading “The No. 1 Reason Your Kindle E-Books are not Selling”