Steven Barnes has a LifeWriting course that I’m a fan of. I don’t agree with everything he says. However, when you consider that he is earning a solid living in a field where the average yearly income is 4,000 to 12,500.00 (reference), he is obviously doing something right and has experience and ideas that I can learn from.
He talks about studying the classics as well as putting yourself into your writing so that your audience can identify with and accept your characters as believable. He is up front and says that it can be extremely hard to do this. My recent experience confirms his statement.
I’ve been writing a fictional book for some time now and have found myself struggling with a particular scene. Most of the characters in the book are some version of my personality; each different because of the choices made along the way, but all very real possibilities. It is easy to see how certain choices could have carried me to the place the character I’m struggling with is, but not as easy to know how he would behave once there. So I’m having trouble with the scene because the behavior isn’t obvious. Quite frankly, the character isn’t the most pleasant creature. My readers can love to hate him, distrust him, be against him, have empathy for him, or feel like he is getting a bad rap, but if I am to be effective as an author it is important that they react to him in some way that allows him to be real for them. Since I’ve typed and trashed a few pages I decided to walk away and go back to the classics. I picked J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Gollum is a wretched creature that is scary enough in print but was enough to give kids nightmares once he took visual form in the movies. He’s a villain to some extent and yet he isn’t the villain. Frodo and Sam wouldn’t have made it as far as they did without Gollum, and it was him instead of Frodo that destroyed the ring, but that isn’t enough to make him a hero either. So what makes him a good character? It is the same thing that made all of Tolkien’s characters in the trilogy enthralling; people can relate to them. Like it or not, the elves, dwarves, hobbits, animals, orcs, goblins, trolls, and even Gollum have human characteristics and behavior – sometimes taken to an extreme, but none-the-less human.
Tolkien went out of his way to point out that Sméagol was once much like a hobbit and that Frodo’s kindness for the creature came because he understood how the ring could change the bearer. So I sat here today and thought about Gollum and the possible ways that he behaved like me and others – thought about what makes him believable. The ring was his obsession right up to the end, and ultimately, his lust to possess it led to his death. We tend to forget or else forgive Frodo for choosing not to throw it into the fires of Mordor at the end – for claiming it as his own as Gollum had done years before. We forget/forgive because we want Frodo to have won…to have carried the burden valiantly and to have overcome the power of the ring, but ultimately he failed. And yet, we love Frodo and despise the wretched Gollum. Why?
I think that perhaps it is because Frodo knew the ring to be ‘dark’ and fought against it while Gollum embraced it from the first moment on. It changed his behavior, brought pain, made his body decrepit, and even brought torture to Gollum’s life, but the ring remained his Precious through all of it. That is where Gollum became a good character; where Tolkien made him human enough to be believable. After all, who hasn’t known something to be bad for them on every level except that of emotional pleasure and when presented with the choice, chose the pleasure? Tell me that you don’t know at least one person who has done this often enough to have created havoc or experienced negative side-effects and I’ll tell you to open your eyes and look around. The diabetic that won’t give up his desserts, the socialite that has to have a bankrupting wardrobe, the athlete sticking to her injury-inducing training schedule, the couple getting a divorce because one of them won’t be monogamous, the drug/alcoholic/sugar/gambling/thrill addict, etc.; they all know the damage they are doing but cling to the very thing causing their troubles as though it will save their lives instead of destroy them.
My character’s behavior is now clear and I’ll be able to write the scene I’ve been struggling with. So I’ll say a thank you to Steven Barnes for reminding me to always turn to the classics and one to Tolkien for being persistent that I see Gollum with some compassion.
Until next time, may your choices today create a healthier and more balanced you tomorrow!