You know what’s fun? When someone gets the tiniest taste of success and they turn into a pedantic jerk. So to celebrate the publication of my first book Undead On Arrival (available in paperback or kindle!), I decided to write about one of my ironclad rules of writing in hopes that I can inspire you to become as mediocre and pedestrian as I.
Chances are you remember the scene. Frodo is dying from the wound he received on Weathertop at the hands of the Witch King. That little cut is like a zombie bite: not only is it fatal, it’ll turn him into a hilariously tiny Nazgul. (Sadly, Mordor doesn’t have a sign that specifies “You Must Be At Least This Tall to be Evil.”) Aragorn’s best idea is rubbing some weeds on Frodo, while Pippin’s plan presumably involves second breakfast and knocking shit over until a balrog shows up. At this point, an elf rides up to help, and this is where things go pear-shaped.
Exactly which elf conveniently arrives depends on the version you best remember. In the books, it’s a character named Glorfindel, an ultra-powerful elf lord who is a paragon of good and righteousness, yet can’t be bothered with that troublesome business of saving the world. He appears in this scene and no other; it’s a terrible choice that makes the elves even more irritating and useless than they already are. If Glorfindel is truly good and powerful, shouldn’t he have made the Fellowship? They couldn’t shrug, and say the Fellowship could be ten guys? Or assume two hobbits counted as one person as long as they stood on each other’s shoulders? Or just throw one of them out? I mean, did we really need Merry AND Pippin? One of them couldn’t be swapped out for, you know, someone who could reach a kitchen counter? But that would mean Glorfindel actually, you know, doing something, which as it turns out is against the elvish religion. He never volunteers, and there’s never a discussion that maybe, just maybe, the good guys should send their heaviest hitters on a mission to save the world. The character highlights the problem with the elves: either they’re not as powerful as they want us to think, or they’re lazy douchebags. Glorfindel is worse than an unnecessary character. His existence actively undermines what Tolkien is telling us about elves.
Peter Jackson and Ralph Bakshi while adapting the books into films with varying degrees of success, both recognized this, and chose a different elf.
Jackson, realizing that Tolkien’s text was a bigger sausage fest than Top Gun, decided on Arwen, Aragorn’s love interest who spends most of her time trapped in a series of early ‘90s perfume commercials. On the surface it’s not a bad choice. The movie desperately needs a little estrogen or it’s going to start growing a beard and wearing Tapout shirts. By giving Arwen the Frodo rescue scene, Jackson makes Arwen look even worse than she already does. If she hung out at home, you could be like, “Okay sure, she’s not a warrior. She shouldn’t be out there kicking ass.” But she’s clearly a powerful enough sorcerer to summon those water horses, she manages to sneak up on a ranger, and she’s toting around that elf katana thing. When Arwen is confronted with the Witch King, her only solution is to run. While this momentary burst of action is admirable (especially in contrast to the other elves, who seem to only want to wander through the forest at night doing Enya parades), she immediately falls into ennui, lounging around on that bench and being horrified by mortality. Contrast this with Eowyn. The sight of the Witch King doesn’t do much more than piss her off. First she kills his riding monster, because fuck that thing, then she takes the time out to trash talk him before making him suck on her broadsword. Fuck Aragorn, why the hell wasn’t Eowyn in the Fellowship? I’ll tell you why: it would have been a single book, the last hundred pages of which would be Sauron openly weeping. Once again, a supposedly powerless human does something an elf can’t. Or, even more damning, won’t.
Bakshi’s movie is awful, but in this instance, he made the right call. The elf that shows up to help is Legolas, who you remember as that dreamy guy who would totally settle down if only he met you and got to know all your awesome quirks, like the way you just love otter mittens and Tibetan dubstep bands. As cool as he is, Legolas is a Mirkwood elf, and thus one of the less-powerful elves out there. But for all the power he allegedly lacks, he is the only one willing to lift a finger to save the world and fortunately, that finger was on his bowstring. Legolas kills orcs so bad, an entire generation of orcish women gave birth to arrows. Legolas is the correct choice because he is an established, important character in the story. Having him arrive cements Aragorn’s relationship with the elves, lets us meet a member of the Fellowship early, making one less character introduced suddenly at the conclave, and doesn’t open up any uncomfortable logic gaps. In fact, this would underscore how scary the Nazgul are, as Legolas rides like hell away from them, something more impressive considering his only reaction to an army of Uruk-Hai is a grim nod and a whispered, “Game on.”
Conservation of characters is important. Even if Glorfindel were just another Mirkwood elf, he would still be the wrong choice. Why have this character for just one scene? Wouldn’t saving Frodo’s life make for good motivation to join the Fellowship? Legolas is already headed to Rivendell, so there’s no awkward question of what he’s doing there. The fact is, Glorfindel is not just another Mirkwood elf. He’s an ultra-powerful elf lord, creating an even more important lesson for writers.
We need to be conscious of what our characters say about our worlds and our stories. Simply put, don’t have the Last of the Mohicans keep running into Mohicans. Don’t have Batman dress like a skunk. Don’t call Ishmael “Steve.” And so on. The world we create can have any rules at all, but once established, those rules must be obeyed. Any character introduced has to support those world laws. Like real people, characters work within the rules, although unlike real people, the rules are made up. A character, no matter how inconsequential to the plot should never undermine what the writer is trying to do. Like positing Glorfindel as a benevolent and powerful scion of a benevolent and powerful race, then having him do literally nothing else in a battle in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
But really, this is all secondary to a far more germane point, which is this: Fuck elves. Seriously, those guys are the worst.