If J.R.R. Tolkien knows how to do one thing, it’s create characters that readers love. Luckily, he also knows how to create wonderful worlds and engaging plot twists, too, but it’s the characters who really stick with you after reading one of his books. In the first book in his history of Middle Earth, The Hobbit, Tolkien uses plot to change characters or reveal truths about them in really interesting ways.
The two characters who show the most development in The Hobbit are the main protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, and the leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. The remainder of the dwarves do not change much over the course of the story, and Gandalf the wizard remains a cipher whom we only learn more about in the subsequent books of the triology, The Lord of the Rings.
Bilbo is an effective choice as the protagonist because he is a stand-in for the reader. We may not be Shire-dwelling hobbits, but we are also not wizards or dwarves setting off on epic quests to retrieve treasure. Like Bilbo, most of us lead fairly ordinary and uneventful lives. We enjoy being at home where we can relax, cook our meals and get on with our hobbies. Bilbo is an excellent example of a main character who encourages immediate reader identification.
Thorin Oakenshield initially appears to be a strong, proud and effective leader. Sceptical of Bilbo’s inclusion in the quest, he eventually comes around to accepting the hobbit as a valuable member of the party.
While occasionally the point of a story is that a character cannot change, generally, character change is crucial for the protagonist of a story, and Bilbo undergoes profound changes over the course of the novel. With Thorin, on the other hand, we don’t so much see a character change as we do a character revelation as aspects of his personality come out due to the situations created by the plot.
Bilbo spends much of the first part of the quest terrified, uncomfortable and unhappy. He frequently voices the desire to be back at home and not on an adventure at all. Yet Tolkien presents Bilbo with a series of challenges that he begins rising to meet. By having Bilbo use his cleverness to escape Gollum, rescue the dwarves from both giant spiders and wood-elves and finally to lead the way into the lair of Smaug the dragon, Tolkien shows in a concrete way how his character is being altered by the events of the story. By the story’s end, Bilbo is a changed man. Not only has he been heroic, but he has fallen in love with travel and adventure. Life at home will never be the same.
Thorin fares less well. As the story progresses, he remains a brave warrior, but Tolkien uses his tendency toward greed and his temptation to keep the treasure to reveal his weaknesses as a leader and a man. Again, here we can see how plot and character development are intertwined, each supporting and developing the other.
In addition to being a master of character development, Tolkien is also excellent at taking tropes of the fantasy genre (such as the trusty sidekick or the magic artefact that holds immense power) and breathing new life into them. Although understanding how to develop your characters is important, when writing a fantasy novel it is wise to invest just as much time in creating a believable and original world.
What else have you learned about writing from reading The Hobbit?