Half of the Fellowship of the Ring, has no personality for that matter. Boromir is your standard tough guy who wants to save his city, Merry and Pippen have jokes for days but not much else, and Gimli is about as stereotypical as you can get.
It’s not because Tolkien is a poor writer, on the contrary it is because he was a great writer that he understood why these characters needed to be stereotypes. The Lord of the Rings is a story that is driven and understood by the setting of Middle Earth. Similar to, but on a larger scale, The Hobbit it takes the reader through a multitude of settings, cultures, and societies to develop the story.
One of the best books I’ve read on writing is Character & Viewpoint by Orison Scott Card, which breaks down stories into what he calls the ‘MICE Quotient’. ‘Milieu’ stories are focused on a setting, a world, somewhere strange and different. ‘Idea’ stories are focused on exploring how we look at the world or ourselves. ‘Character’ stories are driven by compelling characters we watch grow and change over time. ‘Event’ stories are driven by particular events around which everything is focused.
Few, if any, stories fall into one category alone, most are a mix of all four to varying degrees but it can help to understand where the focus of the story is if you want to fully appreciate the work done by the author. Many of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s stories are focused first on the historical world in which they take place, and then typically on an event within the story. Sutcliffe’s stories are not filled with tons of unique, flamboyant characters because she is trying to tell a story of the time. She needs her characters to be stereotypes in order to give the reader a sense of what their world would be like.
In contrast, look at the master of characters, Charles Dickens. His settings, while notable to us today, were utterly common place when he wrote. There are few great world events he is recounting, but his novels are filled with fascinating characters. Through his characters Dickens usually takes time to flesh out some idea, such as in A Christmas Carol or David Copperfield.
Character & Viewpoint is one of the books I go back to frequently, either to get the writing juices flowing or to get another look at building characters. It might be worth your time, and I’ve seen it at several libraries. It’s helped me get a better understanding not only of many books I’ve read, but of what I’m doing in my own writing. Once you know what kind of story you’re telling (or just as importantly not telling), it’s much easier to focus on what’s important and cut out the extra flabbiness that gums up your story.
Thanks for reading! What are some of your favorite books on writing? Do you think you can tell a story without a bunch of engaging characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
If you haven’t already, check out my story Oath Bound, let me know what you think of it. I’d probably say it’s more focused on setting, then characters but there’s some ideas floating around in there somewhere.