If you’re just tuning in, this is the second article in the Story Worlds column, which explores storytelling and world-building in movies, TV shows, books, games, and more. The previous article was a general overview about the series, but now we’re ready to dive into some more specific territory.
The story I want to explore today formed in the 1940s, when World War II was tearing our planet apart. For perhaps the first time on such a global scale, humanity was witnessing the effects of unchecked aggression—and faced the possibility that it could lead to the end of civilization. Those who lived through this dark period must have felt they were witnessing... well, the end of an Age.
During this tumultuous period, a Professor of Literature at Oxford University began to write a book. He’d been a soldier in the First World War, and keenly felt the upheaval happening all around him. He knew the excitement of adventure and the dangers of journeying far from home. So he wrote it all down, but as a kind of parable. The Professor’s name was JRR Tolkien, and his “book” would come to be known as The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien was no simple novelist. His story took place in a make-believe world that brought together legends and lore from multiple European mythologies, featuring characters such as elves, dwarves, trolls, wizards, and even something called a hobbit. Tolkien showed incredible attention to detail, developing entire languages alongside his story, and he outlined a backstory so rich that his estate later published several companion works of his fictional history (The Silmarillion) much longer than the (already huge) novel itself.
The Lord of the Rings became the second best-selling novel ever published, behind only Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The book(s) are now the cornerstone of a media empire that includes novels, artwork, merchandising, comics, animation, and two award-winning movie trilogies—making it one of the most critically and commercially successful franchises of all time. The Lord of the Rings also defined a new literary genre, and every work of fantasy released since the mid-1950s has owed Tolkien its existence.
Why did The Lord of the Rings become such a classic? There are many answers to this question, most more sophisticated than anything I’ll be able to conjure up today. So instead of going deep with the book, I’m instead going to use it to lay down some broad fundamentals about what goes into creating a story world, which in turn should give us some talking points for future articles.
So without any further ado, I present Story Worlds 101, also known as:
THE SIX PILLARS OF A STORY WORLD
as found in The Lord of the Rings
A History of Middle Earth
(Pillar #1: It’s All About World-Building)
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” –Bilbo Baggins
There’s a term used in publishing and filmmaking to describe the act of creating a world from scratch: world-building. World-building is the process of constructing, one piece at a time, a fictional realm that is internally consistent. It includes things like drawing a map, working out a social structure, defining inventions and technologies, creating magic systems, and so on. Each genre has its own unique needs when it coms to world-building, but the common theme is making imagined places feel real.
This is an art that Tolkien practically invented—and he excelled at it. He didn’t just name his rivers and forests: he penned a backstory spanning thousands of years of fictional history, so finely detailed that many consider the backstory to be his life’s true work. He also developed entire languages for the races of Middle Earth—fact, he often described the invention of language as the primary inspiration behind the story. In short, Tolkien rendered his Middle Earth in such vivid detail that it remains one of the most detailed story world ever built; even today, scholars study it at the PhD level.
Check out this snippet from the appendix of The Lord of the Rings:
[…]and on the highest hill of the headland above the Haven they had set a great white pillar as a monument. It was crowned with a globe of crystal that took the rays of the Sun and the Moon and shone like a bright star that could be seen in clear weather even on the coasts of Gondor or far out upon the western sea. So it stood, until the second arising of Sauron, when […] the memorial of his humiliation was thrown down.
This passage has little to do with The Lord of the Rings, as the monument Tolkien describes was destroyed centuries before the events of the novel. And yet Tolkien took the time to flesh it out. Now that’s attention to detail.
(Pillar #2: Worlds are Defined by Their Inhabitants)
“I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring.’ And they’ll say, ‘Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad?’ ‘Yes, m’boy, the most famousest of hobbits.’” –Sam
So we know Tolkien built a detailed world, but for all the mountains and marshes and ruins from wars long-past, it’s the characters of Middle Earth that bring it to life.
Characters are paradoxical creatures. On the one hand, they have to be relatable: if we can’t see some aspect of ourselves in them, it’s harder to empathize. On the other hand, they need to feel unique. Great characters across all genres and mediums strike a balance between the familiar and the eye-opening. When well-created, they can carry a whole story; but when generic or difficult to relate to, they can make an entire work dead on arrival.
Tolkien created a huge cast of mesmerizing yet relatable characters. Just look at Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s loyal companion. Sam has traits we all recognize: dedication, bravery, earnestness, sensitivity, caution, defensiveness, and so on. But Sam is also unique: an eavesdropping gardener who loves the Shire and has unbending loyalty to Frodo. You’d never confuse Sam with any other hobbit, and yet he’s a symbol of something universal.
Or take Boromir, the son of Gondor who betrays Frodo in his desperation to possess the One Ring. By all accounts, he is responsible for breaking the Fellowship and nearly costing Frodo his life. But is he a villain? Not really—he’s just weak. He’s trying to do right by his father and his people. He wants to bring glory back to Gondor. He feels jealous of Aragorn, yet in the throes of death he realizes his mistake and professes his profound love and respect for the man. He’s a complex, layered character.
By the way, these characters are also emotional. When Gimli discovers his brethren slain in Moria, you feel his agony. When King Théoden decides to ride to Gondor’s aid, you feel his selfless nobility. When Sam carries Frodo up the mountain… it’s beyond words. Emotion is the key to great characters, and it’s the gateway to great storytelling.
Journeying to Mordor
(Pillar #3: The Secret of Plot Design)
“One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its black gates are guarded by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep, and the Great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire and ash and dust, the very air you breathe a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this.” –Boromir
Okay: so Tolkien created a fantastic world and filled it with complex characters. But there’s another step to building a story world. Namely, writing the story.
Story (or “plot,” to use the term as it’s usually taught in classrooms) is what actually happens over the course of a tale. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end; they’re based around conflict; they feature twists and reversals; and so on. But what’s interesting about The Lord of the Rings—and, in fact, about many story worlds—is that not only is the story great in its own right, but it’s inseparable from the world in which it occurs.
Let’s look at the story of Frodo and the One Ring. Frodo is a very small piece of Middle Earth: an ordinary hobbit, who lives in the Shire, and has never had an adventure. Yet he ends up bearing an enormous burden that will determine the fate of his entire world and everyone he knows. This story is very powerful, and it works on a few levels.
First, the story itself is great—Small person from remote place makes big journey to big place to destroy small thing for big cause. Even if this took place in modern day New York, it would be a good tale. The stakes are high, the conflict huge, the events plotted to keep things moving. Major twists and reversals keep us on our toes, and the story climaxes in a way that brings everything together. Tolkien was a spectacular storyteller.
More than that, the story fits the character. From a dramatic perspective, Frodo is the perfect ring-bearer. He loves the Shire, knows nothing of Middle Earth, and has no special powers; nothing could be more antithetical to him than journeying to Mordor. The quest therefore challenges him at the deepest levels, as any good story will do to its characters. Because stories and characters are two sides of the same coin.
And taking it a step wider, the story also fits the world. The stakes of Frodo’s quest are huge: Middle Earth itself is dying, and only he can turn the tide. In traveling to Mordor, he not only encounters this idea echoed throughout world; he comes to know firsthand what will be lost if he fails. Tolkien may have first conceived of Middle Earth during the writing of The Hobbit, but The Lord of the Rings is the story that fits it like a glove.
This interdependence of story, character, and world appears in many great works. Whole worlds don’t always hang in the balance, but you’ll often find that a given story could only have happened in this world, at this time, to these specific characters. The result is a sense of totality or completion—as if the world exists so that the story can be told, and when the story ends, the world somehow ends with it.
That’s the end of part one! In part two, we’ll journey to Helm’s Deep and the Grey Harbors as we ask the question: what exactly makes this story about elves and hobbits so profoundly, deeply meaningful? Stay tuned!
Brad Kane is a writer in the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, check out his blog or like its page on Facebook. He also has a brand new Twitter account that he is trying to remember to use.