When we sit down to write a story of any length, whether a novel or flash fiction, we often begin with an idea for a plot, the possibilities of great characters, and little more. To make those two things into a compelling story, we must discover what the protagonist desires most, and find out what she/he is willing to risk to achieve it.
In The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Frodo is just an ordinary young hobbit, with no particular ambitions. On the same day as his older cousin Bilbo’s “eleventy-eleventh” (111th) birthday, Frodo (Bilbo’s heir) celebrates his thirty-third birthday.
At the lavish double-birthday party, Bilbo departs from the Shire for what he calls “a permanent holiday.” He does so by using the magic ring (that he had found on the journey detailed in The Hobbit) to disappear. He is aided in that by Gandalf with a flash and puff of smoke, leading many in the Shire to believe Bilbo has gone mad.
He leaves Frodo his remaining belongings, including his home, Bag End, and after some heavy-handed persuasion by the wizard Gandalf, he also leaves the Ring. Gandalf departs on his own business, warning Frodo to keep the Ring secret. Seventeen years or so pass, and then Gandalf returns to inform Frodo of the truth about Bilbo’s ring. It is the One Ring of Sauron the Dark Lord, and is evil. It forges a connection between the wearer and Sauron, and whoever bears it will be slowly corrupted, eventually becoming a Ringwraith.
From the moment of learning the truth about the Ring, Frodo’s goal is clear to the reader: he must get rid of the ring. In Rivendell, he learns the only way to do so is to carry it into the depths of Mordor and cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom.
Frodo wants to achieve this goal badly enough to walk into an active volcano and certain death to accomplish this.
At no point in the narrative is the objective unclear. The path is blocked many times, and each of the characters is tested by the evil ring, some beyond their ability to resist it.
The objective creates the tension, which drives the plot forward.
But what about a book where the goal is not so clear? Let’s talk about Ulysses, by James Joyce.
Ulysses chronicles the wandering appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin, taking place over the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Latinized name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce established a series of parallels between the epic poem and his novel. This book has one of the best opening lines of all time:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
Structurally, there are strong correlations between the characters and experiences of Leopold Bloom with Odysseus, Molly Bloom with Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus with Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. It is set in early twentieth century Dublin with the events and political tempests of of the time. Themes of antisemitism and the impact of Ireland’s rocky relationship with Britain as a it was felt in those days are the underlying pins of this novel. It is highly allusive and filled with allegories.
There is no obvious quest, although many minor quests are completed in the course of living through the day. The book opens with Stephen Dedalus, the first protagonist, having breakfast with Buck Mulligan, who is perhaps a friend, or maybe a rival. It’s James Joyce, so it’s complicated. Stephen shares his opinions about religion, especially as they relate to the recent death of his mother, with Buck Mulligan, who manages to offend him. They make plans to go drinking later that evening. Stephen is not Leopold’s biological son as Telemachus is Odysseus’, but he fulfils that role.
What does Leopold desire? In Episode 4, the narrative shifts abruptly. The time is again 8 am, but the action has moved across the city and to the second protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser. He and his wife have a daughter, Milly Bloom, who, at the age of 15, has left home to study photography. As the day unfolds, Bloom’s thoughts turn to the affair between his wife, Molly, and her manager.
He also thinks about the death of their infant son, Rudy Bloom, who died at the age of 11 days. The absence of a son is what leads him to form an attachment to Stephen, for whom he goes out of his way in the book’s latter episodes. He rescues him from a brothel, walks him back to his own home, and even offers him a place there to study and work.
Finally, we come to Molly. The significant difference between Molly and Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is that while Penelope is eternally faithful, Molly is not. Molly is having an affair with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan after ten years of her celibacy within the marriage. In Dublin, Molly is an opera singer of some renown. Molly wants to be loved.
The final chapter of Ulysses, often called “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy,” is a long, un-punctuated stream-of-consciousness passage, which is arguably the most difficult passage to read and/or follow in the Western canon. (The body of books, music and art that scholars generally accept as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture.)
At the end of the day Molly allows Leopold into her bed, and worries about his health. She reminisces about their first meeting, and about when she knew she was in love with him. This long-winded monologue is comprised of some 20,000 words of her thoughts as she lies in bed next to Bloom, who is unaware of her internal rambling.
In The Lord of the Rings, we have a clear and obvious quest, straightforward and seemingly impossible. In Ulysses, we have a group of people who all want something, but just as in real life, what that may be is not as clear as we would like it. But there is an objective: they just want to get through the day and in the end, they each want to love and be loved, and perhaps be part of a family.
Once we know what our protagonist wants and what he/she is willing to risk to achieve it, we have our plot. Personally, I like a certain amount of literary prose, but I prefer reading books that are a little more straight-forward than Ulysses. That’s why Tolkien’s work spoke to me when I was still in grade school.
How we dress it up is up to us—and, while I admit James Joyce’s rambling is too daunting for me to read for pleasure, I am a confirmed fan of his magnificent one-liners.
History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
—Ulysses, Episode 2