Erin and I entertain vague dreams of adding a new term to the Turkey City Lexicon. Our best shot might be taken, however. Do a quick Google search, and you will find some Lord of the Rings fans talking about “Glorfindel Syndrome”.
What is Glorfindel Syndrome? Well, let me explain. You may remember, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Fellowship of the Ring, the section where Aragorn leads the Hobbits out of Bree and to the Elvin fortress of Rivendell? That almost doesn’t end well, as Frodo is stabbed in the shoulder with a Nazgul knife and hovers on the edge of life and un-death with miles still to go and the Black Riders closing in. Aragorn has got to get Frodo to Rivendell fast.
Fortunately, the Elvish scout Glorfindel, whom Aragorn knows, shows up. Glorfindel bundles up Frodo, puts him on his horse, and races for safety in a chase that culminates with the iconic swamping of the Black Riders at the borders of Rivendell.
Except… in Peter Jackson’s movie, Glorfindel’s shot of glory is stolen by Arwen, who makes the run for him, adding precious screen time to Aragorn’s love interest who is herself struggling to make an appearance in the movie after being confined largely to the Lord of the Rings’ appendices when in print form..
To add insult to injury, we move back a few years to the animated feature-length version of The Lord of the Rings, where Glorfindel’s horse is stolen yet again by none other than Legolas. Glorfindel can’t cut a break, can he?
But then, other than say hello to Aragorn, bundle up Frodo and ride like the wind, what does Glorfindel actually do? What exactly does he contribute to the novel? J.R.R. Tolkien had his reasons for writing Glorfindel in (the character, apparently, was at the fall of Gondolin), but he was writing a book, not a movie. With a book, you can hold a reader for days, if not weeks or months. In a movie, you have maximum of about three hours, maybe four, to tell your tales.
This compression means that characters don’t have the luxury of pages to develop themselves, and your ability to build a world based on a cast of thousands is limited. In the rush to get Arwen’s tale into the open, or flesh out Legolas’ character, more screen time has to be given to these characters somehow. So why not remove characters who contribute little more than a single development of the plot? Glorfindel becomes an obvious candidate.
I’ve encountered this in my revision of The Dream King’s Daughter, even though the bulk of the story is carried by just two character: Aurora and Polk. They may be carrying the tale, but there were a surprising number of support characters in the background. Let’s count:
- Aunt Matron: Aurora (and Polk)’s foster mother, who is caring for Aurora when the story starts.
- Aurora’s foster parents, who bundle Aurora away to Aunt Matron.
- The Dream King
- Aurora’s real mother, who died in childbirth.
- Polk’s mother, who was the midwife.
As I struggled to settle the background of who the Dream King was and what he did, it became clear that while the foster father was a nice red herring distracting readers from who the Dream King really was, they didn’t actually do all that much. They didn’t play a big part in the flashbacks, and they’re something of cyphers when Aurora confronts them in the end. At Erin’s suggestion, I found I could combine Aurora’s real mother with her foster parents into a single character, with more potential for development, and more potential for drama, and thus Aurora’s now-human mother Dawn was born.
Erin also suggested combining Dawn with Matron, and while that was tempting, I felt that there was a need for an elemental mother figure to balance the Dream King. Matron performed key functions that neither Dawn nor Polk could have. So, an early revision where Dawn showed up behind the grill in Cooper’s Corners, Saskatchewan, was quietly dropped.
In writing, it is a truism that if you can tell the same story with the same impact in fewer words, cut your words. Likewise, if you can tell the same story with the same impact while using fewer characters, use fewer characters. The readers will appreciate the clearer vision of your storyline, and the characters that remain will have had more time to develop in the eyes of the readers. So, the Glorfindel Syndrome describes a situation where one minor character exists solely to move the plot along in small ways, whose work can be taken up just as effectively by a major character. If you have a character who might be affected by Glorfindel Syndrome, cut him or her from your book.