What Orson Scott Card taught me about The Lord of the Rings

Orson Scott Card, Ender's GameToday’s post is my third inspired by Orson Scott Card’s book Characters & ViewpointAs I’ve said in my other two posts, this is a fantastic book. Highly recommended for fiction writers.

In chapter five Card asks the question, “What kind of story are you telling?” He then categorizes various stories with what he calls “The MICE quotient.” Here’s a quote from Card:

“It is a mistake to think that “good characterization” is the same thing in every work of fiction. Different kinds of stories require different kinds of characters.

But what are the different kinds of stories? Forget about publishing genres… Instead we’ll look at four basic factors that are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. It is the balance among these factors that determines what sort of characterization a story must have, should have, or can have.”

The four factors make up the acronym MICE.

M – Milieu stories
I – Idea stories
C – Character stories
E – Event stories

Card then contends that usually a given story will feature one of these elements more heavily than others, and that Character stories are the dominant type of story in our culture today.

I’m not going to explain all four factors here (you really should read the book!), but rather I’ll focus on one factor: Milieu.

Card references Gulliver’s Travels and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as examples of milieu stories. He says:

“The point of these stories is not to explore the soul of a character or resolve a tense and thrilling plot, but rather to explore a world that is different from our own, comparing it to our own customs and expectations. The structure of a pure milieu story is simple: Get a character to the setting that the story is about, and then devise reasons for her to move through the world of the story, showing the reader all the interesting physical and social details of the milieu.”

What does all of this have to do with The Lord of the Rings trilogy?

I read the trilogy for the first time in 2011. I posted my thoughts on the book here. In that post I confess that I didn’t really enjoy reading the series too much. Specifically, the long sections of background information communicated through unrealistically long sections of dialogue bothered me. Not only were the boring, but they were unrealistic. No one talks that way. The characters didn’t ring true.

In light of the MICE quotient though, I have a better framework for appreciating this series. Card says a number of helpful things about The Lord of Rings in this chapter. The quote that sums it all up for me is:

“All the MICE factors are present in The Lord of the Rings, but it is the milieu structure that predominates, as it should. It would be absurd to criticize The Lord of the Rings for not having plot unity and integrity, because it is not an event story. Likewise, it would be absurd to criticize the book for its stereotyped one-to-a-race characters or for the many character about whom we learn little more than what they do in the story and why the do it, because this is not a character story.”

So there you have it. In the context of the MICE quotient The Lord of the Rings is an incredible milieu story. The world of Middle Earth is fully developed and rich in nuance. Tolkien’s characterization isn’t “bad,” (no matter how unrealistic the dialogue is) because the characters are written to support the overall milieu.

All of this said, milieu stories are still not my preference. But at least now I understand what they are and will be able to spot the next one easily. I have no plans to read The Lord of the Rings again (maybe ever), but if I do, I’ll know how to appreciate it more.



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