Regarding Sauron: On Ambiguous Characters

J.M. McDermott published his first novel, Last Dragon, in January, 2008 under the Wizards of the Coast Discoveries program. Last Dragon drew immediate praise from both fans and critics for its stylistic prose and unconventional narrative structure. The book went on to make the ‘Editors Choice’ top ten at
Apex Publications published the eBook versions of Last Dragon in June, 2009. In 2011, Apex re-issued the print version.
Prior to the publication of Last Dragon, McDermott was a prolific short fiction and poetry writer. His work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, GUD, Dark Recesses, and more. He maintains an active blog at

Regarding Sauron. I don’t get him. I just don’t. What’s the point of all that power and despair? Control? Evil for its own sake? He’s so powerful all he has to do is sort of hang out in his tower and play with his rings and breed orcs and giant spiders and nobody would bother him if he wasn’t so busy trying to eradicate everything else. What’s the point of Sauron? Evil isn’t supposed to make sense. To the “heroes”, evil is just supposed to be this big, unknowable thing that happens and hurts people and must be stopped. Evil is a cloud of fear. Evil is an unspoken taboo that someone dares act upon, spilling a world of pain and suffering out from the sources of corruption. Because that’s exactly what doesn’t happen in life, by the way, that it must be written about in fiction. In life evil is an moral expression of tribalism, and tribal loyalty. For instance, killing is bad, unless you are killing “the bad guy” in which case, Yippee-ki-yay, Mother Fucker, because the bad guys deserve to die.

All right, so Sauron is explicated and explained elsewhere and he sort of makes sense when you think of him as a tragic hero. To Sauron, he, himself, is the hero of a struggle against the creator’s song of life, towards a self-directed transcendence earned and not handed down from on high. He is a Promethean figure. He is stealing the fire and building the world in his own image. He corrupts the creator’s world, to create his own. That’s heroic, isn’t it? That he is destroying so much life and love in the world is secondary to his own acts of creation that generate new life – orcish life. Plenty of good books explore the dynamic of the epic fantasy race wars from the perspective of the orcs and evil races.

Perspective, though, is key. Who you root for is what makes someone a hero or an anti-hero, or a villain. To a reader, following someone who is boring or predictable is ultimately the only deathblow to your prose. Whether heroic or anti-heroic, we root for the interesting one. I find both extremes trite, honestly. I prefer characters that are more like us in that they are more ambiguous in their life and motivations. Dogsland, a series of books I wrote, attempts to explicate a little upon the idea of good and evil, and the actual ambiguity of them.

Think back to tribalism. Characters have goals. Society has goals for all people inside of society. These opposing goals are neither good nor evil, but they don’t all line up. No society has a clear path of birth to death with exactly each that must be taken, followed by people who thoughtlessly step into those paths. Think about it in your own life. Our society has conflicting goals for us all as different sources of cultural authority impose their goals out in conflict with each other. Example: It may be “good” not to blow your retirement on a trip with your friends to Vegas, but interacting with other people and expressing the social bonds of love and affection are good, too. These two goals are in conflict. Do you blow your retirement in Vegas with your firends, or do you stay home alone and put off pleasure for another day?

In Dogsland, it is “good” not to kill people, but it also “good” to do what the king tells you. Jona is a character of conflict. He serves the king of the day, as a guardsman. By night, he serves the underworld. For both these masters, he is a violent man that does violent things. His human desire for love and peace in this world conflicts with the corruption of his blood. The tension of the conflicting forces in his life happen, for him and for us, as casually as walking down the street. He cannot make sense of the forces, and neither do we. We merely act. We live and act. The choices that come from these actions, that spill us into new tensions and new ways of living, define us as adults and as humans in an ambiguous world that spill forward into patterns we barely understand.

The truly inhuman thing about Sauron is that he understands why he does what he does completely. I think that’s why I don’t understand him, and do not get into his motives. The key to ambiguous characters is that no matter how much they reflect upon themselves, they don’t really know why they make the choices they do. No one does. They are just choices, in the moment of life, made when everything is a mess, and some choices don’t make sense except considering the mess of goals that spill out before us where everyone around us wants something and we have to discover what it is we want.

I don’t know what I want. I want something. That’s what we who are ambiguous say.