How to Write Dialogue for Middle-earth Characters

I see it all over the Lord of the Rings fan fiction world, and it makes me sigh. “It” is irrational dialogue. So, I present to you a few simple steps to writing authentic dialogue for the peoples of Middle-earth.

Here’s a sample; right now it is modern sounding and dull to read. With every step we’ll clean it up until we have the desired result.

"Hey you!" a voice called from behind him.

"What?" Legolas answered, recognizing the voice as one of his fellow soldiers.

"My prince, we’re screwed man. That little twerp Gollum just ran up a tree, and it’s tougher than shit to get him down."

"Well, did y’all just leave him?"

"Yeah, we left him up there to cool his heels, but Orcs are coming! We’re gonna need your help!"

Step 1. Remember that none of the people in Middle-earth speak English. The languages in wide usage are Sindarin and Westron at the end of the third age.

If someone who’s not from Middle-earth drops in, that person won’t be able to communicate with anyone. There are however, ways to counter this problem. Here are a few ideas I’ve seen that worked very well.

  • Your character(s) meet(s) someone from the Modern English world who has learned the language(s). The one who knows the language guides and teaches the new comer(s).
  • A magical device translates for the character(s).
  • A powerful Maia or Vala stuffs the language into the character’s head.
  • The character(s) must learn the language through trial and error and over a long time.
  • Come up with your own ideas; I’m certain you’ve got them!

Step 2. Avoid Modern Language

Remember that the peoples of Middle-earth don’t live in modern times and therefore don’t know modern slang terms, euphemisms, cuss words, interjections, contractions, neologisms, or idioms.

Hello, yay, what’s up, wow, gotta, bee in your bonnet, stuff, shit, yeah… the list goes on and on. This step is simple; all you have to do to the modern terms is reword or delete them.

"Hail!" a voice called from behind him.

"Hail!" Legolas answered, recognizing the voice as one of his fellow soldiers.

"My prince, we are in need. The creature Gollum is hiding in a tree, and we cannot get him down."

"Did you leave him there?"

"We left him there, but Orcs are coming! We will need your help!"

Step 3. Make the dialogue poetic, funnier, and ‘older’ sounding.

This does not mean to throw ‘thee’, ‘thou’, ‘thine’, and ‘thy’ around in the dialogue, or make the characters sound like buzzing Welshmen saying ‘lass’, ‘milady’, and ‘lad’ all over the place. Just make the dialogue prettier. A poet by nature, Tolkien loved to play with words. Here’s a section from The Fellowship of the Ring that shows this.

At last Frodo spoke with hesitation. ‘I believed that you were a friend before the letter came,’ he said, ‘or at least I wished to. You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.’
‘I see,’ laughed Strider. ‘I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.’

By cracking the joke, Tolkien was relieving some stress created by Aragorn pretending to be after the ring. This dialogue also convinces the Hobbits and the reader that this Strider is the real Aragorn. This dialogue is brilliant, and it’s a pity it never made it to the screen.

"Hail!" a voice called from behind him.

"Hail!" Legolas answered, recognizing the voice as one of his fellow soldiers.

"My prince, we are in need. The creature Gollum hid himself in a tree, and we cannot bring him down."

"You left him?"

"We left him there, but Orcs are coming as we steal time for talk! We need your aid now!"

Step 4. Don’t overuse formalities

People in Middle-earth don’t throw around formalities like ‘my lady / lord / queen / king / prince / princess / son / daughter / hairdresser’ because they are, well, formalities. Even in a formal occasion they weren’t used on everyone all the time.

The titles of nobility were only used on those who had those titles.

‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ refer to people who own land. So, a thirteen-year-old human girl who was found in the middle of nowhere would not be called a lady.

The titles ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ were given to people who rule land.

The titles of ‘Prince’ and ‘Princess’ are tricky as well. They aren’t necessarily given to the children of king and queens. They are given to people who rule land but still answer to a king or a queen. So, Legolas is not a prince. He’s not even a lord. He’s a good warrior, but pretty much a no name among Elves before the War of the Ring. Faramir, on the other hand, is a prince.

If there is a need to use formal titles, and your character isn’t any kind of lord, lady or noble, then the terms would be “Miss” for unmarried women and girls, “Missus” for married women, “Mistress” for married women with authority over others (like a teacher), “Mister” for men, and “Master” for men with authority.

"Hail!" a voice called from behind him.

"Hail!" Legolas answered, recognizing the voice as one of his fellow soldiers.

"We are in need. The creature Gollum hid himself in a tree, and we cannot bring him down."

"You left him?"

"We left him there, but Orcs are coming as we steal time for talk! We need your aid now!"

Step 5. Remember that the races of Middle-earth aren’t exaggerated forms of the portrayals in the movies.

Dwarves aren’t rusty Welshmen.

Gimli spoke in such a flowery and courteous way that he cured Haldir, Lady Galadriel, and Lord Celeborn of their prejudice against Dwarves and charmed Galadriel into giving him three hairs instead of just one. Gimli was a gentleman, not an illiterate, rough miner. Remember that Dwarves have their own classes of people, just as the Men do. Therefore, they cannot be stereotyped. The only ones speaking like rusty Welshmen were unschooled Hobbits.

Hobbits, though they are the size of children, are not all children.

Of course, Hobbit children behave like children, but the older Hobbits behave like older people. For instance: Merry and Pippin are not children. Even Pippin, who began the adventure a few years shy of his coming of age at 33 and was still technically a child, took the mission very, very seriously. He made a few stupid mistakes, like tossing a rock down a well in Moria, but he didn’t spend his time in the Fellowship playing and being a nuisance. Don’t give hobbits baby talk for dialogue. Also, I’m willing to bet that the hobbits know the birds and the bees by their tweens.

Elves aren’t teenagers.

Eternally youthful appearing does not mean eternally childish personality. Elves have a very poetic speaking style that sets them apart from the other races. This comes from living for a very long time, and practicing the art of speaking for a very long time. At first glance and impression, there is nothing impetuous about them. They don’t go through the traumatic, angsty, whiny age that we mortals must endure. So, why oh why is there so much mortal teenager dialogue given to Elves? Most writers choose Elves for their loftiness, only to strip that away with poorly thought-out dialogue. So, instead of shouting, "I WON’T!", an Elf might say, "I will not do such a thing, for it is against my nature."

I have one last, minor point about the Elves’ speaking style. It was noted by a Hobbit that you should never go to the Elves seeking an answer, for they will only give you more questions. They don’t often give simple "yes" or "no" answers.

Step 6. Don’t overuse your thees and thous.

Remember that the characters didn’t use ‘thee’, ‘thy’, ‘thine’, and ‘thou’ very often, but a few of the evil characters did use them rarely. These pronouns are used when speaking to someone lower than or equal to yourself. Tolkien liked using them to show evil characters’ arrogance. The evil characters used it to say, We are better than you. He also used it show deeply personal, touching moments when characters marked each other as equals.

When the Mouth of Sauron spoke to Aragorn and Gandalf he said, Is there anyone in this rout with authority to treat with me? Or indeed with wit to understand me? Not thou at least!

Don’t use these pronouns if you can help it.

Believe it or not, ‘thee’, ‘thou’, ‘thine’, and ‘thy’ have grammatical rules to their uses, but fear not! They are as simple as using ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘mine’ and ‘my’.

‘Thou’ is a subject of a sentence. Example: Thou art but a child on this speck of rock.

‘Thee’ is an object of a sentence. Example: I would kill thee, as I love thee now.

‘Thy’ is a possessive pronoun. Example: Take thy sword!

‘Thine’ is a possessive pronoun when used as the object of “to be”, instead of directly proceeding the noun. Example: That jewel is thine.

‘Thine’ is also used in the place of ‘thy’ when the following word starts with a vowel. Example: Behold me with thine eyes!

There are special verbs and verb endings that go with this pronoun.

Art: are

Hast: have

Shalt: shall

Dost: do

The rest of the verbs have special suffixes added to them.

  • -st
  • -th (used if verb ends in an ‘e’.) Note: -eth is also an archaic third person singular verb suffix.

If you still aren’t sure how to use these pronouns, read the King James’ Bible. You’ll find examples at least 20 times per a page.

Step 7. Don’t use His (or Their) name(s) in vain!

Speaking the name of a Vala or Eru himself is treading on hallowed names. So, the name of Eru Ilúvatar would not be used when someone burned the lembas, or even when a rather heavy pot landed on someone’s foot. The only times they spoke the name of Eru or a Vala were marriage, childbirth, death, in praise directed to the Ainur, hymns, history lessons, and running headlong into a battle against evil. Not when saying goodbye, and certainly not to curse. In fact, the names of the Ainur are so off-limits that Elves will not use the names of the Ainur in their own, and men only use the names in their own if they are saying that they are devoted to them, like ‘Valandil’ meaning: Devotion to the Valar.

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