when I was young and my older brother was reading Terry Pratchett, and my younger brother was about to start reading Terry Pratchett, his books still had those dizzying, vulgar (I’m not sure whether I mean that in a positive or negative sense, but I’m sure that’s the right word) covers. I thought for years that his books must be a surreal and adult romp through some incomprehensible world.
Not all of that impression was wrong, but having now read almost every Discworld book, I know that not much of it was right.
I’m reading his second-to-latest book at the mo, Unseen Academicals, and it’s coming home to me all over again, just how well he writes characters. Specifically, characters who are pretending to be something they’re not – or pretending not to be what they are.
(I realise those last two pretty much say the same thing, but there is a huge difference. It reminds me of an anecdote Michael Caine tells about his early days of acting. He was on the stage doing his very best “drunk man walking”, when the director stopped him. “I see a sober man walking in a squiggly line,” the director said (though he may not have used the word “squiggly”). “I want to see a drunk man walking in a straight line.”
Both amount to the same thing, but are completely different. The difference between a character putting their energy into pretending to be something they’re not, and putting their energy into pretending not to be what they are is what makes Terry Pratchett great.)
His characters are complex. They are unreliable narrators, because they’re not always honest with themselves about who (or what) they really are. Their motivations are not what they appear to be. Or else they have two opposing motivations, and you never know which one will out. It’s nature v nurture battling it out inside one consciousness.
It creates narrative traction like nobody’s business, because whilst you’re following the bigger-picture narrative and trying to figure that out, you’re also working away in the back of your mind on what this character is hiding from you. It never feels coy, because they’re almost always hiding it from themselves, too.
Very often, when the conflicting parts of a character come to a head, there’s a moment where free will determines the outcome of this one struggle, which most likely determines the outcome of a larger struggle. A character’s own nature sets the stage and writes the drama for their own moment of epiphany.
The next thing is figuring out how the hell he does it.