603. Small Gods, Big Result

Small Gods, Big Result
also known as
Full-Fledged Characters, Where Are You?

I have a colleague, JM Williams, who is a great fan of Terry Pratchett. On his suggestion, I checked one of his novels out of the library, read five pages, and tossed it.  Yech.

A month or so later I mentioned the fact to him. He suggested that I might prefer to start on a different novel, and suggested Small Gods.

I was hooked by page two. The scene, or was it an allegory, of the eagle and the tortoise was wonderful, and I was ready to believe that Terry Pratchett might be all JM said he was.

By page 38, I wasn’t so sure again, and I found myself trying to analyze exactly what was missing — for me — in the novel. I do that a lot. If you write, I’m sure you know what I mean.

Roughly by page 200, I was back on board again.

I had came to a conclusion, and since it bears on writing in general, I’m going to expound. As with the responses I got from 601. Home Court Advantage, feel free to disagree.

At page 38 of Small Gods, there was no character I liked well enough to care if he lived or died. Still, interesting  things were happening and I wanted to know how they were going to come out. That is a positive mark for a writer who knows what he is doing, but it isn’t really enough.

By about page 200, I wanted Om to make it and I really wanted Brutha to make it. From that time on, I had a vested interest that kept me going with enthusiasm. If I read another Pratchett (and I probably will) that enthusiasm will be there from the start, now that I trust the author.

I had needed characters I could care about.

This is not the same as full-fledged characters. There is no such thing. Robert Caro just wrote a four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, and I’m sure he didn’t tell everything there was to tell. I read both parts of Patterson‘s bio of Heinlein and I still have questions.

If biographers who spend massive chunks of years don’t get it all, how can a fiction writer expect to have a “full-fledged” character. What does the phrase mean, anyway?

Om, Brutha, Vorbis, Simony, Urn, and Didactylos are all characters in Small Gods who are well thought out, powerful, and exactly sufficient to the task at hand. Not one of them is a “full-fledged” character, but they are each fledged exactly enough.

If you want to write full-fledged characters, maybe you should give up novels and write LITERATURE instead. (If WordPress allowed multiple fonts in one post, I would put LITERATURE in all curlicues.) Then you can out-Joyce Joyce if you want to, and still have readers.

They will have to read. There is a paper due next week, called for by the professor at the front of the room. He wants company in the misery of having been forced to read LITERATURE in order to get his degree.

In point of fact, there are powerful characters in literature and in genre fiction as well. The difference is in the expectations and tolerance of the reader. Powerful does not mean turning a microscope on his backstory and telling every detail.

Ursula LeGuin told us that science fiction is too small for Mrs. Brown, meaning there weren’t enough full-fledged characters. I listened. I respect LeGuin too much to ignore her, but after decades of considering her argument, it’s just smoke and mirrors.

I could (over)state in response, science fiction isn’t too small for Mrs. Brown; Mrs. Brown is too dull for science fiction.

Fiction, however humble or pretentious, is too small to contain any actual living human being. That isn’t what fiction is all about. Writers of fiction give a précis, a starting point, a few brief actions and emotions, and the reader fills in the rest. The reader draws on a full life of looking at other people, and at him or herself.

The real issue between literature and genre fiction is how many (and how dull) are the details the reader will tolerate.

Take Spenser (the detective, not the poet) for example. He has been around for almost fifty novels and, like Bond, has outlived his creator. After all this time we know a bit about him — actually, we may know all there is to know about him, and it isn’t much. Except for the interminable descriptions of food, all the details provided about him also move each story forward.

Recently I have worn out Spenser, Nero Wolfe and Archie, Judge Dee, Bony, Travis McGee and a dozen others, and have started Anne Cleves’s Shetland series. In my first attempt, I am having to get used to masses of detail about the lives of very ordinary people. I like it, but it is hard sledding; if I hadn’t visited Shetland and enjoyed the place, it would be even harder.

Cleves is a fine writer. My problem is a matter of expectations. Any detective writer in the list above would have finished Cleves’s novel in half as many pages, and the details left out would be the dull ones.

I like what I’m reading, really I do, but anything with this much detail about ordinary life has to be LITERATURE.

There will be more to say about all this on Monday.

HOLD IT – – – STOP THE PRESSES.

Something just came up as I was putting this to bed to wait for the 19th of June. It’s peripheral, but it struck me funny enough to put in a mini-post tomorrow. I will still say more about the main subject on Monday.

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2 thoughts on “603. Small Gods, Big Result

  1. JM Williams

    Pratchett’s best books tend to be like that–you don’t know what the deal is or who to care about until some way through, but by the end, everything weaves together rather nicely. The modern obsession with character is interesting. Character has always been important, of course, but I think in the past, especially for science fiction, theme or concept trumped character, and that was acceptable at the time. I’m surprised how many classic science fiction books I pick up and find to be lacking in character.

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  2. sydlogsdon Post author

    I see character emphasis as related to novel length. I tried to read Stephenson’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. and gave up after a hundred pages or so. It was wonderfully well written, with interesting things happening, but it was mostly character description of some really dull characters. If the book had been half as long, I would probably have loved it.

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