This is not an eulogy, nor is it a book review. It’s ruminations on what makes one milieu, the characters, and their conflicts in it thrive while another falters.
This year on March 12th, a world-builder died. Sir Terry Pratchett, creator of the Discworld and author of 41 novels set in that milieu, plus short stories, graphic novel adaptations, film adaptations, and Discworld guidebooks. His books sold over 80 million copies and were translated into 37 languages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discworld). He must have done something right.
Large and small details bring the Discworld’s strangeness (this is a magical world even with its sciences and pseudo-sciences) to vivid and humorous life. There’s familiarity in the milieu as well as in the characters and their interaction with their world and each other. For all the ways Sir Terry parodied and punned and put ballet shoes on clichés so they pirouetted in the stories, there were observations and truths sprinkled throughout. His characters and their behaviors are recognizably human even when they’re not humans.
Yet, the stories could happen nowhere else, and the characters inextricably mesh with their world. Sir Terry isn’t the only author to accomplish this level of character/milieu interweaving, especially in a series. Anne McCaffrey (Pern), Stephen King (Dark Tower), and Frank Herbert (Dune) are among many who have done this, too.
But Sir Terry’s passing occurred not long after I’d read another book, Christian speculative fiction, (not naming author or title, but I’ll call it Book Askew) that struck me wrong though I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was awry at first. Timing made me think about the differences between Book Askew and the many Discworld novels I’d read.
I cut my reading teeth in an era when there was no division between Christian and mainstream fiction. I’ve read widely in every genre even though speculative is my favorite. But I also read critically, so when a work―Christian or secular―can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with some of mainstream’s best, I try to figure out why.
Book Askew’s characters were not fully part of their own unique world. As thorough as their bios obviously were, they came across as late 20th/early 21st century WASPs cosplaying in a milieu where they should’ve been immersed. Their world, their culture, their history (including personal histories sprinkled in as facts they related to each other) seemed to have little effect on them. Dress them in the garb of another time or milieu and they would still be 20th/21st century WASPs. The author created them but didn’t allow them life within the context of their world, little more than vehicles for sometimes snappy (but more often sappy) dialog.
Compare this with any Discworld novel. The characters are not only immersed in the milieu but are also affected by everything in it. Each character, however major or minor, has been intimately shaped by the Discworld’s past and present, by its geography, and by its cultures.
Remember the adage that without conflict there is no story? In the Discworld, it’s in more than one main plot line and 2-3 subplots. Every major character struggles with internal, interpersonal, intercultural, interspecies, interreligious, and other conflicts, layer upon layer for a richly realized milieu. Main characters strive with at least a dozen conflicts in conjunction with or in opposition to another character’s conflict array.
This intricacy takes the Discworld stories beyond basic protagonist/antagonist encounters, the good and the bad clearly aligned against each other. When a character has as many conflicts about self, family, allies, and world as there are about enemies, the story and milieu develops a reality of its own and defies formula.
But it does something else as well.
Consider this. We realize we live next door to someone strikingly like Fred Colon or Nanny Og. Leonard of Quirm’s incarnation was one of our teachers in high school. We’ve survived eating Dibbler’s fare and probably bought a few of his questionable wares. We suspect a government official is really the Chair of Indefinite Studies. Vetinari could’ve been modeled after our employer (difficult but preferable to the Lord Snapcase boss we once had).We work with a Ponder Stibbons techno-nerd. A cousin could pass for Knobby Nobs in all but perhaps appearance, and we’re certain a sibling is the mental doppelgänger of Detritus.
The people we know haven’t changed because we’ve added a defining name or vocabulary for them in our own minds. Rather, we gained a fresh perspective and a little understanding. No matter how fantastic the Discworld is, even as it entertains, it also illuminates much about our own world―our real milieu―and our relationships with it and with each other. Perhaps even about ourselves.
And isn’t that what the best stories should do?
Thank you for the Discworld, Sir Terry. RIP
G.L. Francis is Midwest writer, consulting editor, artist, tinker, and jane-of-many-trades with way too many interests. Her short story collectionLeyfarers and Wayfarers and speculative poetry collection Under Every Moon showcases a variety of world-building aspects.
I don’t know whether you actually post links to works but here’s both the tinyurl and the full Amazon link.
For Leyfarers and Wayfarers:
For Under Every Moon:
As for a pic, I don’t really have a good one–this is most usable.