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Saturday, January 25, 2020

Character study

A friend asked me a couple of days ago who my favorite characters from books were.

"My own books, or other people's?" I asked.

"How about both?" she replied.

A discussion ensued that I thought would make an interesting blog post, so here are my favorite fictional characters (not including movies & television), starting with the ones from other folk's stories.  In no particular order:
  • Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien.  It's been said, and I think it's the truth, that Sam is the real hero of the story -- not Frodo, not Aragorn, not Gandalf.  Over and over the point is made that it's the simple, sweet things in life that the whole War of the Ring was being fought to preserve and protect, and Sam embodies that, as well as a hefty dose of pure courage and loyalty.
  • Aomame from Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.  An enigmatic woman with a mission that pulls her between compassion and retribution, Aomame lives in the surreal space Murakami creates -- a world that on first glance is just like ours, but only intersects reality at the edges.  Murakami's book is a tour de force, and Aomame is a brilliant, puzzling, fascinating character of the kind only he can bring to life.
  • Hazel from Richard Adams's Watership Down.  If I had to pick one character from fiction who displays the qualities of a true leader, it's Hazel, who leads his intrepid, ragtag band out of one danger and into a greater one, inspiring loyalty from his comrades and in a quiet, understated way bringing out the best in each one of them.  Yes, I know the characters are rabbits.  Doesn't make a difference.  If you haven't read this book, put it on your list.
  • Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  I'm hard-pressed to pick between them, because they're a bit like figure-and-ground, complementary opposites who have come together to save the world.  Aziraphale is the angel with a deep compassion for and understanding of human foibles, and Crowley a demon with a heart of gold he tries (unsuccessfully) to hide.  This is one case where the television adaptation is as wonderful as the book -- Michael Sheen and David Tennant as (respectively) the representatives of heaven and hell are absolutely brilliant.
  • Speaking of Pratchett, Sam Vimes, the head of the police force in Ankh-Morpork and the right hand man of the Lord Patrician of the City, the machiavellian Havelock Vetinari, in a number of Pratchett's wonderful Discworld series.  Vimes is the stalwart, common-sense-ful anchor of the cast of oddballs that make up the rank-and-file of The Watch, Ankh-Morpork's police, and he navigates political intrigue and the odd assassination attempt with a weary, almost-but-not-quite-cynical deftness.
  • Brother William of Baskerville from Umberto Eco's murder mystery The Name of the Rose.  A fourteenth-century monk with a flair for observation, he's a medieval Hercule Poirot without the little Belgian's overinflated ego.  Brother William is faced with the superstition and fear of the time, and always comes back to rationality -- there is a natural, logical cause for everything, and the world is understandable to anyone who is willing to put some effort into learning about it.  Even when monks are mysteriously dying all around him, and the abbot is blaming the Forces of Darkness, Brother William never deviates from his determination to solve the case through reason and hard evidence.
Now, a handful of my own creations:
  • Whenever the question of my favorite character from my stories comes up, the answer is always Callista Lee, the brilliant, eccentric telepath from The Snowe Agency Mysteries (starting with Poison the Well).  Callista is constantly bombarded with others' thoughts, and as a result, shies away from people -- her gift gives her a unique window into the human condition and at the same time pushes her away, leaving her deeply alone.  Her character arc over the entire series is one of my favorite creations.
I always thought that if the Snowe Agency Mysteries were ever made into movies, Tilda Swinton would be perfect as Callista. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, Tilda Swinton (28352184350) (cropped), CC BY-SA 2.0]
  • Doctor Will Daigle, from Whistling in the Dark (the sequel to Lines of Sight, and hitting the shelves next week!).  Will is funny, quick, smart, and profane, but his genial temperament covers a huge heart and a tremendous compassion.  Which is why -- no spoilers -- what he has to do about a third of the way through Whistling in the Dark is one of the most poignant (and difficult!) scenes I've ever written.  I won't tell you more, you'll just have to read it for yourself.
  • Tyler Vaughan from Signal to Noise.  If I had to pick the character whose temperament is most like mine, Tyler would be the odds-on favorite.  A socially awkward biology nerd who'd just as soon spend his time ear-tagging elk in the Cascade Mountains, Tyler finds himself the center of a terrifying mystery -- and is forced into the role of Unlikely Hero completely against his will.
  • The Head Librarian, Archibald Fischer, from Lock & Key.  Fischer (forget he's named Archibald unless you want to be the target of his ire) is the sarcastic, Kurt-Cobain-worshiping, f-bomb-dropping director of the Library of Possibilities, where every possibility for every human on Earth is catalogued and monitored.  The repartee between him and his assistant, the imperturbable Scot Maggie Carmichael, is some of the most fun I've ever had writing.
  • Last, Jennie Trahan from my novella "Convection," in the collection Sights, Signs, and Shadows.  Jennie may seem like an unlikely choice -- from the beginning she's the bitchy, eye-rolling foil to the other characters' attempt to stay alive in a Category Five hurricane.  But she's the character who while I was writing the story grabbed the keyboard from my hand and started telling me about why she was so irascible -- and became one of the most compelling, sympathetic characters in the story.
So there you have it, a smattering of characters from different sources who have really resonated with me for one reason or another.  So let's hear your take on this -- who are your favorite characters from fiction?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The ten best

A friend of mine posted a link to one of those "Ten Best Books Ever Written" things, where someone sets him/herself up as the arbiter of taste for the whole English-speaking world.  I tend to cast a wry eye any time someone says "these are the best ever" in some kind of definitive way.  Yes, there are standards for storytelling and writing mechanics and so on, so there are books that would undoubtedly fail on a variety of levels; but when you start looking at why one book resonates with you, but it leaves someone else completely cold, you're launching into matters of taste, which are not only highly individual, they're not true in any kind of absolute sense.

I get really impatient with people who ridicule people's taste in books, music, and art.  You know what?  If (to grab a particularly apt phrase from the Quakers) it "speaks to your condition," it's good.  Never mind if I don't like it.  You do, and that's that.  If I like Nickelback and your tastes run more to Tchaikovsky, that's just the way it goes.

(Nota bene:  I do not, in fact, like Nickelback.  Put away the damn pitchforks.)

(Nota bene again:  I also do not particularly like Tchaikovsky.  Put away the damn pitchforks.)

Anyway, it's an interesting question as to why different people like different works of whatever.  My favorite painting, for example, is Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère:

[Image is in the Public Domain]

But I would be hard pressed to say why, exactly.  All I know is that it has a deep poignancy for me, so much that when I finally got to see it for real at the Courteauld Gallery in London two years ago, it brought me to tears.

On my other blog, Skeptophilia, I've dealt with the issue of musical taste, in particular how specific music effects people's brains -- resulting in the feeling of chills we get when we hear music that moves us emotionally.  Of course, showing that this happens and showing why a particular person resonates to a particular piece of music are two different things -- and the research into the former isn't getting us any closer to finding the reason for the latter.

That said, I thought it would be interesting to return to the literary, and see if I could come up with my ten favorite books.  I limited it to fiction (although there is non-fiction I love as well; maybe I'll deal with that in another post).  Here's what I came up with, in reverse order:
10. The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin)
9. 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami)
8. Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien)
7. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
6. Good Omens (Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman)
5. Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)
4. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
3. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (Haruki Murakami)
1. Foucault's Pendulum (Umberto Eco)
I'm sure if I sit and think longer, I'll go, "Wait, I forgot ______!" and revise the list, but this was my first pass at the task.  These are all books I keep returning to over and over, some of which I first read a long time ago (my first reading of And Then There Were None was when I was twelve, and it hooked me on murder mysteries for life -- and Christie's approach to a whodunnit significantly influenced my own mystery series, The Snowe Agency Mysteries).

So -- those are my top ten.  What are yours?