Thursday, 6 August 2009
Memorable Characters - Katherine Langrish
I was asked by a fantasy and science fiction survey what I thought were the weaknesses of the two genres. This is a bit like being asked in a job interview to identify your own personal weaknesses – one doesn’t want to admit to anything. But in the end I replied ‘Poor characterisation and an over-reliance on magical and scientific hardware.’ I don’t think this was unfair. As a teenager I gobbled up Isaac Asimov’s ‘Robot’ and ‘Foundation’ books, and Arthur C. Clarke’s many and various space odysseys, but what I loved was the vast sweep of the black canvas they both painted on – prickling with stars and smudged with dusty, embryonic galaxies. Against that background, the human characters in their books were unmemorable. I’m trying right now, and I can’t think of even one of their names.
As for fantasy, the same thing applies. The world is often more important than the characters. I don’t think I would recognise Colin and Susan from Alan Garner’s brilliant early fantasies, if I saw them in the street. Even in ‘Lord of the Rings’, characters are more often conveniently defined by their species (elf, dwarf, hobbit etc) than by personality. Could you pick Legolas from an identity parade of other elves, or Gimli from a line-up of other dwarfs?
You have several wonderfully memorable science-fiction/fantasy characters on the tip of your tongue at this very moment, I can tell, and you are burning to let me know. I can think of a notable exception myself: Mervyn Peake’s cast of eccentrics in the Gormenghast books. I’ll look forward to your comments... But moving swiftly on, I began to think about memorable characters in children’s fiction – which as a genre, like science fiction and fantasy, tends to be strong on narrative. Does children’s fiction in general, I wondered, have characters that walk off the page?
So here, in no particular order, is a partial list. Mr Toad. The Mole and the Water Rat. Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Tigger. William. Alice. The Red Queen. Oswald Bastable and Noel Bastable. Arrietty, Homily and Pod. Mrs Oldknowe. Dido Twite. Patrick Pennington. Mary Poppins. Mowgli. Long John Silver. Peter Pan. Ramona. Huck Finn. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy. Puddleglum. Pa, Ma, Laura and Mary. Stalky. Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden and the Hemulen...
All of these characters, I would argue, are so strongly drawn that once you have met them you will never forget them. I will bet that for each of the above names (so long as you’ve read the books) you knew instantaneously who I meant, and had a picture of them in your head and the ‘flavour’ of them in your mind, just as if they were real people. These characters have a life beyond the page: not only is it possible to imagine them doing other things besides what their authors have described, it’s almost impossible not to believe that in some sense they possess a sort of independent reality.
There are many good books in which characterisation is not very important. Fairytales have always relied on standard ‘types’: the foolish younger son whose good heart triumphs, the princess in rags, the cruel queen, the harsh stepmother, the weak father, the lucky lad whose courage carries him through. This is because fairytales are templates for experience, and they are short: we identify with the hero, and move on with the narrative. Fairytales are not about other people: they are about us.
But the crown of fiction is the creation of new, independent characters. Though Mr Toad may share some characteristics with the boastful, lucky lad of Grimm’s fairytale ‘The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs’, he is nevertheless gloriously and individually himself. Huck Finn is more than a poor peasant boy or a woodcutter’s son. Children’s fiction is a fertile ground in which such characters can flourish.
Visit Katherine's website at www.katherinelangrish.co.uk