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

17 comments:

Nick Green said...

Interesting that you mention Arthur C. Clarke. His characters are, as you say, often 2D at best. That said, I felt that in 2001: A Space Odyssey this works, bizarrely, as a strength. The scale of the events is so monumental that the absence of character in Dave Bowman and Frank Poole (there, some names!) seems to highlight the insigificance of humanity in the infinite universe. They are, almost literally, 'nothing'. To give them depth would have softened that terrible feeling of insigificance. (Also, being as bland as they are, they also make very convincing astronauts: super-competent but very self-contained, with no visible flaws and few quirks).

Now trying to think of my favourite fantasy characters. You're right, it is quite tricky. Terry Pratchett, as primarily comedy, doesn't really count - all his characters sparkle.

Katherine Langrish said...

You're right: Terry Pratchett has some pretty good characters. Commander Vimes is a good example. But comedy relies on good main characters, doesn't it? We need to care about them or we won't find them funny/appealing, like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

Nick Green said...

I suppose when you have 'hard' SF or fantasy, the ideas become pre-eminent and the characters merely serve to frame them. The monolith in 2001, for example, comes across as a character as much as the astronauts do.

Mervyn Peake, as you say, is an interesting exception. But then Titus Groan and its sequels don't try to carry many fantasy ideas; there is no magic or supernature, just grotesque scenery and characters. So it probably has more in common with Dickens than with Tolkien.

Katherine Langrish said...

Mmm. I'm not saying there are NO memorable characters in fantasy. I try very hard to write memorable characters myself! Some of the characters in my list come from fantasies (in the loose sense, which I think is the best sense. The Moomin books are fantasies, aren't they? And the Alice books? Discuss.) But a writer can't always do everything in a book, and I think you are right that in hard sci-fi, ideas predominate. All the same, it's wonderful to come across a sci-fi book in which the characters are less wooden. Do you know 'A Canticle for Leibowitz'?

Sue Price said...

Hal is the character in 2001: Space Odyssey. And the hero of Bester's 'The Stars My Destination' is memorable - even though I can't remember his name! I remember his ferocity and implacable determination though.

Katherine Langrish said...

Hal - of course!

John Dougherty said...

To be fair, the whole point of Bilbo Baggins was that he turned out to be Not Like Other Hobbits, and he's distinctive and memorable - as is dear old Gollum, of course. But then, The Hobbit is a children's book. Regarding LOTR, I agree with you about Legolas and Gimli, and by extension a lot of the other characters too; but I think I'd know Sam Gamgee anywhere.

As for SF: names that spring to mind are Asimov's Susan Calvin, Elijah Bailey & R. Daneel Olivaw, and NDR-1 (The Bicentennial Man, and no, I haven't seen the film); and Spender from Bradbury's The Last Martian.

And of course we've all met unmemorable characters in children's books. But broadly, I think you're absolutely right. A great and thought-provoking post, Kath, thank you; and Yay! for kidslit!

Katherine Langrish said...

I agree with you about Sam Gamgee and Gollum. And I can recall Susan Calvin, now you mention her, though I seem to remember her as a bit of a caricature of an uptight woman scientist. I actually can't bring Elijah Bailey to mind at all. Daneel Olivaw was a robot, I know - erm, but that's all I can remember, and I did read the books, though it was a long time ago. But I've never really gone back to them, and the generally thin-on-the-ground level of characterisation has been the main reason why.

John Dougherty said...

Fair point about Calvin, Kath - perhaps she was consistent rather than rounded, although I do remember one in which she was brought out of retirement which fleshed her out a tiny bit more ("Feminine Intuition", it was called). And I haven't read the Bailey/Olivaw stories in, erp, decades (Bailey was the human robot-hating detective who was lumbered with Olivaw as a partner and slowly grew to respect him).

Maybe a better example would be Harrison's Slippery Jim diGriz? What do other readers think?

Gillian Philip said...

I can't begin to think, because John has just sent me into a weepy bout of timewarp nostalgia. Slippery Jim diGriz! Oh my! The Stainless Steel Rat! Oh, there was a character. Sigh.

Gillian Philip said...

And now I think about it, why why WHY has there never been a Stainless Steel Rat movie?

Nick Green said...

Here's something interesting to add to the mix. I remember when the film version of The Lord of the Rings was first cast. I saw the four actors intended to play the hobbits in the Fellowship, and I knew without checking who would play whom. Granted, Sam was easy (the most yokel-looking) as was Frodo (handsome, starry expression) but the revelation was how easily Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) could be distinguished. People do often think of those two as less well-defined, almost identical twins - and yet, at a glance, I could tell who was whom from their faces.
How was that possible? It could only mean that Tolkien had done a better job of characterisation than first appears. As had the Casting Director.

Jan Lindqvist said...

Hi Katherine!
I agree with your partial list, but as a Swede i miss "Pippi Longstocking" by our "icon" Astrid Lindgren.
Best wishes!
from
Jan Lindqvist

PS. I love this site! DS.

Stroppy Author said...

H G Wells and John Wyndham manage characterisation, as far as I can remember - though it's a long time since I read much. (I did read Day of the Triffids to Big Bint as a bed-time story only 5 or 6 years ago.) Saramago's Blindness is very strong on character. And there's Margaret Atwood, of course. But I'm not really a fantasy/SF person so I don't read the 'hard' ones in which technology and space predominate so I wouldn't dream of saying how typical or otherwise these few are :-)

Katherine Langrish said...

Hi Jan ! Nice to see you here. Of course, Pippi Longstocking should join the list.

And, Anne, glad to be reminded of the excellent John Wyndham, though I don't think his characters are especially memorable. Most of his narrators sound alike - open-minded, pleasant, youngish middle class men. I enjoy his books immensely (The Kraken Wakes is my favourite) but not for the characters, although I like the little biy in 'Chocky'.

Kiyote said...

several in de lint's books:

jilly

christy

tamson house (maybe not a person but certainly a character)

blue

kiyote jack

madwippitt said...

Can I add Jenkins to the list - from Clifford D Simak's classic 'City' ... and all the characters in Connie Willis' Domesday ...
Interesting comment about Lord of the Rings - when I saw the film trailer I knew instantly who all the characters were, and they looked absolutely right - unlike in some films of books when the characters look nothing like the way you imagined them in your head ...