Posted by: kshayes513 | August 8, 2010

Reading: Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett. Photo: Noreascon 4 GOH portrait

The first Discworld novel I ever read was Men at Arms. Long before I finished it, I knew I would never again be able to read any novels in the genre of “derivative heroic fantasy based on Northern European myth stereotypes.” At least, not with a straight face!

Many others besides Terry Pratchett have written humorous fantasy; but to my mind, Pratchett stands as much apart from the rest as Great A’Tuin, swimming through the stars with the Discworld on its back. The Discworld ought to be the envy of any serious worldbuilder, thanks to its apparently infinite ability to generate new characters and stories that yet form a coherent and utterly believable whole.

The genius of Terry Pratchett lies partly in his complete mastery of so many genres.Most of the City Watch stories are police procedurals (with, granted, a very unusual police force). The Wizard/Unseen University stories read like academic comedies; while any novel set in Ankh-Morpork is a deconstruction of city life (any city, any world).  The novels about Death and his family, and about Granny Weatherwax’s circle of witches, are often the closest to heroic fantasy, but it’s heroic fantasy turned inside out and stood on its head. And every Discworld novel is also, on some level, a social satire of whatever segment of Discworld society happens to be at the fore.

Regardless of what genre(s) a particular novel fits into, Pratchett understands the mythology and mood of that genre right to its bones.  Many a writer can spin great stories using the conventions of one or several genres, but it takes a genius to produce such affectionate mockery of those genres,  without once jarring his readers out of the story or shaking our belief in the reality of the world.

Death and Albert as Hogfather and Elf. Image: RHI/Genius Entertainment

Perhaps my favorite scene in the entire Discworld canon comes in Hogfather, when Death, posing as the Discworld version of Father Christmas/Santa Claus (don’t ask! just go read it!) drives his sleigh into a department store to provide the obligatory kiddie visits with Santa. The result is a stupefying and hilarious collision of cultural assumptions, psychology, myth, and satire. There’s so much going on in this one scene, that you could write whole articles about it in any field from mythology to literary analysis to sociology.

I had the privilege of meeting Sir Terry at Noreascon 4 in 2004, at a time when I had read only a few Discworld novels as well as with my other favorite humorous fantasy, Good Omens (my copy now proudly bears his autograph alongside Neil Gaiman’s). After hearing him speak and seeing the many marvelous Discworld themed Masquerade costumes (including a Death of Dust Bunnies, and a radio controlled Luggage that followed Sir Terry around the stage!) I realized it was time to sit down and read the whole series front to back. I’m still happily engaged on that venture, reading the books in order as much as possible, but also, of course, devouring whatever new novels cross my path. Then of course I’ll still have the fun of reading all his other novels.

Worldbuilders can learn two rules from the master of the Discworld:

First, know your stuff. Really, really well. Even if it’s stuff you invented right out of the chemical reactions in your brain, know it inside and out, top to bottom, and your world will live and breathe and thrive on its own.

Second, love your world and its inhabitants and we, your audience, will love them, too. Even while he’s mocking, Pratchett makes us care deeply for each  flawed, stubborn and halfway to heroic Discworld resident, because he cares about them. All of them, from best to worst. Even the bad guys get good deaths. OF COURSE.

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Responses

  1. Just one clarifiaction. The statement, “know your stuff — really,” might actually be vaguer than helpful. The natural question that arises, “how do we get to that point?”

    One technique I have used in teaching is an outline that sets up a character response to nature and environment. The purpose aims to make the writer think through the thought process. For each act the character makes, the outline requires a response from the nature or the enviornment of the world,

    This type of outline could help people see where they need to research further details. Or it could bring to mind some items of worldbuilding they notice is missing.

    What do you think —

    Tom

  2. Tom, excellent point. However, it would have taken me another whole post (or more likely dozens of them), to get specific about “knowing your stuff.” I have discussed it here and there.

    Your outline technique sounds fascinating, and I’d love to more about it. If it’s transferable from classroom to short essay format, would you be interested in doing a guest post?

  3. Hi,

    Sure. I’d love to put an essay together. Let me know where you want me to place it. I’ll probably sent it next week.

    Tom

  4. I’m in the final week of an online course of “Fun and Games” in writing. For characters, one exercise was called “How to Be”. The instruction is simple: point by point, tell someone else how to be the character/person in question. Replaces “to be” with action verbs, as well.

    I did this using my sister, and wound up with some amazing new insights — and I’ve known her for over 50 years!

  5. Marilyn – that’s a really cool character building exercise. Is there any more to it than that?

    Indeed, the whole course sounds like fun. Where is it available online?

  6. Just as George Orwell’s ‘1984’ was in fact a commentary on the state of the world in 1948, Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are often an apposite commentary on the state of our own society as well as a good fantasy read.

  7. Philip, thanks for commenting. I agree, Pratchett is one of the best satirists of society, and he’s a lot more fun to read than Orwell!

    I gave my favorite example of Discworld satire; what’s yours? Anyone?


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