Sunday, August 05, 2007

Unforgettable - I Hope!

Sunday is the last day of a little contest that Pat set up over on her blog, Here, There and Everywhere. Fortunately for me, she extended the deadline to August 5th, without which, distracted person that I am, I'd never have gotten around to writing my entry. I don't care about winning, and given my lateness, I probably don't deserve to, but it's a topic I care about, so it's a good excuse to rattle on for a bit. John Scalzi once said of me that, when faced with a blog topic that other people dispose of in a sentence or two, "Karen writes novels." In this case, it's literally true. Pat's contest theme is as follows:

I want the post to be about a character in a book that you really like. One that for whatever reason, you can't seem to forget. Or one that you related to. Or one that made you laugh. Just make it about a character you can't seem to forget. Tell about how you found this character, and most of all... why you like him/ her/ it... post it before August 3rd and leave a link so that others can read your post.

Oh, yeah. This is going to be another long entry. Like Pat herself, I can't limit myself to writing about just one character. I'm going to tell you about three of them.

My Very Own Tricky Old Man

In a recent post, Pat writes about several major wizard characters, including Gandalf, Dumbledore and her own Abbercorn. She describes them as

"all powerful... they were mentors and friends and father figures to others. And most of all they were always there when they were needed most."

Now, I've always loved such characters, too, ever since reading Chapter One of The Hobbit back in high school on Dan Cheney's recommendation. But I have a very different take on this archetype, which Carl Jung seems to have somehow omitted from his list. Gandalf and Dumbledore, and even Robinton from the Pern books, are examples of what I call the Tricky Old Man, a combination of Jung's Trickster and Wise Old Man archetypes. Yes, they're mentors, and powerful and all that, but for me the hook is that you're never quite sure of them, because they're not what they seem to be. Gandalf at Bilbo's door is a bantering eccentric, indulging in wordplay and offering adventure to Bilbo as if genuinely clueless about Bilbo's preferences in the matter. Yet we gradually learn that Gandalf is much more than this, an ancient figure of mysterious origins and hidden power, who knows more about Bilbo's potential than the hobbit himself does. One can say similar things about Rowling's Dumbledore, and McCaffrey's Masterharper Robinton, and, well, this fellow:

Fayubi, drawn by Sherlock and merged with a photo
of an accordion-playing engineer from St. Michael's

Like Gandalf, Dumbledore and Abbercorn, Fayubi is a wizard, except that in the Mâvarin books there's no such term. He's a mage, as in the LeGuin Earthsea novels. Notice that he doesn't have a beard or really long hair. That's deliberate, on his part as well as mine. And unlike some of the classic Tricky Old Man characters, he's not all that powerful. For a chapter or so in Heirs of Mâvarin, he can't do any magic at all, and in Mages of Mâvarin, he spends a lot of time trapped in a bottle.

Yet he's very much a tricky old man character. When we first see him, he's just been figuratively unmasked after impersonating a shopkeeper from Skû. Fayubi cheerfully admits the deception, gives his reason for it, and promptly disappears. He wasn't physically there at all. A day and a half later, he latches onto Crel and her guardian, Jamek, by posing as a wandering entertainer, a garrulous, silly and harmless singer-storyteller. He can't even get his fellow travelers' names right - until he suddenly calls them Cathma and Jami, their real names, just before walking away. Fayubi later saves Crel's life by singing a song, and gives her safe haven in a city where she is a fugitive.

Even in the Mages trilogy, when the reader already knows who Fayubi is, he's still full of surprises. Darsuma meets him as "Bafi Ninas" before gradually discovering that she's chatting with Mâvarin's chief spy. By Chapter Four, Fayubi has become a mystery to himself after Darsuma separates his body from his spirit, and strands the amnesiac, magic-fearing "Fabi" 400 miles from home. And when I'm reading or editing Mages, my favorite two scenes in the whole trilogy are when Cathma meets a different version of the character in another world, and again when that character returns to the King's Gate Inn after a life-changing experience:

“I gather that you were successful,” Cathma said.

The innkeeper chuckled. “You have no idea how successful. Let’s go upstairs, my dear Crethla, where we can talk privately.”

Cathma stared at him. His friendly, foolish expression was very familiar, but not on this bearded face. “What did you just call me?”

“Just a nickname I think you remember well. Shall we go and reminisce?”

Wordlessly she followed him up to his room. What had happened to make him behave so oddly? Could she still trust him? Cathma wasn’t sure. Until she was, she would not be telling him about Crel’s arrival, or anything else he didn’t already know. She wasn’t even sure it was safe to be alone with Fabi in his room.

“You needn’t worry about me,” he said without looking over his shoulder.
Heh, heh, heh. I love that character! But he's not my very favorite from the Mâvarin books. And unlike Rani, he wasn't even in the first book as originally conceived. The Tricky Old Man character of The Tengrim Sword, as it was called back then, was the wizard Ontlemac, an optometrist from Syracuse who accidentally reached Mâvarin by reading aloud from a spell book in the used book department of Economy Books downtown. Fortunately for Fayubi, I soon realized that Harry MacTavish (Onclemac's real name) was all wrong for Mâvarin. The story needed a Tricky Old Man who was knowledgeable, competent, and very much a part of his world. So Fayubi was born. Harry resurfaced about thirty years later, as an acquaintance of Joshua Wander, the wizard and interdimensional traveler.

I Love Rani Because....

Rani Fost, smilingSherlock's drawing of Rani at 16, merged
with a photo and extensively fussed with by KFB

Much as I love Fayubi, it's Rani Fost who has captured my heart and my imagination for the past 33 years or so. Devised as a misunderstood monster character, based on a fantasy I had at age seven and a novel I failed to write at age 16, he has grown and evolved over the years. He's not the protagonist of Heirs of Mâvarin, but he's in its very first scene. His predicament is the hook that gets the plot started. In Mages of Mâvarin, he finally takes center stage, first ascending to a position of relative power and contentment as he discovers his magical talents, and later descending into utter wretchedness and near-extinction as...but that would be telling.

When I'm very tired and my brain is on the fritz, one of the semi-random thoughts my subconscious throws at me is "What I love about Rani is that..." or "I love Rani because...." Usually I end up completing the thought, considering the qualities I admire in him, and the difficulties he has that arouse my sympathy. After all, if Our Hero didn't have any troubles, there would be no story.

I love Rani because he tries hard. Saddled with instincts and emotions he can't always control, he does his best to avoid giving in to them, or doing anyone any harm. Whatever his situation, Rani never gives up. He just keeps trying to solve his problems, and the problems of others.

I love Rani because he's a highly moral character. Except for one out-of-control moment when he's been pushed beyond his limits, he's never vengeful, even toward people who have treated him very badly. He does his best to protect Del from his animal self and other tengremen, is polite to people who hunted him, tries to help Darsuma, teaches newly-made tengremen to cope after they drank his blood, and returns to a remote and dangerous country to rescue cultists who kept him in a cage. He worries about keeping his violent impulses under control, and although he does occasionally kill mages or tengremen, it's always in defense of people he loves.

I love Rani because he's a thinker. Whereas Del will do things on impulse, Rani seeks knowledge wherever he can, and reasons things out based on which he knows. He doesn't always get it right, but who does?

I love Rani because he's damaged. He and Fayubi both are, especially in the trilogy. Even in the first scene of the first book he's the epitome of teenage alienation, an overprotected, fatherless child, a black face in a village full of white ones - and then a monster strongly suspected to be the murderer of Rani Fost. Estranged from his mother, estranged from the human race, he's a desperate, lonely fugitive, until Del finds him and believes in him. Things get even worse for Rani in the second book, when he's kidnapped and caged and degraded until he can no longer face the tengrem part of his nature. But all that suffering brings out his finer qualities as well. It's also a lot of fun to explore his animal side, what the tengrem is thinking when Rani's human intellect and sensibilities are disengaged by instinct, hunger or stress.

He's...the Doctor.

Lest you think I'm a raving egomaniac (which of course I am), with few words to say in favor of characters not my own, I'm going to finish this off with a few hundred words about one of the most complex, interesting and likable characters in the history of fiction. Yes, I'm talking about George Jeff-- no, sorry. I mean Jonas Grumb--no, not him either. (How many of you know who Jonas Grumby is? Raise your hands.) No, of course I mean the Doctor. When I first heard of him circa 1979, he'd already been on British television for 16 years. It took me another eight or nine years to see my first Doctor Who story. I didn't get hooked until 1989, when I watched Tom Baker fall off a tower and turn into Peter Davison.

The ten faces of the Doctor, as sketched in a dream diary
by his oblivious human persona, schoolteacher John Smith

Imagine a character who has been played by ten different actors for one to seven years each, all in the same program over a period of 44 years. Imagine him changing drastically in appearance and personality with each casting change, while retaining core traits of cleverness, eccentricity, mystery, unpredictability, a strong moral sense, and a talent for improvising his way through any crisis. Imagine a lead character whose origins are so mysterious that we don't learn the name of his home planet until he's been on television for ten years, whose original name we've never learned at all. (The title Doctor Who is not the character's name, but a question, asked many times over the years by many, many characters.) Imagine a character who has been the subject of hundreds of novels, 29 seasons of television (soon to be 30), a tv movie and two Peter Cushing films, who left British screens in 1989 only to return in triumph and renewed popularity nearly 16 years later, with just one controversial appearance in between. Imagine a character who is equally at home rewiring alien machinery, arguing with monsters, trading quips with Shakespeare or eating chips with friends.

That's the Doctor.

The Tenth Doctor explains the disadvantages of longevity

"He's like fire, and ice, and rage. He's like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time, and he can see the turn of the Universe. And he's wonderful." - Tim Latimer, "The Family of Blood"

The Doctor invites Martha on "one more trip"
- and inadvertently hurts her feelings again

He looks human, but he's lived for at least 900 years, probably longer. (He was 953 years old three incarnations ago.) He loves humans, but he's not one of them, and his reactions are sometimes noticeably alien. He's a wanderer, a renegade, the "lonely god," the last of his kind. He is a pacifist who has killed thousands of creatures in a day, but tries to help his worst, most persistent enemies. He's a lonely figure who travels with humans and calls them his friends and companions, but does not always understand them or and sometimes treats them shabbily. He is more than he seems, an often young-looking man with centuries of experience, from an ancient race that was recently destroyed in a war the Doctor could not win. He carries a sonic screwdriver but never a gun, cannot fly under his own power and has no super-strength; but he has two hearts, can survive a direct lightning strike and has been known to regrow his own hand. And guess what? He's the ultimate Tricky Old Man.

And that's where I came in.


1 comment:

DesLily said...

Scalzi hit the nail on the head! LOL.. It's good you could choose your own characters! I couldn't say too much on mine, just toss him in there, because I don't go forward towards trying to publish like you do.. I hope one day many, many MANY people have the chance to know your characters Karen..

and. oh yeah.. "what's his name at the bottom".. no surprise there! hahahahah.. glad you joined in Karen.. the name goes in the bowl today!