Captain Vimes, developing as a writer, Discworld, Fafhrd, Fritz Lieber, Havelock Vetinari, Jane Austen, Lankhmar, Pride and Prejudice, Publication, Rincewind, Snuff, Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic, The Gray Mouser, The Patrician, traditional publishers
This is something I have been thinking about for a while now. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this ever since I started reading fantasy and science fiction. I have been pondering the ways in which a writer develops. Not particularly thinking about how they improve their writing to the point where they become good enough to be published but rather considering what happens to your writing after you get published.
After all, none of us are static. No one is born a great writer and it is ludicrous to assume that the progression of the writing craft simply comes to a stop once the first novel hits the shelves. Instead a good writer is always looking to improve on what they did before and this is what I want to discuss today. To do this, I am going to use the example of Terry Pratchett.
Now, for those of you who have been in a cave for the last 20 years or so and don’t know who Terry Pratchett is, I suppose I should enlighten you. Those already up on Britain’s most popular and prolific fantasy comedy writer may feel free to skip this paragraph altogether and move onto the good stuff later…
Terry Pratchett is the writer of far far too many to count novels set in the Discworld – a fantasy world which sits on the back of four elephants who are sat on the back of a turtle. As a world with such ludicrous metaphysics, naturally strange things happen there (many of them powered by that elusive element never found in the real world – Narrativium) and this leads to comedic situations. Pratchett has also written a number of novels set in other worlds – Strata, the Bromeliad trilogy (Truckers, Diggers and Wings), Nation and, of course, The Carpet People (his first publication in 1971). He has an OBE, a Knighthood and a number of publishing awards to his name. He is largely considered to be a very prolific writer with an average speed of one book a year. In 2007 he announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzeimers and, as well as making generous donations to various charities for that disease he has also stated his support for the right to die. He has stated that he intends to take steps to end his own life before his disease progresses to a critical point.
So, brief biographical information out of the way. If you want to know more, feel free to look him up on his Wikipedia page Time for the real meat of this piece. How has Pratchett developed as a writer since his first publication?
In order to keep things simple, I am not going to discuss The Carpet People or any of the non-Discworld novels. I am keeping thing solely in the province of his best known creation. The first Discworld book was entitled ‘The Colour of Magic’. It was published in 1983 – which totally blows my theory about the origin of its name being due to either a pun on the title of the novel, The Color of Money (published 1984), or the Robert De Niro film of the same name (released 1986). The Colour of Magic introduces us to the Discworld as a vibrant and chaotic fantasy realm and takes us on a travelogue which spans a significant part of the disc. We meet one of Pratchett’s most memorable characters – the cowardly wizard, Rincewind – and are introduced to a plethora of characters and plotlines, each of which parodies an element of fantasy literature. For example, the character of Hrun the Barbarian is your typical musclebound thug of an adventurer, the classic Conan the Barbarian stereotype, while Bravd the Hublander and the Weasel (two characters who have brief appearances in the story) are clearly derived from Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. A part of the intention behind the Discworld is also to subvert many of the fantasy cliches and so Rincewind, our main hero for the first few books, is a wizard who is neither brave nor capable of casting spells. Admittedly, the last one is due to him being unable to learn spells due to one of the eight, great spells that helped create the universe being stuck in his head, but even after he later gets rid of that impediment he still has a major problem actually using any magic. We also later (in the sequel, The Light Fantastic) get Cohen the Barbarian, the ludicrously wonderful subversion of the Conan schtick in the form of a barbarian hero who is still adventuring well into his eighties.
From these parodies in the early books, there slowly develops a complex and involved world. As the series develops we see more and more of the world and meet more characters. For many of the early books there is still the sense that Discworld is a parody of a fantasy realm and that Ankh Morepork, Pratchett’s fantasy city, is a play on the concept of Lieber’s Lankhmar.
At some point, however, things change. It is a slow change and a subtle one, taking place over a number of novels and with the development of several storylines and characters. I think it begins properly with the first Night watch book, Guards! Guards!, as Pratchett clearly needed a grittier and more realistic setting for the somewhat noirish adventures of Captain Vimes and the members of the Night Watch. This series takes the ruler of Ankh Morepork, the Patrician, and turns him into a more rounded character by planting him in the position of the ‘City Mayor’ as popularised by many a US cop show. It also rounds out the city, letting readers see the seedier side of the streets and goes into more detail regarding the role of the Thieves Guild in enforcing the law. At some point between Guards! Guards! and the latest offering, Snuff, Ankh Morepork ceases to be a parody of Lankhmar. Instead it becomes something more akin to a strange hybrid of Lankhmar with London and New York of the early 19th Century. The characters take on a decidedly Regency cast to them, something which is emphasised in Snuff’s parodying of Austen’s Pride and Prejudce, and there are themes inherent in the storylines which harken to concepts of the industrial revolution and the social, political and economic changes which eventually led to the Victorian era. These issues are especially apparent in the Moist books – Going Postal, Making Money and the soon to be released, Raising Taxes – where Vetinari is seen to be actively in the process of modernising the city and such issues as mobile phone companies and the gold standard are challenged with satire.
In other words, Discworld represents Pratchett’s evolution as a writer from someone who only wants to poke fun at the fantasy trends of the time to someone with the confidence and ability to tackle serious, real world issues by poking fun at examples from literature and history. I believe that all writers undergo this process of maturation. Initially, in a desire to get published, many writers are conservative about what they want to write about – seeking popular topics which may allow good sales. However, post publication, they begin to gain more confidence and feel as if they can stretch their muscles more and be experimental in what they write. In Discworld, Pratchett gives us the opportunity to see that process in action in a way that is not possible with many writers. We have 28 years of books, all set in the same world by the same writer, to show it.