Many say that the best speculative fiction stories are those with strong characters. But sometimes we run across characters that outshine the story. We asked this week’s panel:
Here are their answers…
Memorable characters, in no particular order
Ben Reich (The Demolished Man) – he’s bright, he’s tough, he’s willing to buck a system that has stacked all the odds against him (how do you get away with a murder when the police are telepaths?), and to this day I think he gets away with it if Alfie Bester doesn’t decide that he shouldn’t.
The Mule (Foundation and Empire) – one of the only two believable characters Isaac Asimov ever drew, he is at first totally awesome (until we realize who he is) and totally villainous (until we understand him), and although he is completely at odds with what Isaac clearly considers the salvation of Civilization, he nonetheless arouses the reader’s sympathy.
Charly Gordon (Flowers for Algernon) – possibly the most fully-realized character of those I’m mentioning, you admire his ascent from imbecile to genius and suffer through his descent back to imbecility. An incredibly moving story, quite possibly the best novella in our field’s history, and since it is comprised entirely of Charly’s diary he is the singular engine that drives the story and sways the reader’s emotions.
Jonathan Herovit (Herovit’s World) – to me, Herovit, who is slowly going mad writing an endless series of generic space operas, is the most memorable science fiction writer ever created. And, since it’s by Barry Malzberg at the peak of his powers, the most tragic as well.
Jenkins (City) – okay, so Jenkins is a robot and not a human being at all, but thank heaven Cliff Simak didn’t feel compelled to follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics as almost everyone else of his era did, and created a robot with hopes and dreams, a robot who was thrilled to be working for a Webster once again, and a robot who in the end is willing to lie when he feels the situation requires it.
Nameless child (“Born of Man and Woman”) – it’s a very short story, and the narrator doesn’t even have a name…but it is so brilliant, so horrific, and so memorable that it made Richard Matheson a star with his very first story. It’s hard to read this and not be chilled by it – and it’s even harder, decades later, to forget the narrator, who is as memorable as they come, even if that memory is accompanied by an involuntary shudder.
Marid Audran (When Gravity Fails, etc.) – Marid was the protagonist of George Alec Effinger’s masterworks, When Gravity Fails and A Fire In The Sun (as well as The Exile Kiss, which was not quite as successful). In an age of cynical atheism, Marid is Islamic; in an age of urban sprawls in the Orient, Marid wanders a Middle Eastern city drawn from the French Quarter in New Orleans; in an era where “punk” was at least as important as “cyber”, George (and Marid) ignored it in favor of art. There’s never been a protagonist quite like Marid, before or since.
Northwest Smith (13 stories) – I don’t know if any other respondents will name anyone else on my list, but I feel reasonably confident that only I will name Northwest Smith. He’s pulpish and two-dimensional at best, no question about it. His adventures are similar, usually erotic without being sexy (if that makes sense to you; it made sense to the distributors or the magazines wouldn’t have reached the stands), and he is saved from his particular vices far more by others than by himself. But he’s here because whenever my sensawonder needs a shot of adrenaline, I just pick up one of Catherine Moore’s Northwest Smith stories and I’m fine twenty minutes later. I don’t have much higher praise than that.
I’m all about character as a writer, and as a reader I love nothing better than to find people in books who feel so alive, so real, so much themselves that I want them as part of my tribe — to paint a room together, or dance all night, or cook dinner and stay up talking until we’ve drunk all the bottles dry. That’s not everyone’s idea of memorable, but I’m less interested in icons than I am in the potential of a good conversation.
Who would some of those people be? Robin McKinley’s Aerin (The Hero and the Crown) and Sunshine (Sunshine) — stubborn, smart women who do what they must (and at least one of them bakes, which is a big win for the dinner dates). The compelling Sparrow from Emma Bull’s Bone Dance, someone who would stay up with me all night under a warm sky full of stars and would be unafraid to talk of synchronicity and magic in unexpected places. Tanith Lee’s Cyrion for his charm, his sense of play, and all the sword skills he could teach me. Earthsea‘s Ged after he’s older and has grown comfortable with power: I imagine drinking tea with our feet up after a long afternoon of weeding where we’ve talked about everything under the sun.
They’re all fascinating people to spend time with. That’s why I go back to them again and again.
When I first considered this question, I thought of Cirocco Jones from John Varley’s Gaea Trilogy right off the bat. I loved Cirocco. She seemed like a full-blown masterful woman. I don’t remember any of the plots of the Gaea Trilogy. I just remember I loved Cirocco. I could relate to her.
I didn’t relate much to the women in science fiction novels when I first started reading them. I did not grow up reading science fiction. I didn’t ignore it. It just wasn’t in any place in the library where I found it. Legends, myths, and fairy tales were what I devoured, along with any horse books when I was younger and Gothics when I was an older teen. (Although as a kid, I did love the Narnia series and I tried to read Jules Verne again and again; so I was hungering for something different.) I took a science fiction lit course in college and from there I attended Clarion where I met Mario Milosevic. Once we were together, he wanted to share with me the great books he had grown up reading. I remember throwing a Robert Heinlein book across the room and yelling, “This is sexist crap! You mean in the future women are going to wear short skirts AND still be serving men coffee like cute little waitresses? How very forward thinking!”
Anyway, long way of saying I wasn’t too fond of some of the science fiction classics. I didn’t want to read any more science fiction, actually. So reading John Varley and discovering Cirocco Jones was a revelation. She was tough and capable and she wasn’t serving anyone coffee. And then I went on to Kate Wilhelm, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, and I discovered more great characters.
And looking backward, I would say Sissy Hankshaw was another unforgettable character for me. You could argue whether Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins is speculative or not, but come on, the girl had Coke bottle thumbs. I liked her because she was different, she was capable, and she was casually sexual. I was in college when I read Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and I longed to be on the road with Sissy having her adventure. This was my favorite college read. I started reading this book many years later, and I didn’t like it. I vaguely remember thinking one of the characters I had thought was charming so many years earlier was really just a dirty old man. I stopped reading it so that my memories of Sissy wouldn’t be ruined. I still remember Sissy fondly today.
And further backward, my third most memorable character from speculative fiction would be Scrooge. My dad read A Christmas Carol to me when I was about eight, I think, and I loved it. Scrooge was ruthless and irredeemable; then he has a dream, he has a vision, he has a revelation, and he is transformed! Man, I think I’ve been trying to emulate his transformation my whole life.
There’s a lot of territory there to choose from, but here goes (and I know I’ll leave some out):
Fantasy: Some of my favorites are Garion (The Belgariad), Karl Cullinane (Guardians of the Flame), Acheron (Dark-Hunter series), Sam Gangee (Lord of the Rings). Especially for those characters, what I really remember and respect is the loyalty to their friends and their willingness for self-sacrifice. They were fully fleshed out characters in my mind–I really came to feel as if I knew them.
Horror: Lestat (Interview with the Vampire etc.). I loved the way the reader’s relationship progresses with him. He seems to be the shadowy guy you mistrust and then dislike in the first book, but as the series goes on you understand why he does what he does and he becomes a more fully realized character with very believable strengths and weaknesses. And of course, Dracula–the ultimate vampire.
I think the most memorable characters are the outlyers: those who aren’t just like everyone else. The first few that come immediately to mind — regardless of the stories they’re in — are Dracula, Hari Seldon, Lazarus Long, HAL, and Miles Vorkosigan. Each of them is memorable for what he is and what he does, more so than for what story the author put him in.
Dracula, of course, is the founder of an industry: the vampire. And though we may not remember all of Bram Stoker’s words, his most famous character will be with us always.
Similarly (though it hurts me to say it of my friend), Isaac Asimov’s prose was sometimes clunky, sometimes dated, but his alter ego, Hari Seldon, the man who invented the science to predict societal evolution over thousands of years, is an archetype for every scientist trying to invent new fields of knowledge.
Robert Heinlein’s Lazarus Long was the eternal young adult, adventuring and rampaging through the universe, living by his wits, but being certain to enjoy every minute to its fullest. While he started out as an interesting creation among a sub-set of humanity bred for extremely long lives, the latter stories Heinlein wrote around him got a little out of hand as Heinlein aged and kept Lazarus on as his very own wish-fulfilling alter ego. Nevertheless, the eternally optimistic immortal has far more to commend him to us than to turn us off.
Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL, the homicidal, insane computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is one of the most sinister characters in sf. And what makes him so memorable is that he really, truly “wants the mission to be a success.” He doesn’t know he has a problem, and his ever-calm tone of voice, even as he regretfully announces he has to murder the crew, is just chilling when you realize what’s coming.
And Lois McMaster Bujold’s dwarfish, weak, Miles Vorkosigan, whose mind and wits are as big and strong as his body is small and weak, is again someone everyone who reads him would like to be. Of course, we tend to forget his physical impairments as Bujold focuses on his mental gifts, but that’s just what makes him so memorable. He can overcome any adversity, turn any situation to his advantage, even with all the decks stacked against him.
It isn’t a case of existing in re-readable stories. I’ve always found Heinlein and Bujold easily re-readable: I can pick up their works just to read a scene again. Asimov and Clarke, on the other hand, don’t work that way for me. If I’m going to re-read one of their books, I have to start at the beginning and go all the way through. So it isn’t the type of story the character lives in that makes him memorable. I guess it’s the skill of the author in making their character fully fleshed, believable, and outside the norms.
For me, one of the more memorable characters in fantasy would have to be Drizzt Do’Urden.
I mean the character has become so popular in the D&D franchise that it’s polarized the fan base–either you hate Drizzt or you love him and in the case of the latter, it’s spawned numerous clones as various players have created dark elves wielding dual scimitars.
Second, even the author, in some interviews, claimed that the first novel wasn’t supposed to be about Drizzt but he got carried away with the character. What was originally intended as a sidekick became the star of several novels.
Third, while I’ve read all the Drizzt novels, I don’t really remember their titles. All I can recall is that it had Drizzt in it.
Fourth, well, let’s he be honest. Drizzt isn’t an easy name to pronounce (perhaps the only name more difficult to pronounce is his pet Guenhwyvar). Heck, I even had to Google it to check for the spelling (I originally got it wrong, by the way). Yet for a character that has a difficult name recollection (other than the fact that we know his name is difficult to pronounce), he’s become quite iconic, whether it’s the hero seeking redemption, the “good” dark elf, or simply a kick-ass warrior. Heck, Forgotten Realms is an entire franchise and despite the hundreds of characters featured in that setting, one of two most memorable characters is Drizzt (the other would have to be Elminister).
Science Fiction: Captain Nemo. Warrior, engineer, musician, visionary. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he destroyed surface ships with his futuristic submarine, the Nautilus – but only ships of war. In the sequel Mysterious Island we learn the reason for his anger: He was an Indian prince who lost his family and his kingdom in the Sepoy Rebellion. Nemo understood the ecology of the oceans before Jacques Cousteau or Steve Zissou and showed that it was better down where it’s wetter way before Sebastian the Crab.
Fantasy: The obvious choices are Gollum and Lord Voldemort, so I’ll go with someone from The Wizard of Oz instead, with its heroic Beatlesque quartet. Dorothy. The Cowardly Lion. The Scarecrow. The Tin Man. Of these, I’ll pick the Tin Man, because he had mechanical aptitude and solid thinking skills, though lacking in the emotional department. Kind of like Spock, Data, the typical nerdboy, or, well, me, at one point in my larval development.
The most interesting thing about this question, as it got me thinking, is that in fact, there are not as many standout characters in the speculative genres as you might think. Seriously. This is something I find amazing, and a kind of revelation to myself, considering that these are genres of wildly universe-spanning imagination and wonder. Indeed, fantasy et al seems to stunt their characters overall, and protagonists or even secondary personalities are almost lost in the sea of “other” extremely neat things — background setting, marvelous worldbuilding, mind-blowing scientific speculation or exciting adventure. Well, damn.
Let’s consider this for a moment and start taking a look at all-time favorites and well-knowns. Tolkien’s Frodo? He is the bearer of the ring, and rather a dull fellow if you think about it, if you subtract all the trappings of his burden. Harry Potter? Just a lonely love-starved kid with a lucky magic inheritance, trying to survive and missing his parents terribly.
I could keep going. It does seem that so many characters suffer pangs of poor cohesion when removed from the greater story with analytical forceps. However, I also do not agree with the opposite notion that genre characters are cardboard — that only applies to poorly written ones. So what does this mean?
I think that there really are good fascinating, psychologically complex characters in genre. But they are not necessarily protagonists, nor are they residents of the better-known books. Possibly, they are moments of inspiration for their authors, accidental jewels that show up unplanned and somehow sparkle the brightest. So let me name for you some that are truly standout and unforgettable — at least to me. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover has the most sophisticated anti-hero cum villain cum tragic figure, and he continues to haunt me — Dyan Ardais. Why? Find out for yourself; I honestly do not want to spoil it for you — start with The Heritage Of Hastur. Tanith Lee’s Cyrion is a dream of style, Oscar Wildean elegance, and courage. And last, but not least, discover Paul Witcover’s Waking Beauty, populated by several stunning protagonists. Find these books, and savor the complexities. I now go silent, so as not to spoil your pleasure to come.
There are almost no truly memorable characters in SF/F. I don’t know Horror very well, but my instinct is that the same is true there.
There are plenty of characters, of course; and some of those characters are more than mere types. But characterisation in SF/F almost always follows a fundamentally nineteenth-century conception of what characterisation involves, I think; and that limits the sorts of insights into subjectivity, the sorts of depth and heft of characterisation of which the genre is capable. (My views here are not majority views, of course: witness this discussion of characterisation, for instance). But I’m asked, so I answer.
This is what I think. Westerners sometimes grumble that the problem with Islam is that, unlike Christianity, it never had its own Reformation. Similarly it sometimes seems to me that the problem with SF is that it never had its own Modernism. Writers in the Pulp and Golden age took textual strategies from their reading: the high adventure novels of the late C19th, for instance; realism like Tolstoy or Balzac; grotesqueness like Dickens; Gothic like Shelley and Stoker. This is a model of character premised on certain things: notions of internal coherence, of consistency, agency and development (the ‘arc’ of character that screenwriters bang-on about … phooey). Characters in this model are almost always active, and engage with the world in comprehensible ways: one of their main functions, in genre, is precisely to illuminate the world through which they move. Conflict (which is to say, drama) is largely externalised. Writers of the last half century have stuck with those textual strategies, because, I think, it works for lots of readers, and because their interest is elsewhere-precisely in worldbuilding, perhaps; or techno-fetishism; or the other varieties of escapism. There were a couple of writers who, in the 1960s, flirted with aspects of the literary avant-garde, and some genre books were written in the idiom of the nouveau roman. But they were mostly excoriated by sf fandom, and New Wave SF didn’t last very long.
Now I have nothing against Victorian fiction. I’m Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of London, so it would be strange if I did. But there are limitations to what nineteenth-century characterisation can achieve. The point is that for Victorian writers, by and large, character (‘personality’, ‘subjectivity’) was assumed to be, radically, comprehensible. And one of the brilliant innovations of Modernism was to write characters that challenged that assumption: brilliant, I’d say, because actually human subjectivity isn’t radically comprehensible. What makes Conrad’s Lord Jim a masterpiece is its account of Jim’s jump (if you don’t know the novel you won’t know what I mean; but then again if you have really never read Lord Jim then, hey, what’s wrong with you? Go away and read it immediately). What I mean is that Conrad’s titular character is portrayed in depth and convincingly as being a thoroughly decent and upright young English sailor who jumps anyway. You believe absolutely that he jumps; it’s not a random or uncharacteristic act, despite the fact that it appears to go quite against his character. Proust’s Swann, or his Marcel; the various characters in Beckett’s trilogy, Joyce’s Leo Bloom … all these figures parse character in similar ways: they’re rich without being all about internal consistency, agency and development.
Some SF writers know their Modernism pretty well, and some of those have the talent to do interesting things with that knowledge; but those figures … Samuel Delany, for instance, who has proved himself in the best sense Joycean in scope and language, but who isn’t a writer of particularly memorable characters. Gene Wolfe’s Severian comes close, but is again a little hamstrung by the huge Christian-typological pack he has, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, to lug about with himself wherever he goes.
I once interviewed Brian Aldiss at a literary festival, and he talked, amongst other things, about The Lord of the Rings. One problem he had with that novel, he said, was that it was full of people but had only one character. That character-he meant Gollum of course-is one of the great achievements of that novel. He’d be a plausible answer to this mind-meld question, actually. But it’s worth pondering why he works as a character where the others, even the hobbits, are really no more than types. Certainly plenty of other characters in the novel are notionally ‘conflicted’: Frodo, Boromir. But their conflict is externalised; they are tempted by the ring. Their moral characterisation is black and white: can I resist this external temptation or not? What’s different about Gollum is that he’s been with the ring for so long that he’s, as it were, come out the other side; he’s internalised what it represents, so his genuine struggles are much more potently real.
It is often the case that when we identify characters as memorable we’re actually identifying empty suits into which we, as readers, can slip to play the diverting and gratifying escapist games genre sometimes provides. James Bond isn’t a character: even in his more recent, ‘gosh look how deeply conflicted I am’ Daniel Craig incarnation. He’s an opportunity for people to actualise fantasies of super competence, violence and exotic sex; and the ‘conflicted’ thing is nothing more than a sop to our more sophisticated 21st-century apprehension that the last thing we want people to think about us is that we’re shallow or one-dimensional. I have enormous admiration for Richard Morgan as a writer, but I’d suggest his Carl Marsalis is this sort of a figure.
That doesn’t seem to me memorably characterisation. In such a discourse, better far the postmodern trick of emptying the character out. Hannibal Lecter has no insides at all, and yet in being capable of both suave charm and horrible violence, he assumes a kind of intenser life much more compelling than Anakin Skywalker, whose notional ‘development’, and supposed internal conflicts are so rendered in so thoroughly risible a manner (‘oh look what the Sandmen did to his mother! Oh look how tempted he is by the emperor! This explains why he turns to the dark side!’ Pah). The least successful of the Hannibal Lecter’s narratives is the one that purports to ‘explain’ or add ‘depth’ to his character; I mean the daft Hannibal Rising. But in Silence of the Lambs he works brilliantly.
So, whilst I have no doubt my fellow responders are listing characters they think highly of, I’d say that characterisation in SF as a whole is stuck in a nineteenth-century groove. That, in other words, we have steampunk characterisation, fine for some purposes, but pretty limited in others. Imagine if other aspects of the SF writer’s toolbox had gotten fixed in the 1880s.
Nevertheless I’ve been trying to think of examples of worthwhile characterisation. It’s not easy. Orson Scott Card’s Ender (I mean the later, Speaker for the Dead Ender) is almost interesting, but gets a bit hijacked by Card’s larger ethical agenda. Alex Sharkey, from Paul McAuley’s excellent Fairyland, is an interesting character; but very much the exception rather than the rule. Marjorie Westriding in Sheri Tepper’s Grass trilogy gets interesting (as a character, I mean) as she goes on. But rarely-so-rarely do I read any genre characters as fully-formed or profound as Swann, Lord Jim or Humbert Humbert. Maybe that’s not where the game is now. Who in SF, or indeed out of it, writes characters as memorable as Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen?
Ach, I don’t expect people to agree with me though.