2015 is already proving a cruel year for goodbyes, but it’s hard to imagine many leaving an absence that will be felt as keenly as Sir Terry Pratchett. We commemorate with some of his best characters.
After a long struggle with Alzheimer's, the world bid farewell to one of Britain's best-loved authors.
(Find out more with Terry Pratchett's Living with Alzheimer's in the RD shop)
“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away."
Always inventive, always humane, and always very, very, funny, Pratchett wrote more than 70 novels over the course of a marvellous career. Never mind afternoons and coffee spoons, given his rate of a book every year, many readers will have measured out their lives in Terry Pratchett novels.
I remember when I was 7 years old and my Dad read Guards! Guards! to me. I loved it because it was one of those books for grown-ups, and my dad loved it, I suspect, because he got to swear theatrically and frequently.
From then on I have read, without fail, all of Pratchett’s books, and can place where I was when doing so for each one. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Over a lifetime’s worth of writing Pratchett never showed any sign of running out of ideas, creating an incredible and vibrant cast of characters in the process. Here are seven of the most memorable.
Commander Samuel Vimes
Sam Vimes has a symbiotic relationship with the city of Ankh-Morpork, the grimily chaotic focal point for many of Pratchett’s Discworld stories.
Initially an officer in the watch, Vimes stalks the cobblestone streets, reading the city through the paper-thin soles of his boots. As the Discworld has developed around him, so Vimes has grown with it, from good honest copper to reluctant and uncomfortable aristocrat.
Often bewildered, regularly burnt (his wife keeps dragons), but never beaten, Vimes is also highly inclusive: as well as preventing race wars, he oversees a Watch recruitment policy that includes werewolves, trolls, golems, dwarves, and even Corporal Nobby Nobbs (‘disqualified from the human race for shoving’). Opportunities don’t come much more equal than that.
Pratchett’s Witches are a great example of his ability to write tough, smart female characters with real warmth and humanity.
The coven consists variously of the fierce Granny Weatherwax, Magrat Garlick, Agnes Nitt, and, latterly, their protégé Tiffany Aching. However, the true cornerstone is Gytha ‘Nanny’ Ogg, a salty old lady with ‘a grin that should’ve been locked up for the sake of public decency.’
Nanny Ogg loves nothing more than a bawdy drinking song, her favourite being ‘The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All.’ [or just The Hedgehog Song] which she enjoys singing on her annual bath night – an event that makes nearby sheep and goats produce yoghurt for weeks to come.
It’s hard not to develop the suspicion that behind the earthy exterior lies a really great power, as Nanny Ogg plays a pivotal role as the Witches collapse rogue dimensions, fend off vampires, and just generally get stuff done. This comes in stark contrast to the wizards of the Discworld, which leads us neatly on to…
Rincewind failed miserably at The Unseen University for Wizards, where his highest score was a mark of 2%, awarded for spelling his name correctly.
A ‘wizard’ with no readily discernible heroic traits or magical abilities, Rincewind only stays alive due to his tendency to run very fast in the opposite direction of trouble. He believes that there are no causes worth dying for, ‘because you've only got one life, but you can pick up another five causes on any street corner.'
Fully aware of his propensity to wind up in a spot of bother (‘Luck is my middle name… Mind you, my first name is Bad.’), over the course of the series Rincewind grows into more of a cipher for Pratchett to throw other characters at, which may explain why he hasn’t been seen too much of late.
Lord Havelock Vetinari is the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, an ex-assassin who rules with the classically Machiavellian style of iron fist in velvet glove.
Vetinari is described as having ‘eyes everywhere, none of them so terrifying as the icy blue ones just above his nose.’ He understands that more than anything else the citizens of Ankh-Morpork want things not to change, even if this is achieved through occasionally dubious means.
His rule coincides with the growth of the free press, a city mint, and the building of railway and communication systems. It’s suggested Vetinari runs on Thatcher-like levels of sleep, which helps explain where he finds the time to run a huge spy network, oversee the guilds, keep Sam Vimes on his toes, and complete the Times cryptic crossword every day (although it takes him 15 seconds longer when drunk).
Now firmly enmeshed in the fabric of the Discworld series, if Vetinari’s withering put downs don’t get you, his servant Drumknott will.
Check out: Moving Pictures, Soul Music
Pratchett often named Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor as one of his favourite books, and it’s clear to see its influence upon the city of Ankh-Morpork.
Pratchett’s books firmly belong in the Dickensian tradition, and Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler must be the best expression of that. A Hogarth print come to life, Dibbler is a pie vendor replete with all the patter and a pragmatic attitude to the provenance of his ingredients.
He has earned his name via use of the catchphrase ‘I’ll sell it for less, and that’s cutting me own throat,’ although exactly what the ‘it’ he’s sells is varies from novel to novel, the fall back option always being his ‘pies with personality.’
Although a minor character, Dibbler is still a well-rounded comic treasure, and a great illustration of the sheer richness of the Discworld.
Check out: Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny and the Dead, Johnny and the Bomb
In interviews Pratchett refers to Johnny Maxwell and his friends Wobbler, Bigmac, Kirsty, and Yo-less as an exploration of what Richmal Crompton’s Just William books would’ve been like in a world of computer games, fast food, and joyriding.
A citizen of 90s Britain, and ostensibly very normal indeed, Johnny is the embodiment of Pratchett’s insistence on looking at the world with wonder, rather than tired adult eyes that have learnt to ignore the magical. In his own words, Johnny "just sees things other people don't see," which leads to adventures with computerised aliens, ghosts, and time travel.
Check out: Just about any of the Discworld novels
Whenever a new Pratchett book appears on the shelves my first response has always been to hastily flick through the pages, hoping to see long chunks of capitals. I doubt it’s just me.
That’s because the character of Death ‘SPEAKS IN CAPITALS, LIKE THIS.’ The Death of the Discworld books is just like the traditional version of the grim reaper, complete with black robe and scythe, but also a surprisingly chatty nature, penchant for cats, and a horse called Binky.
Long-term readers of the series will be accustomed to Death having the last word, so let’s allow him the same here:
"DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH"
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