Discworld is a wonderful, enthralling, hilarious world, rich in humour and history and all manner of intriguing cleverness and nonsense.
With over forty novels and companion books, there is a veritable avalanche of things to talk about and go on about. (Which I can and have; you should hear the chatter when Michelle and I get going talking about Discworld!)
However, while I could rhapsodise on the humour (silly and serious, wound through every topic), the cultures (satiric and exaggerated, but multi-layered and deeply thought-out), the plots (wide-ranging and intriguing), and many other things, what I’ve actually decided to focus on is what definitely keeps me coming back to Discworld over and over again.
The amazing characters.
The peoples that populate Discworld – no matter their species – are fascinating and incredibly varied, each of them whose eyes we see through showing us their unique take on their world.
Now, because I can think of no better way, allow me to show you a tiny sliver of what I mean and introduce you to some of those quirky people that inhabit the Disc.
I could hardly leave his Grace, The Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork Watch out of any roundup of Discworld characters. Vimes is perhaps one of the characters whose growth is shown the most throughout the Discworld books.
No matter how his character has changed, he would still be displeased to be introduced as such, however – he joined the Watch at sixteen coming from one of the poorest districts of Ankh-Morpork, and he continues to despise the nobility even now that he has married into it and become one of the highest-ranking people in the city. On occasion he is now sent on diplomatic missions, during which he often manages to find time to do a little policework – Sam Vimes will always be a copper deep down.
Vimes’ first and strongest dedication is to justice, as difficult a cause as that is to defend in Ankh-Morpork (where death is cheap, but life can be very expensive indeed) and his biggest fear persistently seems to be of losing himself to the darker side he carries, which he strives always to control.
Quote from Vimes:
It wasn’t by eliminating the impossible that you got at the truth, however improbable; it was by the much harder process of eliminating the possibilities. You worked away, patiently asking questions and looking hard at things. You walked and talked, and in your heart you just hoped like hell that some bugger’s nerve’d crack and he’d give himself up.
Vetinari is the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, the political system of which can be described as ‘One Man, One Vote’ – Vetinari is the man, and he has the vote. Despite being a very chilly, very ruthlessly pragmatic man, he most fits the archetype of the benevolent dictator, and is broadly tolerant of individual rights in his city.
He is also well known for managing all of the factions who might wish him dead hate each other more than they hate him, and carefully maintains the balance so that the world with him in it is slightly better than the world without him in it, for anyone who might think to eliminate him.
Vetinari keeps a perpetually very elderly dog by the name of Wuffles, which may be (unless Ankh-Morpork could be described as a living entity) the only living thing he cares about.
Quote from Vetinari:
“I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are good people and bad people. You’re wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.”
A tough and practical witch from a tiny kingdom in the Ramtop mountains, who has, much to her dismay, never been able to coax a wart to take on her face and still has all of her teeth. Esme Weatherwax is quite possibly the most determined force on the Disc – she certainly seems to convince most of the people she deals with of this.
She has piercing blue eyes and a knack for such a commanding presence that she makes herself seem to tower over people at times. She may be the strongest witch in Discworld, and yet her most used, and most useful, talent is her knowledge of people and what they will do.
Her greatest fear seems to be that someday she may not be able to hold back the darker edge she knows she holds inside of herself. And yet, as frightening as she can be – and Granny Weatherwax can most definitely be a terrifying presence – she always works for the better for those around her, and keeps a tight rein on herself and any impulses towards what shouldn’t be done.
Quote from Granny Weatherwax:
“The trouble is, you see, that if you do know Right from Wrong, you can’t choose Wrong. You just can’t do it and live. So… if I was a bad witch I could make Mister Salzella’s muscles turn against his bones and break them where he stood… if I was bad. I could do things inside his head, change the shape he thinks he is, and he’d be down on what had been his knees and begging to be turned into a frog… if I was bad. I could leave him with a mind like a scrambled egg, listening to colours and hearing smells…if I was bad. Oh yes. But I can’t do none of that stuff. That wouldn’t be Right.”
Tiffany (who has never been fond of her name, feeling it is too flouncy for a girl like her) began her witching career at the age of nine. She thinks all the time, even about things that no one around her ever does, and in layers and patterns that keep her apart at the same time they let her move on to accomplish whatever she puts her mind to.
She’s sharp and determined, stubborn enough to decide it is her responsibility to bring her brother out of fairyland in one piece if only because she knows no one else in her family will be able to do so, and clever enough to choose something like a good, solid iron pan as her weapon on that venture – and to bargain and reason with the Nac Mac Feegle (which also leads one to conclude that she must be a little mad, as well).
Tiffany is possibly the first witch to have come from the Chalk downland from the Ramtops (witches grow from strong bedrock, growing a witch on chalk is unheard of) and she gained the respect of Granny Weatherwax as a girl, which is downright impressive in its own right.
Quote from Tiffany:
“The secret is not to dream, the secret is to wake up. Waking up is harder. I have woken up and I am real. I know where I come from and I know where I’m going. You cannot fool me any more. Or touch me. Or anything that is mine.”
Discworld’s Death is an anthropomorphic representation – as he will tell you himself if you ask – and he delegates most deaths to minor functionaries, only required to attend the deaths of significant persons himself – royalty, witches and wizards. He does, however, harvest ‘insignificant’ souls from time to time, to keep perspective for himself on what he calls The Duty.
Death is rather philosophical, though in the area of ‘feelings’ he falls rather short (he lacks the necessary glands and things, having only bones and glowing eyes) and occasionally delegates The Duty to an apprentice, or his granddaughter, when he is absorbed in his more philosophical moments, or has taken too much of an interest in humans for the moment. He is very fond of cats, and the horse he rides when on duty (not a skeletal horse, as he tried that, but kept having to stop to wire bits of the horse back together) which is named Binky.
He appears in every Discworld book, passing through and offering his commentary, picking up a soul, or, more rarely, as a central character offering his own view of the Disc. Whenever he does appear, he always speaks in all capital letters, which is audible to those he speaks to in the novels, rather unnervingly.
Quote from Death:
“I MAY HAVE ALLOWED MYSELF SOME FLICKER OF EMOTION IN THE RECENT PAST, BUT I CAN GIVE IT UP ANY TIME I LIKE.”
The closest to our traditional heroic figure on the Disc, Carrot is also carefully kept away from centre stage – and he is quite happy in his place as a Constable, and later, Captain, of the City Watch. It is relatively common knowledge to all that Carrot (an adopted dwarf) is the heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork, though he never acknowledges it straightforwardly, and has no desire to take his place.
It was his arrival that helped to revitalise the Watch (and to push Commander Vimes into determinedly changing the way the Watch functions) as his naïve approach was to actually memorise all the laws of Ankh-Morpork, and then to try to uphold them. On his first day on duty with the Watch, Carrot tried to arrest the leader of the Thieves Guild – which is fully recognised in Ankh-Morpork, with a quota established by the Patrician. (The Thieves Guild is much better at regulating thieves than law enforcement.)
While Carrot has learned a bit more of how the city works since his arrival, he has retained his honest and straightforward nature, and his desire to be friendly with everyone, somehow, despite the best efforts of the city to change him. He remains a simple – though far from stupid – man (er, dwarf), determined to uphold the law.
Quote about Carrot:
People who are rather more than six feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders often have uneventful journeys. People jump out at them from behind rocks then say things like, “Oh. Sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
My shortlist for characters to include for even a basic overview of the variety that Discworld offers in this arena was almost twenty. It was extremely difficult to choose between then, and, no doubt, I could happily go on about all of them – and I could have gone on more about the few who made it to my final list.
I hope my choices made a good introduction – an illustration of why I personally find Discworld’s characters so engaging. Their stories and their thoughts bring me to want to reread the novels again and again more, even, than anything else in the broadly fascinating world they inhabit.
What do you think of when you think ‘quirky characters’? What makes a character stand out to you, or make you want to come back to them again and again?