Poised, or What Terry Pratchett is Teaching Me About Real Characterization

Rest assured, I’m not going to make the content of the professional writing blog all emo all the time, even though that always seems to get me the highest numbers. Which I find interesting, and ties into today’s subject.

Bryon and I are about finished with reading all of Terry Pratchett’s Disc World fiction. We have his three science books on tap, but we’re under 100 pages away from the end of Unseen Academicals. Pratchett’s genius is that he can take a fantasy world and fantasy characters, and create a more accurate portrayal of the “real” world than many authors who base their fiction in every day life.

I have appreciated this ability in many of his books. While Unseen Academicals isn’t one of my favorite books, it is the best book for portraying real characters that I’ve read in a very long time. From it, I am gaining a feeling of what I need to do for the emotional overlay of my current manuscript. Here are some lessons about characterization that UA is bringing home.

1. In spite of how cool your characters are to you, they also need to have flaws. As an author, I tend to romanticize my characters. The first things I think of aren’t the problems my characters has, but what neat-o things make me want to write about them. All of the characters in UA have good and bad sides. I am more interested in how they will resolve the issues with their flaws, rather than the plot manipulations Pratchett puts them through.

2. Characters need to feel, sound, and look real. The main characters in UA are far from specimens of perfection. Glenda is fat, plain, bossy, and presumptive. Where she comes from, this makes perfect sense. Of course, she is also loyal, intelligent, insightful, and skillful. She is well-rounded and multi-faceted. I find that a lot of novels make the mistake of having the super cool or super handsome character, when maybe a better choice is super real.

3. Characters need to be dynamic. Those perfect characters you begin with in your manuscript don’t need superficial flaws you have to change, but they really do need to change their mind, or find out something new. Pratchett’s characters in UA do both.

4. A reader needs to care about your character. Different novelists do this in different ways. I find that Pratchett’s characters in UA are not only emotionally dynamic, but I do care how they cope in the world, and how they grow.

5. A character needs to surprise me. I love it when there’s a twist I don’t seem coming, especially from a hidden depth of the character. Unless my character is three dimensional, the chance of that surprise surfacing is slim.

Yes, I know this is not news to most of you who have studied writing and characterization. However, reading textbook advice is not as valuable as seeing it done in a story, at least for this student. I’ve seen books where characters are moved like pieces in a chess game, and this reader usually puts those books down. Give me a book where the characters grow, change, and surprise me, and I’ll stick with it to the end.

Which should be my take-home standard for my own writing.

Next week, lots of character work. Close character scrutiny. How well do you know your own characters?

And yes, I do recommend Unseen Academicals.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

3 thoughts on “Poised, or What Terry Pratchett is Teaching Me About Real Characterization”

  1. I just ordered Unseen Academicals, and I’m struggling with character issues in the book I started for NaNoWriMo (and which I’ll finish eventually – though I’ve realized I need to scrap the entire manuscript and start from scratch), which means this was the right post for me to read and the right time for me to read it.

  2. I’m currently sitting at Coffee Talk with Unseen Academicals sitting at my elbow. I’ve been meaning to start it for about four months. I’ll make sure to look for these aspects in the characters.

  3. Chia, I feel like my characters in the last draft were chess pieces, so I too really need to work on my characters.

    Shannon, I’ll be interested to see what you think about the book.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.