Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Favorite Characters (Part 1 - Novels)

Just wanted to mention/explain some of my favorite characters. I will begin with those in novels, some individuals who have made a home in my heart...

Miles Vorkosigan is one of these. The central character in Lois McMaster Bujold's series of novels is a nobleman (he would probably say "officer of the warrior caste") of Barrayar. He was/will be born many centuries from now, on a colony that had become accidentally isolated from the rest of humanity and so reduced to feudalism until rediscovered. During those times, Barrayar had developed an abiding fear towards mutation. Yet Miles (due to circumstances too involved to explain here) was poisoned in the womb. He is noticeably short, with a head a little too large and a back ever-so-slightly hunched. Plus brittle bones. By the time he's an adult, he's well on his way to having every bone in his hand replaced by synthetics. But those are just surface details. More important is how Miles, the son of a Great Man and target of intense prejudice, loves his home with an abiding passion. A type "A" personality with a vengeance, he regards impossible odds as a challenge--well, he has had to, hasn't he? Brilliant and manic, charming and manipulative, his missions on behalf of the Imperium tend to spin out of control--costing many times their assigned budgets, involving small (or not so small) armies that weren't supposed to be there, taking wild new directions that leave his superiors with graying hair, and with spectacularly success at their conclusion. All this because his heart is actually as big as his head--and he's a mental giant. Did I mention he's also funny? Very, very funny? Not always intentionally. And he sometimes groans at his own (very real) foolishness.

Saltheart Foamfollower is a giant in Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. As you can probably tell from his name, these Giants are sailors--as well as master stonemasons. Saltheart, when we first meet him, has one of the most heart-wrenching mini-conversations in all fiction. He speaks with Thomas Covenant, a former novelist whose leprosy has cost him his family...

"Do you tell stories?" Saltheart asks, eagerly, for it is said that the Giants love nothing more than a good story and once ended a war with simply telling one. Covenant replies "I did, once." Saltheart is impressed--in three words as sad a tale as any he's ever heard. "But how do you live without stories?" he asks. Covenant "I live." And Saltheart replies "In only two words, a tale sadder than the first! I pray you, Thomas Covenant, say no more. I fear with one word you shall break my heart." He says it kindly, but there is truth in those words. And it echoes the very last words he says while alive, books later: "Do what you will, my friend" he says to Covenant, "I die content--I have beheld a marvelous story!"

I want to be like Saltheart Foamfollower, to end my life so grateful for its tale.

Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter novels. Honestly, I was rooting for her and Harry to become a couple, because it was so obvious how good she was for him. Remember how we met her in Order of the Phoenix? How angry Harry was? Yet every single time he spoke with her, Harry got better, wiser, calmer. By any standards, Luna is a Grade A weirdo. She's a true eccentric in the English tradition (which, lets face it, is the Olympic Level of Eccentricity), but with a wisdom both entrancing and sad in one so young. She really shouldn't have needed to develop those impressively adult resources at her age, but somehow in Luna loneliness led to strength instead of neurosis. And a better friend one could hardly ask for. Even Hermione (another fave) became fiercely loyal to this odd girl who challenged her every belief with a maddening patience. And the glimpse we got of Luna's home, the paintings of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Neville entwined with golden letters spelling out F-R-I-E-N-D-S over and over again. Let us be honest--haven't we all felt that lonely at times. I was thrilled to learn from Rowling that Luna did eventually find love, albeit with a character we never met. I found myself envying him.

Lieutenant Commander Victor Henry of Herman Wouk's The Winds of War and its sequel/companion War and Remembrance. One of the novels I try to read every year. Maybe "Pug" Henry reminds me a bit of my father, or the way I like to imagine my father was in his heart of hearts (where, sadly, I never really visited--we got along very well, but for some reason we never got terribly close). He is not an ideal man. He drinks too much, is impatient with his children, is quietly and slightly racist without any hint of realizing it--but "Pug" is brave and smart, not just in relatively straightforward things but also in the subtle, more powerful questions. He falls in love with a younger woman and does not have an affair with her, despite what is an increasingly unhappy marriage. Longing for the life of a ship's captain, he commits what he believes to be career suicide because of an expertise he knows himself to possess, and which he (rightly) thinks vital for Allied victory in WW2. He retains a sense of wonder as well as a diplomatic cunning (while disliking the "corridors of power"). He is parochial yet sees others' points of view. He apologizes to his grown son for yelling at him as a child. Stoic, he weeps with grief and later grasps a second chance at happiness which might have felt like a humiliation. Others can have their Horatio Hornblower (and to be honest, I quite like that other naval officer as well) but I'll take "Pug" Henry thanks all the same.

Eowyn of the Mark from The Two Towers. Epic fantasy often uses the "female warrior" archetype these days. Understandably. We live in an age when the position of women is viewed differently than in times past, certainly out-of-sync with actual feudal periods. Maybe for that reason so many of them--although fun--often ring false. Hey, I loved Xena as much as the next person but that was a pretty wild ride of total silliness on some levels. But--Eowyn (her name means "lover of horses" in Anglo-Saxon) is cut from a different cloth. She does "fit" into her world, one where women are not typically the warriors but some do learn how to fight. She is a princess, so could be expected to be more if she so desired. But what really grabs my soul's attention is how in her despair she chose to go out fighting! Each book of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings contains (for me) a scene of transcendent heroism. In the last, that was a lone woman refusing to back down from a demon-ghost astride a dragon. Part of the power of that battle is not simply the surprise of who this warrior defending the fallen King turns out to be, but her success. More importantly, the reason for it. On some level even reading the book in my early teens I realized that what destroyed the Witch-King at least on some level was the unconquerable WILL of the woman wielding that blade--and the untamed LOVE fueling that will.

Esmay Suiza of Once A Hero Elizabeth Moon. Here is another archetype that has been gaining popularity -- the female officer in a space opera. Arguably the most famous of these is Honor Harrington, but I prefer Esmay Suiza -- who isn't even the primary such in the series of which she is a part. At first the author was all about Herris Serrano, another woman soldier in the same universe, but then she embarked on this totally brilliant offshoot about a junior officer who in truly strange circumstances ended up in command of a warship in battle. Perhaps in keeping with a pattern becoming a tad obvious, Esmay doesn't fit in at home--the (to our eyes) exotic and almost antiquated world of Antiplano. She second-guesses herself in a thousand ways, and the reason for that slowly comes out (and is not an easy answer). Yet her own abilities cannot be denied and circumstances force her into a newer understanding of her real self, of her genuine talents and longings. From there, she can at last take charge of her life amidst at time of tumult in the not-quite-empire she serves.

Honestly, I could have chosen another group just as easily. Severus Snape comes to mind, as does Brienne of Tarth, the title character in I, Claudius or one of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber (probably Random, but maybe Julian). Both leads in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith won my heart long ago, as did Edmund Dantes. And you of course are quite welcome to offer your own...

Yes, that is a hint.

1 comment:

Taliesin_ttlg said...

a couple of favourite characters, from very different books, are Ash - from Mary Gentle's Ash a secret history - and Winston Smith from 1984. Winston was vey much because he was the epitomy of the tragic figure and Ash because of her resiliance.