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- WOSSNAME - DECEMBER 2000 - continued - Part 3 of 3
6) COMEDY 101
by Geof Johns
I try to write comedy. It's a hobby not unlike making models of the Taj
Mahal by moonlight out of matchsticks. I believe that humour is the greatest
expression of the human spirit. Alas, I am dutiful rather than inspired.
Trying to write does have its compensations though. One of them is a keener
appreciation than I would otherwise have had of my heroes - people like Terry
Pratchett and George McDonald Fraser - masters of the craft.
I attend writing classes, whenever I can, and read books on comic writing.
Quite probably, my author heroes just do it naturally with no tuition at
all. Still, it's interesting to see how close Terry Pratchett comes to the
book theory, especially in the early novels, and how he has transcended it,
in the later ones.
The first lesson in "Comedy 101" is to create a character with basic comic
contradictions. Think of it this way. It's like the opening moves in a game
of chess. In the opening game there are rules and precedents. Push a couple
of pawns forward, develop a few pieces and then, in the middle game, the
realm of intuition, the dazzling combinations WILL be there. You just have
to search for them. Create a character with comic contradictions and the
jokes will be there. You can search for them or steal them.
In "The Colour of Magic", Terry Pratchett created Rincewind, who seems to owe
a little to George McDonald Fraser's Flashman. The comic contradiction in
Flashman (plucked with incredible insight from Tom Brownes' Schooldays) is
that he is a lecherous bully, toady and coward with a very modern cynicism
set in the mythical world of Victorian derring-do and valour. The humour
flows from this.
To make the story work, Fraser gives Flashman a minor virtue or two. He is a
good horseman (so he can get around fast enough to keep pace with the plot),
a good linguist (so the story doesn't flounder while he fumbles with his
phrasebook). He is a good-looking and plausible villain and an excellent
Now put Rincewind under the microscope. There are two basic comic
contradictions. He is a coward in a world of high fantasy and a totally
inept wizard in a world of magic. Yet, if there is one thing Rincewind
clings to it is the utter belief that at the core of his being he IS a
Like Flashman, Rincewind sees things, a reports them to the reader, as they
are. Unlike Flashman, Rincewind has a basic empathy with the human
condition. This empathy permeates Terry Pratchett's work. Possibly, it is
his best claim on greatness.
There are several other amusing correspondences between the Discworld and the
Flashman series. Lord Elphinstone's insistence of British Officers lining up
within sniper fire at the retreat from Kabul to show that they were not
intimidated is pure Lord Rust. It would not be believable in a fantasy novel
but happened in real life.
Flashman's character can be relied on to get him into trouble. In the
textbooks I read this is called "conflict". Rincewind prefers a quiet life
and so needs a little prodding by the author. No problem, the Discworld is
driven by narrative causality, or at least coincidence. Enter Twoflower, the
tourist. His job is to get Rincewind into trouble - conflict, whatever.
Twoflower's comic contradiction is that of the insatiably curious optimist
in a world of danger.
A third comic creation is The Luggage - comic contradiction - an magical
artefact with attitude. One of Terry Pratchett's most enduringly popular
creations, The Luggage appears to be unique in that it was created for a game
(Dungeons and Dragons) and somehow escaped into literature. (Guilty of
literature? Yep, I am a witness for the prosecution.)
And so "The Colour of Magic" and "The Light Fantastic" unfurl. Pratchett
only has to manoeuvre Rincewind in and out of the cliches of the genre and
the jokes appear to come out of nowhere.
At this stage, Terry Pratchett is something of a "kitchen sink" novelist.
Not in the sense of sordid (if you are prepared to overlook most of the
acreage of Morpork) but in the sense of throwing in everything, including the
The airplane scene in the "Colour of Magic" seems a direct steal from an
earlier and long forgotten (I can't remember its name anyway) ribald fantasy.
(For those with long memories, it's the one with dwarfs that had rifled
genitalia so it was vitally important to marry a dwarf with the right
thread.) It is a scene that doesn't seem to fit into either novel but there
"The Colour of Magic" is three loosely connected novellas. "The Light
Fantastic" is a somewhat more extended reworking of the same themes.
For all this though, you get the impression that Terry Pratchett was
discovering a world, a world that somehow works. It is more than an assembly
of disconnected jokes. It seemed to evolve around an ecosystem of humour.
In the writing class I attend, we are continually reminded that a story
should be about the journey of the main character, about how they learn to
find a viable place in the world. I sometimes think that the Discworld
series is less about the journey of any particular character than about the
evolution of the world itself. Yes it is a mirror of worlds but also a
mirror of its author's mind.
In any event, what happened next surprised me. For his next novel in the
series, Terry Pratchett dumped his popular main character and zeroed in on a
new corner of his world. Perhaps it seemed to him that the basic
"two-contradiction" character of Rincewind had run out of comic steam.
Perhaps it was something else.
7) ASSORTED GOODIES
FROM BRIGGS WITH PLASTIC
Stephen CMOT Briggs is delighted to be able to let
his customers - particularly those outside the UK -
know that, at long last, he can now accept payments
by Visa, Mastercard and Switch!
He recognizes that getting sterling bank drafts has
been an increasing problem, and an expensive one,
for non-UK fans. This should make things easier.
Details of his current merchandise - including the new
Complete Fool's badge and Harga's apron - can be
had from sbriggs@... or by s.a.e. to him at
PO Box 147, Oxford, OX2 8YT, England
BRITISH SLANG EXPLAINED
Here's a useful web site that helps Americans
understand such arcane English colloquialisms
as guff, Durex, pillock, and quid with over 300 entries:
-- Matt Harris
LAST T-SHIRTS GONE
Andrew MIllard writes that the last few NADS
T-shirts have now been sold and that the club
has donated $120 (or $1 per T-shirt) to the
Orangutan Foundation International, Terry's
8) === ACCUSATIONS of LITERATURE ===
© Michael Jones 2000
(Discworld and individual characters
© 2000 Terry and Lyn Pratchett)
THE QUOTABLE DISCWORLD
There is nothing more powerful than the quote.
Well, perhaps there is. The quote, used correctly, is a powerful weapon.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is nothing more
accessible than the quote. For while some of the greatest sagas of our time
may have moved us with their sweeping imagery and clever techniques, it is
the timeless quotes that they yield which define them.
It is an interesting biological fact that humans can only accommodate a
number of pieces of information in their limited brains at once. Scientists
have measured this, and assigned it the magical number of seven. Seven
names. Seven numbers. Seven rings. Seven "chunks" of information. So it is
perhaps not surprising that of the many truly great works of fiction that
exist in the world, we remember only those few one-liners, those set
pieces, known as quotes.
After all, most people are aware that they should not meddle in the affairs
of wizards, because they are subtle and quick to anger, even though most of
the time they forget about the seamless world that J. R. R. Tolkein created
for his wizards to inhabit. The Lord of the Rings defined High Fantasy, and
J. R. R. Tolkein created a virtual reality called Middle Earth nearly half
a decade before the Internet was even conceptualised. We remember that
Dragon Riders must fly when Thread is in the sky, but we forget the sense
of childish abandonment, wonder, guilt and angst that Anne McCaffrey
created in the girl Menolly, and we also forget how her growth and
development, both as a girl into a woman and as an apprentice into a
Harper, reflected the growth and development of Pern itself. We remember
the ineptness of Fizban and our first stirrings of suspicion that he was
not as he seemed; we remember the curiosity of the Kender; but we forget
the way that Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman managed to weave the essence
of family love - between two twin brothers - into a world fractured and
torn apart by war, and the terrible price both brothers paid for their
lives they led. We remember exultant cries of "Done then!" in two separate
worlds, from two separate heroes, and yet we forget that David Eddings
managed to capture the hearts of younger readers with his whimsical
fantasies and coming of age heroes.
Perhaps that is what makes the Terry Pratchett's Discworld books so
successful. To read - to really read - a Discworld book, can take years,
and many re-readings, and even then the most avid fan is perpetually
haunted by the fact that he hasn't ferreted out every single obscure
reference or annotation that there is to find. Discworld books are layered
with complexity like an onion, and exposing each layer simply makes the
next that much harder to unravel. This alone raises curious questions about
Terry Pratchett's state of mind while writing these novels...
However it is the quotes we remember, because Terry has a habit of using
his quotes as the barbs on his literary arrows, so that when the words
fade, the quotes remain. A Discworld book can spend an hour building us up
with it's comedic cadences, it's glorious characterisations and the charged
interactions between these characters, and then the entire scene can
explode before us with the impact of a single quote - a single sentence
into which the entire energy of the entire section, the entire passage, or
sometimes the entire book, has been poured.
I personally think it's interesting that my favourite quote does not come
from my favourite book. My favourite book is Lords and Ladies (although The
Truth is vying for the position as we speak) and yet my favourite quote
comes from Feet of Clay, when Dorfl, falling apart, scribbles a few last
desperate words onto a pad of paper -
"words iN thE HeaRT Can noT Be taken."
Eight words which, in the midst of our sadness for Dorfl's demise, hit home
with the force of a sledgehammer and bring the last 373 pages to life.
We love Discworld quotes because sometimes they say what we've always
thought but hadn't been willing to put into words...
"In the Beginning, there was nothing, which exploded."
"Animals can't murder. Only us superior races can murder. That's one of the
things that sets us apart from animals."
"'Quite. Real children don't go hoppity-skip unless they are on drugs.'"
Discworld quotes illuminate the races and characters of Terry's creation in
ways that we all recognise...
"It's a metaphor of human bloody existence, a dragon. And if that wasn't
bad enough, it's also a bloody great hot flying thing."
"All dwarfs are by nature dutiful, serious, literate, obedient and
thoughtful people whose only minor failing is a tendency, after one drink,
to rush at enemies screaming 'Arrrrrrgh!' and axing their legs off at the
Discworld quotes sometimes find a way of putting us inside Terry's
"THERE IS NO JUSTICE. THERE IS JUST US."
"WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?"
"'Sometimes," Vetinari said testily, "it really does seem to me that the
culture of cynicism in the Watch is ...is...'
'Insufficient?' said Vimes."
"You make us want what we can't have and what you give us is worth nothing
and what you take is everything and all there is left for us is the cold
hillside, and emptiness, and the laughter of the elves."
And finally, Discworld quotes take the essence of the world that we live
in, and twist it into new shapes to delight and astound us.
"'Right, you bastards, you're... you're geography'"
"Million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten."
"They felt, in fact, tremendously bucked-up, which was how Lady Ramkin
would almost certainly have put it and which was definitely several letters
of the alphabet away from how they normally felt."
"Violet Frottidge was walking out with young Deviousness Carter, or at
least doing something within ninety degrees of walking out."
And these are just a very small few. They aren't even the best. For as I
curse my limited brain, that manages to only hold seven or so chunks of
information at a time - and one wonders how Terry Pratchett can be subject
to the same limitation and still create a world as varied and complex as
the Discworld - I know that the best simply haven't made their way to the
front of the queue yet, to be included in that magic seven.
Happy quoting. And remember, as Apatite the Troll would say - "'Av an 'appy
Hogswatch, an' a good Year of the Shrinking Tree-Frog. Or whaddever year it
is. An' keep your nose clean."
PS: I'd like to apologise to all of the fans who emailed me after the last
edition of Wossname - I simply didn't have time to do a humourous article
this week. Rest assured, more will be forthcoming. I need ideas! Any ideas
for columns (both humorous ones, and Accusations of Literature) can be sent
to me at sistermick@.... Also, anyone interested in
helping me with a project to create a comprehensive database of Discworld
quotes from all of the Discworld books, feel free to contact me at
sistermick@.... Please include QUOTES in the subject line.
-- Michael Jones
9) OBSCURE WORLD FACTS
One of the smaller jokes in Interesting Times is the names of the four
most powerful families in the Counterweight Continent: the Hongs, the
Sungs, the Tangs, the McSweeneys and the Fangs.
I quote from the Annoted Pratchett File (APF):
> The presence of the McSweeney name ("very old establishedThere is, however, another annotation, one which so-far seems to have
> family") in this list is used as a running gag throughout
> the book. It also reminded me of James Clavell's Hong Kong
> novels (Tai-Pan, Noble House and Gai-Jin), which chronicle
> the Asian business empire founded and headed by various
> generations of the Scottish Struan family.
In the north-western area of China have been found the well-preserved
mummies of people, dating from around 2000 BCE. These mummies show many
signs of being related to Celts. Furthermore, their modern day
decendants are totally unlike all the other people in the area: they are
fair-skinned, light-haired Caucasians. The possibility of genuine Celts
living in China during the Bronze Age cannot be discounted.
These mummies are known as the Urumchi mummies, or sometimes the Tarim
(after the Tarim Basin in the Taklimakan desert where they were found).
The history of these people is rather confused and not known exactly:
the Bronze Age was a time of vast population movements, and many
population groups were wiped out or integrated into others. But it seems
likely that these people were Tocharians, proto-Celts from Iran.
The situation was complicated by the arrive of Turkish-speaking
(actually Uyghur-speaking, but that language is related to Turkish)
people about 1000 BCE.
While I'm sure archaeologists would be horrified by my
over-simplification, it seems that there was, once, a Celtic (or
proto-Celtic) civilization, complete with tartan, living in China.
It's not likely that any of them were called McSweeney though :-)
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