What Characters Do – Or Don’t

The other day I realized something that probably should have been obvious, but that I’d never thought much about. There are millions of readers in the world, but there are very few characters in books who actually read books. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t recall a book I’d read – except my own – where a character reads a book or mentions one or quotes from one. It could be that my memory was faulty; so I went to my bookshelves and looked at all the books lined up there, and tried to think of a single one that mentioned reading or writing books, and I finally found one – Joe Haldeman’s The Hemingway Hoax – and recalled another one – Gene Wolfe’s The Borrowed Man.

Now, I’m certain there are others out there, but I’m willing to bet that the percentage of F&SF books that have characters who actually read or write books is less than five percent. I’m not talking about reading or writing books as the focus of novels, but just as a mention of part of the character’s lives.

Yet biographies of great people usually mention books in some fashion or another. Almost every biography of Lincoln has the story of the borrowed book that he had to replace, and Jefferson’s love of writing and books is certainly renowned. Patton read the classics, and Churchill won a Nobel Prize in literature. Scores of famous people mention the Bible or quote from it, but seldom do authors depict the equivalent in F&SF.

Likewise, almost every human culture has some form of music, and while a larger percentage of F&SF books mention/show music, the percentage is small compared to the field as a whole, despite the ubiquity of music in history and life.

Then there is the issue of family. Families play a part in everyone’s life, and whether immediately present or not, definitely influence actions and motivations. Again, there are more books that show this than there are novels that depict books…but comparatively few F&SF books use familial interactions and pressures.

Just a few thoughts on what’s often not there.

9 thoughts on “What Characters Do – Or Don’t”

  1. Sam says:

    This actually ties into a question I thought about asking you a while back but never got around to about the nature of world-building in particular of fantasy.

    Every now and then whilst reading your fantasy works I would wonder about the world-view of the characters in your worlds and the differences/similarites between our own.

    Things like do the people in your worlds believe that their world is flat as people once thought in ours? Do your fantasy worlds have their equivalents, of Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Curie, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Colombus?

    To the best of my recollection most of the famous historical figures referenced in your fantasy works are famous rulers and/or victors in war.

    I often think that it is scientific discovery hand in hand with art and creative expression that lead to subtle but longer-lasting changes in the nature of our society than warfare and enforced rule.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    It varies quite a bit by genre. But characters actually reading for pleasure is fairly rare.

    Weber has referenced The Hornblower novels. Stasheff (if memory serves) quoted Shakespeare. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean novels sometimes quote or reference famous poets.

  3. Andreas says:

    I believe Terry Pratchett had a character in Strata that wrote a book, but it is very rare in F&SF. For that matter very few of the general fiction novels that I have read, have characters that read other than Tom Clancy, but that could just be my eclectic taste in fiction.

    Thanks for the thought provoking blog post, I’m sure it will have an effect on my amateur writing…

  4. JakeB says:

    As for books, I’ll have to think about it a bit more. Some of David Drake’s characters will have songs running through their heads, I do recall. One of my favorites is Nicholas Leary thinking of lines from “Duncan and Brady” in the middle of a ship battle.

  5. elarnia says:

    A lot of magic based stories have characters reading, but those could be counted more as tools than books. But let’s not forget Hermione with her by now dog-eared copy of “Hogwarts: A History” 🙂

  6. darcherd says:

    LEM raises a good point. Why shouldn’t fictional characters have an active reading life? The works they are reading and the way that reading informs their character and behavior would greatly add depth to their character and make them more believable.

    There is also a great dearth in SciFi/Fantasy of people’s relationship to religion, despite the centrality of religion in human history. One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about LEM’s “Imager” series is the way he weaves in the religious theory and practice in the worship of the Un-named God – it really helps craft a recognizable and believable world.

    To the examples of SciFi/Fantasy with literate characters cited above, I would also mention the “Temeraire” series by Naomi Novik where the title character, a dragon, avidly devours literary works of all kind, from Isaac Newton to Chinese court poetry. (Of course, he has to have the books read to him since he can’t really hold a book in his talons, let alone turn the pages).

  7. Christopher Browne says:

    I’m happy with going with Chekhov’s principle on this…

    It is worded several ways, but Chekhov takes the pithy notion that if a story mentions a gun, it should get fired before terribly long.

    The dramatic principle is that things not important to the story should not be included.

    Given that, I shouldn’t think it odd that fictional characters are not often found reading.

  8. invah says:

    This has been on my mind since I read it as the point strikes me profoundly, and personally.

    I’m bouncing between re-reading “Scion of Cyador” and reading “Solar Express” when I realized that your characters go one further than reading books, they discuss specific pieces between themselves and share with each other.

    Lorn and Ryalth, Lorn and his father, Lorn and his superior and subordinate officers; Quaryt and Vaelora; Alayna and Christopher; Lerris and Justen; I could go on because this dynamic is a fixture in your novels.

    While I’m at it, another thing you do that is unique and wonderful is how you bring pieces of stories set in the past into the future…and not always ‘reliably’, as it would be in the real world. Gauswyn’s writings showing up in “Madness in Solidar” delights me to no end, and you’ve used this technique to great effect in the Recluse novels.

    I am, generally, an inveterate re-reader, but the vision and expanse of the worlds and interconnected stories you create lead me to it again and again, fitting the pieces together from a new understanding.

    Sometimes I do feel obtuse when characters come to conclusions that seem (to me) to come out of nowhere, but you always drop an explanation, usually in dialogue explaining things to another character, for which I am eternally thankful. (Or when the protagonist is eavesdropping on side conversations; I’ve come to love the ellipses that indicate this is going to happen.) That’s another factor of your writing that even more firmly contributes to this habit.

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