Let me back up a little. A couple of posts back, I started to write about Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, Dune. And, continuing in the same aforementioned sheepish vein, I must confess I got a little sidetracked… in the same way the Pacific contains a little water. Doesn’t usually happen, he said solemnly, nodding sagely, listening all the while to the guffaws of his students who are all too familiar with the old man’s tangential thinking.
(And actually, if you want to know, the whole Dune thing was prompted by my discovery of an ancient copy of the sequel, Children of Dune, while cleaning out my classroom bookcases in preparation for a Certain Major Event, to be discussed another day. Discovery? you ask, furrowing your brows. Are you one of those types who doesn’t know what’s in your own classroom? Well, not usually. In my defence, I didn’t put the book there, you see; it must have been originally laid down by the previous tenant, who for reasons best known to her evidently declined to take it with her when she left, so I just sort of inherited it, and… never mind. You don’t want to know. I get it.)
What I originally wanted to comment on was the richness of the first novel’s characters. (I felt book two and on got progressively murkier and more convoluted, and I eventually lost interest. So authors, take heed: keep your writing clean, clear, crisp and unconvoluted --- and keep all those Shakespearean asides detailing characters’ innermost thoughts to an absolute minimum.)
To start at the very beginning (a very good place to start!), there was the protagonist, Paul Atreides. Which gives rise to another take-heed/tangent, authors: if you’re going to give characters all sorts of original, unusual names and likewise bestow place locations with same, for the love of readability, sanity and the literacy gods --- not necessarily in that order --- please consider providing a pronunciation guide. Don’t get me wrong: bestowing original, unusual names is a fine and many-splendoured thing, because naming your heroic protagonist Fred is not especially heroic (with due apologies to Freds of the world). But if you want people pronouncing names as you intended them pronounced, provide a guide. I did, at the end of my novel, Gryphon’s Heir. In fact, I had quite a lot of fun with it, turning it into an annotated guide that became a quasi-appendix. I didn’t want readers providing their own well-intentioned but mangled pronunciations to beloved names I was crystal-clear about. And no, it’s got nothing to do with being a control freak. Atreides is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. When I read the book, I pronounced it AH-tree-ides. Then the film came along, and they pronounced it ah-TRAY-ah-dees. Cripes, what’s a young aficionado to do?
(Same thing with Lord of the Rings. I thought it was Izzen-guard, but Jackson had Middle-Earthians say it as Eye-zen-guard. I ask you, what’s canon? Sheesh.)
Anyway, back to Paul Atreides. Nicely structured protagonist. Young, male, destined for great things, yadda, yadda, yadda. The characters around him actually provided much of the richness:
-His parents, Duke Leto and consort, Lady Jessica. Not exactly married, but somehow that doesn’t make Paul illegitimate. Some tension between them because she belongs to a weird religious order called the Bene Gesserit, which is obsessed with controlling marriages in order to produce a perfect genetic line. She was directed by them to produce a daughter in her relationship with Leto, but begat a son instead because she knew he wanted one, which is an interesting sub-plot all on its own, quite apart from a woman being consciously able to choose her child’s gender.
-Thufir Hawat, Paul’s aged mentor. A mentat, sort of a human computer. Interesting concept in a society that’s deliberately chosen to limit the development of AI, because, like Stephan Hawking and Elon Musk, it has apparently realized the existential threat uncontrolled AI poses to our future.
-Duncan Idaho, Sword Master and Gurney Halleck, musician and warrior, two of Leto’s retainers and mentors/quasi-friends to Paul.
-Dr. Yueh, the Atreides physician with Imperial conditioning that’s supposed to make him incapable of betraying Leto. Which, of course, means the antagonist has found a way to make him betray Leto.
-Speaking of antagonists, the Baron Harkonnen, a grotesque villain with a personal grudge against Leto and big plans to bring him down; and his younger nephew, Feyd, who tolerates Uncle’s creepy excesses but appears to have plans of his own. (Older nephew has the charming nickname of Beast Rabban.)
-Piter de Vries, Baron Harkonnen’s mentat, addicted to drugs but effective and efficient in spite of that.
-Stilgar, leader of a rag-tag guerilla group called the Fremen, who exist on a desert world named Arrakis which is where most of the novel’s conflict takes place.
-Dr. Kynes, Imperial Arrakis planetologist; supposedly neutral, but aware the Atreides are walking into a trap when they come there… and against his better judgement, sympathetic to them.
Annnnd a host of others. They were all intricately interwoven with each other, and --- this is my point about them --- so memorable that I generated the list above almost entirely from memory, as it’s been several decades since I actually picked up the book. (The 1984 David Lynch film I found disappointing, by the way, and I haven’t seen the TV miniseries.)
The ultimate benefit is that, with characters so richly painted, as a writer, you almost don’t have to do much in the way of plotting: just put them all together and record their interactions.
There; I’m Dune with it, laddies and lassies. (Sorry. Awful pun.)