I know no one cares about unjustly obscured SFF these days, but man Jack Vance’s stories would make for some awesome movies or TV shows, especially with the big budget productions we see so frequently today. I guess the real question is – who would be unwoke enough to tell a Jack Vance story these days?
But that’s not what I’m here to muse about today.
This is the situation I find myself in right now: I can remember approximately a name and a half of the characters from The Last Castle, which I am reading in short spans.
There’s Claghorn – some important elder gentleman who seems to be the only one of the nobility with enough sense to see the danger their world is in. And then there’s Xanten (or Xentain? Something like that…), the closest thing we have to a POV protagonist. And Xanten isn’t especially likable. Like the other noblemen, he’s proud to the point of absurdity and clings to impractical custom and tradition. But interestingly he also seems to be a competent fighter and scout. He’s not totally unlikable.
There was a recent discussion on Twitter about the importance of character vs worldbuilding vs plot. I’m not entirely convinced you can compare plot with the other two elements, but let’s forget that for now. Opinions overwhelmingly tended toward the importance of characters – that they be relatable; that they be well-developed; that they have an arch; that they be likable, etc.
I might agree with that on the whole, but my primary function in these kinds of discussions has congealed, and it is this – to point out that Jack Vance operated differently and to great effect.
I can’t remember the names of most of Jack Vance’s characters. There’s Cugel, of course (who was a cad and may not have undergone any kind of significant development), and Reith from Planet of Adventure. And there’s Rhialto, who is memorable for being Magnificent to some degree or another. And there’s Gersen from the Demon Prince stories.
Then there are a host of forgettable characters from all of his other stories. It’s not that they’re badly written or developed. It’s more that they either very similar to one another, or else that they play their roles in service to the world and story they inhabit. They are just interesting enough to serve their purpose.
And when the stories are done, you remember the worlds Jack Vance built. And you dream. The characters are secondary.