Monday, October 27, 2008
The Best Secondary Character In A Book.
October Is (Still) Book Month!
I had to get reading glasses the other day; I get headaches at the end of the day and dry eyes and the doctor thought maybe it was from working on a computer, so I went out and bought myself two pairs of reading glasses, one for home and one for work, that I wear when I work on the computer.
I like to think of it as a reading injury. I always remember that scene in "Jaws" when the guys on the boat compared their old injuries and scars and told stories about how they got them. I've never been athletic enough to have a sports injury, or at least not a cool sports injury. I do have bad knees from fencing when I was too fat to really fence well but since the injury came from being heavy, not from, say, being stabbed, I don't talk about it much. I've never had a job dangerous enough to get me a cool injury to brag about, either; the closest I came was when I burned my wrist on a bun-toaster at McDonald's when I was sixteen (I still have the scar!).
But I do have a reading injury, and my glasses are, like a splint or sling or scar, proof that I read so much I've started wearing out my eyes.
Also, my glasses are like the Tampa Bay Rays' manager's glasses, which is not coincidence. I was reading an old Sports Illustrated while waiting to see the doctor, and they had an article that showed the manager and talked about his glasses and how it took a special kind of guy -- like Buddy Holly or Elvis Costello or the Rays' manager -- Joe Maddon is his name -- to wear glasses like these, so, much like the time I heard that fidgeting burns calories and so I taught myself to fidget, and much like the time I read that people with flourishes n their signatures are optimists and outgoing so I taught myself to sign my name with a flourish, I promptly, when told to go buy glasses, bought the kind of glasses that guys like Buddy Holly and Elvis Costello and Joe Maddon and, um, Drew Carey, wear. Glasses that say I'm a rock & rolling, World-Series-coachin', Price Is Right-in Kind of Guy.
Still, as cool as these glasses make me -- as much cooler as they make me, since I was pretty cool already, what with the way I blog and make up sayings like Oh Jisquita and listen to seven-minute long songs featuring a cello courtesy of the music website Muruch, which has really been on the money lately with her song selection -- as cool as all that and these glasses make me, I'm no Duncan Idaho.
Duncan Idaho is, as you've now guessed, The Best Secondary Character In A Book. Duncan Idaho first appeared in Dune, by Frank Herbert, and then [SPOILER ALERT INVOLVING CLONING AND AXLOTL TANKS AND GENERATION AFTER GENERATION OF HUMAN HISTORY] appeared in all of the remaining Dune books, quite a feat considering that all of the remaining Dune books span something like 10 billion millennia or something and also considering that his role in one book [SPOILER ALERT INVOLVING DUNCAN IDAHO'S ROLE IN ONE BOOK] is to be repeatedly killed.
The Dune books had a lot going for them before they were almost wrecked by that movie that almost wrecked them. The Dune books had everything a sci-fi lover could want -- weird planets, spaceships, battles, new societies, mutated people who could see into the future and guide spaceships that way, and Baron Harkonnen. For those unfamiliar with them, a quick recap is this: In the future, or maybe the past -- I was never very clear on that, because it may have been the past, and Frank Herbert may have been messing with readers' minds the way George Lucas messed with viewers' minds at the start of Star Wars, you know the one, the one that later he claimed was only part four of a series, when it clearly was a standalone movie that he then went back and tacked some sequels onto, and renamed "A New Hope?" Right, that one, where he began with "A Long Time Ago," so people thought it was in the future but really it was in the past? Frank Herbert may have been doing that, too, I'm just not sure.
So anyway, in the Dune books, human society is a feudal society governed by various lords and houses who rule planets based on what the Emperor (I think it was an emperor) told them to do; most of society revolves around space travel and "spice," a drug-like substance that comes from the planet "Arrakis," which is a desert planet. The Atreides family, a popular clan, is sent to rule Arrakis during their feud with the Harkonnen family.
From there, the books just sprawl across history, moving on through the lives of Paul Atreides and then Paul's children and on and on through history, all while Herbert sets up a fascinating society of political interactions between the ruling families, the Guild that manages space travel, a religious-type clan known as the "Bene Gesserit," the "Fremen" who live on Arrakis, and other people and entities. Through the book, and then the rest of the books (Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and others) Herbert keeps building this society and also presenting great action sequences and compelling characters and interesting ideas (like what if you were a gifted seer, someone who was so gifted you could foretell the future with exact accuracy down to the last detail... would life have any meaning for you, in that instance, because you knew everything that would ever happen to you in your life? Would anything be new or interesting?) and also musing on how humanity will or can evolve and how we all interact.
It's both terribly exciting and awfully meaningful at the same time, and, as I said, the books span, if not 10,000 millenia, at least a really really long time, longer than any human life in the books, as society changes and evolves again and again.
But through all of the books, one character keeps appearing and reappearing: Duncan Idaho. Through the magic of axlotl tanks and Tleilaxu technology (which is sci-fi-geek code for the author really wanted this character to keep coming back and so he made up some stuff that would keep him coming back) Duncan Idaho, the swordmaster and warrior supreme and loyal companion of Paul Atreides and all-around-really-cool-guy -- the guy who should have been played by Sting in the movie -- keeps on keepin' on.
Duncan Idaho was an incredible character. He was a swordmaster and excellent warrior with diplomatic skills and phenomenal loyalty to his bosses the Atreides and phenomenal hatred for their enemies the Harkonnens, and he got to do all the great really cool stuff in the book -- ride sandworms and fight the Emperor's elite troops and knife-fight and save people from invasions and probably he got to swing on a giant curtain across a castle ballroom from a balcony down to the ground ... and if he didn't do that, then he certainly could have because he was that kind of character. And he did all that through generation after generation, coming back as a hated clone and then a beloved clone and moving from planet to planet and just generally being the kind of guy who, if all your friends were to get together when you were 10 and instead of playing Cops and Robbers, everyone decided to play Dune instead, if you all did that, everyone would have said I get to be Duncan Idaho (although probably you would not have read this book at 10, you'd have read it around 15, when you'd have been too old to play Dune even though secretly you'd have liked to.)
And I joke about it, joke that Duncan Idaho was so cool that Frank Herbert just wanted to keep him around, but I think that is partially true. I mean, yeah, he provided continuity in the books and yeah he served as a plot foil in Dune Messiah by [SPOILER ALERT THE DETAILS OF WHICH I DIDN'T FULLY RECALL UNTIL I WENT AND LOOKED IT UP] being cloned by Paul Atreides' enemies to kill Paul Atreides and/or to serve as some kind of proof or inducement [I REALLY WASN'T TOO CLEAR ON IT AFTER READING UP ON IT, EITHER, ALTHOUGH I RECALL WHEN I READ THE BOOK IT MADE SENSE] but mostly, Duncan Idaho, I suspect, turned out to be too interesting to let go of.
That's happened to me, from time to time, as I write here and there, write short stories and as I work on my novel; a character pops up in the story (almost literally, for me; I make up my stories off the top of my head as I go along) and then turns out to be interesting and so I keep them around and start building on them and see where it takes me. I do that because I don't plot out most of my stories in advance, and if I'm writing and a character becomes interesting to me, then I figure it'll be interesting to my readers, too, so I go with that and see what happens.
I suspect that at least part of that happened with Frank Herbert, and although he kept Duncan Idaho around and made him the focal point of some of the plots of the books as they went on, and eventually if I remember correctly, Duncan Idaho became the star of the book, it was never really enough because I always wanted to know more about Duncan Idaho, to see more of what he was doing. When he was ambassador to the Fremen, when he was growing up being hunted by Harkonnens, I wanted to know more about that.
And I wanted to know what he thought about all the stuff that was going on; see, Dune and most of the sequels were told not from Duncan Idaho's perspective but from other characters' viewpoints, and that affected me and the story, too. I got the Dune story from an omniscient narrator, and from Paul Atreides, and from others -- but I wanted to hear it from Duncan Idaho.
A lot of secondary characters seem more interesting than the main characters, in books and in movies. Wasn't Han Solo way more interesting than Luke Skywalker? Didn't we all want to know a little more about Hermione and see what she was all about? Seriously -- Harry Potter might have been the kid with the scar that everyone remembered [SPOILER ALERT? REALLY? IS THERE ANYONE WHO DOESN'T KNOW THIS BY NOW? OKAY, WELL, FINE...SPOILER ALERT FOR THAT ONE PERSON WHO HASN'T YET READ "HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR'S STONE."] wasn't killed by Voldemort, but Harry Potter wasn't really all that interesting or that great of a wizard. I'm pretty sure by the end of the seven books [OKAY, THIS IS MAYBE KIND OF A SPOILER ALERT] Harry Potter knew, like, three spells, while Hermione from the first book on was way advanced and had some backstory, too, as a Muggle who suddenly developed wizarding powers, so from time to time I found myself wondering what would these books have been like if they were "Hermione and The Sorceror's Stone?"
I think that the tendency for side characters to seem more interesting in part stems from the fact that we don't know much about them. Like many heroes or stars or interesting people, they become an enigma -- what makes Han Solo tick -- and they become a spot for us to project our own ideas onto because they aren't explained; and, also, they become more interesting because they're, well, more interesting. Luke Skywalker-- and Paul Atreides, for that matter, and I figure I should mention him because it is October Is Book Month and I am, technically, talking about Dune and its sequels, so Luke Skywalker and Paul Atreides appealed to kids: they were noble, upstanding, flawless (slightly-whiny) heroes, the kind of people who unhesitatingly agreed to fly an X-wing for the Rebel Alliance or to marry [SPOILER ALERT ABOUT DUNE, THE BOOK I AM STILL SORT-OF-DISCUSSING HERE] the Emperor's daughter even though they were in love with a Fremen.
But Han Solo, and Duncan Idaho, were not so boring and Dudley Do-Right; they were exciting guys who made the Kessel Spice Run in less than 3 parsecs (which I feel compelled to point out is not a measurement of time; what Han Solo was really saying there is that he found a way to make the Kessel run in a shorter distance;a parsec is equal to 30 trillion kilometers. Han Solo didn't do it faster, he found a shortcut) and who survived being hunted by the Harkonnens and who are great knife-fighters and kill 19 Sardaukar in one battle (if you haven't read Dune, then that won't make a great deal of sense to you, but, trust me -- it's a pretty big deal.)
And I don't know, who am I to judge? I've had only minimal success in publishing so far (aside from the wildly incredible popularity of this blog, which is clearly the most-successful/best-read blog in the universe), so maybe Frank Herbert and J.K. Rowling and the others know something that I don't.
But I do know that sometimes side characters can be more interesting than the main characters, and sometimes I want to know more about them, and sometimes, when I get to know more about them, it's cool -- like when Han Solo got his own set of books like Han Solo's Revenge, and I really liked those -- and those side characters seem to me to be hinting at more interesting stories and better ways of looking at the story that I'm reading (because I seriously do think that the Harry Potter stories, as good as they were, might have been even better if they were Hermione stories, and maybe J.K. Rowling will come out with some Hermione books now, having been prompted to do so), and I do know that it's sometimes right to do that, because as time went on, Duncan Idaho became more and more the focus of the Dune stories, so it wasn't just me that was thinking Hey, I want to know more about this guy.
The list of literary characters about whom we'd like to know more, who could easily have had their own story, and who probably should have had their own story, is a pretty long one. You can probably think of ten or twenty off the top of your head. But right at the top of that list is a swordmaster who was so awesome as a character that the author kept him around for 10,000 millenia -- Duncan Idaho, of the Dune series, who despite not having a pair of Joe Maddon/Elvis Costello glasses, still managed to survive for book after book after book and earn the nomination as The Best Secondary Character In A Book.
Here on TBOE,
October is Book Month!
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