Terry Pratchett, creator of the wonderful Discworld series. It would be easy and highly satisfying to ramble on about his humour and his wonderful world but I don’t think that that’s what makes his books so much fun to read. The thing that always stands out and indeed what I think makes him so successful is his grasp of the human condition (and indeed that of the werewolf as well). His characters are so beautifully human, both extreme and ordinary; over the top yet modest and flawed.
Terry creates people in his book, people that you root for and want desperately to succeed. Yet these are people who can do both wonderful and the most outrageously stupid things, things that are instantly recognisable in the people that you live with, work with and see on the bus. His characters aren’t in any way perfect but are loveable in many instances, detestable when necessary and inherently human in all cases. Even when they’re a werewolf.
This humanity, surrounded by the magic of the Discworld, grounds his stories in an entirely different sort of magic. To borrow an overused and outstandingly cheesy phrase, reading his books is for me, like spending time with some good friends, laughing at their inevitable misfortune but feeling safe in the knowledge that it’ll come right in the end. Or at least that it will end just like it would in real life. Only with magic. And werewolves
Neal Stephenson. Author of a wonderful mix of books, including the sci-fi Snow Crash and my personal fave, the System of the World trilogy. It is the latter of these that really blew my mind and helped me realise the depth and breadth that a good novel can create. I admire many things about Neal; his research, which for the System trilogy must have been colossal; his characters, excellent thumbnails with complexity just below the surface and more.
But the thing that really excites me about his work is the unashamed depth and sheer wordiness of it. I’ll admit that it isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I love the feeling that the author is challenging you to get lost in the book and that reading it isn’t going to be effortless. I struggle to do that in my writing without writing huge tracts of pointless description. I don’t think that my books really lend themselves to it to be fair, but I’d still love to be able to. I think that perhaps his research gives him the freedom to ramble without it ever feeling like, or indeed being, rambling.
Sometimes I like to be able to breeze through a book, the words throwing themselves into my mind. But other times I enjoy having to delve in and really commit myself. Neal’s books demand commitment and the reward is more than worth it. I’m not sure that this has been the best advert for his work, but it is meant to be, honest.
Bill Willingham, another comic writer and the creator behind the wonderful Fables series. There are a handful of authors working within the comics medium who are, to coin a phrase, treasure troves of ideas. People you can’t imagine get much sleep because every hour they wake up and have to jot something down, some new nugget of storytelling wonder.
Bill Willingham is one of those. From the very concept behind Fables to the bizarre self-referential world of Jack and on to the shorts he created for House of Mystery, he always manages to make stories just a little more original than most. With either an unexpected twist or simply taking the road less travelled he never seems to follow the well-worn paths of story telling cliché.
This kind of thing is tougher to emulate; the simple creation of ideas isn’t easy to copy, but when I come to a part in my book where I have options within my plot frame, I ask myself, ‘What would Bill do?” My books seem to have more goblins in them now than I originally intended, but it’s a start.
There are a lot of other writers who deserve a mention here, and I’m hoping to write about them in the future. However, I must just mention Robert Kirkman, mostly for his ridiculous work rate and, as with Bill Willingham, apparently endless supply of ideas.
Terry Moore, creator of the wonderful Strangers in Paradise. There have been a million reviews of Strangers, mostly focusing on how Terry writes female characters. When I cajoled my wife into reading the series, she spent the first few graphics assuming that Terry was a woman, a not uncommon event.
However, whilst I agree whole heartedly with those reviews, it’s not his female characterisation that really gets me. The thing I love about Strangers in Paradise and indeed everything that he writes, is his dialogue.
His characters sound very natural, using rhythms and words that ring true. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to throw in a sentence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood movie. I think that the naturalism of most of it makes the filmic parts work and not jar, which they easily could. The comics in general have that feeling of heightened reality; real people in not quite real situations, but reacting in very real ways.
In many ways, that last sentence is perhaps a great definition of effective fiction. Once the audience believes in the characters, you can create situations that make for interesting and dynamic stories. The challenge is then creating reactions that are genuine and real and the dialogue to go with them.
Terry Moore is the master at this. It’s impossible to not get invested in his characters, even when they are involved in entirely mad situations.
Warren Ellis, the fabulous comic author, in particular the creator of Transmetropolitan. I love his ability to combine things in one story that simply shouldn’t work. The skill I am most jealous of though is the way in which he can bring humour into pretty much every frame yet never detract from the story that is playing out, or seem cheesy or over-the-top.
His comics blend so many different factors that all demand an emotional response; yet never seem forced or shoehorned in for the sake of it. His characters are incessantly railing against all manner of inequalities and wrongs yet at the same time will exhibit views both shocking yet head-shakingly right. It is impossible not to become invested in them. Whilst this is going on, they are also cracking obscene jokes and using appalling yet casual violence, the kind that would get you banned from TV long before you got anywhere near the censors. Surrounding these actions and opinions will be lives that can have tender moments, horrible sadness and wonderful highs, all of which again endear and connect them to you.
Throughout all of it, Warren will bring the funny; visually, through story and situation and through the characters themselves. I think someone may have said in their introduction to one of his graphic novels that secretly everyone would like to be a Warren Ellis character. They were right. And if they didn’t say it, then I just did.
Let’s take Neil Gaiman. I think of him like chocolate. You could blindfold me and give me 10 different types of chocolate and I could recognise the Cadburys every time. Once I’d taken the blindfold off, I think I could pick his writing out pretty damn consistently. Why? Well, therein lies the magic, the illusive mystery of great writers.
For me, it is the atmosphere of Neil’s books that always stands out. His writing has an almost wistful air, but is still striking. With very few words he conjures a sense of knowing that I think comes from his deep appreciation for every writer who has come before him. Without ever short-changing, he expects the reader to know ‘the rules’ and share at least some of his love of story telling. This allows him to almost borrow a sense of long ago, of stories past in which to tell his own tales. It is this atmosphere that makes his writing so magical to read.
I’m not sure that I’ve done justice to what he does and I’m also concerned that I’ve suggested that he doesn’t do his own work. That is in no way accurate. It’s just that you can taste and smell his books. The flavours and scents, whilst being highly original, always have a faint, comforting air of familiarity about them. And just to be clear, this is a good thing.