Constructive Writing: Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

Vimes disliked vampires. Dwarfs were law-abiding little buggers when they were sober, and even trolls were all right if you kept them where you could see them. But the all the undead made his neck itch. Live and let live was all very well, but there was a problem right there, if you think about it logically…

There is much to admire in Terry Practchett’s Men at Arms. Both the turn-of-phrase and the creation of a world, inhabited by humans, trolls, dwarfs and kinda-humans, is endearing, however it is the characters and how they interact and observe their world which provides the best parts – of which there are many.

Mr Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Purveyor, Merchant Venturer and all-round salesman… money in the possession of other people had always seemed to Throat to be against the proper natural order of things.

Minor characters such as Dibbler are given buckets of personality by Pratchett. You get a feeling of their desires and weaknesses, and as they evolve you can feel for their strains.

Vimes had a sense that history was flapping loose…

Above all, it is very well written. The language is vivid, the world and its populace have been created with intricacies.

As a writing test try and describe where you are without using the same word twice… It’s difficult. The vocabulary used here makes Pratchett’s world believable (he’d be very good at crosswords). And having this control enhances his playful approach.

…the Watch stood to variations on the theme of At Ease in the courtyard.

Character humour is the best! When a character says or does something funny it is because we know that they actually would. It is much better than poking fun at people or creating pratfalls or setting up – for want of a better word – jokes.

So while Men at Arms strength is in the characters, the standards of a captivating book are still employed…

Rise or lower character status: Captain Vimes is leaving the Watchmen and must begin to adjust to civilian life, while someone from the lower-ranks must rise to the position despite none seeming to be fit for the role.

Put your characters in the shit: The greatest threat of all is here, and it is worse than being attacked by a dragon.

These basics are a necessity, and including a good story is also (rather than completely vague wanderings like in Divisadero) to achieve suspense and resolutions.

For the first third of the book the central characters of Men at Arms are given a lot of license to explore their world, interact, and thus feel real to the reader. While they do this short-passages are inserted to set up the story and its threat.

In fact Pratchett is almost resisting getting to the action bits. He wants to create the world more than tell a story. This might be because he knows that once the characters are forced into following the path of a conceived story, they become more predictable, the book is more predictable. While we feel for the characters and want to see them live or succeed, we are not being entertained as much.

Don’t get me wrong, I really, really like this book. It is just an observation on how implanting, or imposing, a story can be difficult. It is often the use of suspense or mystery that makes us read a story, because revealing something becomes more important than the characters… though, as said, characters are more entertaining.

So this book teaches the importance of characters and to deftly include a story for them to struggle with. It also highlights the need to use words that make the world in the pages believable, and this applies to every genre.


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