By Art Schmidt
What a simple question.
Borgeditor: Hey, I’m asking all of the staff to write something about their five characters? Are you in?
Me a Week Ago: Sure, that sounds great! What could be easier and more fun?
Then, fast forward to Me Last Night: Wow, this is hard as hell. Who are my favorites? Today? Yesterday? When I was a kid? Why are they my favorite? What makes them tick? What makes me tick?
Needless to say, it’s been a struggle. I normally think about something a long time before I ever write one word. A story, an article, a review, whatever it is. I dream about it and cogitate on it and mull it over in my head for days or weeks before I ever put a single word to paper. I normally sit down in front of my portable imagination recording machine (otherwise known as a laptop) with most of what I want to say already outlined in my mind.
As of this writing, I am sitting here with next to nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true, but I have a hell of a lot less than I normally do. Every time I scan my bookshelves, my DVD/BD collection, or my DVR favorites list, I come up with a handful of great characters that I somehow missed during the previous evenings’ preview. Hard, hard, hard.
But it’s time to fish or cut bait, and I ain’t about wasting bait. And this is good bait, this ‘Five Character’ idea. It’s certainly made me think a whole lot, about a whole lot, for a whole lot longer than I normally do. And so without further procrastination, here’s my Top Five Favorite Characters.
5. I’ll start with more of a character type (and sliding toward an actual actor), than a specific character. And that’s Han Solo / Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). Yes, I know, that’s kind of breaking the rules. But then, that’s what Han and Indy were all about, right? Bend the rules, live by your own code of morality, and as long as you’re crusade is just, damn the torpedoes. And no one could have played these guys with as much success as Harrison Ford. Admit it, even if you’re not a Star Wars fan, you liked Han. Especially in the original Star Wars, where he shot Greedo first. (Damn, I promised myself I wouldn’t go there, again. Sorry.) And Indiana is obviously one of the most well-known and beloved characters in film. Other characters fit into this archetype: Batman, obviously, and John McClane being among the most popular.
But why? The films were fun and amazingly entertaining, especially back before CGI and $100 million budgets. The stories were engrossing, the action was breathtaking, you cared about the characters, and everyone came away smiling. Han and Indy were a big part of that, perhaps more than people usually acknowledge. One of my favorite quotes from an actor (and there are endless quotes from self-important actors clouding the ether out there) is from the normally down-to-earth, personable Harrison Ford:
“I think what a lot of action movies lose these days, especially the ones that deal with fantasy, is you stop caring at some point because you’ve lost human scale. With the CGI, suddenly there’s a thousand enemies instead of six – the army goes off into the horizon. You don’t need that. The audience loses its relationship with the threat on the screen. That’s something that’s consistently happening and it makes these movies like video games and that’s a soulless enterprise. It’s all kinetics without emotion. I don’t have time for that.”
An action hero that understands the power and necessity of the emotional connection between a character and the audience. I love it. And no characters bring that to bear on the big screen like Doctor Jones and Captain Solo.
4. Othyisar Du’Morde – Who? I know, probably no one reading this knows who this character is or what piece of fiction he is from. Well, this is a bit self-serving, and you’ll have to forgive me for that. Othyisar is a character I created myself, and who has only seen print one time. If you have no interest in reading a short bit about this arch-mage from the Forgotten Realms, by all means skip ahead to #3 and forget I even listed this guy. If you forgive me for listing him, I’ll forgive you for skipping him. We’re square.
Othyisar is my favorite ‘character’ from the days of my youth, playing RPGs (read: Dungeons and Dragons) and computer games endlessly, before marriage and kids and profession all took priority over my free time. If I created a character who was a wizard of any kind, he was named Othyisar. If you ever encountered an ‘Othyisar’ in Norrath or Azeroth, or in The Old Republic, it was me. :)
So it’s no surprise that my first published article featured Othyisar Du’Morde. It was for the ‘Arcane Lore’ feature of Dragon Magazine issue #203, and it was my first paid gig as a writer. The following year at Gen Con, I got my copy autographed by the three guys who did the cover for the issue, artists Tim Bradstreet and Fred Fields, as well as the model who posed for the cover (hey, he was standing there at the booth with the artists, and I didn’t want to be rude). And in that same issue, the folks at publisher TSR reviewed a little video game that had just came out and was taking the world by storm, called Doom, which is one of my favorite games of all time. All reason enough for Othy to be one of my favorite characters. But it got better.
Years later, in a different State and a different place in life, I was chatting with a new co-worker and, after much hesitation, he asked me ‘Is this you?’ and showed me issue #203 online. In quiet “we shouldn’t be talking about this at work” tones, I admitted that it was me, and he proceeded to gush to me how his gaming group ran a long adventure based not only on the contents of my article, but also with the Othyisar character and the little background piece I had written. He said it was one of his favorite adventures (I know, he was probably just being nice, but indulge me). Wow, that was one of the coolest moments ever.
It’s amazing to find that you can view PDFs of this (and other) back issues of Dragon Magazine here. If you’re curious and want to check it out. But no pressure. Just sayin’. And no, I don’t get a nickel if you click on the link. :)
3. Mr. White – At the time, Quentin Tarantino was unknown, Sundance was a quaint little film festival where artsy films made by non-European directors were showcased, and Hollywood’s ‘independent’ film-makers hobnobbed in the snow and sun. Then came Reservoir Dogs and in a blaze of unapologetic gunfire and stylish F-bombs the place was turned upside-down. The movie centers on four main characters, all members of a criminal gang brought together to pull off a major heist. Given anonymous names by their leader to maintain secrecy and minimize his liability, the story follows the lives of the four main members of the gang: Mr. White, the unacknowledged leader played with brilliant ruthlessness by Harvey Keitel; Mr. Orange, the in-over-his-head undercover cop played by Tim Roth; Mr. Blonde, the unhinged crazy killer given life with gleeful abandon by Michael Madsen; and the skinny, twitchy Mr. Pink, played by the always scene-stealing Steve Buscemi.
Mr. White is a master criminal, a bad guy, and a cop killer. No argument there, and no apologies; he’s not one of my favorite characters because I admire or even like him. He’s my favorite ‘Love to Hate’ character, more so than Darth Vader or Elric of Melnibone, because the performance by Keitel is so top-notch, and the character so likable when he needs to be, but ruthless and evil when he wants to be. Mr. White is the epitome of the gun-toting thief, loyal one moment, then sticking a gun in his comrade’s face the next. He alternately hefts drinks and guns with the same zeal. You can argue that the glue in this story is Mr. Orange, but for me, Keitel’s character holds Reservoir Dogs together and makes it just as much a thrill ride today as when it came out.
And you have to admit, he’s got a cool-sounding name.
2. Dream of the Endless – Otherwise known as The Sandman, Dream is the central character in Neil Giaman’s award-winning and world-renowned comic book series of the 90s. He is one of The Endless, who control the destinies and lives of all mortal creatures in the universe. His realm is The Dreaming, and he is alternately the benign King of Dreams or Morpheus, the bringer of nightmares.
Gaiman’s character is an endless conundrum, never really a clear-cut hero or villain. And the stories are as deep and intellectually satisfying as anything in print. Dream confronts his adversaries the same way we approach life; uncertain, unsure, with imagination and help from friends, at times alone and in the best way he knows how. Part of the character’s allure is that he’s both a mystery and an open book. The Dreaming gives him the ability to create things out of thin air, partially illusion but at times also very real, things that can directly affect the lives (and deaths) of mortals in the real world.
Amidst his Endless brothers and sisters, Dream is the introvert, the thinker, the recluse. He’s hesitant to interfere in the lives of people, despite his stations’ often demand of it. His dream powers are the super power everyone wants, even if they don’t know it: the ability to create something out of nothing, to weave dreams into reality, and to travel anywhere, at any time, he chooses.
The series ran in the early to mid-nineties, and has been collected in multiple editions of paperback graphic novels ever since. My two favorite collections, or story arcs as the author Neil Gaiman refers to them, are ‘A Game of You’ and ‘The Kindly Ones’, both of which reflect both the breadth of Gaiman’s story-telling ability and the best (and worst), of the Sandman character. In short, his humanity.
1. Prince Corwin of Amber – My favorite character of fiction is Prince Corwin, hands down. Why, you ask? Well, I could give you a bunch of reasons (and I will in a bit), I could go into a mini-review of the books themselves (the five original brilliant novels, followed by five less-worthy ‘sequels’), and wax poetic about how Roger Zelazny created what could be perhaps one of the very few real contenders against The Lord of the Rings for best fantasy series of all-time. I could go on and on, but really, it boils down to one thing.
Prince Corwin kicks ass. Plain and simple.
Zelazny’s masterpiece The Chronicles of Amber is the saga of the ruling family of Amber, the magical kingdom of which all other worlds are but shadows, including Earth. In by far the best use of amnesia as a plot device, the story opens as Corwin awakes in a mental institution and subsequently escapes, lying, fighting, and sneaking his way through a dangerous landscape of monsters and villainous relatives, where he doesn’t really know who anyone is but his instincts tell him enough to be wary. He’s clever, he’s strong, and he’s decisive. He knows what he wants, and he works hard to get it. He gives others a fair shake, but if they cross him he doesn’t hesitate to let them know it, with words or steel. Corwin is a modern-day update to the Conan archetype (one of my favorite characters who didn’t make the ‘Final Five’ cut), but unlike Conan, Corwin is a little more down-to-earth, a little more accessible, a little more human. He’s fallible and can be beaten; he eventually comes out on top, but at times only after years of torture and toil.
Corwin cemented the blueprint that was used for DC Comics The Warlord (another favorite I had to cut out of my list) and countless other fantasy heros who had access to both guns and swords, heroes thrown into bad circumstances and had to make the best of it. The latest incarnation, in the movies anyway, will be Edgar Rice Burrough’s second-most-popular hero John Carter of Mars, from the Barsoom series, thanks to Disney’s upcoming epic adventure based on the character. But even then, Corwin is still the epitome of that archetype.
One of thirteen siblings, all scheming to hold their father Oberon’s abandoned throne, Corwin is not the best at anything; his brother Eric is older and smarter, his brother Benedict is a better swordsman, his brother Gerard is stronger, sister Fiona is an unmatched sorceress, and on and on. But Corwin is perhaps the amalgam of all of them, the ‘Jack of All Trades’, good at everything and more well-balanced than the others.
And did I mention that he kicks ass? :)
Come back tomorrow for Elizabeth C. Bunce’s five favorite characters.