Witches Abroad: Letting the Characters Tell the Story

Review copy

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.

witches-abroad-terry-pratchett-new

The opening of Witches Abroad, maybe the most compelling part of the entire story, goes on to say the following:

Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.

And how fitting, for this particular story. Usually, when we tell the story of Cinderella, for example, the same cast takes part: A virtuous young aristocratic girl, a good, charming prince, a pair of talentless, nasty stepsisters (ugly or otherwise), a wealthy, evil, self-serving stepmother, and a plump little fairy godmother.

I would argue that those are pretty specific static roles. The story seems to very much care who takes part in it – these boring, static, rice-cake characters we see in every Disney movie, cheap Disney ripoff, Disney live action remake, bad attempt at a modern retelling, and so on. [EDIT: erm has reminded me to point out that only some Disney movies have rice-cake characters. More on that at a later time, but for now, let’s assume I’m talking about Cinderella.] But I think Pratchett’s point is not that anyone can be a princess – it’s that princesshood, or princehood, or stepmotherhood, or whatever other fairy tale role you choose, is a thing that sucks the personality, diversity, and humanity straight out of a character.

In Witches Abroad, the people reclaim the story.

The people in question: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick. Granny is a bad-ass elderly lady who no one dares mess with. Nanny has a less-than-virtuous past and is proud of it, continuing into old age with zest for life, drama, and romance. And then there’s Magrat – every bit as young, chaste and virtuous as the traditional Cinders, except that she’s notably more awkward and less comely.

After reading this book, I want to suggest that we allow a quirky pack of ladies like this run every story, because they are so damn good at it. Step aside, rice-cake princesses – the witches are abroad.

Other powerhouse women in this book are Lilith, the antagonist, and Mrs. Gogol, the voodoo witch they meet when hunting Emberella. Both are packed with personality, agency, and energy. This could not be any less like a fairy tale.

I’d also like to shout out to Greebo for being a hysterically funny feline.

In Witches Abroad, Pratchett recognizes the danger of letting the story run the characters, and I could not agree more with this approach to storytelling. A man after my own heart, it would seem. He does this, of course, through Lilith. Her evil plan is to make fairy tales happen, and the cast of characters she chooses are forced to behave like puppets. From the heartbreaking animals-turned-human to poor Emberella, who has had as much an active part in this story as her traditional counterpart, nobody is driving their own actions but puppeteer Lilith and her magic mirrors.

Enter the witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg – women determined to do exactly what they want to do. Women who know exactly who and what they are, and have never even considered being ashamed of it. Women who, even while walking all over the younger Magrat, inspire her to become a more assertive version of herself.

Witches Abroad is a celebration of character. Not stock characters, but the real characters, the ones who want to drive their own stories. The ones who have so much character, it threatens to overtake the plot altogether. And it challenges people to start shaping their stories.

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