I recently re-read one of my favorite trilogies by Barbara Hambly, the Windrose Chronicles. Partly I did so for enjoyment, partly because I intended to blog about the experience (My Heroes & Heartbreakers post). This read, I also wanted to take particular note of one aspect of the books: the characterization of Antryg Windrose.
I first read these books when I was in college, and I absolutely loved Antryg. He’s not your typical fantasy hero because he’s, well, insane. Though some of his insanity makes sense, because it’s a result of magic that really really doesn’t play well with the real world…does that still count? Anyway, he calls himself insane, and so do other characters. Though a very powerful wizard, he spends almost all of the time in the three novels unable to use his powers, which of course results in a lot of plot complication. There’s no point in having a powerful wizard who can actually solve all the problems of the plot with his mighty powers; it also has the advantage of making the character vulnerable, physically and emotionally, and thus more intriguing to read about. And because he’s insane, he can act unpredictably, further complicating the plot.
Hambly does this in a different way in each book. In The Silent Tower, Antryg must refrain from using magic because they are on the run, and his distinct magical signature would be detected. It is thus shockingly dramatic when, cornered, he unleashes what’s only been hinted at. In The Silicon Mage, there’s the same issue, added to his own physical weakness from being tortured not only physically but through his magic. In Dog Wizard, other wizards bind his power because they don’t trust him. It’s a balancing act for the author; how can you show the hero’s power when it’s bound? How does that affect the rest of his character, and what the author can show? Are hints better than actual showing, because the reader can imagine more vividly than the author can write?
When I looked back through the descriptions of Antryg that Hambly provides, I noticed she focused on a few traits: his eyes, his voice, and distinctive items he wears, including spectacles, piles of glittery beads, and clothing that is often ragged or layered. Here’s the first thorough description that’s given: Tall, thin, no longer young, Antryg Windrose had a beaky face in which all the individual features seemed slightly too large for the delicate bone structure, surrounded by a loose mane of graying brown hair and a straggly beard like frost-shot weeds that had been trailed in ink. Crystal earrings glinted in it like the snagged fragments of broken stars; half a dozen necklaces of cheap glass beads flashed tawdrily over the open collars of an assortment of ragged, scarecrow robes and a faded shirt. Behind the thick spectacle lenses, his wide gray eyes were bright, singularly gentle, and not sane.
Hambly also repeats the same or similar phrases relating to his appearance throughout the novels. I gave up trying to note them all (it would make a fascinating study!), but as a conclusion, it seems clear to me that her consistency in description, and the connotations her descriptions raise in the reader’s mind, are a major part of how I formed my opinion of him.
For example, here’s a description that both shows his eccentricity and the the sound of his voice. …the tall, thin young man…gravely constructing a pinwheel by the light of the kitchen fire, or telling horrific ghost stories in a deep, extraordinary voice that was beautiful and flamboyant as embroidered brocade. Later descriptions of his voice reiterate that it is deep, rich, and flexible.
On the re-read, because I was paying attention, I was startled by how often his description was repeated. It’s something to remember for my own writing. Repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it reinforces the impression of a character that you’re trying to make. The repetition is similar to the use of epithets in Homer (“wine-dark sea,” etc.). If it worked for Homer, there’s no reason it can’t work for more modern writers! (Such as Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb.)
The trilogy is now available in e-book format.