"My own books, or other people's?" I asked.
"How about both?" she replied.
A discussion ensued that I thought would make an interesting post for Fiction Friday, so here are my favorite fictional characters (not including movies & television), starting with the ones from other folk's stories. In no particular order:
- Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. It's been said, and I think it's the truth, that Sam is the real hero of the story -- not Frodo, not Aragorn, not Gandalf. Over and over the point is made that it's the simple, sweet things in life that the whole War of the Ring was being fought to preserve and protect, and Sam embodies that, as well as a hefty dose of pure courage and loyalty.
- Aomame from Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. An enigmatic woman with a mission that pulls her between compassion and retribution, Aomame lives in the surreal space Murakami creates -- a world that on first glance is just like ours, but only intersects reality at the edges. Murakami's book is a tour de force, and Aomame is a brilliant, puzzling, fascinating character of the kind only he can bring to life.
- Hazel from Richard Adams's Watership Down. If I had to pick one character from fiction who displays the qualities of a true leader, it's Hazel, who leads his intrepid, ragtag band out of one danger and into a greater one, inspiring loyalty from his comrades and in a quiet, understated way bringing out the best in each one of them. Yes, I know the characters are rabbits. Doesn't make a difference. If you haven't read this book, put it on your list.
- Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I'm hard-pressed to pick between them, because they're a bit like figure-and-ground, complementary opposites who have come together to save the world. Aziraphale is the angel with a deep compassion for and understanding of human foibles, and Crowley a demon with a heart of gold he tries (unsuccessfully) to hide. This is one case where the television adaptation is as wonderful as the book -- Michael Sheen and David Tennant as (respectively) the representatives of heaven and hell are absolutely brilliant.
- Speaking of Pratchett, Sam Vimes, the head of the police force in Ankh-Morpork and the right hand man of the Lord Patrician of the City, the machiavellian Havelock Vetinari, in a number of Pratchett's wonderful Discworld series. Vimes is the stalwart, common-sense-ful anchor of the cast of oddballs who make up the rank-and-file of The Watch, Ankh-Morpork's police, and he navigates political intrigue and the odd assassination attempt with a weary, almost-but-not-quite-cynical deftness.
- Brother William of Baskerville from Umberto Eco's murder mystery The Name of the Rose. A fourteenth-century monk with a flair for observation, he's a medieval Hercule Poirot without the little Belgian's overinflated ego. Brother William is faced with the superstition and fear of the time, and always comes back to rationality -- there is a natural, logical cause for everything, and the world is understandable to anyone who is willing to put some effort into learning about it. Even when monks are mysteriously dying all around him, and the abbot is blaming the Forces of Darkness, Brother William never deviates from his determination to solve the case through reason and hard evidence.
- Whenever the question of my favorite character from my stories comes up, the answer is always Callista Lee, the brilliant, eccentric telepath from The Snowe Agency Mysteries (starting with Poison the Well). Callista is constantly bombarded with others' thoughts, and as a result, shies away from people -- her gift gives her a unique window into the human condition and at the same time pushes her away, leaving her deeply alone. Her character arc over the entire series is one of my favorite creations.
- Doctor Will Daigle, from Whistling in the Dark and Fear No Colors, the second and third books of the Boundary Solution trilogy. Will is funny, quick, smart, and profane, but his genial temperament covers a huge heart and a tremendous compassion. Which is why -- no spoilers -- what he has to do about a third of the way through Whistling in the Dark is one of the most poignant (and difficult!) scenes I've ever written. I won't tell you more, you'll just have to read it for yourself.
- Tyler Vaughan from Signal to Noise. If I had to pick the character whose temperament is most like mine, Tyler would be the odds-on favorite. A socially-awkward biology nerd who'd just as soon spend his time ear-tagging elk in the Cascade Mountains, Tyler finds himself the center of a terrifying mystery -- and is forced into the role of Unlikely Hero completely against his will.
- The Head Librarian, Archibald Fischer, from Lock & Key. Fischer (forget he's named Archibald unless you want to be the target of his ire) is the sarcastic, Kurt-Cobain-worshiping, f-bomb-dropping director of the Library of Possibilities, where every possibility for every human on Earth is catalogued and monitored. The repartee between him and his assistant, the imperturbable Scot Maggie Carmichael, is some of the most fun I've ever had writing.
- Last, Jennie Trahan from my novella "Convection," in the collection Sights, Signs, and Shadows. Jennie may seem like an unlikely choice -- from the beginning she's the bitchy, eye-rolling foil to the other characters' attempt to stay alive in a Category Four hurricane. But she's the character who while I was writing the story grabbed the keyboard from my hand and started telling me about why she was so irascible -- and became one of the most compelling, complex, sympathetic characters in the story.
As someone who is both a scientist and a musician, I've been fascinated for many years with how our brains make sense of sounds.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman makes the point that our ears (and other sense organs) are like peripherals, with the brain as the central processing unit; all our brain has access to are the changes in voltage distribution in the neurons that plug into it, and those changes happen because of stimulating some sensory organ. If that voltage change is blocked, or amplified, or goes to the wrong place, then that is what we experience. In a very real way, your brain creates your world.
This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week looks specifically at how we generate a sonic landscape, from vibrations passing through the sound collecting devices in the ear that stimulate the hair cells in the cochlea, which then produce electrical impulses that are sent to the brain. From that, we make sense of our acoustic world -- whether it's a symphony orchestra, a distant thunderstorm, a cat meowing, an explosion, or an airplane flying overhead.
In Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World, neuroscientist Nina Kraus considers how this system works, how it produces the soundscape we live in... and what happens when it malfunctions. This is a must-read for anyone who is a musician or who has a fascination with how our own bodies work -- or both. Put it on your to-read list; you won't be disappointed.
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]