Saturday 28 November 2009

Never fear, Smith is here!

Dr Zachary Smith on Lost in Space… I guess he was the first one I noticed. Then I started to pick up on them in literature. Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Mr Solon Aquila in Alfred Bester’s short story “5,271,009”. Loki, of course – he's pretty much the original template. Was Falstaff one? Maybe. And most of the classic, highly-flavored fictional detectives from Holmes to Columbo certainly fit the bill.

Disney movies have always featured them, from Baloo to Cap’n Jack, forever upstaging the bland hero and heroine of the story. But it’s in television dramas that you’ll spot them most often. Ben Linus in Lost. Rocket Romano in ER. T-Bag in Prison Break. Uniquely, Fringe has two: the magnificent Walter Bishop (obviously) but also the deeply sinister David Robert Jones, who was sadly wasted, in both senses, at the end of season one.

They are characters who emerge as larger than life. Characters who, through their unpredictability and eccentricity compel our attention. We know that whenever they appear we’re going to be entertained, and that the story is about to spin off in a new and surprising direction.

Very often they started life as secondary characters or just as guest stars, but the combination of script and performance creates a personality that steals the limelight. Ben was only supposed to be in Lost for a few episodes, but pretty soon he’d become the main reason to watch. Michael Emerson’s portrayal of the character has to get at least half the credit for that, just as – a generation earlier – the young Robert Hardy did such a show-stealing turn as Sergeant Gratz in the WW2 drama Manhunt.

I’m intrigued by this type of character because it seems unlikely that the writer knew in advance what they were tapping into. You can’t really cook them up to a recipe, it’s more of a happy accident.

They are mostly aspects of the Trickster, of course: clever enough to initiate far-reaching schemes but rarely wise enough to look ahead to the consequences. Viewed in that light, Benjamin Linus and Sgt Gratz are uncustomarily sensible examples of the type. More often these fellows are wilful high-maintenance characters, stirring up continual trouble by reason of the very flaws that make them so interesting and that set them apart from the rest of the cast. Gaius Baltar, for instance – he’s a perfect Trickster figure: brilliant, selfish, careless, devious, capricious, craven. An absolute gift to a storyteller.

I’d love to create such a character in one of my own stories. Caelestis in The Chronicles of the Magi comes closest, but he’s at best a Topher, which is very far short of a Spike.

Anyone got any favourite Tricksters of their own?


  1. David Robert Jones, that's Bowie's real name!

  2. Literature I'd definitely nominate the utterly compelling Steerpike from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy as an aside I was amazed at how much Johnny Rotten resembled Peake's drawings of Steerpike some thirty years later. Falstaff springs to mind as a compelling and humanizing foil to young Prince Hal's hateur. In fact Shakespeare's got lots of similar such characters peppered throughout his plays, Polonius in Hamlet springs to mind as both buffoon but also a plot spring.

    Comics I'd definitely nominate Captain Haddock, who's irascible temperament proved such a wonderful catlyst for some of the more unpredictable occurrences in the Tintin stories and by the same token Professor Calculus.

    Or how about Carl Bark's creation of Donald Duck's miserly Uncle Scrooge? A character so riven by greed that he pretty well supplanted Donald in terms of reader interest and some of the other support slots were fascinating too in particular Donald's unbelievably lucky and thoroughly detestable Cousin Gladstone Gander.

    TV I'd nominate Doug McClure's Trampas from the Virginian who really did seem to end up overshadowing James Drury's title role character, Arthur Lowe's Leonard Swindly from Coronation Street also springs to mind. How about Walton Goggins superb portrayal of Shane Vendrell in The Shield?

    Film - well Ralph Fiennes mesmeric performance as Amon Goth in "Schindler's List" is still jaw droppingly awesome.

    I could go on but time, time, time presses ...

  3. I know - once I got started making a list, I kept thinking of more. Shane is a great example, but then Vic Mackay himself is quite a force of nature. Steerpike - yes, a great example from literature. Another Johnny Rotten lookalike is Lupin from Diary of a Nobody, which makes me wonder if the young Mr Lydon wasn't an archetype all his own.

  4. Here's two for the price of one: Jack Havoc and Tiddy Doll in Margery Allingham's The Tiger in the Smoke.

  5. I believe this is the character Robertson Davies refers to as "Fifth Business": In any opera there is the hero, the heroine, the heroine's rival, the villain, and the character known as Fifth Business, who has no counterpart in the scenario and without whom the story cannot advance. (The character Liesl who explains the concept of Fifth Business is a bit of the business herself!) An incredible book, by the way, for anyone who hasn't discovered Davies - it has become one of my all-time favourites.

    My pet ones, let's about Toad from The Wind in the Willows? The book wouldn't be the same without him.

  6. I too strongly recommend "Fifth Business" (thanks again, Sandy, for introducing me to that). Are these characters Fifth Business? Certainly most of them fit into that category - though not all Fifth Business parts are scene-stealers.

    Toad - of course! From the moment he appears in the book he pretty much claims it for himself.