Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Personal isn't the same as important

March 2015

Pratchett and Banks are my two favourite authors.
Pratchett and Banks were my two favourite authors.
Pratchett and Banks are my two favourite authors.

This post will be lost in the swarm of hundreds of thousands of words written following the death of Terry Pratchett. That's fine, because it means there are millions of people out there who understood and appreciated what he wrote.

My childhood and adolescence were shaped by dozens of authors, but three stood out: JRR Tolkien, Terry Pratchett and Iain Banks. While I don't have the time or naive optimism to reread Tolkien (my loss), I can and do still read Pratchett and Banks novels over and over again.

Saying they died too soon is trite but true. I'm two-thirds of Pratchett's age. Banks didn't even make it to 60.

Both men were storytellers, arguably the finest of their generation. They understood how to create realistic characters and then let readers experience their lives. The more fantastic the environment, the more real the characters became.

I think Banks was better at this from the start, then Pratchett caught up. The Wasp Factory is harrowing precisely because the characters are outrageously believable (especially to me and two of my friends: we had an odd childhood). The Crow Road, The Business, Whit, etc., all of them allowed Banks to choose a character seemingly at random and bring him or her alive, making them utterly believable. He seemed to relish the challenge of doing it, and nearly always succeeded.

Pratchett took a little longer to get into that groove, though his fantasy and humour were nailed from the start. I first met him through Strata, which was the Discworld novel before the Discworld novels. The early books were full of fantasy and interesting characters, but the depths of those characters only became apparent in later books. His writing improved year after year. For me, Pratchett's characterisation craft reached maturity with Samuel Vimes, someone who always seemed more grimly real than his counterparts.

In later novels Pratchett became ever more of an observer and satirist of human behaviour. He demonstrated far more knowledge of psychology and sociology than most people who have studied those disciplines. There was a news story last year about Pratchett being 're-cast' as a philosopher, which is nonsense. He'd always been a philosopher. All good storytellers are.

Before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I watched a TV interview with Pratchett. At one point he leaned in towards the interviewer and said something about the world not making sense. "Oh-oh," I thought. "If you can't make sense of it, what chance do the rest of us have?" In hindsight perhaps those were the first signs of his illness.

When I was very young I used to believe that people died early when they were good. Then, as now, I had no personal religion. It just seemed that the best people in the world always died too soon, yet evil bastards held on forever. The past year has done little to change that perspective.

As I wrote in an earlier post, narrative is at the heart of good content, whether it's for business or sheer pleasure and escapism. Stories interest us, enthral us, captivate our attention and take us out of our worlds to somewhere better. In losing first Banks and now Pratchett, we've lost epic storytellers the like of which I suspect we may never see again. RIP.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and is going to spend some quality time with Espedair Street and Night Watch.

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