Note: This piece was originally published in 2015, following the passing of prolific fantasy author Terry Pratchett.
Thursday afternoon’s news of fantasy author Terry Pratchett’s passing hit me hard—very hard, as few author obituaries have in some time. It’s now been a few years since the last time I picked up a book in his seminal Discworld series, but for perhaps a five-year stretch, I wouldn’t have hesitated in calling the British fantasist my favorite author. I read his Discworld books voraciously, amazed by the way he was able to keep the series going while still generating compelling stories that never bogged down into mediocrity. Those novels, coupled with his 1990 co-authorship of Good Omens with Neil Gaiman, earned Pratchett a permanent place in my heart.
One of the leading factors that makes the 40-some Discworld books so wonderful is the recurring characters. Pratchett had a knack for imbuing all of his characters with unique bits of pathos, even the most minor players who appeared in the background from time to time. You could say that Pratchett was a master of quirk—each central character possesses an attribute or attitude to help them stand out from a crowd.
In celebration of the great fantasy comedian’s life, here are the 10 best Discworld recurring characters, in my humble estimation.
10. Cohen the Barbarian
The Light Fantastic, Interesting Times, The Last Hero, Jingo
Cohen is an ideal example of how Pratchett enjoyed transforming his reverence for classical fantasy fiction (in the style of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian) into his own inside joke. In this case, he took the fur-clad barbarian template and asked “What would happen if that same character was 90 years old and still happened to be adventuring?” Who you end up with is Cohen, the man Pratchett says introduced the Discworld to the concept of “wholesale destruction.” He’s a major player in several of the earlier Discworld novels, intriguing for how simultaneously dangerous (because of his experience) and vulnerable (because of his frailty and senility) he can be in the course of a single encounter. But in this fantasy world, Cohen is the premier barbarian—simply one who is a little past his presumed expiration date.
9. Twoflower and The Luggage
The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Interesting Times
Pratchett has great fun, from the beginning to the end of the Discworld series, in depicting modern “firsts” on his flat continent. Twoflower fills the role of the first tourist in Discworld history—something Pratchett felt worthy of dedicating a good portion of three novels to developing. A citizen of the Agatean Empire, which loosely correlates to the Asian continent on Earth, Twoflower is likely Pratchett’s most deluded, naive character. He’s a goodhearted simpleton who is typically unaware of the danger he’s facing at any given moment, guided through most encounters instead by luck. Also helpful is The Luggage, Twoflower’s magical, living steamer trunk, which follows him around on tiny legs and is capable of everything from eating potential threats to traversing several dimensions. Between the two of them (because The Luggage is in all rights a fully realized character), Twoflower and The Luggage provide no shortage of macguffins in addition to comedic relief.
Guards! Guards!, Moving Pictures, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Thud!
Detritus is a troll, and is in many ways representative of all of the trolls in Discworld—he’s made of stone, not particularly bright and has a unique physiology (being that his brain is made of impure silicon, it actually runs more efficiently when cool). We see him rise from the station of a lowly thug/bouncer into a respected member of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (essentially the Discworld equivalent of the London Police or Scotland Yard), shouldering responsibility while disabusing the characters of their preconceived notions regarding trolls’ barbarism. Detritus is a slow-simmering success story of hard work and upward mobility.
7. “Bloody Stupid” Johnson
Appears in: Mentioned (but never appears) in nearly every Discworld book.
Constantly referenced but never physically present, Bergholt Stuttley “Bloody Stupid” Johnson is a historical figure renowned far and wide as perhaps the worst and most dangerous inventor/architect of all time. His appears to have created many of his inventions in the decades before most Discworld novels take place, with characters (fondly?) recalling the various disasters caused by his devices. Ankh-Morpork’s wealthy citizens are believed to have commissioned various projects from Johnson for the sole purpose of witnessing the entertaining ways they would go wrong.
6. Susan Sto Helit
Soul Music, Hogfather, Thief of Time
The Discworld Universe is extremely well-developed in terms of the magical forces and personalities holding it together—they’ve received so much characterization over the course of 40 books that readers can understand how many of the universe’s base mechanics operate, including Death itself. Indeed, Death is one of the series main characters (more on him in a bit), and Susan is Death’s adoptive granddaughter. A quirky, somewhat severe but competent young woman, Susan gets things done. Of course, she’s aided by the powers over reality she inherited from her grandfather—”she can walk through walls and live outside time and be a little bit immortal.”
The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Interesting Times, Eric, Sourcery, The Last Continent
Rincewind is like the anti-Susan in terms of his competence level, but he’s the most iconically “Terry Pratchett” of all the Discworld characters. A bumbling, low-level wizard with nary a scrap of magical talent, Rincewind is your classic, cowardly protagonist who is thrust into situations where he must either run for his life or somehow save the world (usually by accident). His top priority is to stay alive, although he occasionally demonstrates a bit of backbone or unexpected talent. Mostly, though, Rincewind’s a harried everyman (who happens to be an untalented wizard) beset by rude, dangerous outsiders pushing him outside of his comfort zone. His desire for a comfortable existence is never realized, because there’s always another adventure brewing for this reluctant hero.
4. Samuel Vimes
Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Monstrous Regiment, Thud!, Where’s My Cow?, Snuff, Raising Steam, Discworld Noir
The strength and staying power of most Discworld characters is typically determined by their individuality or humor, but with Sam Vimes, the series finds true empathy and heart. The duty-bound commander of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch has suffered and sacrificed quite a lot throughout the series, rising to the top of the police force and solving crime after crime, all while maintaining a loving family life. As a public servant, Sam’s sense of duty knows no bounds, but as an enemy of crime, he’s an unholy terror. Still, the hard-drinking policeman nurtures a soft spot at his core and has no shortage of empathy for those who can’t defend themselves, especially since it motivates him to continue in his work for the City Watch—an increasingly defunct organization. A man of the people, Sam rejects the comforts of nobility that he eventually earns and yearns to continue his simple work of protecting the common folk.
3. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler
Appears in: Basically every Discworld book.
The archetype of the unscrupulous huckster/street vendor, Dibbler possesses the power to seemingly be everywhere at once selling the suspicious “sausage inna bun” in his home city of Ankh-Morpork. Nicknamed for his claims that selling goods at such a low value is basically “cutting me own throat,” Dibbler adds local color to the series. It’s later revealed that his essence may somehow be tied to the nature of the Discworld universe, as there appear to be variations on the Dibbler character in every continent or city. In Om, it’s “Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah.” In the Agatean Empire, it’s “May-I-Never-Achieve-Enlightenment Dhiblang.” And so on, and so on. Pratchett knows how to capitalize on a great character, even playing the smallest role.
Appears in: Every Discworld book.
If Death appears in your average fantasy novel, it’s usually as a soulless monster to be bargained with or battled. But not Discworld’s Death—a fully-realized character who is the main protagonist of several novels. As the anthropomorphic embodiment of death and entropy, he possesses a very, very dour outlook on the universe yet remains fascinated by humans. Over time, Death becomes a bit more “human” in his attitudes, even if his speech continues to be IN ALL CAPS. He runs afoul of most of the characters at some point, though most of them only encounter Death on one unfortunate occasion.
1. Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork
Sourcery, Guards! Guards!, Moving Pictures, Men at Arms, Interesting Times, Feet of Clay, The Fifth Elephant, The Truth, Going Postal, Thud!, Making Money, Unseen Academicals
As the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork (essentially the governor), Vetinari inhabits a position of power riddled with assassination attempts. Such attempts are foolhardy, however, when the target is Pratchett’s single most capable, badass character. A certifiable super genius and strategic mastermind, Vetinari remains in power by ultimately convincing the Ankh-Morporkian residents that they’re better off having him working FOR them than against them. He’s actually a damn good administrator—just don’t end up on his bad side, or no one will ever know you existed.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.