Character Dynamics: Pratchett’s Witches

(spoilers yo)

Things to do when bored. Look at your own blog archives and find statements you made but never really followed up.

In this case, the idea that we don’t talk enough about sets of characters and their dynamics in terms of what makes great fiction. To rectify this, I’m going to do some articles talking about my favourite characters and how their contrasting personalities make each other, and how it’s nigh impossible to think of them just as themselves in complete isolation.

I’ll be starting with the witches of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick (although she is replaced in later books).

The first and obvious thing to observe about groups of characters is they are rarely created equal. Even in the most ensemble groups, someone’s usually the lead over all (although they mightn’t always be the lead in every book or episode). A good rule of thumb for figuring out the lead – other than it usually being blindingly obvious – is who’s got the strongest connection to the villain(s). In the case of this trio, it’s almost always Granny Weatherwax, the cantankerous and authoritative leader of the coven.

There are usually three main connections/dynamics for Granny. There’s the one to Nanny, her near constant companion from Wyrd Sisters to Carpe Jugulum; there’s one to a younger figure with a differing world view; and there’s one to the villains. Those three connections and dynamics are what allows Granny to demonstrate being Granny. What makes Granny in the broad details is a severe, right and wrong approach to life; rigid, unshakeable (if occasionally brittle) self-confidence and ability; and a belief in results.

Nanny is her odd couple style partner; a contrast who is at once irritant and comrade. Her character is broadly built around an hedonistic, down to earth, easy going approach to life. The differences allow Granny to display her severity through disapproval of Nanny’s lifestyle and her self-confidence by continuing to fight when Nanny – no shrinking violet herself under it all – is happy to slink back home, or turn to others to help instead of fighting alone. Because Nanny is just as experienced, and nearly as knowledgeable and openly powerful, she demonstrates Granny’s own power by acting as a benchmark.

Granny’s more antagonistic dynamic tends to come with a younger figure – Magrat Garlick at first, but then briefly Agnes Nitt when Magrat ages out, and the Omnian priest Mightily Oats in Carpe Jugulum. Both Magrat and Oats share key qualities; idealistic natures, a belief in education and doing things the right way, and a tremendous lack of self-confidence. The most crucial one to the dynamic are the idealistic natures as that offers both conflict and bonding with Granny.

For the most part, the villains offer a mirror to Granny (whose character is after all archetypally that of the Wicked Witch in many ways). They too have high levels of confidence and ability, which leads to them believing they know what’s best for people (a very Granny trait). They also have rigid worldviews; the difference is between what’s right and wrong.

In a way, Granny is the virtue she displays in rejecting and confronting villains (frequently with might make right world views), the authoritarian pragmatism she displays in bossing around the likes of Magrat and Oats, and the severe austerity she displays in contrast to Nanny. Granny’s Granny-ness comes through most strongly due to the contrasting people around her.

However, it isn’t all about Granny. What about Nanny, and the younger member? Generally, Nanny and Magrat don’t interact much without Granny there, who distorts conversations just by being there; only in Carpe Jugulum is that not true. Their essential selfness isn’t dependent on each other. The same is true of Oats’ brief tenure (where he does do a fine job of putting the wind up Nanny). It only really Agnes who spends major time as a junior witch with Nanny without Granny (say that five times fast) and in many ways, Agnes is more a mirror of Nanny Ogg than she is Weatherwax. Agnes herself is extremely conscientious and a natural worrier; her split personality of Perdita takes Nanny’s desire to live to the fullest to a somewhat cruel destination. Its perhaps telling that Nanny and Agnes share a rough body shape, a love of song, and a tendency to be connected to men.

The main man in Nanny’s life is Greebo, the platonic ideal of a tomcat. Nanny’s refusal to see him for what he is – Zeus in feline form – is a demonstration of her sentimentality (something Granny mostly lacks) and a mirror of her hedonistic easy going ways. Nanny does care who she hurts, and has a limit there; Greebo, albeit mostly off camera, doesn’t. But in most of the books, it’s Nanny who interacts most with men; these interactions allow Nanny to display her mix of people skills (be it seductive or motherly) and her own authoritative nature. As Pratchett notes, there’s only one group of people Nanny is actively cruel to, and that’s her daughters-in-law; there’s room for only one queen in any of her menfolk’s lives. Agnes, perhaps mirroring some of this, has romantic-ish subplots in both Maskerade! and Carpe Jugulum.

Magrat is also associated with men, but in this case it’s an individual man, Verence, who has many of her qualities and flaws. She lacks Nanny’s and Agnes’ social butterfly nature (notice how she gives Tomjon the gift of making friends in Wyrd Sisters, the thing she lacks). In many ways, as Lords & Ladies makes clear, she is living the opposite choice Granny made; there was one man. Granny chose power and independence; Magrat chose love and companionship. Since Magrat lacks self-confidence, she doubts this at points and for much of Lords & Ladies Verence’s relative assertiveness contrasts this. In time, Magrat surpasses her husband in terms of self-confidence and does a lot of heavy lifting; Verence’s mirror offers a view of Magrat’s progress as he stays fairly static himself (although he too gains confidence between Wyrd Sisters and Carpe Jugulum; he, however, does not gain as much experience and wisdom).

As mentioned, Carpe Jugulum is the only book in which Magrat and Nanny interact heavily without Granny around, as Pratchett rearranges the dynamics. Here, Nanny becomes the senior witch, with Agnes as her youthful mirror to butt heads with, with a more experienced Magrat acting as comedic foil and and contrast. Here, the older more experienced Magrat is equal to Nanny as a married woman (formerly married in Nanny’s case) and mother; the contrast once again shows Magrat’s growth, but also the different ways to arrive happily at that state, and as such their contrasting personalities. Magrat has some of Granny’s ‘properness’, albeit without the same severity. Driven by her desire to protect her daughter, husband and country, she has some of Granny’s ‘do or die’ while Nanny is considering making peace with the new situation.

While the new look temporary coven are together – and it’s a shame we only got one book of them – Granny gets a need sidekick in Mightily Oats. He inherits many of Magrat’s qualities as an idealistic, doubtful, educated person, and then amplifies them. Like Magrat, he is on a journey to strengthen his qualities with some of Granny’s certainty and experience; the nature of the book makes his journey a swifter one; the compressed nature of it also brings out some of Granny’s stronger lines.

And really, that’s what character dynamics are about. Setting the stage for really strong lines and moments. Nanny’s shock at Magrat understanding a dirty joke. Granny’s deflation about Nanny finding out in a casual chat what took her all night through magic. Magrat naming her daughter after Granny. These are defining, entertaining, emotional moments that cement characters in our minds forever. For me, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick (and other assorted characters) are some of the most memorable I’ve encountered; I don’t think they’d have been so without each other and the natural frictions Pratchett wrote them with.

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