The fantastical world of Terry Pratchett

The author and satirist continued to write his Discworld series of fantasy novels till the day he died, nine years ago this month 

Published - March 08, 2024 09:20 am IST

Author Terry Pratchett at the premiere of ‘Hogfather’, a TV adaptation of his novel, in London, 2006.

Author Terry Pratchett at the premiere of ‘Hogfather’, a TV adaptation of his novel, in London, 2006. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

I’ll be writing until I die. It’s my passion,” wrote Terry Pratchett in 2008. True to his word, the British author did not allow the Alzheimer’s he was afflicted with to prevent him from doing what he loved. When he finally succumbed to the illness, nine years ago this month, he was working on his last book The Shepherd’s Crown.

Despite having sold millions of books across the globe, Pratchett spent the majority of his career in relative anonymity with a very niche audience. Over the years, book by book, he had slowly amassed a sizeable following of dedicated readers. Often, already largely immersed in the fantasy world, these were people who had recognised the genius of Pratchett’s perspicaciously subversive style, and gotten hooked.

Pratchett himself was a devoted fan and consumer of anything fantasy. In A Slip of the Keyboard, a collection of his non-fiction pieces, he speaks of how he used to haunt public libraries, scouring the shelves for any book with the slightest hint of a dragon or an elf. Like many of the other fantasy authors of his time, it was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) that kicked off this obsession. After getting his first taste of fantasy from LOTR, Pratchett became enamoured with everything fantasy and, as he put it, “if you read enough books, you overflow” — he became a writer.

Creating Discworld

Pratchett had a slow start; his first few books saw little traction. It was only around his fourth and fifth books, the first of the 41 novels of the Discworld series, that his work really begin to take off. Part of the reason Pratchett stands out is because unlike many of his contemporaries, he was able to continue putting out interesting content for several decades. His popular Discworld series only saw an end due to his death.

Some of the titles from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Some of the titles from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

While part of the credit for this achievement does go to Pratchett’s unique writing style and dedication, his world building was what really allowed for this accomplishment. The Discworld, the world within which the series is set, is not defined in any one book. The reader is only given the information necessary for the ongoing storyline. This refusal of Pratchett’s to set the limits of the Discworld allowed him to continue weaving new stories into its fabric. It also allows a reader to pick up almost any book from the series and begin reading without worrying about having adequate context. Each book serves both as a standalone novel as well as a piece of a larger puzzle.

While the new reader does not have to worry about the backstory of the Discworld when they begin reading, Pratchett does assume some knowledge of popular fantasy tropes from his audience. The Discworld began as a kind of reaction to a lot of the mediocre fantasy that was coming out during the 1980s fantasy boom. A time when every other person had read Tolkien and wanted to write the next LOTR. The market was flooded with stuff on dark lords, brave heroes and noble elves. So, when Pratchett wrote his fantasy, he wrote of a protagonist whose primary concern was saving his own skin. 

He wrote dragons that blew themselves up, elves that were cruel bastards, female wizards and vampire teetotallers. This ability to twist the popular conceptions of fantasy of the time soon became an essential element of Pratchett’s brand. As he said in A Slip of the Keyboard, “If you are in the market for easy laughs you learn that two well-tried ways are either to trip up a cliché or take things absolutely literally.”

Not written for the screen

A still from ‘Good Omens’, adapted from Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name.

A still from ‘Good Omens’, adapted from Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name.

Interestingly, while there have been several attempts at adapting Pratchett’s works for the silver screen, only the adaptation of the book he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, has seen any real success. Perhaps this is because Gaiman himself participated as a showrunner for the series. Otherwise, Pratchett’s writing does not lend itself to film adaptation. While he does have interesting plot structures within his stories, an essential part of his appeal also comes from the wit of his writing, from the insights he gives into the characters’ thought processes and the snippets of extra detail from the footnotes. All things that make him an especially hard author to translate to the screen.

Pratchett passed away March 12, 2015. In the end, he chose to die of his disease rather than through the assisted dying that he was a strong advocate of. Every year on the day, his fans continue to post remembrances of the author who enchanted them for so many pages, often accompanied by the image of a man swathed in white hair, topped off with a black hat, giving the camera a cheeky grin. This is their way of showing their respect through the dictum he brought them in his book Going Postal: “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.”

The writer works as a Language Consultant at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

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