Introducing Characters – Bellwether

Gillian has started a series of posts on on how books introduce characters – beginning with Sheri S. Tepper’s The Fresco. I have not read this book, and am still recovering from Beauty, but I now want to read this solely because of Gillian’s post on how it introduces a character without actually having anyone on stage.

Posts and discussions like this make me want to read books from new angles, so instead of doing my January Movie Reviews or the summary of Travel Journal Practices as promised or introducing you to Yorick the Impoverished, or wailing about how devastated I am at the rejection of a story (well, more a sort of “I told you so” mood of fidgety discontent because I agree with the editor, but want to submit to something else now), I am thinking about Connie Willis’ Bellwether, which I reread last month and reviewed briefly in this post.

More below the cut:


The book is told in first person. This should mean the reader is introduced to the main character (or at least the viewpoint character – see The Midwitch Cuckoos – but here the main one) straight away because it is her voice you hear first. I suspect this can easily fail and introduce you to the author’s voice instead.

In Bellwether we meet Sandra Foster very early on, even though she doesn’t say “I” until the end of the second page or introduce herself (rather awkwardly) until the third. The reader could almost be forgiven for initially thinking it this is a popular science book. The chapter begins (as each chapter does) with a potted history of a fad – in this case, the Hula Hoop – and then goes straight into a discussion of the difficulty of tracing the origin of fads and scientific discoveries and a summary of some of the happy accidents of science. This could be dry, but it is related in a calm, conversational tone by someone who is obviously interested in the subject matter and has an increasingly personal nature to it, until the narrator gets sidetracked and has to pull her story back on course and introduce herself, but only because it seems necessary to the account she is about to give of her observation of one origin.

So the reader is introduced to a character who is focused on fads and science and statistics and chaos theory almost to the point of discounting her own involvement until it catches her by surprise. Which is a pretty good summary of the character. And then we meet Sandra, who is wading through research and struggling with the apparently active antagonism of the universe. And Flip.


Bloody Flip. She still annoys me, and the book is a month over. And she is annoying in the beginning – a larger than life, slouching, disgusted carrier of disaster and apparent victim of extreme fashion, but she seems to be a walk on character created to give us sympathy for the put-upon Sandra. For the first few chapters I was convinced she was there simply as part of the background and occasional antagonist. But she isn’t. She’s insidious and childish and vicious and it is no accident that she appears so early in the book or is gone as thoughtlessly as she came. The character is spot-on from the beginning.

Willis pulls this again with Flip’s harmless, discriminated-against, drily competent assistant, whose unpopularity and self-effacing nature are vital to both her character and role (I don’t usually get into archetypes too much, but it is actually discussed in the book).


Bennett appears as a pair of legs under a piece of apparatus, and a rather rude and abrupt voice. He emerges odd and rumpled and apologetic at mistaking Sandra for Flip. Having met those two characters, the reader is sympathetic for Sandra at the cumulative rudeness of her workmates (another theme) and forgives Bennett for his conduct because it was understandable under the circumstances. In the space of a couple paragraphs we learn that Bennett’s fashion sense is questionable and therefore of interest to Sandra’s research, that he is slightly fumbling and yet socially adept (he gives Sandra an easy out of the conversation) and quite capable of having strong opinions and acting on them. Also, he is on Sandra’s side against Flip.


Finally, to give you some flavour, here are some of Amazon’s key phrases for the book:

significant scientific breakthroughs, game fad, ability threshold, stats lab, funding form

Billy Ray, Niebnitz Grant, Romantic Bride Barbie, Pied Piper, Hula Hoop

Thoughts? Comments? Think I missed the point?

2 thoughts on “Introducing Characters – Bellwether

  1. Great summary of all three people. Yeah, Flip annoys me, too, and it’s been three years since I last read “Bellweather”. Connie Willis definitely has a way of creating certain characters that induce teeth-grinding exasperation – in this reader, at least. Bult, the alien “guiding” two human surveyors across his planet in CW’s “Uncharted Territory”, is on a par with Flip…

  2. She does it very well, and her comedy at its best is like the screwball comedy of “What’s Up Doc” or “Bringing Up Baby”, but with statisticians instead of musical archaeologists.

    I haven’t read “Uncharted Territory” yet…

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