Sunday, 8 March 2009

Here's looking at you, Bella Swann - Top Ten Female Characters You Should Love

Right, this has only taken me TWENTY-FIVE YEARS to write. Blame dissertation and then Cambridge craziness. But don't worry, I'm leaving soon, then it'll be SPAM SPAM SPAM.

Anyway, the delay has meant that this is now in time for International Women's Day, so that's rather neat.


Top Ten Characters You Should Love - Female Edition

1. Nancy Blackett. SO MUCH YES. In fact, if there is ONE female character you should be reading and loving, it's Cap'n Nancy. She's fearless, she's adventurous, she's tough, she's honourable and kind (if a bit brash) and she's a brilliant sailor - it is freely admitted that she's better than the boys (although with much less practical knowledge), and then she starts signalling* and the Swallows wish she'd slow down so they could follow. She decides that she wants to be a pirate, and so changes her name from Ruth (since a pirate must be ruthLESS); her piratical language seems natural with her and never an affectation. Besides Titty, she is the most inventive, initiating a number of adventures (including much of the action of Winter Holiday and The Picts and the Martyrs) and suggesting the use of semaphore as code. And she's all of that in the 1930s. I love her to pieces, and actually sort of want to be her - and she's the source of the quote that I have at the side of the page.

2. Elizabeth Bennett. Oh Wow, So Obvious. Yes yes, I know. But cliches become cliches for a reason. And that reason is that she is FANTASTIC. The original Flawed But Fun heroine (well, apart from all Austen's other e.g.s of that type, of course), there's no need to go into why she's cool, everyone knows. But why I love her? Basically because she's who I really want to be - Me Squared, perhaps? I don't like extremes of behaviour, and Lizzie is nicely balanced in my view - fun but knows when to be serious (and vice versa), responsible and capable but still flummoxed sometimes, collected but also passionate when she needs to be, able to be patient and forceful... Oh, perfection! I re-read her exchange with Lady Catherine de Burgh at the end of the book when I'm feeling blue.

3. Elinor Dashwood. I debated whether or not I should be allowed more than one character from a particular book or author, and while I felt that perhaps I shouldn't, the fact is that I love these characters more than the characters I'd have to replace them with, and I felt a bit dishonest not including them. So that's why we have two Austens and two Rowlings (you're lucky there weren't more of them, to be honest). Elinor is a recent addition, because I only just read Sense and Sensibility (I know, I know!). I love her because of her inner strength, her decency, her patience, her humour and love that continue despite all she goes through. She's a more restrained, even subdued character than the other women on my list, and that is one of the reasons why she is included: to show that one can have a strong female character that isn't just a stompy have-at-'em witty type, and a quiet female character that isn't wet or two-dimensional.

4. Jane Eyre. To complete my three classical heroines, another Big Fat Cliche. As you've probably realised by now, I don't care. Jane is cool. Jane is a cliche because she is cool. As per, she did the whole overcoming adversity thing to become a governess, where she quietly charmed an old grouch, then she overcame two more adversities - discovering said grouch was a happy two-timer with a mad wife in the attic, and then caring for the grouch when he became a blind, disabled, traumatised grouch. With a little interlude being a patient school teacher in the middle of nowhere with one of the most irritating people ever. (This sounds much more cynical and mocking than I actually feel). She is the paradigm of the patient, quiet, saintly woman - and yet subverts it. Like Elinor, she has a phenomenal inner strength, and her passion is all the more powerful for being controlled.

5. Lyra Belacqua. Philip Pullman's heroine from His Dark Materials absolutely bewitched me when I first read the books, partly because I was almost exactly her age, and because she was so complex and so carefully drawn that I could picture her almost perfectly - interestingly, though, the strongest image I have of her is a clenched fist. She is fierce and loyal and brave and somehow both selfish and selfless at the same time. Her character development through the books is captivating; the two big Spoilery Bits from The Amber Spyglass are heartbreaking, and ridiculously moving and disturbingly hot respectively. This was in fact the first time I had my heart broken (except perhaps Goodnight Mister Tom), and Lyra was part of the reason.

6. Alanna, from Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness Quartet. Another Envy-Love, Alanna was someone I wanted to be, although it was as much her life that I envied as her personality. I too wanted to be a knight. I wanted to be tough like that, to see excitement and adventure and be worthy of something amazing. Even now, that kind of hard work has a massive attraction to me (partly because I'm not very good at working hard myself - I may or may not be writing this in the library...) But again, we have a strong, flawed, interesting female character who grows through the books, recognisable enough to allow the reader to associate him/herself with her, but different enough to have glamour and interest. She's a good comparison to Bella Swann actually, and probably a good place to start if you want to wean your child off Twilight, with His Dark Materials to follow. She isn't the best character in the world (given the general writing quality of these early Pierce books it's a miracle the characterisation is as good as it is!) but she's a favourite, and that's what matters.

7. Professor McGonagall, from Harry Potter. I've heard many people say that women are not well-served in the Harry Potter books, to which I can only say BOLLOCKS TO THAT. Now is not the time to go into that in much detail, but I will be defending two (and a half) of JK Rowling's female characters here. McGonagall is the first, because she is quite simply brilliant. A supremely talented witch, she's also fair, strict, caring in her own way, and has a sense of humour that is an absolute joy (case in point, that bit in Order of the Phoenix when she tells Peeves that the chandelier unscrews the other way). She's brave, as shown by the way she stands up to Umbridge, among others. And she's a woman of whatever age who appears completely happy in herself. Lovely.

8. Ginny Weasley, from Harry Potter. It was a toss-up between Ginny and Hermione, but I thought in the end I'd go for Ginny because she's just that bit more maligned in HP fandom. But do not fret, readers, for I love Hermione almost as much. But Ginny - oh Ginny. Ginny has my heart. She's clever and acts stupid sometimes, she's brave, she's loyal, she's got a temper, and she goes for the things (or Harrys) that she wants (Valentine's Card aged 13? We've all been there, but she gets the guy.) She's almost as good a seeker as Harry, and she can give the Twins a run for their money (while remaining a lot kinder and less psychopathic). I just want to know her - although I suspect she'd be too cool for me...

9. Mary Challoner, from Georgette Heyer's Devil's Cub. She pretends to be her sister to save her from ruining her chances by running away with a libertine (even though her sister doesn't deserve it). Then the libertine won't let her go, so she shoots him. Seriously. She's another unflappable heroine like Elinor, but with more of Lizzie Bennett's attitude and spark. And the book is worth reading just for the ridiculously tortuous final scene, and how Heyer manages to unravel it perfectly.

10. Susan Sto-Helit, from Terry Pratchett. Death's granddaughter, Susan is first introduced in Soul Music while she's at school; she reappears in Hogfather as a governess, and in Thief of Time as a school-teacher with special talents. Throughout, she is thoroughly no-nonsense, tough, but caring nonetheless, and with a fully rounded characterisation. She's just intriguing, generally, very compelling, and her answer to childhood nightmares is unique (rather than telling the children that the monsters don't exist, because of course they do, she goes after them with a poker). Also someone I'd like to know, but who'd invariably be far too cool for me.

Hon. mentions: Anne Elliott (Persuasion), Paulina (The Winter's Tale), Georgia Nicholson, Mrs Lintott (The History Boys), Margaret Hale (North and South), Polgara the Sorceress (David Eddings' The Belgariad), Hermione Granger (HP).

What are your favourite female characters?

*I have a feeling that Arthur Ransome wiki may kill the tiny bit of work ethic I have left...



  2. Oh, and my mother used to send me postcards in semaphore when she was off at conferences. Best mother ever.

  3. This is a brilliant list and needs a proper period of thought for response. Jane Austen will probably provide quite a few of mine as well though...

    In the meantime, can I ask what has happened to word verifications: the word today is chumluv

  4. aaah i have thought of some BRILLIANT ones. i am only writing this so i remember to actually tell you about them- type would take up too much room. squee.

    yes YES mcgonagall. totally agree. also she's one of the few characterisations i can bear in the film. maggie smith is perfect.