So today is International Women’s Day and in honour of that I’ve decided to do a post of some of my favourite female characters in literature. Sometimes I get so frustrated by representation of women in books, especially fantasy and YA literature. There are so many one-dimensional characters out there, and even when that dimension is of a ‘strong’ woman it annoys me because it is still creating an unrealistic image. I wrote one of my MA dissertations on the representation of mythical women in poetry and some of the things I found whilst researching apply to modern fiction just as much. To quote myself (which is really weird) ,’It matters not if the voice given to woman is strong and judicial, as in the case with Athena, or intelligent and loyal such as Penelope as these are still not representative of the diverse personality an individual woman is capable of. They are no less restrictive and distorted than the negative voices of the mad and vengeful Medea or the shameful adulteress Helen.’ Lately there have been various discussions on the existence of the ‘strong female character’ in films and TV and a challenge to the notion that for a female character to be ‘strong’ she must follow traditionally masculine definitions of strength. There is a brilliant article in relation to this that explores the point way better than I could HERE. But the long and short of it is that yea some of my favourite female characters are badass warriors … and some of them are anxiety-ridden nerds. And they’re amazing in so many ways and yet annoying in others and all because they are human!
(there’s no order to this list btw)
Sabriel from the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix.
‘Though I am afraid.’ ‘So am I,”whispered Sabriel’
On a first glance Sabriel might seem to be to be cast in the mould of a ‘strong female character’.She has been just about trained by her father to fill his shoes and yet she manages to fight the scary people and win the day. But that is a beyond simplistic reading of Sabriel that physically hurts me. Sabriel is so much more than just a vessel for her power and her skills. We see her exhausted, grief-stricken, unsure, pragmatic, emotional, kind, stubborn and yes, strong. I love Sabriel not only because despite her insecurity, fear and grief she manages to come through, but because we see all those things that could have paralysed her. Nix doesn’t write Sabriel like she has all the answers, he writes her like she’s moving from one idea to the next in search of anything that will work. He writes her human. On a related note Lirael, one of the main characters (and title character of the second book) in the series is another multi-faceted female character that I enjoy. She’s actually probably more diverse in character than Sabriel but Sabriel will always retain a special place for me because she was one of the first characters I read that made me realise that sometimes you don’t need to have all the answers to have courage.
Cath from Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.
‘And she thought about winning. About how she was letting this win, whatever this was – the crazy inside of her. Cath, zero. Crazy, one million.’
My first time reading Fangirl there were times I felt like I was looking in the mirror. I have social anxiety myself, worse in some ways than Cath’s and better than her in others and I got pretty emotional reading this book. I think it takes a special special kind of bravery to push through a fear you know is irrational but doesn’t feel any less real. There’s an amazing spoken word piece from Catalina Ferro (HERE) and one of the most breath-taking lines from it is “these people who fight through every day like fucking gladiators … just because they want so badly to live, to hold on.” Cath has no trust in people because of her mother’s abandonment; every day events and ‘normal’ activities stump her and even the smallest slight can feel like a slap in the face. Yet she pushes on. She moves to university, essentially on her own, she goes to class, she resists the urge to stick her head in the sand and let the world happen around, and without, her. The moment when she explains why she hasn’t being going to the dining hall made me lose my breath because its such a familiar feeling – sheer panic not just at the thought of the action, but because you know, you know that the other person won’t understand your fear. Cath has steel in her spirit, whether she knows it or not and I think she’s one of the most relatable characters I’ve ever read.
Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
‘Don’t worry, you’re just as sane as I am’
The Harry Potter series has a number of great female characters from the brilliant Hermione to the passionate Molly Weasley but Luna has always held my attention more than the others. For starters she really couldn’t care less about other people’s opinions – if she believes in something then she backs herself 100%. That is something I, anxiety-ridden as I can be, admire greatly. Her fierce loyalty to her friends is another aspect of her personality that makes her so awesome. I often think the line from the book ‘then you should have died, died rather than betray your friends! As we would have done for you!’ is something Luna would have unquestionably believed in.
Wynter Moorehawke from the Moorehawke trilogy by Celine Kiernan.
“A YA heroine does not have to pick up a weapon nor wear men’s clothing to be equal to her male counterparts.”
This quote from Wynter’s creator Celine Kiernan (aside from being completely true and applicable to ALL literature) so perfectly encapsulates why I love Wynter. Wynter’s weapon is her mind. She knows how her world works and she manipulates and manoeuvres behind her court mask to devastating effect. Even when the best option available to her is the most unpalatable she is logical enough to swallow her pain and follow it. YET she does not ignore her emotions. Kiernan has done such an amazing job of showcasing that logic and emotion can co-exist IN A FEMALE CHARACTER. Wynter loves and trusts fiercely; her capability to identify the most pragmatic option in a situation doesn’t diminish that fact. She’s almost an ideal politician – she genuinely cares about the issue, but she understands how to play the corrupt world around her in order to achieve her aims. I also love how Wynter reacts to some aspects of her world that she has been taught to shun/despise. There’s a saying that our first reaction to something is what we have been socially conditioned to think, and it is our second thought that truly shows our feelings. So when Wynter recoils from her love after a revelation that initially disgusts her, and then mentally checks herself and reaches out to him it feels so real. Wynter is a multi-layered and complex female character that breathes life in front of the reader and I would seriously recommend people read this series, even if just for her (although there are plenty of other great reasons!)
A few honourable mentions:
- All the main female characters in Kristin Cashore’s books Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. All three of them have diverse personalities, make bad decisions/good decisions and just generally draw the reader into their individual lives and problems. Katsa (Graceling) challenges traditional images of the role of women, Fire (Fire) shows that beauty brings its own problems and Bitterblue (Bitterblue) deals with such a range of disturbing and deep issues that I wouldn’t even know where to begin! Read these books; seriously.
- Pretty much all of Tamora Pierce’s books, but especially Trickster’s Choice and Trickster Queen and the characters of Aly and Dove. God I love this pairing. The smoothly intelligent young royal and the impudent, viciously clever spy just form a partnership that I think could solve half the current problems the world has. Again for both these women, it is their ability to use the knowledge available to them that is the strongest weapon they wield (although Aly could also probably physically kick most people’s ass as well).
- ALL of the women in The City of Silk and Steel by Mike, Linda and Louise Carey. Seriously, if a book about how a bunch of women work together to escape certain death, starvation and using skills deemed useless or frivolous, or forbidden to them, and build their own city doesn’t appeal to you then I’m not sure why you were reading this post at all.
- Eona from Eon and Eona. Terrified, broken and being dragged in about fifty different directions Eona spends the majority of these two books fighting herself and unable to admit to her own worth. Until she does so in spectacular fashion. READ THESE.