Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Five Female Characters

A few weeks ago, on March 8th, it was International Women's Day, and the internet was flooded with inspiring articles and stories by and about women all over the world. For my own response to IWD, I thought about writing a post on all the real-life women I admire, many of whom are writers, but then I decided it would be fun to pay tribute to the pretend ones instead. It was actually a harder job than I anticipated, narrowing the list down, but in the end I decided that the following five characters are the ones with whom I have most connected – and have most influenced me as a writer.

Hermione Granger

'I hope you're pleased with yourselves. We could have been all killed - or worse, expelled.'
       - JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Like so many, I grew up with Hermione, and what I always loved about her was, although she is famously clever and bookish, she is also brave, vulnerable, emotional, and stands up unapologetically for what she believes in. Before Harry Potter, I hadn’t encountered such a well-rounded character in a children’s book - certainly not a female one. I believe JK Rowling herself sums it up nicely in this (very interesting) discussion on the women in the series, when she says, 'In creating Hermione, I felt I created a girl who was a heroine. She wasn’t sexy, nor was she the girl in glasses who was entirely sexless. Do you know what I mean? She’s a real girl.'

Lyra Belaqua/Silvertongue

… Lyra threw her cigarette down, recognizing the cue for a fight. Everyone's daemon instantly became warlike: each child was accompanied by fangs, or claws, or bristling fur, and Pantalaimon, contemptuous of the limited imaginations of these gyptian daemons, became a dragon the size of a deer hound.
 - Philip Pullman, Northern Lights

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy contains the book that made me want to be a writer (Northern Lights) and the first book that broke my heart (The Amber Spyglass). Much of the story's power is due to its central character, Lyra, a prickly girl of twelve whose special skill is lying. I too was twelve when I read the first book and I had never encountered a personality like Lyra's before – in fact, I’m not sure I have since. She is perhaps my favourite character of all time; fierce and loving in equal measure, she remains achingly human in the face of remarkable situations and fantastical worlds.

Emma Woodhouse

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
- Jane Austen, Emma

The eponymous heroine of Austen’s Emma is a Marmite figure: you either love her or hate her. Generally, I find people much prefer either Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett or Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. Indeed, even Austen herself didn’t anticipate anyone warming to Emma, saying, 'I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.' It is true, Miss Woodhouse is spoilt, selfish, even cruel,  but she is also witty, confident, loving and determined to better herself. To me, Emma, is loveable precisely because of the flaws in her character and the way she comes to recognise them.


I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something. 
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood's best novel, set in a dystopian society in which groups of women are essentially used as breeding machines, is narrated by the character of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaid in question. As the book progresses, 'Offred' quietly begins to rebel against the system not with her fists, but with her use of language, which gives her a means of mental - and perhaps even physical - escape. I read The Handmaid’s Tale at exactly the right time: I was seventeen years old, in my last year at school, and just about to go out into the world and discover what it was to be a woman. Atwood's words, through 'Offred', showed me a character with a core of strength not immediately visible, and taught me how language could be wielded as a weapon against injustice.

Sophie Fevvers

'And once the old world has turned on its axle so that the new dawn can dawn, then, ah, then! all the women will have wings, the same as I.'
- Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus

To be honest, I could have picked any number of Carter's heroines for this spot, as so many of them are bawdy and wicked and completely irresistible. But I picked Fevvers, the Cockney circus performer who allegedly hatched from an egg and sprouted wings, because - outside of The Bloody Chamber - she was Carter's first female character I encountered, and I loved her. After all, why should a woman not have wings (or does she)? Why should she necessarily tell the truth (or is she)? Carter initially seized me with her fairy tales, but she keeps me coming back for more and more with fantastical and contradictory characters like Fevvers.

So there you have them: five women who are clever yet vulnerable, fierce yet loving, selfish yet well-meaning, quiet yet rebellious, impossible yet oh so real, and so many other things at the same time. And there are many more of them, of course (I'd love to hear other people's lists/thoughts). Having read an awful lot of classics featuring the angel/monster problem (looking especially at you, Dickens), I think it's so important to take stock of how far fictional females have come. In this way, it's quite apt to celebrate them for International Women's Day: their progress has, after all, reflected that of their real-life counterparts.