Looking for female characters with a brain? With attitude? With something to say? Are the novels you’re reading measuring up?
Romance addicts might be hoping that a hunky man is waiting at the end of the rainbow, but isn’t it great to feel that there’s more on a woman’s mind than just a wedding band? She may be driven by the pursuit of love, but let’s also see her achieve self-love (and self-knowledge) along the way.
We can do worse than encounter Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) who oozes independence, wit and pragmatism. She bags Darcy in the end, but not until he’s gone the extra mile to prove himself worthy of her. Most satisfyingly, she learns to better understand her own foibles in the meantime.
It was Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With The Wind) and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp who first lit my fire. Equally conceited and ambitious, they thought nothing of defying convention. Here were women who might have something to teach me. While Scarlett refuses to allow roguish Rhett Butler, or the inconvenience of civil war, to interfere with her determination to enjoy life, the flirtatious Miss Sharp manipulates her way up the social ladder. Both endure trials and the humiliation of plans thwarted, but retain their inner spark, finding their own version of contentment by the closing chapters. Their selfish acts are allowed to stand, without excuse or pardon, leaving us to judge as we may.
As a teenager, I remember blushing at Defoe’s sexually effusive Moll Flanders and being repulsed at her casting off of various children like so much unnecessary baggage, but I also delighted at her social scheming, her sense of adventure, her impervious determination and her high spirits. She was infinitely preferable to the melancholy ‘victims’ and infuriating ‘saints’ of Hardy and Dickens.
Jane Eyre was no Moll, lacking even a speck of glamour, but she hooked Rochester with her own brand of quiet confidence and intelligence, scorning his perceived right to ‘command’ her. She declares: ‘superiority depends on the use made of time and experience’. I couldn’t help cheering her as she withstood the familiar inventory of hardships, relying on her own powers of endurance to prevail.
Intent on showing that there is more to life than the frivolities of a romantic dalliance, Max Beerbohm presents femme fatale Zuleika Dobson. She gains entrance to the privileged, all-male domain of Oxford University, whose students become uniformly infatuated by her beauty. Then, the ‘sillies’, forlorn at her refusal to accept a husband, make a pact of suicide, drowning in the river to ‘prove’ their devotion. The loss is not great; the academics barely notice the absence of the young men and impervious Zuleika heads to Cambridge…
Of course, female protagonists don’t need to be young, sexy or beautiful to capture our attention – and their stories can exist outside of the realm of romance. Think of Agatha Christie’s outwardly demure Miss Marple: quietly determined on sniffing out killers, as she knits yet another pair of baby booties. As one police inspector puts it, she may be ‘fluffy and dithery in appearance but, inwardly, she’s as sharp and shrewd as they make them’. Of herself, she remarks: ‘Inertia does not suit me and never has’.
Fellow detective Mary Russell, written by Laurie R King, shows the legendary Sherlock how it’s done, not only working beside him but often eclipsing Holmes. Over a series of novels, Mary grows in stature and experience, providing an intriguing, and often amusing, foil to Conan Doyle’s snooty sleuth. Go Mary!
In heart-wrenching contrast, the bleak yet compulsive Scandi-Noir Millennium Trilogy has given us Lisbeth Salander. Having read the books in my 40s, I wonder what I would have made of the vengeful violence meted out by this fiercely ‘anti-social’ heroine in my teenage years. Brutality against women permeates the story at all levels, to a degree that obliges us to accept the ‘justice’ of Lisbeth’s actions. Although she lives firmly outside of conventions, she retains a need for love and companionship. Infinitely complex, she is one of most compelling female characters of our modern age, exemplifying resilience in the face of adversity.
The Song of Ice and Fire series (brought to the screen as our beloved Game of Thrones) presents a dazzling host of powerful female characters: resolute Arya and her mother, Catelyn Stark, female warriors Ygritte and Brienne of Tarth, cunning Margaery Tyrell and her grandmother, Melisandre and Cersei Lannister, and the brave and noble Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen: a chocolate box of infinite satisfaction. In terms of ‘role models’ there’s something to appeal to every woman, of every age.
Young Adult fiction also offers us some corkers: His Dark Materials’ Lyra, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame and Divergent’s Tris. They celebrate not only bravery but compassion and intellect and, most importantly, assertion of individuality.
My vote is for women who whisper encouragement long after I’ve closed the pages, urging me to be strong and self-reliant, marching to my own drum.
Raise your ‘bravo’ by adding your feisty favourites below…
(For more feisty females, you may like to visit my Author Page on Amazon)