Friday, August 21, 2009

Fictional Ladies

Do you think it is harder to write a good fictional female character than a male character? I do.

I can think of about a gazillion male characters that I love and respect, and far fewer women. A few do come to mind--Olivia from "The Weather in the Streets," Elizabeth in "Pride and Prejudice," Molly Bloom in "Ulysses." Tolkien's Arwen Evenstar, Galadriel, and Eowyn. I dig Hermione Granger too, and Ginny Weasley (Rowling did a good job, although disappointingly her most fully-fleshed characters are boys and men). I can think of others, but it is far easier for me to come up with the simpering, the foils, the falsely plucky-can-do girls, the girls who are pretty with not much else to recommend them, the girls who are attractive because they are beautiful and disturbed (case in point, Caddy from "The Sound and the Fury), the ones with not a drop of humor in them (all Virginia Woolf's characters, I mean I love Woolf, but c'mon, never has there been a more overly self-serious set of characters)...I could go on. Both male and female authors are guilty of the poorly-drawn, stereotypical female, just as some of my favorite women in literature were created by male authors.

Anyway, I've been asking myself, what makes a strong, real, viable woman character in a novel? Who are your favorite female characters from fiction, and why do you like them?

I would love to hear what you have to say on this topic if you get a chance.

43 comments:

RickNiekLikeBikes said...

Shoot, girls around me have been quiet, loud, ferocious, voracious, friendly, kind, cunning, proud, humble, serving, leading...

My favorite is probably a cunning, saavy woman, but not unbending, immovable. She can be fierce but I prefer unpredictable. She has a whimsical flavor to her which gives her her strength in more ways than one.

Humility and meekness are not weakness.

Glad to find you!

Cece said...

I feel that Tess Garretson's female cop and corner are great characters. Rizzoli and (I can't remember the corner's name now). But the are a little more than one dimensional.

Megan said...

Ooh great topic. Can't contribute much now, I'm at work, but off the top of my head, must give props to Miss Havisham! Crazy, mean, stubborn, controlling, tragic, haunted. She's fascinating. I think she's WAY more interesting than Stella.

That's one of my faves. More later!!!

Leah said...

RNLB--welcome, and interesting comment! Actually very helpful. And you're right, humility is not weak, in fact it's stronger than arrogance.

Cece--I'm not familiar with those books, will have to check them out. I like to see women in unusual roles (like coroner--although I guess that's not so unusual anymore, in real life).

Megan--love the Havisham! I really do. I'd forgotten about her. That's an excellent one.

nick said...

Difficult question for a guy, I think. I'm probably less critical of female characters than women readers, whose personal experience means they can more easily spot the disappointing stereotypes and weaknesses. Also, I hardly ever reread the classics so it's hard for me to recall the well-known female characters in any detail. Which means I'm being singularly unhelpful.

(Racks brains frantically) How about Sara Paretsky's character, V I Warshawski?

Ronda Laveen said...

Great topic. I was just thinking about this the other day. But more with regard to female archetypes promoted to yong women. On notebooks and lunch pails are Ariel and Hannah Montana. Surely, there are stronger choices.

underOvr (aka The U) said...

Hi Leah,

I see strength in ways that aren't always defined by gender. I think my admiration for strong women comes from being raised by women. They always demonstrated determination, comittment and resolve.

When I read about a female fiction character, I'm drawn to independent women in conflict.

When I write, I use women I know to develop a character's identity. Like any character I write about, I prefer characters (male or female) that are flawed, that struggle with some personal crisis and through that struggle they persevere.

U

Brian Miller said...

ok, my inner geek soming out...i grew up reading fantasy novels...dragons and such, not the other...Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman wrote a series called Dragonlance...two characters...Kitara and Laurana...complete opposites but well developed. ok, geek out over...lol.

I like the Kathy Reichs character that the TV show Bones is developed after as well.

otin said...

My favorite fictional female characters are really all sitcom mothers, because I see so many real traits in the characters that they portray, Roseanne, Edith Bunker, Marie Barone, just to name a few!

The Unbearable Banishment said...

Although he's seen as a featherweight author, I think Nick Hornby does a nice job with contemporary women. They're never accessories in his books.

Baino said...

To my shame I just don't read enough but I loved Alice Walker's The Colour Purple. Her females are strong and survivalists to the end.

subtorp77 said...

The big mystery fan that I am, always liked Christie's Miss Marple. But I'm always finding new ones( current hook is for Fremont Jones, who wants to strive to be the total opposite of what's expected her to be...in 1905 terms )independent, with her own business and views. There are way too many more to list here...

Suzanne said...

Hi Leah. I'll stop by later.
Hi Cece.
Hi Megan.
Hi Otin.

MJ said...

My fave?

Harriet the Spy.

muralimanohar said...

Oh, heck. I so under-analyze the books I read, that I don't even know if I could tell you their names, much less describe their personality! The only thing I truly hate is idiocy, and bad writing. And if the writing is good, idiocy can even be tolerable. And this goes for men, and women.

Now, if you want to change this to music, the question on MY mind lately is, why do I mostly prefer male singers? It's really hard for me to find a female singer I truly enjoy listening to for longer than the occasional song. Any thoughts on that one?

Megan said...

Harriet the Spy! Ole Golly! Tomato sandwiches and chocolate egg creams!

(Okay, yes, I read it multiple times. So?)

And another Harriet - Harriet Vane from Sayers' Wimsey stories. Even more interesting when you know Sayers' own story. A fully developed character - much more than Wimsey, even. Her struggles with maintaining her own independence, finding her true writing 'voice', and allowing love back into her life are so well done.

Thursday Next (I know, I do go on about Jasper sometimes...)

I agree with you on Lizzie Bennett. And Ginny & Hermione. I can't sit through Woolf. I've tried and tried...

lettuce said...

oh this is a bit intellectual for early Saturday morning!

how interesting...

it could be there are far fewer believable female characters because there have been far fewer successful published female writers?

not that only women can write good women - some of Henry James' are interesting. But its mostly women come to mind - Jane Austen def., Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. Carol Sheilds & Margaret Atwood have lots of good female characters...

oh yes - just read your other comments - Harriet Vane! I'd forgotten all about Lord Peter Whimsey, must read again, thankyou!


PS glad you like your bag!

mago said...

Besides Barbarella?
None.

Leah said...

Nick--I've been only recently rereading the classics, for some reason I just started picking up books this summer that I hadn't read since grade school. It's amazing to me how little I'd remembered of them! Amazingly, I'd say that in general the women are better drawn in many of them than in more modern books that are the product of a more liberated time! I've never read Sarah Paretsky, but there are several hanging about here and I will check 'em out!

Ronda--I have to agree, and strongly. I'm largely quite disgusted with some of those girly icons. I tried not to sway Hedgehog one way or the other, because I want her to just kind of enjoy being a kid, but in fact she came to the conclusion on her own that they're one-dimensional. She has especially rebelled against Hannah Montana et al. Thank goodness. Luckily, she's a voracious reader, and children/young adult fiction has some fabulous heroines.

U--great comment. I too prefer flawed characters, who are struggling. I like the idea of an "independent woman in conflict." Interesting.

Brian--don't worry, you're among geeks...I mean, friends...We are swimming in fantasy/sci fi over here at chezweatherinthestreets, and when I say swimming I mean barely staying afloat! Although Sarge was surprised that he hadn't heard of the Dragonlance series. We are both very curious about it now!

Otin--I am OBSESSED with those sitcom mothers too! All the ones you mention, and I would throw Debra Barrone in there too. They are SO real in so many ways. It's sometimes uncomfortable to watch them.

UB--I'm not familiar with him. But I do think there are some excellent female characters in much of the "lightweight" fiction. It's a pretty high ratio, in fact. You're right, though--another thing I object to, when fictional women are merely accessories.

Baino--there's a book I haven't read since college! I honestly don't remember it very well, will have to reread. It's right over there on my bookshelf. I like strong survivalists too, but only if they have a sense of humor! That is de rigeur.

Subby--LOVE the Marple. Agreed. Fremont Jones? just looked it up, looks quite fun and the characters sounds wonderful. I suddenly remembered another great lady character--Mma Rmotswe from The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. You should read those, I bet you'd love 'em!

Leah said...

HI SUZY!

Leah said...

MJ--how funny! I just not two weeks ago reread that book, and also The Long Hot Summer. Harriet is wonderful, I agree. I think in fact that there are far better girl characters than women characters, in general. But I can totally relate to those girls, so maybe it's okay.

Murali--idiocy and bad writing, a lethal combination. I'm working my way through the Twilight series and am finding an absolute plethora of both. Shocking, really.

You know, I am with you on the female singers thing. I haven't figured it out yet either. It's not that I don't have ladies aplenty on my ipod, but I just don't listen much...

Megan--thank you SO much for reminding me about Sayers. Harriet Vane is a great woman character, I agree. And Sarge reminded me of Luna Lovegood--how could I have forgotten her? I adore her. And yeah, Woolf. You can't get through her because she's a humorless sap, that's why!

Lettuce--I just finished "The Bostonians," and I think James does have some very interesting female characters. Next up is "The Portrait of a Lady." You mention some other good ones in there too.

I do love my bag, still! It's great. I'll be back soon to see what other lovelies you all have up for auction!

mago--ah, Barbarella. So strong, so pointy-bosomed.

subtorp77 said...

Leah, I caught a bit of that series at work, whilst on break. I've yet to get any books but they are on my wish list :) Thanks!

muralimanohar said...

Haven't heard of Dragonlance?? Is that even possible?? I'm not sure it actually is. Probably you all are just having a brain fart. Dh is actually a huge fan of RA Salvatore's books in that series.

Don't even mention Twilight in same breath as good writing. You know what was the most painful thing about reading them (aside from the more and more obvious clues that we were reading the teenage fantasy diary of Stephanie Meyers, starring herself)? That it could have been a really interesting story, in the hands of a really decent writer. What a loss.

The Idle Devil said...

I like a female character with a few grey shades to her. Especially ones who make the males suffer a bit whether they have her or not.

The Idle Devil said...

Hey, my family loves Mma Ramostwe...we have all of her detective books.

just bob said...

Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction.

Emerson Marks said...

You got me there. What about the big Spanish woman in For Whom the Bell Tolls? She's quite hard, or how would you say? Tough cookie?

Cinnamon said...

I agree with Eliza Bennet. What about Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys)- (who becomes the 'other wife' in Jane Eyre). She is not exactly 'strong' as we follow her descent into madness, but certainly fully drawn.

just bob said...

Hi Leah!

Leah said...

Hi guys! I just wanted to let you know I read all the wonderful comments here and you have really given me some great insight. I'm without interwebs till next Tuesday, so I'll be back then. Just wanted to say hi!

xo

subtorp77 said...

Hi Leah! "See" ya when you get back! HUGS!

Suzanne said...

Me.

Suzanne said...

Hi baby. You know I'm thinking. Yes, it hurts.

PI said...

I always thought Jo March (Little Women) was a gutsy girl and really empathised with her weaknesses.

Hunter said...

Xena, because she's a warrior princess, and she has a phobia named after her.

lettuce said...

laughing at hunter's comment...

The Clever Pup said...

Margaret Drabble and her sister A.S. Byatt always write about strong, smart, credible women. As does Iris Murdoch. I try to read everything by Drabble.

How about Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises.

I also read Kathy Reich's stuff. Tempe Brennan is a good, strong character.

As an aside - I would like to be like the female characters described in songs like those by Bob Dylan. Those girls all sound deep and sexy and beguiling. I'd like to be like that.

Suzanne said...

Honey, did you ever read "A Woman Of Independent Means." That really was a kick ass book. I read it when I was all of about 18 and it mattered. I like her. I pick her.

PI said...

Remembering what an influence 'Space below my feet' had on me although it wasn't fiction and
Gwen Moffat was a real person. Helped me to break out of a glass cage.

mago said...

?

Jimmy Bastard said...

As in life, I have a voracious appetite when it comes to the fairer sex. So with this in mind I am going to name four strong willed female characters of my own liking.

Rosalind of 'As You Like It', Viola of 'Twelfth Night', Beatrice of 'Much Ado About Nothing' and of course Katherine of 'Taming of the Shrew'.

Great post by the way.

Skeeter said...

Hi Leah,

Yep, you're exactly right. It's soooo much harder to write female characters than male ones. It's one of those deals for sure.

Best wishes,

Skeeter

Mr. Shife said...

Wow. You have me stumped on this one. Mainly because I don't really read books, and the ones I do read have a strong male lead. I do like "Bones" and she is based from a series of books but Mrs. Shife said those books aren't that great and the TV show is much better.