The Broke and the Bookish, as you may know, host a fantastic meme every week called Top Ten Tuesday. Since I no longer regularly post on Tuesdays, this means I don’t really have any right, goshdurnit, to take part in the endeavour.
But this week – this week, I had no choice. They’re asking about my Top Ten Literary Heroines. Come on. I had to get involved in this, even if it’s a day late.
I have so many literary heroines that I had to create a longlist, and then a shortlist, and then a shorter shortlist. I’ve sweated and wept over these choices. I had to invoke criteria, like ‘no two characters written by the same author’ (which was painful, particularly when it came to Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and Frances Hardinge) and ‘they can’t all be from children’s books’. But, never one to shirk a challenge, I battled my way to a final list of ten.
And here they are, in no particular order of preference – because that, my friends, would’ve pushed my fragile mind right over the edge.
Top Ten Literary Heroines
Coraline Jones from Coraline
What, I ask you, is not to love about this character? Clever, brave, adventurous, resolutely ungirly (oh, how I do love an ungirly girl), possessed of a powerful sense of justice and owner of the world’s coolest name, Coraline is a character who wriggled her way into my heart from the first second I met her. I was given a copy of Coraline by a dear friend, many years ago, as a birthday present, back when I wasn’t entirely familiar with Neil Gaiman as an author who wrote for children, and it isn’t overstating anything to say it changed my life. I adore her, and I adore her story, and I love her parents (the non button-eyed ones, at least), and I love the cast of crazy supporting characters who people her world. She rocks.
Lirael of the Clayr from Lirael and Abhorsen
I love pretty much all of the female characters in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books, and with good reason. They’re kick-ass (even the ones who don’t fight); none of them are superfluous, or objectified, or belittled because of their gender, or considered to be in any way less capable than the men in their world; they own their own sexualities and are unashamed of their own feelings, and they prove, time and again, that they can meet and exceed any challenge put in their path. Lirael is a great example of all this fabulousness, but she’s also amazing in her own right – a girl who feels she has no role in her world, who is a Daughter of the Clayr but who never awakens into the Clayr’s power as a seer, and who feels for many years like an embarrassment or a mistake, she is forced to find her own path. After struggling to fit in for many years, she eventually learns she has a far greater calling than she ever imagined and a much bigger role in the fate of her world than she or anyone else could have guessed. Also, she gets to use a sword and walk in Death, which is awesome.
Neverfell from A Face Like Glass
Choosing a top heroine from Frances Hardinge’s work was, I admit, a challenge. I could have gone for Triss, or Hathin, or Mosca Mye, but Neverfell was the one who called to me. The heroine of Hardinge’s masterful novel A Face Like Glass, Neverfell is the girl who falls into a vat of cheese in the underground city of Caverna, where nobody can form facial expressions and where everyone must be taught, by an elite group known as Facesmiths, how to arrange their faces to suit a certain, proscribed, set of emotions. Neverfell, however, is not stymied in the face department. Whatever she feels or thinks comes out in her expressions, which makes her incendiary in the world of Caverna, and marks her out as special – or, perhaps, worth getting rid of… Like all Hardinge’s heroines, Neverfell is spunky, sparky, clever, curious, undaunted by danger, possessed of a fierce determination to get to the bottom of whatever’s going on and full of hidden talents which come in handy at unexpected times. Is it any wonder I love her?
Katsa from the Graceling trilogy
It’s been far too long since I read these books, and I don’t own them anymore so I can’t just dip in and remind myself how good they are – curses. I will always remember Katsa, though, whose power and grace (not just her Graced power, which makes her a formidable fighter) as well as her compassion, strength and loyalty made her one of the best female characters I’ve ever read. Like the women in Garth Nix’s books, those in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling books are strong, independent, confident and capable, and their badassery is legendary. Katsa is the queen of them all.
Marian McAlpin from The Edible Woman
Another author whose work is chock-full of amazing heroines is Margaret Atwood. I struggled to choose just one, but I went for Marian because I read The Edible Woman at a formative point in my life where the book meant a huge amount to me. The idea of being consumed by expectation, weighed down by a static, predetermined idea of what your life (as a woman) should be, and the effort it takes to fight against the tiny boxes that others try to put you in is, and was, a powerful one. Marian seems at first like a passive, acted-upon woman who bends to gender and social expectation, before turning everything around as the novel reaches its conclusion. I loved her, I loved the book, and I love Atwood. If you haven’t read this one, do.
The Dog Woman from Sexing the Cherry
Another author whose work bristles with fabulous women is Jeanette Winterson, but The Dog Woman will always be my favourite. Large, childless (until the river delivers her a son, whom she loves as tenderly as any mother ever loved a baby of their own body), seen by others as grotesque, without a place in the world besides at the margins, The Dog Woman is nevertheless bountiful, generous, loving and possessed of a spirit so huge it changes the world. I can’t explain how much I love her. I see myself in her, and I see every woman in her, and I see her as my example. She’s a masterful creation.
Granny Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels
I surprised myself with this choice. I love so many female characters in the Discworld – Tiffany Aching, her grandmother, Sergeant Angua of the city Watch, all the witches – but I’ve always had a special fondness for Granny Weatherwax, whose common sense and straightforward way of looking at the world appeal to me. Unsentimental (yet deeply loving, despite it all), fiercely intelligent, braver than an army, possessed of knowledge beyond anyone’s understanding, and full of the most profound advice, she’s a character who comes across like a piece of flint until you realise that there’s nobody you’d rather have at your bedside when Death comes calling, or when disease strikes, or when you’re in your direst hour of need. If anyone can help, Granny can. Whether you’ll listen to her advice – now, that’s a different story…
Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials
Choosing Lyra meant I couldn’t have Sally Lockhart, but to be honest it wasn’t all that difficult a decision. Lyra Belacqua is another brave and resourceful and intelligent and stubborn and fiercely loyal character, and so I’m really not surprised by the depth of my affection for her. A girl brave enough to travel to the ends of the earth for her friends, intelligent enough to outsmart the king of the armoured bears, open-minded enough to see beyond appearances, loyal enough to do what’s right no matter what the personal cost to her, she’s straight-up incredible. What a literary achievement she is.
Sophie Hatter from Howl’s Moving Castle and its sequels
I’m beginning to see a theme here. Courageous, uncaring about appearances, not remotely girly, willing to do anything in the pursuit of knowledge, fiercely loyal, impulsive and unafraid to make mistakes, hard-working, never afraid to love, Sophie Hatter is a fabulous character. Her interplay with the wizard Howl in the books in which they feature is a delight – she is never, not even for a second, anything less than his equal. I love that.
Sophie from Rooftoppers
Ah, yes – another Sophie. Foster-child of Charles Maxim, brave defier of gravity, tireless searcher for her mother, Sophie is a character I love. Now, admittedly, she wouldn’t be half as cool without her incredible guardian by her side, who raises her to be the strong, confident, intellectually curious, prodigiously gifted girl she is, and who encourages her to follow every single dream (even those which are probably impossible), but the fact remains that Sophie, with Charles Maxim by her side, is an awesome and memorable heroine in a wonderful and moving book. (I’m still sighing over Charles Maxim, by the way. Have you read this book yet? If not, you really really should).
So, there you are. The girls and women whittled down from a very long list to form my Top Ten Literary Heroines. I bet I won’t have this post published five seconds before I’m regretting some of my choices and wishing to swap them out for others – but isn’t that a great indication of how many wonderful female characters there are to choose from in the wide world of literature? Yes. Yes it is. Anyway, happy middle-of-the-week to you. May all be well and perfect in your small corner of the earth.