The world of fantasy writing can seem like a boy’s club to those not familiar with the genre, but not only are there plenty of women writing great fantasy novels, but there are also lots of men in this genre who write interesting, fully formed female characters – and none more so than one of the UK’s best-selling (and, apparently, most shoplifted) authors – Sir Terry Pratchett. Here are my favourites…
Few writers have managed to build a universe as rich and coherent as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Over the course of more than 30 novels, he has brought to life a world that reflects our own, except it far funnier, more magical, and features a lot more trolls. In the course of doing so, he has created some of my favourite characters of all time (I think Sam Vimes may actually be my favourite hero in any book, any genre, anywhere).
And few writers can create women as interesting as Pratchett’s – before writing this I did a quick straw poll on Facebook asking my friends who their favourite female characters were, and I got about a dozen different answers, all interesting, all good choices, all fiercely argued – I’d struggle to think of any other writer who has created half a dozen female characters who provoke that kind of passion. So I admit right from the off this is a very subjective list…
The Grande Dame of Discworld, the character of Granny Weatherwax is given the freedom that male characters take for granted but women are rarely offered – the freedom to be the good guy, without being the *nice* guy. Yes, she is the heroine of a whole series of Discworld books, but she is emphatically not a nice person. She is mean, sharp-tongued, secretly a little vain, judgemental, unforgiving and set in her ways, and she recognises that the price of being very good at what you do is that you have to keep being very good at what you do.
She is only softened from complete intractability by her life-long friendship with outrageous soak, gossip and flirt, the much-wooed Nanny Ogg, and her mentorship of young witch Tiffany Aching. You might not want to meet her, you might not want to be her, but you can’t help but admire her. So tough that vampires once drank her blood, and it left them with a craving for tea and biscuits.
If Granny is a tough old boot, Sybil is a fluffy slipper – but underestimate her at your peril. Aristocratic dragon breeder Sybil started out as a bit of a caricature in the Watch books – an ageing fat, posh gel whose doomed romantic aspirations were seen as slightly ridiculous. But this is Pratchett, and he is never cruel to those who don’t deserve it, and so as the books went on Sybil became a truly rounded character, a domestic foil to husband Sam Vimes and as formidable, in her own way, as he is. The last Discworld book, Snuff, gave a lovely insight into their marriage – and, in another taboo busting moment, allowed for that fact that older, less conventionally attractive people like Sam and Sybil can still have fulfilling and slightly saucy romantic lives.
Susan Sto Helit
Described by Pratchett himself as a ‘Goth Marry Poppins’, Death’s granddaughter was never going to be normal, but few people could handle the role with the kind of coolness that Miss Susan brings to bear: she’s the kind of governess who tells you not to be scared of the monsters under the bed because she knows she can kill them, not because they aren’t really there. Susan is also one of the few characters who have successfully transitioned to TV, in the otherwise lacklustre Hogfather adaptation, where she was played by Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery . (Admission time: Susan isn’t actually a favourite of mine. None of the books she features in are ones I love. But the kind of women who choose Susan as a role model tend towards the unforgiving, so I’m including her because I’m too scared not to.)
Adora Belle Dearheart
Or, in the unlikely event you are friends (Adora doesn’t really have friends), Spike. Another character who has made it to TV (Clare Foy in the really rather decent adaptation of Going Postal) Spike is a chain smoking, acid tongued character whose ice cold exterior hides a fierce commitment to human (OK, Golem) rights. The scene where she threatens to castrate an aggressive punter in a bar with her high heel (‘the pointiest in the world’) is one of those moments that will make every woman who has ever had some drunk harass them want to cheer.
I struggled a little to pick my last name on the list, because there are so many great characters to include: Angua the werewolf policewoman, the mysterious Lady Margolota, Tiffany Aching and her swearing, drinking Wee Free Men… I could be here all day. But my final vote goes to a shy and unobtrusive, but quietly groundbreaking character, Cheery. While an able commentator on gender politics, Pratchett tends to stay away from issues of sexuality (to my recollection, there hasn’t been a gay character in any of his books, or not so as I have noticed), but it’s clear he’s a fan of people being able to live the way they want to, providing they are not cruel to anyone else. So step up Cheery (or, latterly, in pronunciation at least, Cherri).
In a world where all dwarves have massive beards and gender is a closely guarded secret that’s considered nobody’s business but your own, Cheery makes a defiant stand for her own, authentic version of femininity. I love that while there are jokes about what traditional dwarves find shocking (Earrings! Lipstick!) and how tied even the progressive ones are still to their own warlike history (Cheery wears high heels but they are, like any good dwarf’s footwear, made of hard-wearing iron) but the joke is never on her. It would be easy to make a grotesque of a beardy wee character who wears lippie and wants to be more girlish, but Pratchett never does. Her rebellion is seen as both slightly noble and far-reaching (having knock on effects to other dwarves in the community – not least with the King-or-is-it-Queen of the Dwarves). Most importantly, it doesn’t stop her being a bloody good copper, which is what her colleagues judge her on, and exactly the equality she is after.
So if you haven’t read Pratchett – what are you waiting for? And if I missed out your favourite – tell me who and why in the comments.