A rather attention-grabbing title there, but it seemed appropriate to today’s topic. I’m into week 15 of my 26-Week Book Challenge, and this week I am discussing my favourite female character. Predictable, after last week’s favourite male, but I never claimed to be terribly original.
Just as last week this is a pretty easy question to answer, and it brings me back to Terry Pratchett, because my favourite female character is Granny Weatherwax.
How this ties in with the title of this post is me jumping on the bandwagon a bit. There have been numerous posts by other people on the subject of strong females (and I even did one myself before, here), and I often hear the lament that in order for a woman in a book to be perceived as strong she needs to be able to kick ass, she can’t cry and she can’t be feminine, because that’s too soft. Ultimately you end up with the generic ‘chicks with dicks’. Now I don’t have anything against a kick-ass female who swears like a trooper and feels more comfortable in combat trousers, but variety is the spice of life, and strong women, just as in real life, come in many various shapes and forms.
Enter Esmerelda Weatherwax. My personal opinion is that Granny is one of the strongest females I have ever seen in any book, and it’s due to the many different layers in her personality that make her a fantastically realistic character. Esme’s unbending will allows her to stand up against elves and vampires, but it also makes her rigid, uncompromising and stubborn to a fault. She is very intelligent, but that same trait makes her somewhat intolerant of the less intellectually gifted members of Lancrean society (and oh, do I find that trait recognisable…). She understands the burden of responsibility, which weighs heaviest on a witch, but this also wearies her so much that at one point she is ready to jack it all in. And due to her sister Lily she understands like no one else what power can do to a witch.
What it boils down to is that a strong female doesn’t need to be physically strong. I would argue that mental strength is more important, but even that may not be completely true. The witch Magrat may generally be seen as a bit of a wet lettuce who constantly doubts herself, but when push comes to shove she too finds her inner strength. To me that says that it’s fully possible for mental strength to be lacking for the better part of a book, as long as it comes out when it counts.
As readers, authors and reviewers I believe that we should try and step away from this notion of ‘strong’ characters. Characters (male or female) should be layered, complex, believable. Likeable is a plus, but you could argue that Granny is anything but. She’s a cantankerous old crone who takes compliments as nothing but her due and seldom hands any out herself. She will chide people for being stupid even as she helps them, and she doesn’t help them because she particularly likes doing so, but because it’s her responsibility, and if anything touches on her pride it is her responsibility as a witch. Granny is about as soft as a granite slab, and equally as flexible. So no, I’d say she is anything but likeable. So why do I admire her so much? Because she’s so bloody clever.
One of my favourite scenes comes from Wyrd Sisters, where the witches summon a demon to find out what’s wrong with Lancre. What follows here is a slightly abridged version, but it perfectly illustrates Granny’s attitude and approach to matters.
‘I always say you can’t go wrong with a good invocation,’ said Nanny. ‘Haven’t done one for years.’
Magrat said, ‘Oh, but you can’t. Not here. You need a cauldron, and a magic sword. And an octogram. And spices, and all sorts of stuff.’
Granny and Nanny exchanged glances.
‘It’s not her fault,’ said Granny. ‘It’s all them grimmers she was bought.’ She turned to Magrat. ‘You don’t need none of that,’ she said. ‘You need headology. You just use whatever you’ve got.’
(Then the ritual itself.)
‘We conjure and abjure thee by means of this-‘ Granny hardly paused – ‘sharp and terrible copper stick.’
The waters in the boiler rippled gently.
‘See how we scatter-‘ Magrat sighed – ‘rather old washing soda and some extremely hard soap flakes in thy honour. Really, Nanny, I don’t think-‘
‘Silence! Now you, Gytha.’
‘And I invoke and bind thee with the balding scrubbing brush of Art and the washboard of Protection,’ said Nanny, waving it. The wringer attachment fell off.
‘Honesty is all very well,’ whispered Magrat wretchedly, ‘but somehow it isn’t the same.’
‘You listen to me, my girl,’ said Granny. ‘Demons don’t care about the outward shape of things. It’s what you think that matters. Get on with it.’
(And then the demon appears.)
‘Well?’ it said.
‘Who’re you?’ said Granny, bluntly.
‘My name is unpronounceable in your tongue, woman,’ it said.
‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ warned Granny, and added, ‘Don’t you call me woman.’
‘Very well. My name is WxrtHltl-jwlpklz,’ said the demon smugly.
‘Where were you when the vowels were handed out? Behind the door?’ said Nanny Ogg.
‘Well, Mr-‘ Granny hesitated only fractionally – ‘WxrtHltl-jwlpklz, I expect you’re wondering why we called you here tonight.’
‘You’re not supposed to say that,’ said the demon. ‘You‘re supposed to say-‘
‘Shut up. We have the sword of Art and the octogram of Protection, I warn you.’
‘Please yourself. They look like a washboard and copper stick to me,’ sneered the demon.
Granny glanced sideways. The corner of the washroom was stacked with kindling wood, with a big heavy sawhorse in front of it. She stared fixedly at the demon and, without looking, brought the stick down hard across the thick timber.
The dead silence that followed was broken only by the two perfectly-sliced halves of the sawhorse teetering backwards and forwards and folding slowly into the heap of kindling.
The demon’s face remained impassive. ‘You are allowed three questions,’ it said.
The rest of that scene is well worth reading, but I’ll stop here. Still, it’s a perfect example of how Granny thinks. Headology is still the single best concept ever introduced in any book, ever.
Anyway, let’s all collectively step away from this concept of ‘strong’ characters. Let’s move to calling them compelling instead. Not likeable, because I can name any number of total bastards in Fantasy, but you need to be invested in them. A good, compelling character is one where you truly care about what happens to them, regardless of whether they’re likeable or not, and regardless of whether they cry when they’re sad, or whether they wear their dresses well.
Do you agree or disagree? Please let me know in the comments below!