Is there an unwritten rule that says that fictional characters, especially if they are female, must be likeable? How exactly is this likeability quotient measured? I see no challenge in writing about women made of sugar and spice and all things nice. Writing stories centered around them would be as boring a task as having to read them. Bored readers, bored writers – the world has little room for both.
Women who defy conventional definitions of “likeability” have a certain unforgettable quality. In literature as in life, they are far more memorable than their bland counterparts. They raise provocative questions, bulldoze their way through obstacles in tough times, and make significant contributions to a world that often underestimates the power of their intellect.
In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Margaret Cavendish is referred to as “a vision of loneliness and riot,” “a giant cucumber spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden.” Cavendish was considered too ambitious, too loud, and too transgressive to be a rose in the garden in her day largely because she insisted that she should be taken seriously as a writer and natural philosopher. Incidentally, she was the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London and remained the last for the following 200 years.
Consider Alma Whittaker, the central character of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things. Whittaker, a (fictional) pioneering botanist, succeeds at arriving at a theory of life ahead of the venerable Charles Darwin. Because she is a woman scientist trapped in the 19th century, Whittaker’s scholarship and her seminal contributions to science are in danger of being overlooked. With courage, grace, and resilience, she fights a hard battle to earn the respect she deserves and challenges the many restrictions imposed on women in her time. Gilbert skillfully traces the trajectory of Whittaker’s life to pay tribute to women professionals who navigate their way through a gendered world. Had Gilbert’s novel been set in the 21st century and the heroine been a politician running for president, she would no doubt have been dubbed a “nasty woman” by her political rivals!
In Jesmyn’s Ward’s 2011 National Book Award winning novel, Salvage the Bones, fourteen- year-old Esch is all the more memorable because she breaks the mold of the teenage female heroine. Esch is a moody soul; she is no ray of sunshine and the world is definitely not her oyster. Her love life is nothing short of a catastrophe. Her insights on love and life are acerbic. In a surprising and often amusing departure from popular literary convention, Esch has a tendency to quote classical literature when things get particularly ugly. Despite her turbulent emotional state, her disillusionment in love, and her distrust of happy endings, Esch rises to the challenge when Hurricane Katrina ravages her hometown and places her family in danger. Her strength manages to carry them through the crisis.
In the collection, Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout weaves together 13 stories set in small town Maine to paint a vivid picture of a community that struggles to come to terms with a changing world. Olive Kitteridge, the central character of the interlinked stories, is a retired schoolteacher. She is an unlikely heroine. Strict, withdrawn, often abrasive – she is not an easy person to be around. As the stories unravel at a measured pace, the complexity of Kitteridge’s character grows more fascinating. She is as much a mystery as the riddles that she tries to solve while the familiar rhythms of her hometown are shattered by the march of progress.
Who can forget the brilliant, troubled Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s psychological thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Outcast, avenger, detective, hacker – Lisbeth plays many roles. Despite the abuse and gruesome violence she suffers, Lisbeth soldiers on without slipping into the bog of self pity and apathy.
Set in a dystopian future, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games leaves it to the feisty Katniss Everdeen to save her homeland of Panem from the clutches of a totalitarian dictatorship. At the outset, Katniss volunteers to take on a daunting battle to protect her sister from harm. As the battle grows more intense, she realizes that everything is of value is at stake and she has no choice but to keep up the good fight.
Many colorful and feisty heroines have found their rightful place in literature over the years. Here’s to hoping many more will follow and continue to enrich our lives.