So most of you already know about my Strong Female Characters series. That’s over and done with now, and it was a lot of fun, but the series had its drawbacks. The ten-question formula was helpful but didn’t cover everything, and often encouraged me to be a bit on the harsh side. I often wound up being quite harsh about characters I really like in the interest of putting out some sensible criticism.
Well, no more of that! These are the ten female characters I just really like. There’s no real criticism going on here, I just think they’re great.
Miss Phryne Fisher
A.k.a. the female James Bond, Phryne Fisher is the lead character in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian series about a lady detective in the 1920s. It’s a long-running series of books which was made into a TV series a few years ago and she is just great. There is nothing she can’t do – whether that’s burlesque, directing a movie or being a racecar driver for a little bit. In all honesty she’s probably a Mary Sue but I like her so much I just don’t care. It’s really refreshing to see a female character who can turn her hand to anything in the same vein as male super-spies – with the added bonus that she is so clearly having a great time doing it.
I’ll try and be brief as she’s had a proper blog post. Even though she didn’t pass my test I still love Marion. She certainly has her flaws but that’s never stopped me from liking her as a character. She’s crass and full of life, and when things don’t work out for her she keeps trying anyway. Full credit to Karen Allen for her performance – she provides a lot of Marion’s charm and it wouldn’t be the same without her.
Surely this one shouldn’t come as surprise. Blog post is here for more detail but the crux of the matter is this: I love seeing a crabby old woman save the day on a regular basis. Granny is sharp, spiky and judgemental, but, y’know, in a really good way. She’s the best and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
The Other Mother
I never did a post on the Other Mother – I dressed up as her instead. For the uninitiated: she is the villain in Coraline, where she spends most of the novel trying to persuade a little girl to sew buttons over her eyes. I would’ve liked to have done a blog post on her but I quickly realised it just wasn’t possible – we just don’t know anything about her, apart from the fact that she’s an eldritch abomination. But for me the mystery is part of her charm. What is she? Where did she come from? I want Neil Gaiman to tell me, but not in a way that’s too scary or I’ll get nightmares.
Hands down my favourite Avatar character. I did a blog post on her – do look if you’re interested, as I’ll be keeping this one brief. Toph is loud, rude, boisterous and over-confident and it’s just great. She’s one of the most powerful characters in the series and she knows it, and she’s also consistently hilarious into the bargain.
The best Sailor Scout, hands down. In some ways she’s very traditional: she’s a great cook, cleans and organises her home herself, and wants to get married and open a cake and flower shop when she’s older. But she’s also a badass warrior with electricity powers, a great martial artist and one of the most physically strong characters on the show. She’s a really interesting combination of masculine and feminine traits, which is what I really like about Sailor Moon – being girly doesn’t mean you can’t be strong.
April is one of my favourite characters on Parks and Recreation because she’s just so weird. She’s almost like the missing member of the Addams family – quirky, morbid and immature, which makes her moments of sincerity something really special. I really love how playful she can be while at the same time being really odd. Also, Janet Snakehole and Burt Macklin is the best couple’s costume ever, hands down.
I’ve done a blog post on our Bridget so I’ll try and keep it brief. Long story short I really identify with her particular brand of cringing embarrassment, especially when flirting. She’s the kind of everywoman I can really get behind, which is to say one that’s based on common experiences rather than common traits. As a young woman working in publishing, I relate to her on a molecular level.
Baby Jane Hudson
The creepier female lead in the 1960s classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson is a former child star caring for her wheelchair-bound sister, who went on to become a much bigger movie star before getting in a car accident. There’s all sorts of interesting stuff going on in the movie about sisterhood, Hollywood and femininity but the crux of it all comes down to Jane. Her decision to try and restart her career – reviving her old Shirley-Temple-style act when she’s in her fifties or sixties – is a fascinating look at what the pressures of fame can do to someone, and what happens when women get boxed into a particular kind of femininity that they can’t shake off.
The best politician in America. Again, I did a blog post so I’ll be brief, but I just think Leslie is great. She’s enthusiastic, competitive, wholesome in a way that I don’t find irritating – I just love her.
I was originally going to keep this list to ten characters but then I went to see Black Panther. AND IT WAS GREAT. Shuri, Wakanda’s irreverent tech genius, is my favourite character, hands down, but all the female characters in the film are interesting, well-developed and compelling. But Shuri’s the best one. Obviously.
And there you have it! A short list of my favourite female characters – and frankly, it was really difficult to keep it short. There’s just so many to choose from!
Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at the country house murder mystery. Let’s hope we live through all twenty steps.
A big old spooky house
An assorted group of debonair guests. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
A crusty old man
A prim and proper widow
A bounder and a cad
The Femme Fatale
The idle rich
A sinister butler
So much alcohol
Unreliable phone lines/roads/Wi-Fi
Dark yet slightly sexy secrets
All your characters have been invited to a big country house, for plot reasons. They make small talk like they aren’t going to die.
There’s a big storm! Better gather everyone in one room. It’s not important. I’m sure it’ll be fine – oh, all the lights have gone out.
AND THERE’S A MURDER.
Some of your guests try and leave, but they can’t! Those unreliable phone lines are down, or the road is flooded, or maybe someone has just Lemonade-ed over all the cars.
Gather your guests in one big room, along with any servants you might have lying about the place. One of them is a MURDERER.
Decide that the best thing to do is wait until morning in one big group. That way no-one will –
JUST KIDDING GUYS LET’S SPLIT UP!
Pick a character who will survive until at least step 18 and follow them around for a bit. This one is almost certainly not the murderer, but you never know.
Pick your first suspect. You’re going to want to choose someone who is ridiculously suspicious because –
Oh, no, looks like they’re dead. Never mind.
Okay, obviously it wasn’t suspect number one. Who else could it be? Have your main POV character ponder this for a bit while they wander spooky corridors.
Have another big meeting with the remaining characters. Someone is acting suspicious…
Settle on suspect number two. This should be less obvious than suspect number one, but still not something you’d really have to reach for. Someone who your main character has seen sneaking off down a corridor, or having a –
Oh, no, they’re dead too. My bad.
Some more murders happen and everyone is very distressed. First to go is anyone who decides to leave and get help, so your best bet is to keep your main character hidden behind the sofa.
You have found A Clue. Oh boy! This sure takes your mind off all those murders.
We’ve narrowed it down to our third and final suspect. All the clues point to them. There’s no-one else it could be. Gird your loins and get ready to confront the –
Oh, they’re dead as well. Huh. So the real murderer must be…
IT WAS THE BUTLER DID IT ALL ALONG MY GOSH
The butler explains his evil plan for the readers’ convenience and advances on the main character. But just when he’s about to do another murder, we reach the end of our twenty-step guide and he’s arrested.
THE END. Serve with tea and flickering lights.
This one comes with an alternate ending! If you’re feeling especially bleak, just have your butler kill everybody and waltz off into the sunset with all their stuff. Make sure he still explains his plan though, that part’s important.
Detectives are optional. Feel free to invite one along, but just be aware that in steps 1 and 2 they’re going to have to earn their keep by deducing where people went on their holidays.
Make sure to choose the right kind of dark secrets. They can’t be too dark or you’ll put the guests off their champagne. The best ones are sexy and melodramatic.
Always include at least one hysterical woman, and one man who thinks the first murder is an elaborate prank.
No-one ever, ever suspects the butler.
Choose your setting carefully. The past is your best bet, because Wi-Fi and working phone lines can really ruin a good murder mystery. Nobody likes a detective who relies on Google.
Don’t make your creepy house too creepy or the genres will get muddled. Also, don’t make it gross. Nobody wants to bleed to death on a grubby floor.
And here’s one I prepared earlier…
“I expect you’re all wondering why I called you here.”
The guests were in the drawing room, settling into chairs with coffee. The butler, Stabbington, moved discreetly round the room, topping up glasses of port. Alice Sinclair placed a hand over her glass and sat up straight. It was awfully fun to be asked to join the adults.
Her host, Sir Jeffrey Spishous-Mann, had got to his feet. The room fell silent. Apart from the howling wind the house was quiet. Crumbleigh Place was on top of a mountain, swathed in snow, and was only accessible after a three-day journey through a dark and creeping forest. Alice thought it was jolly exciting. The house reminded her of a Gothic novel, or one of those perfectly thrilling horror pictures she and the girls had snuck out to see at Bletherleys. If Bunty could have seen her now, she would have thought her terribly sophisticated.
Stabbington took a discreet step forward and murmured in his master’s ear. Sir Jeffrey frowned. “What? Now?”
“I’m afraid it cannot wait, sir.”
“Very good.” He turned back to his guests. “Do serve yourselves, gentlemen, ladies. Stabbington will be in the kitchen sharpening his knives. Where was I?”
An old man who’d been introduced to Alice as Major Edmund Blakely-Smythe spluttered in his chair. “Eh? What?”
His aged sister leaned over and patted his knee. “Sir Jeffrey was just about to tell us something, Edmund.”
“What? Speak up! Get him to speak up, Agnes.”
Sir Jeffrey cleared his throat again. “As I was saying. I expect you’re all wondering why I’ve called you here…”
There was a sudden bang. Alice flinched. Her neighbour – a tall young man wearing an ascot and a predatory expression – laid a hand on her arm.
“No need to be afraid,” he murmured, offering her his hand, “I shall protect you. Jonty Framlingham-Piggott, at your service.”
Alice shook it, blushing. She wished she was wearing lipstick. “Alice Sinclair. Absolutely super to meet you.”
He took a drag on his cigarette. “Isn’t it just. Cigarette, Miss Sinclair?”
“Oh, I –”
Stabbington came back into the room, smoothing his hair back into place and brushing snow off his shoulders. “I do apologise, sir. The cleaning gun went off.”
Major Blakeley-Smythe squinted at him. “Eh? What’d the butler chap say?”
“He says the cleaning gun went off, Edmund,” Agnes yelled into his ear.
“Damn shame,” the Major said. “Happened in India once. Chap never did get it back. Last saw the damn thing swimming in the Ganges.”
Sir Jeffrey took a deep breath. “Anyway. Now that you’re all here, I shall reveal to you…”
Jonty leaned forward and whispered in Alice’s ear. “Frightfully dull, isn’t it? Let’s slip away for a moment. I’ve picked up a few things on my travels I’d be delighted to show you.”
Alice blushed. Matron hadn’t said anything about this. “Souvenirs, do you mean?”
He flicked the ash off his cigarette and smirked. “Of course, dear girl.”
Sir Jeffrey was counting to ten. “As I was saying…”
Stabbington bustled over to the drinks cabinet. He knelt down, fussing with a little packet of powder, and saw Alice looking. “I beg your pardon, Miss.”
“Is that…rat poison?”
Stabbington shoved the powder into his pocket. “Yes. For the rats.”
“In the drinks cabinet?”
“Oh. Well, I suppose they can be very clever little fellows.”
Stabbington straightened up, and Alice saw a flash of brass by every one of his knuckles. He had an awful lot of rings, for a butler. “Very clever indeed, Miss. Do excuse me.”
He left the room. Sir Jeffrey set down his glass. “As I was saying…”
“He’s about to tell us something, Edmund…”
Sir Jeffrey stood on his chair and yelled “I’m very rich and I’m about to die!”
There was a long silence. Snow whirled against the glass; wind howled down the chimney. The guests all stared at their host, who climbed down from his chair.
“Good,” he said. “Now that I have your attention –”
All the lights went out. Then, there was a scream.
My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.
I spend a lot of time talking about fiction on this blog but it’s just occurred to me that I don’t actually say much about what I’m reading.
Time to fix that!
A quick note about my reading habits before we jump in. As some of you may know I work in publishing, so I end up having to read a lot of books and submissions as a part of my job. Sometimes this feels like work, and sometimes it doesn’t. I read during my commute (public transport FTW), evenings and weekends, but I also listen to audiobooks a lot too, so I’m often following the thread of a story while I’m cleaning, cooking or writing up my Russian notes. I’ll read most kinds of fiction but for non-fiction, I tend to stick to popular history.
Basically, I eat books.
So here’s a short list of some books that have really stuck with me over the past few months. There’s no real timeframe because I’m a dangerous maverick. Here’s what I’ve been eating recently:
The Bear and The Nightingaleby Katherine Arden
Set in Medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, a young girl who can see the creatures of Russian folklore. A couple of strange figures watch over her as she grows up, and while she gets into a few scrapes this is by and large fine until a priest shows up. With a sinister being in the forest starting to wake up, and with the priest telling the villagers not to believe in superstition, the tension ratchets up until it all comes crashing together.
Holy Hell, do I love this book.
The scene-setting is fantastic. There’s so many little details that bring the setting to life, from the food the characters eat to the names they call each other. It’s a retelling of a traditional Russian fairy tale which pulls off a very difficult balancing act: keeping the elements of a fairy tale while giving its characters distinct personality. Also, it has some really interesting stuff to say about gender roles and the clash between traditional beliefs and organised religion, and I am 100% here for all of them. I’ve also read the sequel, but as that only came out at the end of last month I’m trying not to spoil it, even though I’m holding in a lot of feelings and a really excellent joke.
The Good People by Hannah Kent
This one is set in pre-Famine Ireland, and it tells the story of three women in a remote Irish village who is suspected of being a changeling. There’s Nora, the child’s recently-widowed grandmother, who can’t come to terms with her husband’s recent death or her grandson’s behaviour. There’s Mary, a young maidservant very far from home. And there’s Nance, a wise woman who lives at the edge of the woods, who the villagers believe can cure illness and perform magic.
Now I haven’t finished this one yet, but I absolutely love it. Again, the scene-setting is great – Kent does an excellent job of modifying her characters’ speech patterns to make it clear that they’re speaking Irish, not English. Apparently it’s also based on a true story, but I haven’t looked this up yet because I’m trying to avoid two hundred-year-old spoilers. It’s brilliantly creepy and very well-written – just what you want on a cold winter’s night.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
If We Were Villains kicks off when a former theatre kid – Oliver Marks – is released from prison, after serving time for a murder he might or might not have committed. We then flash back to Oliver’s time at an elite university, where we meet his theatre kid friends, including the one who’s eventually going to get murdered. Tensions rise and there’s a mysterious incident that leaves one of Oliver’s friends dead. Only one question remains – was it murder?
I’m not sure if this one is technically cheating because this is something I had to read for work BUT I LOVE IT YOU GUYS. It’s just great. I love the way the author incorporates plays into the text and the characterisation is excellent. I didn’t go to a fancy theatre school but I’m pretty sure that I’ve met every single one of Oliver’s theatre crew. I’ve read this book three times now and it won’t be long before the fourth.
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
This is another one I had to read for work but damn is it good. Set in a fictional analogue of Weimar-era Germany, the plot follows three people – Cyril, a spy, Ari, a nightclub singer/smuggler and Cordelia, a stripper – as they try to navigate their way through life amidst the rise of what are basically Nazis. The rising tide of fascism threatens to engulf them all (particularly Ari and Cyril, who are in a gay relationship) and each character is forced to make a difficult choice – co-operation or sabotage.
This one took a while to get going. For the first half to two-thirds I was enjoying it, but not raving about it to all my friends. Then the last one hundred pages happened and I was swept away on a tide of feelings because I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY DAMMIT and now I’m counting off the days until the sequel is released. Also, it was really refreshing to read a novel where homosexual and polyamorous relationships are just an ordinary feature of life, rather than A Thing That Must Be Explained To The Reader.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
What can I say about The Power that hasn’t already been said? Not much. It’s great. Since this book has been everywhere for most of last year I won’t go into detail on the plot, but for those of you that haven’t read it it’s set in a world where women suddenly develop the power to electrocute people.
This is a really excellent book. I could not put it down and there were some moments where I meant that literally. There was more than one moment where I was reading on a platform and ended up missing a train. It’s very well-written, has all kinds of interesting stuff to say about gender and all the characters have distinct voices. A couple of plot points really stuck with me. I read one scene and went to bed, thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, woke up at 3am thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’, and was still thinking ‘I can’t believe they did that’ the next morning. It was incredible.
And there you have it! A short list of stuff I’ve read recently that has stayed with me for one reason or another. Ta-dah. Feel free to discuss in the comments (and leave suggestions if you want, I always like recommendations) but please do tag up your spoilers. I’m only halfway through The Good People.
Time for another book recipe! This week I’ll be looking at the ever-popular ‘romance with a billionaire’ genre. Grab your credit card and get ready to smoulder.
One ridiculously sexy billionaire
One transparently obvious stand-in for the reader
A team of highly-trained professionals the billionaire can order around
A token rival
Enough money to last forever.
Introduce your transparent stand-in. She’s just your everyday girl who enjoys normal human activities, like breathing and having no opinions of her own.
She has to go to a fancy party, because the plot says so! Make sure the reader knows how much she hates getting dressed up by describing her outfit in loving detail.
Feast your eyes on the most jaw-droppingly hot man you have ever, EVER seen.
And he’s also rich. So rich.
They meet! Even though the protagonist has all the personality of a wet flannel he’s totally into her.
The rival is there. They don’t do anything, this is just so we remember their name for later on.
She goes home, utterly convinced she’ll never see him again. For they live in different worlds, and how could she ever hope to –
PSYCH! Look who it is!
The sexy billionaire is here to take our formless amoeba of a protagonist on a date. It’s the best date in the history of all dates, ever.
Agonise about whether the sexy billionaire likes the protagonist or not. Sure, he’s taken her out on several diamond-encrusted dates and bought her the planet Jupiter, but how does he really feeeeeeeeeellll?
The sexy billionaire just buys her stuff.
The rival shows up, oh no! Now the protagonist feels all insecure.
But wait, here comes sexy billionaire to turn all her problems into gold. Yay!
There’s a big fancy party coming up. It’s super important, for business reasons. But it’s also on the same day as protagonist’s other thing. Make sure the two romantic leads never discuss this like adults.
Sexy billionaire and protagonist have a third-act argument, because we need enough tension to spin out the ending until step twenty.
And then the rival appears…with the sexy billionaire!
Protagonist goes to her other thing by herself, mopily, and is sure she’ll die alone.
BUT LOOK WHO IT IS! Sexy billionaire turns up at the last minute to fix everything. He explains the stuff with the rival and it’s never a sex thing.
And they all lived happily ever after.
THE END. Serve on a bed of jewels.
The less time you spend developing your protagonist the better. Don’t waste time on showcasing her personality and get straight to the shirtless billionaire parts.
If your sexy billionaire wants to do something nice for the protagonist, he can’t do it himself. Always remember that he is far too busy and important to actually make anything – he can just send an assistant to buy something better instead.
The rival is always, always blonde.
Don’t worry about the logistics of how your romantic leads meet. It doesn’t have to make sense, as long as it’s hot.
If your characters have sex, remember these two rules:
The heroine is always a virgin, so we don’t have to witness any adult conversations about past relationships
The sexy billionaire is always the absolute best at sex in the entire world
Give your protagonist a relatable flaw, like clumsiness, to distract from the fact that she is essentially a damp slice of bread.
Make sure your protagonist complains about her newfound wealth all the time, so everyone knows she’s not a gold-digger.
And here’s one I prepared earlier…
Even though I’m sitting in the ballroom of the Gold Hotel, I still can’t believe I agreed to do this. I should’ve told my boss no. But the features editor got sick at the last minute and here I am, plain old Bianca Slate, trying to act like a real reporter and cover the annual Billionaires’ Ball.
Nobody’s fooled. It doesn’t matter that I’m all dressed up in a sparkling silver floor-length ballgown with a slit up the side that’s held up by a diamond necklace, and my chestnut-brown hair is pulled into an elaborate updo with a few elegant curls tumbling around my face. I just don’t fit in here. All the other guests are tanned and sparkly, and know how to use a bouillabaisse whisk. It doesn’t matter that some of them are chinless from centuries of inbreeding. They belong.
The sooner I can leave, the better. I don’t like fancy parties. I don’t even like getting dressed up. Letting the professional make-up artist create a personalised look for me that perfectly complemented my features and outfit took oceans of patience I didn’t know I had. And I made a fool of myself. I cringe just thinking about the conversation we had:
“What’s that?” I’d said, pointing to a weird thing on the make-up artist’s table. It sort of looked like a fuzzy stick of broccoli.
She stared at me. “It’s a brush.”
God, how stupid! How could anyone not know that? She probably told everyone, and now they’re all laughing.
I get up to leave and trip over my sparkly dress. My glass of champagne spills all over a blonde woman but before I hit the floor, someone catches me.
“Careful,” he says.
It is, without a doubt, the sexiest way someone has told me to be careful in my whole life. I look up, into the face of the most attractive man I have ever seen. Obsidian hair, jade-green eyes, perfectly chiselled cheekbones and designer stubble. I’m blushing just looking at him.
And then he smiles at me and suddenly I’ve forgotten how to speak.
“Are you OK? That was quite a fall,” he says, sexily.
He grins, scoops me up in his arms and there’s this strange tingling feeling everywhere. Everywhere. I really wish I’d paid attention in Sex Ed. “You know, I really ought to thank you for throwing champagne on Gloria. I didn’t think I’d ever get away from her.”
“I didn’t catch your name, by the way,” he murmurs, putting me down on a red velvet chaise longue. “I’m Jack Roman.”
Jack Roman. Jack Roman, the billionaire, who owns all the world’s shipping companies, the patents for drones, smartphones and zips, and South America. Jack Roman who I’ve been sent here to interview. I try and unstick my jaw.
I clear my throat, face burning. “Um, sorry, no. It’s Bianca. Um. Sorry.”
He grins at me. Later on, I’m going to have to look up if it’s possible to get pregnant just from eye contact. “Well, Bianca,” he says, handing me a gold-plated business card, “if you’d like to continue this conversation somewhere more private just let me know.”
I drop the business card, nodding frantically. He hands it back with a flourish, kisses my hand, and walks away. My face is still very red.
I bet he thinks I’m a total idiot. He probably hates me.
My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.
So it’s 2018! Hooraayyyyy. Now that we’re done commemorating the inevitable march of time, let’s get back to business.
As some of you may already know, I absolutely love Terry Pratchett. I looked at three of his characters for my StrongFemaleCharacters series, and because I am totally and completely unbiased, they all passed with full marks. He was a giant of British fantasy, largely thanks to his Discworld series – a series that spanned forty-one novels, several short stories, four ‘mapps’, and a wide range of non-fiction books including diaries, trivia collections, cookbooks and picture books. Pratchett was nominated for several awards and was eventually knighted – and in the most fantasy author move ever, made himself a sword out of meteorite iron to celebrate. He died at the age of sixty-six, after battling Alzheimer’s disease for almost a decade.
Hands down, the Discworld series is Sir Terry’s best-known work. The name comes from the shape of the planet – it’s a giant disc, supported by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space. At forty-one books (not counting the supplementary texts), this can look like an intimidating series from the outside. But it’s a series in quite a loose sense of the word. Most of the books can be read as standalone novels, and there are a few mini-series dealing with specific recurring characters:
Rincewind, the cowardly wizard constantly being strong-armed into saving the world
The Lancre witches, (later joined by Tiffany Aching) who shun magic as much as possible and steal all the sandwiches
The Ankh-Morpork City Watch, a police force in a city that has regulated begging, prostitution, theft and assassinations via various guilds
Unseen University, a university of wizards who unleash eldritch horrors when they aren’t trying to kill each other
Moist von Lipwig, an unfortunately-named con artist who finds himself in control of various public institutions
Death, i.e. the Grim Reaper, who TALKS LIKE THIS and has a fondness for cats.
On the surface the set-ups for these novels don’t look very different from other fantasy books. The basic elements are all there: wizards, witches, the long-lost heir to the throne, dragons, the undead, trolls, dwarves, goblins. I could go on. But what makes Discworld stand out amongst other fantasy series is the way in which these elements are treated.
Pratchett took delight on turning clichés on their heads. In Discworld, witches aren’t wicked: they’re usually overworked midwives, healers and occasional guardians against the nastier elements of the supernatural, fuelled by sweet tea. The long-lost heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork has no interest in reclaiming it; he’s pretty happy with the way things are being run. Dwarfs aren’t just gruff and bearded miners: they keep their gender secret from everyone but their families, and presenting themselves as openly female is a radical act that has led to deep divides in the dwarfish community. This is typical of Pratchett’s treatment of fantasy clichés. He has a real knack for drawing out certain aspects of fantasy tropes and turning them on their heads, without losing their connection with the original. He does this for pretty much every fantasy race we see in the Discworld series, with the result that Pratchett’s dwarfs, trolls, goblins and elves feel unique, distinct and fleshed-out. It’s a real skill.
But for me, what really lifts the Discworld series above over fantasy books is that it’s not static. It’s not just the characters that develop with every book. Their actions and decisions have a direct impact on the setting, and that changes accordingly. Technological advancements and societal changes all happen over the course of the series and are explored thoroughly, which isn’t something that we see very often in fantasy novels.
Let’s look for a moment at the character of Cheery Littlebottom.
Cheery is a dwarf in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. When we first meet Cheery she dresses like all the other dwarfs in the series – i.e. like a short, beardy man. Before this, all dwarfs are described as male – there’s only one gender pronoun in the dwarfish language, and humans have translated this to ‘he’ thanks to their beards and such. But Cheery is female, and decides that she wants to look female, too. She doesn’t shave her beard (she is a dwarf, after all), but she starts wearing make-up and dresses and glitter in the first book she appears in. This causes something of a stir – some dwarfs want to copy her, some dwarfs find her attractive, and some see her as immoral. This is all in her first appearance. Over the course of the series Cheery’s decision starts a trend, and other dwarfs start dressing as women too, particularly in Ankh-Morpork. This causes a schism in dwarfish society between Ankh-Morpork liberals and more conservative dwarfs from the mountains, ultimately causing political factions and extremist splinter groups, all with complex motivations and goals of their own.
And that’s just the dwarfs.
This is reflective of Pratchett’s development as a writer. While Pratchett had always been noted for his comic fantasy, his earlier books tended to fall into some of the same traps as more straight-laced fantasy fiction. They’re funny and well-written, but it’s really as the series gets going that Pratchett comes into his own.
The later books in the Discworld series are where Pratchett starts to establish himself as one of the greats. Having satirised a lot of explicitly fantasy clichés, Pratchett started to take aim at a much wider range of topics. He certainly hit his targets. He took on extreme nationalism in Jingo. He examined gender expectations and warfare in Monstrous Regiment. He picked apart the nature of death, belief, hysteria, good and evil and he did it all with tact and grace.
This is reflected in the complexity of his characters. Sam Vimes – the leader of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch – was obviously inspired by the stereotype of the bitter, alcoholic detective often seen in noir fiction. Pratchett manages to subvert this cliché by exploring it to its fullest extent, going into detail about Vimes’s experience as a recovering alcoholic and eventual teetotaller. This frank look at Vimes’s alcohol addiction and his efforts to distance himself from it are what lifts him away from the stereotype, making him a much more believable character. And, of course, this is by no means limited to one character. Pratchett’s female characters are, quite simply, brilliant. Monstrous Regiment is one of the best depictions of gender and warfare in fantasy fiction – its female characters are so tangibly real that I am always amazed they were written by a male writer. When he wrote Tiffany Aching, the young witch protagonist of his YA Discworld novels, Pratchett was made an honorary Brownie for writing such a realistic little girl as a protagonist. Incidentally, this was what earned him his ‘Writer’ and ‘Booklover’ badges.
This is a huge part of the reason why I find Discworld so appealing. Pratchett’s fantasy setting doesn’t stop him from dealing with real-world issues like alcoholism, prejudice and systemic abuse, but his characters aren’t constrained by them. The world and its characters feel real because these bigger-than-fantasy problems are neither swept under the rug nor made the only markers of a character’s personality. His characters feel like real people, even when they aren’t people at all.
For me, this is what makes Discworld so compelling. I’ve always found high fantasy a bit too exclusive for my tastes. Characters from high fantasy have never seemed like real people to me; they’re so poised, well-spoken and noble that they seem worlds above us grubby normal people. This goes double for the female characters, who tend to be fair, perfect, and steeped in a lot of gendered stereotypes that I could really do without.
But Discworld is a different place. Its female characters face prejudice, but they overcome it. They aren’t forced to fit into very narrow boxes. They develop, they fight, they make mistakes. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: it’s welcoming. It feels like a place where I, as someone who attempts things with more enthusiasm than skill, could actually live. More than any other series I’ve read – and this goes for all books, ever – I have seen myself reflected in Pratchett’s characters. I connect with Tiffany Aching way more than with Hermione Granger, although lately, I’m more like Granny Weatherwax.
Reading a Discworld novel is like coming home. I’ve had such a strong attachment to these books that it’s lasted for half my life, and I know it’s only going to continue. I’ve read them all so many times I’ve lost count. Apart from The Shepherd’s Crown, which I’ve only read once. No matter how much time passes, it’s always going to feel a bit too soon.
Time for another book recipe – the last one of 2017. This time I’ll be looking at YA paranormal romances, so grab the nearest mythological creature and get ready to fall in love.
One aggressively average teenage girl
A totally mysterious hottie
A handful of bastardised folk beliefs and legends
A slightly-less-hot third wheel
An incompetent, sneery villain
One spooky but still cool setting
Assorted mix of high school students, mythological creatures and authority figures, all to be ignored
Introduce your aggressively average main character to the rest of the cast, and to the reader. She’s new in town, like always.
Mention the bastardised folk beliefs/legends you’ll be ripping off inspired by, but do it quickly because –
It’s time to meet our hottie! Make sure the reader knows how dreamy he is by describing him with the most over-the-top language you can muster, having literally everybody fancy him, and by having one mysterious yet still-totally-hot feature.
Ooh, he’s so mysterious!
Oh, and the third wheel is here.
But never mind that! The hottie has finally noticed the main character! Talk about his eyes some more. He’s so tall…
One of the background characters mentions the spooky legends some more. Maybe you should pay attention, once you’ve finished deciphering the hottie’s latest text.
The main character and the hottie are getting closer, but something is mysteriously coming between them! Oh no, what could it be? Definitely not those legends we’re ignoring!
The hottie is so mysterious. The main character just wants to be with him, but he’s dangerous. But he’s also hot. But he’s dangerous! But he’s hot! Go and cry about it on the third wheel’s shoulder.
Spooky happenings are in the background, but they’re not quite interesting enough to distract the main character from the thought of abs.
The hottie’s terrible secret is finally revealed! Turns out all those glaringly obvious clues about supernatural creatures were pointing to him all along! Oh, but how could any girl love such a hideously attractive monster? Surely the main character shall faint now she knows the awful truth!
She doesn’t. They make out.
More spooky stuff is going on the background, but the main character understands it now. Feel superior to all the normies for a bit.
Well we’ve still got five more steps to go and the last third of the book hasn’t been written. Time to add a pointless villain into the mix.
The villain emerges, sneeringly. In a shocking display of competence he kidnaps the main character, probably because of a prophecy or something. This is the only time he ever does anything right.
The main character is about to die. Oh no. Who will rescue her from this terrible predicament.
It’s the hottie, of course! They have a fight, during which he is attractively but not seriously wounded, and the sneery villain is defeated…
…just in time for the big dance! High school sure is fun now we know that paranormal beings are real.
Drop a spooky hint at the end that lets you spin this out into a series.
THE END. Serve on a bed of shirtless, supernatural hotties.
Even though your main character is in high school, she must never have any actual learning or homework to do. Lessons should be reserved for moping, significant stares, and summarising stuff that’s already happened in the character’s internal monologue.
Make sure you have a really good aesthetic. It doesn’t matter what actually happens as long as you could make a Pinterest board out of it.
Always use first-person, but make sure to say as little about the main character as possible. It’s not like we’re here to read a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a teenage girl, don’t be silly!
Include shirtless scenes. These are entirely necessary to the plot and your readers will thank you.
Don’t worry about accurate representations of the myths and legends you’re ripping off inspired by. No-one’s going to care about that when there are hotties nearby!
Everyone over the age of twenty-five is wrong, stupid or dead.
Never, ever, ever resolve the inevitable conflict of a human dating a supernatural being. You want this to be a series, don’t you?
Don’t forget the stupid names! Make sure they are the least subtle names you can possibly come up with. If you think Wolfgang Wolfson might be a bit on-the-nose for a werewolf, you need to lower your standards.
And here’s one I prepared earlier…
The clifftop hotel had obviously been abandoned for a while now. I knew that just by looking at it – the big stone steps leading up to the front door were chipped, and all the windows were stained – but I still went inside. Bay had asked me to meet him here, and I didn’t want to seem like a baby in front of him.
Inside was just as bad. The big front desk was all dusty and all the plaster was flaking off the walls. I dinged the brass bell on the counter and it cracked apart under my hand. Behind the receptionist’s desk was a dusty grid of pigeonholes, some with yellowing envelopes still inside them, and an old wall phone with a cone-shaped mouthpiece.
How could Bay – Bay Waterford Vodianoy, the hottest boy in school – be living here?
I shivered and pulled my jacket a little closer. Across the lobby was a wide staircase, carpeted in threadbare red, and a chandelier hung above it. It tinkled gently in the sea breeze, coming in sharp and salty through the broken windows. I could hear the crash of the waves on the rocks below.
“I didn’t think you’d make it this far,” said a voice.
I whirled around. Standing in a doorway was Bay, looking totally dark and mysterious in a black leather jacket. His obsidian eyes flashed like burning coals, and his brilliant, diamond-white hair caught the light as he walked towards me, attractively. I could see why every girl in school – even the head cheerleader, Angie, who was always so mean to me – wanted him so badly.
“I got your note. Do you really live here?”
He smouldered at me. “It suits my needs. I like to be close to the water.”
“But isn’t this where all those people who died in that terrible shipwreck were staying?”
Sam, my best friend, had told me all about it. Seventy years ago a group of guests staying at Coldwater’s best and most expensive hotel took their yacht out to sea, got caught in a mysterious storm and never came back. I was kind of interested in the town’s history, so he’d hunted down an incredibly rare first-edition volume of Coldwater’s local legends, had it professionally gift-wrapped, and gave it to me as a Tuesday gift. He’s such a good friend.
Bay shrugged, in a way that showed off all his muscles. “Doesn’t bother me. I like living in a place with secrets.”
He took my hand. I immediately lost all feeling in my legs and almost collapsed, but Bay held me upright. He’s so strong. And tall. But also mysterious, with the secret tattoo he always tries to hide…
“I’ll show you.”
Still holding hands, we went through a door tucked behind the front desk and down a rickety wooden staircase. I almost tripped three times, but Bay stopped me from falling. Eventually he just picked me up, bridal style, and carried me down the staircase, wheezing a bit. I didn’t mind. It was still really hot. The staircase was lit by candles all along the walls, and by their light I could see the tip of his tattoo – green wavy lines just touching the end of his collarbones. It sort of looked a bit like seaweed, but I don’t know why anyone would get that tattooed on them.
Eventually we came to an old stone passage, which opened up into a cave. There were candles everywhere and natural rock pools, and the sea rushed in and out somewhere at the other end of the tunnel. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen – apart from Bay’s face, of course. Or his arms. Or his abs. I hadn’t seen those, but I bet they were great.
Bay put me down, rubbing his arms a bit. He leaned against the wall and looked away, his floppy hair hiding his face.
“How much do you know about the history of this place, Aurora?” he asked.
It was the first time he’s ever said my name. I wished I’d taped it.
“I know about the hotel guests, if that’s what you mean?”
“And before that?”
Sam had told me about some of that stuff too. Apparently there was this old local legend that Coldwater had first been founded when a shipwrecked family had been saved by a mysterious water-spirit. Sam had got his old grandmother to tell me all about it, and then taken me out for fresh lobster because it was Wednesday. He’s such a good friend.
“I’ve heard the stories.”
I was shivering. Bay took off his leather jacket and put it around my shoulders, his expression unreadable. It smelled like the sea. I stared into his dark eyes and for a second, he almost looked scared.
“Then it’s time for me to show you what I am.”
He stepped into the water. There was a bright light, a vaguely tinkling sound, and then Bay was standing in a rock pool, shirtless and wet. His abs were everything I had dreamed of and now, I knew I could die happy. I could finally see his tattoo clearly as well – it was of long, twisting ropes of seaweed going all the way up his arm. The bits on his bicep were very intricate and complicated, so I stared at them just to make sure I could picture it properly. Y’know, for later on.
Then, he went blue, took a great heaving breath and collapsed into the water.
“Bay!” I yelled, running forward. I tripped, and his hands shot out of the rock pool and caught me before I hit the floor.
“Sorry,” he said, still up to his neck in the water. “It’s a bit touch and go when the gills come in.”
I stared. He did have gills, and I was pretty sure that his hands and feet were webbed, too.
“I don’t understand.”
Bay took my face in his hands and stared into my eyes. “I’m saying that the legends are true, Aurora. Everything you’ve heard about the water-spirits is real. Until we turn twenty-one we take a human form, but when we’re in the water – we turn into this hideous monster!”
I took a good look at him. The webbed hands and feet were a bit distracting, but the gills were hardly noticeable. Aside from that he looked exactly the same, and more importantly, his transformation had somehow got rid of his shirt.
“I don’t think you’re a monster.”
“You don’t understand. At La Laguna Negra we’re told there’s only one way to escape becoming gross, scaly fish-monsters and that is to earn the love of a human before we turn twenty-one. You’ve no idea what that can do to someone! My brother, Gill – well, he’s definitely not showing up in the last three chapters, there’s no point talking about him. But – Aurora, I love you. I can’t keep this secret from you any longer. I…I just wanted you to know the truth before I say goodbye.”
“Well, yeah.” He held up his webbed hands and waggled them at me. “Y’know, gross fish-monster. I couldn’t put you through that.”
“Do you still need to breathe through your mouth when you’ve got gills?”
“No, but –”
I kissed him. I was lying on a cave floor, my head dangling over a rock pool, but it was still the best kiss anyone has ever had ever.
“You might be a fish-monster,” I said, “but I don’t think you’re gross at all. Unless – you don’t have any tentacles, do you?”
He pulled a face. “No! It’s fish-monster, not octopus-monster.”
“Okay, we’re cool. Budge up, I’m coming in.”
And that’s it for 2017! Normal service will resume in the New Year. My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.
Which leads me to ask the question: can Mary Sues ever be a good thing?
Everybody loves to make fun of Mary Sues. They’re silly, over-the-top sparkly little messes, and pointing out just how stupid they can get is certainly this nerd’s idea of a good time. But the thing that everybody tends to forget is that Mary Sues are often the hallmark of young or inexperienced writers. The kind of mistakes that Sues embody – such as a lack of flaws, a lack of consequences for their actions, or a 360-degree panorama of adoration from every other character – are the sort of things you tend to see from writers who haven’t quite got to grips with their craft yet. They’re not exactly a finished product.
For me, this is where Sues come into their own. They’re a problem that a writer tends to encounter at the beginning of their journey, much like one-dimensional villains, or scene-setting which makes the reader think all the action happens in a plain, white room. The more you write, the easier it becomes to avoid this kind of pitfall. A solid awareness of what constitutes a well-written character is one of the best tools a new writer can have, and being aware of Sues as a potential writing problem is a part of that. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what the problem is.
Here’s a short list of questions you can ask to see if your main character is a Mary Sue:
Does everyone love her?
Does she ever find anything difficult?
Do other characters care about stuff that doesn’t directly relate to her?
How much time are you spending talking about her appearance, her heritage, or her incredibly cool powers?
Does she change over the course of the story? How?
But Sues are still useful in their own right. Aside from being a test of skill for every writer they can also help writers bridge the gap between fanfiction and original fiction. It’s not uncommon for people to start out writing fanfiction, develop some confidence, and then start trying out some of their own original ideas and characters. Of course, this isn’t always a good thing.
But that’s not the only benefit of Mary Sues. They can actually be pretty empowering, particularly for young girls. Even though we have been getting more stories where women can actually do stuff instead of waiting to be rescued, there’s still a strong cultural narrative that places women firmly in a passive position. Films like Wonder Woman and books like The Hunger Games help, but they’re a drop in the ocean. Writing a Mary Sues in fanfiction can be a way for teenage girls to make their mark on a story that they already love.
Picture this. You’re a fourteen-year-old girl feeling overlooked. There’s a lot of big and important things going on around you but you don’t feel ready to meet any of them. You’ve got advertisements on all sides telling you to look a certain way, and maybe there’s people in positions of power telling you to act a certain way, too. Things which once seemed simple are suddenly incredibly complicated – sex, growing up, and all the weird expectations that come along with them. And you really love Harry Potter.
This is really where we can see the appeal of Mary Sues. In that situation, why wouldn’t you want to make a space for yourself in a fictional world you already love? And, to make things better, it’s a world where you can look the way you want, where you can be the most important person in the universe, where you can do whatever you want and where all the messy parts about growing up and falling in love will unfold in exactly the way you want them to.
Frankly, I’m the last person to judge teenage girls for writing Mary Sues. I’ve done it myself and I can understand why they do it. It’s escapism, it’s a creative outlet, and it’s safe – I completely get it. It can be a very positive force for the people who actually write them.
Confession time: I wrote several Mary Sues throughout my teenage years and every single one of them was jaw-droppingly bad. I actually found a brief snippet of something I wrote when I was thirteen on my computer and it was so awful I could feel myself shrivelling up. It was about this girl called Sofia who went to Hogwarts, had a mysterious past and was really good at drawing, and if I remember right there was a love triangle with Harry and Draco and then Voldemort wanted to steal her soul for some reason? The point is, it was terrible. Like, really, really bad. And that wasn’t the only one: I also wrote some Phantom of the Opera stuff, more Harry Potter but this time with the Marauders, and possibly also some Pirates of the Caribbean stuff as well. I really can’t remember. Fortunately for me, Quizilla, which was where it was all posted (for some reason, not really sure why I put fanfiction on a quiz site) got taken down a while ago. Hopefully they’re dead and buried.
But it was what got me interested in writing as a whole – not just actually making stuff but the mechanics of how it all works together. I got feedback, which admittedly wasn’t always helpful, but it encouraged me to go and get more. Once I got bored of fanfiction I had more confidence to move into writing my own stuff, because I’d tried out a lot of the basics in an environment I was comfortable in. And once I was getting proper criticism that got me interested in the mechanics of writing, which led to editorial gigs at university and eventually working in publishing. Now, I can look back on all the stuff I wrote in my teens and cringe-laugh, but I can also look at the stuff I’m working on now and see a tangible improvement. Writing is something I’ve really had to work at and without my legions of terrible Mary Sues I definitely wouldn’t have developed half the critical skills I have now.
So there you have it: my long-winded, slightly-TMI view of Mary Sues. There’s no denying that they are bad characters. They’re poorly written, poorly plotted and warp everything else to fit themselves. But a lot of the criticism they get isn’t justified, particularly when it starts straying into some of the weird gendered stuff. And they do actually have some benefits: learning to navigate characterisation is an important part of any writer’s journey, and they can provide an important outlet for teenage girls.
Are Sues stupid? Hell yes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their uses. It’s like putting stabilisers on a bike. They’re there when you need them, but sooner or later they have to come off.