For those of you that don’t know, Sophie Hatter is the main character of Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel, Howl’s Moving Castle. The plot follows the adventures of Sophie, a young woman who gets cursed with premature old age and runs off to live with a fearsome wizard – who actually turns out to be a terrible whiner. While trying to break her curse, she gets caught up in the search for a missing prince, a lost wizard and various family dramas – all while trying to stay out of the path of a rampaging witch. A childhood classic for many, the book was made into a phenomenally successful film by Studio Ghibli that won pretty much all the awards. Sophie herself has come to be seen as an iconic character and a role model for young girls everywhere.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
What really sets Sophie off on her journey is the curse she’s been placed under. The Witch of the Waste puts a curse on her that gives her the body of a ninety-year-old woman – not exactly something that an eighteen-year-old girl would wish for. After she’s cursed, Sophie leaves her family’s hat shop behind and starts looking for a way to break the spell, eventually striking a bargain with the Wizard Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer. From this point onwards, most of her arc through the story is the result of her own actions.
Sophie’s relationship to her ‘destiny’ is a really interesting one. She’s the eldest of three sisters and she firmly believes that her life is doomed to failure, because only the youngest one will get to go off and seek her fortune. At the beginning of the book – and the film adaptation – she’s resigned herself to working in her family’s hat shop because of this belief, even though she isn’t happy there and is perfectly capable of finding an alternative option. In this respect, she is in control of her own destiny because she’s cutting herself off from her own happiness, even though she doesn’t feel that’s the case. This continues as the story progresses. Many of the other characters try to break the spell, but it’s partially maintained by Sophie’s stubborn nature and the fact that she finds being in an older body much more liberating. This creates a really interesting situation: Sophie’s in control of her own destiny both through her actions – namely, trying to break the curse – and through her own subconscious mind, which is trying to sustain the curse due to the benefits it brings her. That’s a really interesting way of influencing the story, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Sophie doesn’t really have many hobbies. She does find a sense of satisfaction in making her hats, but she works in a hat shop – she has to make the hats or the shop would close down. Her goals and beliefs are a lot more clearly defined, especially after she gets cursed. She spends much of the book trying to break the spell, and goes to some lengths in order to do so. She also thoroughly disapproves of Howl’s endless attempts to ‘slither out’ of his responsibilities – and his fickle attitude to women. These are all a product of her situation in life, which is a very realistic development, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For the most part, Sophie is a pretty consistent character. She’s stubborn, kind, wants the best for her family and friends and has very strong ideas about the way things are ‘supposed’ to play out – which are often linked to her tendency to put faith in things like clichés and appearances. Her self-confidence grows as the story progresses, although it is jump-started by the cursed the Witch of the Waste puts on her. However, given the importance Sophie places on appearances and preconceptions at the beginning of her story, I don’t think this is an unrealistic development.
Her skills continue in much the same vein. While they’re absent from the Studio Ghibli film, in the book Sophie has powers that allow her to talk life into objects. She starts off small, casting spells on hats to make the wearer look younger or prettier without even realising she’s doing it. This ability grows over the course of the book, sometimes without Sophie even being aware of it. It’s something that develops gradually and doesn’t grant her any spontaneous deus-ex-machina powers, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A shy young woman who finds her self-confidence and takes control of her life when she is cursed to live as an old woman.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Most of Sophie’s decisions are influenced by her desire to break the spell she’s under and to protect her friends and family. Over the course of the story she falls in love with Howl, but it happens so slowly and naturally that when she does allow her love life to affect her decisions, it doesn’t seem out of place. It doesn’t eclipse her decisions or previous motivations, so once again, she’s passed.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
In both the book and the Studio Ghibli film, Sophie begins the story as quite a shy young woman who feels seriously hampered by other people’s expectations of her. She becomes very isolated very quickly, and gets so embarrassed in some situations that she literally runs away. When she’s transformed into an old woman, she becomes much bossier, much more confident, and much more involved in her own life. Both versions of the story recount Sophie’s journey to becoming a more confident and active woman, whether she’s old or young.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Sophie has several weaknesses that hold her back over the course of the story. As I’ve already mentioned, she’s not very confident in herself, and actively struggles against this for most of the story. She’s also inclined to hold herself back for fear of meeting with some terrible disaster, a character trait that actually sustains her curse, according to some interpretations. She can be incredibly clueless about the way other people feel about her, and this is particularly evident in the book, where she doesn’t realise that Howl has fallen in love with her and actively pushes her family away after she is cursed. These are all weaknesses that actively hold her back and make things difficult for her, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
It’s pretty easy to argue that for much of Howl’s Moving Castle Sophie’s journey is influenced by other characters – particularly the Witch of the Waste, whose curse effectively sent Sophie on her quest. However, this doesn’t mean that Sophie has no direct influence on the plot. She actively seeks out the Wizard Howl and tries to lift the curse, works out how to break Calcifer’s contract with Howl, and she also tries to make sure that her family and friends are safe.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
As I mentioned earlier, Sophie is a character that considers clichés to be an immovable part of how life works, and this is reflected in her behaviour. The type of clichés she’s talking about are usually the ones that show up in fairy tales, rather than the ones that typically affect women in real life, but some do still appear. At the beginning of the novel Sophie is a shy, lonely young woman who feels an almost oppressive duty to her family. But once she gets transformed into a ninety-year-old, her personality completely changes. Almost instantly, she becomes a bossy, interfering kind of person who thinks nothing of inviting herself into people’s houses and making herself at home. The interfering old lady is a stock character in popular culture – as seen here in this slightly NSFW Monty Python clip:
What stops this from being purely stereotypical is that Sophie allows this transformation to give her a new kind of power. Once she’s in the body of an old woman, she doesn’t feel any of the restrictions that she imposed on herself when she was young; if anything, she enjoys the experience as it allows her to assert herself more. She’s using these clichés to her advantage, and they get results. It’s also worth noting that for the most part, Sophie isn’t really scared by this transformation – the reality of losing her youth and looks doesn’t seem to faze her much (although her occasional heart troubles certainly do). Once the curse has lifted, she doesn’t go back to her previous personality; she’s learned the value of being more assertive and doesn’t see clichés as such an important part of her worldview.
This leaves me with a really interesting – albeit tricky – situation to try and make sense of. On the one hand, in many ways Sophie is a very traditional woman: she spends a lot of the novel cooking, cleaning, sewing, making clothes and doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work that nobody really seems to appreciate. On the other hand, she’s still presented as a very strong character. She still manages to have an active role in the story despite some considerable handicaps, and she proves herself to be just as capable as the rest of the characters when it comes to defeating evil and removing her own curse. Part of her power comes from the way she exploits other people’s expectations of her behaviour, which subverts a lot of the ways that she conforms to gender stereotypes, so I’ll be generous and give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Sophie has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters, but it has to be said that most of these are nowhere near as well-developed in the Studio Ghibli film as they are in the book. She loves and worries about her younger sisters, and also comes to envy the way they fixed their own situations. She disapproves of Howl’s sister, and considers her to be very unfair towards him. She’s afraid of the Witch of the Waste, envies Miss Angorian, and respects Howl’s old teacher, Mrs. Pentsemmon. But by far the most interesting relationship she has is with her stepmother. At the beginning of the novel, Sophie regards her stepmother with something like suspicion: she doesn’t explicitly see her as an ‘evil stepmother’ type, but she doesn’t trust her either – particularly after she remarries. When she’s cursed with premature old age, she comes to see her stepmother in a much more sympathetic light. Instead of seeing her as a heartless woman who abandoned her father’s memory, Sophie eventually sees her stepmother as someone who still has a large part of her life ahead of her and who wants to live it to the fullest. She also realises that her stepmother does genuinely care about her – a welcome change from many other fairy tales.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Another perfect score! Sophie is a well-developed character with real agency in her own story, a range of relationships with a range of different female characters and some serious weaknesses that she has to work against. She relates to gender stereotypes in a very interesting and subversive way, develops her skills in a consistent manner, and her motivations and personality aren’t completely eclipsed by her love story. She’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at the Pitch Perfect films. Beca Mitchell, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.