Strong Female Characters: Tiffany Aching

For those of you that don’t know, Tiffany Aching is another one of the main characters in Sir Terry Pratchett’s phenomenally successful Discworld series. Aimed at slightly younger readers (although I still elbowed my way through a train station to get a copy of The Shepherd’s Crown), Tiffany’s novels chart her journey to becoming a very powerful witch. She’s pitted against some incredibly vicious elves, an amorphous mass of minds that wants to possess people, the Lord of Winter and what is essentially an undead zombie witch-hunter – all while negotiating her way through puberty. Much like the rest of the Discworld books, Tiffany Aching’s five novels have sold incredibly well and received high praise from the critics, particularly for her very original portrayal. The last book in the series – released six months after Sir Terry Pratchett’s death – concludes her story.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

NOTE: This post will contain serious spoilers for the last Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown and copious amounts of my feelings. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

For most of the five books she appears in, Tiffany is a young girl: she starts the series at nine years old and spends most of the books as a child or a teenage girl. As I’ve already discussed, you might think that because she’s a child character this would seriously undercut her agency. However, this is definitely not the case.

Tiffany has a lot more freedom than most other child characters in fiction. She grows up on a farm in a very rural part of the Disc, and it’s established from the very beginning of the series that she’s always been expected to help run that farm. Whereas other child characters are often subjected to restrictions about where they can go and what they can do, Tiffany has very little of these, and this is mainly a result of her poor, rural upbringing.

This lack of restrictions is also apparent in her witchcraft training. Even though she spends a substantial amount of her fictional appearances training to be a witch – and hence, being told what to do by another, more senior witch – she still has plenty of opportunities to think and act for herself. Independent behaviour is actively encouraged by other witches – very few of them want an apprentice that can’t get on with things on her own – even though this gets her into trouble more than once. As the novels progress she becomes more independent and actively uses her powers to protect the people she cares about, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Tiffany is always portrayed as a very busy character – whether she’s helping her family on their farm or trying to be a village witch for two places at once. As such, we don’t see a whole lot of her hobbies – but we do know that she’s very proud of her cheese-making abilities.

OMG YES. (image: phillymag.com)
OMG YES. (image: phillymag.com)

Her goals are another matter. Tiffany’s goals vary from book to book, and they usually relate to whatever supernatural nasty she is squaring off with. However, she has a few long-term goals that remain constant: to become a good witch and to use her powers to protect her family, her home and pretty much everyone she comes across. Her beliefs tie into this – she believes very strongly in standing up for people, giving people what they need rather than what they want, and protecting the innocent – or in the case of the Nac Mac Feegles, the definitely-guilty-of-something.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Tiffany is consistently shown to be brave, clever, sensible, kind, a little on the stern side and with a strong sense of duty. Already magically powerful even before she begins her training, as the series progresses her powers increase – however, this is something we see her working at continually, and although she may have an easier time of it than many other trainee witches she still has to work hard to perfect her skills.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A brave, intelligent and blisteringly sensible young witch determined to protect her family, her home, her neighbours, her friends, her teachers…and anyone else she’s missed off that list.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Tiffany’s love life isn’t really a feature of the books. She has a fledgling relationship with the local Baron’s son, Roland, and a more serious one with a young doctor, Preston, and also manages to catch the eye of the Lord of Winter. But as a general rule, these aren’t the central focus of the Discworld novels – with the exception of Wintersmith (whose crush on her is definitively one-sided), these relationships are never really the central focus of the Discworld novels.

Perfectly illustrated by Sailor Moon here (image: giphy.com)
Perfectly illustrated by Sailor Moon here (image: giphy.com)

What really drives Tiffany through the plot are her goals, which I listed above. She wants to help and protect people, to become a great witch and to defeat whichever ungodly entity she’s up against this week. Interestingly, she says outright in The Shepherd’s Crown that although she loves Preston, she would never give up her work for him – she knows that she would be abandoning a village worth of people in doing so, and that’s a possibility she simply can’t entertain.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Tiffany’s story effectively spans about a decade of her life, so if she didn’t develop that’d be cause for real concern. Over the course of the books she grows up – she comes to terms with the fact that witchcraft is essentially an endless, thankless job, starts regarding her relationships with considerably more maturity, stops acting rashly, learns to take orders from some people (and to ignore others) and comes into her own in terms of her magical abilities. That’s a range of development on a range of different fronts, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Many of Tiffany’s weaknesses stem from the way she regards herself. She’s much cleverer than the majority of the people she meets, and she knows it – so she can be quite arrogant and dismissive. She has a tendency to blunder into things because she thinks she knows best, like many other Discworld witches, and this gets her into trouble more than once. When she’s younger, she also has a tendency to act rashly (particularly when confronted with the heady call of teenage rebellion) and when she’s older, she really overstretches herself in an effort to prove that she’s just as good, if not better, than the more senior witches. These are all very realistic flaws for someone in her position and they actively hold her back, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

In every book, Tiffany’s actions and decisions drive the plot forward. Whether she’s flirting with the personification of Winter and accidentally Elsa-ing her hometown, or whether she’s rescuing her baby brother from some incredibly bloodthirsty elves –

GODDAMMIT LEGOLAS YOU'RE TRYING TOO HARD (image: giphy.com)
GODDAMMIT LEGOLAS YOU’RE TRYING TOO HARD (image: giphy.com)

– she is a constant force on the plot. What’s interesting is that even though she comes up against a lot of supernatural nasties, thereby making her vulnerable to my Universal Monster Law, she’s often the one who ends up drawing the creature to her in the first place. Whether she’s accidentally summoned something or provoked it into chasing her, this means that she still has a distinct influence on the plot, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Much like Granny Weatherwax before her, Tiffany Aching tramples over gender stereotypes in her incredibly sensible boots.

In some ways she can been seen as a very traditionally feminine character: she goes out of her way to help people, she does everything she’s asked and more without complaining, and she’s also a skilled healer and a witch – both professions that were traditionally associated with women for centuries. However, she’s also brave, intelligent, unflinchingly practical and positively laden with common sense – not traits that are commonly associated with young women and girls. She’s also a very young girl who comes into a position of serious responsibility, who has serious power at her disposal. She handles this well, taking everything she encounters in her stride whether it’s delivering a baby or destroying a demon in a field of fire.

What’s notable about all of this is that she does it all without compromising her femininity. In order for her to hold her position of power, she doesn’t have to reject some of the more ‘girly’ parts of her personality. She’s still allowed to get a little silly over her crushes, we still see her being attracted to other characters, and we still see her take pride in her appearance every now and then. She doesn’t have to reject these traits in order to prove that she’s strong – she knows she’s strong no matter how she looks or acts. Tiffany might occasionally still get silly little crushes on the boys she likes, but that doesn’t stop her from grinding her enemies into paste.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Tiffany has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters. She initially despises the Queen of the Elves as a child; when she meets her again as an adult – when the Queen has been removed from her position of power and forced into the human world – she comes to pity her and eventually regards her as a kind of friend. She’s close with her mother and sisters, and makes a number of friends during her witchcraft training, some of which she becomes very close with. She also has a number of witchcraft instructors – including Nanny Ogg, who she is faintly embarrassed by, Miss Treason, who she is slightly creeped out by, and Miss Tick, who started Tiffany on the path to witchcraft. However, her most important relationship by far is with Granny Weatherwax.

Granny Weatherwax initially oversees Tiffany’s training – although she doesn’t actually do a lot of the training part herself. She keeps an eye on Tiffany from afar and at first, the two are a little hostile towards one another. Gradually, as Tiffany grows up, demonstrates an aptitude for witchcraft and a deeply sensible attitude, they become friends. Tiffany ends up giving Granny a kitten she comes to treasure – although of course, she doesn’t let the kitten know that, only referring to it as ‘You’. Granny comes to trust in Tiffany’s abilities so much that when she dies in The Shepherd’s Crown

I've just got something in my eye... (image: giphy.com)
I’ve just got something in my eye… (image: giphy.com)

– she ends up leaving everything to Tiffany, including her cottage and her position as not-the-head-witch. Tiffany is devastated by this loss, and spends the rest of this novel trying to fill Granny’s shoes and eventually coming to terms with her legacy. Tiffany’s relationships with other female characters are rich and varied, depending entirely on the personality of the character she’s interacting with, so she passes this round with flying colours.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Like Granny Weatherwax before her, Tiffany Aching has completely aced my test. She’s a well-developed character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, her love life doesn’t completely eclipse her other decisions and goals, she’s firmly in control of her own destiny and she has a real impact on the plot. What’s more, she does it all while trampling over gender stereotypes in incredibly sensible shoes and while forming meaningful relationships with a range of other female characters.

Get ready to wade through my feelings (image: giphy.com)
Get ready to wade through my feelings (image: giphy.com)

This is a real testament to Sir Terry Pratchett’s writing. As a genre, fantasy isn’t often kind to its female characters. A typical fantasy novel will not give its female characters anywhere near the amount of depth that Pratchett bestows upon the likes of Tiffany Aching and Granny Weatherwax. Often, women are relegated to the sidelines of the plot – acting as fair princesses needing to be rescued, sultry temptresses ready to seduce the hero, or quiet healers, ready to see the men off to war. Modern fantasy doesn’t rely on these tropes anywhere near as much – even though most fantasy novels tend to be aimed at a more male audience – but they’re still very much present in the staples of fantasy canon. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, only has three named female characters that play a significant role in the plot. They certainly have their moments, but these are only ever moments. Entire chapters can go past without Tolkien even mentioning a female character, let alone giving her a line; for most of his work there simply isn’t a consistent female presence.

This is not the case with Discworld. All Pratchett’s novels have a range of different female characters who display unique personalities. The force of their combined personalities radiates off the page like heat, blistering the ink it leaves behind. Pratchett’s female characters are flawed, they’re funny, they’re distinct, they’re memorable, they’re engaging. What’s more, the stories they participate in are never lessened simply because of their gender. They decide the fates of nations, they take the forces of nature in their stride, they fend off twisted abominations bent on crushing humanity beneath its scaly claws. Whereas many other female characters in fiction are confined to a domestic scene, Pratchett’s heroines deal with conflicts on a cross-dimensional scale.

The upshot of all this is that when I first discovered Pratchett’s work as a spotty teenager, I found something welcoming. I’d always been interested in fantasy, but as I came into my teens I came to realise that the classics of the genre weren’t really aimed at girls like me. I began to find classic fantasy books quite alienating, because the only characters given interesting character development were men, whereas the women tended to glide through the story like mannequins on wheels. Pratchett’s novels were decidedly different because I could see myself in his characters – not just because they were female, but because they were such well-rounded characters that they almost seemed like real people. It was also one of the first fantasy series I had read that acknowledged that women could play more than one role in the story. Pratchett’s heroines can go from clipping an old man’s toenails to mooning over a boy to defeating supernatural entities all in the space of a chapter. To this day, this isn’t something you often see in fantasy fiction – and it’s also something that I always try and include in my own writing.

I learned so much from Sir Terry Pratchett’s works. His characterisation, his style of language, his incredible capacity to construct believable emotional drama alongside really good jokes are all things that have taught me more about writing as a craft than any class I’ve taken. And I didn’t just learn about writing. His stories – set in a fantasy world but so firmly grounded in real, human emotion – taught me empathy as a self-absorbed teenager, bravery as a former victim of bullying, and resilience as someone who has had to deal with loss when I was not ready to face it.

The Shepherd’s Crown was Sir Terry Pratchett’s final book, and I was not ready to face that, either. He died just after completing it, and it was released six months after his death. He was a giant of fantasy fiction, and if I ever reach the dizzying heights of authorhood, it will be because I am standing on his shoulders.

 

Next week, I’ll be going back to the classics and looking at the Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy Pevensie, I’m coming for you.

 

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

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2 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Tiffany Aching”

  1. Best one yet, thank you. I would also applaud Pratchett for writing older and downright ancient women so well. Now, what is on the end of a wizards staff..?

    1. Thanks very much – I’m glad it lived up to your expectations!

      That’s another thing I really enjoy about Pratchett’s characters – he writes from so many different perspectives and does it all so well. But if I included the full list of things I like about Terry Pratchett, this post would have turned into a novel, so I thought I’d better draw the line somewhere 😛

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