For those of you that don’t know, Susan Sto Helit is one of the many leading ladies of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Susan is the granddaughter of Death (but she doesn’t like to talk about that much) and appears in three books, all of which revolve around her trying to save the world from various supernatural nasties. Widely hailed as one of Pratchett’s most ground-breaking female characters, Susan has become the fictional equivalent of a national treasure for Discworld fans everywhere.
But does she measure up to the hype? 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?
Most of Susan’s stories aren’t set in motion by her own actions. What usually happens is that another character does something incredibly stupid, and Susan is drafted in to clean up the mess. However, from that point onwards Susan is very much in control. When she briefly takes over the role of Death in Soul Music, she tries to bend the laws of reality and only take the souls of people who, in her eyes, ‘deserve it’ – this doesn’t end well, but later she manages to save the day anyway. In Hogfather, she’s the one who works out the villain’s plan and puts a stop to it. In Thief of Time, she’s the one who works out how to kill the Auditors – formless, timeless creatures without physical bodies who are temporarily forced to take a physical form.
What’s more, it’s made pretty clear that outside the main narrative of these three stories, Susan has gone to quite some lengths to have a life of her own. As the granddaughter of Death, she’s naturally able to see all the supernatural creatures that most humans automatically ignore. Susan responds to this by trying to make herself into the most aggressively normal person it’s possible for her to be, deliberately shunning her supernatural powers in an attempt to stop getting dragged into reality-bending adventures. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Susan’s hobbies are made pretty clear from her first appearance – she enjoys logical pursuits, sports which involve swinging scythe-like objects around and spending time with children. Her beliefs are clear too: she firmly believes that children should be allowed to face up to all the things adults try to hide from them, that children should be challenged at every opportunity, and that things like philosophy are inherently pointless attempts to oversimplify a complicated world. Her goals are pretty consistent too. They vary from book to book (depending on what kind of monster she’s fighting this week) but generally revolve around her desire to stay human and to protect humanity as a larger whole.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Susan is a very consistent character. She’s logical, intelligent, determined, sensible and practical to the point of chilliness, mainly as a result of her no-nonsense upbringing.
Her skills are much more interesting. Aside from the fact that she regularly beats up monsters with an iron poker, as the granddaughter of Death she’s inherited a few of her old granddad’s tricks. She can bend space and time to her will – frequently causing her to forget about things like doorknobs and walk right through walls, and take children on field trips to ancient battlefields. She can see the supernatural inhabitants of the Disc where normal humans cannot, and has developed a kind of hyperawareness of every single thing in the universe. She has a perfect memory – and because Death is outside time in the Discworld novels, sometimes this actually lets her remember the future as well as the past.
Her powers all fluctuate depending on what kind of situation she’s in. If she has to step into the role of Death (as she’s had to do a few times now) her abilities become far more powerful; equally, if she has to visit a realm where there is no concept of Death whatsoever, she becomes a completely normal human. Her lack of certain skills is also made very clear – she has absolutely no understanding of any kind of creative pursuit and regularly struggles with any kind of emotional skills. I’ll give her the point.
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 sensible, practical young woman with supernatural abilities has to become Death, start time, and prevent the assassination of a figment of the imagination.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Susan doesn’t really have much of a love life. She finds it incredibly difficult to even recognise her own feelings, let alone act on them, so her romantic escapades tend to be more along the lines of extremely subtle crushes rather than full-blown relationships.
While she does eventually end up having some kind of subtle relationship, it doesn’t influence her decisions much. What really motivates her is her desire to save the world, hold onto her humanity and stop everyone else from acting like such silly idiots.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Susan develops over the course of her appearances in Discworld. She slowly comes to terms with her supernatural abilities and starts using her powers to make her day-to-day life easier, instead of outright rejecting them. She becomes marginally more in touch with her feelings, and starts making more of an effort to develop relationships with people, although she isn’t always good at this. She also starts developing a better relationship with her grandfather, which is always going to be a little bit awkward seeing as he’s, you know, Death.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Susan has plenty of weaknesses. She has real trouble expressing or even acknowledging her own emotions, which puts a serious damper on her personal relationships. She has absolutely no time for anything that she considers silly or frivolous, to the point where she actually seems disdainful. But her biggest flaw, much like Granny Weatherwax, is that she’s afraid of her own powers.
Susan is constantly reining herself in, trying to make sure that she stays as human as possible. She has to remind herself to use the door rather than walking straight through walls. She’s very aware of the fact that she’s not really a part of the human race and certainly isn’t subject to the same restrictions – and she’s terrified that one day she’ll lean into that and lose her humanity altogether. She knows that she’s on the outside of the human race, looking in – and she’s scared that one day she’ll think she’s above the human race, looking down. As a result Susan is incredibly uptight, alert and hyper-aware, always second-guessing herself, and never really seems to be at ease with herself and what she can do.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Susan is a real influence on the plot. Everything she does has some kind of impact, whether that’s beating up monsters with an iron poker or stopping assassins from killing the Hogfather – the Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Susan is very refreshing where gender stereotypes are concerned. She’s a young woman in all her appearances and directly related to a supernatural entity – but rather than falling into the standard ‘Gothic young woman’ category she’s almost the exact opposite. She’s relentlessly practical, logical to the point of chilliness and deals with the supernatural in a calm, methodical and incredibly sensible way, and that’s not even touching on her struggles dealing with her own emotions. These are far from the typical stereotypes we see in stories about young women and the supernatural.
What’s more, she takes on a whole new set of stereotypes when it comes to her profession. Susan is a teacher and governess, who isn’t sickly sweet, always challenges the students in her care and, above all, doesn’t want children of her own. Think about all the portrayals of the angelic, beautiful young schoolteacher surrounded by adoring children, and you’ll realise just how unusual this is.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Susan has quite a few relationships with other female characters. As a young girl she’s friends with a dwarf and a troll who are both at her girls’ school, and the three of them band together when they find common ground in their mutual difference from the rest of the students. She’s slightly exasperated by the soppy young Violet Bottler, tooth-fairy-in-training, but helps her out anyway. But most interesting of all is her relationship with Myria LeJean, later re-named Unity.
Unity was one of the Auditors – a formless being existing outside of time and space who kept the universe running on a day-to-day basis. Like all Auditors, she had a natural hatred of humanity, as the messiness of human life made it impossible for them to predict what was going to happen and ruined all their paperwork. However, when Unity had to adopt a human form as part of her work for the Auditors, the individuality and sensory overload of the human experience turned her against the Auditors. Susan befriends her, in an awkward and stilted way, and the two bond over being apart from humanity as opposed to a part of it. Unity makes Susan question where humanity begins and ends as the two butt heads and work together, and forces her to confront her feelings. By the time Unity kills herself – having decided that she cannot reconcile being human with her identity as an Auditor – Susan doesn’t just pity her, but almost feels sorry for the rest of the Auditors too.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Congratulations, Terry Pratchett! Susan is a well-rounded character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, goals, beliefs and hobbies. She’s in control of her own life, isn’t completely defined by gender stereotypes and does have a story that revolves around who she decides to date. Top marks all round!
Next week, I’ll be looking at another of the classics: Bleak House. Esther Summerson, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.