These are women we wish to be, women we are, women we admire, women we fear. The women writers I spoke to about their favorite female fictional characters overflowed with names—Lauren Olamina from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Dicey Tillerman in Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming—but we asked each for one. This list could be so much, and so easily longer—pull in Anne Shirley, Katniss Everdeen, Laura Ingalls, Meg Murray, Francie Nolan, Sabriel, Sula, Mrs. Ramsay, Miss Jean Brodie, Jadis, Ada Doom, Sophie Stark, Celie, Mazie, Bette Fischer, Úrsula Iguarán, Bertha Mason—and I have to stop myself. I’m stopping. What this list isn’t is exhaustive or authoritative. What it is is deeply personal, and I think all the more meaningful for it.
1) Aaliya Sohbi, An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Aaliya refuses to be strangled by societal expectations. Or perhaps she has already been strangled by them—but she has now resuscitated herself, has now given herself a second life outside of those asphyxiating expectations. She lives for the joy of translating books but not for any sort of celebrity or renown that comes with it. She shares her translations with no one. She is well-read, self-educated and wonderfully intelligent. She ruminates and philosophizes simply with an eye to making sense of the world around her, not with an eye to any sort of societal reward. It is a struggle being a hermit, of course. The world still forces its way into her life. But on the whole, Aaliya manages to live her life on her own terms.
—Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
2) Amelia Earhart, I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelson
Who wouldn’t want to spend time with the spirited heroine? Beautifully imagined in Jane Mendelson’s novel, Earhart’s fictional fate has her surviving the crash of her plane and living on a Pacific island with her navigator, Fred Noonan. A reckless adventurer, striving for the freedom she can only find in flight, Earhart, the character, reinforces the mythic status, while remaining, ultimately, unfathomable. The spirit of longing resonates with me still.
—Kathy Ishizuka, executive editor, School Library Journal
3) April Wheeler, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
April Wheeler is somewhere between a feminist icon, a stubborn visionary who won’t be held back by her circumstance, and a tragic figure, crushed by her little suburban patriarchy. I’m not sure where Richard Yates’ intentions lie, but for me April Wheeler has a vibrant life beyond them: Her memory is infectious.
—Halimah Marcus, executive director, Electric Literature
4) Ariadne Oliver, seven novels and two short stories by Agatha Christie
I had to choose her. I love her so much. A hugely successful mystery novelist with rebellious grey hair and an obsession with apples, Oliver is great friends with Hercule Poirot, and loathes her own most popular creation, vegetarian Finnish detective Sven Hjerson. It’s Oliver that lets Agatha Christie drop truth-bombs all over the place—about detective fiction: ”I don’t give two pins about accuracy, what really matters is plenty of bodies!”; about readers, “Sometimes I think there are people who only read books in the hope of finding mistakes in them”; and about writing: “Some days I can only keep going by repeating over and over to myself the amount of money I might get for my next serial rights.” She’s transgressive, hilarious, and an absolute treasure.
—Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk
5) Becky Sharp, Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Becky is a singular character in her capacity to be creatively mercenary, all in the name of female survival. I also love the fact that, when push comes to shove, she was the only real friend that Amelia ever had.
—Hope Jahren, Lab Girl
6) Benna Carpenter, Anagrams by Lorrie Moore
Benna is a delightful, lonely, whip-smart mess of a woman who has a way with words, like so many of Lorrie Moore’s heroines. As you might guess from the book’s title, Anagrams presents many different versions of Benna, as if to imagine different ways of living in order to make sense of a fucked up world. She’s flawed and sad yet she sees the humor in the darkest of situations, as most of my favorite women in fiction do.
—Maris Kreizman, Slaughterhouse 90210
7) Bridget Jones, Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding
Obsessed with fitness and career development despite simultaneous obsession with snacks and laziness—ah, yes, same. Equally important, made me stop starting sentences with the pronoun “I” for many years. V. good.
—Jazmine Hughes, associate editor, New York Times Magazine
8) Caddy Compson, The Sound and the Fury by Williams Faulkner
Caddy defied it all: the patriarchy, the aristocracy, the South, her mother, every single male obsession with a woman’s purity, and in the process, maybe even her own well-being. But I love her for it. And I love Faulkner for telling it.
—Shobha Rao, An Unrestored Woman
9) Cassandra, Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
Cassandra is unpleasant, drunk on booze, strung out on a dazzling array of mid-century pharmaceuticals, selfish, difficult, and filled with crippling emotional needs. She is also funny and real and brilliant and like a Joan Didion who has gone utterly off the rails. She is my howling id.
—Nicole Cliffe, cofounder, The Toast
10) Clare Aubrey, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
Clare, a former concert pianist, is described as shabby and nervous, married to an unreliable husband, and struggling to raise four children, all of them loving yet critical of her. I always find comfort in knowing she is a more eccentric and incapable mother than I am! And I like the things she articulates to her children: “Be thankful for this oddity [eccentricity shared by the family], which has brought you safe through terrible years…The music I have taught you to play must have made you realize that there is a great deal in life which is not affected by what happens to you.”
—Yiyun Li, Kinder Than Solitude
11) Claudia Hampton, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
I have a fondness for prickly women, particularly those, like Claudia, who not only prickle but sizzle and snap, crackle, pop with brilliance. Her project in this book is to write a history of the world, which she does in her own complicated fashion, revealing also her own history as a war correspondent, a lover, a women ahead of her time. What I most admire is Claudia’s refusal to present a single view of either herself or her story, instead letting her identity and experience refract endlessly, changing with the light but always retaining a satisfying wholeness.
—Adrienne Celt, The Daughters
12) Claudia Kincaid, From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
Girls who go on adventures are always my favorite types of characters, but the fictional woman closest to my heart is twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid, who, in a very organized fashion, snags one of her brothers (chosen because he has the fullest piggy bank) and runs away from home (in Greenwich, Connecticut) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. According to the text, Claudia “almost forgot why she was running away. But not entirely. Claudia knew that it had to do with injustice. She was the oldest child and the only girl and was subject to a lot of injustice.” A budding feminist! Claudia manages to live in the Met for a couple of weeks, solve a mystery, ride in a Rolls-Royce and return home with something she really wanted—something every woman wants, whether she’s twelve or 82: A delicious and exciting secret.
—Dodai Stewart, executive editor, Fusion
13) Dorothea Brooke, Middlemarch by George Eliot
Watching the blindly idealistic, smug in her pursuit of personal “goodness,” Dorothea systematically drive her early life into the ground is excruciating. I remember first reading the novel and shouting “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!,” as I realized (SPOILER ALERT) she was actually going to accept Causabon, the creepiest suitor ever written. But more so than some wildly flawed characters (Austen’s Emma comes to mind, for whom I never can muster much sympathy), we also experience Dorothea’s profound generosity. Her deep empathy for others. Her truthfulness in owning and accepting her mistakes. Eliot wasn’t known for being kind to her female characters. But I’m guessing Dorothea won Eliot over as she wrote her. Dorothea Brooke doesn’t end up with a perfect life, but she makes for herself a meaningful one. The hard trajectory from girlhood to womanhood has never been captured more completely in print.
—Erin Belieu, Slant Six; cofounder of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts
14) Dorothy Quimby, Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary
Most of the mothers about whom I read as a child were written in pretty broad strokes; they were either saintly and patient or cruel and overbearing. Frequently, they were dead (or otherwise absent). So when there was an exception, when a mother was imperfect, when she had a favorite child and it wasn’t the narrator, when she got frustrated about the small things, when she didn’t feel like making dinner or doing the dishes after a long day of work, when she was worried about money, I paid attention because I recognized what I was reading to be real, relatable. Such was the case with Dorothy Quimby, mother to Ramona and Beezus (and, eventually, Roberta), who didn’t just seem like a mother, she seemed like a mom. She was imperfect but full of love; sometimes short-tempered but never not trying to be better. And now, as a mother myself, I appreciate that, in Dorothy Quimby, Beverly Cleary offered young readers the ability to see that mothers don’t need to be super-villains or saints, demons or angels; mothers are simply women, with children.
—Kristin Iversen, executive editor, Brooklyn Magazine
15) Elizabeth, Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Elizabeth is a Black Native woman and a lawyer who, because of a big case, can’t be at the powwow where her young cousin Jenna will do the jingle dance for the first time. The love and admiration they have for each other is heart-warming. I wish I’d had that book when my daughter danced for the first time in 1993. Bonus: my daughter is graduating from law school on May 26 of this year!
—Debbie Reese, publisher, American Indians in Children’s Literature
16) Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park, is the Austen heroine I most identify with, and Anne Elliott, from Persuasion, is the one whose story I most often return to, but Elizabeth Bennett is the ur-text, the character so many women imagine (or wish) themselves to be. Smart and not afraid to show it, full of love and loyalty (and also deep frustration) for her family, profoundly ethical and often indignant, a great walker, and—most triumphantly—a woman snubbed who gets to snub right back.
—Molly McArdle, books editor, Brooklyn Magazine
17) Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Somewhat embarrassingly, I didn’t read Madame Bovary until Lydia Davis’ translation was released in 2010. I was bowled over by poor, wonderful Emma and her large, sloppy heart. I’m as much in love with the novel as I am with Emma. It’s the book I wish I’d written, and it was written in 1856. It remains one of the freshest, boldest, transformative novels I’ve ever encountered.
—Hannah Pittard, Listen to Me (July)
18) Félicité, A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert
It’s a little gem of a story about a simple, humble servant who endures loss after loss but continues to love unconditionally and incredibly—even at the end when she’s left with only a parrot, Loulou, to care for. Rarely in literature do we encounter heroes/heroines who are “nothing to write home about”: characters who are not beautiful, smart, talented, or special in some striking way, but Félicité is none of the above. She’s invisible, taken for granted, sometimes a nuisance to those very characters who are too beautiful, smart, talented, special to be bothered with her. But she is no victim. Powerless though she is, Félicité has the power to love and creates a world of boundless love and spirit. As her name suggests, she fills me with happiness and hope whenever I reread this story, which I try to do every few years. She also reminds me of that wonderful Spike Lee quote that one of the great lessons in his life is that “you can learn things from people who are dumber than you.”
—Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies
19) Florence Gordon, Florence Gordon by Brian Morton
Florence is unapologetically herself; a septuagenarian feminist who doesn’t mince words and works hard at living life on her own terms. I admire her tenacity and her independence, even when she comes across as downright cranky.
—Michele Filgate, writer
20) Francie Coffin, Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriweather
Depression-era Harlem born-and-bred Francie Coffin is a fascinating and essential counterpoint to that much more famous fictional New York-based Francie (Nolan, of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) because though Francie Coffin is similarly intelligent and resourceful, it soon becomes clear to readers of both books that while the experience of growing up impoverished and with an itinerant father means one thing to a young white girl, it means quite another to a young black girl. Meriwether is unsparing in her depiction of the sorrow and humor, despair and joy that Francie Coffin and her family and friends experience, and this book remains one of the most compelling coming-of-age books I’ve ever read, and is definitely the one I recommend more frequently than any other. And Francie’s last words in the book perfectly sum up what so many of us feel once we reach the point where we finally begin to understand just what kind of a world we live in: “Shit.”
—Kristin Iversen, executive editor, Brooklyn Magazine
21) Hagar, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Hagar keeps trying to kill her boyfriend, Milkman, the novel’s protagonist and, as it happens, her first cousin. The way Milkman treats Hagar felt as familiar to me as my own skin when I first read the novel: “She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?” Hagar can’t survive this, but what woman (or any human being) can?
—Molly McArdle, books editor, Brooklyn Magazine
22) Harriet Daimler, After Claude by Iris Owens
Harriet is acerbic, rude, unpredictable, and unrepentantly unlikable. She’s an entirely refreshing outlier in a sea of well-behaved women in literature, even still, more than 40 years after the novel was first published.
—Karolina Waclawiak, The Invaders; deputy culture editor, BuzzFeed
23) Harriet Vane, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
I love her wit and her curiosity and the kernel of serious grief at her core. I love that she’s a female character dropped in the middle of a male protagonist’s series to navigate the fraught experience of being a woman who works—as relevant today as it was when she first appeared in 1930. I want to write about how hard the last scene of Gaudy Night makes me cry but I also don’t want to spoil anything.
—Katie Coyle, Vivian Apple at the End of the World
24) Hermione Granger, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
We are all Hermione—girls who read too much, studied too hard, understood too well, succeeded too openly. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Harry Potter knows that neither the series’s titular character nor best bud Ron would have survived the first book without the help of Hermione Granger, the plain-faced and frizzy-haired muggle daughter of dentists, a girl so brave she erased herself from her family’s memories. It’s not that Hermione is the best—though her indisputable excellence is thrilling—it’s that she suffers the trials that all smart girls do, makes the mistakes they do (her relationship with house elves is… complicated), is so little listened to and so often right.
—Molly McArdle, books editor, Brooklyn Magazine
25) Imogene “Idgie” Threadgoode, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Idgie Threadgoode dressed in men’s clothing, ran around in the woods, refused to go to church, stood up for the down-trodden, called out patriarchal and racist bullshit, and remained devoted to one woman her whole life. At twelve years old, I remember reading the picnic scene—where she gathers wild honeycomb right from the hive for Ruth—over and over again; I think it was the first time I recognized my own queerness through a literary character.
—Alexis M. Smith, Marrow Island (June)
26) Jacky Faber, Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy by L.A. Meyer
Jacky—an orphan from the slums of 18th-century London who rises to become a British naval officer, all while disguised as a boy—is clever, hilarious, brave, resourceful, and a survivor. Listening to the audiobooks was one of the few ways I would reward myself for getting words on the page.
—Stacey Lee, Under a Painted Sky
27) Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is plain, and small, and born without social advantages, but she is courageous, and clear-thinking, and fierce in her insistence that she always be treated with dignity. When she gets her heart’s desire in the end, we know she’s earned it. It doesn’t hurt that she appears in a book that has everything: injustice, tragedy, drama, adventure, romance, suspense, disguises, voices carried by the wind, unlikely reunions, more than one house fire, incredible twists, a madwoman in the attic, and hard-won redemption.
—Rachel Cantor, Good on Paper
28) Janie Crawford, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
She was the first fictional character that resonated with me. She came to me at a time when I was eagerly searching for self, and I am deeply grateful to Hurston for centering a black woman’s quest for love, fulfillment and self-revelation.
—Janet Mock, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More; host, So POPular!
29) Jo March, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Jo March taught me that I can be an unapologetic female writer and successful in both my personal and professional lives. She never wavered from her principles and that strength always came back to her hundredfold.
—Morgan Jerkins, writer
-- 00 --