Having recently read some terrific new novels from the likes of Becky Chambers, Frances Hardinge, and an old favourite from Nicola Griffith, it seemed appropriate to highlight my top genre fiction featuring non-males as the main protagonist. There are of course, some brilliant female characters and feminist books such as Le Guinn’s The Left Hand of Darkness or the many women starring in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (Martin) but these are still told from the male point of view in most cases. Non-binary genders are slowing filtering into the genre too. It saddens me that something like these words is even required, but even today, there is an uneven gender-balance within the starring roles of genre fiction.
The first example of non-male genderness in genre fiction that I’ve come across is Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928). The plot starts with the lead as a male but for no reason other than the need to tell the ideological story, he becomes a she. Not hugely keen on the book in terms of story, but hugely important in terms of context. So, because it was a meandering rather than a tight plot, it only comes recommended for completists. Sadly, too, there aren’t too many others that I’ve come across written after Woolf’s work and pre-twenty first century.
There have been plenty female villains in literature but rarely is an original story told from their point-of-view. Step forward the enigmatic alien in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000). Isserley wanders around the Scottish countryside picking up hitchhikers for nefarious purposes. It’s all about farming on the surface, but scratch and you see the themes of sexism and sexual identity. Isserley isn’t obviously alien from the outset, just odd, and Faber’s writing adds to the mystery of her origins and intentions. She sees the world through innocent eyes, beautifully described. Her ending is not something you’d expect and completes her path from dark villain to complex shades of grey. Maybe no villain after all.
One of my favourite protagonists was introduced in The Eyre Affair in 2001 by Jasper Fforde. Thursday Next, for it is she, is a literary detective and quite unlike any other characters I’ve read. She exists in a meta-complexity of alternative realities and fictional worlds where she can travel through the pages of real fiction. Despite all this, she has a family life and a pet Dodo, which is enough to make anyone smile. She has a difficult life, balancing the mundane and the extraordinary, but always stands tall in the end. Thursday leads the reader on a journey through the importance of fiction and character, with humour and agency. There is so much joy to be had in reading the adventures of Thursday Next. 7 books worth!
Kathy in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) is an oddly cold character from the outset. From the very detached and distant opening likes, you’re never quite sure of her. She describes her childhood in the traditional-sounding boarding school but from the outset, something clearly isn’t right, both with Kathy and her friends (Ruth and Tommy), and the world she lives in. Once the children’s destiny is revealed, and Kathy moves out with the others, aged 16, she shuns the easy option of falling in love – even though she is attracted to Tommy – and becomes a carer. Kathy’s character is one of self-sacrifice and genuine care, and is someone who brings a tear to eye.
The Scar (2002) by China Miéville is set in the universe of Bas-Lag, which is a magical steam-punk alien science fiction extravaganza. Following on from Perdido Street Station (2000), is tells the story of Bellis Coldwine. She, like Kathy, is a cold character. A linguist, she finds herself on the run after being accused of connections to the events in the previous novel. While she finds events and people try and manipulate her life, she still remains vital in both character and in terms of the book working. Without having much of her own agency, she is still strong throughout.
I adore Kalix the Werewolf from Martin Millar’s trilogy. She is a tiny goth girl who just wants to be left alone but events conspire to make her life hell. Not surprising, when she’s a fierce werewolf from a proud clan, and has to deal with inter-dimensional elementals, fairies, her wannabe pop-star sisters, a murderous guild of werewolf hunters and the fashion industry. What’s not to love? First introduced in Lonely Werewolf Girl (2007), Kalix is moody and shy, and probably suffering from depression – addicted to drugs and a self-harmer. But thanks to Millar’s staccato prose, vivid descriptions and wonderful storytelling, you can’t help but fall for her and want to protect her, but at the same time fear her and be in awe of her. Kalix is the epitome of the struggling teen outsider coming to grips with the world and her responsibilities as she approached adulthood. A wonderful character full of courage to be herself.
The main protagonist of The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes could easily have been a victim in lesser hands. Kirby Mazrachi is one of the titular girls hunted by time-travelling serial killer Harper Curtis. But instead of lying down, she stands up and fights to work out the truth about what happened to her and the other girls. By definition, Kirby has to be smart and full of potential – shining – but she has a complex personality which is not only based on her perceived victimhood. And boy is she resilient. She just won’t be that victim. Nor should she. Harper is a despicable character.
These girls and women deserve to be read about, deserve to be heard about, and thanks to the great writing of both men and women as outlined, are out there in the world. In their own ways, each of them helped me open my eyes and see things both in myself and the people around me. And after all, that’s what great fiction and great characters are all about.
Honourable mentions must go to of course Marghe in Ammonite (Nicola Griffith, 1993) who finds herself and love after a series of personal conflicts and trials, and Rosemary, the brilliantly ordinary lead who shines the light on others in the diverse The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Becky Chambers, 2015); both of whom have made me think more about the roles of women in fiction. Other great characters and books to recommend include A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki, 2013) which is from the perspective of a 16-year old girl in Japan who finds wisdom and an American, Ruth; Cuckoo Song (Frances Hardinge, 2014) starring Triss who has an odd hunger and a tenacious desire to find the truth; The Girl in the Road (Monica Byrne, 2014) which is also a story of search for truth, from Meena’s point of view and of becoming a woman, from Mariama’s; The End of Mr Y (Scarlett Thomas, 2006) in which Ariel journeys through the mysteries of mind-reading, quantum physics and homeopathy with a post-modernist twist; and Sunshine (Robin McKinley, 2003), featuring Rae, who battles vampires while making cakes.