When I started writing, my female characters were a little… stiff. Part of the problem was that they were lacking in subtle nuances such as placement, depth or, you know, dialogue. Many of my earliest critics referred to the women in my stories as sounding like “…a guy trying to sound like a chick.” I can’t blame the critics. Let’s face it, as an awkward teenager, most of my social interactions with girls surmounted to little more than “No,” “Ew, no,” or in worst case scenarios, “What are you doing in the bushes outside my bedroom window?”
So, to improve my skills, I thought I’d take a page out of someone else’s book and learn from the classics. I turned to the classics for several reasons. One: I assumed that if these books lasted this long and maintained popularity, they must have done something fairly accurate, and two: all of the attractive girls in school were reading them, so maybe they were taking cues from the same set of notes.
Below is a list of women from the classics that influenced me as a writer. It is not all-inclusive, but generates from my own collection of books, and they aren’t in any particular order (for instance, #7 is a particular favorite), but they are all women who influenced me as an individual as a symbol of strength or integrity.
- Eve (The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain)- Not necessarily the same mother of all type (Though I have my reasons for liking her, too), this Eve tells a tale of paradise lost from a brand new prospective. She grows throughout the story from childishly mocking Adam in their first days together in the Garden of Eden to standing on her own in a barren wasteland, Eve was the first woman of strength who really touched me. In part two of The Diaries of Adam and Eve, she comes across the body of Abel after his altercation with Cain, and the following journal entries are nothing short of heart breaking. Plus, as he does in so many ways, Mark Twain shows the inner integrity of his characters with unfailing elegance.
- Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare)- Talk about attitude. She can and does verbally spar with the best of them and isn’t afraid to put them in their place. She also voices the unfair status of women in the day with her comment “Oh, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace!” Other than the really disturbing mental image, she really gets the point across. Plus, she was the first woman in literature to not only partake in a battle of wits, but she wins hands-down. I still think Benedick chickened out of their reparte early on in the play.
- Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)- In a time when the only game in town was burning people you didn’t like at the stake, Hester was controversy in spades. By getting pregnant out of wedlock, she became the shame of the town, but by parading it about, it was about as socially acceptable as Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. But I felt the entire book, she was merely setting the stage for the biggest scandal in Colonial Boston Town. Sure, she was supposed to wear the letter of her sin, but she did it with flare. And in the end, when the priest was exposed, she came out all the stronger.
- Lanore (The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe)- I remember reading The Raven when I was a kid and thinking “This isn’t scary!” and it turned out, I was right. It’s not scary, it’s depressing. Lanore was the main character’s love lost when she suddenly died some time before the poem. But she was something special, to the author at least. And hey, the angels named her, so that’s got to be something.
- Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin)- Technically, I still haven’t read this one, but I bought it for my wife and we sat down and watched it. Give me credit, this is NOT an easy thing for guys to do. But throughout the film, I kept cheering on Elinor while simultaneously face-palming myself due to the sheer stupidity of Marianne. Elinor was the sheer rock of common sense I needed throughout the film. I also kept screaming at the screen “Don’t trust that guy! Alan Rickman is playing him, and he only does bad guys!” I was wrong, and I’m happy to announce it.
- Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)- Jane Eyre was the first book I ever read where I thought “Hey, not all the assigned books in high school suck!” I loved how she, a plain-Jane (pun intended) nanny was able to turn the entire household on its ear just by being herself. Being true to yourself is a long-misunderstood concept among teenagers and an important lesson I needed to learn. I’m still a bit miffed about getting a “D” on my essay regarding the book, though. The guy in front of me stopped reading after fifteen pages and got an “A.” I just think the teacher didn’t like me.
- Miss Maudie (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)- This is my favorite book of all time, and this place almost went to Calpurnia. Cal played such a central roll in the kids lives, she really should have got it, but Miss Maudie had so many awesome points, she barely tipped the scales enough to earn the spot. From laughing at the “Snowman” Jem and Scout erected in their front yard, to setting the foot-washing Baptists in their place when they tried to give her a guilt trip for working in her garden, she could settle her bridgework with the best of them. But what really put Miss Maudie in the lead was her line that stated some people were born to do the work the rest of us can’t or won’t do. It was truly inspiring.
- Carmela Corleone (The Godfather by Mario Puzo)- An almost non-character in the book, she came out shining in the final chapter of The Godfather. When Michael’s wife realizes what her new husband has become in the end of the book, she goes to Carmela for comfort, who in turn takes Michael’s wife to church. There she tells the new bride that she has been praying for Vito’s soul every day because she knows that’s the only way he will get into heaven. Carmela wasn’t ignorant of her husband’s true nature, but she loved him and wanted to save him in spite of his occupation. Apparently he was one heck of a husband, because it takes a really strong wife to overlook little things like violence, extortion, embezzlement and murder.
- Eponine (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo)- Eponine started out a little brat but died a martyr. In the novel by Victor Hugo, she both looked and sounded a little bit like a toad when she reached her teenage years (and you thought you were awkward in high school) and she was head-over-heels in love with Marius. Well, there’s not accounting for taste. Marius was a dweeb, but he had a lot of money, so maybe that had something to do with it. In the end, Eponine had to overlook her own heartache and do what she felt would make the love of her life happy, even if it wasn’t with her. She turned out to be one of the strongest characters in the end, especially thinking about who her parents were. And in the plays and movies, they always seem to cast someone TEN TIMES prettier than Cossette, but that doesn’t bother me because Cossette is just as big a dweeb as Marius.
- Eowyn (Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein) Daughter of King Theoden, she had every reason to hide when the orcs and trolls came to call, but she wanted to fight for and alongside her countrymen. Becoming the undoing of the Witch King through a loop-hole, she had it all down. Plus, she runs into and falls in love with the Faramir in the healing gardens, and didn’t have to get rescued to find her “prince” (yes, I know he wasn’t a prince, but he kind of acts like one. If you squint at it). And let’s face it, in the movies, I liked Miranda Otto better than Liv Tyler. It’s nothing personal. I just like red-heads.
I’m interested who inspired you from literature. Who makes you feel like a better person after reading their exploits? Maybe we can have a discussion where we can all walk away with a thicker and more encompassing “To Read” list.