the other list

Thinking about my list of seven male characters has actually helped me quite a lot in solidifying some things about John Grant, who is the male protagonist in Tied to the Tracks. In the hope that lightning will strike twice, here’s a preliminary list of female characters who work especially well for me. Again, this is in no particular order, and I’ve put my own main character at the bottom for the purposes of comparison.

Three more things I’ll be thinking about as I try to deconstruct what makes a female protagonist work for me: (1) unlike my list of male characters, most of these women come out of traditional romance; (2) Each of these women has a male counterpart who I like a great deal, but who didn’t make it onto the other list. (3) I can think of another five female characters who probably deserve to be on this list.

Elizabeth BennettPride and PrejudiceJane Austen
Marie Du GardDanceJudy Cuevas (Judith Ivory)
Maddy TimmsFlowers from the StormLaura Kinsale
MelantheFor My Lady’s HeartLaura Kinsale
Aeryn SunFarscapeof course, of course
Hannah TrevorHearts and BonesMargaret Lawrence
Elizabeth MiddletonInto the WildernessS.D.


At a party a little while ago, somebody came up to me to say how much she and her husband liked the Wilderness novels. Nathaniel, she assured me, was the perfect hero. Which is meant as a great compliment, but actually got me thinking, because I don’t think I ever consciously set out to make him a hero, and certainly I don’t think of him as perfect. So I started reading in various places, looking for definitions of heroes and essays that addressed the characterization of main characters. This subject is an old one. Aristotle wrote about it and so has just about everybody else.

The first thing I do when I’m trying to take apart a problem like this is look at the data. I came up with a list of fictional male characters I like tremendously, enough to re-read the novels in which they live. This list is not in any particular order, and of course this is my list; no doubt your list will look different. I’ve put Nathaniel at the end, for comparison.

Fitzwilliam DarcyPride and PrejudiceJane Austen
Phin TuckerWelcome to TemptationJennifer Crusie
Philippe de Saint-ChristopheThe Bride of the WildernessCharles McCarry
Niccolo van der PoeleNiccolo RisingDorothy Dunnett
John CrichtonFarscapedid you really think I could leave him out?
Daniel JosselynHearts and BonesMargaret Lawrence
Nathaniel BonnerInto the WildernessS.D.

Many psychologists make their careers evaluating and categorizing personality types. I could take that approach here in trying to figure out what appeals to me in a hero, and how I ended up with Nathaniel. There are many possible models to use: Myers- Briggs (or the Keirsey temperament sorter, which is pretty much the same thing); the Enneagram approach is also quite popular. But I’m not going to take the quantitative route, not just now. Nor am I going to try to work with the clasic eight-way split you often see discussed in the literature: the Chief, the Bad Boy, the Best Friend, the Charmer, the Lost Soul, the Professor, the Swashbuckler, the Warrior (but there’s a good break down of each by Tami Cowden, here.)Having set up my list, I’m going to go away and think about commonalities and differences, and I’ll be back tomorrow with more on this.

A Midwife's Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

[asa book]0679733760[/asa] A book I consult on a regular basis is Martha Ballard’s diary, by means of the wonderful and important study written by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

Whenever I fear that I’m losing focus in the novel at hand, Martha reminds me that people were living their lives behind the scenes, mostly untouched by the war and whatever things of great moment might have been happening elsewhere. In February of 1810 she wrote in her diary:

Clear. I have washt, done hous wk and knit. mr Petengail took [ ] our Cow for Taxes. what we are to do God only knows.

In 1812, in the same week:

Cloudy, raind at Evng. I was Calld by Levy Cowen to go and See his wife in Labour. Shee was Safe deld at 4h am of a Son which Expired at 5. Shee had a fall not long Since which probably was the Cause. Hannah & Nabby wint to hear mr Tappin this day & Evng.

The whole diary is available at this website, where you can explore materials about Martha’s life and world. It never fails to amaze and teach me something.

Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett: my favorite historical novel of all time

[asa book]0375704779[/asa] This is from Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising:

He departed. So, in due course did Messer Pigello, followed by Claes and his satchel. Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it.

I have re-read this novel and the rest of the series many times, but some things never change, no matter how many times I pick them up.

First, I have to read Niccolo very, very slowly. Dunnett has absolutely no patience with lazy readers. The plot is very complex and she doesn’t coddle: you read closely, or you will be lost. It’s amazing, really, (and heartening) that these stories are so popular and widely read in a day and age where people seem to lean toward the easier options available to them.

Second, I don’t mind being a little confused and having to read slowly or even to re-read, because there are riches here to be enjoyed. She writes like a Brueghel painting: there’s so much going on, you have to dedicate all your attention but when you do, you’ll be amazed and rewarded.

Which brings me to this short paragraph I’ve quoted from Niccolo Rising. This is, of course, historical fiction. the Niccolo series starts out in fifteenth century Bruges, which was the capital city of Flanders and today is widely considered to be the best preserved medieval city in Belgium. The main character, Claes, is introduced as an awkward, good natured, good looking eighteen year old with a penchant for getting himself and others into trouble, for romancing housemaids, and mostly for surviving the beatings everybody seems to heap on him. But that’s just the early impression. Claes (who undergoes a transformation and will be known, eventually, as Niccolo) is about as complex and interesting a character I have ever run into in print.

The reason this paragraph delights me is that Dunnett manages to do so many things in a few words. She sets us up for more of Claes’ macchinations, and she also points this out, an author intrusion of the gentlest sort: Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it. She keeps the tone and the voice of the time, which is very difficult to do. Strictly speaking, this kind of authorial intrusion should be disruptive in a novel that otherwise limits point of view very strictly (which is one of the reasons the plot comes across as so complex — Niccolo has got a handle on everything, but she rarely lets us in his head, because that would give far too much away, and Dunnett intends to make the reader wait). But it works anyway. Why? I don’t know. I do know that she’s got a truly distinctive authorial voice, something that is rare and to my mind, precious.

I adore this novel. I would love to set up a wiki and take it apart, sentence by sentence, image by image, historical facts one by one.