Earlier this week I posted about my favourite female characters in fantasy fiction, and mentioned that Terry Pratchett’s characters clearly stood out. I vividly remember the very first Discworld novel I read. It was Pyramids, and I borrowed it from the Galston branch of my local council library, way back in … well, it was last century. Probably the mid ‘90s. I think. Anyhow. I’d never heard of the Discworld, or Terry Pratchett. All I knew was that the Josh Kirby cover looked amazing and I liked the blurb, so I thought what the hey? It’s not like I’m shelling out for a hardcover by someone I’ve never heard of.
Within a couple of pages I was truly, madly, deeply in love. And now I own all of the Discworld novels, as many in hardcover as I could find. They remain one of the great literary pleasures of my life, and my memories of the dinner I shared with Terry Pratchett and the late, wonderful David Gemmell (back when I had a bookshop and put on a convention with them as the guests) are something I will forever treasure.
Much has been said and written about the inclusion, or exclusion, of female characters in speculative fiction. A common observation made is that, so often, too often, women in fantasy, science fiction and horror fiction are reduced to objects of desire, sexual adjuncts to men, rendered pathetically helpless so they can be rescued, or are killed off as soon as possible in order to provide motive for the male hero’s journey, or pretty much airbushed out of the narrative altogether. Unfortunately there is merit in these criticisms of the genre, but one thing I can say without hesitation: you simply cannot point that particular finger at Terry Pratchett.
Throughout the course of his Discworld novels, Pratchett has created some of the most fantastic, three-dimensional and iconic female characters to be found in the realms of speculative fiction. In no particular order of personal favouritism they are:
Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat, Angua, Lady Sybil Ramkin, Cheri Littlebottom, Agnes Nitt., Tiffany Aching, Susan Sto Helit.
Some writers of fantastic fiction fail to create even one memorable female character. Pratchett has created nine, at least, and many others in a secondary or one-off guest starring role.
So, what is this wonderful writer’s secret? For me, I think the key is that he never writes women characters as women. He writes them as utterly fascinating, complicated and engaging human beings who happen to be of the female persuasion. Their purpose in the narrative is never to be ‘the woman’, in whatever narrow-minded, gender-stereotyped or insulting way that too often happens in current fiction. Nor are they created to fulfil a physical stereotype as to what constitues an acceptable female character to the male gaze. Pratchett’s women run the gamut from breathtakingly drop dead gorgeous (Angua) to overweight (Agnes) to formidable (Granny and Susan) to brilliant and bawdy (Nanny) to older and courageous (Lady Sybil) to heroic and unexpected (Cheri and Tiffany).
In other words, the only uniformity to be found in Pratchett’s female characters is their individuality and humanity. Each character has her own journey, her own defining characteristics, her own agency in the narrative. She is never simply an adjunct to a man, and her physicality does not define her worth. Pratchett’s women are worthy because of who they are and what they do, and I think that is one of the greatest achievements in speculative fiction.
If you’ve never ventured into the wild and witty Discworld, I can only jump up and down on the spot, waving my arms. Because it’s not just the great female characters, though they are a huge part of Pratchett’s genius. He does really fantabulous male characters too – Captain Carrot and Sam Vimes and Death and Fred and Nobby and the Patrician and the Archchancellor, for starters. He also makes you think while he’s making you smile and chuckle and laugh out loud. He is a satirist and a philosopher and an old-fashioned entertainer. And, whether he meant to be or not, he is a champion for the creation of vivid, vital and memorable female characters.
In no particular order, here are some of my absolute favourite Discworld novels that feature these amazing women:
Thud, Carpe Jugulum, Soul Music, The Fifth Elephant, Maskerade, Lord and Ladies, Hogfather, Witches Abroad.
If you’re not yet a convert, I urge you to give one of them a try. I truly believe it’ll be time well spent! And if you’re a writer of speculative fiction, or someone who one day wants to write in the field, you should read Pratchett too, and take a leaf from his book.
Great female characters are great human beings. Everything else is simply window dressing.