This one is going to be a little bit difficult, because, in line with stereotypes, there are virtually no great female characters in my favorite fields of science fiction and fantasy. Precious few in detective fiction either. And even the ‘great’ literary fiction has an unfortunate tendency to be male-centered. So I will look elsewhere for a favorite female character.
Most folks have seen Gone with the Wind. Fewer folks have read Gone with the Wind, but I’m one of them. I loved the movie. I loved the book even more. I read it in graduate school at the same time as I was dabbling in writing projects of my own. I was, to say the least, impressed by the fact that this was Margaret Mitchell’s first and last published novel, and the only work of fiction published in her lifetime.
Gone with the Wind has many things in its favor: gorgeous landscapes, sharply drawn minor characters, excellent writing, an almost unique feel for mood, and a strong attachment to history, even if some may question the accuracy of some of the events portrayed. But it is, first and last, about Scarlett O’Hara. She enters the stage in the first paragraph:
“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin – that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia sun.”
That opening paragraph typifies how Mitchell wrote, mixing together character details, background information, and plot points and putting it all in rich and luxurious language. The book, however, rests on Scarlett’s character, from her beginning as a genuine teenage girl, obsessed with looks and popularity, to an adult woman sharply focused on survival and thriving in difficult times. For many people, the historical revisionism and the racial politics in the novel are the most notable thing. The character development and other literary merits get swept aside. But if they were actually willing to read it, they’d see a lot more complexity in it than the popular image gives it credit for, and they’d see Scarlett O’Hara as one of the great characters of all times.