Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books with complicated, contradictory characters. These are the best characters, in my opinion, because they feel real. People in the real world are rarely simple. Straight-up evil villains are few and far between. So are perfectly upright role models who never mess up or say the wrong thing. Humans are bizarre, infuriating, beautiful beasts. Sometimes we are unintelligible to each other. Sometimes we soar.
In the bookish circles I frequent, there’s a lot of talk about the importance of representation. This is huge–we need stories that represent the diverse identities and experiences of people on this planet. We need stories about people of all genders and sexualities and religions, people of all races and from various backgrounds. It matters that everyone who reads gets to see themsleves in literature.
Representation matters. Reading reviews, I often come across discussions of “good representation” and “bad representation”. I’m not going to get into that here. Bad representation happens. Fiction is, unfortunately, rife with stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and poorly researched stories. Queer characters get killed off first. Black characters exist to help the white hero achieve their goal. Women’s lives are defined only by the men they love. Sadly, these tropes still exist in books (and film and television).
I would like for all of that nonsense to go away, immediately, and never come back. But there’s something else I’d like to go away: the idea that characters from marginalized communities must be “good” in order for the representation to be good. Queer people are just as complicated and messed up as anyone else. Women hurt each other in brutal, unconscionable ways. People of every race and gender make mistakes and cause one another harm. We are all imperfect. This is what makes us human.
My favorite characters are not the ones sitting on a pedestal I know I’ll never reach, but the ones down here with me, struggling and striving. They mess up and make amends and mess up again. They’re constantly changing. Sometimes they’re wise and courageous, and they perform feats of love and loyalty that inspire and sustain me. Sometimes they’re just trying to get through the day, and they snap at their kids and yell at their partners and throw things at the wall.
For today’s Fierce Feminist Friday, I’m sharing five science fiction series featuring women who are broken and badass, complicated and competent. These women are not always good and they are not always right, but they are always real. They are the kind of people I want not only in my fiction, but in my life.
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
If you haven’t read this one yet, you are in for something incredible. The Fifth Season is one of the most striking books I’ve ever read. What Jemisin does with narrative is so impressive that I have no words to describe it. This series is full of deeply compelling women, but Essun is in a class all by herself. She is not a perfect human, but she is, in my opinion, a perfect character.
I wrote about how much I love her in a recent post over on Book Riot: Our Favorite Women in Books.
The Edge of the Abyss & The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie
This YA duology surprised me. I was expecting a good story, but I got so much more than that. Set in a dystopian future in which genetically engineered sea monsters roam the oceans, it’s a story about a young woman searching for her place in a complicated and messy world. Cassandra is a badass queer Asian heroine who struggles with right and wrong and the blurry line between them, both within herself and within her world. None of the characters are simple and they don’t fit neatly into boxes, Cassandra least of all. It’s incredibly good.
Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan stars in the first two books of Bujold’s Vorkoisgan Saga, shows up as an important side character in most of the rest, and stars again in the latest installment. If I had to pick one character from all of fiction to meet in real life, it would be Cordelia. She is almost unbearably wise, but she is not simple. She is strong and brilliant and independent, but she is also vulnerable. She makes a lot of tough choices throughout the series, and she also grows and changes tremendously.
I wrote about how much I love her for a piece over at Book Riot about our favorite literary grandparents.
The Binti Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor’s world-building is lush and fascinating. Set in Africa and in space, the whole series brilliantly blends classic science fiction elements with issues of race, culture, politics, and the relationships between people and the natural world. Binti is the first of her people ever to be admitted to the galaxy’s most prestigious university, an honor which changes the course of her life. I love the hardness and softness in her character. She is driven and fiercely independent, but she’s also deeply connected to her home, her people, and her traditions. Like all the best characters, she struggles, she overcomes, she messes up. She uses her brain, which sometimes saves her, and sometimes gets her in trouble.
Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
My love for Saga is deep and boundless. Don’t even get me started on how much I love the women in this series. There’s Alana, of course, but there’s also Izabel and Petrichor and Gwendolyn and The Brand and Sophie and Klara, not to mention Hazel, Alana and Marko’s daughter, who narrates the whole series from some point in the future. I realize this is just a list of names. These characters are too fantastic to describe all of them here: you just have to go read the series yourself. If you haven’t already, it’s going to be the best decision you make today.