books with realistic female characters?
March 30, 2014 3:50 AM   Subscribe

I am tired of novels that have an enigmatic woman at the center of the novel. Can you recommend some books to me where all of the female characters actually act like real people?

I have started reading fiction again after a long hiatus, and I keep running into the same problem: in a beautifully written book about all sorts of interesting people, there is one female character who is crucial to the plot and who makes no sense. She's usually incredibly beautiful; the male narrator, or the main male character, is usually obsessed with her; and it seems to me that she isn't written like a real person, she's written as the embodiment of: "women are beautiful enigmatic creatures who are impossible to understand." Sometimes, as an added bonus, she's evil without any explanation for why: she just is.

I am a woman myself, and it really bugs me when a woman who is central to the story seems more like a cliche than a real person. Can you recommend some fiction books to me where all of the characters, male and female, are written like real people? I don't care about genre particularly, although I'm not a big fan of science fiction (I do like fantasy though). I also don't care if the author is male or female. The last four books I started (and couldn't finish because I got so annoyed by this enigmatic-lady business) were: "The Idiot," by Dostoesky, "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck, "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss, and "Norwegian Wood" by Harumi Murakami. The last books that I finished and enjoyed were "Gaudy Night" by Dorothy Sayers and "A Plague of Doves" by Louise Edrich. Thanks for your help.
posted by colfax to Writing & Language (57 answers total) 126 users marked this as a favorite
Oh I absolutely know this (to me, depressing) feeling. Off the top of my head, I would recommend anything by Barbara Kingsolver, particularly her classic The Poisonwood Bible, or novels by Margaret Atwood.
posted by atlantica at 3:59 AM on March 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
Reamde by Neal Stephenson
In the Woods by Tana French (I bet her other books are even better, but I haven't read them)
posted by neushoorn at 4:21 AM on March 30, 2014

Alanna series by Tamora Pierce
posted by Carillon at 4:41 AM on March 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Angela Carter. Try Wise Children.
posted by corvine at 4:45 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

For a classic: Have you read Middlemarch (by George Eliot)?

Another that comes to mind is Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro.

And maybe the best American novel of the 20th century imho is: Beloved by Toni Morrison. There is, ironically, an enigmatic female character in this novel (the title character) but not by any means in the sexist way you're describing.
posted by third rail at 4:50 AM on March 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

There are loads of great books with central female characters. The central female enigma is a trope, but it is pretty easily avoided. It is probably best not to think of those characters as actual people but as ideals/goals in the protagonist's head. It seems to be mainly a belle-epoque french/russian thing, if that helps at all. Avoid Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, all of those french impoverished poet books, Proust and Thomas Hardy (who is mawkish and awful so you aren't mising anything anyway).

To be fair to Murakami, Norwegian Wood is very consciously using the "missing girlfriend" as a symbol. The protagonist's "ideal/goal" is often his sodding cat in a lot of his other books, so maybe try one of the others like A Wild Sheep Chase, or 1Q84? He's a great author.

Great books/authors that happen to be currently sitting on my kindle:
Jane Austen
Charlotte Bronte (not Emily, Wuthering Heights is awful for this)
Elizabeth Gaskell
Thackeray (Vanity Fair is amazing)
Defoe (Moll Flanders)
Fanny Burney
Flaubert (Madam Bovary)
Edith Wharton (anything, but especially House of Mirth which is amazing)
Henry James
George Orwell
Graham Greene
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Hilary Mantel

You'll notice there aren't many modern authors, that's just my personal taste and hopefully somebody else will be along with some 21st century options. There are millions more books out there that do not contain this trope than books that do.
posted by tinkletown at 4:53 AM on March 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Switching to women writers will go a long way toward remedying this. I'd recommend Ann Patchett (especially Bel Canto), Maryanne Robinson's Housekeeping, and anything by Zadie Smith or Louise Erdich.

Seconding all the authors tinkletown mentioned, as well. I'd also add Ishiguro Kazuo to a list of modern male authors who write women as people.
posted by Mchelly at 5:01 AM on March 30, 2014 [11 favorites]

I have an over-the-top attachment to all of the women in Maeve Binchy's books. Light reading for certain but her women are like the women I know.
posted by kinetic at 5:44 AM on March 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

Anything by Anne Lamott, but her earlier works are my favorites - hard laughter, Joe Jones, Rosie - her women and men are messy and flawed and wonderful. Her writing is amazing. Barbara Kingsolver and Amy Tan are good, as well.
posted by umwhat at 6:07 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Helen Oyeyemi writes wonderful female characters.
nthing The Poisonwood Bible
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters has a great female main character
If you like mysteries check out Denise Mina
Hild by Nicola Griffin
The Country Girls bby Edna O'Brian
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Little Children by Tom Perrotta

Of the Classics
Far From the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
Sons and Lovers - D.H. Lawrence
The Heart of the Matter - Elizabeth Bowen
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - (a girl, but still one of the best characters of all time)
Jayne Eyre
posted by brookeb at 6:08 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some more I had forgotten: Irene Nemirovsky, Anita Desai, Isabelle Allende, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Goethe, Ian McEwan, Garcia Lorca, Pushkin. And yes, definitely Ishiguro and Zadie Smith! On the off-chance your taste is really different to mine, I find Nick Hornby, Will Self, and Hanif Kureshi's characters smug and Collette's characters are just really awful people, but they are convincingly and realistically annoying and other people seem to like them....

You could also try books that are more plot and less character-driven, like Camus, Kafka, le Carre, Ballard, Kerouac, Solzhenitsyn, Gogol, Cormac McCarthy - I wouldn't say that any of these authors write particularly complex well-developed characters of either gender, but that's not the point of the books.
posted by tinkletown at 6:11 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich
Anything by Jeanette Winterson . . . there will be enigmatic ladies, but it's just different, trust me.
The Little Stranger and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (all her stuff, really)
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (it has an enigmatic woman, but not in the sense you've described . . . in a creepy delicious Ms. Havisham way)
A Change of Climate and An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel
Deathless by Cathrynn Valente for your fantasy needs
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, also for fantasy
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (she's enigmatic, but it's from her perspective, sorta)
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (again, the enigmatic lady has a voice)
The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan
Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
The Bean Trees and The Poisonwood Bible by Barabara Kingsolver
Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

Basically what Mchelly said, too . . . this problem doesn't happen nearly as often in books written by women.

posted by mibo at 6:20 AM on March 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have nothing to add to this question but am amazed at all the great suggestions by readers. If there is one common connection that seems apparent, read novels by women writers.
posted by Postroad at 6:58 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Veronica and Two Girls, Fat and Thin, both by Mary Gaitskill.
posted by FrauMaschine at 6:59 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Garden of Evening Mists kind of turns this on its head; the main character is a woman and the man in the story is mysterious and unknowable. It's rather refreshing.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:01 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld
posted by FrauMaschine at 7:05 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ordinary People by Judith Guest.

Probably anything by Anna Quindlen, but get confirmation from someone who knows her work better than I do.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:09 AM on March 30, 2014

Off the top of my head -
In the vein of Maeve Binchy - Rosamunde Pilcher. Coming Home is a good one.
For Urban Fantasy, Mockingbird by Sean Stewart.
posted by tabubilgirl at 7:29 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

FWIW, 1Q84 definitely has a enigmatic-symbol-girl, and it's pretty over the top.

I recently saw this article on how to read some canon/classic female characters who don't make any sense to modern readers:

Revisiting Pamela: How To Read Books You Don’t Want To
posted by momus_window at 7:36 AM on March 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Basic Eight by Daniel Handler
Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
posted by sweetkid at 7:38 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

nthing Margaret of the ideas in her novel Cat's Eye is that to other little girls, little girls are "life-size". Even the very young females in her books are complex, fully developed characters.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:41 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

"... And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer. It covers the years 1868-1932 and is very long. As I understand it, the author took about 50 years to write it, so reflections of what it's like to be a certain age group are likely experiential. I love this book and read it regularly.
posted by jgirl at 7:44 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ah yes. The radical notion that women are people.

Anything by Alice Munro.

Jodi McIsaac's The Thin Veil series.

Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series (basis for True Blood).

Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is a must-read.

Have you read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf?
posted by heatherann at 7:49 AM on March 30, 2014

Tell the Wolves I'm Home is inhabited by wonderful, real people, although the narrator is an adolescent girl, not a woman.

It does not really fit with the books you've listed, but it's an amazing book with an incredible mastery of how language works, so I'll suggest it anyway: Jack Womack's brutal, society-is-collapsing-and-noone-is-trying-to-stop-it Random Acts of Senseless Violence also has an extremely well-drawn adolescent girl as a narrator. By the way, neither of these are YA books.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:58 AM on March 30, 2014

Anything by Doris Lessing, especially The Four-Gated City and The Diaries of Jane Somers. Many more.
posted by vers at 7:59 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Or Carole Maso, AVA or Ghost Dance.
posted by vers at 8:04 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

A Yellow Raft on Blue Water - Louise Erdrich
A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley (also Ordinary Love and Goodwill)
Toni Morrison's Sula has both enigmatic and practical women as lead characters
The Wall - Marlen Haushofer (Cormac McCarthyesque but German and with a female protagonist)

Throwing some extra support behind Henry James and Edith Wharton - dang, did they ever write fully fleshed out characters!

Young adult literature authors:

Madeline L'Engle
Tamora Pierce
Pamela Sargent

This was a neat article about portrayals of American girlhood in two classic stories of young American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird and Harriet the Spy
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 8:04 AM on March 30, 2014

I was having a think about why so many authors have this in their books, and I think really it's a quick shorthand for "careful what you wish for, because you might get it". In some novels the protagonist chases material success, only to realise it was hollow, and in a lot of these books the protagonist chases the enigmatic female, only to realise that she is not what she seems. I don't think the female is supposed to be a real person in a lot of these books, but is a projection of male desire/ambition.

This is almost the exact opposite of what you asked for, but if you're interested in reading a book that explores this from a proto-feminist point of view, try Lady Audley's Secret. It is written by a woman who broke many of society's conventions (Mary Elizabeth Braddon), and Lady Audley is a very complex character. She is superficially innocent and beautiful, but in reality is an evil, manipulative villainness (or not; as I say, she is complex, and we have a very unreliable narrator). It is a book that can be read on many levels, and is much more about male neurosis and patriachal attitudes to "unnatural" women than it is about female duplicity.
posted by tinkletown at 8:17 AM on March 30, 2014

I loved Faith Sullivan's The Empress of One and its companion book The Cape Ann.

(Excellent question, thanks for asking!)
posted by mamabear at 8:36 AM on March 30, 2014

Oh yes, Tana French! The Likeness is my favorite, but all of them are good.

If you like mysteries, you would probably like Laura Lippman.
posted by SisterHavana at 9:00 AM on March 30, 2014

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Republic of Love and Unless, both by Carol Shields

The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence

The Book of Negroes (Canadian/international title)/Someone Knows My Name (American title), by Lawrence Hill

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

And a resounding seconding of Margaret Drabble, Margaret Atwood, and Laurie Colwin.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:05 AM on March 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm surprised you weren't impressed with Gaudy Night, as Harriet Vane has always seemed very human to me.

I've been reading lots of Robertson Davies recently and he has lots of female characters that break the mould and are lots of fun - my favourite being Liesl in the Deptford Trilogy.

And of course, Lucy Snowe in Villette.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 9:50 AM on March 30, 2014

Persuasion's Anne Elliot may have been a beauty in her youth, but at age 27, the bloom is off the rose. She's self-critical and regrets the past; of all Jane Austen's protagonists, she's my favorite.
posted by kbar1 at 9:51 AM on March 30, 2014

Just coming in to nth Margaret Atwood and to recommend Doris Lessing's Children of Violence series.
posted by fuse theorem at 9:51 AM on March 30, 2014

The four Silverglass books published under "JF Rivkin" was explicitly written because the authors decided there weren't enough sword-and-sorcery pulps with well-developed female characters. So the characterization is quite strong and the dialogue is witty and the authors take great delight in inserting female guards and bandits alike without comment, as if of course women can do anything, good or evil, poorly or skillfully.

Although I should warn you that the result is kind of like reading every Conan the Barbarian novel all at once. If you're not into the whole "rough-and-ready adventurer type meets new people, befriends some, beds some, and kills the rest" sort of thing, I can't promise you'll like it any better when the genders are swapped.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:59 AM on March 30, 2014

Seconding Sarah Waters!
posted by wintersweet at 10:29 AM on March 30, 2014

Tamora Pierce is known for having good female characters if you like fantasy.
posted by Canageek at 12:22 PM on March 30, 2014

I absolutely second Jane Smiley, Margaret Atwood, and Angela Carter. I'll add novels and short stories by A.L. Kennedy (contemporary Scottish author), especially:
Everything You Need
So I Am Glad
posted by gladly at 1:14 PM on March 30, 2014

Three that come to my mind right away are:
The Frieda Klein series by Nicci French
The Evening Star by Larry McMurtry
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

and, yes, everything by Doris Lessing.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:20 PM on March 30, 2014

I love Anne Tyler's books for this reason.

I also finished as really interesting book called The Translator, by Nina Schuyler, which has a woman in her fifties as the protagonist. I find women that age are usually pegged as mothers/wives, and it was great reading a book where the main character was so much more than that.
posted by smoke at 2:30 PM on March 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

More women authors who are capable of writing a complex female character that you might want to check out - Mary Robison, Helen DeWitt (specifically "The Last Samurai"), Cynthia Ozick, Barbara Pym, Sara Gran, Hilary Mantel, Jincy Willett. I'm reading Olivia Manning's "The Balkan Trilogy" right now and this definitely fulfills your request.

Second "Olive Kitteridge".

For fantasy I'd recommend NK Jemisin - The Inheritance Trilogy - and Ilona Andrews - Kate Daniels. Ilona Andrews is a husband wife duo and on the lighter side and man am I addicted.
posted by rdnnyc at 3:01 PM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really love Mary Russell in The Beekeepers Apprentice series by Laurie King.

Some of the Murakami books also have main female characters, as did Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.

Also, Adriana in Mistress of the Art of Death (series) if historic mystery thrillers are your thing.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:13 PM on March 30, 2014

You may or may not like her, but Claire Messud's main character in The Woman Upstairs is very, very real.
Seriously though you pretty much have to read books written by women if you want to read good female characters.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:45 PM on March 30, 2014

Some scifi/fantasy recommendations:

Octavia Butler generally, particularly Parable of the Sower/Talents and the Lilith's Brood series.

Ursula Le Guin generally, but particularly The Telling and Always Coming Home.

Lois McMaster Bujold generally, but particularly The Sharing Knife series.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:47 PM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding Bujold, but I would cite Shards of Honor and Barrayar.
posted by Bruce H. at 6:23 PM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Any and all of the Witch novels by Terry Pratchett - the main characters are all enigmatic, unknowable and mysterious women - actual witches, and deliberately occult - and he unceremoniously reveals them to be human, rife with foibles, flaws and weaknesses.

In a lesser writer, the scorn for these women would be dripping from the pen. This is Terry Pratchett. Their foibles, flaws and weaknesses are part and parcel of what makes them strong, powerful and heroic. I can guarantee you know one of them yourself. (My mom is completely Nanny Ogg.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:23 PM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am partial to Willa Cather. I think she paints all of her characters with a shrewd but compassionate brush.
posted by JanewayJunior at 7:25 PM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's been some fantastic suggestions. In addition to Laurie R King's Mary Russell books, she's written some standalone novels that are also really good. Especially Folly. Nicola Griffith writes both spec fiction and thriller, as well as her latest, Hild, which I believe is historical fiction but haven't read it yet. Anyway, she always does a good line in strong female characters.

More in the fantasy department, Robin McKinley does very good ones, from her first novel Beauty onwards. She does get more verbose in her later novels and (I think) could use some editing, but she does good female characters and particularly re-imagining stereotypes and tropes of the genre. Diana Wynne Jones is more story- than character-driven, but there's always complex female characters. Fire and Hemlock is fabulously complicated with its female characters, and don't make the mistake of thinking it's a YA novel. It isn't.

Also Margo Lanagan and Margaret Mahy. I generally prefer Mahy's longer fiction but it is amazing how even in her shorter works for younger readers, the complexities of life and people come across so well. She doesn't shortchange her male characters either, not even her mysterious and enigmatic (male) villains. I'm thinking specifically of The Tricksters for that one.
posted by Athanassiel at 8:07 PM on March 30, 2014

Hugh Howey's Silo (post-apocalyptic SF, very light on the "science") has an delightfully realistic and not-particularly-popular female protagonist at the heart of about half the story.

Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series centers around a young female protagonist who does her very best to stomp on the dreams of anyone who would worship her as a beautiful enigma.

I'd also categorically nth Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Margaret Atwood.
posted by teremala at 8:10 PM on March 30, 2014

Seconding (fourthing?) Edith Wharton. Check out Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, too.

And The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. That comes entirely from the viewpoint of a girl who has to deal with a guy who insists on framing her as an embodiment of perfection. (That's the jumping off point, anyway, and I enjoyed how the rest of it played out.) Green's other books follow the formula that bugs you, but Fault In Our Stars is a refreshing reversal.
posted by greenland at 9:32 PM on March 30, 2014

Nthing Hilary Mantel
Oldies but goodies which are not by female authors:
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Madame Bovary
Anna Karenina
posted by Sarah Lund's Jumper at 1:23 AM on March 31, 2014

Definitely Anne Tyler. Everyone in her books feel real.
posted by h00py at 6:54 AM on March 31, 2014

Response by poster: Oh, thank you all so much for all of your suggestions! You have reminded me of some good authors that I'd forgotten about and given me loads of suggestions for authors I'd never heard of, which is absolutely fantastic!
posted by colfax at 6:56 AM on March 31, 2014

I feel you OP. There is not a receptacle tiny enough to hold all the fucks I give about Denna at this point.

For you, I recommend:

Paladin of Souls - Lois McMaster Bujold
Shards of Honor - Lois McMaster Bujold
Fire - Kristin Cashore (this part of the loose "Graceling Realm" series, but is my favorite of the 3)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin

Some YA too!

Protector of the Small series - Tamor Pierce
Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
Ella Enchanted - Gail Carson Levine
The Wee Free Men and its sequels - Terry Pratchett (SO GOOD)
A Ring of Endless Light - Madeline L'Engle
posted by stompadour at 9:47 AM on March 31, 2014

I haven't seen Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar novels mentioned. She has a good number of series with central female characters who are well-written and fleshed out. I'd recommend either Oathbound or By the Sword as good starting places.
posted by caphector at 5:37 PM on April 18, 2014

« Older This ball of twine is your life.   |   I'm burning up, thanks for asking. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.