Changing the world's opinion… as soon as we finish this math homework
Hey, Emma Ryan here! I’m a member of the TCWT staff. You probably don’t know me all that well considering that, due to my own laziness, I haven’t written a single post for the blog yet, but hopefully, once you’re done reading this, you’ll know me a little better and we can all be grand friends!
Technically, I’m here this week to talk about my favorite book, but, because I’m a rebel who don’t play by no rules, I’m going to tell you about my favorite character. Her name is Ella, and she is the strong-willed, powerful protagonist of Ella Enchanted, the Newbery-honor-winning novel by Gail Carson Levine. I fell in love with this book when I was a freckle-faced, geeky eleven-year-old. It’s a fractured fairytale with romance and ogres, which were (and are) two of my favorite things. However, if I’m being honest, it was Ella that had me rereading this book upwards of a dozen times before my thirteenth birthday.
I’ve always been hungry for well-written female characters, and the thousands of #WomenInFiction tweets we’ve seen recently prove that I’m not alone. We’ve seen how feminism in middle grade and YA lit is of the utmost importance, because it is the fiction that young women, like myself, look to for inspiration and guidance. By picking apart Ella’s most prominent and empowering attributes, I’ve learned a lot about how to craft and define an effective leading lady.
I wanted the title of this post to sound like a Buzzfeed click-bait article (I’m shameless, what can I say?) so it will be coming to you in list format.
(Spoilers abound after this point, so feel free to go read the book and get back to me 🙂 )
1) Ella forces you to cheer her on
The odds have been stacked against Ella from her birth onward. When Ella was a young child, a fairy godmother gave Ella a “gift” that took away her free will. She was cursed to obey any order given to her–wanted or not, malicious or not. Like the real Cinderella, she is hit with misfortune after misfortune for most of her life. Unlike the real Cinderella, she is scrappy and angry and hilarious. She is the very definition of an underdog and she is more sympathetic than a sad puppy.
She, as a character, has you in her corner by the end of page one. By the end of page ten, you’re a card-carrying member of the Ella fanclub. By the end page fifty you are its president. By the final page you’re wearing a #TeamElla T-Shirt, bawling your eyes out, and mumbling about the true meaning of happiness.
2) Ella is talented
Ella is not good at a lot of things. She is naturally (and proudly) klutzy and obstinate. She cannot sew or sing, and she’s not graceful on the dance floor. Although she has many of these so-called “imperfections” ordered out of her at finishing school, she is also naturally and profoundly gifted.
Ella has a special talent for language, mastering Ogreese –this awesome hypnotizing ogre language– so completely that she is able to control them using their own spells.. Her classmate from a neighboring country is mocked for speaking with a strange accent, and Ella responds by learning her friend’s native language so they can make fun of the bullies without anyone else knowing.
She’s a good liar, negotiator, and actress. She approaches her curse like a puzzle, and often times she finds loopholes that let her get her way. She uses cleverness and deception rather than force, and she becomes exceptionally good at surviving in a world of unwanted orders.
Recently, we’ve seen a renaissance of competent female leads in YA and middle grade, but sometimes we forget that you don’t have to be a skilled fighter or a perfect lady-fairy in order to be interesting. Ella’s abilities are not flashy or violent, and she is very far from perfect. We, as writers, need to keep in mind that flaws and competence are equally important when fleshing out a complex female character.
3) Ella is emotional
I was a very emotional child. I cried a lot. I argued a lot. I thought very deeply about a lot of things and was often overwhelmed by the strength and quality of my own feelings. Sometimes we assume that strong characters–especially strong female characters–must be calloused or hyper-zen in order to take care of business, but it is Ella’s vulnerability that makes her relatable, and ironically strong.
One of the novel’s first scenes is the funeral of Ella’s beloved mother. Ella does not express her bravery by keeping a stiff upper lip and staring stony-faced into the middle-distance. She expresses her bravery through her feelings. She weeps hysterically “in an infant’s endless wail” for the King and his entire court to see.
When Ella must sacrifice her relationship with the man she loves in order to protect him, Ella does not pretend that everything is okay. She weeps again, out of regret, anger, and even a little self-pity. She mourns her loss openly and passionately. Rather than being pathetic or awkward to read, Ella’s emotional outbursts are extremely cathartic for the reader. As a child, I found Ella’s tears validating. As a young adult I find them refreshing and frankly inspiring.
4) Ella is funny
I cannot stress this one enough. Ella is hilarious. She’s witty, self-deprecating and snarky. She does outrageous impressions and makes goofy faces. Ella is a comedian, and is repeatedly referenced as such by other characters.
Among female characters, this is rare, and it shouldn’t be. Too often, I see the humor of ladies limited to quippy one-liners or sarcastic comments designed to knock the (usually male) main character down a peg. Women are rarely portrayed as funny in their own right, and when they are it’s usually because they’re stereotyped or cartoonish. Ella breaks down all the conventions and is just pure funny.
5) Ella is a fighter
Ella fights for herself.
Not for a nation, not for an idea, and not for glory. Her battle is not regime-crushing or world-saving. It is long and quiet and deeply personal.
That does not mean she’s not a badass.
That does not mean she is not a hero.
Ella’s free will was magically stripped away at infancy. The massive, MASSIVE implications of this are explored beautifully within the novel, but the biggest side-effect of growing up will-less –for Ella at least–is that she becomes stubborn, strong willed, and, ironically, fearless. Instead of letting her curse beat her into submission, Ella becomes the most self-possessed woman imaginable.
Crazy boarding schools, royal boyfriends and fairy confrontations are all footnotes in Ella’s journey toward freedom. On this quest, she also fights against a neglectful, manipulative father, an abusive step-family, inflexible educators, and ogres (did I mention ogres?). All of Ella’s fighting is passionate, nonviolent, and inspiring. She kicks and screams and cries out for basic freedom.
As a little girl, Ella let me know the true value of my own autonomy. It was a deeply important lesson for me, and it will stay with me forever. Ella taught me that I matter, and that I deserve, and that all women and humans deserve, respect and freedom.
That’s what a good character does.
That’s what good books do.
Think back to the books of your childhood and figure out exactly what they mean to you. It might be Ella Enchanted; it might be The Catcher In The Rye; it might be Goodnight Moon. Reread them, think about them, and learn from them. Rediscover the character that helped shape who you are.