By Elizabeth C. Bunce
When I set about to pull together my Fantasy Casting Dream Team, I knew right away what it would look like: The characters I selected had to be drawn from various storytelling forms (film, TV, literature, etc). They had to stand the test of time–be true, perennial favorites (vs more recent character crushes). And they had to be female.
That part was easy. Actually picking the roster, however, took some deep thought. It was far easier to say who wouldn’t make the list–no matter how much I may love, say, Charlie Crews (Life), Eliot Spencer (Leverage), or John Casey (Chuck), they were all missing one important trait (that second X chromosome). Coming up with great female characters wasn’t a problem, either–it was narrowing down my choices (and worse, committing to them, as if I’m going to be quizzed on this later in life, possibly by St. Peter. Ok, I guess that technically doesn’t happen in life… never mind.). So. How to choose among beloved characters from favorite childhood books (Anne Shirley or Mary Lennox? Sophie or Princess Aerin? Sweet Hattie or dastardly Cruella de Vil?)? Or narrow down iconic TV characters (I could name Buffy or Faith… but my actual favorite was Anya)? Or plumb the depths of classical literature and the oral tradition to select among greats like Penelope or Guenevere?
Ultimately, though, with enough shaking, five I’m proud to commit to rose to the top. There was a tiny glitch with my #1 spot; astute readers may notice that it missed my #1 requirement by rather a long margin. But he really is so marvelous he makes up for it, and he was, after all, created by a woman (if you don’t know many Emmuskas yourself, the “Baroness” part probably gave that away).
So, like choosing sides for a playground game of kickball, from first pick to last, we have:
Sir Percy Blakeney, aka the Scarlet Pimpernel
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
We seek him here, we seek him there/Those Frenchies seek him everywhere….
When asked to come up with my five favorite characters, the only one to come instantly to mind was Percy Blakeney/The Scarlet Pimpernel. Genre fans already recognize the drama inherent in dual identities, and in the early days of the 20th century, Orczy gave us one of the best. He is, without a doubt, my personal favorite superhero, and my favorite incarnation is the one pictured above, as played by Richard Grant in the 1990s A&E miniseries. By day, he’s Sir Percy Blakeney, foppish and outrageous and shockingly clueless–a charming idiot obsessed with tying the perfect cravat. By night, he risks everything to perform incredible acts of heroism as the Scarlet Pimpernel–rescuing beleaguered French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror. Had she stopped there, Orczy’s hero would probably still have endured. But she added depth to Sir Percy’s character in his troubled relationship with his wife, French-born Marguerite, who bears the guilt of having once unwittingly betrayed a privileged family to the revolutionaries. Orczy showed us this story through Marguerite’s eyes, but Grant (and others before him, including the great Leslie Howard) gives us Percy’s side, and the pain of his love for her, tainted by her treachery, informs every one of their nuanced interactions. He is a complex and layered character, deeply wounded yet no less driven, and able to sustain the most brilliant of aliases. It takes a genius to play an idiot so convincingly, and so Sir Percy Blakeney, aka the Scarlet Pimpernel, swashbuckles his way to #1 among my all-time favorite characters.
Dona St. Columb
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier
The great Daphne du Maurier left us a legacy of unforgettable characters: the sinister seductress Rebecca and her creepy handmaid Mrs. Danvers; the ruthless smugglers of Jamaica Inn; The Birds that stormed the Cornish coast and went on to terrorize Hitchcock’s Bodega Bay. But among that august company, my personal favorite is Dona St. Columb, the heroine of du Maurier’s brilliant Restoration-era pirate romp, Frenchman’s Creek. Dona is a bored aristocrat whose first act in the novel is to steal her husband’s best friend’s clothes and rob a stagecoach. Purely for the novelty of it. Bored to death by herself, her husband, and her shallow life at court in London, Dona takes her young children and flees to Navron, her family’s seaside estate in Cornwall. There she discovers that the home is being used as the base for French pirates. Lured by adventure and romance, Dona falls in with the pirates and in love with their captain, whom she always refers to as the Frenchman. This is the setup for dozens, nay hundreds, of insipid romance novels since–but du Maurier’s great skill and talent elevate both the novel and its delightful heroine well above the average. Dona is smart, funny, sly, impatient, gloriously larger than life, and soberly self-reflective. Her journey of languid awakening and swashbuckling adventure is tempered by a self-awareness and maturity that copycat romances lack, and the bittersweet conclusion to her affair with the Frenchman adds a sophistication and respect to our enjoyment and understanding of her character. But it’s through her bright, delightful voice and her witty observations of life around her that we get caught up in her tale. I adored Dona from the first, and felt bereft when her story was complete. And that is exactly the sort of character we all want to create. (It is a good thing that Dona and Percy never met, for the world might well have imploded.)
The Terminatrix (Sarah Connor, Terminator 2)
Long before Kristanna Loken appropriated (appropriately) the name, fans of Linda Hamilton’s kickass performance in T2 had dubbed her The Terminatrix. Sure, she’s not an evil cyborg killing machine, but she doesn’t let that stop her. Evincing one of the most dramatic (if unseen) character arcs in film history, Sarah Connor goes from scared suburbanite to one-woman army, giving us a whole new breed of action hero: a female one. We had Ripley before and Xena, et al, since, but the mold was forever reshaped around Hamilton’s chiseled biceps and steely glare. When an aging Ahnold is not sufficient to stop a next-generation Terminator, who can we turn to but… a really pissed-off mom? Sounds about right.
The Thousand and One Nights
Her tales have been captivating us for nearly a thousand years, and it was her amazing imagination that gave us Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad. But it is Shahrazad’s own story of selfless and unusually daring heroism that makes her one of the best characters of world literature. When ruthless sultan Shahriyar is betrayed by his wife (and his brother, it ought to be noted), he exacts a terrible, mad revenge: each night he marries a virgin, then slays her in the morning, so he can never again be wounded the same way. For over three years this horror continues, unstopped by all the men of the kingdom–until the vizier’s young daughter steps forward and volunteers. Shahrazad alone has the courage and conviction to end this mindless slaying of women–and a plan that is both audacious and baffling. She’ll do it with bedtime stories. Shahrazad is a natural storyteller who understands better than anyone the power of the cliffhanger–and the redemptive power of story. Each night she spins her husband a new tale–but refuses to reveal the ending until tomorrow. Thus is she spared her predecessors’ fate. But more than that, Shahrazad’s tales are full of moral lessons and the wisdom and virtue of women, and gradually her stories cure Shahriyar of his madness. For her courage to stand up where no one–no man–would, and declare the slaying of women unacceptable; for her brazen plan to stop a mass murderer in his tracks with nothing but half a fairy tale; and for her enduring legacy of literary skill and feminism, Shahrazad easily earns a spot on my roster.
I can say with total honesty that Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) was the heroine I’d been waiting for all my life. She came about 15 years late for me, but the smart, sassy teen (girl) PI was exactly the kind of character I craved as a kid. She appeared on the scene in 2004, in the genre gap left behind by Buffy, but Kristen Bell did far more than just fill big sister’s shoes. Veronica Mars not only gave us a YA heroine for the digital age, but created an entirely new genre: teen noir. Daughter of the town’s disgraced former sheriff-turned-private investigator, the once-popular party girl now earns extra income by spying on her fellow students at Neptune High, in a community sharply divided along class lines. Recovering stolen homework and restoring tarnished reputations is only her day job, however, for Veronica’s hardboiled exterior conceals a wounded past, and her driving passion is solving the murder of her best friend Lily. It’s a brilliant genre mashup that gave rise to one of the very best YA heroines ever put on-screen. Complex, smart, independent, and vulnerable–with a kickass cool job–characters don’t come much better than Veronica Mars.