bookish posts

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters who are competent

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

As much as I love a good coming of age story (and oh! how I do), I also really enjoy stories where the main character is very good at what they do. That’s not to say that there’s no internal struggle or growth (because that would be boring), but that they start the story already with knowledge and skills.

1. Bren Cameron from the Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh: Bren is an interesting example because on one hand he is very good at what he does, and gains experience and confidence throughout the series. On the other hand, he is out of his depth quite often, and has to struggle for understanding of the atevi culture. But this is in fact part of what makes him so good at what he does, so he’s on this list anyway.

2. Breq from Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: Breq is perhaps another anomaly because her power and abilities pale in comparison to what she was able to do in the past as Justice of Toren (a sentence that will probably make no sense if you haven’t read these books, which you should!). But Breq as herself is still pretty awesome.

3. Rowan from the Steerswoman books by Rosemary Kirstein: I’ve only read the first book in this series so far, but part of what I enjoyed about it was how Rowan is so good at her job. She’s not faultless, but she is definitely smart and decisive.

4. Miles Vorkosigan from the Vorkosigan saga by Lois McMaster Bujold: I MEAN. He had to be on this list somewhere, right? Miles has never met a challenge without wanting to not only beat it, but beat the record for beating it. He’s not so much competent as hyper-competent. And yet, LMB very wisely lets this be both a strength and a weakness for his character. He’s at once incredibly endearing and annoying.

5. Ran & Theodora Cormallon from the Ivory series by Doris Egan: Part of what I enjoy about Ran and Theodora’s relationship is the sense of their partnership, the fact that they’re good at different things, and that part of their journey is figuring out how those things fit together.

6. Eugenides from the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner: I mean. Granted his moments of bleak self-doubt in Queen of Attolia, Gen is another one of those characters who–like Miles–has never met a challenge he didn’t want to meet, surpass, and smash into smithereens. (“I can do anything I want.” Quite. Also, the conversation about six months. I rest my case.)

7. Sin Davies from the Demon’s Lexicon books by Sarah Rees Brennan: One of the things I love about Sin is her awareness of her own strength. Which, again, is not to say that she’s always hopeful and in charge. But she knows her own worth and her talent for dancing.

8. Telemakos from the Aksum series by Elizabeth Wein: What sets Telemakos apart is not so much his skills per se as his age. He’s smart and sneaky and tenacious, and he’s also very young. If I’m remembering correctly (and I’m sure someone will tell me if I’m not) he’s about 12 in The Sunbird, when he really becomes the protagonist of the series. The fact that he’s so young and yet so accomplished maybe shouldn’t work as well as it does, but for me, his characterization is so deft that it always does.

9. Lord Peter Wimsey from the series by Dorothy Sayers: Lord Peter basically does everything. He’s musical, he plays cricket, he collects first editions, he picks locks, he flies airplanes and drives cars too fast. Oh, yes. And he solves mysteries with panache. He may not be as outwardly driven as some of the other characters on this list, but make no mistake–he knows what he’s doing.

I notice that this is a very male-heavy list. Can you think of competent female main characters? I think partly our society is much more likely to denigrate women who are seen as too ambitious, and that’s reflected in our fiction. But I’m probably also missing people. Let me know!

By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

14 replies on “Top Ten Tuesday: Characters who are competent”

This is a fun category choice even though I’m only familiar with three of them. (I know. Some of these I REALLY need to read. They are on my TBR.)

Your thoughts on competent female main characters are interesting. I agree that our fiction reflects society’s issues with ambitious, strong willed, independent, competent women. It seems that it is far more acceptable for female characters to grow into competence rather than start out with it from the beginning of a story. This could be a post all of its own. As for suggestions where the female mc does begin that way…The heroines of all of Julie James’s romance novels come to mind for this. They’ve got their stuff together for sure. I would also say Lydia Reales from Emma Barry’s Party Lines (who is on my list this week). Kate Dolan in Virginia Kantra’s Carolina Man. Free in the Suffragette Scandal. And now I’m finding it very interesting that all the one’s coming to mind are from romance novels. I think that’s very telling. This really could make a very thoughtful post of its own…

It seems that it is far more acceptable for female characters to grow into competence rather than start out with it from the beginning of a story.

Yep! And while I often love that story, I want to see more awesome women who know what they’re doing from the beginning. I need to read more of Emma Barry. And yes, several of Courtney Milan’s heroines seem pretty competent–Free and Rose Sweetly. It is interesting that romance novels seem to be more enabling of competent female characters.

Yeah. Especially when contrasted with some of the female characters in other genres who can look great at first glance but who are basically there to make the male mc awesome. (Sci fi, I am looking at you.)

Competent female characters? Cordelia Naismith–though admittedly I’ve only read Shards of Honor out of the whole series, so I’m not really qualified to comment! And, if we’re on science fiction, I’ll just throw out there that I love Timothy Zahn’s Mara Jade. She’s the main reason I’m upset about Disney’s blanket erasure of the existing Star Wars EU canon.

Le Guin’s Lavinia, of course. And Caenis from Lindsey Davis’s Course of Honor. And Tilla from Ruth Downie’s Ruso mysteries. And while I think Hermione is one of those who “grows into competence,” as it were, I think Minerva McGonagall is a BA from the beginning. 🙂

CORDELIA NAISMITH! Of course! Actually, pretty much all of the female characters in the Vorkosigan books are very competent.

I haven’t read/seen any of the EU stuff, tbh.

I need to read more of Ruth Downie–I think I might have read the first book in that series, but no more. Thanks for your additions!

The Vicky books are more my thing, but Peters definitely is one for that kind of heroine!

So much this! She is magnificent. She reminds me a bit of Gandalf, in the way that she lives her life among regular people, exudes a quiet self-confidence and a wry sense of humor, and has depths of bad-assery that are only seen by those who pay attention or those who force her to smack them down.

But she’s more than just a Gandalf, both because she is a fully realized character, and because her world is full of color and of the intricacies and drama of a Near and Far Eastern-style setting. And because of what she is, which I won’t say here because spoiler.

You know, I love Maskelle and Wheel of the Infinite (probably my favorite book by one of my favorite authors), and I considered putting her on this list at one point. But I couldn’t quite decide if she was too unsure of herself. You all have convinced me that she’s not!

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