There are plenty of novels out there with characters seemingly born to be heroes and heroines. Brave. Perhaps big and strong. Perhaps with lots of training in the defensive and attacking arts.
Then there are novels starring unlikely heroines and heroes. Unlikely because the protagonists are very young, very old, not physically powerful, etc. Those books can make for riveting reading as they take us by surprise, allow us to relate to characters who don’t seem superhuman, etc.
My most recently read example of this phenomenom was Ray Bradbury’s deliciously creepy novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. A scary carnival has arrived in town, endangering the live of several people — including the boys Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway. To the rescue comes…a brooding, bookish, middle-aged janitor: Will’s father Charles.
There’s also Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. She’s a young, abused, antisocial computer hacker — not your typical literary heroine. But very courageous in a nothing-to-lose way.
Or how about Mary Minor Haristeen, who solves crimes with the help of her pets in the engaging mystery series by Rita Mae Brown. Mary’s training for her heroics? Running a small-town post office.
Another amateur detective, the elderly Miss Marple of various Agatha Christie mysteries, is also not a typical heroine.
Then there’s Neville Longbottom of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the early books, Neville is a timid and socially awkward student. By the seventh and final book, Harry and friends may not have survived without the grown-bold Neville.
Speaking of popular fantasy works, J.R.R. Tolkien has Frodo Baggins find heroism the diminutive character barely thought possible during the dangerous adventures of he and his cohorts in The Lord of the Rings.
In the dystopian-novels-set-in-the-near-future realm, the resourceful/precocious teens Laura and Willing coolly keep family and friends together in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles. Heck, Laura in Butler’s book even manages to found a new religion of sorts.
Historical fiction? There’s the unlikely visionary teen heroine who’s martyred in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And the courageous sisters who, in a very patriarchal/macho society, take the huge risk of opposing brutal Dominican Republican dictator Rafael Trujillo in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies.
Who are your favorite unlikely heroines and heroes in literature?
My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about America’s gun violence and more — is here.