Francesca Bassington – The Unbearable Bassington
British author Saki was used to satirizing the British upper class by the time he wrote this book, and he lets high society maven Francesca Bassington be the target of some jokes, but as the book delves into her troubled relationship with her son, the book becomes downright heartbreaking. The Unbearable Bassington isn’t Saki’s funniest book, but it’s his best and Francesca remains one of his most finely realized characters.
Ellen Bunting – The Lodger
Ellen Bunting and her husband have just rented a room to a mysterious stranger who acts decidedly odd from time to time; well, you do what you have to do. But what’s Ellen Bunting to do when she begins to suspect that her lodger isn’t just strange. Perhaps he’s the mysterious serial killer known as The Avenger. Belloc Lowndes gets right inside Ellen’s head and lets you feel every moment of doubt, fear, terror and paranoia right with her.
Bernadette Fox – Where’d You Go, Bernadette
As the title character of this brilliant comic novel, Bernadette Fox is an odd duck, forever embarrassing her family and friends with her vibrant, exuberant zest for life. It’s a kind of stock character, but this book brings the character to life as well as it ever has been. Bernadette Fox is a screwball heroine for a modern age.
Olivia Hutton – Indignation
Philip Roth has never been particularly gifted at writing female characters; one excuses this because he is nothing short of astoundingly great at writing males. But Olivia Hutton is a masterpiece of a character. She is, at first, as women in Roth often are, merely the object of desire for the book’s main character. But as the book rolls on, she comes to vivid life, a dark, deeply damaged girl, far from the icon of sexual desire we first took her for. And wait until you hear her recite poetry.
Ruby Lennox – Behind the Scenes at the Museum
Ruby Lennox narrates the story of her strange family in this novel and she’s a great character; she starts narrating in the seconds after conception, strangely able to speak in complete sentences and using words that I even had to look up. But it’s the mingling of her sardonic sense of humor and her uncomfortable awareness of the sorrow around her that makes her come fully to life.
Cassie Maddox – In the Woods
Much as I loved The Likeness, the novel where Cassie Maddox took center stage, I can’t help but love In the Woods even more and, though Cassie is a supporting character in the novel, she’s an instantly fascinating and captivating character; even as her life tumbles around her, thanks to her foolish partner, she keeps a strange focus.
Grace Marks – Alias Grace
Who is Grace Marks exactly? When this book starts, she’s in jail for murder in the late 1800s and a doctor has just arrived to attempt to discover whether she qualifies as insane. But her narratives of the events that have brought her to this place add up to a complicated maze where the truth and the lies can hardly be distinguished. Atwood has created another masterpiece with Alias Grace and the heart of the masterpiece is the masterpiece of Grace herself.
Renee – Tenth of December
There’s nothing like Home, the most devastating short story in Saunders’ masterful collection. Renee is a side character, appearing only briefly, but as the pained sister of the main character, she’s uniquely suited to feel the tragedy of the story deeply, but does she? She’s a great character.
Isabel Sherbourne – The Light Between Oceans
Can’t wait to see Alicia Vikander bring this character to life in the film adaptation. Isabel is a lonely woman, alone with her husband on a small island where he tends a lighthouse. But when a mysterious baby enters their lives, Isabel Sherbourne finds her world turned upside down and the character shifts and changes and frightens and devastates; it’s a brilliant bit of characterization and it’s the author’s debut novel! Can’t wait to see what comes next.
Skarthatch of the Keep – The Ocean at the End of the Lane
I’m not sure where old Skarthatch really should fit in these lists. Female it is, since that’s how we know her for the majority of the novel, but it’s not technically correct, I suppose. The mysterious Skarthatch is a conceptual nightmare, one that only a genius like Gaiman could have created; she’s the only character on this list to explicitly be a villain and what a villain she is. Gaiman renders Skarthatch and her various forms so vividly that you’ll never forget some of the images of her in this book.