Reading Hadley Freeman’s recent book Be Awesome, I got to thinking what my fictional identity was – which were the characters with whom I truly identified growing up. Then I was reading the recent survey about favourite fictional characters/books to read before the age of sixteen and I sat down and made a list of all of the characters who I most wanted to be as a child. The results may be predictable but this was actually a really interesting list for me to draw up. I am still not exactly sure about what my fictional identity is – to be fair, I also took the Fictional Personality Test last year and that didn’t help either but I have really enjoyed this trip down my personal literary memory lane.
For approximately the first four-six years of my life, I really wanted to be a bear. Passing relatives were beseeched to draw me bears to colour in and woe behind those whose designs did not meet my exacting standards. My poor grandmother still complains about having to play The Three Bears all the way round the park – a game during which for some mysterious reason, she had to answer to the name of Edward. I had a blue duffle coat when I was really tiny that I liked because it was similar to Paddington’s but really, the Three Bears had my true allegiance. I was never particularly interested in Goldilocks but the Daddy Bear, Mummy Bear and Baby Bear were objects of true adoration. My obsession was so deep that when I was five, my first stepfather produced a postcard of the Three Bears on holiday in the Lake District, signed by them and despite the lack of stamp, I was assured that it was the genuine article. In my eyes, Stepfather#1 was imbued with the wisdom of Solomon – I had known him for years and although I had doubts, I was sure that he had no reason to lie. So I put the postcard on my wall, eyed it with some uncertainty but accepted it for what he said it was, an authentic piece of communication between me and the Three Bears themselves. Not unlike the time I received a note from Father Christmas thanking me for the biscuits in handwriting that was disconcertingly similar to my grandfather’s. Stepfather#1 faded away but the postcard remained – he rarely came up in conversation but my mother was kind enough to tactfully confirm that yes, the handwriting was his and upon reach the age of the Internet, I discovered the world of Lakeland Bears
which produces lots of postcards of this kind, presumably to fool credulous children everywhere. Still, there’s a part of me that still harks back to the time when I truly believed that the Three Bears were real and they were writing to find out how I was doing at school.
|Oh you bears – you never wrote to me …
This one is not a surprise since I talk about her quite a lot – I was about five when my mother and I started reading about the Pioneer Girl out there on the Prairie. Laura lived On The Edge – there were bears near her house, she got to have pets and sisters and she lived in a log cabin. I was hooked – fascinated by this world of bonnets and wagons. I used to regularly force my long-suffering childhood best friend into pretending to be prairie girls, which was a true act of kindness given she herself gave up on the series in horror at the slaughter of Willie the Pig (she was being raised vegetarian). My mother and I had long conversations about what it would be like to be Laura, I remember my mother drawing pictures of Laura’s various houses for me to colour in during our numerous rail journeys. A big part of her appeal was that Laura was actually real – a flesh and blood person who had once walked about and talked to people – but also I think that she was probably the first character who I really thought about enough so that she seemed real to me. It certainly had nothing to do with the television series which I was very excited to watch for about five minutes until I realised how much they’d changed things and I gave up in indignation.
Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden
Mary Lennox was another very early favourite fictional character – again for lots of reasons. First of all, I liked that she got to be very argumentative and seemed to be able to get away with things. Plus she knew how to skip, something that I could not learn no matter how hard I tried. Plus I had what was very probably my first ever childhood crush on the guy who played Dickon in the film – he cropped up again in The History Boys and I recognised him straight away. Mary Lennox was a very appropriate heroine for a girl such as me, growing up in Yorkshire. The film was even partly shot around Fountains Abbey, a frequent Saturday day out destination during my childhood. When I was nine I dressed up as her for Book Week and the costume was re-used repeatedly up until last year when it was sadly destroyed by forces who shall remain nameless. Being Mary seemed to be about standing up for yourself but also about trying to be the best possible version of yourself – by the end of The Secret Garden she found happiness and even now I think she’s a wonderful character to aspire towards.
Jo March, Little Women
The first thing that impressed me about Jo March was that she hated being a girl. Aged six, I was not enjoying it either. I was in the midst of a long-running battle with my mother over my refusal to wear dresses – this following on from a boy lifting my skirt at school. I did not start wearing skirts voluntarily again until I turned twenty-one. The odd thing is that now I rarely wear trousers – I love being a girl. Still, if I first turned towards Jo March for the wrong reasons, I stuck by her for the right ones. She is a wonderful sister, an honest friend and a passionate heroine. I liked that she did not accept Laurie’s proposal, that all she wanted from him was his friendship – it was only my most recent re-reading that made me think that maybe, just maybe he would have been worth having. I think it would have been a bit much for my six year-old self to admire Jo for her determination to seek out her own destiny, to be impressed by the way she wanted to support herself. At the time, I think she just seemed like the most fun. Still, although I feel sad that she is not able to appreciate how great it is to be female, I still think she’s a superb character.
Lucy Pevensie, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Lucy Pevensie was a character who I thought was extremely cool. She discovered magical kingdoms in the back of wardrobes, she befriended fauns and mice and lions and she had her magical cordial for the purposes of healing. The girl had it all. There’s something about the ‘four siblings’ set-up which always encourages the reader to cheer for the youngest one – perhaps they just seem slightly sparkier. Even Aslan liked Lucy best and it is her faith which makes her the series true heroine. As an adult, I can see the injustice and cruelty in how Susan was treated but as a child, Lucy made faith seem an exciting and dynamic act. Lucy is crowned as Queen Lucy the Valiant and again, this was a quality that I liked – I was already realising that it was rare to see a woman do battle and so Lucy Pevensie was something of a revelation. I have been making up stories even before I could write and there were multiple Lucy-proxies in my writing from about this time onwards. I still think she is rather wonderful and long may she continue.
The next stop along my fictional Wish-I-Was tour was kind of a tandem mash-up between these two as I kind of met both of them about the same time. To be fair, again there are similarities between this pair and Ms Pevensie above. All are fairly similar Younger Sister characters but rather than having adventures in alternate universes, Titty and Posy’s stories are rooted in the real world. Or rather Posy’s is, Titty is more of a dreamer. I remember her long stories about Peter Duck (definite example of meta-fiction there) and her ability to conjure up fantasies no matter what situation they are in. My favourite Swallows and Amazons character by far. Still if for Titty, her passion is exploring and sailing, Posy has a similar passion for dancing and her drive to achieve her dreams was something I could only sit in awe at. I think that it was again this determination that I was drawn to, this tenacious certainty that with hard work, their dreams would come true. With the help of my Sylvanian Families canal barge (seriously remember receiving this as one of happiest moments of childhood), I used to send my Playmobil figures off on adventures like Titty’s and then on other occasions, they had wild times on the stage like Posy. Nothing could ever give me the co-ordination to be good at ballet though and similarly, I never did take to sailing. Still two deservedly well-beloved characters.
Dido Twite from Black Hearts in Battersea / Maria Jones from The Box of Delights
Another joint entry here for Dido Twite and Maria Jones. Dido Twite first appears in Black Hearts in Battersea but her adventures have continued well into the 1990s. Maria Jones makes one memorable appearance in The Box of Delights which is a fabulous book provided that you ignore the final few pages where the author apparently lost his mind. Maria Jones introduced the word ‘scrobbling’ to my family lexicon and I remember trying to act out a scrobbling amongst my bewildered friends, none of whom had read the book. Similarly, Dido Twite spoke up and put one foot before the other and fought her way out of each and every difficult situation in which she found herself. Whether she’s fighting off the wicked Hanoverians or wicked impostor aunts (long story), Dido can guarantee to come out on top. Dido always slightly had the edge over Maria in my mind but long before Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Katniss Everdeen, these were two characters who showed that it was ok for girls to fight back.
Basil Stag Hare, Redwall
is basically like Game of Thrones
except for children and with significantly less sex. To continue the analogy Basil Stag Hare is like the equivalent of a slightly sunnier Bryden Tully aka The Blackfish – I thought he was awesome. I was unaware of the speech patterns of the stereotypical British upper classes when I read Redwall
so I was mystified by his habits of putting ‘what’ at the end of a sentence and pronouncing things ‘top hole’ but it didn’t matter. I just thought he was the most amazing character I had ever read (until I encountered the below) and I wanted to become him. It is unsurprisingly difficult for an eight year-old girl from Yorkshire to take on the personality and habits of a Brigadier but I gave it a go, I even briefly (for less than five minutes) tried speaking like him but I grasped from the strange looks that it just was not going to work. Basil was brave, Basil was loyal, Basil was a hare who wanted to be a stag
(he thought they were noble creatures). He could fight anyone, eat anything (or more accurately everything in sight) and he was always ready to go the extra mile for those in need. And he also adopted an otter son in Mattimeo
so again, he was just the best. I still remember him with such great affection, he was such a very warm-hearted creation.
Marvin the Paranoid Android, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Marvin is a character I loved even before I first read him – he came up in conversation and my mother gave me a basic explanation of the Hitchhiker universe and Marvin’s place within it. I remember this brief thumbnail description making me laugh until my sides hurt so I knew even aged nine that I needed to find out more. I finally read the books aged ten and Marvin did not disappoint. Just about every line of his makes me laugh and the BBC Radio 4 series is frankly even better. Marvin is the depressed robot who has a brain the size of a planet, absolutely zero job satisfaction and a terrible pain in all the diodes down his left side. He’s asked for them to be replaced but of course, no one ever listens. In the BBC Radio 4 series, he once falls five miles through the air, a further mile through solid rock and then picks himself up and remarks, “I appear to be lying at the bottom of a dark hole. That seems a familiar concept. What does it remind me of? Oh yes. Life.” Marvin is like a mascot for everyone who has ever experienced depression, he is the brainchild of Douglas Adams, a one-time depressive himself and Adams has actually succeeded to both making depression humorous but also in showing why it’s so hard to shake off! Some of the subtleties passed me by aged ten, but again I had a good go at taking on the persona – I knew most of his most hilarious one-liners off by heart by then and tried to trot them out whenever they seemed appropriate. Not the best route for social success amongst other ten year-olds but I was generally too busy giggling over Marvin to notice.
Hermione from Harry Potter … or was it Lyra from His Dark Materials
This one is a slightly different entry – people have assumed that I wanted to be Hermione for years. I like Hermione, I can relate to her issues of hair maintenance, generally getting caught up in the books she was reading or issues she was passionate about and inadvertently boring everyone else rigid. But I think that that was the problem. There were too many points of similarity and somehow I never really aspired to being her. She was Hermione, I thought she was brilliant but I tended to prefer Luna as once more, I am a bit of a dreamer and probably more prone to Ms Lovegood’s flights of fancy rather than Ms Granger’s cool-headed logic. The character I really adored was Lyra, heroine of His Dark Materials. Part-savage, part-clairvoyant, Lyra lies, fights, bites and battles against the dark forces which are in her way. What really impressed me when I first read The Northern Lights aged eleven was that she chose for herself what was right and wrong – at the end of the first book, she and her daemon (also cool, back to that) consider all of the wicked people who have been against Dust and conclude that it must be something good after all. Situations are not always clear and this idea of moral analysis was a revelation – so much of our lives is dictated by what society (or our parents) tells us is right or wrong, the twelve year-old Lyra is a wonderful creation. She never seems like the later Incredible Girls such as Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen, she is fierce young woman in a challenging world but she still manages to feel real. Another big thing that made me want to be her was her daemon Pantalaimon. The idea of the soul is such an abstract one but the idea of having one externalised is such an original idea and I remember pondering at length what mine would be like. With all this, Hermione never stood a chance – it was Lyra all the way.
Flora Poste, Cold Comfort Farm
I read Cold Comfort Farm aged sixteen and I have loved it ever since. I do think that it is the most hilarious book I’ve ever read – Stella Gibbons is a true comic genius. I have spoken before of my deep respect and admiration for Flora Poste and indeed, I have wanted to be her for about a decade. Flora is the girl who turns up, sorts everybody out in a very no-nonsense kind of way and then leaves by plane. She has a boyfriend who makes it fairly clear that he would like to marry her but she dismisses him until she is quite good and ready to settle down – Flora is quite capable of making her own way in the world, thank you. There is something wonderful about the solutions which Flora offers too – Elfine’s life is sorted out by a new dress and a decent haircut, Amos is firmly steered away and encouraged to buy a Ford van, Seth is fixed up with a Hollywood career. Flora will brook no resistance. It would be impossible for anyone to quite live up to Flora’s high standards but it is her indefatigable and unflappable manner which I adored most of all. She briskly moves past the histrionic moanings and groanings of Judith Starkadder and suggests getting the curtains cleaned. With no trace of embarrassment, Flora explains contraceptives to the fecund Meriam. It is hard to think of any novel that would not have had a speedier and smoother resolution if Flora had been around – I completely recognise that I am nothing like her, indeed nobody is, but I adore her just the same and no list of characters I Wanted To Be would be complete without her.
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