Fictional Characters that Gave Me Joy in 2020

  1. January Scaller, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Alix E. Harrow)

The first-person narration that Harrow employs for much of her novel is a bit polarizing; I’ve heard some readers strongly dislike it. I, however, find it rich in intelligence and humor as it conveys January’s personality and inner life — her energy, her boundless curiosity, and at times her confusion and uncertainty. As I read it, I felt I was making a friend. She frustrated me and tried my patience sometimes, but then, good friends do that.

2. Circe, Circe (Madeline Miller)

To be honest, when I last read The Odyssey I had a feeling the sailors Circe turned into pigs when they landed on her isle must have had it coming; after all, half the trouble Odysseus and his crew get into results from their failure to respect the rules of hospitality. So it delights me to see the story told from Circe’s point of view, and to get to know her as, on the one hand, a badass witch who takes no guff, and on the other, a lonely, longing woman whose insecurities have their roots in an unloved childhood. Her story, particularly its conclusion, is a thing of beauty.

3. Setsuko, The Sword of Kaigen (M.L. Wang)

While protagonist Misaki (whom I also like) has garnered most of her attention, for me her sister-in-law and best friend Setsuko is the MVP of Wang’s breakout success. While Misaki makes her arduous journey, Setsuko is a supportive, optimistic presence, a woman who knows how to love and value herself despite the repressive gender roles of the society she lives in and, through example, helps Misaki learn the same. As Maya Angelou might put it, she is a woman, phenomenally. We should all have a Setsuko in our lives.

4. Jane and Katherine, Deathless Divide (Justina Ireland)

Side by side on the cover of the book, Jane and Katherine appear to be the prototypical “Tomboy and Girly-Girl,” yet their story reveals them to be beyond category. Jane is all uncompromising toughness and hard-edged humor, messy and often unreasonable, yet she’s driven by her strong moral code, and she’s far more capable of great love and loyalty than she likes to let on. Katherine is overtly more sympathetic, often wearing her kind and generous nature on her sleeve. Yet even though, as the cover makes clear, she’s very ladylike in her deportment, she’s every bit as kick-ass as Jane, every bit as active and defiant in the face of evil. The two friends share a spot on this list, because it’s together that they shine most brightly.

5. Tarasai, Raybearer (Jordan Ifueko)

If I had the chance to buy and gift one of the books I read this year to every single friend and follower I have, it would be this one; if it were within my power to make Jordan Ifueko as bit a YA fantasy superstar as Sarah J. Maas, Saaba Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, and Cassandra Clare, I’d do it in a minute. Her debut novel is rich in complexity of plot, character, and world, and its protagonist, Tarasai, is smart, powerful, curious, courageous, and decent. She isn’t without flaws, but when she makes mistakes, she owns them and tries to correct them. Unlike (IMO) too many YA fantasy heroines, she doesn’t deliberately act like a jerk to the people around her.

6. Csorwe, The Unspoken Name (A.K. Larkwood); Xiala, Black Sun (Rebecca Roanhorse); Shefali, The Tiger’s Daughter (K. Arsenault Rivera).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: monster heroines — women who are not quite human and at least a little bit scary — are my jam, and this year I got to know three splendid ones: the ogreish Csorwe, with her tusks and her defiance of “destiny” and her slow-burn romance; the merwoman Xiala, with her seagoing swagger and her sea-controlling powers and her slow-burn romance; and Shefali. with her. . . I can’t say too much because I want to recommend the book rather than spoil it, so I’ll settle for pointing out that she ends up being the scariest of all of them and her romance is the stuff of legends. I’m not the type of reader who insists that every book she reads absolutely must have a romantic plot or subplot, but it does make me smile that all these monstrous heroines, in their scary glory, are valued and loved.

7. Angela Abar, Watchmen (HBO)

When it comes to movie and TV characters, my reasons for loving a character may be a bit on the shallow side. In the case of the indomitable superhero protagonist of Watchmen, aside from Regina King’s stalwart, magnetic performance — I just love her crime-fighting outfit! The trousers and boots and long black coat ensemble is my favorite superheroine outfit ever, and perfect for the heroine this dark, gritty, and involving story requires.

8. Sylvia Tilley, Star Trek: Discovery (CBS)

Neuro-atypical heroes of any gender are regrettably rare, though when they do appear, they tend to be male. It’s refreshing to see this kind of character in female guise for a change, but that’s not the only reason that the awkward, over-eager Tilley is precious to me. She reminds me so much of myself as a teen: wanting friends, wanting to fit in yet not quite knowing how. Yet I can only wish I’d been half as brilliant, generous, and open-hearted as she is. She kicks butt and surprises people while doing it. Over the course of three seasons, she’s shown that underestimating her is a bad idea, and has won the respect and friendship of her colleagues.

9. The cast of Hamilton (Disney+)

Calling them “fictional” is a stretch, but I couldn’t leave them out. Watching the film of the Original Broadway Cast was simply too big a highlight of my 2020 for me not to acknowledge it. This one lives up to the hype.

10. Navani Kholin, Rhythm of War (Brandon Sanderson)

I’m still in the midst of the fourth doorstopper volume of the Stormlight Archive series, but my favorite thing about it so far has been seeing Navani, a supporting player in the previous books, step into the limelight as a co-protagonist. Navani is super-smart, endlessly curious, resourceful, and well past her prime — in short, a wonderful heroine for me to spend time with as I face mid-life.