The Very Real Women of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

Yesterday I woke up to news that I’ve been expecting for year- the death of Sir Terry Pratchett. I first came across Pratchett when 13 year old Constnace accidentally subscribed to a monthly sci-fi/fantasy book delivery service (Don’t ask.) and got a hardcover copy of Thud! in my first delivery. After reading it I tore my way through every Pratchett book in my town and school libraries. The books making up his Discworld universe were funny, real, honest books that imprinted their stories onto my impressionable teenage brain in a very permanent way. As I prepared yesterday to write about the man who made such an impression on me I thought about how his humor made me laugh when my depression tore at my brain and how I can still see his influence in my writing. These gifts pale when compared to the one of the greatest treasures I found in his work: the women who populate Discworld.

Pratchett’s Discworld is so real and enjoyable because he managed to create a fully formed universe with all the complexities that this entails and with that came fully formed, complex women. As I struggle to this day to find female characters I can relate to it has always been so satisfying to consistently and reliably find them in Pratchett’s work. He wrote women from all walks of life, from Queens to soldiers to servants, who went beyond old tropes (in fact they frequently played with these tropes.) His female characters could be heroes or villains but it was always likely that they would live in a morally grey area.

There is one trait shared by these women- a hardened core forged by living with misogyny. Like the women I grew up surrounded by, the women in Discworld step up in times of crisis, don’t bat an eye when the world goes pear-shaped and are often carrying on after the men have collapsed. This isn’t to say that the female characters are always strong. No, Pratchett was too talented a writer to fall into that trap. Rather he recognized that the circumstances of women’s lives often force us to learn how to be tough as fucking iron nails when the shit hits the fan. Of course there’s the great and strong Granny Weatherwax who is as tough as a thrice boiled boot but so is Magrat the “wet hen” and the privileged Lady Vimes who raises dragons in her spare time and knows what to do when fanatical Dwarves attack her home and family with flamethrowers.

Pratchett’s female characters  also support one another, something that’s almost radical when talking about representation of women. This is so, so, so important, particularly as our culture continues to support girl-hate. I doubt if we’ll ever know how intentional this was but it sure is damn inspiring and part of why I feel so strongly about putting Discworld novels in the hands of girls (and really women of all ages.) For a great example of this I refer you to the unlikely triad formed by Cheery (bless her massive little heart), Sgt. Angua and Tawnee in Thud!

I think it was his keen insight and observational skills that allowed Terry Pratchett to write such real female characters. So often I’m annoyed, frustrated and angry at how male writers create female characters that are foils for their male leads at best and props at worst. I just want to shake these men and force them to read Pratchett and say, “THIS is how you do it! View us as people,  write us as people!” I realize that this is a low-bar to cross but Pratchett cleared it with great ease and joy.

Thank you Mr. Pratchett, thank you for writing books with humor and life and real women. As someone who has struggled with my womanhood I found in your books three-dimensional women I could relate to, find comfort in and be inspired by. Thank you, Mr. Pratchett, you will be missed.

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