A heroine for the rest of us: Sookie Stackhouse

When asked, “Who’s your favorite girl/woman/female character in literature?” I know I’m supposed to give an answer like “Katniss Everdeen” or “Hermione Granger” or “Claire Fraser.” Don’t get me wrong, I love all these characters. I will never argue with anyone who proclaims them among the great women of books.

But the answer I’m giving lately, though probably uncool, is “Sookie Stackhouse.”

(The rest of the post refers only to Sookie as portrayed in the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, not the TV show True Blood, which is based on the books. I love the TV show with all my bloody, beating, human heart, but I’m not discussing it right now.)

A good heroine, to me, should have something that sets her apart from everyone else (and I’m not talking super beauty), that makes her her own person, and that makes her story worth reading. Sookie is a human in a world where vampires have recently “come out of the coffin.” From page one we know that not only does she have the gift of telepathy, but she’s not always pleased about having it. Knowing she can’t get rid of her telepathy any more than she could remove her own head, she came to the conclusion before the series opens to kind of just suck it up — no vampire pun intended — and deal with it.

During the course of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, Sookie falls in and out of love with vampires, learns about her true heritage, gets involved with some unpleasant vampire politics, and helps solve crimes in the underground world of supernaturals. But she also sunbathes, paints her nails, plans baby showers for her friends, serves as an emergency bridesmaid, and reads her fair share of mystery and romance novels. What appeals to me about Sookie is not her badass telepathy or the hot vampires she romances, but the fact that she is always content with who she is. Drama finds her, but she loves her home, her job as a barmaid, and simple pleasures. She does her fair share of wishing she wasn’t telepathic because of the problems it’s caused her in the past and continues to cause her in the present, but let’s be fair, if you could hear everything everyone thought about you all the time, you probably wouldn’t like it too much, either.

There’s a moment in one of my favorite books in the series, Dead to the World, where Sookie says of what she plans to do when she gets off work, “I’d planned on taking off my shoes…and watching television with a Freschetta pizza by my side. It was a humble plan, but it was my own.” That line, to me, encapsulates what I love about Sookie. Her plans are almost always humble, but she knows what she likes and never makes excuses for it. She aspires to be a good employee, a good friend, and a proper Southern hostess. As the series progresses we see her power develop, but no matter how crazy things get in the supernatural world around her, she always returns home to the places and people she loves.

I love Sookie because she is a real person. She is content with who she is. She strives to be the best person that she knows she can be. She has conflicts: religious, personal, romantic. She acknowledges that she’s attractive (and a size 10!) but doesn’t go on and on about it. The Special Hot Guys (aka vampires) fall in love with her, but there’s a good reason for it: she can’t hear their thoughts and is therefore able to develop a relationship with them the way any of us would with another person. She sees both the good and bad in people, and no one pushes her around. Some try, but that never sits well with her.

So for those of us who aren’t always at the top of our class, who don’t hit the target every time, the flawed-yet-happy, who want to be the best at the things we love, for the people we love, Sookie Stackhouse, I salute you.

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I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want

Not so long ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Central Ohio Fiction Writers conference in Columbus. At one of the opening sessions, all of the agents and editors in attendance had the chance to introduce themselves and talk about what kinds of books they were looking for. At other conferences, I would usually say something along the lines of, “I’m looking for YA, suspense, thrillers, contemporary romance, magical realism, etc.,” and perhaps add a few words about special quirks I love in books. (For example, I have an affinity for books set in malls, prisons, and hospitals.)

At this conference, I stood up to take the mic and all of that flew out of my head. I said, “I’m Carlie Webber, and I’m looking for great stories and unforgettable voices. The end.”

Everyone was gracious enough to laugh with me rather than at me.

But as time has gone on and I’m now striking out with my own agency, I realize more and more that “I want great stories and unforgettable voices” is the way I should and will answer this question. The truth is, I don’t know what I want. I didn’t know I wanted to read about a skinny boy wizard in glasses until Harry Potter came along. I didn’t know I wanted to read about an introverted, bookish girl coming of age until I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I wouldn’t have necessarily gone into a bookstore with a radar for domestic thrillers, but thanks to friends I’ve discovered a love for authors like Linwood Barclay, Lisa Gardner, and John Hart. The one thing all of these books have in common is they speak to me. To me, they all contain great stories and unforgettable voices.

One of the best things about being a literary agent is that you get to build your career on what you love.  Sometimes you’re not sure what you’ll love until you pick it up, but that’s the fun of the slush pile. The next thing you read might just be the thing you never knew you always wanted.