Portraits of Fiction’s Notorious Heroines


Illustrator Samantha Hahn got into the heads of 50 literary heroines to create a beautiful collection of watercolor portraits for her first solo book, Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines (Chronicle Books, $19.95).

Ms. Hahn spent a year-and-a-half illustrating characters and hand-lettering quotes. “I also had to get permission to use certain characters that come from books published after 1923,” she says, “because of copyright law. There have been a lot of steps involved in actually creating the book.” Ms. Hahn truly captures the spirits of literary characters like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan. Here, she discusses her approach to creating the book…

Why the literary angle? I had a solo show about two years ago called A Thousand Ships, which is a play off of the famous Christopher Marlowe poem about Helen of Troy, ‘the face that launch’d a thousand ships.’ I was just interested in the idea that Helen of Troy could be so beautiful, that her beauty held so much power. And I decided to expand upon that and explore literary heroines that made an impact. I decided rather than focus on Helen of Troy too much, since she didn’t have much of a voice, that it would be great to hand-letter quotes from the dialogue of these beloved heroines that we are so inspired by when we read their words.

How did you go about deciding which heroines would be included in the book? For [A Thousand Ships], I did a small little vignette of characters – probably 8-10 characters, and those were just favorites from my memory of books that I have read over the years. And then when I got the book deal, Chronicle said, “Lets do 50.” So I kind of cast my net across the Western canon and a bit beyond. I had to read actually quite a few new books. It was great to incorporate treasured favorites and also get to know some new characters as well.

Tell us about the timeline from start to finish. I got the book deal winter of 2011. It has been a year and a half of just illustrating the characters, hand-lettering the quotes. I was also getting permission to use certain characters that come from books that were published after 1923, because of the copyright law. There have been a lot of steps involved in actually creating the book – it is actually one of the longest-term projects I have ever worked on. Mainly with illustration, there’s a quick turnaround for a publication like a magazine.

Which character in the book do you personally relate to most? It’s so hard to say! There are so many that I love. The book is a range of characters. There are some that are more mature women dealing with societal constraints and motherhood, and I love them. And I also really love the younger ones, like Pecola from The Bluest Eye. I also really love Edna from The Awakening and Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises. She’s on the cover.

What in-text markers did you look for in each novel to illustrate the character? I definitely looked for indicators of physical characteristics. In some books, [the characters] are described in terms of having blue eyes. And other times they aren’t described, and you are kind of left to just envision them based on their persona and their words and their emotional state. I actually preferred that, because then I could look at the time period and gather reference for period details to make it historically accurate. But my main focus was really on capturing the emotional state of the character. So I did try to be beholden to the author’s description of each character, but more than anything I think I was focused on trying to convey [each character’s] feelings.

When people have a favorite character in a book, it’s often very personal to them. Are you at all concerned that someone will have pictured a character differently than you illustrate her? That occurred to me, but I feel that even if somebody envisioned the character with brown hair instead of blonde hair, maybe they can connect with the emotions that they’re seeing. I hand-lettered their words from their dialogue, so I feel that hopefully if somebody sees their favorite character, her words will resonate with them.


About Michelle Phelan

A graduate of Columbia College, Michelle Phelan spent a year as an intern at TCW. She's contributed to a variety of articles in dining, fashion, health and more.