The Heroine in True Grit


In 1967 Charles Portis published True Grit: A Novel. The story is told from the POV of Mattie Ross, a 14 year-old girl. The novel is considered by many to be one of the great works of American fiction. The book was converted into a movie with John Wayne in 1969. The story was retold in other movies and by the Coen brothers in 2010.

There have been many questions about how should a male writer portray a female character or vice-versa? How should writers of one ethnicity write characters of different ethnicity? I think we can talk about Mattie Ross to spark a conversation about these topics. The author wrote Mattie as a headstrong youngster seeking justice for the murder of her father. She has found out that the murderer, Tom Chaney, has joined with a band of violent brigands and retreated into lawless lands. She knows she needs the help of a strong violent man. She finds Rooster Cogburn, and with the help of Texas lawman LaBoeuf they take off into the wilderness in pursuit of the killers.

Mattie is not shown as a superhuman fighter. She does use her father’s handgun on occasion to defend herself, but is not shown as expert or unstoppable in the use of force. This, I think, is a telling way to show characters. They have weaknesses, and are good at some things, and less good at others. Rooster Cogburn is shown as a drunk and incompetent at times. No character is perfect, but each character is driven to achieve their goals.

One major aspect of Portis’ portrayal of Mattie is to show her in old age as a bitter, penny-pinching spinster. I don’t have a critique of this character arc, but I wanted to mention it. I still believe the character of Mattie makes a valuable model for building characters. They are not superhuman. They have strengths and they have flaws. Mattie Ross is a memorable character because she was an ordinary person who had to perform extraordinary deeds to achieve her goals.



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