Funny, impetuous, kind, loyal, brave, smart… gee, Ella sounds pretty great to us. Let's take a look at what makes her so lovable:
Ella isn't exactly what you'd call meek or mild. She may have to obey every order she's given, but she doesn't make it easy on the person doing the ordering. Like, when Mandy tells her to hold a bowl:
I'd hold the bowl, but move my feet so she would have to follow me around the kitchen. She'd call me minx and try to hem me in with more specific instructions, which I would find new ways to evade. … We'd end happily—with me finally choosing to do what Mandy wanted, or with Mandy changing her order to a request. (1.27-28)
We actually learn a lot about Ella from this. First, she's got a sense of humor. Sure, they end "happily," but it's also that Ella comes up with creative, inventive ways to defy the orders. This creativity is one of the things that Char ends up loving about her.
Second, even though Mandy is Ella's fairy godmother and loves her, Ella still feels the need to resist her orders. She's just got spirit, you know? But it always feels like a game, and the fact that it plays out between sympathetic characters means that it's kinda cute instead of life-threatening ("Take one step closer to the cliff. Now stop. Okay, one more step!")
Plus, based on the descriptions of Mandy's delicious cooking, we'd give in and be her kitchen helpers, too.
Ella grew up wild in another sense: she wasn't indoctrinated with all that etiquette nonsense that noble women are apparently supposed to excel at in Kyrria. As Ella's dad observes (after she breaks an expensive crystal wine goblet): "I've let you grow up an oaf" (5.17).
And, sure enough, once Ella gets to finishing school, she's pretty awful at everything they make her do. Sewing Mistress compares her stitches to ogre's teeth, while Manners Mistress likes to tell her that her laughter is unseemly.
Being unseemly isn't all bad, though. Ella bonds with Char when they explore a funky old castle and slide down stair rails together. Life's a lot more fun when you don't have to follow every boring rule about how to act properly, and a lot more rewarding when you get to make your own decisions (even if they're sometimes the wrong ones). Which, now that we think of it, is one of the book's points: like Ella, nobody should be forced to follow the rules all the time.
No wonder Ella misses her mom so much. They're more like sisters than mother and daughter: they used to slide down banisters and swim in the river, talk and laugh, not to mention play tricks on the servants. (Hm, wonder how the servants liked that?)
Best of all? Lady Eleanor rarely gave her daughter orders.
We get the sense that Lady Eleanor wanted to let her daughter develop in her own way. She could have used Ella's curse to force Ella into becoming the kind of proper, well-behaved lady who would earn straight As at finishing school, but instead she let Ella find her own path. In return, Ella probably found it pretty easy to obey the few orders her mom gave. In fact, we bet she would have obeyed them even without a curse.
When Ella's mom dies, though, Ella is stuck with her dad, who insists on making her presentable in polite society. Ella goes along with his plans to send her to finishing school because she knows her dad would probably win that particular battle of wills, though he doesn't give a direct order: "It was a taste of obedience without an order, and I didn't like it any better than the Lucinda-induced kind." (5.40)
Similarly, when Ella's dad tries to marry her off to the Earl of Wolleck, she goes along with the plan, but only because she's been drugged while also under an order to enjoy being obedient. After the effects of both wear off, Ella gets mad at her dad "for making such a fool of me" (19.62).
The ironic thing is that Ella ends up marrying Char, who is the highest-ranking potential husband in the land. Ella's dad couldn't have planned a better match if he'd tried—though we get the feeling that if he'd suggested it, Ella would have rebelled just on principle.
Ella's relationship with her parents tells us a lot about her personality. Like, she responds well to love, companionship, and praise—and not so well to orders, threats, and being ignored. If you want her to do something, you'd be much better off giving her a hug and asking nicely than scowling and tossing out an order.
Hm. Does that sound like anyone you know? Like, maybe yourself?
At first, the whole stepfamily thing doesn't seem so bad. Ella doesn't have to be around her dad and Dame Olga during the wedding prep, which is good since their flirtation is so disgustingly cute as to infuriate Ella: "I couldn't be with them for five minutes without wanting to scream" (20.7). (LOL. Old people in love are so gross.) Worse, Lucinda's gift to the new couple—eternal love—ensures that they'll continue to be revoltingly adorable together.
But their infatuations doesn't protect Ella from Dame Olga's greed, from Hattie's cruelty, or from Olive's neediness. Luckily, Ella manages to be resourceful in her getaways: "My most secure hideaway was the library. Although I never dared stay long, I was able to steal half hours reading Mum Olga's dusty tomes. No one ever thought to look for me there, or to visit for pleasure" (24.8).
Ella's love for learning thus gives her a nifty way to evade notice. This ties in with how she's awesome at languages: being smart gives her an edge in many situations, whether avoiding her stepfamily or outwitting ogres.
For the most part, Ella grits her teeth and bears her stepfamily's rule. She has the letters from Char to look forward to, after all, and the eventual hope that she will somehow undo her curse and be able to take her life back.
Despite the fact that she has to be careful around people, Ella is friendly and good-natured. From the moment she and Areida talk in sewing class, they become fast friends. Finishing school is awful enough that Ella thinks: "It was very cheering to have a friend" (10.27). This is significant, because Ella learned when she was just a little girl that she had to be careful with friends. It's not just that a friend might decide to play around with Ella's curse; Ella's curse could make her into a tool to attack her friends.
That's got to be pretty hard for a lonely teenager.
But Areida isn't Ella's first friend. That honor goes to Char, who she meets at her mom's funeral. And we're pretty sure she falls for him right away. When they meet up at the royal zoo, Ella decides to imitate a centaur because "I wanted to make him laugh again" (6.26). And then when she's officially in love, her good side comes out even more. See, she can't bring herself to marry him while cursed because of the damage her curse might do to him and the kingdom.
And, guess what? Ella's ability to care deeply for Char—as friend, love interest, and future ruler—is what allows her to break the curse. When her family (and he) orders her to marry him, she fights her curse deep inside: "my thought burrowed within, concentrated on a point deep in my chest, where there was room for only one truth: I must save Char" (29.63). Ella's selflessness and devotion to Char are her defining traits, and they help her break her curse. It turns out that all she needed to do all along was simply be herself.
So, despite resenting how the curse makes her obey people, and despite having a crappy home life after her mother's death, Ella still manages to love. It sounds kinda corny when we put it like this, but her ability to connect with people—with a friend like Areida, a mentor like Mandy, and a lover like Char—is ultimately what gives her the strength to save Char, and thus save herself.
It also helps to be seriously stubborn.