MIND MELD: The Best Female Characters in Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know! This week’s Mind Meld question was suggested by Jennifer Marie Brissett.]

We asked this week’s panelists the following question:

Q: Who are the best female characters in Science Fiction/Fantasy and/or Horror? What makes them the best?

And here is what they said…

(And be sure to tell us your picks in the comments section!)


N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin‘s short stories have appeared in Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons, Postscripts (forthcoming), and elsewhere. Her fantasy novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was published by Orbit.

I have a whole mental wiki full of best female characters, but since I assume there isn’t infinite space in which to list them all, I’ll limit myself to three.

First up is Anzha lyu Mitethe, from Celia S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born. She rocks because she’s born a misfit on a planet that practically worships conformity, and she overcomes incredile prejudice and physical endurance tests in order to become their world’s foremost psychic buttkicker. Which is handy, because her people are at war with misogynistic supermen, one of whom is her nemesis Zatar. I love Anzha because she’s literally willing to destroy the galaxy in order to bring him down. I just have a thing for women who are *that damn determined,* even to the point of folly.

Which is why my next fave is Mary, from Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind. All of Butler’s heroines are superb — realistically strong, fierce in the defense of those they love, etc. But Mary is my favorite because she out-Machiavellis the greatest villain Butler has ever created: the immortal soul-eating patriarch of her psychic clan, Doro. Mary’s no Madonna; she does horrible things, and is a lot more like Doro than she’s ever willing to admit. If you cross her, she will cut you and then KILL YOU WITH HER BRAIN. And that’s why I love her!

And I’ll pick one from a recent book: Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games and its sequels. Katniss isn’t the strongest or the smartest girl in the world, and she’s positively dysfunctional when it comes to handling her own emotions. But she doesn’t break, even as she’s put through enough life- and sanity-threatening horror to send whole armies into therapy. And once she fixates on a goal, you just know she’ll do it — whether that means wearing a pretty dress and “workin’ it” as if her life depended on it (which it does), or hunting down her enemies with explosive arrows. If people she cares about are at stake, she’ll do whatever it takes.

Lee Thomas
Lee Thomas is the Lambda Literary Award and Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the novels Stained, Damage, and The Dust of Wonderland, and the critically acclaimed short story collection, In the Closet, Under the Bed. Current and forthcoming titles include the novellas The Black Sun Set, Focus, and Crisis. His novel, The German, will be released in March 2011 from Lethe Press. You can find him online at www.leethomasauthor.com.

I offer this list in no particular order and readily admit it is severely abbreviated. Where is Mina Harker (nee Murray), you may ask. How dare you forget Camilla, and Claudia, and Regan MacNeil, and Rosemary Woodhouse, and Annie Wilkes, and, and, and…

Well obviously I didn’t forget them. The truth is I could write an entire reference book on powerful female characters in horror literature (and maybe I will one day), but I had neither the time nor the approval of my host here to do so. And I’m not getting into film characters, so please forgive the absence of Ripley, Alice, Laurie, and all the fine final girls the world over. These ladies come from books, and I’m drawing attention to a few of the ones that hit my ya-ya lobe.

Enjoy!

  • Eva Galli/Alma Mobley: Ghost Story by Peter Straub

    This creature, which appears throughout Straub’s book under a variety of names and wearing any number of faces, is a flat-out brilliant villain. Though brutal and manipulative, she is also a creature of immense intellect and perhaps most terrifyingly of all… patience. Her time among human beings has given her insight into their behaviors, their weaknesses, and their fears, all of which she is more than willing to exploit. Despite her cold-blooded behavior, Galli/Mobley is far from a one-note bitch queen. Throughout the book there are hints at a deeper, emotional being, but the reader is left to wonder whether there is any sincerity to her “vulnerability” or if it is simply another facet of her seductive prowess. Girl be rock! Don’t piss her off.

  • Carietta White: Carrie by Stephen King

    In his first published novel, King created a heroine/villain who instantly connected with millions of us geeks, freaks and outcasts (and scared the hell out of the douchebags who got their giggles tormenting us). Confronted by cruelty and forces she was unable to control on all sides, Carrie called on the one force she could control to define her place in the world. King imbued the character with so much pathos the reader becomes an approving spectator to her acts of vengeance – identifying with her struggles, her confusion, her pain, and her anger. This teen angst goes to 11! Crank it up.

  • Meg Wintrob: The Missing by Sarah Langan

    Neither a heroine (per se) nor a villain, Meg Wintrob is a conflicted wife and a frustrated mother, who grounds this novel so solidly that all of the supernatural mayhem surrounding her is given a palpable authenticity. Her interpersonal relationships are layered, rich and real, which brings intimacy to a sweeping novel about a plague of gluttony that could have easily spun into a grisly free-for-all. You know women like Meg. They live down the street and shop at your grocery store, and it’s the accessibility of this character that makes her so fantastic.

  • Meg Loughlin: The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

    Hey look! It’s another Meg.

    This Meg is an orphan who – along with her sister Susan – is sent to live with an unstable aunt, named Ruth. Before long, Ruth’s mental state deteriorates, and her considerable rage is focused on Meg. In order to protect her younger, physically challenged sister, Meg endures verbal abuse and physical torture at the hands of her cousins and the neighborhood children – all sanctioned and encouraged by Ruth. While Aunt Ruth is a fascinating character and her descent into bat-shit crazy is masterfully written, it is Meg’s journey that holds this story together. She is a mature child, who still manages to represent absolute innocence. She is smart and resourceful, yet cannot find her way out of the horrific situation she is forced to endure. She is brave but allows herself to be victimized. Her complexity and the reader’s investment in her character make her fate all the more disturbing.

  • Sethe: Beloved by Toni Morrison

    Yeah, Toni Morrison would kick my ass if she saw me calling her book a horror novel, but if a work contains hauntings, brutal murder, and the possibility of a revenant spirit, then a duck must be called a duck. Regardless, Sethe is an inspired, complex, and original character. She is an escaped slave, who hasn’t gotten as far away from oppression as she’d hoped. She has enslaved herself with guilt, regret, and a mother identity that is more-than-a-smidge dysfunctional. Further her past as a slave has left her with an underdeveloped sense of self. So she isn’t exactly a people person. In fact, she is incapable of interacting within her new community, or indeed to move forward in any way. She allows herself to be victimized by a spirit she believes is that of her murdered child, and by a young woman, whom she believes is that tormenting spirit given flesh. In short, the woman is a mess; but damn what a fascinating and meaningful mess she is.

  • Eleanor Vance: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

    In this novel, we have the pleasure of meeting Eleanor. She is shy and awkward and has, in her brief life, been witness to a number of unexplained occurrences. Upon being recruited to join a paranormal crew to visit the titular home, Eleanor again becomes the focus of bizarre phenomenon. Hill House fascinates her, and as the novel progresses she becomes obsessed with the place. Within those walls she feels a sense of purpose and of belonging, despite the fact her presence seems to have awakened something evil. Or has it? Subtle hints throughout the book suggest that Eleanor herself might be causing the “haunting” through an unrealized telekinetic power. This aspect of her personality is never made clear. What is clear is that Eleanor has finally found a place that accepts her, a place that wants her, and she never wants to leave it. Eleanor still walks the wood and stone of Hill House, and she walks alone.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Laura Caxton: 13 Bullets (and its sequels) by David Wellington
  • Frankie: The Rising and City of the Dead by Brian Keene
  • Rachaela: Dark Dance (from The Blood Opera Sequence) by Tanith Lee.
  • Susie Salmon: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
David Anthony Durham
David Anthony Durham has written both historical novels (Gabriel’s Story, Walk Through the Darkness) and fantasy (Acacia: The War With the Mein). He has won the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award and the Legacy award for fiction. He currently teaches in the MFA program at California State University, Fresno.

I think what makes a character great for each of us has a lot to do with timing. Characters strike us not just because of who they are, but because it’s the right moment for us to encounter them. For me, meeting Tenar from Ursula K LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan was one such encounter.

I must have been twelve or thirteen. I’d just fallen in love with fantasy because of Tolkein and Lewis, and I was on the hunt for something more. I picked up The Tombs of Atuan at a library in Annapolis. It was the wrong place to start a series – the second book, and with the focus on a character other than the real star – but I had to grab what I could.

A few pages in I knew I was in territory I hadn’t explored before. The Tombs of Atuan is quiet, somber, frighteningly focused on ritual and religion, much of it going on in underground labyrinths. The main character isn’t a man. She isn’t even boy! Fortunately, I was ready for something that was different in all these ways, and I found connections with Tenar quite readily.

Here was a child separated from her parents (I’d been separated from my dad), in the care of powerful, self-important adults (am I wrong for being reminded of school?), with religious dogma pressed heavily upon her (I’ll leave that one without further comment). Her life was not her own. She was the Eaten One. She was important, and yet for reasons she had no control over. She had a domain all her own, labyrinths that she knew more intimately than anyone else, but she had to explore them blindly. That’s how I felt about a lot of things at the time. When she did come into the power of her position… nothing much happened, which is what I feared I had ahead of me too. When Ged arrives to introduce her to a larger world I was right there with her, ready for whatever was to come.

I left the book having been intimate friends with a girl finding her identity as she became a woman. I also left knowing that I could have relationships in books that didn’t come so easily in real life – and that fantasy could be about a lot more than battling evil sorcerers. I was a different reader by the end of the book than I’d been going in. LeGuin’s Tenar had a lot to do with that.

Elizabeth Hand
Elizabeth Hand is the multiple-award-winning author of numerous novels and short fiction. Her most recent book is Illyria, published earlier this year

The Spike, in Samuel R. Delany’s Triton (also known as Trouble on Triton). She’s sexy, ambiguous, a performer and trickster figure, keenly intelligent: femme Nikita as conceptual artist. And Evelyn/Eve, the forcibly transgendered protagonist of Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, an Englishman who gets sucked into a hallucinatory whirlpool of 1960s identity/drugs/obsession/cult murder in the American West. Thecla, Sevarian’s love interest in The Book of the New Sun, is pretty good, too.

Jennifer Marie Brissett
Jennifer Marie Brissett is a writer, artist, and former independent bookstore owner. She is a graduate student in the Stonecoast MFA Program and her work can be found in Warrior Wisewoman 2, The Future Fire, Strange Horizons, and Thaumatrope. She is currently editing an anthology and working on a novel. Her website is jennbrissett.com.

Here are some of the best female characters from books, short stories, comics, TV, and film that have stuck with me over the years and still remain in my heart long after their story was through: women who, even if I didn’t really like them, had something about them that I just wanted to hang onto and maybe emulate myself.

Novels

Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia – Augustus loved the Aeneid for connecting the glories of ancient Greece to that of his Pax Romana. What Le Guin does with Lavinia is to also make the connection, but with a woman. Lavinia is a barely mentioned, minor character in Virgil’s epic poem. Le Guin breathes life into her and makes her important. Her choices-her life-becomes historically important to the founding of Rome. In all the fighting, battles, and glory, women are often forgotten. They become a small note. With this wonderful novel and character, Le Guin reminds us that every king had a mother.

Octavia Butler’s Anyanwu from Wild Seed, Lilith Iyapo from Xenogenis series or Lilith’s Brood, and Lauren Olamina from the Parables series – I see a little of Octavia in each of these women. Strong, intelligent, capable, each of them a survivor, each of them refusing to bow down to any man or “thing” that tries to dominate them. They are adaptable, clever, and enduring.

Comics

Neil Gaiman’s Death and Delirium – Dream’s sisters in the Sandman series are two of the most compelling female characters ever created, and also among the most mysterious. The choice of making Death a woman was genius. Gaiman’s Death defies every stereotype of how “Death” is supposed to be. She is no Grim Reaper. Instead, she is an unassuming, charming, funny, and quite caring person with a very important job. And Delirium, formally Delight, is all butterflies and confusion. You want to care for her, look after her, make sure that she’s okay. Then little glimpses of her former self emerges, she shocks you with how powerful and ancient she actually is. What happened to make her Delirium, I’ve never been quite clear on. It must have been something bad, because just being her old self for just a few moments makes her say, “it hurts.”

Harley Quinn, or Harlequin – I’ve always had a soft spot for Harley. She is one lovable, scary chick. I love to see her humor, strange as it is, and her loyalty, and even her heartache. She does try to straighten up, but it’s so hard since her “switch has been tripped.” As crazy as she is, there is a little piece of every woman in her. Intelligent and yet so twisted out by her love of the Joker, or “Mister J,” she can’t think straight. I’m mean, she is totally nuts and yet I really feel for her as a person. I think Batman does, too.

TV and Film

Firefly’s Zoë, Inara, Kaylee, and River – Taken as a group they are a glorious vision of women. They live with their men. They love their men. But they are never ruled by their men. They plot their own paths. Each woman is so different. They live their lives with a beauty and grace unique to themselves. Zoë the warrior is ready to love and fight within a single breath. She marries a man who makes her laugh, defies her Captain. She is beautiful lady with a good left hook. Inara can never be defined as simply a prostitute. She chooses her clients, be they male or female. Her sexuality. Her rules. Her choices. Kaylee the mechanic has a natural instinct with machines. She is wonderfully childlike, but make no mistake, she has all the desires and maturity of a full-grown woman.

Buffy the Vampire Slayers‘ Willow – I just adore Willow. When we first meet her, she is a shy, nerdy, quirky high-school girl. Watching her grow up from the awkwardness of not getting a date, to her first boyfriend, to her first girlfriend, to developing her powers, was just glorious to behold. From black-haired-scary Willow to white-haired-transcendent Willow, this character is a beautiful examination of how a girl becomes a woman.

Star Trek‘s Lt. Nyota Uhura – Although we don’t get to know her very well, what we do get to see is fascinating. At first she seems like a glorified secretary. But the first time I saw her fixing a circuit (in the episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?“) and telling Spock that she’s going as fast as she could and this was delicate work that she hasn’t done in years, I was shocked-she’s an engineer!! I knew right then I wanted to be an engineer, too. And just to set the record straight, when Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock were off the ship, it was Uhura who was next in line to be in command, NOT Scotty. She only gets to take command in the cartoon version of Star Trek (see the episode “The Lorelei Signal“). I guess her importance is that she is ground-breaking. In a time where there were very few images of strong capable women in the future, there was Uhura. She still holds a very special place in my heart. She was the first woman (and a black woman at that) that I ever knew in science fiction. Her image has stayed with me my entire life.

Other women I think are really cool, too
  • Pat Murphy’s Rachel from “Rachel in Love” (Short Story)
  • Jeffrey Ford’s Anna from “The Empire of Ice Cream” (Short Story)
  • Alan Moore’s Promethea (Comics)
  • Star WarsPrincess Leia (Film)
  • Ellen Ripley and Pvt. Vasquez from the film Aliens (Film)
Nancy Holder
Nancy Holder is the New York Times bestelling author of the Wicked series, written with Debbie Viguie. She and Viguie have also sold two more series — Crusade, to Simon and Schuster; and The Wolf Springs Chronicles, to Delacorte. Recent short story sales include “Letters to Romeo” in Immortal and “By the Book” in More Stories from the Twilight Zone. She has won four Bram Stoker Awards and teaches in the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine.

You come to me shortly after I’ve written a(nother) new essay about my love for the Matter of Joss Whedon(for Whedonistas, which will be published by Mad Norwegian Press in March 2011.) My interest in the strong and powerful woman who is Buffy Summers (the Vampire Slayer) has stayed with me through the years.

Buffy isn’t the first strong female character to make a popular culture splash. We’ve had Nancy Drew, Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Jaime Summers (AKA the Bionic Woman) and Xena, to name a few.

Xena was a badass on Hercules before Buffy came to the small screen; and Ripley saved the day in 1979. Captain Janeway steered Voyager with the command of a leader (although, I swear poor Kate Mulgrew, forced to stand around with her hands on her hips, seemed like she was channeling Jane Curtain’s Conehead alien.)

Xena lives in an othertime; Captain Janeway and Ripley are spacers. Lois Lane and Jaime Summers live in the Everlasting Present, where the reality of the audience’s “real world” is never directly addressed. But when she came on the scene, Buffy did live in the (relatively) real world that the audience inhabits, with riffs on current pop culture, bands, other shows, and the occasional self-referential comment that breaks the fourth wall (“It’s just another Tuesday night in Sunnydale.”)

The first time I saw Buffy hit not a guy, but another girl, with a total roundhouse that was met by same, I was stunned and, actually, exhilarated. Buffy fought like a guy! This was the real, direct stuff, mano a mano, and not the weird occult vengeance of evil witches or the sinister employment of the feminine wiles of femmes fatales. Such machinations smacked of Otherness, underhandedness, circuitous manipulation. Some of the powerful women of pop culture are introduced as such in a sideways manner: Xena is aggressive because she’s messed up (at least, on Hercules); even Sydney Bristow can get her Charlie’s Angels on in the jiggle department. And while it’s true that there is/was a Buffy drinking game where you have to down a shot every time you see Buffy’s bra strap, she rarely employs her hubba-hubba vixen powers to shut down/entrap her enemies. She isn’t much about entrapment. She’s about full-frontal demolition.

Sidney Bristow, Buffy, Lara Croft–all these characters were remarked upon as they appeared on the stage, analyzed in academic journals and pop culture venues such as Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide. Each one was greeted as a novelty; then over time, a trend. Then the trend became regularized, such that subordination to a male lead did not inevitably diminish their power. I’m thinking of Zoe on Firefly/Serenity.

In print fiction, the woman genre protagonist has also become a norm, so that now we have a well-defined Urban Fantasy genre/subgenre where women hunt monsters, bring down crime syndicates, retrieve artifacts, and find missing relatives with or without a Xander or an Angel to lend a hand. One of my favorite kickass heroines is Dawn Madison of the Vampire Babylon series. I also like Anita Blake, Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan, and Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville. (I sing the body Bombshell, a Harlequin line I wrote for, that featured kickass heroines. Alas, we were marketed as romances to romance readers, and we so very much were not. Our intentions were redressed as Rogue Angel, published under Harlequin’s Gold Eagle imprint, and doing well, last I heard.)

Much has been written about Mina Harker of Dracula, many scholars asserting that she is a quintessential Victorian Angel in the Home while her friend Lucy Westenra pays the price for behaving like an emergent New Woman with her flirtatious attitude (and a job!) Mina gets a husband and a baby. Lucy gets vampirism, and death.

I would posit that Mina, though sweet, docile, and fairly sexless, is actually not just an Angel but a New Nerd, competently using all the new-fangled technology available to her to compile a database for use against Count Dracula. Meet technogeek Willow Rosenberg a hundred years later-shy and self-effacing, until computer literacy (and love) empower her. Between them we have Lt. Uhura, although she exists in a universe where women can’t become starship captains because they are prone to hysterical, insane rages when informed of that fact. Mina and Uhura begat Kaylee of Firefly/Serenity; Abby Scuito of NCIS; and Claudia Donovan on Warehouse 13-the ones who keep everyone in dilithium crystals, the wearers of the smarty-pants needed to win the day.

As time marches on, there is less fuss about strong women beating the crap out of other people; or solving the forensics mystery first; or leading the charge into the lair of the serial killer (love you, Kate Beckett.) My favorite angel, Grace Hanadarko on Saving Grace, is criticized (I say justly) for many errors in judgment including driving drunk, conniving and lying, and it is fairly hilarious (even I admit) that this teeny weeny woman can slap down three-hundred-pound bikers and cuff ‘em like calves at a junior rodeo roundup. She also “acts like a man” (sayeth the chat boards) in the bedroom, sleeping around with abandon. This has weighed against her in the opinion of many women viewers, even after her storyline suggested that maybe this was just acting out her abuse at the hands of a pedophilic priest.

Buffy doesn’t have all that complicated a backstory. She’s a Valley Girl who gets stuck with a hero gig. It changes her, and she changes it. She breaks all kinds of Slayer rules-having friends; refusing to obey the patriarchy that is the Watchers Council; sharing her power. Being a Slayer elevates her-and really does change the world. From Buffy we eventually get Beckett, who flirts, flaunts, smacks, and solves. She has two subordinate men to help her, a smart and sexy love interest, and her boss is a guy. Plus? She lives in the real world. But I’m not sure we would ever have gotten Beckett without Buffy.

And that’s what makes me love the Slayer so.

Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor is a novelist of Nigerian descent known for weaving African culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. In a profile of Nnedi’s work titled “Weapons of Mass Creation”, The New York Times called Nnedi’s imagination “stunning”. Her YA novels include Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award) and Long Juju Man (winner of the Macmillan Prize for Africa). Her first adult novel, Who Fears Death (DAW), was released June 1, 2010. Her YA novel Akata Witch (Penguin Books) and chapter book Iridessa and the Fire-Bellied Dragon Frog (Disney Press) are scheduled for release in 2011. Okorafor is a professor of creative writing at Chicago State University. Visit Nnedi at nnedi.com.

There are many great female characters out there. However, comparing them and pinpointing who is “the best” is impossible for me. So I’m going to opt to go with three female characters who stand on edges in some way (which isn’t necessarily the same as “the best”).

My all time favorite female character is Anyanwu from Wild Seed. She’s not my favorite because she’s Nigerian Igbo (as I am) or female (as I am, heh). I love her because she’s just so hardcore. I am fascinated by the complexity and precision of her shape-shifting ability. Her conflict with being long-lived and her resulting otherness are wholly believable. And I’m envious and humbled by the smarts and survival instincts she harnesses to face the institution of slavery. Lastly, there is a hardness yet softness to her that I can relate to.

Another memorable female character is Detta Walker, the alter-ego of African American gunslinger Susannah Odetta Holmes Dean in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. She was freakin’ evil, utterly irrational, smart as hell and had some serious issues with, uh, race. And she was a doer. If she decided to tie you up on a beach and leave you for giant lobstrosities to consume, she did so with gusto and no hesitation. Oh yeah, and she had the filthy mouth of a stereotypical black cartoon character that I found so hilarious I bought the audio book just to hear the reader have to shout, “Mahfah!”

Lastly, a character that immediately came to mind, though it’s been years since I read this, was Rose from the Bone graphic novel series. She is a rare older Caucasian (hey, I mentioned the ethnic group/race of the other two characters, why not this one?) woman character who is a physically tough farmer and races cows on foot for sport. She carries a sword and dagger and will use them. She will grab two huge monsters with her bare hands. In the story, she actually has a love interest and isn’t relegated to merely helping the younger female character find herself. We need grannies like her to slap some sense into characters like Bella from Twilight. And I love the fact that Rose appeared in a graphic novel targeted toward young adults. Too often in American society, elders are not given the Elder status they deserve. Rose’s character is great fun but a great lesson, too.

Gabrielle Faust
Gabrielle Faust is the author of the dark fantasy vampire series Eternal Vigilance, two collections of poetry entitled Before Icarus, After Achilles and Crossroads, and the soon-to-be-released horror novella Regret. Her short stories and editorial commentary has appeared in a variety of online and print publications such as SciFiWire, Blastr, Doorways Magazine and Fear Zone. She is currently at work on the fourth Eternal Vigilance novel, as well as the sequel to Regret. More information on Gabrielle can be found at www.gabriellefaust.com.
Science Fiction
  • Sarah Connor from The Terminator – Sarah is a survivor in the ultimate sense of the word. She is strong, intelligent, cunning, crafty and highly adaptable to any new situation whether it be technological, emotional or environmental. Growing up it was characters like Sarah Connor that I looked to for inspiration on how a woman can be just as much of a bad-ass as any man.
  • Ripley from Aliens – Like Sarah Connor in The Terminator, Ripley from Aliens is a no-nonsense, take charge personality who readily draws upon her vast array of professional and intellectual skills, as well as her life experiences, to take on one of the most fearsome alien species imagined. Death is simply not an option for Ripley and no matter how much she might want to simply give up, her stubborn drive to exterminate the Alien species won’t allow her to.
  • Lady Jessica from Dune (David Lynch version) – Lady Jessica is the embodiment if regal sophistication in the harshest of environments. She navigates through the intricate politics of her world and her family like an eel moving through dark waters. She is a force to be reckoned beneath the guise of flawless royalty.
Horror
  • Wendy Torrance from The Shining – Wendy is a peculiar character that begins with the appearance of fragility and innocence, but is forced to tap into an inner strength she probably never even knew she was capable of when faced with an unimaginable evil. Her will to survive and protect her child is wholly believable and profoundly moving. She is a testament that we are all so much stronger than we sometimes believe.
  • Clarice Starling from The Silence Of The Lambs – Clarice is a driven, intelligent, cunning character whose drive to redefine herself as more than her roots. She is determined to take on the most intense, terrifying cases and interview the most notorious serial killers, such as Hannibal Lecter, in order to ensure her place in the FBI. She is a fascinatingly complex character that holds her own in a highly competitive male-dominated career field and is definitely one of the most memorably brave female characters in horror.
  • Alice from Resident Evil – As you’ve probably noticed by my list so far, I like a woman in horror and sci-fi that can kick ass and take names and Alice never fails to supply an ample amount of heroic fearlessness to drive a crowd into a frenzy. No matter how terrifying the hordes of zombified creatures are she must combat, Alice always prevails using her cunning and intelligence combined with her ability to wield just about any weapon you put in her hand with a dexterity that is mind-blowing. If the apocalypse ever comes, Alice is definitely someone you’d want on your team…that is, if you wouldn’t want to BE Alice, as would be the case with me.
Matt Cardin
Matt Cardin ranks among the foremost authors of contemporary American horror” (Laird Barron). “Matt Cardin is the most underrated horror writer in America” (Tim Lebbon). “It’s a bold writer who, in this day and age, tries to make modern horror fiction out of theology, but Cardin pulls it off” (Darrell Schweitzer). “In the tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, Cardin’s accomplishments as a writer are paralleled by his expertise as a literary critic and theorist” (Thomas Ligotti). “Dark Awakenings offers the dream imagery of the best weird fiction but goes even further beyond the ordinary thanks to Matt Cardin’s fierce intellect” (Nick Mamatas). “Matt Cardin is becoming a kind of expert on the subject of the relationship between religion and horror” (Mario Guslandi). “Matt Cardin’s stories display a thorough appreciation of what cosmic horror is all about” (Brian McNaughton). “Matt Cardin is one of those rare horror authors who is also a true scholar and intellectual” (Jack Haringa).

The question at hand is particularly interesting to me at the moment, since I was party to a recent internet conflagration — kindled by a blog post that I made — about the issue of gender parity (and also the related issues of color and sexual identity) when making “best of” author lists. So here, as they say, we go.

First, and maybe predictably, I’ll name Ripley from the Alien movies. As the story goes, the decision to make the lead character a female came from producers David Giler and Walter Hill, who wanted to shake things up in the SF world, where male protagonists were the norm. Even a character as central as Princess Leia in Star Wars, as we’ll all recall, displayed not a small amount of damsel-in-distress-ness. The rest is of course history: Alien spawned one of SF cinema’s major franchises, and Ripley instantly became an icon.

I credit this in no small part to Sigourney Weaver’s performance. Remember that line — is it George Bernard Shaw, maybe? — that the actor’s job isn’t to make people accept that this man is Hamlet, but to accept that Hamlet is this man? I’ve long felt this is what Weaver did with the role of Ripley. She expertly channeled some sort of kick-ass female archetype, and made a major impact on our collective cultural psyche. I still dig every film in the series (the ones with her in them, I mean), and this is equally due to the facts that 1) the ballsy move by Giler and Hill was brilliant, groundbreaking, and culturally significant, and 2) aside from this load of heavy analytical baggage, the movies rock with endless awesomeness.

Second — and representing quite a shift — I’ll name the character of Eleanor Vance from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Has any character in any novel, whether male or female, ever exceeded the vibrant realness of this unhappy woman with her neuroses and eccentricities? The way Jackson layered Eleanor’s personal story, and especially the workings of her psyche, into the story of the title house with its sick supernatural energies is pure poetry. One can’t even imagine this classic novel without Eleanor standing right at its center, bound in a deep, dark, and apparently organic relationship to Hill House.

And of course the character’s cachet wasn’t hurt at all by the fact that Julie Harris did a splendid job of embodying her in the superlative 1963 film adaptation. I can’t help speculating that maybe Eleanor’s spirit really did [SPOILER ALERT!] survive her bodily death in the car crash at the novel’s climax, and went on to perpetuate herself on film. Because in addition to Harris’s admirable portrayal, Lily Taylor provided another excellent interpretation of Eleanor in the otherwise execrable (enraging, disastrous, vomit-inducing) second film version that was crapped onto movie screens in 1999. Even this travesty couldn’t smother Eleanor’s charm. She remains an icon in the genre.

Finally — and shifting still further from Ripley — I’ll name Meg Murray, the protagonist of the first two books in Madeleine L’Engle’s classic Time series of young adult SF/fantasy novels. The significance of Meg, and of these books in general, was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when I chaired the panel on religion and worldbuilding at ArmadilloCon 32. At one point I mentioned L’Engle and A Wrinkle in Time (the series’ inaugural book) as examples of an author and a novel that elegantly and organically worked religion into a fictional-fantastical vision. When I asked how many people at this well-attended panel had read the book, hands went up all over the room. As memory serves, it was well-nigh one hundred percent.

This adds further support a phenomenon that I noticed when I taught English at a public high school from 2001 to 2008: people are still reading A Wrinkle in Time, and also its sequel, A Wind in the Door, and also the other books in this series. These titles are still in print — in regularly updated editions — and are stocked on the young adult shelves of bookstores everywhere. And this means Meg is still expanding her domain in the minds of young people today, even as she remains a cherished character to the two or three generations of readers who have known and loved her since A Wrinkle in Time first appeared in 1962.

When I was in grade school and junior high, and was learning my place in the world and finding that it seemed I was intended by God, the gods, fate, Cthulhu, or whomever to be a fanatical reader, Meg Murray became one of my closest and most trusted companions. I might even say that when I was 10, 11, and 12, she became one of my alter egos, so strongly did I like and identify with her. No, my home life wasn’t much like hers, and of course I wasn’t plunging from planet to planet and learning the wonders of the cosmos while searching for my lost physicist father, nor was I journeying into the interior of a mitochondrion accompanied by a dragon-looking cherubim in training. But I did share her excess of self-awareness and intellectual activity at a young age. I did feel myself a misfit and a loner for awhile. And she modeled a way through all of that for me.

So: having just written all of this, I notice the progression from Ripley (the über-strong and self-possessed female warrior) to Eleanor Vance (the utterly mousy and neurotic misfit) to Meg Murray (the inferior-feeling misfit who’s like a butterfly in pupation) is an interesting and odd one. When I’m asked to name my favorite authors and books in the speculative fiction field, I generally turn to the likes of Lovecraft, Ligotti, Klein, Blackwood, etc. — the whole weird fiction or cosmic horror fiction crowd. This is a subgenre that famously features few, and sometimes no, significant female characters. So, as I told SF Signal’s John when he invited me to contribute to this Mind Meld, female characters can sometimes seem remote from my primary interests here. But as I’ve gone about answering this question, I’ve realized that females in fantasy, SF, and horror have actually been more important to me than I first thought. The mental-emotional gears are turning now, and I could add many new names to the list. But the three I’ve talked about would remain at or near the top.

21 thoughts on “MIND MELD: The Best Female Characters in Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror”

  1. I would say Buffy has to be at the top of my list, great character who we got to watch growing from a teenage girl into a young woman who never seemed to loose her feminity or miraculously become a superwoman – yeah I know she was a superhero, but she was that from the start of the show. I would also like to give the nod to every female character that Joss Whedon has written as has a great knack for writing great believable and engaging characters of both genders).

    I also really liked Sarah Conor who we got to see progress from victim to kick arse mum in a believable manner.

    The one who often gets brought up these lists who I really don’t like is Ripley simply because I don’t believe her journey, there is no real logical progression from the survivor we see in the 1st Alien film to the uber badass we see at the end of Aliens and then goes on from there.

     

  2. Helena Cain, Admiral, Battlestar Pegasus

    Honor Harrington

    Any female character written by Elizabeth Moon and Nancy Kress.

    Respects,

    S. F. Murphy

    On the Outer Marches

  3. Agree with S. F. Murphy above re: mention of Elizabeth Moon’s female characters, but would like to specifically identify Paksennarion Dorthansdotter from the Deed of Paksennarion. Paks stands out in all sorts of significant ways.

  4. I didn’t expect anyone to mentioned this one, but it’s kind of a shame.  Niles Etland, from James Schmitz’s  “The Demon Breed.”  I read the novel when it came out and she twisted my head all around about heroines.

  5. Eleanor Vance?  Fuck yeah.

    I’d also add in Regina from Stephen Baxter’s Coalescent.  Icily obsessive weirdness tipping over into megalomaniacal insanity.

  6. Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins from Jack McDevitt’s Academy novels.

    No sword-wielding, ass-kicking, or metal bras, nor is she a boy scout with tits. Just cool, savvy and resourceful.

  7. I think there are two major characters missing, in what concerns tv, at least.

    Samantha Carter, from Stargate, was pretty formidable. Throughout the years she went through an amazing personal growth. She started out as the no-nonsense, shoot-first, team’s second in command, to the sensible diplomat that eventually took command of an entire off-galaxy expedition. Not to mention she was a brilliant scientist, who demonstrated prowess not only in physics and engineering, but also dabbled in biology and linguistics. She faced her personal demons, mended her relationship with an estranged father, faced heavy losses, handled messy feelings and set an impossibly high bar on SGC – heck, she was the one who made the SG project possible to begin with!

     

    Also off the lists is the amazing Susan Ivanova, from Babylon 5. She was the kickass right arm to Sinclair and Sheridan, led a rebellion, commanded a warship, overcame a freakishly messed up past, neved had a love that didn’t end tragically and – here’s the huge thing – she had a gay relationship back in the day when it was a tv no-no. Sure, it wasn’t directly shown, no kissing, the most they pushed it was showing a supposed “morning after” shot, but everyone got the point and afterwards she actually said it. Huge deal in the mid 90’s – before Will kissed Jack on Will and Grace and caused an uproar, before Queer as Folk, before The L-Word. The chick was a hardass trailblazer.

  8. Shan Franklin is definitely another good one.  Susan Ivanova is yet another. 

    Respects,

    S. F. Murphy

    On the Outer Marches

  9. While I agree with several of the women already suggested, there are a few that I feel are missing.

     

    I really like Tiffany Aching from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld spin off.

    She’s strong, makes mistakes, owns up to what she does, and her biggest asset is common sense. She’s my favorite woman in my favorite series.

     

    Cersei from George RR Martin’s the Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones is the best villian I’ve ever read. I hate her so much I’ve grown rather partial to her.

     

    Honor Harrington needs more love.

  10. Jame (P. C. Hodgell)

    Lauren Olamina (Octavia Butler)

    Signe Raghildsdatter (Charles Whitmore)

    Rowan (Rosemary Kirstein)

    Sibby (Joyce Ballou Gregorian)

    White Crow (Mary Gentle)

  11. Lots of great suggestions! Here’s my additions to this list of smart, tough women:

    Gracie Law – Big Trouble in Little China (admittedly not an obvious choice, but you’ve got to give her a lot of credit: a human rights lawyer who relentlessly stands up for her poor clients, even when she’s captured, tied up and surrounded by demons and gangsters, she still tries to take a bite out of the badguys or throw an elbow into someone’s gut)

    Delenn – Babylon 5

    Admiral Jane Roland – the Temeraire novels by Naomi Novik

    Brawne Lamia – Hyperion by Dan Simmons

     

  12. Right now I’m reading Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, and there’s a really cool female character in it (to name her would be a serious spoiler, though). Other great characters are Arya Stark from ASoIaF, Sofia Mendes from Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow/Children of God and — following my rather generous definition of fantasy — Imma Spoelmann from Thomas Mann’s Royal Highness ( a novel that definitely needs to be filmed with Inés Efron playing Imma).

  13. Here’s my three cents:

    Buffy Summers; in every generation there is a chosen one…  Buffy is chosen to be the Slayer, to be the sole buffer between the supernatural world and the human world.  She doesn’t choose her life but she does embrace her destiny.  It’s the heroes journey told from a new perspective.  Although she is surrounded by people who love her, she always feels isolated by the power she wields and the decisions she’s forced to make.  She is the best because she is the hero, she takes the journey, she evolves, passing through the fire to be someone stronger, a leader and a role model.

    Karrin Murphy, Sergeant (previously Lieutenant) within the Special Investigations division of the Chicago Police Department – The Dresden Files.  Karrin Murphy chooses to protect people from the ‘weird’.  The more she understands about the supernatural world, the less she likes it but the more fiercely protective she becomes.  Her strength comes from a solid moral compass and center that is (mostly) uncompromising.  She is always there to tell Dresden when he is going off the reservation and sometimes, to follow him and be his guide back.

    Moiraine Damodred, Aes Sedai of the Blue Ajah – The Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan.  Moiraine, niece to King Laman who caused the Aiel War when he cut down Avendoraldera, a cutting from the Tree of Life that had been gifted to the city of Cairhien.  She went to the White Tower at 16 and became “pillow-friends” Siuan Sanche, future Amyrlin.  Moiraine is ‘the wizard’ at the beginning of this tale, keeping secrets and using people (much like Gandalf might), but her character and her role change over time.  She is forced by circumstances to grow beyond what she knew or thought she knew and embrace a destiny that would’ve sent most folks running for the hills.

    Ellen Ripley – Alien/Aliens.  Um – She’s Ripley.  “Get away from her you bitch!”  Nuff said.

    Sarah Connor – Terminator / Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Okay, you’re living your life, stuff’s going all right, maybe not perfect but hey – it’s a life, and then suddenly everything gets flipped upside down and some crazy Austrian robot starts stalking you and trying to kill you.  Turns out, your kid that isn’t even born yet is going to be leader of the human resistance when the machines take over, so they sent robo-killer back in time to kill you before you can squeeze the kid out this changing the future and securing machine superiority.  How do you respond?  Become a kick-ass warrior mom that no one with half a brain should ever mess with, that’s what.

    Kahlan Amnell, the Mother Confessor for the Midlands – Sword of Truth series from Terry Goodkind.  As a Confessor, Kahlan is higher than King’s & Queen’s when it comes to justice.  Her power, the ability to ‘touch’ a person and ‘confess’ them, turns that person into a slave who is eternally devoted to the Confessor. That power, normally reserved for someone who has been sentenced to death, is used so that all may know their innocence, or guilt. It is also used to take a mate, for the Confessor’s mate must be willing to kill his child should a male Confessor ever be born, and only someone completely under the will of the Confessor could do that. 

    Wonder Woman (Diana Prince) – DC Comics.  Wonder Woman is.. WONDER WOMAN!  COME ON!

    ~P
    @atfmb

  14. What about Friday? (R. Heinlien)  No hot house plant here.  More than able to hold her own against, and along side, the men.  

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