MIND MELD: Our Favorite Female Protagonists and Why They Rock
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
While it is important to recognize women writers in genre, it is ultimately the characters in the stories and novels that we read that draw our imaginations. With that in mind, in what has been often seemingly a dominated field, strong female protagonists sometimes get short shrift. So let’s hear it for female heroes!
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
I look for agency in any protagonist—for example, bucking macro- or micro-level subjugation either through subversion or direct rebellion. Many of the female characters I’ve loved over the years developed into strong protagonists by rejecting the dominant culture and finding alternate paths to personal fulfillment. Others have taken more direct routes toward claiming their agency, or have worked on behalf of large marginalized groups.
Onyesonwu is the eponymous protagonist of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death–a woman born into a violent world, conceived of war rape. It’s no wonder, then, that her personality is less likeable and more powerful; that power is fueled by both anger and magic. Her decisions reflect her position as a biracial women in the midst of a genocidal war, and the effects of her violent conception ripple out through the entire novel. It’s through Onyesonwu’s strength that the book explores oppression and the inherent power of story.
Deathless, by Catherynne Valente, features Marya Morevna, a protagonist who begins as a passive romantic conquest and grows into a cruel general in an army fighting against the Tsar of Death. Her found ferocity adds depth and complexity to her character, landing this novel squarely in my “favorite books” pile; I’ve reread it several times to savor Marya’s evolution. In particular I delighted in the layered, shifting relationships between Marya and the men she loves, Koschei and Ivan. Take, as an example, a delicious bit of dialogue from Marya:
“You will not move. You will not try to loosen my knots. You will suffer for me, as I suffered for you. Then I will know that your submission to me is total, and true. That you are worthy of me.”
A quieter example of strength: Vimbai of Ekaterina Sedia’s House of Discarded Dreams. Tired of her parents’ Zimbabwean politics and the tensions of her own bi-cultural identity, she moves away from her family’s home and into a house with other passionate young people searching for a place in the world. Through the chaotic surreality of the story emerges an intense internal conflict; Vimbai must work to reconcile aspects of her life that, at the beginning of the book, she believed were impossible to integrate. It’s through her initial decision to claim her agency that she also claims room enough to contemplate her complex cultural identity.
For me, a strong character uses the resources she has at hand to make the best decisions she can. Sometimes this goes along with being exceptionally smart or physically fit, but not always. Here are a few different examples.
Kivrin Engle in The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis: I’d have to spoil the book to talk in more than the broadest generalities, but I love her for her adaptability, resilience, determination, and kindness. She isn’t physically strong in the way that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Wonder Woman are strong, but she has amazing endurance for both physical and emotional hardship, and she keeps fighting adversity even when it seems like all hope is lost.
Redwood in Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston: Redwood’s got magic, which is a wonderful thing, but to me her strength is her adaptability and her sense of self. She acts in ways that are true to her wants and needs and personality, while also trying to understand and tolerate others. She’s swept up in a time of great change, and while she is more than equal to the task of changing with the times, she also always remains herself.
Desiree in “The Horrid Glory of Its Wings” by Elizabeth Bear: Okay, honestly, I could probably name any female character in Bear’s work (Percival in the Jacob’s Ladder Trilogy, Samarkar in the Eternal Sky series, Abby Irene in the New Amsterdam series…), but I count this among my favorite stories ever, so I’m going to stick with it. Desiree is an HIV positive teen. She’s never been physically strong, since she’s been sick for her entire life. What makes her a strong character to me is her curiosity, her willingness to do difficult things to help a friend, and the way that she actively decides her fate.
Coraline in Coraline by Neil Gaiman: Though she’s only a fairly ordinary little girl, Coraline is a great character because she literally manages to overcome evil and save her parents. She definitely doesn’t have the advantage in this fight, since the Other Mother is much older, bigger, and stronger than Coraline. Also, she has magic. Lots of it. Despite all that, Coraline makes her own decisions and doesn’t let the Other Mother control her thoughts or actions, even when it seems like the easiest thing to do.
Mor in Among Others by Jo Walton: Mor is definitely not in top fighting condition. After an accident that killed her twin sister, she’s got a lot of pain (both physical and emotional), and needs a cane to help her walk. Mor is definitely a strong character, though. She has strong opinions, and throughout the book she looks for ways to get what she wants out of life, and then she takes action.
Miranda and Nell in The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson: Nell starts out as a little girl in a pretty terrible situation, but she gets herself out of it (and her brother, too!), and grows into a young woman with autonomy. She doesn’t let any group of people define her existence. Miranda, meanwhile, has less chance to take direct action, since she’s stuck using the script that’s been given to her in her job as an actor, but she still infuses her words with personality, and watches over Nell as much as she can. By the end of the story, both women have come a long way and gained a lot of autonomy because of their choices.
La Gorda in “La Gorda and the City of Silver” by Sabrina Vourvoulias: This one makes a good case for strength sometimes having a lot to do with physical buffness. La Gorda is a fat girl who’s been raised by lucha libre wrestlers. Her society tells her that women should care for others and leave fighting to the men, but she’s upset by injustice and crime in her neighborhood, so she ignores that restriction and ends up being one of the most fearsome vigilante heroes I’ve ever read about.
I love a good female protagonist. What makes a strong female protagonist? Well, that’s easy. The question should be reformed like this: What makes a strong protagonist? It’s the same: male/female/genderless. The protagonist must be intelligent first and foremost. She must make the right choices, based on what she knows. (She can make dumb choices if she doesn’t have all the information through no fault of her own.) She must be the equal of the antagonist in all ways. She should be aware of her weaknesses and she needs to work around them in one way or another—either with the help of a friend or companion or to stay away from situations where her weaknesses matter. She doesn’t have to be physically strong; but she does need to be mentally strong. And she must also use her strengths to her advantage. If she’s pretty, she needs to be aware of that and use it. If she’s a good physicist, she needs to use that. And so on.
As for strong female protagonists, the urban fantasy writers are doing the best job with that right now. (Although I would be remiss if I don’t mention the main character of my Diving series, whom everyone calls Boss.) I like Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels, Adrian Phoenix’s Heather Wallace, and Phaedra Weldon’s Zoë Martinique. In current sf, I read all of Jack McDevitt’s Priscilla Hutchins novels. And as a standalone, the sf character who probably had the most impact on my own writing is Octavia Butler’s Dana from Kindred. There are a million strong female heroines in mystery series, and a lot in the sf short fiction realm.
I truly wish we would get to parity, so that we don’t have to do these kinds of questions any more. A strong protagonist is a strong protagonist is a strong protagonist, and we all need to remember that.
I could write a long list, featuring everything from Urban Fantasy heroines, to heroines in my favorite Science Fiction novels but I’ll keep it short, and list the two that have a special place in my heart. Namely Aren from Hob’s Bargain by Patricia Briggs, and Cassandra from The Shalador Duology by Anne Bishop.
The reason that I like them so much, is tied in to what a strong female protagonist is to me.
For me, a strong female protagonist isn’t about having a lot of power, being sexy or kicking ass. No, it is more how they react to the hardships of life.
Cassie and Aren are ordinary women that know that life has its ups and downs. They are leaders, and are willing to make sacrifices, but they are also wise enough to know that they cannot do everything alone. They work within their communities, and do their best to show that the unfamiliar isn’t necessarily evil.
Hands down, Deryn/Dylan Sharp, the Leviathan series [Scott Westerfeld]. Barking spiders! I am in love with this girl. I am in love with how she manages not to have a recognizably female bone in her body, and yet is so believably a girl. She is fearless and smart and absolutely belongs in the male world she has infiltrated. But her voice–oh, her voice–is a delight. So filled with attitude and spunk. I first listened to the amazing Alan Cumming’s reading of this series, but immediately ordered each book in hardcover as they came out, so that I could go back and reread for myself and enjoy the illustrations, to boot.
Kivrin Engle, The Doomsday Book [Connie Willis]. I dragged this book into every meeting I took in LA when producers were asking me, “What do you want to do? Any pet projects?” Kivrin dug a hole in my heart and has never let go. She has a different kind of fierce strength from Deryn, and is confronted with horrors that require a different kind of courage. But her faith–oh, her faith. I get misty-eyed just thinking about her and this book.
Meg Murry, A Wrinkle in Time [Madeleine L'Engle]. She owned me first. Meg was smarter than I was and had a far more interesting family, and yet I felt like she was me. I lived breathlessly through her adventures and felt the universe open and sing when she understood the true power she possessed. She inspired me, and I returned to her book again and again for several years.
For me, a strong female Protagonist is about being true to who she is at her core, and is written by a writer who can pull that off. I loved Angelina Jolie’s kickass role in Mr and Mrs Smith, but in books I need more. And I admire writers who create characters who are braver than I am, smarter than I am and more coordinated than I am, yet make me believe I could be them, for just that period of time it takes to live in their world. But I particularly love writers who can look at a character, at the world they live in, at their position in society and their view of themselves, and find unique ways to explore their heroism.
When I was a girl, and we won’t get into how long ago that actually was, I loved my fantasy but there was a sad lack of really good female characters. Oh, there were a few, but mostly they were all goody goody and pure, ladylike and…actually not like real people, not like the girls I knew, or was, or indeed am right now. Oh there were one or two – Kitiara springs to mind as a woman who knew what she wanted and to hell with anyone who got in her way – but it was vanishingly rare, in the books I had available anyway. It was, perhaps, one of the reasons I wandered away from SFF. Maybe, maybe not. It’s too long ago to recall with much clarity, but I wandered away for other books and characters.
That all changed with the book that brought me back to SFF, for good. I was introduced to a big, fat book called the Chronicles of Morgaine by CJ Cherryh. Now, Morgaine wasn’t the point of view character, but by Odin’s shaggy beard, she was great. Interesting, complicated, influential, scary, mysterious. She made things happen. A great character who just happened to be also female.
She – okay her and Vanye because I had a soft spot for him too – got me back into SFF with a vengeance. This was closely followed by my first Pratchett and I was hooked. What character of Pratchett’s isn’t great? But the real standout feature of his books is that women are there, described and portrayed just as elegantly as the men. They have the same flaws, the same goals, the same – and I have to say I have come to loathe this word, even as I agree with it being needed – agency. The great part of all his characters, to my mind, is that they are real and recognisable. I know people just like them (okay, without the magic). But I know a Magrat, and a Granny, a Tiffany and a Sybil. I’ve been mates with an Adora Belle and a Cheery. I want to be Nanny when I get older, though my husband has requested I manage without the “being widowed” part, or the oodles of children.
Characters like this opened the doors and now I get to read more great characters, who just happen to be also female. But as with first love, those are the ones that stick with me, because they helped me fall in love with SFF all over again.
I have lots of favourite female protagonists: Arya Stark, Nyx from God’s War by Kameron Hurley, Catelyn Stark, Lady Jessica of the Atreides, Monzcaro Murcatto to name a few. My favourite of all has to be one that’s been trotted out many times but I think is still an outstanding example of what combines all the characteristics of a good character, regardless of gender: Ellen Ripley.
I first watched Aliens (before I saw Alien) when I was 11, roughly the same age as the character Newt. I watched it again and again and it’s still my favourite film, despite scaring the pants off me when I was very young. Seeing a kid in a horror film always brings out protective urges, but being a small child is downright terrifying, and the yearning for a hero is genuine.
Ripley was a maternal, nurturing figure. But she was also fiercely protective without having particularly badass skills or abilities, she was as physically weak as most people, it was her determination that spurred her on. She was resourceful, not because of any qualifications or experiences but because she had good old common sense…and the threat of total annihilation by xenomorphs to keep her focused. She was not overtly sexy, but had her own particular magnetism. You wanted her and Hicks to hit it off, they did strike some kind of spark, and it was enough to satisfy. There’s no requirement for a full blown relationship, not even a kiss, in the midst of a struggle for survival.
The ‘strong female character’ has been among us for as long as I’ve been alive, at least in the form of Sigourney Weaver’s performances as Ripley in the Aliens Quadrilogy. It’s not a new concept but it seems to have drawn a lot of discussion in recent times. Having two small children myself it’s hard to escape from the Disney franchise and their repeated portrayals of fragile princesses waiting to be saved or validated by a man in some way. If that’s all we’ve got to inspire us in our storytelling then no wonder it’s hard to come up with ‘strong female characters’, but it’s not.
A strong female character is the same as any strong character, she just happens to be female. We shouldn’t ignore someone’s gender, in the same way we wouldn’t ignore their heritage or upbringing – it all affects who they are, but neither should it be the focus nor a hindrance to telling a good tale. Women are not tropes, much as Hollywood would often have us believe. As GRRM says, women are people.
What’s a strong female protagonist anyway? Is she physically strong? Is she a badass fighter? Does she dominate every scene she’s in? Possibly that’s what some people look for. I’ve personally got a few not-quite-overlapping criteria and I still sometimes find characters who exist outside but still make me want to stand up and cheer.
In general when thinking about strong female protagonists (which I do a lot), I keep an eye out for a character who isn’t interested in being defined by the other people in her life (usually the men)– and if the setting tries to impose that definition on her, she fights it and wins. (It matters that she wins, because this is fiction; inescapable destiny is just an author deciding that the destiny is more interesting than the protagonist’s agency.)
Now, that’s a pretty narrow definition in modern fiction and can leave the ol’ Strong Female Protagonist Shelf kind of sparse. So here’s another definition: A strong female protagonist is one who wins on her own terms, through her own struggles. That opens up the field quite a bit more. You can include all sorts of characters with that.
So here are a few female protagonists who represent everything I love in a strong lead.
- Tiffany Aching, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. I’m actually a fan of most of Terry Pratchett’s major female characters, all of whom are motivated by something other than their relationships with men. Most often, they’re motivated by injustice, by wrongs somebody has to deal with and nobody but them will. This is made most explicit in the Tiffany Aching stories, where as a 9 year old she witnesses the death of a supposed witch alone in the snow and decides she’ll become a real witch to make sure nobody else suffers that way.
- Ista, Queen-Mother of Chalion, from Paladin of Souls. I bought Paladin of Souls in hardcover when I saw what it was about, and I don’t usually do that. But Paladin of Souls takes a minor character from a previous novel, the sort of character who only exists to be a tutelary example to a male protagonist, and gives her a completely new story of her own. Even better, she’s not a young woman. But at a point when her world considers her story finished and her only role symbolic, she wants more and she sets out to find it.
- Aislinn from Wicked Lovely. Aislinn can see faeries. Aislinn has a destiny, although she doesn’t know it at first. She’d like to be an ordinary high school girl, but both she and a helpful supporting character have what it takes to be on this list. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. It didn’t go the direction I grimly expected. And that’s all I’ll say.
- Kitty Norville from the same-titled series. Kitty is a werewolf, but she doesn’t start out strong, not at all. She becomes strong, and for the best of reasons: because she needs herself to be. And that’s a really important story to tell.
When I was invited to participate in a Mind Meld asking “Who are your favorite female protagonists?” and “What makes for a strong female protagonist?” I wondered: would other readers think of my favorites as strong?
Many of my net-friends, my reader-friends, crave characters who can physically dominate every threat. They desire feminine protagonists who are quick to confront their foes. Men and women both, these readers demand tough-bodied, tough-minded heroines breaking free from cultural restraints. They demand active, not passive, protagonists in female form. My favorite protagonists do not conform to this profile. Why?
These “active” characters are just too damn decisive, too quick and competent for me. What I want to read isn’t how much power someone can wield, but how much struggle they can endure, how much determination they can muster, how satisfying a life they can carve out for themselves. I don’t thrill to the action hero(ine). Male or female, my favorite protagonists are always going to be the quiet underdogs.
At 4th Street Fantasy Conversation 2013, Lois McMaster Bujold pointed out the challenge extant in writing powerful women for an underdog-loving genre. I see a lot of writers trying to solve this by giving powerful protagonists ever-more-fearsome foes. But my favorite female protagonists aren’t those plucky gals who manage to beat incredible odds, either. No, the strong characters who happen to be female whose stories I love to read are those who demonstrate loyalty, who make sacrifices, who struggle and strive.
- Emma Bull’s Eddi McCandry (War for the Oaks) is who I want to be when I grow up. She is tough and smart. Coerced by denizens of Faery, Eddi resists at every chance. Later, she recognizes, she chooses “the constraints of friendship.” Exposed to violence, she acts only to save others. When she finally enters a battle of her own, her weapon of choice is music. Eddi is my hero.
- Anne McCaffrey has long been one of my favorite authors (she was, like I am, a Relentless Brightsider). I love her Menolly of Dragonsinger and Dragonsong. The girl does not rebel until her every other option is gone, and even then she doesn’t lash out at the family who hurt her, she simply takes herself out of their reach. And she doesn’t seek out the attention she deserves, but she meets its challenges when attention lands upon her in order to follow her dreams.
- I also love McCaffrey’s Sassinak. The survivor of planetary genocide and slavery is portrayed with a realism that puts me in mind of Viktor Frankl’s psychological profile of survivors of the Holocaust. It’s a singular sort of endurance. Sassinak grows up to be a starship captain who commands devotion and collapses conspiracies, but she does so through determination and decency. I love that Sassinak prevails in part by recognizing the personhood of different kinds of “people”: aliens, altered humans, even an ancestress younger than herself.
- Caroline Stevermer writes terrific, complex heroines. Her Faris Nallaneen, especially, captures my attention anew every time I reread A College of Magics. You owe it to yourself to read her books. Pat Wrede’s heroines always satisfy. I cannot recommend enough any and all of the ladies of Lyra, as well as Kit Merrill. And, of course, Kate and Cece, whose story Pat and Caroline created together, are distinct individuals and a brilliant team.
My favorite female protagonists in science fiction and fantasy also include (can you hear the awards show announcer voice?):
- Elizabeth Moon’s Esmay Suiza (Once a Hero): We get to meet Esmay as a young officer and share her journey of recovery and discovery. While Moon’s Heris Serrano is a strong female protagonist, for sure, she is far from one of my favorites. I just can’t sympathize with the self-possessed Heris the way I can the rebuilt-from-within Esmay.
- Monica Hughes’ Olwen Pendennis (Keeper of the Isis Light): Olwen’s a delightful study of what makes humans human– or not. YA before we really had YA, the themes and treatment in this novel will satisfy adults as well.
- Chris Claremont’s Nicole Shea (First Flight): She’s a pilot, an astronaut, and she gets adopted by aliens. It’s complicated. Didn’t know Claremont had written novels in addition to comics? Now you know.
- Scott Westerfeld’s Deryn Sharp (Leviathan): Sure, Deryn is a girl living a boy’s life, but she’s doing what it takes to live the life she wants in the capacity that she can. She has a little more luck than is really allowed, but that’s Westerfeld’s fault, and doesn’t discredit Deryn. I much prefer her to his Tally (Uglies).
There have been some new additions to my favorites recently. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Mary Robinette Kowal’s Jane Ellsworth (Shades of Milk and Honey). Jane works with what she’s got to pursue principled action and the romance takes her by surprise. Kate Elliott’s Cat Barahal (Cold Magic) is actually one of the competent, active young heroines, but she struggles and endures and strategizes as well.
What qualities do these, my favorite protagonists, share? They surmount as many emotional obstacles as physical trials. They endure as much as they defeat. They find their advantages not only in their own skills but also in their choices: which companions they champion, which advice they heed, which treasure they ultimately seek.
What makes the best female protagonists? The same qualities that make the best male protagonists, the best fey protagonists, the best androgynous and sedimentary and pickled protagonists: as much brains as guts. More discrimination than luck. More sacrifice than pluck. The best protagonists are characters with character.
I grew up reading lots and lots of children’s literature and fantasy, and in those works, strong female protagonists are sort of the norm. (If you haven’t read Alanna, by Tamora Pierce, or The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley, you are missing out on two of the toughest girls ever written.) Even in urban fantasy and paranormal romance, the main characters are usually women, and they always kick ass. I think there’s a general understanding that women and girls are these books’ target audiences, and they are going to expect active, exciting heroines.
But even in mainstream SF and fantasy, there are some amazing female protagonists. I’m really impressed by the women in James S. A. Corey’s Caliban’s War. In that book, two out of four point-of-view characters are women, and both of them are fascinating characters. Of the two, Avarasala is a standout. She’s an aging Indian politico, a grandmother, and a total potty-mouth. You know how, in a lot of stories, there’s a cold, tough-as-nails character that you love to hate but can’t help admiring? That character is usually a general, or a doctor, or sometimes a politician (an example off the top of my head is Stacker Pentecost, the leader of the jaeger fighting units in Pacific Rim). Whatever their job, that character is always someone wielding power in a very principled manner. Avarasala plays that role in Caliban’s War, and it’s really unusual to see a woman in that position. She’s tough and mean and not always likable, but everyone knows she’s fighting for her cause and she is admired for that. We hear all-too-often that women who are tough are “bitchy,” and I think a lot of women hate or fear being identified that way. But Avarasala pushes past the point of un-likability with a sense of honor and sheer grit.
I think another remarkable female protagonist is Nausicaä, from Hayao Miyazaki’s manga series and film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. (Note: I haven’t finished the series just yet, so hopefully the end doesn’t disappoint me!) Nausicaä plays another unusual role for a woman–her character fits the mold of “the Good Prince” in literature. The Good Prince is a character groomed for power and raised with a sense of his own nobility and responsibility to his people and land. His people are intensely loyal to him and believe in both his abilities and his personal integrity. In Dune, Paul Atreides is a great example of the Good Prince. He has nothing to prove, except possibly to himself (the Prince usually follows in the footsteps of an equally impressive king and knows he has large shoes to fill). Nausicaä is just this kind of character. She’s skilled at everything she needs to be a great ruler. She’s a capable warrior. Her people believe in her. Her father has prepared her to be a good ruler. She has very little self-doubt, even though she is a young woman. To her and the people around her, that hardly matters. They’re just excited to see her solve problems and face down adventures while being a really good person.
Could Avarasala or Nausicaä’s characters have been written for men? Sure. Ripley could have been played by a man, too, but Sigourney Weaver made Alien awesome. Men and women are ultimately motivated by the same basic things. We all want to live. We all want to be good people (except cartoon super-villains!). Our X and Y chromosomes don’t change those fundamental elements of humanity. That’s why both men and women can make incredibly interesting characters.
I also think we’re going to see many, many more awesome female protagonists in genre fiction. I think a big cultural change is working through our society, a change that is redefining our perceptions of who does what work. In a “traditional” model, women get assigned the work around the home and children, while men have to go out in the world and make money. In fiction that’s born from that model, men get to do all the awesome stuff and women are boring. So in a lot of books, everything about being a girl stinks! But the world is changing. For most Americans, men and women both have to work, and the dishes still have to get done. Stigmas against “feminine” activities are eroding. Men can care about their hair. Women can be amazing fighters and still feel strong, even when they’re making their husbands dinner (that’s reason #435 to love Firefly). I can’t wait to see the strong men and women that the next generation writes!
I think it says something that it took me a while to actually think of any favourite characters who are female, across any and all genres that I read. That isn’t to say that I don’t read much with female protagonists, but it seems that most of my favourite characters are male.
Thinking about it, though, there are female characters that have stuck with me over time, though, and for various reasons. Yeine, from N K Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, because she fights hard to hold her own when all sides are against her, is tenacious and fierce and intelligent, and gains the respect of gods. Astrid, from A M Dellamonica’s “Indigo Springs,” because I can empathize a little too well with her personality and situation, and she does her best even when pretty much everything stands in her way. Mori, from Jo Walton’s “Among Others,” because she’s an obsessive bibliophile who stubborn and self-confident and very intelligent and insightful. Though Selenay from Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series doesn’t get a lot of time in the limelight and is often overshadowed by more aggressively strong female characters such as the mercenary leader Kerowyn, I can’t help but find a great deal of inspiration in a queen who can rule justly and who is very willing to fight on the front lines when war calls for it.
The biggest problem I find with genre and strong female protagonists is that so many people automatically conflate “strong female” with “sexually liberated.” The strong female must dress well, be attractive, initiate romantic or sexual encounters, and be self-assured the whole time. They must be athletic while being suitably feminine, but not too feminine or else that’s just weak.They must only be attracted to and by alpha males, which indicates that they are equal in status, ability, and rank as said alpha. Anything less just isn’t done. And you know, I’ve always found that to be an incredibly narrow definition of strength. Nor does that kind of character particularly interest me, as I just can’t relate to their priorities and way of living or thinking. I think this sort of character is more of what many people wish they could be, a kind of Barbie doll “aspiration figure” that’s ultimately pretty unrealistic.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes a strong female protagonist, because the definition of strength can vary for so many people. For some, strong can mean forging your own weapons and cutting down demons. For others, strong may mean raising a family and doing it well. But I think what can generally be agreed on is that a strong female protagonist can hold her own, can stand on her own two feet, and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. That isn’t to say that they can’t feel or show fear, trepidation, or need assistance at any point in their story. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and if that means they stand alone, then they stand alone. I think most strong female protagonists end up having a bit of a stubborn streak to their personalities. You see this from warrior to mother, from thief to priestess.
To decide on my favourite strong female protagonists in genre fiction was no easy task. Many of the characters that sprung to mind weren’t actually the protagonist of the book they appeared in or on closer consideration they weren’t as awesome as I thought I’d remembered. Or they just weren’t my favourite. In the end I settled on the following three, with some honourable mentions to end on.
My first choice and the one whose story I’m currently rereading is Mara of the Acoma. She’s the protagonist of Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Empire trilogy. Her rise from a young, sheltered girl who has become the head of a family on the brink of obliteration to a woman at the apex of Tsurani culture and power is fascinating. Mara uses her wits and the fact that her opponents underestimate her due to her gender – women are supposed to be mostly ornamental in the upper classes – to get the upper hand. And my favourite thing about her is that while she starts playing the Game of the Council to save not just her family’s honour, but also to remain alive, she comes to realises she loves these high political stakes and enjoys getting the better of her enemies. And what is more, she isn’t ashamed of it either.
Second is Imoshen, the heroine of Rowena Cory Daniells’ Outcast trilogy. She’s another young, sheltered girl thrown into the midst of political machination (hmmm… I’m spotting a theme here) and someone who rises to power at a young age. Imoshen is smart, unconventional and tries to change the system from within, all while saving her people from being annihilated by the dominant race on their world, the Mieren. She’s another example of a woman forced to power, but as opposed to Mara, she doesn’t really relish all the power plays and plotting, she’d rather take her House and those she loves and live quietly and that desire is what motivates her.
Phèdre nó Delaunay is the heroine of the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. Phèdre is a completely different character from Mara and Imoshen, but no less compelling or strong. Born to be an anguisette, someone who feels pleasure through pain, she is raised in what is a mixture between an upscale brothel and a religious order and her mark (contract) is bought by one of the King’s nobles. He quickly becomes a mentor and father figure and through him Phèdre is drawn into the political conspiracies of the kingdom of Terre D’Ange. While Phèdre is somewhat of a special snowflake due to her anguisette nature, she is also intelligent, brave and resourceful and she’s trained to be a spy. Together with her beloved bodyguard Joscelin she manages to foil plots against Terre D’Ange’s stability time and again. Phèdre is a compelling and complex character even after rereading the books several times.
Some notable mentions that didn’t make my top three are: Yeine and Oree from N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, Lauren Beukes’ Zinzi from Zoo City, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lin Shan from River of Stars and Kris Longknife from Mike Shepherd’s Longknife series.
- A female protagonist whose actions shape the end of a story—in lit’ry terms, a character who “has agency”.
- A female protagonist who is physically strong—as strong as the men or stronger.
- A female protagonist who is fascinating—at least as interesting as the male characters.
A strong female character doesn’t have to fit all three categories. The last chapter of Podkayne of Mars was less of a disappointment to me, perhaps, than to many readers because I loved cowboy movies and knew that having the cavalry come to the rescue did not make a character weak. Podkayne and John Wayne both did their best until help arrived. There’s no shame in being rescued.
But my favorite strong female protagonists get to rescue at least as often as they’re rescued. Wonder Woman, Emma Peel, and Modesty Blaise need no more help to solve a problem than any man might, and no man is capable of upstaging them. Some readers may compare them to male characters, but in story terms, strong female protagonists are not “strong female protagonists”—they’re simply the protagonist.
My childhood heroes were Wonder Woman (during the Ross Andru and Mike Esposito years) and Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel on British TV’s The Avengers. I was always pretty well convinced that a woman’s place was defeating villainous sentient giant fireworks or karate-chopping minions of whoever was trying to kill all the British scientists that week.
So it’s no surprise that I love these female protagonists:
- Rydra Wong, from Babel 17 by Samuel Delany. Poet, starship captain, linguist, and leader. The novel hints at some terrific adventures in her past that makes me long to read books that don’t exist.
- Telzey Amberdon, from stories by James H. Schmitz. She’s a telepath. A xenotelepath. Who kicks ass. With a giant alien predator cat. Because she can.
But there are female heroes who don’t start out made of pure awesome, who grow into their heroism over the course of the story. I love me some of those, too:
- Polly, in Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock. She’s pulled between the ordinary and the extraordinary until they nearly shred her, but she’s the only one in the book with the smarts and courage to save the day.
- Faris Nallaneen, from A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer. The world needs saving, all right–but in her heart, Faris is still the scholar who loves learning and the glorious cloistered world of school, where study and teaching are the center of all things.
Tagged with: Chrysoula Tzavelas • Emma Bull • Fran Terminiello • Francis Knight • Jacqueline Koyanagi • Julia Rios • Kristine Kathryn Rusch • Mieneke van der Salm • Mikaela Lind • Patricia Burroughs • Ria Bridges • Sarah Olsen • Wendy N. Wagner • Will Shetterly
Filed under: Mind Meld
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