A long long while back, I asked via Twitter if people would like it if I made up a list of who I consider the strongest women in fiction. I never got around to it because of some personal stuff in my life that kind of turned my whole routine upside down. And then I moved to Dublin. But here I am now, ready to present you with some kick-ass women who you should definitely acquaint yourselves with if you haven’t already.
Below are fifteen female characters I have come across and loved, whether I found them in books, TV shows, movies, or video games. Are there other strong female characters out there? Of course, but if I haven’t included them, I either haven’t met them yet or I don’t count them among my favorites. There were a few characters I considered putting on this list who I ultimately decided to leave off because I didn’t connect enough with them personally. So, this list is quite biased and personal to me.
Also, this post may include spoilers. I’ll try to leave out big spoilers if I can, though. I did my best to put these in ascending order, but as I get closer to #1, it may be more difficult for me to choose between heroines. Here goes!
(From Graceling by Kristin Cashore)
Katsa is wonderful, but there’s a reason she’s at the bottom of the list. It took me 200 pages to really love this character, which is interesting–usually, if I really dislike a character right off the bat (like I did with Katsa), it’s hard for that character to win me over. In fact, while reading the beginning of Graceling, I was angry because Katsa exemplified the type of character I detest: the heroine whose “strength” comes from a callous toughness that is both physical and emotional. I thought, “Oh no, another protagonist trying to ‘prove herself’ by kicking ass but who is actually an unkind and unpleasant person.” But Cashore did something interesting with it right around the time Katsa chops off all her hair, i.e. around the time Katsa stops taking orders from her uncle and becomes an autonomous person. Katsa was so unlikeable because her uncle’s tyranny was preventing her from being who she really wanted to be; he was stunting her personality and her self-worth. On top of that, Katsa spends the rest of the novel exploring her emotional callousness, which emerges as a psychologically crippling problem for her. That is what saved Katsa for me, and that type of self-exploration is what made her worthy of this list.
Sabrina’s one of those characters who is instantly relatable but also instantly off-putting. She’s in love with a man who will never have her…but to the point where she locks herself in the family garage and tries to commit suicide over it. What a drama queen, right? But, like with Katsa, it’s her emotional journey that makes Sabrina strong. She travels to Paris and does some growing up, but still has some maturing to do when she returns home two years later. The man she once loved suddenly develops feelings for her now that she’s older and prettier, and she falls for that. Later, she uncovers more about the kind of person he is and realizes that if he really loved her, he would’ve loved her back when she was a dowdy chauffer’s daughter, not just after her transformation. Sabrina instead sets her sights on another man, one who loves her for who she is and sees her worth as an individual.
(from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)
A lot of people misunderstand what makes Jane Eyre such a strong character. I’ve seen people claim that her infatuation with Mr. Rochester makes her a weak character, which I emphatically disagree with. What impressed me about Jane Eyre this: she’s head-over-heels in love with Mr. Rochester, she’s thrilled he loves her back, she’s all set to marry him, she finds out he’s actually married to someone else and has been lying all along and…she leaves. She knows her self-worth, she knows he treated her badly, and so she leaves. That is not an easy thing to do, especially when she’s been told how ugly and worthless she is all her life. Being lied to by someone you love doesn’t make them instantly unattractive. How soul-crushing it must have been to have looked the man she still desperately loved in the eye and tell him she couldn’t be with him. She returns to him in the end, but only after he’s lost everything, learned a bitter lesson, and gained even more respect for her.
(From The Princess and The Frog)
This girl’s got an ambition, man, and she works her ass off to reach her goal. She has no money, no help from anyone, but she’s still learned how to cook, researched potential buildings for her restaurant, and saved every penny she can because nobody is going to stop her if she can help it. Falling in love isn’t her main concern, but she’s open to it if that’s how she ends up feeling. When she turns into a frog, her main complaint about it is that it gets in the way of her dream. Honestly, I’m fine with heroines falling in love, but we need more heroines like Tiana, who has a goal completely independent of a romantic partner and is determined to reach it whether she finds one or not. Also, her dad is dead, but she doesn’t sit around moping about it. She misses him, of course, but he taught her that she needs to work for what she wants, and she’s holding herself to that.
(From His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman)
Lyra is another one of those who starts out as a tough, no-one-can-mess-with-me type of heroine and transforms into a more emotionally complex young woman. She has a killer survival instinct that keeps her alive throughout the series and she has difficulty trusting people–but when she does trust someone, she loves that someone with all her heart. Seriously, she: escapes from her mother to join a band of gypsies, befriends a fully grown polar bear that should scare the crap out of any eleven-year-old, valiantly tries to protect her best friend Roger from death by her own father’s hand and travels to the freaking underworld to visit him when she fails, finds the courage to leave her daemon on the opposite shore in the underworld even though it scares her to death, wanders through worlds she knows nothing about with mostly only her wits to guide her–I could go on for days. At the end of the series, Lyra is forever separated from someone she adores, but she accepts it. It devastates her, but she moves on. More heroines like Lyra, please.
(From The Powerpuff Girls)
I would’ve put all three Powerpuff Girls here, but since that would fill three slots, I’m just putting my favorite. The Powerpuff Girls fight crime to protect their city of Townsville, but that only scratches the surface of what makes them strong. In the movie, all of Townsville turns against them because they see them as mutant, destructive freaks. When Townsville is overtaken by monkeys bent on taking over the world (I promise this show is good), what do the girls do? Tell those Townsville citizens to go to hell? No, they save everyone’s asses, because they’re good people. Several episodes showcase their integrity, determination, and dedication to justice as well. I’ll use an example from the episode “Equal Fights”: when a criminal convinces the girls that they should let her continue with her crime spree because she’s an oppressed female, they point out (during an awesome speech about Susan B. Anthony) that if she wants both sexes to be treated equally, she should go to jail along with the male criminals. As for Blossom herself, she’s the brains behind the team, always coming up with new strategies while managing to stay on top of her grades. True, she’s in kindergarten…but it counts.
(From A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket)
If your older sister is Violet Baudelaire, you can be sure you’ve got someone fighting for you, no matter what happens to you. Violet acts as a protective force for her brother and sister, but also as someone on their level, a member of their team. She gets the Baudelaires out of a multitude of messes by using her inventive mind–any time she ties up her hair to clear her thoughts, she can come up with some sort of homemade device that often saves the orphans’ lives. Once, when her bookworm brother Klaus isn’t around, she forces herself to take on his role, and reads a book she barely understands but that is the key to her family’s survival. I love that she’s an inventor. While I try to think of all skill sets and hobbies as gender neutral, society doesn’t see it that way, and inventing/tinkering with machines is usually seen as a masculine pastime. Good for Violet for defying that stereotype and using it to keep herself, and her siblings, alive.
(From Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein)
This is one where I refuse to give away very much, even the character’s real name, because going in spoiler-free makes this reading experience infinitely better. Seriously, if you’ve read it, you know what I mean. Verity spends a portion of the novel as a prisoner of war in Nazi-occupied France. She’s a tough, gutsy girl who fights for survival with everything she’s got, even in the face of physical and psychological torture. You know those people who just seem alive with every fiber of their being, who express passion in their sense of humor, in their cheerfulness, in everything? Verity is like that, on top of being insanely clever and an affectionate, loyal friend. And then you get to the second half of the novel, and oh man, she gets so much better. Everything about the novel gets better. Just read it.
(From Avatar: The Last Airbender)
On top of being physically and emotionally tough, Toph has a sensitive side. She doesn’t like to show it much, but it’s there. It’s demonstrated in her moments when she’s crushing on Sokka, and in an episode where a group of girls mock her when she has trouble expressing her femininity. In the latter case, she cries over it, but at the same time says, “I know who I am.” Toph may be able to lift rocks and bend metal while simultaneously living with a disability (blindness), but it’s this confidence in who she is that makes her strong to me. Besides, she’s hilarious, has an infectious take-it-easy attitude, and stands up for what she believes in–which can be anything from protecting the people she loves to the right to have senseless fun. What more could you want not just in a female character, but in any character?
(From Avatar: The Last Airbender)
Katara gets a lot of hate, which I don’t understand. She might be more high-strung and less outwardly tough than Toph, but she is also very human, very loving, and strong (physically and emotionally) in her own right. In fact, we see her overcome more adversity, both external and personal, than almost any other character in the series (just behind Aang and Zuko). She originally sucks at water bending, and it frustrates her easily, but she works on it and hones her skills. She refuses to comply with the Northern Water Tribe’s insistence that a woman must not learn Water Bending for combat and resolves to take secret lessons. She fiercely defends the people she loves, but isn’t afraid to call them out on their bullshit. What’s more, she manages to forgive Zuko for the harm he caused her and her friends. Considering that she projects all her hate for the Fire Nation, whose troops killed her mother, onto Zuko, this is one of the hardest things for her to do emotionally. Let’s not forget that she took on the maternal role in her family when her mother died. In my opinion, a maternal instinct shows great strength, whether the character is a biological mother or not. Speaking of which…
(From the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)
Also known as Professor McBadass. Look at this woman. She comes off as uptight and unfriendly at first, but then you get to know her throughout the series. She’s extremely intelligent, enough to become an Animagus, which is difficult. She shows an incredible amount of loyalty to people who have earned her respect, including both Dumbledore and Harry. She’s witty, such as when she basically tells Professor Umbridge to shut up while she’s in her classroom in Order of the Phoenix–a bold and meaningful move, considering Umbridge is trying to take over the school at this point and McGonagall’s sass acts as a form of rebellion. She’s also got a surprising competitive streak, especially when it comes to the Quidditch Cup at Hogwarts–she gets all fired up if there’s any chance Gryffindor might not win, which makes for some hilarious exchanges between her and Harry. In addition, she’s maternal in her own way. She loves Harry and fights for his life, but her reasons differ from many others in the series. Several people love Harry because they loved his parents, or because he saved the world from Voldemort as a baby. I always got the impression that Harry had to work for McGonagall’s love, and her affection for him grew because she witnessed his bravery, his love for his friends, and his modesty over seven years.
(From The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess)
I’ll admit it: I have a soft spot for characters who present a tough exterior but feel a lot of tenderness and vulnerability. When Link meets Midna in the game, she insults his intelligence and his competence right off the bat. She offers to help him, but she’s clearly using him to meet her own goals. Subtly over the course of the game, her attitude starts to change. She still mocks Link constantly, but you can tell she’s growing fond of him. She and Link transition into more of a team than a girl and her tool, and what started off as her own selfish quest turns into a journey taken by two friends helping each other. Midna is extremely humbled when Zelda sacrifices something enormous for her–that’s about the point where Midna reconsiders the motives behind her choices, and takes on a nobler role. Then (spoilers), at the end, when she travels back into the Twilight, she destroys the link between the Twilight and the World of Light so that the Twilight can never harm anyone again–despite knowing it will cut her off from Link forever. She does it without telling him, too, because she knows he’d try to stop her. She’ll miss him, but she does the right thing. And all this wonderful character development happens while Midna maintains her wise-cracking personality. It’s not in your face, and I love that.
(From Seraphina by Rachel Hartman)
Here’s a fantastic example of a heroine who isn’t physically tough but is exceptionally strong. I really connected with Seraphina’s character. She’s one of the most human protagonists I’ve read in YA fiction for a while (ironically, considering she’s half-dragon). To protect her safety and reputation, she must conceal the fact that she is half-dragon, a burden she hates but accepts. She is far from perfect–she self-mutilates, she’s shy, she’s awkward in social situations. But she is also boundlessly loving, and a lot of her strength comes out of her art. She’s a musician, and her fondness for music jumps off every page of the book in the way she listens to music at events, handles her musical instrument, and remembers her dead mother (also a musician). Seraphina straddles the line between lack of confidence in her place in society and a firm understanding of who she is personally. She places others before herself and struggles with an awful lot of heartache. The whole thing is just beautifully written. Go read it.
You guys. She saved China. She wanted to find herself, but her chief reason for joining the army was to prevent her father from having to go, which would have meant his certain death. Like, the moment she realizes she can dress up as a man and go, she just does without hesitation. She might die, but whatever, because this is the right thing to do. What I really love about her, though, is how flawed she is despite her heroism. When she reaches the training camp, she realizes she’s way in over her head and has no idea what she’s doing. Does she give up? Hell no! I literally get chills every time Mulan fights her way to the top of the wooden pole during the “Be A Man” sequence. She battles her own incompetence until she reaches her goal. Also, she saves everyone by burying the Huns beneath an avalanche, thanks to some quick thinking on her part. She rescues her general while badly injured. And then she saves everyone AGAIN while using strategy to steal the Emperor back from Shan Yu, who she then blows up. Mulan, feel free to my best friend.
(From the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)
Putting Hermione as number one might be surprising to some people, considering she possesses no more physical strength than the average person and she has many, many moments of weakness. But that is part of her appeal. I saw a tumblr post once that pointed out Hermione is both a rational logician and passionately emotional, traits that are rarely combined in a female character. That post is absolutely right. There is enormous strength in both qualities, and it shows through Hermione during the series. Her brains get her, Harry and Ron out of plenty of perilous situations–she figures out what’s attacking the school in Chamber of Secrets, she helps Harry avoid getting scorched to death by a dragon in Goblet of Fire, she organizes Dumbledore’s Army during Order of the Phoenix, and she’s the reason she, Harry and Ron are able to survive in the woods for so long during Deathly Hallows. But her heart aids her just as much as her head does. Her affection for Harry is what drives her to help him on his Horcrux hunt, her love for Hagrid motivates her to spend hours in the library researching how to prevent Buckbeak’s execution, her belief in House Elf rights eventually leads to her fighting for them when she reaches adulthood and starts working at the Ministry. Hermione has knowledge and knows how to use it, but she also loves, she cries, she obsesses. And as a fellow bookworm and perfectionist, I will always count her among my favorite characters.
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