One Feisty Broad: Strong Female Leads in Literature

Elizabeth Benet as Keira Knightley

One day, I was casting about for strong female leads in literature.

Love ’em or hate ’em, you know who they (or, you) are: those pedal-to-the-metal, take-no-prisoners, never-say-die women we love to read about in our favorite books.

Okay, I’ll be honest. I’ve been called “determined.” Some people say I never take “no” for an answer. I like to think that I always find a way.  That’s why I love to read and write about similar characters.

While working on a manuscript, I began to think about what make a heroine unforgettable.  Is it those eyes, those lips…wait a minute–in a book, it’s what the character does that makes him, or in this case, her, so memorable.  She must be the driving force, so in this next book I’m working on, expect one hell-acious chick.  Yep, you know who you are.  And men, you know you love us, too.

So, I loaded up a few of my off-the-top-of-my-head favorites.

Elizabeth Bennet

Elizabeth Bennet – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

No matter who plays her on the screen, Lizzie is the bomb…


Scarlett O’HaraGone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Cross her at your own peril…

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Another perennial favorite…


Lisbeth Salander – The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson

Smart as they come…

Emma Harte

Emma Harte  – A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford

Style meets driving ambition…

So, who are your favorite strong female leads?

22 thoughts on “One Feisty Broad: Strong Female Leads in Literature

  1. Nancy from Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons has always been one of my favourites alongside Miss Elizabeth Bennett, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and a few not so well known ladies from Old Norse and Old Icelandic literature. Found you on WLC, can’t wait to hear more from you.

    • Welcome! So lovely to meet you here! The Old Icelandic and Norse heroines sound intriguing, as everything old is new again…and human nature remains the same 🙂

  2. Many is the time I’ve lamented the fact that there are so few strong female characters in literature. I’ve always really liked Dominique, from The Fountainhead, Josephina, in The Man Who Laughs. In the movies, there’s Ripley (Alien) and Clarice (Silence of the Lambs).

    Of course, who could forget Lauren Lake?

  3. Can I just add a word of warning? I’m increasingly concerned that ‘strong female protagonists’ are becoming a modern cliche. I’ve recently read some medieval fantasy and historical adventure tales, where the strong female characters have been plainly unrealistic – back then highborn women would never be allowed to bear arms and fight alongside soldiers, and yet, here they were… Or servant girls were openly defying orders in a way that simply would never have happened – they would have been far more sneaky in suborning orders, because if they weren’t, they would have been beaten, or thrown out onto the streets.

    While I enjoy wish fulfillment along with the best of them – if feisty, sword-waving females become the norm in our fiction, then we close off the possibility of offering more nuanced, various characters capable of effecting change and wielding power in other ways – such as Philippa Gregory’s wonderful White Queen, for instance. And if we actually depict the Past as a far easier, fairer place than it actually was, where does that leave the millions of women around the world still battling unfair and sexist systems that prevent them getting equal access to education and opportunities to support themselves?

    It’s wonderful that we’ve finally shed the squealing girlie hanging off the hero’s arm, only there as an occasional love interest and/or to be rescued – but can we be also be alert to the risk of turning her into another cardboard cutout, that runs around waving sharp weapons, barely wearing a two-piece metal outfit that would look more appropriate in a strip show than a battle field?

    • You bring up some great points! Although my headline is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the female leads showcased here were chosen for their complexity, determination, and resourcefulness – mental strength as opposed to purely physical strength. It’s up to authors and film makers to create multi-dimensional characters, both female and male. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about this topic on the ‘net. Thanks for weighing in!

      • I actually sort of disagree with the idea that women would “never” have been permitted to fight (after all, who were Joan of Arc – or Boudica – if not warriors in their own time? Not to mention the numerous female pirates and fighters in all ages (one has only to look up the “Night Witches” of WWII to realize that “Rosie the Riveter” wasn’t the only person contributing to the war effort). More on this:

        As for “strong” female heroines – I, too, go by complex/smart/compelling. I don’t for one instant believe we have a dearth of complex women in literature. A few favorites: Anne Shirley, Anastasia Krupnik, Madame DeFarge, Madame Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway (pretty much every woman in Woolf and, later, in tribute, Michael Cunningham’s work), Kay Scarpetta, Mary Kelly (by Jane Langton), any of the wonderfully diverse and complex women by Anne McCaffrey or Katie Waitman or Elizabeth Moon or Jane Yolen or Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou or Mercedes Lackey or Katherine Kurtz or David Eddings (and hundreds more). There are plenty of wonderfully diverse representations of women out there!

        • There are many marvelously complex, smart female protagonists in literature today, and many more that writers have “under construction.” Thanks for sharing some excellent examples, Heather–appreciate your insights and thoughts on this topic.

    • Great comment–And I just had to add, I’m a huge Philippa Gregory fan, and appreciate the multifaceted arc over which women–and others–have traversed in their journey to be fully realized. This is what inspires writers the world over. Thanks!

  4. Great article! With a work in progress and a heroine talking the lead, this brought up and reinforced a great point for me. It’s what she does that makes her memorable. The changes she makes throughout the story and the changes the story has on her. I couldn’t have read this at a better time. Thanks Jan!

    And thanks for following from the WLC!

  5. An interesting debate – I’ve always been an Elizabeth Bennett and Jo March fan myself. I agree with @sjhigbee about unrealistic heroines. One that I think works is Lindsey Davies’ Roman character Helena Justina who assists her husband Marcus Didius in his investigations. As a senator’s daughter in Vespasian’s Rome, her public role is naturally restricted but the author makes Helena’s contributions to the investigations seem plausible as the background research is so good. Helena is one feisty Patrician Roman lady! I would also vote for a new girl on the block, Genie from Sam Hawksmoor’s ‘The Repossession’ and ‘The Hunting’ – a teen heroine combing courage with integrity (but no sword).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s