My top 4 inspirational female characters

Guest post by Pemcat
Zoe Alleyne Washburne Firefly Bookmark
Zoe Alleyne Washburne Firefly Bookmark

Growing up, many of the women I found whilst reading or watching movies seemed to follow a certain pattern.

The woman character was beautiful, and that defined the way that others related to her. She followed the rules, and she didn’t create a fuss. Perhaps her main function was to give the hero something to aspire to, or to add a little light relief. She was graceful and dignified. Whatever else you might say about her, she often wasn’t the main protagonist in her own story.

A lot of these attributes are awesome things that women (and men) can be, but they aren’t the only things that we can be. Certainly they aren’t adjectives that I easily identify with. Beautiful and graceful? Give me smart and sassy any day. Follow the rules without making a fuss? I’d rather be helping to create a culture where the rules make sense and are helpful — and that might mean they need changing.

I wanted to take a minute to appreciate some of the fictional women I grew up with whose creators dared to make them different. The ones that I could relate to. The bad-ass women who didn’t just let life happen to them — they happened right back to life…

1. Major Samantha Carter

(Stargate SG-1)

For sure Sam is top of my list. Sam was a female scientist at a time when I was taking science and maths classes with mostly male peers. She is smarter by miles than any of the men around her, and highly respected for it. She solves problems and has brilliant ideas. Oh, and with her military training she could kick your ass for sure. Part of what I loved about Sam was that although there is no denying that Amanda Tapping is a beautiful woman, it was never ever the focal point of Sam’s character. It just didn’t matter.

2. Alanna of Trebond

(Song of the Lioness, Tamora Pierce)

Alanna is a girl who decides that she wants to be a knight. As this isn’t allowed, she disguises herself as a boy for the entirety of her training, dealing with issues like breasts that start growing, periods and contraception at the same time as learning how to shoot arrows and fight with a sword. She also can kick your ass. I’m grateful that I live in a world where I don’t have to pretend to be a boy to follow my chosen male dominated career, but I still admire Alanna.

3. Zoe Washburne


Zoe is the perfect example of a woman who been able to retain the traditional female value of “family first” (one that my husband and I both hold) whilst still being able to (I’m spotting a pattern here) kick your ass and have a career that matters to her. She’s definitely smart and sassy, and I love the dynamic between her and Wash (don’t talk to me about the movie, that didn’t happen). Again, Gina Torres is a beautiful lady, and again, that’s not the damn point.

4. Hermione Granger

(Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling)

Hermione of the “bushy hair” may well be the most all-out competent woman on this list. The brightest, most dedicated student in the books, she saves the day on countless occasions. Although she is obviously astoundingly clever, it’s made clear that her hard work is of equal value. She’s emotionally astute as well, and kind, and caring, and idealistic. Hermione doesn’t compromise. She may or may not be able to kick your ass, but she could certainly hex it into oblivion.

I have a lot of love for women like Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Shirley, and Jo March who are absolutely themselves and make their own decisions whilst following more traditionally female paths (marriage, teaching and writing/child rearing respectively). But we need more female scientists, warriors and lawyers in our collective consciousness, and I’m fiercely grateful that these women were ahead of the curve and around when I was a teenager.

At least I know that if I ever find myself short of inspirational women in the fictional world, I won’t ever have to look too far or too hard to find them in the real one. On that note, I’m so excited that the first woman to ever do so (Maryam Mirzakhani) recently won a Fields medal (basically the maths equivalent of the Nobel prize). We live in interesting and amazing times.

Who are the bad-ass women from literature and films that inspire you?

Comments on My top 4 inspirational female characters

  1. Hermione Granger was thrilling to me partly *because* of her bushy hair. How often do you get a female character in mainstream fiction whose huge dark hair is properly accepted? Even when she tames it for her Moment at the ball it’s only made more easy to deal with, not straightened.

    What they did to her hair in the movies was borderline upsetting to me.

  2. Captain Kathryn Janeway! I think she is one of the best-written female characters on TV. She is a leader, a scientist, an explorer and a fighter, capable of making tough decisions typically attributed to male characters, but still a woman with all kinds of virtues and flaws. She loves her job and becomes a well-respected Admiral later in the canon, giving orders to such illustrious Starfleet captains as Picard.

    And then there’s also B’Elanna Torres. She is Voyagers’s Chief Engineer and one of the few women in fiction who are allowed to be impulsive, angry or even aggressive (which is explained by her Klingon heritage, but still).

      • I live in Germany and I guess this series never became popular here, so it escaped my notice.

        Regarding aggressive women it just strikes me that Star Trek is a relatively mainstream-ish franchise. The times are changing, but mainstream fiction still tends to keep female characters “clean”, so this is a very welcome exception.

  3. Aeryn Sun and Zaan from Farscape. They’re like exact opposites, the peaceloving, meditating healer and the badass, complicated warrior-renegade. And best, their gender is irrelevant to their completeness as characters. They are each strong females, but more importantly complete and well-written characters who happen to be women.

    Woman Warrior types are not appealing if that is all they are. When I say I want “strong female characters”, I don’t mean they have to be physically strong. I mean they have to be characters, 3-dimentional and dynamic.

  4. I always loved folklore, as a kid my favorite stories were “Clever Gretchen” and “Tatterhood” and “Unanana and the Elephant” since the main characters used their smarts to outwit monsters and other jerkfaces. As a teenager I loved Alanna of Trebond and Sarah from The Labrynith. While they were both very different characters, I liked that they didn’t give up in the face of terrible odds. Zoe from Firefly, and Korra and Katara from the Avatar-verse are my jam right now. I’m really intrigued by the Miranda Mercury comics, but I haven’t read them yet. From what I hear, the premise is that Miranda is a teen superhero with one year to live and the comics are the stories of how she makes that year count.

  5. Great list! I’d like to add Claire Beauchamp from the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon to the awesome female characters list. While it isn’t a series you’re likely to have read as a child (it’s an adult series) she’s an iconic heroine who is super sassy, smart & headstrong. Her role in the series–that doesn’t easily fit into any one genre, being part historical fiction, adventure, science fiction, romance–is different from most female leads in any of these categories. I highly recommend checking them out. And THEN you can watch the new series that just came out on Starz! eeee!

    • I totally agree with this! It was the first name that popped into my mind. 🙂

      I would also like to add to the list Karrin Murphy, from the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.
      Or Phèdre, from Kushiel’s Legacy series, by Jacqueline Carey.

  6. Growing up, my main role models were Captain Janeway and Xena. Smart, resourceful, strong leaders who are more than competent and also happen to be protagonists? Yes please.

  7. V. I. Warshawski by Sara Paretsky. Sassy, smart, sexy detective and takes no nonsense from overprotective males in her family. Kathleen Turner did a wonderful audio version.

    Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich. Smart and sassy and just a bit mad and manic. Another detective, with interesting men in her family.

    Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Tiffany Aching – wonderfully strong witches written by Terry Pratchett.

  8. I’m sure it’s not quite right to call a graphic novel literature, but Tohru Honda from the manga series Fruits Basket is truly incredible. She is all about inner strength, as I seriously doubt she could kick anybody’s ass, and she always does her best to see the good in things, even when life’s challenges get rough. That optimism draws in everyone around her.

  9. I have so many favourites, here’s a few:
    – Jill Kismet, Dante Valentine, Selene, and Emma Bannon from the novels by Lilith Saintcrow.
    – Alexia Tarrabotti/Maccon, Ivy Hisselpenny/Tunstall, Genevieve Lefoux, Sophronia Temminick, and Dimity Plumley-Teignmott, from the novels by Gail Carriger.
    – Emma Donahoe and Simone Chen from the novels by Kylie Chan.
    – October Daye, May Daye, and The Luidaeg, from the series by Seanan McGuire.
    – All of the lovely ladies created by Kerry Greenwood.
    – Kate Daniels and Andrea Nash, from the Ilona Andrews books
    – All of the lovely ladies created by Tamora Pierce, especially Rosethorn.

  10. Thanks to the people who mentioned KATNISS Everdeen from the Hunger Games series, ANNE Shirley (of Green Gables), CLAIRE Beauchamp from the Highlander series, LAURA Ingalls Wilder from the Little House on the Prairie and SALLY Lockhart. Especially the last one – I never realized that series was by Philip Pullman!!! It has totally been too long since the last re-read. 🙂

    My additions:

    THURSDAY NEXT from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde.
    She’s a …cop? In it’s broadest sense. There’s no way you can describe this series. It’s a parallel universe set in 1984, with book travel, time travel, war, werewolves, cricket, dodos and lot of suspense and humor.

    MODESTY BLAISE from the Modesty Blaise series by Peter O’Donnell.
    She’s been described as a female James Bond, and the books are awesome, written and set in the 60s/70s, though she started out as a strip cartoon, and there are graphic novels as well. Two movies have been made, didn’t watch them, I hear they’re bad – but Quentin Tarantino has been holding the rights to the series for quite a few years now.

    Those two have a special place in my heart. Not only because the writing is superb and they kick ass, but also because they are vulnerable at the same time.

    Also worth mentioning:
    ARYA from the Inheritance series (Eragon) by Christopher Paolini (which starts out weak, but gets better). I hear the movie is really bad and I have been advised to stay away from it, but I really enjoyed the books. Oh, she’s an elf.

    AYLA from the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel (which starts out strong, then gets weaker by about book 4, imho). She’s a foundling, struggling with society and nature during the Ice Age.

    Doris Lessing and Marion Zimmer Bradley have produced quite few female heroines.
    Let’s stop here… My comment is so far down few people will read it anyway. But I couldn’t help myself!
    Sorry I don’t know how to make the words clickable, so I just added amazon links.

  11. I must be the lone non-Joss Whedon female nerd. 🙁 i could never get into his shows. And I try so, so much.
    I was always a comic book gal,myself. I could list a bajillion ladies that are amazing. But my favorite, by far, is Miranda Zero from Global Frequency. She is awesome.

  12. Okay, I have to admit a couple of really questionable female characters were my heroines during my teens:

    Maureen Johnson Long from Heinlein’s “Future History” series. She taught me that you can be subversive even while appearing to follow the rules. (Edwardian American Midwest was not the best place to be a free-thinking intelligent woman, after all.)

    Lady Sally in Spider Robinson’s “Lady Sally’s House” series (paralleled “The Callahan Chronicles”). A very elegant and intelligent brothel madame who took the silly weirdness and puns around her in stride.

    Did I mention both are redheads?

  13. Two of my favorites as a very young child: Matilda (from Roald Dhal’s “Matilda”) and Harriet the Spy. Matilda inspired me to read more (I struggled with reading early on, but once I figured it out, I was ravenous for books), and my sister and I used to pretend to be spies, keeping notebooks of our neighbors’ activities. 😀

    As I got a bit older: Talia from Mercedes Lackey’s “Arrows of the Queen,” along with many other characters in books by the same author.

    My favorite character of all: Sabriel from the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix. Cannot say enough good things about that series.

  14. Can I get some love for Menolly from Anne McCaffery’s “Dragonsong” and “Dragonsinger?” While Anne McCaffery has her flaws as a writer, and some of her “strong women” are a bit problematic (I’m looking at you, Brekke), Menolly is a seriously strong girl, who lives on her own and forges her own path in a society where that simply isn’t done.

    Also, basically every female elf in Elf Quest. All of them.

  15. Matilda! All my crazy bitches from game of thrones! Mysts of Avalon. Starbuck. Mrs president. Caprica six. All battle star Galactica. The girl with silver eyes. Meridth gentry. All firefly. New Star Trek movies. Tara from true blood. Mara jade. Leia sky walker. Sister bearenstien bear. Oh many more. Leelu Dallas.

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