Favourite Female Protagonists?

I spotted on Simon’s ‘prose practice’ (a literary agony uncle column) that the bookish community was struggling to recommend books that featured single ladies, who remain single and happy at the end of the story. This started me off on a train of thought about female role models and also made me wonder what other people’s favourite heroines might be…

Thanks to forward-thinking parents I was brought up on a diet of quirky kids books like The Paper Bag Princess, an anti-fairy tale which questions whether girls really need to be saved by a handsome prince (who might actually turn out to be a massive idiot) and suggests they might be better off looking after themselves!

On the other hand, I have a boyfriend and let’s face it, it is nice to be ‘rescued’ occasionally from the grumps or when I’m stressed-out. I would also like to think that he would dig me out in the event that my humungous book-pile toppled over!

On the big screen, I’ve always thought that the character of Ellen Ripley (Alien) and Sarah Connor (Terminator) were pretty cool female role models (tough and female, sexy but not over-sexualised).

This very entertaining and thoughtful article – Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women argues that the best female role models are in fact flawed, and set me off thinking…and laughing quite a lot too!

One fictional character who stood out to me lately was Betty from The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. She is a smart and sensible young woman who singlehandedly rescues her sister from an absolutely terrible situation with elegance and bravery. She is active where others are impotent, steadfast but never boring and the character made quite an impression on me.

What are other people’s favourite fictional heroines? What qualities do you think are inspirational in a female character?

(N.B. If there are any blokes reading I’d love to know your thoughts too!)

31 responses to “Favourite Female Protagonists?

  1. I wonder if I’ve ever looked up to a character as much as I did as a child when I first encountered Anne Shirley. Intelligent, outspoken, with an unusually active imagination, and certainly not one to let the poor opinions of others influence how she regarded herself, I’m not certain I’ve encountered another heroine I like as much since. She is strong, able to stand up for what she believes in and to stay true to her ways, however odd they many be, but still sensible and practical.

    I’ve just started reading The Shuttle and the more I see of Betty, the more I adore her.

    • I don’t think I ever read Anne of Green Gables, although in my head she is a bit like Pollyanna… I may be totally off the mark!

  2. My favourite female character is Alice in Jane Smiley’s Duplicate Keys which I’ve just read for the third time. She is both ordinary and brave which is a cool combination.

    • I’ve never heard of that book, but it sounds good if you’ve read it three times! Thanks for stopping by and posting your thoughts.

  3. I don’t think I have a favourite female character (I’m notoriously indecisive about everything) but I found your post quite interesting, as I’d just read something similar about tv shows and movies.

    It was saying that woman can’t relate to any characters other than men, simply because men got all the fun stuff to do, or were just more believable. Whereas female characters were either “whining ninnies”, too strong and, therefore, unrelatable e.g. Buffy, or the only powerful women had to use sex, or at least flirting, to get anything done.

    I kind of didn’t think to apply this to books, since books are a lot less mass market, but I think books written with women in mind are very similar to the above portrayals.

    • I know what you mean. There’s a fine line between beign too perfect and unbelievable or completely flakey! I think you’re right as well, perhaps women in books are easier to make more complex because on screen you only have the visual and the dialogue (rather than description) to convey that…

  4. I’ve had The Paper Bag Princess on my wishlist for the longest time – I think I should buy it for my baby cousin and read it to her when she’s a little older (I bought her Neil Gaiman’s Blueberry Girl when she was born and an extract was read at her christening).

    I also grew up on Anne Shirley and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

    I love Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair even though she is more of an anti-heroine and also a bit of a minx! Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture the Castle and Fevvers from Nights at the Circus are my favourite female protagonists. I also love the vividness of Rebecca – how can a character that only appears through memories and hauntings, be one of the strongest literary characters ever?!

    • Oh do get it for your little cousin, you will enjoy reading it as much as she will listening to (or reading) it.

      I’ve never read Vanity Fair and what a good point about Rebecca. She is strong (although quite scary!!?).

  5. Ooooh I dont know if I can really qualify as being able to answer this one… I think though if I had to have a fav female protagonist it would have to be someone like Miss Marple hahaha. Hmmm, maybe not. I will have a think on this one…

    The fact your parents got you The Paper Bag Princess is sooooo them, knowing them and you as well as I do. What a brilliant lesson to teach a daughter through the magic of the page!

  6. Thanks so much for that article. How entertaining (and how true!). I was laughing the whole way through.

    Woman in fiction that stays happy and single at the end reminds me of Marian in The Woman in White. But I was actually disappointed at the end of the book that she ended up alone at the end!

    • Glad you enjoyed it. The bit about the girl from Terminator made me laugh the most.

      Marian is a brilliant choice!

  7. I love The Paperbag Princess!!! I read that to my class almost every year, and any one who has a neice, or granddaughter, or daughter, should give her that book.

    My favorite fictional female character who is strong and happy at the end, although not single, is Miss Taggart from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. However, to think of one who is single, too? I’ll have to get back to you on that. Most of the single one’s I’ve ‘known’ stick their heads under trains (poor Anna Karenina) or drink poison (poor Madame Bovary) or go for a long, never-ending swim (the dame in Awakening).

    • Oh good on you. Some lessons to be learned from that for both boys and girls I think.

      Thanks for your suggestions. I’ve never read Atlas Shrugged, but I’d like to. Anna Karenina is good but I agree it’s a bit depressing that she cops it, and unfortunatley I found Madame Bovary a bit irritating!

  8. Great post, Polly. I love independent women (or at least ones with minds of their own even if they can’t support themselves i.e. in Victorian fiction).

    My favourties are Katniss from The Hunger Games series (she is one of my all time favourite protaganists), Lucy Snowe from Villette (Charlotte Bronte) and Marion Halcombe from The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins).

    I don’t necessarily have to have my female leads remaining single though. In my interpretation of femenisim, it doesn’t have to be all kick-ass and bra burning. Women can still find love and remain independent minded or financially stable etc; we don’t all have to flip the bird to men and walk around in our dungarees or at the other end of the extreme, use her sexuality to get what she wants (that annoys me even more!Grrr!)

    • A second vote for Marion. She’s brilliant isn’t she?! I haven’t read Villette or The Hunger Games but I might have to now!

      Like your musings about what it means to be a feminist. Totally agree that these days women don’t have to be angry and feminist. Basically it’s just about equality of opportunity right?

  9. Ooooh great post! I HEART The Paper Bag Princess.

    Strong female characters? Nancy Drew!!

    Oh and see if you can google John Birmingham’s talk at the Wheeler Centre (in Melbourne) recently on female action heroes. I’m not sure if it’s been uploaded as a video yet.

    And I feel like I should probably explain Nancy a little bit, because she is sexy, and she is quite a bit perfect (possibly even a Mary Sue). But I think she’s ballsy. I never got the impression that she was using her sexuality to solve crimes etc.

    I also agree with Claire about Becky Sharp. Good female anti-heroes are also lots of fun (and fun to write about too!)

    Josephine Alibrandi from Looking For Alibrandi is another favourite female role model from my adolescence. She is very smart, sufficiently awkward, and like me, talked too much and was a bit of a smart-arse. But her experience of the world and how she sees it changes as she matures, and that’s somethign that I love in any character, male or female. But of course, being female, I find her story particularly relatable.

    • HA Nancy Drew, I used to love reading her!

      Thanks for the suggestions, and glad I’ve found another fan of The Paper Bag Princess… 🙂

  10. I, too, grew up on the Paper Bag princess – all of Robert Munsch’s main characters are great! I think one of the reasons they didn’t fall into gender stereotypes was because he based his stories on real kids that he’d met, and even used their names. (with the exception of Angela’s Airplane – the publishers wanted the alliteration!)

    Other great female characters? Elizabeth Bennet (unusually feisty for the time, no?), Anne, Emily of New Moon, and Jo from Little Women.

    • I’ve never read anything else by Robert Munsch but I’ll have to keep a lookout now! Tha’ts a really interesting insight about how he created his characters so thanks for that.

      Elizabeth Bennet is good. I was thinking Jo is brilliant too!

  11. I haven’t heard of the The Paper Bag Princess. Why?? Growing up I was a big fan of Anne of Green Gables, Jo from Little Women (like Lija above) and Nancy Drew (I know, she doesn’t have much of a personality but I just wanted to be a girl detective like her!) Sadly, I can’t think of any happy single female characters I like considering I like reading about women. Maybe they’re all angsty… I’ll need to think about this a little more.

  12. I have never heard of the Paperbag Princess but it sounds great!But did that sort of spoil your enjoyment of reading Enid Blyton where the girls are usually always looked after?

    A great post and it really got me thinking. I think one of my favourite female leads might have to be Thursday Next from the Eyre Affair series. She marries, but she rescues her fiance and constantly saves the day. She’s a great heroine. Another is Jane Eyre, but again, she marries but within the context of the story, Jane marries on her own terms.

    This is quite sad that there’s so few we can think up of!

    • You must read it!

      Enid Blyton wise – that actually made me think that George was quite the unusual female role model.

      I’d really like to read Jane Eyre. I have a copy and must get on with it!

  13. Oh, and another have to be Jean Paget from A Town Like Alice. She was brilliant!

  14. Jean Paget is perfect. I did love her when I read A Town Like Alice!

  15. Pingback: 10 Literary Wonder Women « Novel Insights

  16. HOW did I let the opportunity pass to say ‘Miss Hargreaves! Miss Hargreaves!’

  17. Interesting question. My favourite fictional character is Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter because she is not just resourceful, independent and intelligent but also she is loyal, strong, brave, kind and always fighting for the greater good with Harry and Ron. She doesn’t need to be rescued all the time either.

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