Elizabeth Bennet by Jane Austen (as depicted here by Jennifer Ehle)
One of my favourite heroines. Elizabeth Bennet is a character who has echoed down the ages purely because of how human she is. She’s not at all perfect, laden with pride (and prejudice, surprisingly…), refuses to be stereotyped or dedicated to, but remains a woman of her era with contemporary concerns. Do we write her off as a ‘strong’ female character because her ultimate aim is to marry? No, because she will only do it on her turns. That moves the plot from a Disney type, where there’s one man for her and it’s a fight to get him, to a far more realistic story where two people must change a little to cohabit the same space. Elizabeth and Darcy have to let go of their prejudices (and pride…) to become the perfect literary pairing.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna is one of the classics alongside Elizabeth Bennet. A beautiful, aristocratic from St. Petersburg, Anna’s pursuit of love and emotional honesty makes her an outcast. She’s a married woman who has an adulterous, which means she ends up in social exile. Though a deeply flawed and tragic heroine, she’s intelligent and literate, unusually for her contemporaries, she reads voraciously and writes children’s books. She’s devotion to her son and friends and has a deep distaste of ‘fakery’ in all its forms.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (as depicted here by Ruth Wilson)
One of the famous literary feminists, Jane Eyre’s belief in gender and social equality challenged contemporary Victorian prejudices. The protagonist and narrator of the novel, we see everything from her point of view. She is intelligent and honest, forced to contend with oppression, inequality, and hardship until she finally breaks free. It’s often suggested Charlotte Brontë actually based a lot of Jane Eyre on herself. She too struggled with the balance between love and freedom.
Beatrice by Shakespeare (as depicted here by Emma Thompson)
This one is probably a little bias on my part, being a Shakespeare nut, but Beatrice is one of my favourite female characters. She’s witty and intelligent, an altogether unusual character for Shakespeare’s plays for her ability to stand her ground amongst the men of the play. She doesn’t automatically accept the courting of Benedict they way she’d be expected to, refuses a proposal from a King (depending on how you read it) and puts her family’s honour above her own happiness. When her suitor refuses to duel the man who disgraced her cousin, she says ‘O that I were a man for my sake!’ She is a stark contrast to her meek and mild cousin Hero and refuses to be put down by anyone.
BONUS This line of Beatrice’s reminds me so much of 5th Century Medea, created by Euripides, the Athenian playwright. Medea is probably the original kickass female character who proclaims ‘I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.’ I wanted to fit her into one of these lists, but as a villain protagonist who murders her own children, she was a little off my message. She’s still amazing though, trust me.
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Matilda! For most of us millennials, Matilda was a book we loved as children and a movie we adored in the 90s. Matilda is the titular protagonist of Roald Dahl novel is a precocious child who excels with a love of books and maths. Oh yeah, and she’s telekinetic, meaning an entire generation grew up secretly wishing that they could move things with the power of their minds. I mean, it’s not just me, right? Neglected by her atrocious family and tortured by her cruel headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, Matilda pranks and defeats her way to victory while remaining an extremely likeable and humble young girl.
But it’s not just Matilda. Miss Honey and even Miss Trunchbull have lives and motives throughout the story which makes Matilda a strong book for female archetype characters.
Lisbeth Salander by Stieg Larsson (as depicted here by Noomi Rapace)
A computer hacker and survivor of severe emotional and sexual abuse, Lisbeth is the driving force in this story. She’s cool and unsentimental, intelligent and takes no prisoners. Like Sherlock Holmes, we are given a complex character with faults and flaws who is incredibly interesting. She is a true antisocial anti-hero which we rarely get to see in female characters and that’s why so many people found her a fascinating element of this novel.
Miss Jane Marple by Agatha Christie (as depicted here by Geraldine McEwan)
Probably one of my all time favourites, Miss Marple not only struggles against perceptions of gender but also her age. She is a keen observer of human nature and credits this to having lived her whole life in the little village of St. Mary Mead. Though it’s a bit of a running joke for me that, given I’ve read all her books, she seems to be any but St. Mary Mead. Never the less, she can solve crimes while knitting sweaters, run rings around detectives and murders alike and never accepts any of the kudos when she solves the mystery. She has a wonderful line, that ‘there is a little bit of human nature in all of us’.
For any of my American readers who haven’t read Agatha Christie, the TV series, Murder She Wrote starring Angela Lansbury was heavily inspired by the character of Miss Marple.
Katniss Everdeen by Suzanne Collins (portrayed here by Jennifer Lawerance)
The protagonist and narrator of The Hunger Games books, Katniss Everdeen combines traits of strength, rebellion, and loyalty, while stepping up to be the protector and provider for her family. She quickly comes to understand the nature of the Hunger Games, learning to fake a love interest in Peeta in order to ‘play up’ to the audience, showing her to be an intelligent and resourceful young woman, especially at sixteen when the books begin. And despite the pressures from the world around her, she stays true to her own ideals and beliefs. She doesn’t allow the Hunger Games to turn her into a cold-blooded killer, only killing out of necessity, and to some degree in Cato’s case, pity.
Hester Prynne by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hester Prynne, condemned by her Puritan neighbours for having a child outside marriage is often portrayed as a victim and she is, in so many ways. However, she has a force and dignity behind everything she does which makes her a strong and impressive character in the face of adversity. Her complexity comes from her contradictions; she’s a sinner, but deeply devout.
Not to mention Hester’s daughter, Pearl, while she acts as a constant reminder of Hester’s adultery, she is easily the most intelligent character in the story. She’s determined and obstinate in the face of the patriarchy she was born into. Both Pearl and Hester are both powerful and fascinating characters in how they deal with an oppressive society.
Granny Weatherwax by Terry Pratchett
You are spoilt for choice when it comes to strong female characters in Terry Pratchett’s works. It was difficult to pick one, but we’re going to look at Granny Weatherwax here as she always appears on anyone’s top ten Discworld characters.
Granny Weatherwax is a master of common sense with a heart of gold. But she’s as stubborn as a mule, is rude and pretty ungrateful to everyone she meets. Her acerbic personality makes her a grumpy and cantankerous force, but you can’t help but love her. She’s no-nonsense but always has the best for people in mind.
I’m sure I’ve missed one of your favourites, so let me know who they are! I’m sure together we could create a top 100 list of incredible female characters!