Spoilers ahead for several series so beware!
River Song in Doctor Who (played by Alex Kingston)
There are so many amazing female characters in Doctor Who that it was a difficult choice, but River Song is a force of nature. As well as being a foil for the Doctor, an almost impossible feat as the man is as close to a god that makes no difference, she is also an intelligent woman, archaeologist, thief, adventurer and an almost action hero. She takes on a far more powerful role in confrontations than the Doctor does. She’s a very easy character to idolise but manages to portray a softness too which makes her wholly enduring.
Claire Underwood in House of Cards (played by Robin Wright)
Claire Underwood is the 21st century’s answer to Lady Macbeth. She is shown to go toe to toe with every political power and as a laser focus on her own ambition. Although she spends most of the first few series being the unmoveable support for her husband in his political career, you always had the impression she would ditch him at the first sign of weakness. And in later series, we’re proved correct as she surpasses him, becoming President herself. She’s scary and determined and yet you still have remarkable sympathy for her character.
Peggy Olson in Mad Man (played by Elisabeth Moss)
People love this character so much, it’s been said that she was really the hero of the show. She certainly had the most complex and rewarding character arch. From shy and unsure, to a force to be reckoned with. It is framed within the era where women had to force the workplace to respect and recognise their work, but it’s a struggle which many can still empathise with today. And she’s a little bit unlikeable in many ways and has a terrible choice in men which only makes her more human.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar)
Buffy will usually appear on these sorts of lists because she was one of the first truly powerful female characters created. While it took screenwriters long enough to figure out the formula, Buffy was a good starting point. A demon slaying, kick-ass hero, but with true teenage and softer traits which made her more complex than an action hero or dramatic character.
C.J. Cregg in West Wing (played by Allison Janney)
One of my personal favourites, CJ is described in the show as “a smart savvy woman who could easily consider world domination for a next career move.” C.J. has a beautiful arch through the series, starting off already in her prime as Press Security to an adversarial press core to Chief of Staff. And while she’s powerful and authoritative and ready to go up against anyone, she never loses a very human side to her which feels very real. We see her stresses and pains and we love her all the more when she pushes passed them. C.J. is forever one of my idols.
Abby Sciuto in NCIS (played by Pauley Perrette)
Abby is one of the odd ones on the list but entirely deserves to be here. While at first glance, she often appears to be a kooky goth who seems slightly childish in the way she acts, she’s actually a tower of strength. She shows that you can create a character who appears ‘silly’ but has incredible depths beneath the surface. She’s able to control the often laddish men who walk into her lad, has fought off many an attacker and is ridiculously intelligent to boot. I’ve often wondered how quickly the office would collapse at NCIS without her.
Alicia Florrick in Good Wife (played by Julianna Margulies)
Another one of my true favourites, Alicia Florrick starts Good Wife as the humiliated wife of a disgraced Senator. But she returns to her high powered career as a lawyer, working her way up from the bottom. You see all her pain in this series and the struggles she has to go through. And although the world is seemingly against her, she never gives up and she never stops. This is one of my favourite series as it doesn’t spare you any of the trials from juggling her job, children, love affairs and a frankly waste of oxygen husband and never do you stop rooting for her.
Kate Beckett in Castle (played by Stana Katic)
In this series, the hopeless romantic, dreamer, drama queen is the author Richard Castle, who Beckett is forced to team up with. She is the level-headed kick-ass, sensible, intelligent and fact driven character which means gives the screenwriters amazing licence to play with a very different dynamic than what is usually seen. A testament to the strength of this character is she and Castle manage to maintain a stable relationship without the series going cold (as it does with so many others). This is usually because one character is less defined than the other, so become subsumed. There’s no more tension. Whereas Kate and Castle both have defined characters and goals which don’t always meet so tension and exciting storytelling remains.
Jessica Jones (played by Krysten Ritterv)
Marvel’s series Jessica Jones is probably one of the most character-driven superhero series we’ve ever seen so, in consequence, Jessica a thoroughly drawn out and complex character. It’s easy to think that once superheroes get their powers, their lives become glamorous and carefree, except for the odd armageddon, of course. But Jessica Jones shows a dark and gritty world where her powers are a side note. She has trust issues and seems permanently isolated. This psychological/thriller series isn’t afraid to explore other sensitive subjects. We see a reoccurring idea as she tackles what it means to be a hero in a world in which people with powers a naturally supposed to be one. She’s a complicated and thorny character who you can’t help but identify with.
Leona Lansing in Newsroom (played by Jane Fonda)
This one may be a little unknown to many of you, but as an Aaron Sorkin fan, I couldn’t pass up the Newsroom series. Leona Lansing typifies a certain type of female character for me who I adore. Mature women get cast as little old ladies or witches in movies. Leona Lansing is not your knitting grandmother. She owns a television network and rules it with style and a sharp wit. Whenever she’s on screen she captivates the screen with her presence and it’s impossible to do anything but cheer at her every barbed comment.