The 6 Defining Characteristics Of Strong Female Protagonists

The 6 Defining Characteristics Of Strong Female Protagonists


There is a tendency to confuse strength with acting like a man. I don’t want to read about women who act like men, or men who act like women. I think a character’s strength can be measured by his or her ability to get my attention. I need to empathise with, and care for, that character. He or she needs to show resilience and purpose. This strength of character intrigues me and it allows the protagonist to drive the story to its conclusion with me as a willing participant.

I believe we need to start writing characters as human beings who happen to be male or female. With this is mind, I came up with six defining traits for strong female characters in fiction.

The Six Defining Characteristics of Strong Female Protagonists

  1. She has a story goal that defines the narrative arc. She has to get possession of something, or relief from something. There have to be important consequences if she does not achieve her story goal.
  2. She is flawed. She is not perfect, and her flaws could change the course of the story. She has to make choices, and she has to deal with the consequences of her choices. There is nothing more frustrating than reading a story where the protagonist fails to make choices. Even if this is how we behave in real life, we want our fictional heroes to be a better version of ourselves. We want them to take action. We want to them to go after what they want. Reactive characters are annoying and we perceive them as weak.
  3. She captures our attention. She has that special ‘something’ that captivates us as readers. A strong character has a personality trait that mesmerises readers. Readers want to believe they could be that character if they were put in that situation. They may even want to be that character. She could be brave, loyal, self-confident, intelligent, focused, charming, or compassionate. She should be able to engage our minds, win our hearts and get us to root for her until the end.
  4. She changes over the course of the story. She discovers her strengths and weaknesses. She surprises herself and she surprises us as she grows and learns. There should not be a sudden epiphany at the end of the story. We are not watching a Disney movie. Her change should be gradual and believable.
  5. She does not exist as a support for another character. Other characters exist to support her. Her supporting cast are there to help her achieve her story goal and complete the narrative arc of her story. The antagonist is there to thwart her, and to show her how strong or weak she is. Her love interest is there to distract her from her story goal, and to show us her insecurities and vulnerabilities. (Remember that a love interest is not necessarily a romantic interest.) Her friends are there to support her, and to show us who she really is, how strong she can be – even if she can’t see it.
  6. She has the ability to stand up to the antagonist. She is a strong character who is made stronger by her interaction with the antagonist. She has to have the intelligence, bravery, charisma, and will-power to make the story her own and come out on top at the end of the book.

Examples of Strong Female Protagonists

Books

  1. Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games
  3. Calla Tor from the Nightshade series
  4. Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone
  5. Hazel Grace from The Fault in our Stars
  6. Ruth and Idgie from Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe
  7. Scheherazade, the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights
  8. Celie from The Color Purple
  9. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice
  10. Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  11. Matilda from Matilda

Film and Television

  1. The Bride from Kill Bill
  2. Ellen Ripley from Alien
  3. Dr Ryan Stone from Gravity
  4. Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  5. Temperance Brennan from Bones (from Kathy Reich’s novels)
  6. Daenerys Targaryen from A Game of Thrones (from A Song of Fire and Ice)
Iconic characters from a book series
  1. Mary Poppins
  2. Nancy Drew
  3. Anne of Green Gables

Please add your favourite Strong Female Protagonists below.

Source for Image: Daenerys Targaryen

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by Amanda Patterson

© Amanda Patterson

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This article has 31 comments

  1. Paula Gruben

    Great post, thank you! I particularly like the warning against her having a sudden epiphany at the end of the story, à la Disney, but rather having her learn and grow gradually throughout the story.

  2. Michael

    Tris Prior from Divergent
    Stephanie Edgley from Skulduggery Pleasant
    I also like Evangeline from Angelology

  3. Noor-e-Hira

    I really liked Liesel Memminger from The Book Thief. She personifies your strong female protagonist.

    Thank you for this insightful post.

  4. Deserak

    All these points apply to writing a strong character in general, male or female…

    I think the issue most people have with writing strong female characters is they fixate on the female part. “Oh, my character is a female detective!” “Oh, my character is a female knight!”. The best line I’ve heard is by George R. Martin, when he got asked how he writes such strong characters, such as Daenerys Targaryen, he replied with “You know, I’ve always just considered women to be people.”

    Gender will influence the way a character acts and handles a situation, and obviously the way that the rest of the world perceives them, but in the same way being tall vs short or young vs old would (albeit a more noticeable impact, granted). Character first, what’s between their legs later.

  5. Laura

    Hermione Granger, of course.

  6. Karen

    Phedra from the Kushiel series.
    Also, I know that Daenerys is listed under the Film/Movie category but I really feel her character is better defined within the books.

  7. Mia Botha

    Can’t wait to read them all again. Great post.

  8. Rachel

    One of my favorites has to be Harriet Dufresnes from The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. She’s only 12, but she is the heart and soul of the book. She’s one of my favorite protagonists, male or female!

  9. David K

    Arienne Emory from Cherryh’s Cyteen series.
    Abigail Hearns from Weber’s Honor Harrington series (Honor herself has become a bit of a Mary Sue…but certainly fits the trope earlier in the series).
    Priscilla Hutchins from McDevitt’s Engines of God series.

  10. R A Deckert

    Any protagonist from any Alma Alexander novel you care to pick – there are EIGHT of them in “Secrets of Jin Shei”, a female protag who carries the book in “Embers of Heaven”, at least two that meet the criteria in “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, and of course her YA Worldweavers series is built around a young heroine who qualifies in spades…

  11. Denise Bose

    Pippi Longstocking, Jo March and Tom Sawyer’s Becky were my heroines.

  12. Mark R Hunter

    I would add Veronica Mars and Dorothy Gale, of Kansas (the Dorothy from the books, that is). Also, numerous characters created by Joss Whedon.

  13. Lee

    All 3 of the main female characters from S.M. Stirling’s “The Peshawar Lancers”. The lead protagonist is male, but all of the major women get POV sections and they fit your criteria otherwise. I think they could all be considered co-protagonists.

    Most of Tanya Huff’s books feature strong female characters, both protagonists and otherwise. I just finished “The Silvered”, which has both a female protagonist and a group of 5 incredibly strong women who are kind of the MacGuffin as far as the plot goes, but nonetheless fully realized as individuals.

  14. Susie

    Jo March from Little Women, Eowyn from Lord of the Rings, of course!, Miri from Princess Academy, Hermione from Harry Potter, Tess from the Kingdom Series, and (so old, but it’s true) Elsa and Anna from Frozen

  15. Sara A. Mueller

    Jane Eyre

  16. Katherine

    I wanted to add Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Ann McCaffrey has several through her many series, Tamora Pierce has several, her primary being Kelandry of Mindelan “Lady Knight.”

  17. heidisue

    Jane Eyre is my favorite literary character, male or female. I love how strong she is, and yet feminine, and utterly true to herself.

  18. Beatris

    Grace Wolfe from Cryptid Hunters and Valkyrie Cain from Skullduggery Pleasant are two of my favorite characters.

  19. Ysabel Herrera

    Thank you for putting my dear favorite character Katniss Everdeen. She restored and surpassed girl power into this society, and I couldn’t ask for a better hero.

  20. Breanna Joy

    Finally someone said it! Love this post. And I loved Celaena Sardothien from Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, especially as the story went on and on. 🙂

  21. Meg Hammil

    All of the main female charecters in S M Stirling’s Emberverse books are excellent. My teenage daughter is a big fan of Rick Riordin’s books, which have good female role models as well. Many of his books are told from alternating viewpoints, so you gain understanding of each person’s motivations. As a child I really appreciated Louis May Alcott’s books for their strong female charecters. As several others above have pointed out, Scarlett O’Hara is in a league of her own.

  22. Yvette

    Elizabeth Bennett? Seriously? I love Jane Austin but I wouldn’t consider that character a great example. How about Maggie Gulliver from Mill on the Floss?

  23. Tom Hooten

    You forgot to include Holly of “Hollytime.” Changes the course of human and Spinor history…

  24. Angelique Rios

    Karigan from The Green Rider series.
    Cali from A Diamond in My Pocket.
    Grace from Untraceable (book)

  25. Katherine

    Anyone remember the Animorphs books? Cassie and Rachel kicked ass in those

  26. David J.

    Michonne from the TV series THE WALKING DEAD

  27. Jessica

    Great post. I think that’s what I loved about the Hunger Games Series. Katniss is everything you’re describing here. Another character who sticks with me is Laila from A Thousand Splendid Suns. Interested in writing a post about Male Protagonists? I’d be especially interested in the description of #2 (flaw).

  28. Doro

    I wanna add “Carry” from the Stephen King book. Her goal is bad, but she sticks to her revenge

  29. Simone Garrick

    This sorta proves what I have always said. There is no difference between a Female PRotagonist and a male protagonist.

  30. Jennifer Williams

    I have to say that my one of my favorite heroines is Celeana Sardothien from the Throne of Glass novels and Anita Blake from the self titled series. (Also Mannon from Throne of Glass, even thought she’s a Minor Major character)

  31. Jon Hendricks

    Zula Forthrast in the amazing thriller Reamde by Neal Stephenson.

    Eliza in the incredible historical fiction series the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.

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