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Strong Female Protagonists

I went to DragonCon over Labor Day weekend.  It was pure chaos, spread out across four massive hotels with nary a sign in sight to direct you most of the time.  DragonCon has panel tracks, and there was a writing track, so I trekked my way up the hill to the Hyatt and then down into the bowels of the place in search of a panel called Strong Female Protagonists.  Ah, I thought.  Someone was going to talk about the Anti-Bella.  Yay feminism!

Not so much.

Some of the authors on the panel talked about how their female protagonists aren't really strong -- they're just so incredibly vulnerable that they have no choice but to buck up a little bit to survive.  Others talked about how their heroines' strength was born out of how much said heroines hate themselves. (Which is, sadly, a cliche of the urban fantasy genre.) It felt like half of them were apologizing for female characters who were seen as strong.

And then the whole thing devolved into a discussion of how explicit your sex scenes should be. 

You know what I learned from the panel?  How incredibly uncomfortable our society still is with strong, independent women.  So uncomfortable, in fact, that people retreated into a discussion about the most primitive way for men and women to relate: sex. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good conversation about sex as much as the next person, but not when it's a way to avoid the elephant we really came to discuss.

In fact, the only truly useful part of the panel was when one author mentioned that the role of Lt. Ripley, the heroine of the Aliens movies, was originally written for a man.  When Sigourney Weaver was cast instead, nobody bothered to rewrite the script. What we got was one of cinema's most unapologetically powerful women.

My favorite strong female character is probably Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow from TV's Alias series.  I was so impressed with Sydney's toughness and independence because it was balanced with heart and intelligence.  Sydney was competent and confident, and nobody questioned that.  If she and her partner Michael Vaughn got in a tight situation, you know who fought their way out?  Well, they worked together, but Syd just happened to be the better fighter.  Sydney did dress up and emphasize her sex appeal from time to time, but it was a tool in her arsenal, her way of taking advantage of stereotypes, and just one of the many approaches she was capable of using.

Who are your favorite strong female protagonists?  Why do you like them?


  1. Christine Fonseca said...
    I absolutely LOVE a strong female protag...and Sydney is one of my all time favs. I have written two books - one had a female protag that found her strength in the story. The other has a strong female protag that learns how to balance her strength with vulnerability.

    Great post, Carolyn. As always.
    Suzette Saxton said...
    Three cheers for strong female protags!!!!! This article ROCKS, Carolyn. You bring up a very valid point - many of them, actually! I pledge (and I am totally serious here) to keep this article in mind from this day forth, and to not shirk away from making my protags strong.

    BTW, Alias is my fav-or-ite show. I never did see it on TV so have bought the series on DVD. I'm about halfway through season three and loving it!
    Unknown said...
    Thinking about strong protagonists, I had to stop and analyze all my favorite female characters and start throwing them out based on some of your statements. Stephanie Plum, nope. Too dependent on food, Ranger, Morelli, etc. Nancy Drew, getting closer, but still not written in a way where she's completely independent.

    The two I came up with: Princess Leia (Star Wars) and Temperance Brennan (both from the books by Kathy Reichs and the TV show Bones).

    Princess Leia I like because she's got spunk, and when the guys aren't sure what to do next, she jumps in and takes the lead (think just after Luke rescues her in Episode IV and they get trapped in the cell block). She's used to taking the lead since she's a politician, and isn't afraid to say what needs to be said.

    I like Temperance Brennan because she's (usually) level-headed, logical, and uses facts to get to the bottom of her mysteries. She's not swayed by emotion, although she does at times get emotional (especially more in the books than the TV show.) Though she works side-by-side with men (Andrew Ryan in the books, Seeley Booth on TV), she's not dependent on them, though she'll admit when they've got better ideas than her (i.e. she's not afraid to admit she's wrong.)
    Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...
    Ooh, Liberty -- absolutely Princess Leia. She is an EXCELLENT example of the strong female protagonist. I've always been particularly impressed by her because she was ahead of her time. In the 1970s, most "heroines" were standing around in their underwear screaming while the man battled the monster. But Leia just takes matters into her own hands. The cell block example you gave is perfect. I've also always liked that she goes in after Han in Jedi. She doesn't send Luke to do it, she just marches in there determined to save him herself.

    I'll have to check out Temperance Brennan! -- I'm not familiar with her. Thanks for the tip!
    Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...
    As an aside, I want to mention why I didn't choose Aeryn Sun (played by Claudia Black) in Farscape as one of my strong female protagonists. Or maybe that's already obvious. She's not a particularly well-balanced "strong." At the beginning, she's all soldier and no heart. And then by the end of the series she's standing back and letting John do just about everything. There's a line in the Peacekeeper Wars movie that I like, where John asks how he's supposed to take care of her and protect her from all the bad guys, and she firmly corrects him: they take care of and protect each other. I like the balance in the relationship there. But still, she's rarely truly independent, and doesn't really fit the kind of strong female protagonist I'm talking about in the post.
    Suzette Saxton said...
    I love Tempe Brennan! She was my favorite fictional protag - until I started reading books by Tess Gerritsen. He characters kick ass!
    Stephanie, PQW said...
    My favorite strong female protagonist is Lieutenant Eve Dallas of the In Death series by JD Robb (Nora Roberts). Eve goes for it. She doesn't wait for someone to 'save' her, she does the saving. She is intelligent, tough, and a survivor. But she is also vulnerable, which makes her loveable. I can hardly wait for the next book in the series to hit the shelves. I'm so impatient for it, I buy the hardcover without review or reservation. I can count on a good read.
    Michelle McLean said...
    Temperance Brennan, definitely - I haven't read the books yet, but love her character on the show. I also like the cop character on the show Castle (and can't for the life of me remember her name). But with her being the cop and Castle being a writer, she's usually making him walk behind her so SHE can protect HIM.
    Bethany Wiggins said...
    I forget this character's name, but she is the MC in "The Hero and the Crown." (I think her name is Aeryn???) I LOVE her! She goes out and slays the dragon. She saves the country. She is brave and smart and strong.

    Hubbie's input... Honor Harrington from David Weber's sci fi series. She is the captain of her own ship and does her job well.

    Great article. Thanks, Carolyn! I always love your insight.
    Elana Johnson said...
    Yay strong females! I wish I could delve into those I love, but I'm coming up short at this late hour. Will stew and come back tomorrow.
    L. A. Green said...
    A friend directed me to your article and I'm glad she did. What a great tidbit on Ripley's part originally being cast for a male. I learned something.

    I tend to write strong female MCs in my Science Fiction Romance novels. Ripley is a great role model. So is Princess Leia. Another strong female character from the Aliens franchise is Private 'Let's Rock!' Vasquez. Also, Ana Lucia Cortez from the Lost TV series. They are all natural leaders, though not necessarily in a leadership role.
    Suzette Saxton said...
    I just saw an interview with JJ Abrams (creator of Alias) and he was asked how he came up with such strong, brilliant female characters. He said that he tries to write strong characters. Period. Some of them just happen to be female. ;)
    davidahilljr said...
    I'm a guy, so take my opinion with a grain of salt:

    Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.

    She awes me every damned time.
    davidahilljr said...
    Second one, a little more obscure:

    Bridgette from Ginger Snaps 2. She's a good character in Ginger Snaps, but in 2, she really comes into her own. The movie has an atrocious ending, but Bridgette's a phenomenal character.
    Locadora do Werneck said...
    Red Sonja!
    Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...
    Guys definitely get a say in all of this! :-D
    L. A. Green said...
    Sarah Conner, yes. Big thumbs up, especially since she didn't start out being a strong character in the first Terminator but evolved into one.
    Ceci said...
    I agree with Temperance Brennan from the TV show Bones and definitely the main character from Hero and the Crown (That little series is amazing). I also like Tamora Pierce's characters--Ali, Beka, and Kel, who are all strong women.

    I think the hard part about writing a strong female character is that you don't want them to isolate themselves and refuse help or love from anyone else, because those are "bad" characteristics. However, I think that when it comes down to it, they should be able to solve their problems alone, without needing the help of any other (male) characters, because that just says she couldn't have done it without male help.
    Jess of All Trades said...
    I like when female protagonists are strong, but not just because they act like men. I think Guy Gavriel Kay does an excellent job, in the Lions of Al-Rassan, with the female POV char, Jehane. She is a physician, beautiful, has female feelings and interests and emotions toward the powerful men around her, but she isn't silly, flighty, or ruled by sex. Nor does she have to act like a man to be considered a strong woman.
    A wonderful writer who went by the screen name Limyaael posted a slew of Rants a while back about writing fantasy, and one idea was about the theory of gender-equal societies: Not equal because women were allowed to act like men, but equal because the things that women are made to do were considered just as Important.
    Interesting? I thought so.
    Judith Mercado said...
    This is a wonderful analysis of the strong female protagonist. I agree that there is discomfort with that image in literature and beyond.

    As it happens, today was my day for an update of my regular A Hero's Journey Blog series. In it, I discuss Literature's Forgotten Older Woman as a heroine.
    The link is:

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