Friday, June 04, 2010

Kicking ass and taking names

by Lauren

This weekend I went away for Memorial Day to a beautiful riverside cabin in the woods upstate. At one point, sitting by the riverbank in the sunshine, I looked up from my book to take note that all five of us were reading when we could’ve been doing anything we wanted. (We’d all packed more than one book even though we were limited to one duffel bag each—just in case.) It warmed my heart, I tell you. There was also much discussion of what we were reading—particularly of the third book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, which one person had brought along and another had already read.

People who’ve read these particular books tend to invoke the heroine’s enviable toughness. I’m often struck by conversations about a heroine so badass that it makes the book worth reading, because it’s not something I can really recall experiencing. I like to think I’m pro-woman (at the very least because I am one, and I’m pretty pro-me) and have a good handle on which ladies supposedly kick ass, but I don’t have that gut reaction of identification or aspiration or whatever it is that so many women (and men) I know do to a tough heroine and the book in which she lives. Of those incredible female characters I can identify off the top of my head, they’re really supplied by my childhood reading: Laura Ingalls; Pippi Longstocking; Jo March, up until the regrettable point that she ditches Laurie for the old German at which point I pretend the book is over so that I can still love it; etc. When I think of my favorite characters from non-children’s books, they’re really all men. As are a large percentage of my favorite authors.

I’m not 100% sure it matters—a great book is a great book, and a great character is a great character—but I still feel like I must be missing something. So this summer, I’m challenging myself to focus my personal reading on amazing women.

Here’s where you come in: since my natural reading proclivities have been steering me the wrong way, I’m going to need a list. I’ll stick Larsson on there, but I’m feeling the overwhelming buzz kick up my contrarian nature, and I’m just not ready to tackle the girl or her dragon tattoo quite yet. So below, let me know your favorite female characters, your favorite female authors, and why (without spoilers), and I’ll give as many as I can a shot. Then I’ll let you know how I fare when the summer is through!


  1. I'm so glad I'm not the only one! Even in my own novel, the main female is not the strong, brave heroine so many books focus on.

    But I do have a few favorite strong women on my favorite characters list. I really enjoy Harry Crewe from Robin McKinley's THE BLUE SWORD. Lizzy from Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a fabulous gal with attitude (though I do prefer the quieter Anne from PERSUASION). CADDIE WOODLAWN and OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA are great, quick reads about strong teen girls, and I really enjoyed THESE IS MY WORDS.

    As for favorite female authors, a few favorites are Robin McKinley, Katie DiCamillo, Madeleine L'Engle and Tanith Lee (I read a lot of YA fantasy, in case you couldn't tell...).

    Good luck!

  2. Madison Merlot Dayne, a young twentyish woman, who has a stilted L.A. attitude. She gets caught up in cliff hanger action on the Big Island of Hawai'i and every man she is attracted to has a fatal new book just released, "Captain Cooked" by S.P. Grogan--seems to be an attempt to jazz up and spark the culinary mystery, make the niche more brassy and sharp-edged.

  3. I think a good part of why some kickass female characters just drive me nuts instead of compelling me can be summed up in this old Overthinking It article (which I love): Why Strong Female Characters are Bad For Women.

    When said female characters are actually strong, and not just flat characters with one tough trait slapped onto them, I love them.

    I'd recommend Jacqueline Carey, but it seems a little odd when she's a DGLM client :) Her first trilogy's heroine is a marvelous balance of inner strength, great resilience, but not just arbitrarily kicking asses and taking names, which would be vastly inappropriate for a courtesan to do.

  4. Rachel Morgan from The Hollows Series by Kim Harrison. Mainly because she kicks ass, but in her own ways and she isn't afraid to make mistakes. In fact, she makes them often. She's a very realistic, down to earth, understandable character, which is hard to come by in most kick butt heroines because they all seem like they can do anything and still have perfect hair and nails lol.

  5. "Mists of Avalon" and "The Firebrand" by Marion Zimmer Bradley...two incredible books with really strong women and a different take on the myths from which they were inspired. "Mists of Avalon" relates the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters. The mini-series was a travesty and insult to this wonderful book. "The Firebrand" narrates the Trojan War, focused on Kassandra, princess and priestess of Troy.

    Also, in the "Wheel of Time" series (Robert Jordan), the females just keep getting stronger as the books develop. It has a rich world with wonderfully complex characters.

    Okay, so these are kind of time consuming suggestions...but, believe me they are worth it! Don't forget to let us know what you select.


  6. I seem to find most of my fave kick-ass heroines in YA, a genre that also happens to be riddled with weak, codependent female leads. Usually I rely on reviews to help me separate the wheat from the chaff. Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games, and Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series both have pretty proactive female leads.

    Robin McKinley's Hero and the Crown had one of the first kick-ass heroines that made an indelible impression on me.

    Paranormal romance can be just as bad as YA for weak heroines, but I liked Alexia Tarabotti in Gail Carriger's Soulless.

  7. Why can I only think of kick-ass female protagonists that are girls, not women? Is there something about being an adult that takes the kick-ass out of the female? Hmmm.

    But you were talking fondly about kick-ass girls. Have you read these?

    Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
    True Grit, by Charles Portis
    The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

  8. Lianne Blakely in Elizabeth Lowell's Jade Island is the first to come to mind. I tend to write my female leads with a lot of independence and can-do attitude, because it's how I was raised. So, I am surprised, and encouraged to know that at least someone is looking for this kind of character. Finding the right man for her, not so easy, though.

  9. I agree with Anonymous: Mattie Ross from True Grit was a great role model. (The Coen Brothers are doing a remake of this and I can't wait.) I loved Caddie Woodlawn too, and I couldn't agree with you more about Jo March -- I was outraged about her choice of husband and wanted to believe it was somehow all a mistake. Stephanie Plum is another one of my favorite heroines. She's not impossibly tough, but she's flawed and funny and believable. Taylor from Barbara Kingsolver's Bean Trees & Pigs in Heaven is yet another. I love her adventurous spirit and humanity.

    My favorite women authors are Barbara Kingsolver (I really admire the way she can work humor and pathos into a thoroughly riveting story), Amy Tan (ditto), and A S Byatt, whose novel Possession I've read over and over and enjoyed every time.

  10. I love Lennie from The Sky Is Everywhere, written by Jandy Nelson.
    I also love Bianca from The DUFF, written by Kody Keplinger.
    Two more recent examples of gals I think are pretty awesome. :)

  11. Some others have pointed to Robin McKinley already, so I'll just second that--I love both THE HERO AND THE CROWN and THE BLUE SWORD, and both have great female characters.

    Patricia C. Wrede's DEALING WITH DRAGONS heroine, Cimorene, was one of the ultimate heroines of my childhood, although now I think these books would be considered mid-grade, and so may not be what you're looking for (though they're really quick reads!) Not only is Cimorene tough, but she's unfalteringly practical, and I love that about her.

    I love Juliet Marillier's DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST for the heroine, Sorcha. It's a retelling of the six swans fairy tale, in which the little sister must toil to save her brothers from an enchantment. She's a fantastic character.

    Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins is both kick-ass physically and tough emotionally, which I love to see in stories about women. She does what she has to do to keep herself and those she loves alive, and if it isn't always what seems to be the moral choice, I can't help but wonder what I'd do in her place.

    And finally I want to mention Anne Elliot from Jane Austen's PERSUASION, which is a choice I think people might argue with--and one I would've argued with when I was younger, mostly by waving PRIDE AND PREJUDICE around until I was blue in the face. But the older I get the more I respect and admire Anne for her practicality and her strength despite years of heartbreak. Each time I read that book I love it more.

  12. Quite a few of my favorites have been mentioned already, so I'll add the one that hasn't been: Ayla from THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR by Jean M. Auel. It's a story about a Cro-Magnon girl growing up in a Neanderthal tribe, and she becomes very smart, strong, and capable as a result. She is rather young, though; I think she's 11 by the end of the story, although given the differences in maturity rates and lifespans, she's pretty much fully-grown by then.

    (Note: There is a pretty intense rape scene in the first book, and she is fairly young, about the equivalent of a young teenager. She continues as a strong character throughout the series, although at about halfway through the middle book, she really starts turning into a Mary Sue--she invents *everything* and is oh so perfect--and there's a love interest introduced, so things get a little porn-y for the rest of the series.)

  13. I too admire Anne Elliot from PERSUASION. She had real strength of character. Many I might have though of have already been suggested. One that hasn't is Julia Gray from Deanna Raybourn's series that starts with Silent In The Grave. She is not afraid to step out and go after what she wants.

    However, I could not disagree with you more about Jo March. Laurie would never have made her happy.

  14. Nancy Drew! I loved her strength and independence, and the protags in my debut mystery novel for middle grade readers Dead Frog on the Porch are inspired by her. For adult fiction I'd have to say protag Rachel Morgan in Dead Witch Walking she kicks butt and keeps walking!

  15. Tamora Pierce - Any series. She makes it a point to write strong, smart, and determined girls/women. Alanna disguises herself as a boy to train to become a knight. Daine struggles with her new-found magic in the middle of a war with immortals. Kel refuses to back down even when everything is thrown against her.
    Though she's mostly centered in YA, I believe her comic book series White Tiger has been released recently...

    Patricia Briggs - I've only read her Mercy Thompson series, but I've heard her other books are fantastic as well. Raised by werewolves, apprenticed by a gremlin, and fixing cars for vampires, Mercy is a mechanic just trying to make ends meet, but seems to only find trouble. Oh, did I mention she can also shift into a coyote?

    Diane Duane - Another YA fantasy writer. Her series focuses on two young wizards, Nita and Kit, who have to learn the ropes of their trade before the Lone Power wipes out all life in the universe.

  16. I agree with Vicki, right now my favorite strong female character is Mercy Thompson by Patricia Briggs. All the paranormal stuff aside (which yes, I like very much), I like her ethics, how she handles her romantic problems, and her stress issues.

  17. You're going to hate my saying this (because, unless you already have, you probably don't want to read this novel), but I have always thought of Becky Sharp in VANITY FAIR as a strong lead female.

  18. Aerin and Harry from Robin McKinley's books. I'll throw in Sunshine, too. Her strength comes from an interesting kind of practicality.

    I like Patty Brigg's Mercy Thompson, especially because of her lack of drama. Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels, as much for her mouth as her toughness.

    Jane Eyre, though I know it's not the feminist answer. But she had to persevere without being hot or mystically endowed with magical strength.

  19. Poochie from Deborah LeBlanc's Water Witch is the only one that comes to mind.

  20. Have you read The Lost Summer of Louisa Alcott? It was really interesting, ESPECIALLY for Jo/Laurie shippers!

    That said: Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon, because their curiosity, imagination, and love of words get them into trouble (and sometimes out of it). I liked Magic for Marigold a lot too, except for the ending.

    Skullduggery Pleasant - zany and confusticating and fun.

    Jacky Faber, from the Bloody Jack series.

    Lots of strong, realistic women in The Help. All three principal characters are lovely.

    Katsa from Graceling. Her physical strength and combat skills remind me a lot of Katniss from Hunger Games.

    Yelena from Poison Study and its sequels. Her strength is more internal - grit and determination.

  21. I was going to mention Ayla from the Jean M. Auel's series, but Kristin beat me to it. The first two books, The Clan of the Cave Bear and the Valley of Horses show the incredible strength and spirit that this young girl has and the hardships she endures as she matures into a young woman. Wonderful books!!!

    I don't agree with Krisin, however, about things getting "porny". The reason why I don't recommend the other books in the series is simply because Ms. Auel gets lost in descriptive details that seem to go on forever.

  22. bitter and twisted6/6/10 5:40 PM

    I have only read the first of the 3 Larsson books GWTDT, and I have to say I don’t really see how a girl that instigates her own rape gets all the accolades that have been delivered to her.

    Also Lisbeth Salander is very much second string in GWTDT, of the 535 pages she occupies way less than half and for 70% of her tenure she plays Robin to Blomkvist’s Batman. But what I really can’t understand is why after reading GWTDT anyone would read another Larsson book.

    Over a number of years pressed, framed flowers arrive on Vanger’s birthday, which Larsson tries to convince are sent as a torment from the murderer of Vanger’s niece, as his niece used to send such a gift when she was alive. The niece’s body has never been found (could it be she is still alive, as nowhere that I can find in the annals of crime has this sort of trait by a killer ever been recorded.) It is known that the murderer was one of the people that was on the island that day, all but a dozen are resident on the island. The flowers have arrived mostly from Stockholm, but 3 from London, 2 each from Paris and Copenhagen and once each from Rome and Florida. Vanger along with a glut of sleuths, private detectives and the Swedish Police Force have spent the best part of 4 decades trying suss out who the murderer could be, but never thought to find out which of the dozen could have been in the cities mentioned at the right time to post the pressed flowers. Could it just, maybe be the girl who works cabin-crew for an airline?????

    There goes my suspension of disbelief.

    I always think a book benefits from a plot, but it seems this is not needed if like Larsson you are already in bed with a publisher.

    If you want a female protagonist in a book with a plot, try Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

    Or a female character who starts off a well rounded person but slowly erodes as the story progresses, Bobbi Anderson - Tommyknockers, Stephen King

  23. Susan Petrone7/6/10 10:16 AM

    I'm not a big mystery reader, but Sara Paretsky's V.I Warshawski comes immediately to mind. Great independent, strong-willed character.

    Also, Lyra in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series is very resourceful, brave, and loyal. I admire her most in The Golden Compass. (Sadly, once Will shows up, she seems to lose some of her vigor and independence.)

  24. Wow--thanks for all the recommendations, guys. I've got a lot of reading to do!

    Hayley, I love that you recommended Jacqueline, who I really need to read more of! And I also absolutely love that piece you linked to--anyone interested in this subject should check it out. It says just what I was trying to articulate. Thanks!

    It's interesting to me that so many of these suggestions are YA and fantasy--I don't know if that's reflective of the readership of our blog or of YA and fantasy authors just being better at it. Something to ponder!

    Clix, I'll have to check out your rec for the book about Alcott. I wouldn't so much call myself a Jo/Laurie shipper--I've just always found the whole "You're too good for me!" "Oh, well, in that case I'll just marry your sister and we'll all pretend it's OK." "Hey, condescending old German guy, I love you!" thing to be incredibly irritating, and not in character for the Jo I'd come to love. It's one thing to not love Laurie, but to end up with the professor? Just doesn't work for me.

    I'll be sure to report back--I think I'll start with THE HUNGER GAMES, which several of you suggested, since that's already on my bedside table "must read next" pile!!


  25. oh no! someone in here did not adhere to the "no spoilers" rule :( on page 80 of TGWTDT and found out a little more info than I would have liked to...

  26. I truly love female characters who are conflicted, flawed and perhaps a bit damaged but also thoughtful, honest and brave. I think that sort of complicated mix creates a very strong character - be it male or female.

    I wanted to second HARRIET THE SPY, Lyra in THE GOLDEN COMPASS and GRACELING. I also thoroughly enjoyed FIRE, by Kristin Cashore.

    Personally, Harriet in THE LITTLE FRIEND is one of my all time favorite female characters. And Donna Tartt is one of my favorite female writers.

    Also to add to the list:

    Liesel in THE BOOK THIEF
    Sabine in THE MAGICIAN'S ASSISTANT (Ann Patchett is also another favorite female writer)

    I'm definitely making note of some of the earlier suggestions, including THE HUNGER GAMES.

  27. bitter and twisted7/6/10 6:03 PM

    Jill, I’m very sorry. That was very wrong of me. I just wasn’t thinking when I posted comment. And the fact that I find the book so flawed, is no excuse as others plainly don’t.

    Apologies to anyone else in mid-read of TGWTDT also.

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