Thursday, August 21, 2014

8 Female Characters That Are Strong AND Likeable.

There is a debate in literature and film that rages on like a Rush Limbaugh commentary: Can female characters be strong AND likeable? The obvious answer, of course, is yes, but the prevailing wisdom on the internet--found during a recent foray I made there--indicated otherwise: Strong females come across as bitchy, and nice girls are pushovers. Now, before you fly off the handle on me, keep in mind that I did not make this up. I found it on the web--and that means it has to be true. In this case, however, there were a lot of intelligent people, authors in general and Claire Messud in particular, weighing in on the matter, saying a lot of intelligent things that gave credence to the actual existence of a controversy.

But I don't want to rehash the controversy--and I do recommend you read the PW interview with Claire Messud. What I do want to do is to bring to your attention 8 female characters (in movies and books) who--through the skill and imagination of the their authors--are both strong and likeable. It was a difficult job, or would have been difficult anyway, had I not had access to some of the most facile and creative minds of our times--I speak, of course, about the ProseCons. I call them my ectopic writing brain. And so without further ado--it's almost 9pm EST and my bedtime approaches--here they are. (In the order they slipped into my inbox.)

Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)

1) For those of you who didn't read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, what are you waiting for? In the words of Joe Clifford, editor and author of Lamentation, Amy Dunne 'fights dirty, is self-centered(aware)/strong, believes in an eye for an eye, and refuses to lose, even if it means cutting off her nose to spite her face.' I agree, Joe, my kind of girl.

 Arya Stark (Game of Thrones)

2) All you Game of Thrones fans out there--and there are many--will have no trouble concurring with this choice. In the modern vernacular, she is quite simply 'the bomb,' but Garrett Calcaterra, writing coach, beer affeciando and author of Dreamwielder, says it better: 'Arya is smart, passionate yet calculating, and pisses in the face of traditional gender roles.'


Scarlett O'Hara (Gone With the Wind)

3) Almost everybody has read the book and/or seen the movie, and almost everybody likes Scarlett O'Hara. Susan Clayton-Goldner, novelist, poet and author of A Question of Mortality, explains why: 'Scarlett is hard-headed and has trouble behaving like a proper southern woman. She is an extreme character driven to get what she wants by any means necessary.' But why is it that we are attracted to Scarlett's resiliency and hard-headedness when we are distracted by these same traits in other women? Susan Clayton-Goldner again: 'Scarlett has pole to pole growth as a result of the events of the novel and goes from selfish and narcissistic to a woman who will do anything to survive.' And I agree with Susan, it's Scarlett's growth, the development of her character, that appeases us. Nowadays, I am not sure the reader would stay with that whole book to see what happens, but HBO and ESPN weren't around then, and the reader was more patient.

 Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (The Help)

4) I am ashamed to say that I never read The Help. (But I watched the movie twice--does that count?) I also have to say that I am very partial to any character portrayed by Emma Stone, as is TJ Turner, government agent and author of Lincoln's Bodyguard: 'I love any character ever played by Emma Stone…ever.' Author, publicist and writing coach, Eliza Cross agrees: 'I loved the character of Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan in The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Skeeter is curious, open-minded, sassy, courageous, and determined to discover and uncover the truth. And she’s a writer, too—what’s not to love?'

 The Marquise de Merteuil (Dangerous Liaisons)

5) Here again, a riveting performance by Glenn Close does not hurt, but there are many reasons that the Marquise de Merteuill is both strong AND likeable. Dr. Suzana Flores, clinical pyschologist and author of Facehooked, explains: 'She is an intelligent, powerful, strong minded and shrewd woman. She remains on top of her game through careful manipulation. Her aim in life is revenge and to show society that a woman can be as ruthless as a man.'

 Scout Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird)

6) For those of you keeping track (mostly my mother and her Canasta group) this is the 4th time I have mentioned this book in a blog in the last year. Today, however, I am happy to quote Helen 'Scout Finch' Hanson, pilot and author of high-tech thrillers: 'Scout is bored with the pace of school, more concerned with climbing trees than social graces. Saying and asking shit that makes adults uncomfortable. Willing to brave a black eye for a just cause.'

 Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

7) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo took the world of literature by storm for a reason--and it most certainly wasn't Larson's seemingly unedited prose. The real reason was the most original, I-wish-I-had-thought-of-her, character, Lisbeth Salander. I rooted for this girl on such a visceral level, I found myself pinching myself to the point of drawing blood as I read. What more can you ask for when you create a character? My hat is off to the late Steig Larson. Jan Moran, perfume and beauty expert, and author of Scent of Triumph, described Lisbeth in 4 words: 'Smart as they come.'

 Dilsey Gibson (The Sound and the Fury)

8) Here's one you may not have thought of--I certainly didn't, not until I was reminded by English teacher, poet and novelist Conrad Tuerk: 'I love Dilsey, the black servant from The Sound and the Fury.  She's physically frail but has a strong moral foundation that holds the lunatic Compson household together. Her tenderness toward Benjy and disdain for Jason earn my admiration. She's one of Faulkner's finest creations.'

There were other suggestions, but as I had not read the book or seen the movie I felt it was disingenous to include them above, but I will list them here: Holly West, author of Mistress Of Fortune, nominated Kinsey Milhone, the PI from Sue Grafton's Alphabet Mystery series; Art Kerns, author of The Africa Contact, suggested Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief; and crime fiction author Sue Coletta recommended J.D. Robb's (aka Nora Roberts) Lieutenant Eve Dallas.

Now, I have a confession to make: there is a reason I started this project (besides the fact that I am putting off cleaning the garage, a task I despise.) The reason is the editorial feedback I received from my literary agency in regards to the recent revision I submitted. Let's put it this way: it was suggested I spend some time with 2 of my characters, both of whom are female. So, before I attempted this, I decided to study 8 female characters that are strong AND likeable, because wearing women's underwear and eating quiche for a week wasn't helping me develop my female voice

Thanks again to my friends at Kimeberley Cameron & Associates, especially my friend and agent Liz Kracht, and Josey Gist, who is likely shopping for more red ink at this time. And thanks to the ProseCons, the best group of authors on the internet; please click on the photos to your right to find out more about us. And help me: Who are your favorite female characters? Please leave your ideas in the comments below: I need the help and Josey and Liz are running out of red ink! Thanks.

Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Cons; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous), and LinkedIn (Tweets, Novels and Blogs); and a Beta-reader at StoryShelter. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. He can be reached at or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at



Eliza Cross said...

What a great round-up, Peter, and I think it's brilliant that you chose this path to research and strengthen the female characters in your book. Bravo!

Peter Hogenkamp said...

Thanks, Eliza. And now that my two boys are off to college, I am ensconced at home with my wife, 2 daughters, and a female dog. Pretty soon, I will have no problems with female characters.

Sue Coletta said...

I love your line, "...wearing woman's underwear and eating quiche wasn't helping." While down with the flu, it was just what the doctor ordered. Thanks for a great post, Peter! And good luck!

Peter Hogenkamp said...

Thanks Sue: and you I was kidding, right? I would never eat quiche.

Shadowkindrd said...

Since you asked. . .

Here's a very partial list of characters I find that do both likable and strong. The titles are pretty much SF&F, so if you don't like that genre, well. . .

Anyway, here's the list.

Ista from Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold.
Sharleyan, Irys, and Nynian from Safehold series by David Weber
Jaenelle from Dark Jewels series by Anne Bishop
Karigan from Tale of Karigan G'Ladheon by Kristen Britain
Almost any female character in Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson, and the companion series by Ian C. Esslemont
Multiple women from Michelle Sagara/West's plethora of series.
Shai from The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

OK, that'll get you started. *wry grin*

Unknown said...

I see your eight and raise you twenty. Not only are these heroines strong and likeable, but they're diverse as well.

1. Storm of the X-Men (no explanation necessary)
2. Kamala Khan - the new Ms. Marvel
3. Lilith Iyapo - Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler
4. Shori - Fledgling by Octavia Butler
5. Morgaine of Avalon - The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
6. Surreal and Janelle from The Black Jewels series by Anne Bishop
7. Menolly, Lessa, Mirrim and Moreta from The Dragonriders of Pern/The Harperhall series by Anne McCaffrey
8. Tarma and Kethry from The Oathbound series by Mercedes Lackey
9. Phaedre no Delaunay from The Kushiel Trilogy by Jacqueline Carey
10. Tomoe Gozen by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
11. Princess Mononoke (yay for Miyazaki)
12. Kat from The Witches of Galdorheim series by Marva Dasef
13. Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister (yes, I said it), Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
14. Dr. Martha Jones from Doctor Who
15. Princess Leia Organa and Mara Jade from Star Wars/Star Wars Extended Universe
15. Aniri from Third Daughter by Susan Kaye Quinn
17. Jordan Amador from The Black Parade by Kyoko M.
18. Duchess Diane of Tremontaine from Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
19. Hermione Granger from The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
20. Honor Harrington by David Weber

Oh and I can't possibly forget Sonja Blue from Nancy Collins' Sonja Blue series

That's just off the top of my head.

Peter Hogenkamp said...

Shadowkindrd: thanks for the list. I am once again ashamed to say I have not read any of these books, (or cleaned my garage yet) but I am going to pick up one right now, thanks to the magic of my Kindle: Paladin of Souls, since it was your first choice.Thanks again.

Peter Hogenkamp said...

Kymberlyn, impressive. I was going to include Storm (being a huge X-Men fan) but didn't at the last minute. Arya Stark was in my 8, and HOW COULD YOU LIKE CERSEI LANNISTER?. For some reason, I never liked Princess Leia, although I agree that choice has merit, and I named my dog Hermione if that says anything. Thanks for the list.

Shadowkindrd said...

That's an excellent place to start. Let us know what you think of it. But be forewarned: it's the second book in the series, although it works very well as a stand-alone.

Unknown said...

Likeable is a subjective quality, Peter. I could ask you the same question about Scarlett O'Hara. To me, Cersei is a powerful woman with agency. I'm fascinated by powerful heroines, even ones who behave in ways that are amoral or even immoral. And knowing the background of Game of Thrones (Martin was inspired by The Wars of the Roses), Cersei's actions make a lot more sense.

Anonymous said...

Um. Where is Carol Peletier from The Walking Dead?