Celebrating Strong Heroines

I’ve been spending way too much time on Facebook.

In the sea of cute kitties, the musings of George Takei, and political banter, I’ve fished out a few links that have made me think. Even better, links like the one below, courtesy of Upworthy.com, proved inspiring. Admittedly, the video clip created by Anita Sarkeesian is long, but it’s well worth a look and well worth considering:

Anita Sarkeesian on Misogyny and Damsel in Distress Tropes in Video Games

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.12.48 PMThe misogyny and worn out, overused, been-there-done-that-damsel-in-distress tropes she discusses in the context of video games are, of course, relevant to fiction. Genre fiction is filled with them, as are all forms of visual and written entertainment. In fact, what Ms. Sarkeesian so eloquently describes explains my aversion to a very popular fantasy series recently adapted for television.

On a positive note, however, I’ve found some very refreshing novels in the romance and urban fantasy genres (among others) that not only deviate from the classic ‘big, strong, dominant alpha male rescues helpless, submissive, weak female’ trope, they turn this trope upside down, shake it up, and churn out some incredibly compelling strong heroines (and heroes) in the process. These ladies kick ass, take names, and are as complex and capable as their male counterparts. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites:

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.14.13 PM1. Clarice Starling, Hannibal Lecter fictionverse

She is one of my all-time favorite characters from one of my all-time favorite novels, The Silence of the Lambs. Women are still underrepresented in law enforcement, including the F.B.I., but in the 1980s? As author Thomas Harris observes through the eyes of his protagonist:

All of Buffalo Bill’s victims were women, his obsession was women, he lived to hunt women. Not one woman was hunting him full time. Not one woman investigator had looked at every one of his crimes.

Not only must Starling face serial killer Buffalo Bill, she must overcome the old-boys’ network, her own personal demons, and she must match wits with one of the most frightening and fascinating killers ever conceived in the realm of fiction – Hannibal Lecter.

In the follow-up to SOTL, Hannibal, the genius killer himself sums up everything you need to know about Clarice Starling in a letter to his favorite lady:

You are a warrior, Clarice. The enemy is dead, the baby safe. You are a warrior.

The most stable elements, Clarice, appear in the middle of the periodic table, roughly between iron and silver.

Between iron and silver. I think that is appropriate for you.

2. Early Anita BlakeScreen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.20.20 PM

I resisted this series for the longest time, but I’m so glad I finally got around to reading the first 5 or 6 books, featuring the adventures of this necromancer/private investigator who specializes in cases revolving around some pretty frightening supernatural creatures. She’s a tough as nails heroine, though to author Laurell K. Hamilton’s credit, she portrays Anita’s strengths in a realistic manner. At just over 5 feet tall, Anita has to rely on weapons and wits (plus a bit of magic at times) rather than brute strength when confronting vampires, were-creatures, serial killers, and a host of other threats.

She definitely holds her own with male colleagues and suitors as she fights beside them. More often than not, Anita actually rescues the guys. If I had to wander the dark and dangerous streets of Hamilton’s St. Louis, I’d definitely want Anita to have my back!

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.27.43 PM3. Cat Crawfield, Night Huntress series

I’ve had a ball following half-vampire Cat Crawfield’s exploits in Jeanine Frost’s Night Huntress fictionverse. From vigilante vampire hunter to covert ops team leader to up-and-coming Master Vampire, Cat’s growth and journey toward confidence and self-acceptance are as delightful to read as her relationship with hot, sexy Master Vampire hero, Bones. They fight their enemies (and sometimes one another) as equals. And anyone who can earn the respect of the most infamous, bad-ass vampire of all, Vlad Tepesh, is a heroine worth celebrating.

4. Angel Crawford, White Trash Zombie seriesScreen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.16.07 PM

I’d been introduced to Diane Rowland’s Kara Gillian series by a friend (loving that one, too), but when I read the title of her first zombie book, I knew I’d have to grab a copy pronto. Yeah, I bought My Life as a White Trash Zombie for the title alone. Angel Crawford begins as stereotype destined to become a statistic. A high school drop out shacked up with a loser boyfriend, she can’t keep a job for more than a month and turns to pills and booze to stay numbed out. Her life takes an unexpected turn, however, when she becomes a zombie.

Angel is a fascinating character with a lot of depth and potential – becoming a zombie (seriously, it works!) gives her the impetus and means to get her life together.  Add in a series of unsolved murders, some entertaining side characters, and one hot cop, and you’ve got a great set up for a fabulous series featuring a kick-ass heroine. I also love her growing self-reliance as the series progresses – she even puts the brakes on the fast and furious relationship with her hot cop for the sake of personal growth. How refreshing.

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.18.26 PM5. Ciara Griffin, WVMP Vampire series

I’ve become a HUGE fan of Jerri Smith-Ready’s work. After Requiem for the Devil, I fell in love with the vampire DJs of WVMP and their unlikely protector, marketing intern Ciara Griffin. Wicked Game blew me away with its originality, powerful themes, and middle finger to all of those over-used conventions that riddle the vampire fictionverse (e.g. uber-alpha/high-handed heroes and damsel-in-distress heroines).

The vamps of WVMP are scary creatures of the night, as vamps should be, but with some unusual quirks. They become trapped in their era at the time of turning and have trouble adjusting to change, often resulting in OCD and mental deterioration. Working as DJs helps them stay connected to the outside world (through current events featured in their news stories) while maintaining ties to their musical ‘Life Time.’ Ciara Griffin, recovering con-artist and jaded cynic extraordinaire, makes it her mission to save the vamps and their radio station safe haven from the clutches of soul-sucking corporate radio.

She falls for hot-yet-angsty grunge rock era vampire Shane McCallister along the way, but the romance blends seamlessly with the larger plot and, fortunately, doesn’t overshadow it (or Ciara).

6. Dr. Elsa Brandeis, Soldiers of Fortune seriesScreen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.24.11 PM 1

I adore everything written by my writing mentor, Jenna Bennett, but Fortune’s Hero proved an interesting departure from her mysteries. Captain Quinn Conlan has nothing left to lose – betrayed by his girlfriend during a weapons smuggling mission, he’s being held and tortured within an inch of his sanity by Rhenian ‘medics’ on their inhospitable prison colony. Among his torturers is icy Rhenian, Dr. Elsa Brandeis. His one and only chance at escape puts the frigid doctor in his clutches when he takes her hostage. In order to survive the elements on Marcia-3, free Quinn’s crew, and hijack a ship and flee the Rhenians, these two bitter enemies must form an uneasy alliance.

The alliance breeds understanding and attraction, but can they trust one another, or is their passion just a case of Stockholm Syndrome? When the Rhenians catch up with them, will Elsa rejoin her ‘side’ and condemn Quinn to a fate worse than death, or will she risk everything she’s ever believed in to save the rogue smuggler? Starting off as a Dr. Mengele-style torturer, Elsa is pretty much the antithesis of submissive. What Jenna manages brilliantly, though, is to humanize this strong, cold character while preserving her strength and cunning.

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.26.06 PM7. Lt. Taylor Jackson, Taylor Jackson series

Thanks to J.T. Ellison, Nashville’s finest are well-represented in the form of homicide detective Taylor Jackson and her team, who spend their time chasing serial killers in and around the city. I could wax poetic about Taylor’s strengths and virtues, but J.T. sums it up best under the FAQs section of her website:

I wanted to write about a…woman in control, who’s strong without being strident, who commands the respect of her peers and her enemies. One who’s worked hard and paid her dues.

As far as I’m concerned, J.T. has succeeded and I’d rank Taylor Jackson right up there with Clarice Starling. I look forward to delving into her spinoff series featuring medical examiner Samantha Owens.

8. Adelia Aguilar, Mistress of the Art of Death seriesScreen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.32.56 PM

Think CSI meets The Canterbury Tales. Adelia Aguilar, the medieval equivalent of a forensic pathologist, faces a plethora of challenges when she’s called into the service of King Henry II of England: royal and local politics, the oppressive Catholic church (the grand poohbahs of which would love to see her burned), and a serial murderer of children she is charged with stopping. Adelia is the antithesis of an ideal medieval female, and thank goodness for that! Still, she manages to capture the attention of a knight – sort of. Former crusader Sir Rowley Picot, the king’s ambitious tax collector, is also out to catch the killer. When Dr. Aguilar saves him from a near-fatal knife wound, however, an unlikely romance blossoms amid the backdrop of the larger mystery plot.

The late Diana Norman (w/a Ariana Franklin) created a memorable, epic ballad-worthy heroine in her mistress of the art of death.

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.33.55 PM9. Dr. Marina Singh, State of Wonder

State of Wonder was my introduction to Ann Patchett’s work (thanks to my fabulous Agent, Natalia Aponte, for the recommendation!). Being a laboratory researcher myself, I found reluctant heroine Marina Singh authentic and relatable. Singh embarks on a  journey reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (with a splash of the 1992 film Medicine Man). Her mission: travel to the Brazilian rainforest to discover the circumstances behind the death of colleague and friend, Dr. Anders Eckman, on behalf of her pharmaceutical company. The stakes are high, as formidable research team leader and Singh’s former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, claims to have discovered a compound that extends female fertility. Corporate greed, ethical questions larger than Swenson’s ego, and the exotic, deadly jungle setting round out this heroine’s journey and make for one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve yet read.

I also thank my lucky stars that I’ve never had a run-in with anyone as brutal as villianess (or anti-heroine, depending on your personal perspective) Annick Swenson in my own academic career!

10. Lisbeth Salandar, Millennium seriesScreen Shot 2013-07-06 at 9.35.25 PM

Reading about the brutality inflicted upon bad-ass hacker Lisbeth Salandar at the hands of her so-called advocate was difficult. How she exacts her revenge upon the sadistic pig was nothing short of a kick-in-the-balls to male oppression and a no-holds-barred lesson in eye-for-an-eye justice. Love her or hate her, she’s the sort of heroine you won’t soon forget. While I found much of the narrative…sluggish, I never skimmed when Stieg Larssen gave Salandar page time.

Short list, but these characters are among those I’ve found most engaging and inspiring – they represent what I hope to achieve in the heroines I create.

So, good people of the Internet, tell me – who are your favorite strong heroines and why do you love them? I’ve always got more room on my TBR pile and I’d love to find some more great reads featuring strong female leads.

6 thoughts on “Celebrating Strong Heroines

  1. Fascinating list, D.B. I’m sure you know I’m fully in agreement with your No. 1 pick. 🙂 I see several on your list I’m not familiar with, though, so I’ll have to check them out.

    The strong heroines who made the greatest impression on me are the ones I met in middle school, which means plenty of women of sci-fi and fantasy. I can’t vouch for the books’ greatness, as I’m certain the nostalgic glow of adolescence makes them dearer to me than the sum total of their words, but I’d point to several military types navigating through and succeeding in worlds dominated by men (much like Starling, no?): Paks from Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion series, Honor from David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, Cordelia from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, and Maigrey from Margaret Weis’s Star of the Guardians series. I’m also fond of women who start out unsure and grow into roles of strength, like Sioned from Melanie Rawn’s fantasy/romance Dragon Prince and Dragon Star series. She’s a scared girl at the start of the first book; by book six, she’s like Jean Grey (Phoenix) from the X-Men — powerful enough to create and destroy worlds.

    There are others, of course, but I’ll stop there. I’d bet most of the ones on my list are as unfamiliar to you as yours are to me. 😉


  2. Wow, from the ones I recognize, great list! I’ll have to check out those unknown to me. I’m a huge fan of Clarice, Anita, and Kat … so the others must be equally fabulous. Women power! We rock. Sookie Stackhouse isn’t on your list? I find her a strong heroine, though I can understand why some wouldn’t see her as such.


    1. Hi Sophia! Thanks for dropping by 🙂 Sookie could be on the list, too – I just tried to keep a nice even number and use some examples from across genres. No offense to this tough heroine by omission! There are plenty more out there I can’t wait to discover 🙂


  3. Great list, though most not of genres I read, or not a lot of. I do love Clarice though and Cat, Anita and Ciara sounds exciting. It’s late and I can’t think of any to add. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Calisa! I’m sure I missed more than a few from contemporary romance and historical romance, among others (fantasy, scifi, etc.), but as I broaden my reading horizons, I’ll probably revisit this topic and add to the list 🙂


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