The 10 Strongest Female Literary Characters of All Time
From teenage sleuths to everyday heroines, some of history’s most inspiring and fiery females can be found on the pages of these novels.
Called “Lizzie” or “Eliza” by her family and friends, Elizabeth Bennett is the stubborn and witty protagonist from the endearing 1813 Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice. She’s the second oldest of five daughters in the Bennett family and, like the rest of her sisters, she’s expected to marry for status and money, not for love. To remain true to herself, she’s willing to remain single, a concept that was practically unheard at the time. These love and marriage stories are outrageous in any century.
She first appeared in the 1930s but remains one of the most iconic female characters in all of literature. Conceived by Edward Stratemeyer, who also penned the popular Hardy Boys series, Nancy Drew’s character was groundbreaking because she wasn’t simply a pretty sidekick to a leading male counterpart. Instead, the bold, physically strong, and fiercely intelligent Nancy used her superior intellect—not her looks—to solve a slew of mysteries. If you love mysteries, these are some of the best thriller books of all time.
Jo March is the tomboyish second eldest daughter in the March family and is a central focus in the novel Little Women, published by Louisa May Alcott in 1868. At 15, she is strong-willed, confident, and literary and, unlike her sisters, she is outspoken and uninterested in marriage. Jo both struggles with and defies society’s expectations of how women in the 19th century should carry themselves, making her one of literature’s most daring female characters.
She’s provocative, intense, and even slightly unhinged. As such, Lisbeth Salander has become one of the most intriguing female characters in literature. As a lead character in Stieg Larrson’s 2005 breakout novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth, a ferociously smart computer hacker with a photographic memory, overcomes a traumatic childhood to help solve a timeworn family mystery, all while abiding by her own uncompromising moral code. These are the classic books you can read in one day.
She’s praised for her smarts, but as a character, Hermione Granger is much more than just an academic overachiever. As the lead female character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Hermione’s keen intellect and powerful memory are consistently on display, sometimes to the dismay of her friends, who sometimes think she’s bossy and annoying. Still, over the course of the series, the Muggle-born Hermione transforms from an eager, bookish 11-year-old to a confident, loyal, and brave heroine. These J.K. Rowling quotes are incredibly motivating.
As the protagonist in Their Eyes Were Watching God, a 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston, Janie Crawford endures a life of servitude and discontent at the hands of the men she marries. And even though Janie is physically beaten and emotionally mistreated, she never abandons her quest for true love. She suffers greatly, but overcomes a series of tragic events to find this true love and, more importantly, herself.
Hailed by some critics as one of the most important characters in female literature, Hester Prynne is the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter. Married but separated by distance from her husband, Hester strikes up an affair with a minister and becomes pregnant. Being that she’s still technically married, she’s considered an adulterer and sentenced to prison, and is brandished with a red letter A, which she must wear for the rest of her life. Instead of hiding or leaving town, a defiant yet compassionate Hester decides to confront the self-righteousness of the townspeople and fight back against the oppressiveness of her Puritanical society. Here are more books you really should have read by now.
Celie is both the narrator and protagonist of The Color Purple, the 1982 prize-winning novel by Alice Walker. For much of the novel, Celie is a victim. She’s lonely, dejected, and emotionally and physically mistreated, first by her own father and then, later, by her husband. Through the power of love and forgiveness, Celie finds her own strength, transforming from a weak, wounded woman into a confident, independent, and compassionate one.
As the heroine of the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss Everdeen is a contemporary icon. Strong, determined, and fiercely loyal, Katniss, a highly skilled archer and hunter, becomes a leader in the rebellion against the tyranny of the Capitol. By the series’ end, Katniss has become a reluctant hero, simply because she’s an ordinary girl who managed to find courage under extraordinary circumstances. The story of these firefighters is a true profile in courage.
One of the lead females in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, Arya Stark is a small but fiery force to be reckoned with. Tough with a capital T, the fiercely independent Arya outwardly scorns “noble” female hobbies like sewing and dancing in favor of sword fighting and horseback riding. After a series of tragedies forces her to flee her home, Arya remains a survivor, overcoming grief, fear and near-death experiences to find the strength she needs to finally avenge her family.