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One of my friends mentioned that, when she was a kid, she couldn’t find any female characters she liked or could relate to. In fact, she became misogynistic herself for a time because the only examples of women were weak, whiny, helpless bimbos. Not exactly the best role model for a growing girl.
But oddly enough, I don’t remember there being a deficiency in heroines during my childhood years of reading. But then again, I read fantasy and it seems that fantasy has a higher prevalence of female protagonists (and women in general.)
I’ve heard about several studies that speculate on the lack of female characters in children’s and young adult literature. Granted, this has been changing over the last few years, especially in teen literature, but I still find that female characters, when they are present, tend to fall into the emotional/romance category. There are fewer examples of (dare I say it?) “strong” (or rather, “well-rounded”) female characters in children’s fiction.
Since my last entry, “Character Charisma,” was so heavily skewed towards male characters (9 men to 1 woman), I wanted to explore some of my favorite female characters in fantasy novels. Unfortunately, in the video games I’ve played so far, there are very few, if any, female characters who left much of an impression, and even fewer who were the star of the show. The only two that come to mind are the sun goddess Amaterasu (Ammy) from Okami and Aurora from Child of Light. (Both of these are beautiful games with unique designs and gorgeous musical scores, and I highly recommend playing them.) Or maybe I just haven’t played enough games, but either way I’m going to focus on books that I read with interesting, unique, or kick-ass protagonists… who happen to be girls. (I apologize in advance for any mispronunciations.)
WARNING: THE DESCRIPTIONS BELOW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!
The books are organized roughly in order from those meant for children, then to teens, then to adults. I’d read all of these by the age of 13.
Princess Elizabeth from The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko
This is one of my favorite children’s books because it turns the traditional story of a prince rescuing a princess on its head. When a dragon burns down the castle (along with all of her clothes) and kidnaps her fiancee Prince Ronald, Princess Elizabeth puts on a paper bag (the only thing that didn’t get destroyed by the dragon) and sets off to rescue him. With a mixture of courage, flattery, and cunning, Princess Elizabeth defeats the dragon and rescues her prince. However, Prince Ronald turns out to be a real snob, and so, as the story says, “They didn’t get married after all.”
The Maiden from East of the Sun & West of the Moon, written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer
This book is out of print and thus, hard to find these days… which is a shame because the illustrations are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Like most fairytales, the characters don’t have names, only descriptions. The protagonist is simply known as “the maiden” throughout the story. She starts off as a rather spoiled rich girl, but proves she’s willing to work hard when her family falls on hard times. An enchanted frog aids the maiden in return for three wishes. However, the maiden refuses to honor his second wish to become his bride. Her actions break the spell on the frog, releasing a handsome prince, but because of her pride, he is whisked away by demons to wed the evil troll princess. Repentant, the maiden makes a long and difficult journey to find the troll kingdom “east of the sun and west of the moon” to free the prince.
Jasmine from Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda
Jasmine doesn’t start out as a main protagonist, but she becomes one by the end of Book #1: The Forests of Silence. Orphaned at a young age in the deadly Forests, Jasmine has relied on her wits and ingenuity to survive. She can speak to trees and animals, which she considers friends, and is very suspicious of humans. A wild child who hates the restraints of civilization, Jasmine learns to understand and care about humans after traveling with Lief and Barda as they search for the missing gems from the Belt of Deltora to defeat the evil Shadowlord.
Cara from The Unicorn Chronicles by Bruce Coville
Princess Wilhemina from The Dragonslayers by Bruce Coville
Nina Tanleven from The Ghost in the Third Row by Bruce Coville
I devoured any books by Bruce Coville I could get my hands on. He’s one of those prolific authors who writes everything from fantasy to science fiction to horror to humor, often all at once. These three are my favorite female protagonists from his stories. In The Unicorn Chronicles, Cara is just an ordinary girl when she is pulled into another world by a magical amulet. With no idea where she is and hounded by shadowy pursuers, Cara keeps her wits and manners about her as she makes new friends and allies, most notably the unicorn Lightfoot. It’s nice to have a heroine who asks intelligent questions and is cautious about exploring her surroundings rather than blundering about.
Princess Wilhemina, known as “Willie,” from The Dragonslayers, is cut from a different cloth. She is unabashedly a tomboy, wearing pants instead of dresses and wielding a sword rather than a lady’s fan. Determined to prove her worth, she sets out to slay the dragon terrorizing the kingdom. I recall the dialogue between Willie and her companions being witty and fun, along with excellent illustrations by Katherine Coville.
If you’re more interested in the paranormal rather than outright fantasy, the Nina Tanleven ghost stories are a treat. Nina is an average sixth-grader with a passion for acting… and a sometimes unwelcome knack for seeing ghosts! Along with her new best friend, an adventurous girl named Chris, Nina uncovers new ghosts and solves a new mystery in each book. Sadly, there are only three of them: The Ghost in the Third Row, The Ghost Wore Gray, and The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed. But each one has its own twist with good pacing and great misdirection to keep you guessing through the story.
Kaeldra from Dragon’s Milk by Susan Fletcher
Lyf from Sign of the Dove by Susan Fletcher
Dragon’s Milk was the first storyI did a book report on, and, as I mentioned in another entry, the one that marked my true entrance into the realm of fantasy. Kaeldra is the main character, a girl from another land who doesn’t really fit in with her adopted family. When her foster-sister Lyf gets sick, Kaeldra makes a terrifying but important choice to go see a female dragon named Fiora and ask for the milk that will save Lyf’s life. But when Fiora is killed, Kaeldra must flee to find a safe haven for the baby dragons. Her bravery, and strong sense of responsibility and love towards her foster-sister and the draclings is admirable as well as endearing.
Sign of the Dove takes place after Dragon’s Milk and focuses on Lyf, who is almost the complete opposite of Kaeldra. Lyf is frail, pampered, and not at all interested in dealing with dragons. But she finds herself trying to keep a whole flock of draclings alive in a harried race across the kingdom while struggling to understand her own unique gift with birds. Lyf’s evolution from a cossetted child into a strong, self-reliant woman is both wonderful and believable, which makes it a great sequel.
Cassie & Rachel from The Animorphs by K.A. Applegate.
Raise your hand if you’ve read Animorphs. Yeah, this was a staple of my literary diet for a long time. I think it was the first time I read books written in first person, which was fascinating, and the premise of five kids being given the power to shapeshift in order to fight off a parasitic alien threat intrigued me. The two female characters of the group are good friends, but complete opposites. Rachel is tall, blond, traditionally pretty, and an adrenaline junkie. She’s often described as “an Amazon” by the other Animorphs, and is probably their fiercest fighter. Cassie is short, dark, calm, and a pacifist. She fights because she has to, even though she’d rather be taking care of animals in her parents’ veterinary clinic. It’s nice that the books really don’t present one outlook to be better than the other; Rachel and Cassie both bring unique talents to the table while showcasing the potential range of female protagonists. Also, Cassie was one of the first African American characters I encountered as a child (the other being Carol Hanson from The Saddle Club series by Bonnie Bryant.)
Princess Cimorene, Kazul the dragon, & Morwen the witch from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede
The first book in this series, Dealing with Dragons, is my favorite. It introduces us to Cimorene, the youngest and most independent of seven daughters. She’s bored with her lessons and every interesting skill, like fencing or magic, is considered unsuitable for a princess. When she gets wind of her engagement to a dull, albeit handsome, prince, Cimorene runs away from home and ends up volunteering to be the servant of a dragon. Cimorene is very engaging, witty, intelligent, and doesn’t take kindly to fools. She makes good use of all the skills she’s learned, including the dull ones from her childhood. Her new employer, Kazul the dragon, is also a wonderful female character. She’s considerate, loves desserts, and is just as witty and intelligent as Cimorene. The pair of them get along quite well. Morwen is a witch who lives in the Enchanted Forest with nine cats, none of which are “a proper witchy black.” She doesn’t get much screen time until the third book, Calling on Dragons, but she’s a lot of fun and enjoys thwarting people’s expectations of witches. Her home is sunny and comfortable, she wears glasses, and grows regular apples in her garden. I absolutely love these books, and the characters in them, so if you’re looking for a quick but highly entertaining read, you can’t beat The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.
Princess Eilonwy from The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
I’ll admit, I didn’t care much for Princess Eilonwy when I first met her. Like the protagonist, a young man named Taran, I found her rather silly and chatty. However, Eilonwy is not as scatterbrained as she appears to be; she is actually quite practical and doesn’t tolerate stupidity. She isn’t willing to simply sit quietly and do what she’s told, and that highly independent streak sometimes gets Eilonwy in trouble. Oh, and she’s an enchantress, which really comes in handy. As the books progressed, and when I reread them, Eilonwy grew on me and I came to appreciate her. Now, I name her as one of my favorite female characters. (And don’t watch the Disney movie The Black Cauldron. It’s… awful. Just awful.)
Pretty much any female character written by Tamora Pierce is amazing. She has so many great female protagonists and supporting characters: Alanna from Song of the Lioness. Keladry (Kel) from Protector of the Small. Daine from The Immortals. Sandry, Daja, Tris, Lark, and Rosethorn from The Circle of Magic. (I’ve also heard that the Beka Cooper series is pretty good.) All of them are very different people with their own strengths and weaknesses. Even Alanna and Kel, who both train to become knights, approach the task in a different way. Alanna disguises herself as a boy and denies her femininity for as long as she can, finding it a burden rather than an asset. She’s fiery and fierce, as well as stubborn. Kel, on the other hand, deliberately dresses as a girl at mealtimes to remind her fellow pages, and everyone watching, that yes, she is female and yes, she is going to be a knight. She’s steady and calm with a soft spot for underdogs.
Daine from The Immortals books offers a different look at the kingdom of Tortall where Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small are set. She’s an orphan who can speak with animals and later even learns to shapeshift. At first she has no friends, no support system, and a deep fear of the Wild Magic she wields. But as the series progresses, Daine comes into her own, finding her purpose and a family of her own. Like the other books by Tamora Pierce, there is a wealth of supporting female characters that are both fleshed out and entertaining.
The Circle of Magic has a great cast that runs the gamut in terms of personality, background, sexuality, and even body type. Sandry is a pretty, optimistic noble girl with a fear of the dark and a talent for magical weaving. Daja the smith-mage is one of the dark-skinned sea Traders who was exiled from her people as being bad luck after her family died at sea. Tris is a plump red-head with glasses who is regarded as useless by her merchant family, and whose temper makes her weather-magic both powerful and dangerous. Lark is the soft-spoken and motherly woman who acts as a foster parent to the three girls and their lone male companion, Briar. She is not only a person of color, but also asthmatic and has a close relationship with Rosethorn, who is her opposite. Sharp-tongued and no-nonsense, Rosethorn is as tough and prickly as her name, although she does have her soft spots. You don’t really learn much about the sexuality of these characters until the book The Will of the Empress, and I’ll let you read to see for yourself.
Like Tamora Pierce, there are many wonderful female characters by Mercedes Lackey in her Valdemar universe. I haven’t done a thorough reading of all of her Valdemar books (there are a lot!) but I do remember three from the first few books I read that hooked me. I was introduced to Mercedes Lackey’s work when I read The Mage Winds trilogy. The main character, Princess Elspeth, starts out as a nasty, self-righteous brat, although this isn’t entirely her fault. She is slowly taught friendship, respect, and responsibility by the Herald Talia, allowing Elspeth to be Chosen by one of the Companions, mysterious white horses who bond for life with certain people. Such people were known as Heralds. After nearly being killed by a magic-wielding assassin, Elspeth travels to learn how to use her own growing powers and recruit mages powerful enough to use magic inside the kingdom. She does a lot of growing throughout the trilogy, a wonderful evolution filled with colorful characters and high stakes.
However, my favorite trilogy by far is The Mage Wars. While two male characters, Amberdrake and the gryphon Skandranon are ostentatiously the main characters, they have a pair of interesting female counterparts: Winterhart and the gryphon Zhaneel. While all of the characters in this trilogy have issues they have to work through, Winterhart and Zhaneel overcome some nasty internal obstacles. Winterhart is crippled by a deep, hidden shame, which causes her to fall into a bad, abusive relationship and makes her lash out at others. Zhaneel is a new kind of gryphon, one based off a falcon rather than a hawk, but no one knows that at first. She is bullied and called “misborn,” considered a mistake and a failure, which fills her with self-doubt and self-loathing. Watching them overcome these fears was amazing and very powerful. This is the first series I ever encountered that dealt with emotional needs and mental trauma, which is a side of fantasy you almost never see. And I don’t think I’ve read another that did it as well.
Lessa Weyrwoman from The Dragonriders of Pern by Ann McCaffrey
I still enjoy the original trilogy the most, probably because it introduced me to Pern. Although The Dragonriders of Pern is technically science fiction since there isn’t any magic, the dragons make it feel more like a fantasy to me. The planet Pern is protected from a parasitic attacker known as “Thread” by groups of dragons and their riders, who live in rocky fortresses known as “weyrs.” But now Bendan Weyr is the only one left. The other weyrs are empty, Thread is coming, and there is only one queen egg left. Without a queen, the only fertile dragon, Pern is doomed. Lessa is the last of her family; the rest were killed in a raid by their neighbor, Fax, when Lessa was eleven years old. She spends the next decade as a drudge in her own home, scheming to assassinate Fax and avenge her family’s deaths. However, her dreams of revenge are thwarted in a rather unusual way. Dragonriders from Bendan Weyr arrive, searching for a woman suitable to “impress” the queen when it hatches. That woman is Lessa, who also has the rare gift of being able to telepathically speak with all dragons, not just the one she is bonded to. Lessa is determined, headstrong, reckless, and often short-tempered, but she’s also very aware of her duty as Pern’s last Weyrwoman. She is, at first, cynical, cold, and anti-social at Bendan Weyr, but gradually warms under the kindness of the other dragonriders.
Rhapsody from The Symphony of Ages by Elizabeth Haydon.
My mom bought me the first book of this series for Christmas when I was 13, and I could not believe how rich the world was inside. The main character, Rhapsody, is a young woman who’s been through a lot and came out stronger for it. She worked as a prostitute for a time, but then apprenticed as a Singer to learn the art of Naming, as well as herbology and healing. Naming has the power to transform things; if you know something’s (or someone’s) True Name, Rhapsody has the power to alter it. She ends up in the company of two shady characters, Achmed and Grunthor, and embarks on a strange, often terrifying journey across continents… and centuries. Rhapsody is sometimes naive and she’s very compassionate (too compassionate, according to Achmed), but that is her way of coping with the tragedy of the world around her, trying to make it a better place. She also shows herself to be a reformist and feminist when the trio reaches the ancient kingdom of Cantrif and its current inhabitants, the Bolg.
As you can see, there are a lot of excellent female characters who break the damsel mold or who give it an ironic twist. Fantasy belongs to and stars women as much as it does men, and it’s a great place to challenge the status quo.
Who are some of your favorite female characters, especially if they’re from your childhood, and why?
One thought on “Where Are the Ladies? Female Protagonists in Fantasy”
This is a really great post, thank you. I was determined to have strong female characters in my fantasy series for kids. I felt strongly about it anyway but when my daughter was born it made me consider what heroes I’d want her to read about.
Anyway very informative, I’m going to come back to this and track some of these books down. Thanks!