What makes a great female protagonist?

Nancy HolznerToday I will be handing over the Thoughtful Thursday reins to Nancy Holzner, author of the DEADTOWN series. Nancy is one of my favorite authors, and her razor sharp writing raises the bar in urban fantasy. It’s a an honor and a pleasure to have her guest post for today’s column.

I write urban fantasy, a genre known for its kick-ass heroines. Over the years, I’ve been involved in numerous conversations about “strong female protagonists” and what that means. To be honest, the phrase “strong female protagonist” irks me. Why do female characters need “strong” as a qualifier? Personally, I’m not likely to follow a weak protagonist — male or female — through an entire book. I don’t mind if a character starts off timid and uncertain, but unless that character begins to discover some strengths fairly quickly, I’m closing the book.

That point aside, what qualities do you look for in an urban fantasy heroine? I want to see someone who’s smart, decisive, and action-oriented (no updated female Hamlets dithering about the right course of action for two-thirds of the book). A sense of humor is a plus. I also want to see flaws that lead to mistakes and uncertainties; these make the character relatable and interesting. I like it when power is not easily acquired but costs something significant. A character who willingly makes sacrifices has me with her for the duration. Can she commit to a relationship? For me, the relationship probably isn’t her top priority — there’s no time to pick out china patterns when you’re saving the world — but I do prefer a heroine who can give and accept love.

Recently, a reader commented to me that she had noticed a shift in urban fantasy heroines, from strong and assertive to whiny and demanding. I haven’t seen that trend in my own reading, but the line between snarky (which is fun) and annoying (which is, well, annoying) can sometimes be a thin one.

What do you think? What makes a great female protagonist in fantasy? Who are some of your favorites?

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JUSTIN BLAZIER (on FanLit's staff since September 2009) is a Cyber-Security Analyst/Network Engineer located in Northern Kentucky. Like many fantasy enthusiasts, Justin cut his teeth on authors like Tolkien, Anthony, and Lewis. Due to lack of space, his small public library would often give him their donated SFF books. When he is not reading books he is likely playing board games or Tabletop RPGs. Justin lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife, their daughter, and Norman the dog.

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  1. I like well-rounded characters period–and not just the heroine! They don’t always have to be kicking-ass and taking names, because clever and outsmarting the bad guys works too.

    • Me, too!In my own reading, it’s probably about a 50/50 slit between male and female protagonists. Well-rounded, interesting, and believable characters are what make me want to spend time reading about them.

  2. I think Hermione is an awesome female protagonist. She can beat you with her brain.

  3. sandyg265 /

    I like characters that I can relate too. Snarky whiny characters are a turn off for me

    • I enjoy a bit of snark, but if it crosses over into whining, I’m gone. And you’re right about how that prevents a character from becoming relatable–who wants to think of him/herself as a whiner?

  4. Thanks, Justin, for the chance to contribute a Thoughtful Thursday post–and also for that blush-inducing introduction. :) This question often comes up in panels at cons, so I thought I’d like to hear some readers views here.

  5. same things that make for a great protagonist regardless of gender, race, or (being fantasy) even species. But my number one requirement is they have to be interesting. And usually that means they need to struggle–physically, emotionally, struggle with decisions. And often that means they need to be inconsistent like all real, and usually all really interesting, people are. If they constantly respond to authority with the same knee-jerk “I’m brash and bold and do my own thing” reaction or always “kick ass” or are always anything–wryly self-deprecating, cheekily brash, etc. I find them less interesting

    • I really like the way you define “interesting” in terms of struggle. I’d never thought of it quite that way, but I agree!

  6. Carin W /

    I have to agree you shouldn’t have to use strong as a qualifier when you are talking about a female protagonist! I enjoy books that have a female protagonist, some of my favorites are The Hollows series by Kim Harrison (you get 2 for the price of one with Rachel and Ivy) and I love the Jaz Parks novels by Jennifer Rardin. I HATE to admit you are a new to me author, however I plan to remedy that :O) Carin

    • Thanks, Karin! I love the series you mention, so hopefully when you get a chance to try my books, they’ll fit in with your tastes. :)

  7. Sarah /

    My pet peeves are the women that have to do everything themselves and are always trying to prove to the man in thier life that they don’t need them. Especially when they do stupid fem-jep stuff to prove how great they are. A ‘strong’ female character would know how to utilize others strengths in order to get the job done.

    Personal preference no matter what gender the character is keeping the swearing to a minimum. There is one series I tried and really liked the first book, but I couldn’t get past the constant swearing – especially the phrase that character used about 100 times or more in one short book. I don’t mind an occasional bit of cussing, but it doesn’t have to be part of every piece of dialogue.

    • It is so true that there is a difference between strong and strong-armed! The truly strong characters know when someone has a nifty talent that can make them a stronger team together. I think Patricia Briggs is particularly skilled in giving her characters strengths–and then playing the sharing of strengths and the times when they should have and didn’t…

    • “A ‘strong’ female character would know how to utilize others strengths in order to get the job done.”

      This is such a good point. I have to admit that my character, Vicky, is still learning this. She feels like she has to step forward and face things herself to protect those she loves. She’s learning, tho. :)

      Agree with you about excessive swearing. It’s kind of like pepper–a little works as seasoning, but too much ruins the dish.

  8. Barbara Elness /

    I think a great female protagonist has a troubled past, but has overcome it and gone on to become a strong, independent woman who can kick some serious butt. I like the wise cracking, snarky humor, but no whining for me. Some of my favorites are Jennifer Estep’s Gin Blanco, Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock, Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson, Jenn Bennett’s Arcadia Bell and Jeaniene Frost’s Cat Crawfield.

    Barbed1951 at aol dot com

  9. I don’t read a lot of urban fantasy but one heroine I really like is Karen Marie Moning’s MacKayla Lane. She is completely shallow at the beginning of the first book but she suffers and develops in a realistic way. She doubts herself but she never gives up. A great heroine!

  10. Urban Fantasy leans heavily on having strong characters, and a bad character or one you can’t relate to at all is like having a rock in your shoee. I like female characters to be someone who possess a lot of inner strength. She can be physically strong, but it’s not a requirement.

    As for my favorite female protagonists I would have to pick a couple. Nancy’s own Vicky Vaughn is kind of the total package. Strong, independent, smart and yet quite vulnerable at times and relies on the help of loved ones to really get her through the thick stuff. Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson is quite similar. She’s a super girl but has some serious emotional hangups. It makes for a believable character, but still retains that awesomeness that you can’t find outside a Fantasy novel.

    Least favorite female protagonist? October Day. Well written books, but a shallow dimwitted impulsive heroine….at least in the first book or two. I’ve heard she grows significantly as a character so I may give her another chance, since I found the world she lives in to be so interesting.

  11. Sienny Octora /

    i found my perfect female protagonist in jd robb’s eve dallas. she’s strong, loyal, sensitive, stubborn and she also has her own weak points. i prefer my hero/heroines that way, not too perfect.

  12. Kevin B /

    I don’t read much urban fantasy, but my favorite female characters in (epic) fantasy and sci-fi are respectively Sashandra Lenayin (Sasha for her friends) from the A Trial of Blood and Steel tetralogy and Commander Cassandra ‘Sandy’ Kresnov from the Cassandra Kresnov series. Both are coincidentally (or not) by the same author Joel Shepherd.

    They are both completely different characters in different situations with different personalities*. What they have in common though is that they’re both kick ass and very capable in their respective strong points but at the same time they have their flaws and personality quirks that make them very relatable.

    Other female characters I’m partial to are Paksenarrion Dortansdotter from Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion. And Boss from Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Diving into the Wreck and sequels.

    *(One’s a headstrong and brash, exiled princess and prodigy sword fighter, in a very patriarchal world fraught with religious and political turmoil, who lives with her mentor on a horse farm. And the other is a very advanced “hunter killer” android designed for black ops missions, one of the first of her kind built with the abilities for lateral thinking and complex thoughts. It makes her one the best killers in the universe, but also gives her a deep rooted wish to explore and experience life in all its facets rather than just be a mindless soldier.)

  13. nancy holzner thompson /


  14. Thanks to everyone who’s commented and mentioned their favorite female fantasy protagonists. Some I know and love (Jane Yellowrock, Mercy Thompson, Cat Crawfield, MacKayla Lane–a great example of someone who finds her strengths). Others I’m adding to my TBR pile.

    From the discussion so far, “strong” seems to mean (among other things) complex, interesting, and willing to move forward despite a difficult past. What else would you add?

  15. Sienny Octora, amongst the many good comments, yours is favored by the dice gods! If you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks. Please contact me (Tim) with your choice and a US address.

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