Look, I love Katniss and Hermione as much as the next girl. I'm all about little Matilda with her X-Men powers, and Lizzie Bennet with her smart ass opinions on marriage. I'm even a sap for Jane Eyre, and her unhealthy romance with a dude who keeps his ex-wife in the attic. But for all the amazing female book characters who we honor with think pieces and fan fiction and Etsy mugs, there are so many more who don't get nearly as much love as they deserve. Here are a few criminally underrated literary heroines.
After all, it's tough to be a fictional lady (and it's tough to be a non-fictional lady, too, for that matter). You must be a Strong Female Character, and yet also pretty and fun and romantic (but not too romantic). You must not be incompetent in any way, but if you're too good at everything you become a "Mary Sue." Basically, you must be everything to all people at all times. Ugh.
Here are a few great female characters who aren't necessarily everything at once. Some of them are fierce warriors, some of them are dangerously smart, and some of them are a lovesick, boy-crazy mess. All of them are interesting, flawed characters who could use a little more attention:
Lord of the Rings is one of the cornerstones of the fantasy genre... but J.R.R. Tolkien is just not great when it comes to female characters. Arwen is cute and all, but her main traits in the books are "pretty" and "elf." Éowyn, however, is an active character who refuses to let gender roles define her. She can crush on Argorn and stab the Witch King through the freaking head. She deserved better than to give up her dreams of battle glory and marry Faramir (although to be fair, Faramir is just a more boring Aragorn).
A lot of female characters are "nice" (in fact, sometimes they're "nice" to the exclusion of any other personality traits). But Lauren Olamina from The Parable of the Sower complicates the trope of the kind, empathetic female lead. She has hyper-empathy, a condition that allows her to feel other people's pain as she struggles to survive in the post-apocalyptic wilderness of America. Rather than becoming a Strong Female Character who fights her way through a dystopia, Lauren is a visionary who uses her depth of emotion to start building a new society.
If you know the Les Misérables musical, then you now have the song "On My Own" stuck in your head (you're welcome). If not, then you're probably wondering who this French urchin is. Eponine, from Victor Hugo's famous novel, is a tough, wily street kid, who harbors a secret love for Marius, a preppy college boy far above her class. She's often written off as a "pathetic" character because of her unrequited love story, but in Hugo's novel she's one of the most complex figures, constantly balancing her tomboy persona with her powerful capacity for love.
Why is there so much Sansa Stark hate in this world? She's not a kick ass lady warrior, like so many of the other women in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and she's not a ferocious dragon queen like Daenerys. She's a traditionally feminine girl. She's a little shy. She likes boys and fairy tales. And over the first five novels, she becomes adept at using her own femininity and politeness to game the system, because being "girly" doesn't make you weak.
If you like books and you're not reading the Thursday Next series, what are you doing with your life? Thursday is a Literary Detective. She has the ability to jump "into" literature, and interact with famous fictional characters. She has a pet dodo. She's that rare female lead of a action-packed book who's actually allowed to age into her fifties and have multiple children. She's pretty much the coolest ever, go read her books.
6Bertha Mason / Antoinette Cosway
Bertha Mason (or Rochester) is the "madwoman in the attic" from Jane Eyre. She doesn't really get her fair due in that book, though: she's mostly a creepy obstacle to Jane's happiness, and her only motivation seems to be to start fires. Wide Sargasso Sea, however, makes Bertha (or Antoinette) into the protagonist, taking us back to when Mr. Rochester first married her in Jamaica. Jean Rhys paints a portrait of a young woman driven mad by society's strict role for her, a far more nuanced portrayal than the madwoman in the attic.
Virginia Woolf's Orlando was a love letter to her friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. In the novel Orlando starts out as a young English nobleman... but, around halfway through the novel, Orlando wakes up as a woman. There's no explanation. Orlando just kind of goes with it, giving us one of the most interesting, gender fluid heroines in literature.
Tan-Tan lives on the Carribean-colonized planet of Toussaint, where she loves to dress up as the Robber Queen for Carnival. But when she and her father are exiled to the harsh, monstrous world of New Half-Way Tree, she must become the Robber Queen in order to survive. Tan-Tan is a strong-willed, determined girl, who should be up there with all the great tough kid protagonists of the book world.
The characters you think of when you hear "Shakespearean heroine" are probably tragic (Ophelia, Juliet, Desdemona) or mighty queens (Cleopatra, Titania, Lady Macbeth), or young girls dressed as boys (Viola, Rosalind, Imogen). Beatrice is none of these things. She's not a young ingenue; she's a sharp-tongued witty broad who loves zingers and thrives on close female friendships. Her plot is a romance, sure, but it's about falling in love through humor and clever insults, rather than through any love at first sight nonsense.
JUSTICE FOR SUSAN. In the first couple of Narnia books, Susan is pretty awesome. She handles a bow and arrow like a pro, she's logical and smart, and she keeps all her siblings alive in a wacky magical land. She's regarded as a gentle ruler in Narnian history. But then she's discarded like an old boot by her own author: all the other Pevensie kids get to return to Narnia "permanently" in the last book. In the real world, they're killed in a train wreck, except for Susan, who presumably had to identify all of the bodies. She's deemed too "grown up" for Narnia in the end, because she's interested in lipstick and nylons. But who says you can't wear lipstick while you shoot a bow and arrow?