A case for realistic female characters

Inspiring fictional role-models to think about on International Women’s Day


On International Women’s Day, it’s time for us to reevalute what we call a strong female literary character.

Even in recent years, the image of a strong female character connotes an unemotional robot who’s skilled at shooting arrows or some other physical activity and despite having no personality, is irresistible to the opposite sex. 

Instead, we should celebrate women in literature with complete, complex personalities who embrace themselves and rise above their circumstances. 

Hermione Granger of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, for example, is commonly viewed as a feminist character because of her intelligence. But what makes her a strong female character is her commitment to the community and people around her, channeled through a nuanced character. 

Yes, she’s a witch who goes to school at a magical castle, but she also has depth and personality. Hermione isn’t ashamed to express her emotions and although she sometimes succumbs to them, she also channels them into social justice initiatives, like her passion for the rights of house elves and resistance to class stereotypes. 

Although her efforts don’t result in dramatic change, Hermione’s still able to change the perspectives of those around her, proving a female character doesn’t have to replace her emotions with logic to be strong and successful. 

Similarly, Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series also establishes that emotions aren’t the opposite of bravery and intelligence. 

At first glance, Salander seems to perpetuate the cold, emotionless, seemingly strong female character trope, but as the novels progress, the reader discovers Salander is the victim of rape and a traumatic childhood in the system. 

Although her past trauma causes Salander to be quiet and distant, she does not allow it to make her timid and motionless. Salander stands up to her rapist and proves her skills as a brilliant hacker and researcher. 

In addition to solving a murder cold case, Salander learns to trust and connect to the people around her. 

Female characters who solve problems and take control of their circumstances are important because they provide a model of what real courage and strength looks like.

That still doesn’t mean a female character can’t have to be extraordinarily intelligent to be strong. 

Probably the best female protagonist in recent young adult literature is Starr Carter from Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give

High school student Starr lives in a poor black community, but goes to private school in a wealthy, white neighbourhood. After she’s witness to the senseless murder of her friend by a police officer, Starr must navigate issues of race and class and learn to understand violence and hatred. 

Even though the novel doesn’t have a particularly happy ending, Starr remains a role model as someone who stands up for what she believes in and chooses to be courageous despite the absence of a visible resolution. 

By the end of the novel, Starr not only challenges racism at her school, she also stands up to systemic racism by rushing into the thick of a dangerous protest, establishing herself as a 16-year-old hero young women around the world can look up to. 

In a world where media and film have immense influence in the portrayal of women to women, books can provide authentic female representations that act as positive role models and inspire both courage and compassion. 

The more these realistic, strong female characters are encouraged in literature, however, the more the world will realize it’s not extraordinary for a woman to be intelligent, brave, funny or fierce.

It’s normal, and always has been. 


All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.