10 Forceful Heroines From Literature That Inspire Us To Kick Ass

We all love reading a good book about a fearless heroine that speaks her mind and generally kicks ass. Author Kate Griffin selects her personal best...

1. Amber St. Clare, Forever Amber
If you haven’t read Kathleen Winsor’s bodice-ripping 17th century romance Forever Amber (pub. 1944) then hie thee to a bookshop. Orphaned Amber scrambles up through the ranks of society by seducing and marrying successively richer and more important men – all the while nurturing a doomed love for the one man she can never have. Amber is amoral, deceitful and vain, but she’s also fearless, practical and optimistic. (There’s a wonderfully grim section on the plague of 1665 where our stoic heroine saves the day). This is one of my comfort reads. I return to it every few years and super-minx Amber still surprises me. You really shouldn’t like her, but you do.


2. Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is a crazy mixed-up gal, but anti-social, bisexual, computer-hacking genius Lisbeth Salander is also one of the most charismatic characters in modern popular fiction. An outsider in every sense, she combines the physical prowess of James Bond with the isolated genius of Sherlock Holmes. Her tattoos, piercings and dyed black hair (Lisbeth is naturally a red head) are armour against a world that has betrayed her. Larsson said he based the character on what Pippi Longstocking might have been as an adult, although I can’t help thinking that Pippi might have been a bit sunnier.


3. Alice, Alice In Wonderland

She’s supposed to be around seven and half years old, but every time I read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, I’m struck by the heroine’s self- possession and sanity. She deals with every peculiar character and situation Wonderland throws at her without batting an eyelash. You have to admire a girl who makes small talk (in French!) with a mouse while trying not to drown; plays croquet with a talking flamingo as a mallet and is prepared to argue with a ferociously bloodthirsty tyrant (the Queen of Hearts) without losing her cool – or her head. Best of all, Alice is bracingly honest. ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’ I love it that she always tells like it is.

4. Hit Girl, Kick Ass
Not much older than Alice, Hit Girl (‘real’ name Mindy McCready) made her first appearance in issue three of the Marvel Comic book series Kick Ass. You’ve probably seen Chloe Grace Moretz rocking that fetching purple wig, tartan skirt and nunchuks combo in the film based on the strip. Hit Girl is a tiny but deadly martial arts expert trained to fight crime by her superhero dad. Deep down, you know it’s wrong, but there is something joyously unhinged at the thought of a masked 10 and a 1/4 year old unleashing carnage in the name of justice. In the comic strip, one of the characters describes Hit Girl as a cross between Rambo and Polly Pocket. What’s not to like?

5. Becky Sharp, Vanity Fair
Strictly speaking, comic cunning Miss Sharp is an anti-heroine. She’s the central character in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and I love her in the way I love Amber St. Clare. They are both low-born women prepared to use their feminine wiles to get what they want. Thackeray called Vanity Fair ‘a novel without a hero.’ It doesn’t need one. There’s something very masculine about Becky’s lack of sentiment and capacity for risk-taking. The stakes are high in her Regency world, but she’s in the game to win.


6. Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games trilogy, is the girl you’d want to know when the world goes into meltdown. She’s strongly independent, a survivalist, a hunter, a forager and sometimes a cold-blooded killer. Despite her flaws the reader loves her because she’ll always protect those she loves, no matter the cost. I’m disappointed with the film versions. Jennifer Lawrence is a fine actress, but she’s not the combative, mixed race (Native American?) girl I imagined when I was reading. In a world where heroines, even comic book ones, are generally white it was a missed opportunity. By the way, Collin’s took the name Everdeen from another great heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

7. Milady de Winter, The Three Musketeers

This is another very bad woman, but when I first read The Three Musketeers at the age of about 11 she made me want to get a tattoo of a fleur- de-lis on my shoulder so badly that, secretly, I started to save my pocket money. To explain; a fleur-de-lis was branded onto the shoulder of criminals in pre-Revolutionary France. In Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel, ‘Milady’ (isn’t that a great name?) is a beautiful, brilliant and heartless spy with a dark secret. Her torrid back-story is the best part of the book. I think it’s fair to say that Dumas fell in love with his creation – she’s certainly more intelligent and multi-talented than the lumbering musketeers. Milady is the ultimate multi-tasker.

8. Irene Adler, A Scandal in Bohemia
In The Five Orange Pips Sherlock Holmes admits that he was outwitted four times, “thrice by a man and once by a woman”. The woman is Irene Adler, a retired opera singer and adventuress. She appears in just one of Conan Doyle’s stories, A Scandal in Bohemia, but is mentioned admiringly in several others. Irene is one of the few people Holmes considers to be, almost, an equal. She is sharply intelligent, a skilled mimic and a reader of men, in other words, she is very like Holmes himself. Isn’t it rather wonderful that Conan Doyle made a woman the most effective and remarkable foil to the world’s first consulting detective?


9. Jane Eyre

At first glance you might not think of mousy Miss Eyre as a ‘kick ass’ heroine, but look again. This fiercely independent young woman stands her corner, values herself and ultimately, gets her man, but only when she knows that she is his financial, intellectual, and emotional equal. What makes me love Charlotte Bronte’s most compelling character is this quote: “I can live alone if self-respect and circumstance require me so to do. I do not need to sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at price I cannot afford to give.” If that’s not a ‘kick ass’ attitude, albeit wrapped in sturdy Victorian prose, then I’m…

10. Arya Stark!
Heroines don’t come much tougher than Arya Stark in George R.R. Martin’s Songs of Fire and Ice novels, translated to TV as the blockbusting Game of Thrones. Along with her tiny sword ‘needle’, teenage Arya is armed with an ever-growing list of people she wants to dispatch.
Recently Maisie Williams, the brilliant young actor who plays vengeful Arya, bemoaned the lack of strong female characters. “I’d love to portray women the way they should be, as people, not as girlfriends or pawns in a game to make the male character look good,” she said, adding, “You look at all the massive blockbusters out there — they’re all male leads. There are so many female characters that need to be written still.”

Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune, the sequel to Kate Griffin’s first book, is published in July by Faber and Faber, out now

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