Some books I like for their clever plots or unexpected denouements, others for their dazzling narratives. But the books I cherish are those with memorable characters, especially heroines. I rounded up nine of the most memorable literary heroines I’ve met over the years and compared my choices with similar lists on other Web sites. I picked a couple—Lisbeth Salander and Tess Durbeyfield—not because they’re role models but because, quite simply, I can’t get them out of my head.
There are other “huge” characters whose names I will always remember, such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, but their qualities no longer shine for me. I tried to choose 10 literary heroines, but for the life of me, I could only come up with nine. Any suggestions? Leave a comment below.
Top 9 Literary Heroines
All of these female literary characters have been portrayed in films, attesting to their popularity. In turn, the movies have reinforced their appeal.
(1) Scarlett O’Hara, “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell: There’s no heroine more determined than the green-eyed, tantrum-prone Scarlett O’Hara. The Civil War transforms her from a spoiled Georgia belle to a savvy survivor. Vivien Leigh, who immortalized Scarlett in the 1939 movie by Victor Fleming, contributed tremendously to the character’s staying power.
(2) Jo March, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott: As a writer, I’m partial to the hardworking Jo, who holds a job throughout the novel. She dares to dream and leave the comfort of her home for New York. She learns some harsh truths about the publishing industry, but in the end, she succeeds in pursuing a career she loves.
(3) Elizabeth Bennet, “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen: Lizzie has beauty, brains, musical talent, and integrity. She’s not afraid to speak her mind. More importantly, she marries for love, contrary to society’s expectations.
(4) Jane Eyre, “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë: Jane is the epitome of a strong female character—intelligent, passionate, and self-reliant. Although she goes through hardships, she’s resilient and comes out on top.
(5) Lisbeth Salander, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson: I’m not a big fan of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, but I concede that he created one of the most memorable female characters in literature. Lisbeth—a tattooed, kick-ass computer hacker— is the anti-heroine of our times. She does whatever it takes to fight back. I may not love Lisbeth, but she’s someone I can’t forget or ignore.
(6) Scout Finch, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee: The word “scout” means someone who gathers information. What a perfect name for the perfect narrator for this novel. Scout Finch is a precocious girl with an infectious curiosity. She’s a keen observer—uninhibited in asking the tough questions about race.
(7) Clarice Starling, “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. I love Clarice Starling’s tenacity in catching Buffalo Bill. She’s intelligent, well-educated, ambitious, and most of all, she excels at her job as an FBI agent, which makes her the perfect match for Hannibal Lecter. Jodie Foster’s Oscar award-winning portrayal in the 1991 movie by Jonathan Demme contributed a lot to Clarice’s enduring appeal as a character.
(8) Lucy Honeychurch, “A Room with a View” by E.M. Forster. Lucy has an easy life. She has a loving family, a fiancé who adores her, a trust fund, and she vacations in Tuscany. If we use tragedy as the measurement of greatness, then Lucy is a lightweight literary heroine, which makes her character transformation all the more remarkable. She starts out as a naïve girl, but she comes into her own at the end of the novel. She does the unthinkable in Edwardian society—she breaks off her engagement to Cecil and marries her true love, George.
(9) Tess Durbeyfield, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy: Tess is a classic tragic heroine, the antithesis of Jane Eyre. Tess’s forbearance makes her memorable.
Want to read more about great female literary characters? Check out these two lists: