Throughout literary history, the role of the female hero has evolved. Traditionally, the protagonist in a novel, poem, short story, play, film, or television show has been male. Developments in literature have led to increasingly prominent, strong, and independent female heroes, sometimes referred to as heroines.
Today, the term “heroine” is sometimes considered to be outdated in that it places an unnecessary divide between women and men. Many literary critics suggest that female-exclusive terms (like heroine, actress, poetess, etc.) suggest that women are less than men and do not rise to the level of “heroes,” “actors,” or “poets.”
Definition of Heroine
A heroine is a female hero. They may be the main protagonist of a novel or a secondary character who supports the main character. Contemporary female heroes are:
- Supportive of other women
But, this wasn’t always the case. Throughout history, the best-known authors (the vast majority of whom are men) have chosen to focus primarily on male characters and male heroes in their work. This has meant that women play secondary roles or do not feature in literature at all.
In some examples, authors include women as the main character/s but, imbue these characters with traditionally female characteristics that are usually interpreted as weaknesses. For example, dependence on men, uncontrollable emotions, and a need to raise children or make a home. It’s possible to find a wide range of approaches when it comes to writing women into stories.
For example, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series is a hero in her own right but is not the main character of the series.
In Pride and Prejudice (which is explored in more detail below), Elizabeth Bennet is the main character and expresses some contradictory character traits. She is strong, confident, and stubborn but also easily influenced by the men in her life.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred struggles under the oppression of her contemporary world but maintains her strength in the face of attempts to control her.
Examples of Heroines
Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Elizabeth Bennet is a classic example of a female hero, or heroine, in literature. She was introduced to the world in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813. Elizabeth is one of several daughters and is depicted as outspoken and funny in a way that her sisters are not. She is far more determined to make her own decisions in life than follow a traditional path.
Here is a quote from Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice:
There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.
Throughout this simple quote, readers can immediately infer a few things about this original heroine. She is sure of herself, judgmental, and willing to share her perspective. These are attributes that many female characters during the time in which Jane Austen was writing did not have.
Elizabeth’s biggest weakness throughout the book is her prejudice. She judges Mr. Darcy quickly before learning anything substantial about him, and she spends the novel trying to overcome that.
Read Jane Austen’s poetry.
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Katniss Everdeen is a contemporary female hero who features in Suzanne Collins’ immensely popular Hunger Games series.
Here is a quote from Katniss Everdeen that demonstrates her character traits:
My spirit. This is a new thought. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but it suggests I’m a fighter. In a sort of brave way. It’s not as if I’m never friendly. Okay, maybe I don’t go around loving everybody I meet, maybe my smiles are hard to come by, but I do care for some people.
Katniss endures a great deal throughout the popular series. But, she maintains elements of her character that are critical to who she is. She loves her family and her friends and is determined to fight for them no matter the cost. As she learns more about the state of the various districts, her willingness to fight for revolution grows. Katniss becomes a symbol for all those seeking change and fighting to overthrow the Capital.
Explore Suzanne Collins’ best books.
Some of the strongest female characters in classic and contemporary literature include Elizabeth Bennet, Hermione Granger, Jane Eyre, and Katniss Everdeen. These women have inspired generations of female and male readers and served as contemporary role models for those aspiring to live strong, courageous, and loyal lives.
Elizabeth Bennet is often cited as the best fictional female character. But, this designation is going to change based on who is asked. Other popular female characters include Anne Shirley, Hermione Granger, Matilda, Navy Drew, and Hester Prynne.
To write a strong female character you need to establish a set of admirable character traits you want her to have. She should be brave, strong, loyal, independent, and willing to take risks. Or some combination of these. It is equally important not to base her character around her looks or her relationship with the men in her life.
Often, female characters are portrayed as secondary to the male characters in stories. They might be seen as inconveniences, overly emotional, neurotic, untrustworthy, simple-minded, or in other less-than-complimentary ways.
Related Literary Terms
- Hero: is the principal or primary character of a work.
- Protagonist: is the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.
- Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Nemesis: the central antagonist of the story.
- Anti-Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Byronic Hero: a type of character inspired by the life and work of George Gordon, better known as Lord Byron.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.