It’s International Women’s Day today, and it’s Women’s Month for the whole of March. Around this time last year, my co-bloggers and I were chatting about our fave heroines on our podcast. This year, I’m a few weeks from the point when I’ll be flying solo, but I’m feeling confident. Because in the past 14 months, I have not only found new books, authors, and characters to like and talk about, but I’ve also learned a lot about why I like what I like and why I can go on for ages on the topics I want to talk about. Female characters who kick major butt fit both these criteria.
But I have already covered the “who” as far as this topic goes, and even though I would happily name more names, i think the whys are just as, if not more, important and should be talked about. And as much as I’m tempted to launch into a thought catalogue on the topic. I had the thought that it might be a good idea to qualify my definition of the term “kickass heroine,” to establish what makes an awesome female character so awesome, at least in my book.
First off, I should mention that while there are many badass heroines I adore who tote guns (ala Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake), swords (ala Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels), claws (ala Kelley Armstrong’s Elena Michaels), magic wands (ala J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger) and more weapons with scary potential for making bad people bleed badly, it isn’t firepower that makes them so awesome and inspiring. Although I will admit that the firepower does help underscore these things, when I really thought about it, I realized that the traits I admire most in all these heroines and more are ones I admire in my real-life inspirations as well. And no matter who, what, or where you might find these heroines, I’ve found that each true badass lady exhibits the seven traits I’ve listed below.
1. She doesn’t “need” anyone in the basic-survival sense of the word (AKA independence).
In Fire Touched, the latest novel in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, werewolf Adam Hauptman says this about the coyote walker the series is named after, who happens to be his wife: “She doesn’t need me to make sure she has enough food or a place to live—that is my privilege, but she doesn’t need me to do that. She doesn’t need me to keep her safe or make her a whole person. She doesn’t need me to do anything but love her. Which I do.”
Okay, take a moment to swoon, because gods know I needed several when I read this. What’s amazing is not that Adam knows this, says this, and acts accordingly, but that it’s been proven true time and time again in every book in this series.
Heroines like Mercy inspire because they are so completely the opposite of damsels in distress. True heroines don’t dwell in towers waiting to be rescued. If anyone dares stuff them in some tower, they’ll cut their hair, twist bed sheets and curtains, learn to tie a mean knot or six, and make a rope so they can climb down and once on the ground get back to the business of living their lives and fulfilling their dreams. That they make friends, find lovers, and even recruit supporters who would and maybe even do mount rescues and help them out of high, tight, and hard situations doesn’t in the least bit detract from the awesomeness of knowing and often proving that they can do it themselves.
2. She is the master of her fate and the captain of her soul (AKA action vs. reaction).
All right, I know I’m quoting William Ernest Henley here, but my point is that a good heroine does more than learn how to cope with what life (and evil wizards, murderous stepmoms, and so on) throws at her and more than adapt to the situations she finds herself in. Being a badass is all about the ability to take those situations and turn them in her favor, about achieving her goals both because and despite the obstacles in her path.
If we take a look at the classics, you could say that a true butt-kicking heroine is no Medea, who murders her children in to avenge hubby Jason’s abandonment and betrayal. I’d say she’s more like Penelope, who holds off the unwanted suitors who think they can take her along with the throne to her kingdom with her cunning, eventually issuing a challenge she knows only her husband has matched, doing so knowing that her husband may never return.
I always thought she showed not just the intelligence and faithfulness she’s credited for, but a sharp aptitude for political strategy; she refused to simple settle into being someone else’s little wife and queen, unless she wanted to and unless she could do the choosing herself. I would pay good money to read about how she led her people and raised her son into manhood in the 20 years Odysseus was away.
3. She has a moral compass and lets it guide her, even when the path she takes is a hard one (AKA integrity).
Great heroines know the lines they will not cross; these may be different for every heroine and every story, whether they’re related to infidelity and betrayal, dishonesty, cowardice, violence, or whatever. And while a heroine may move these lines over time as fits her circumstances or world view or simply the knowledge now available to her, a good one will still refuse to cross it, even if it costs her dear. Why? At the core of her is truth, and she is true to herself.
As a result, she is true to those she cares about, possibly even those she doesn’t care about but nevertheless feels responsible for. And we as well as other characters understand, respect, and admire this because her actions absolutely reflect the truth of who she is, what she believes in, and what she stands for.
You see this a lot in J.D. Robb’s In Death series, which features homicide cop Lt. Eve Dallas. Over the course of the series, we have seen her make hard decisions and even break the law, but everything she does is in the name of justice, and she never goes so far into the gray zone that it’s more black than white. She stands for the dead and for the living, and she tows a hard and occasionally unpopular line for the sake of balancing the scales.
4. She does not lie when it counts or about things that matter (AKA honesty).
I don’t mean that great heroines never utter falsehoods; far from the opposite. But here’s the thing about things that are not true: once you start telling lies, it’s very easy to be fooled or become confused yourself. And so no matter what lies a heroine may utter during the course of her story, she will remain true to herself and, very likely, she will not lie to herself either. More, she will be honest when it counts, even when it hurts people.
Take, for example, Hermione Granger from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Hermione is one of the most fundamentally honest characters in this book. As a result, she guides her friends true, but it also means that she is the hardest on herself.
But what’s important to note is that she doesn’t just have or adopt opinions; she forms her own, and then she shares them. Even when the opinion is that her best (and possibly only) friends in the world are being horses’ asses, she is going to tell it like it is. More, if you think about it, she never turns away from Harry, whether he deserves it or not, something you can’t exactly say about his other best friend, Ron. Anyhow, the point is that she sees clearly, and that’s manifested not only in her intelligence but in the way she more often than not is the one who helps everyone put two and two together to come up with four.
5. She chooses her battles (AKA compromise).
A good heroine isn’t afraid to fight the good fight, but she won’t fight a battle that’s unwinnable, or one that is so costly to friend and moral integrity that it would lay waste to the entire reasoning behind it anyway. While she willingly sacrifices herself and her comfort for others, she understands that meeting a problem head on isn’t always the best thing to do.
Part of this is that she is self-aware. That means that while she has an understanding of what she is able to accomplish, she is also cognizant of her limitations and outright failings. So when she can’t solve a problem via the direct route, she looks for ways to go over, around, and through it.
You see this in Ilona Andrews’ heroine Kate Daniels, who finds herself having to parley with some individuals who seem to be the lesser between two evils. In fact, without spoiling too much of the series for those who aren’t up to date, I’d say she finds herself in awkward relationships with her enemies simply because the world of hurt she would bring upon her friends and on perfect strangers isn’t worth the cost of either her pride or painful politicking.
6. She owns her choices and actions, especially when she is wrong (AKA responsibility).
Because she is an agent of action, forms her own opinions, and follows her own moral compass, the kickass heroine must display an ingrained sense of responsibility. Now, for many of the obvious heroines, this can be a bit over developed, and they end up taking responsibility for a lot more than just themselves. And this is a fascinating dynamic, but if you’re looking for an example that’s a little closer to real life, I’d nominate Anne Shirley from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.
Anne is almost as bad at getting into scrapes as I am, which is something I found myself relating to at a very young age (I believe I read this book in the second grade or so). But while she continues to have a sense of mischief throughout several books in the series, she nevertheless owns up to any wrong she has done, and often without being prompted to do so. I found it hard to imagine myself apologizing to Mrs. Lynde as she did, but that’s why she’s a heroine, right? She shows you how to do the right thing, even when it’s hard.
7. She is focused on growth and solutions (AKA tikkun olam).
What the what now? I came across the term tikkun olam, which translates as healing or repairing the world, when researching Judaism in middle school, and the bare bones of the concept has always stayed with me. This is the idea that every person is responsible not only for their personal welfare in all senses of the word (moral, spiritual, physical, etc.) but also for the welfare of the whole world. Yes, in all senses of the world. It’s about actively contributing to the betterment of the world and of society.
For me an ideal heroine exhibits this, not in the mystical, theoretical sense, but in the way she lives out her life and faces the challenges she encounters. Some heroines take the whole world-fixing thing literally, and that’s okay. But the basic point is that a heroine doesn’t just try to survive a disaster, she overcomes it and then sticks around in the aftermath to help pick up the pieces. Once the pieces are picked up, she thinks about what she can do to help make sure disaster doesn’t strike again, or that more people are able to weather it if it does.
This is something you see in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, a vampire executioner who ends up sticking up for the rights of the living, dead, and undead alike, who amasses power at great cost to herself and her own belief system (although not, it’s to be noted, her moral fortitude; you’ll see that shifting line in the sand she doesn’t cross even when she thinks she’s done so) in order to keep others safe. She has a rule that’s stuck with me: she never asks of others what she is herself unwilling to do. And I’ve always thought that a great rule to have.
Speaking of rules, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels feature Heralds who have one hard and fast rule: there is no one true way. So you get characters of all sexes, faiths, gender orientations, nationalities, and more, and they are all about creating a safe haven for the people who live in their kingdom, and they will defend unto death the basic right of every human being to choose the whats, whos, whens, wheres, and whys of his or her existence.
Of course, that last example raises a point I recognized not halfway through this list: that these traits aren’t just characteristics of kickass fictional females; they’re traits of kickass people anywhere, both fictional and for real. And maybe that’s what’s International Women’s Day is all about, recognizing that the shape of one’s body does not define the soul, that the importance of being true to yourself and taking responsibility for your choices and behavior transcends sex and gender.
So, yeah. This is a long-as-heck way to say happy International Women’s Day and remind everyone that we are responsible for our own awesomeness, but also have a say in the awesomeness of the world.