Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Favorite Female Protagonists: Competence Edition

I was seeing various lists of favorite female protagonists here and there recently, and I thought, How could you even begin to narrow this down?

Then I thought, well, how about female SFF protagonists who a) are competent, b) from the first moment they step on stage. This eliminates virtually all modern YA heroines in one fell swoop. Poof! Because the only acceptable character arc for a YA protagonist involves gaining competence or confidence or both as the story unrolls.

Feel free to mention exceptions if you can think of any.

Meanwhile, this is actually an interesting category in which to separate male and female protagonists, something I tend to resist. This is because it seems to me that there are MANY uber-competent male protagonists out there, but a relatively small number of highly competent female protagonists. Granted, my list of super-competent male protagonists may be slanted because I immediately thought of Andrea K Höst and her male leads tend to be very much of that type (which is why I love them so much). But we also get, say, Travis Chase in Patrick Lee’s THE BREACH. And so on, and so on. I could come up with fifty examples without trying, probably. I think in general this occurs because both authors and readers gravitate toward younger female protagonists, and if you’re young, then your character arc is going to involve growing up and gaining in competence. A lot of male protagonists are already at the height of their careers when a story opens, and I’m not sure that tends to be the case with female protagonists.

But sometimes it IS the case. Here is my Top Five Competent Female SFF Protagonists, in the order they came to mind. Wait, Top Six, I just thought of another one.

1. Tremaine Valiarde from The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy by Martha Wells. I think Tremaine is the youngest protagonist on my list, but she is a highly competent person right from the beginning. I particularly love her ruthless streak. She is one of my favorite protagonists ever.

2. Maskelle from THE WHEEL OF THE INFINITE by, yes, Martha Wells. What can I say? There’s a reason Martha Wells is one of my favorite authors. Maskelle is at the height of her power when the story opens. This gives every single situation a great slant. The challenges Maskelle face have nothing to do with the sorts of problems a younger, more uncertain, less powerful woman would face. I love Maskelle.

3. Honor Harrington from David Weber’s well-known series. This is by no means my favorite-ever series. On the other hand, I do find myself going back to it every couple of years.

4. Heris Serrano from HUNTING PARTY by Elizabeth Moon. Another ship captain, another excellent, competent, decisive, mature female protagonist. This is one series where I think the early books are better than the later ones, btw. HUNTING PARTY does stand on its own very well.

5. Torin Kerr from the Valor series by Tanya Huff. Huff is writing at her best in this series, and she made an excellent choice when she made her protagonist a master sergeant rather than a commander. That gives her series a different slant from virtually all other military SF and space opera out there. I sure hope she goes on with the series, because I don’t think it really reached a stopping point after the five books that are out so far.

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6. Morgaine from Morgaine’s Saga by CJ Cherryh. Because, hello. Morgaine just about is The Type for a female protagonist at the height of her power.

Okay, who am I missing? I would definitely appreciate pointers to other great books featuring mature, highly competent female protagonists.

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17 Comments Favorite Female Protagonists: Competence Edition

  1. pete mack

    All good choices, especially Tremaine. Her father is pretty awesome too.

    How about Sgt. Jenny Casey(?) in Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear? I didn’t really cotton to Tanya Huff. Elizabeth Bear does some great adult protagonists, both male and female.

    Same for Miri “Sgt Redhead” in the Liaden series. Agent of Change is quite a romp.

  2. Maureen E

    Julie/Verity from Code Name Verity is an interesting case, because she is extremely competent right from the beginning, but is hiding it so thoroughly (part of why she’s so good at what she does). (Wireless operator indeed.)

    YES, Maskelle! Who is actually one of my favorite characters ever of all time. And Tremaine too, though she’s a little less self-assured (or something?).

    What about Andrea K. Host? Medair strikes me as fairly competent, even though she’s indecisive for so long. And Tiffany Aching, maybe? Although she definitely gains both confidence and competence as the series goes on.

    And Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan–I think it’s a bit hidden in the first book or two, but she’s a lady who knows what she’s doing.

  3. MAW

    Jack McDevitt’s Academy Series, featuring Priscilla Hutchins has her as a competent starship pilot from the outset.

  4. Michelle Sagara

    You’ll be happy to know that Tanya Huff is continuing the story of Torin Kerr with the – this may be a provisional title – Peacekeeper series.

    I love Code Name Verity – but it’s not SFF, if that matters. It is a beautiful, heart-breaking book. But: good heart-break.

    Granny Weatherwax is the only person who immediately springs to mind; maybe Eve Dallas? I think it’s a great question – I’m not really used to coming up with a list of characters at the peak of their power.

  5. Tintinaus

    Jill from Katherine Kerr’s Devery novels and possibly Sassinik from the Anne McCaffry/Elizabeth Moon book of the same name(It is story of how she grows into her stature from a child, but depending on what order you read the Dinosaur Planet/Planet Pirate books, you may have been introduced to her captaining a navy vessel all ready).

  6. Brenn C

    I’m sitting here thinking through Anne McCaffrey’s characters and I could list almost all of them. Menolly from Dragonsinger/Dragonsong was hyper competent at music, just crippled by self doubt. Nerilka (same verse) was also competent at what she did, just hampered by society and lack of prospects and looks. Moreta, even Lessa of Pern was good at something before she was plucked out of her home.

    My favorite two characters were Killashandra, who didn’t take rejection lightly, and Lunzie, who just kept battling. They both had achieved a lot before their story arcs even began.

  7. --E

    Cordelia Naismith! (Vorkosigan, eventually.) A competent scientist and spaceship officer right there on page one.

  8. Andrea K

    Of my heroines, Rennyn from Stained Glass Monsters is hands-down the most competent out the door. [Rian from Pyramids is older and also highly competent, but Rennyn outclasses her in terms of power by an order of magnitude.]

  9. Andrea K

    Ah, but to answer the question about someone _other_ than myself, Claudia J Edwards has wonderful competent heroines. Almost all of (the too few) of them start out thoroughly competent. Try “Taming the Forest King”. There are aspects of the romantic relationships in Edwards books which hit me wrong, but I just love her female protagonists.

  10. Hanneke

    When you mentioned the dearth of competent YA heroines I immediately thought of Andrea K. Host’s Hunting (which I just finished re-rereading). The heroine is quite competent from the start (though not especially powerful). She’s 21 but because she presents herself as a 17 year old boy she stil seems to fit in the YA category, for me at least.

    Another competent from the start heroine is Raine Benares, from Lisa Shearin’s Magic Lost, Trouble Found series. Competent and snarky, but not infallible. Not YA.

  11. Hanneke

    I second the nominations of Miri in Lee and Miller’s Liaden books (and Anthora!), and Cordelia Naismith (and Elli Quinn) in Bujold’s Vorkosigan books. Both series contain more competent women protagonists, but these are higly competent right from the first time we meet them.

  12. Hanneke

    Huff often has competent women protagonists, like the Wizard in the Grove and the Keeper, which I like better than the sergeant as military SF is not my favorite.

    Pyanfar in Cherryh’s Chanur books is another very competent ship’s captain, hani instead of human, but for me she counts.

    Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, in Pratchett’s Diskworld, are both very competent witches and very confident – especially Granny!

    I’ve got the idea Patricia McKillip should be on this list, as she writes very good and interesting female protagonists, but I can’t immediately recall which I’d describe as both competent and confident from the start.

    Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson is competent from the start, too.
    Polgara in David and Leigh Eddings’s books.

    Kerowyn in By the Sword, the least YA of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, is a competent mercenary, though she grows into a leadership role in the book.
    I think there were some women who were competent and confident from the beginning in some of Anne McCaffrey’s earlier books, but it’s too long ago since I read them to be sure (The Kilternan Legacy, Moreta; maybe A Stitch in Snow, but maybe she’s too ordinary, though she is ordinarily competent in her circumstances).
    The same goes for Modesitt’s Towers of Sunset.

    Harriet Vane, in the Peter Whimsey books by Dorothy Sayers, is confident enough in most things, except for falling in love.

  13. Hélène

    Jill from the Deverry series by Katharine Kerr : she changes and grows through the books but she is competent and self relaint from the start.

  14. Kim Aippersbach

    Love Torin Kerr! Will have to check out those others you mentioned.

    Cordelia Naismith, for sure. I love that even when she’s not the protagonist, she’s always there as this wise, competent voice that the people who know her try to live up to. I love the scene in Civil Campaign when Enrique finds out she was a Betan Astronomical Survey Captain, and he keeps repeating it, unable to fathom why none of the Barrayarans understand how significant that its.

    For competent YA fantasy heroines, what about Robyn MacKinley’s Sunshine? She’s not a competent magic user at the beginning, but she’s an excellent baker, and comfortable with that expertise, it’s part of her self-image. Then when she figures out her magic abilities, she’s pretty darn accomplished right away.

    And I vote for Tiffany Aching, too. Doesn’t know magic yet, but she wields a mighty cast iron frying pan!

  15. Rachel

    Kim, Sunshine is an interesting suggestion. I’m not sure. Her area of expertise is so narrow. Most (all?) of the protagonists that sprang to mind for me take a broader position of responsibility from the beginning. Sunshine steps into that position at the end.

    I really want to re-read Sunshine right this minute. Aargh.

  16. pete mack

    Oh well. I did not like aurora rising at all. It is a space soap.opera/romance novel, a genre that can be good but is usually bad. This one was…not good, IMO.

  17. Rachel

    I liked the first Kat book, but it was one MG book that “read young” for me. I should try the more recent ones and see how that goes, because I know a lot of you really love them. I did love Sorcery and Cecilia. And SL Huang sounds like a must-try!

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