Okay, lots of great Twitter action on this topic, as well as comments here. So a more complete list of competent female protagonists forthwith, plus my personal take on ’em when I’m familiar with them, which is by no means all the time.
From my original post:
Tremaine Valiarde, Fall of Ile-Rien, Martha Wells
Maskelle, Wheel of the Infinite, Martha Wells
Honor Harrington, series of the same name, David Weber
Heris Serrano, Hunting Party and following series, Elizabeth Moon
Torin Kerr, Valor series, Tanya Huff.
Morgaine, from CJC’s Morgaine series.
Now, what all of the above protagonists have in common is: they are competent AND confident to start with. They may be in a position that is not ideal — hence, conflict and the ensuing story — but they know they can handle most problem that arise, and the DO handle problems that arise, because they are good at stuff. Yes, I agree with Maureen that Tremaine is a little less self-assured, but . . . uh . . . perfect consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, or however that goes.
Actually, though Tremaine is pushed into a general sense of inadequacy from time to time, especially by that ass Ander, I don’t think she ever doubts her own basic competence to act effectively. She is an extremely decisive person, far more assured than, say, Menolly from the Harper Hall series — which Brenn C suggested in the comments. I loved the Harper Hall series, btw, but I would say the character arc for Menolly is a much more standard insecure –> confident arc. Brenn, Hanneke and @quartzen all suggested McCaffery’s Moreta. It’s been such a long time since I read that! I do remember that she was a mature woman character, but almost nothing else about her.
Louise Bates (on Twitter) and Hanneke (in the comments) and Estara (at Goodreads) all suggested Cordelia Naismith. For “mature female protagonist,” she’s a great choice. So is Ista from the Chalion series. But though Cordelia *is* competent to start with, she lacks confidence. That is why I left her off my initial list. AmyCat at @BookUniverse managed to capture this distinction in fewer than 140 characters on Twitter, which I hesitated to attempt: “Big difference between professional competence & emotional confidence. Cordelia starts strong w/1st, gains 2nd.” Exactly. I was specifically thinking of female characters who are already both confident AND competent at the opening of the story.
Pete Mack suggested Miri from Sharon Lee & Steve Miller’s Liaden series. Good catch; I agree. Miri has been through a rough patch, but she’s clearly both competent and self-assured when we meet her.
Michelle Sagara (comments) and Veronica Schanoes (Twitter) pointed out that Granny Weatherwax definitely counts. So she does.
Kate Elliot (on Twitter) suggested Signy Mallory from CJC’s Downbelow Station. Adam Whitehead (on Twitter) suggested Brienne from Game of Thrones and Moiraine from Wheel of Time. In all these cases, the woman suggested is not a true protagonist, but one member of a huge ensemble cast. I think that’s different, though granted maybe that distinction is just me.
Ben (@DefGrappler) suggested Breq from Ancillary Sword. I said no, Breq is not really a sexual creature, not human enough to count as “female.” Where does that leave Pyanfar Chanur from the Pride of Chanur series? Hanneke (comments) suggested her, and so did Sandstone (@quartzen). Here I say yes. She’s nonhuman, but she reads as a lot closer to human than Breq, imo. I mean, at least she thinks of herself as female. Breq is really a neuter person, no matter what pronoun she uses. @quartzen also suggested Diane Duane’s Ael in her Star Trek Rihannsu novels. Definitely a yes for Ael. She’s a great character and those are fantastic Star Trek tie-ins.
@DefGrappler also suggested Kate Daniels from Ilona Andrews’ series. Well, yeah, that’s certainly true. Don’t know why I didn’t think of her. Hanneke suggests Mercy Thompson from Patricia Briggs’ series. Mercy isn’t at the same level of competence as Kate Daniels, but okay, I grant you, she knows her way around a car — and she is confident by nature. That’s one big reason I love her.
Then we get to a bunch of protagonists I don’t know at all:
Kate Elliot and others (@jennygadget) strongly recommend Rowan from Kirstein’s Steerswoman series. That’s something I’ve had on my TBR pile for well over a year. I really, really want to get to it this year.
Kate Elliot Whoops, sorry, it was Jayne (@aunicorninspace) who suggested Alexis Solovy from G S Jennsen’s Aurora Rising. (Those extra @ tags confused my eye.) Anyway, that one is 0.99 on Kindle right now, so it’s very easy to add to my TBR pile. There, done.
And one more suggestion from Kate Elliot: Jirel of Joiry. That’s one classic I never read.
Pete Mack (From the comments) and Martin Wisse (on Twitter) suggested Jenny Casey from Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered, Scardown & Worldwired. Jenny Casey is evidently a middle-aged ex-veteran cyborg. Sounds great! Hammered is now on my TBR pile.
@DefGrappler also suggests Tavore Paran from Erikson’s Malazan series and Ilya Volyova from Reynold’s Revelation Space. I’m not familiar with either.
MAW suggests Priscilla Hutchins from Jack McDevitt’s Academy series, because she is a competent starship pilot from the outset.
Titinaus and Hélène both suggest Jill from Katherine Kerr’s Deverry novels. Kate Elliot suggested Lovyan, also from Deverry. Jon Chaisson, on Twitter, suggested Nola O’Grady from Kerr’s UF series that starts with License to Ensorcell; I liked License to Ensorcell and the first several sequels quite a bit, but I’m not sure that Nola O’Grady struck me as really confident and comfortable in herself at the beginning of the series. Though, I don’t know. Maybe I need to re-read those.
Katherine Kerr herself suggested Bobbie Lacey and Doctor Carol in her newer title Polar City Blues and also Ammadin in her older title, Snare.
Hanneke suggests Kerowyn in By the Sword, which she describes as the least YA of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series. I never got into Valdemar, so I don’t know Kerowyn. Also Raine Benares, from Lisa Shearin’s Magic Lost, Trouble Found series. I haven’t read that, either, though it’s on my radar, I believe. I might even have it on my TBR pile. It’s pretty bad when you can’t remember whether you actually own a book or not.
Hanneke also suggests some of Huff’s fantasy in addition to than the Valor series. I am actually not as keen on Huff’s fantasy and don’t remember much about Wizard of the Grove or Keeper.
@quartzen, in addition to mentioning some protagonists I know, also suggested Balsa in Nahoko Ueshashi’s Moribito, Quinn Lioe in Melissa Scott’s Burning Bright, and Melisa Michaels’ Skyrider. I don’t know any of those.
I mentioned AKH’s extremely competent heroes. Naturally I see that commenters are now mentioning her heroines in the AKH titles I haven’t actually read: Stained Glass Monsters, Hunting, and now Pyramids of London. FINE. I will hopefully read all of those this year, but in fact . . . so many books . . . I can see myself simply waiting to read Pyramids until the entire five-book series is out.
Andrea K Höst herself suggests Claudia J Edwards Taming the Forest King. All right; it is now on my TBR pile. This one seems to be available only in the form of physical used copies, but on the other hand, it is available, so there’s that.
@harmony_fb suggested Loch from The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes. I actually have that in audio right now.
@glenatron suggests Juliet E McKenna’s female protagonists, starting with Livak, the protagonist of her first series. That starts with The Thief’s Gamble. Okay, I’ll try it.
@RobotArchie suggests Grand Captain Lady Laurr of noble Laurr from Mission To The Stars by AE Van Vogt. I really enjoyed some of AE Van Vogt’s work, but never read this one.
@pixelherd suggests Muire in Elizabeth Bear’s All the Windwracked Stars and Delarua in Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds. Those were already on my radar, but I haven’t read either of them yet.
Okay, and from Sarah Beth in the comments at Goodreads, we also get a suggestion for Beka Rosselin-Metadi from the MageWorld series by Debra Doyle, James D. Macdonald, and Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde, neither of which I’ve tried.
As far as YA female characters who start off competent, we get these suggestions: Katniss of The Hunger Games, Sabriel from the Garth Nix’s book of the same name, and Tiffany from the Tiffany series by Terry Pratchett — who starts off as a nine-year-old, but a confident and competent nine-year-old. Sabriel I simply don’t remember that well, but I agree with the other two. They may have areas where they’re less confident, but overall they believe in themselves, and with reason. Also Mosca is suggested from Fly By Night by Hardinge. That seems like another possible choice for a confident MG girl protagonist.
All right, I THINK that’s it for suggestions, though I wouldn’t be astonished if I missed a couple given the plethora of comments here, on Twitter, and at Goodreads. Thank you all for contributing! I hope we will all find some new-to-us titles we really love from this list.
Update: pml comments on Goodreads:
UN Peacekeeper Major Catherine Li in Chris Moriarty’s Spin trilogy. That’s a harder SF trilogy, I see.
Perhaps FBI profiler Jace Valchek in D.D. Barant’s The Bloodhound Files — that appears to be a UF series.
Gale in A.M. Dellamonica’s Hidden Sea Tales, although she’s the protagonist only in the short stories Among the Silvering Herd and The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti.
I’ll just add other suggestions in addenda as they come up.