Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Competent Female Characters, Second List

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.

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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.

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12 Comments Competent Female Characters, Second List

  1. Craig

    Not being on twitter, I hadn’t seen a lot of these suggestions: wow, the collective came up with a lot of suggestions. I had been intending to suggest Jirel of Joiry (although I don’t think much of her stories, she *is* the first female sword & sorcery protagonist) and Rowan the Steerswoman.

    The only character I thought of who didn’t make anybody’s list is another old-timer. Back in the day, James H. Schmitz was moderately well-known for his female protagonists. Most of them don’t fit your requirements: Trigger Argee probably doesn’t have the necessary emotional confidence, and Telzey Amberdon starts as an older kid. But Dr. Nile Etland is extremely competent as soon as she comes on stage in _The Demon Breed_, an SF adventure novel that doesn’t deserve to have been forgotten. (It was reprinted as part of _The Hub_ back in 2001.)

  2. Laura

    I would contribute Dhulyn Wolfshead of Violette Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno Mercenary Brotherhood series. She leads her team, and solves problems, while staying alive and working, which (I think) is the definition of competence in a mercenary.

    Also, Mac, in Julie Czerneda’s Species Imperative Series. She starts as a competent scientist and is thrown into a new situation and builds her competence there as well. I liked that her character demonstrated that flexibility and growth – totally relevant skills in most peoples real lives, where things continue to change, even after competence is achieved.

  3. elaine t

    No one suggested Cimorene from Wrede’s ENCHANTED FOREST?

    Relatively new but obscure, James A. Burton’s Mel in POWERS. Very mature (millenia old) very competent also an excellent cook – probably because if you live that long you either care a lot about food or not at all. Lots of good cooking stuff in that book. Mel and Al are the protaganists, Also a rather nice look at ‘wilderness’ that has actually been groomed by the inhabitant, carefully, discreetly, but beautifully. Like if Tolkien’s Elves had been doing it. Except this was just one person, and not an elf.

    Everyone else I’ve thought of someone’s already suggested. Oh, wait, Dag’s aunt Mari. Although she’s not a protaganist.
    L. Shelby’s Batiya in JADE SEA. (so far in her other works the protaganists are male.)

    I have read Jirel of Joiry, and hmmm… I guess she was competent, but I also remember a strong desire to swat her for I forget what.

  4. Rachel

    Cimorene is a great character! But she’s awfully young in the first book, isn’t she? Though sensible and competent, granted. Batiya also reads as quite young to me, with a growing-up character arc, though granted she is in fact a pretty good engineer to start with. And grows up fast. Hmm.

    Now I feel I must look up Burton’s Powers. Because, food.

    Laura, thanks for suggesting Malan’s series. I hadn’t heard of it, but I will look it up. Mac is a great suggestion. It’s been a good long time since I read those.

    Craig, I know, I wanted to pull all the comments together. And yes, The Demon Breed is a fun book, and Nile is definitely a good example of a competent female lead.

  5. pete mack

    Ooh… If you haven’t read Sabriel and the Abhorsen trilogy, you are in for a treat! You’ve hit on an awful lot of my favorite authors with this topic.

  6. elaine t

    The Burton’s male protaganist (Al) on about pg 2: “He should have been safe and private, savoring first the thought and then the deed – fresh-baked rye bread just cool enough to slice, parchment-thin salty dry Westphalian ham layered with nutty Emmenthaler cheese, fragrant and full of holes, brown stone-ground Raye’s ginger mustard from a century-old mill … The room had hummed about him and he glanced up and this golden ectoplasm materialized next to his kitchen table and took the shape of a man. …”

    There’s some mouthwatering lamb dishes and onion soup later. These guys use five different cutting boards so as not to mix flavors. All that specificity in the food is actually believable as mattering to the guys.

    BTW, I loved VIE EN ROSE, which I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t pointed it out. The main girl is like Cordelia, competent in her profession, but not emotionally.

    For McKillip female protaganists, how about Nepenthe from ALPHABET OF THORN? I was thinking of SONG FOR THE BASILISK but that gal is the villain’s daughter, not the main character. Antagonist, maybe. And there are a couple competent gals in BARDS, although neither is quite the main character: Beatrice and… whatshername.. Sophie/Zoe, the musician.

  7. Robert+Massey

    Unless I’ve missed it, no one has mentioned the first one I thought of — Captain Cirocco Jones from John Varley’s Gaea Trilogy.

  8. BGrandrath

    One of my favorites is Skeen (Skeen’s Leap, Skeen’s Return and Skeen’s Search) by Jo Clayton, I like Clayton’s Diadem series but the protagonist, Aleytys, does not start out competent or confident.
    Bet Yeager in Rimrunners by Cherryh starts with a bang and never lets up.

  9. pete mack

    If you are branching out to competent, confident girls, no one can beat Tamora Pierce”Tortall” series. There’s Alana, Daine, Keladry, Aly, and a number of short stories. You might go so far as to call it a genre.

  10. Rachel

    Robert, I have NO idea why I didn’t think of Cirocco Jones. Maybe because she’s pretty messed up in the middle of the trilogy — but she indubitably meets the criteria for “confident and competent” at the beginning. And of course she pulls herself back together by the end. That’s a great trilogy; it definitely deserves to be brought back to modern readers’ attention.

    BGrandrath, Bet does meet the criteria as stated, but she’s at such a low point when that book starts, definitely not at the top of her game. She doesn’t perceive herself to be in a position of power, and correctly so. That’s probably why I didn’t put her in. Arafel might fit, though she’s so solitary, I don’t know. I’ve read a good bit of Clayton’s work, but not the Skeen trilogy. Maybe I should give that a try.

    I don’t know, Pete, Tamara Pierce’s characters seem to me to have a pretty standard learn & grow character arc. I guess the criteria would be somewhat different for young protagonists.

  11. Mary Anne

    Kat, from Stephanie Burgis “Kat, Incorrigible” series, is young (middle school books), but very confident and also competent. Regency setting with fantasy elements. I loved the series. It was like someone shook out the whole Regency genre with a really brisk snap and hung it back up all refreshed and clean smelling. Which brings to mind Cecilia from Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s “Sorcery and Cecilia.”

    An author I just discovered this year is S.L Huang. Her Russell’s Attic series is like reading “The Matrix” – only better. With a kickass female protagonist who starts out full velocity and never slows down. Well written and addictive like an adrenaline rush.

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