Strong Female Characters in Fantasy Literature

by tandemonimom

I love a good book where the female lead doesn't always wait around for the male lead to rescue her. These are some of my favorite strong female book characters!

Mirando Otto as Eowyn in Lord of the Rings
Miranda Otto as Eowyn in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Strong Female Book Characters

Books for girls should have strong female book characters. These do, and they are great stories as well!

I love to read, and I will read just about any story, whether a male lead or female lead character. Despite that, it can be tiring to always have a Mary Sue as the primary female character, a throwaway who inspires the male protagonist's action but never takes part in it herself.

So here is a (growing) collection of some of my favorite strong female book characters. These are all stories I have read multiple times myself and have read aloud to my own children - girls and boys! After all, girls are expected to read and enjoy literature with a male lead; there's no reason a boy can't enjoy a great story with a strong female lead character as well!

Raederle of An (Riddle-Master Saga)

Heir of Sea and Fire, the second book of the Riddle-Master saga, is Raederle's story.

Raederle, the female lead character in the Riddle-Master fantasy trilogy, does not appear in the first book but is mentioned throughout. The second book of the trilogy is her story.

Riddle-Master of Hed, the first book, opens with Morgon, Prince of Hed, discovering that without knowing it, he has won the right to the hand of Raederle, the second-most beautiful woman in the three portions of An. Raederle was promised since birth to the man who could win a centuries-old riddle game with Peven the wraith of Aum, which Morgon did not know when he slipped quietly into Peven's tower and won the riddle game.

On his way to meet Raederle and see if she would consent to live with him in a farmhouse (since he is the prince of a farming island) Morgon is waylaid by his destiny and actually disappears at the end of the first book.


Patricia McKillip's Fantasy Trilogy in a single volume
$15.82  $1.99

Heir of Sea and Fire, the second book of the trilogy, opens with Raederle being informed that the mystical land-rule of Hed has passed from Morgon to his brother Eliard. Distraught to learn that while everyone thought Morgon was fulfilling a quest to the High One to find the answer to the riddle of the stars on his face, in fact he was being tortured apparently to death, Raederle sets out to find the High One herself, and discover what happened.

In order to do this, she must first shake off her brother Rood, Morgon's best friend, who would certainly not allow her to make such a dangerous quest. Using her own minor magical powers, she befuddles Rood so that he misses their rendevous at the boat, and with the help of Lyra, a warrior-maiden who also met Morgon on his journeys and is angered at his death, she takes over her father's ship and sails north for Erlenstar Mountain, rather than south to home and safety.

A third courageous girl joins the trio questing to discover Morgon's fate: his very young sister, Tristan, who stows away on Raederle's ship. As she is thirteen and now the land-heir of Hed, Raederle and Lyra attempt to ensure that she returns safely home, but she tricks them all and manages to stay on board the ship to find out what happened to her brother.

The third book in the series wraps up the story of Morgon and Raederle, and her destiny turns out to be far more than simply being the wife to a man of destiny. The final step on their quest become finding a means to be together while embracing and fulfilling their separate powerful heritages, each as dangerous and overwhelming as the other.

Read more about the Raederle and the Riddle-Master trilogy.
Patricia McKillip's fantasy masterpiece Riddle-Master of Hed is full of wonderful lines. Here are a few best quotations from the trilogy.
Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster Trilogy - Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, Harpist in the Wind - is a must-read for any fantasy fan.
As with many involved science fiction and fantasy works, Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster readers sometimes benefit from a crib sheet. WARNING! Possible plot spoilers!

Will You Read Riddle-Master?

Tenar: Arha The Eaten One (Earthsea Series)

The Tombs of Atuan is Book Two of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Series

Tenar is taken from her home at an early age and reared at the Place of the Tombs, the rebirth of the One Priestess of the Tombs. Her name is taken from her and she becomes Arha, the Eaten One, her life in service to the desolate Tombs on the plains of Atuan. She never questions her destiny until someone is caught trying to break into the Tombs to steal something from the treasure store: Ged, a wizard from the Inner Lands, come to find the broken half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe, which bears the rune of peace.

Trapped beneath the Tombs and at her mercy, Ged begins to show Tenar that the Nameless Ones she serves are not nameless, and are also not worthy of her devotion.

Never having had the slightest cause to doubt her life's work until now, yet Tenar is wise enough to be able to listen with an open mind and to see the truth of Ged's words. When she must make the most crucial decision of her young life, she makes it with fervor, freeing Ged and herself from the Nameless Ones who would crush them both, and escaping to make a new life for herself as the White Lady of Gont, bearer of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, Tenar is not paired off with a love interest at any point in the story. Ged is instrumental in Tenar gaining her freedom, but what he really does is educate her so that she can help him, and together they enable each other to escape. At no point is there a hint of love interest between Ged and Tenar.

The second book of the Earthsea Saga, The Tombs of Atuan, is Tenar's story. She does not appear in A Wizard of Earthsea (book one) or The Farthest Shore (book three), which are both about Ged, who is a rather minor character in The Tombs of Atuan. She does reappear in the fourth book, Tehanu, as a widow.

Will You Read Earthsea?

Princess Cimorene (Enchanted Forest Chronicles)

Patricia Wrede's four-book cycle is all about Cimorene.

Cimorene is a princess of Linderwall who doesn't much like the princessing business. Her six older sisters are all perfect princesses, petite and beautiful, with spun gold hair. Cimorene is tall and black-haired.

Worse, she escapes her screaming lessons (one must know how loud it is permitted to scream when being carried off by a giant), to badger her father's men-at-arms into teaching her to fence.

When her parents, despairing of her ever attracting a prince by proper princessly behavior, try to trick her into an engagement with a handsome but doltish young prince, she decides enough is enough.

Cimorene escapes her castle home, and sets out to find a dragon. After all, as she explains to the bewildered dragons, "Being a dragon's princess is a perfectly respectable thing to do, so my parents couldn't complain. And it would be much more interesting than embroidery and dancing lessons."

So begins Cimorene's career as a dragon's princess. One of her duties is to meet the knights who come to free her, to explain to them (with remarkably little success) that she does not wish to be rescued. Along the way she makes friends with the witch Morwen and makes enemies of several wizards who keep trying to steal secrets from her dragon.

Eventually she has a quest to fulfill, and goes on it, accompanied by Mendanbar, the king of the Enchanted Forest. Naturally they fall in love and get married, but not too long after the marriage, the wizards trick their way into the castle and entomb Mendanbar for several years. Cimorene now must raise their young son, the heir to the Enchanted Forest and the only one who can manipulate the castle's magic to free his father, on her own - which she does with aplomb and no self-pity whatsoever. Eventually Mendanbar is rescued by his wife and son and happily reunited with them.

All of this takes up four delightfully light-hearted books that never hesitate to skewer any fairy tale tradition they stumble against. You will have a hard time putting them down!

Will You Read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles?

Lanen Kaelar (Tales of Kolmar)

Elizabeth Kerner's trilogy centers on a strong female lead character.

Lanen Kaelar, the wanderer, is a girl with wanderlust who was unable even to leave the horse farm where she grew up until her father died when she was nearing her twenty-fourth year. Then things begin to change rapidly as she discovers that her father, who hated her, was not in fact her father; she might or might not have been dedicated as a forfeit to demons before she was born; and her mother, who abandoned her when she was a year old, may have in fact done so to protect her.

But none of this is as interesting to Lanen as setting out to discover if dragons are real. Finding out involves a perilous trip by sea, a trip that can be attempted rarely due to the murderous storms at sea that abate only slightly once every ten years.

No ship that has attempted the journey in the past hundred years has returned, but there is always one ready to make the journey since anyone who returns with a hold full of leaves from the lansip tree (which will not grow anywhere else) will be rich beyond imagining. Against all advice, Lanen follows the yearning of her heart and sails, not for riches from lansip, but to speak with a real dragon.

She finds in Akhor, King of the Dragons, a kindred spirit who longs for community between their two peoples as much as she. Against all odds and advice and even the laws of both their peoples, these two forge an unlikely friendship that deepens into something even more. Naturally Akhor, as a dragon, is the stronger and the natural protector of Lanen, but being the strongest physically is not what makes a strong female character. Lanen and Akhor form an alliance in which she, surprisingly to them both, has as much to offer in the way of wisdom, advice, and even ability as her beloved.

Unknown to herself, Lanen is a child of prophecy and will become a queen of legend. The story turns on her and though Akhor is the strong protector throughout, Lanen is the centerpiece of the story and her will is the driving force behind everything that happens.

Read more about Lanen Kaelar and her dragon fantasy trilogy.
Song in the Silence is the first book of the Lanen Kaelar cycle, a female-lead fantasy trilogy.

Will You Read Song in the Silence?

What Makes a Strong Female Character?

Here's a very interesting perspective.

Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women
The feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.” They should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.” Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.” “Weak” meaning “flawed.” Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws. Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout. Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless. [[CLICK THE LINK TO READ MORE.]]

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Updated: 09/23/2012, tandemonimom
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Who is YOUR favorite strong female book character (whether listed here or not)?

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tandemonimom on 08/22/2011

Standoutloud, I haven't read that series, but a strong female character doesn't have to be the lead. And I think characters must be flawed to be strong; otherwise they are flat and single dimensioned.

standoutloud on 08/22/2011

Although not the lead characters, I think the Wheel Of Time series deserves a mention, as all women in those books are strong characters, although flawed.

WordCustard on 07/25/2011

Oh here's an interesting topic, got to love strong female characters! LOTR had so few female characters but Eowyn was wonderfully determined and courageous. She's hard to beat, although there have been a lot of feisty women. Scarlett O'Hara comes to mind, so does Lizzie Bennett, despite both featuring in romances.

spirituality on 06/30/2011

There is also the Terry Pratchett novels for pre-teens and teens, featuring Tiffany Aching. Of course all his works featuring witches feature strong women who do things and fix their own mistakes.

TerriRexson on 06/28/2011

Ooh these are wonderful. I'd enjoy these myself and will certainly share books like this with my boys as they get older. At the moment they love Jane and the Dragon.

lakeerieartists on 06/26/2011

The EarthSea stories by LeGuin are books that I read so long ago, I almost forgot about them. But they are a great story. I will have to check into the others you suggest. I have found that most stories with strong female protagonists are written by women, and many have been written since the LeGuin stories. She was one of the originators of strong female characters in fantasy literature. Thanks for the suggestions.

Treasures By Brenda on 06/17/2011

I haven't heard of these books either but they do sound interesting.

lou16 on 06/16/2011

I actually haven't heard of these books, but Princess Cimorene sounds like a character that my daughter would enjoy.

petunia on 06/16/2011

I think I would like Princess Cimorene, and so would my granddaughter!

Dianne on 06/16/2011

I read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles to the boys and we all enjoyed them.

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