I’m obsessed with female leaders and their portrayal in entertainment. Are great women leaders seen as ruthless? Sexy? Brittle and sarcastic? Or are they kind, but firm, leading through inspiration instead of intimidation.

For me, creating a compelling female character is tricky. Too many portrayals of women in popular culture repeat outdated stereotypes or reinforce negative images. Recently, I shared a rough draft of book two in my Dark Horse trilogy with a few beta readers. The feedback about the protagonist Olivia – a woman coming to terms with an unknown past, while being groomed to lead a secret society – was interesting. Through their eyes at times, she was too weepy, too callous, too discombobulated and even disloyal. Although they liked the book, they clearly wanted Olivia to behave differently.

These are smart readers and I’m making some tweaks accordingly – but I also took their comments as validation that I’d hit on something with the way I’d written Olivia That is to say that Olivia is imperfect: human, a work in progress, striving to become someone better. Their responses also got me thinking about some other deliciously complex female characters. Herewith are my top five favorites. I’ll add five more in an upcoming post.

1. Mallory Kane, Haywire

This 2012 Steven Soderbergh film features Mallory Kane, a double-crossed government operative who must battle her own colleagues, including the former lover who betrayed her, to survive. MMA fighter Gina Carano’s Mallory brings a combination of strength, courage, and wit that made this much more entertaining than your average shoot ‘em up – not to mention she did her own stunts. I particularly enjoyed Bill Paxton as her hapless father, who clearly knows the men sent to kill her are outgunned and outflanked.

2. Princess Leia, Star Wars

Dated? Maybe. But she remains the original bad ass of the galaxy, a woman who leads a rebellion, commanding legions of soldiers as a princess, a term normally associated with flowing gowns and afternoon teas. Her bravery in the face of torture was admirable, as was the fact that—not withstanding her temporary enslavement to Jabba the Hut, where she was forced to dress as his concubine—she did it all without cleavage showing.

3. River Tam, Firefly and Serenity

Zoe Washburn, the soldier and second mate of captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, probably strikes many as the prominent heroine of this short-lived but beloved television series and film. But I like River, the fragile teen assassin who is learning to live amongst humans again while she tries to come to terms with her torture at the hands of the government. Eventually she helps uncover a terrible secret, and saves her shipmates through a combination of heart-stopping brutality and intelligence.

4. Eowyn, The Lord of the Rings

Let’s face it: this trilogy is about men and their wars. Once the books were adapted for the big screen, however, Eowyn became an important character, demonstrating both vulnerability and incredible strength. Her decision not to be left behind as her clan goes off to war, and ultimately, her hard-fought battle against evil to save the king, marks her as one of my favorite characters.

5. Hermione Granger, Harry Potter

Hermione really needs no introduction. She’s often remembered as the ultimate over-achiever who is disdained for making people look bad, that is until her brilliance and bravery save the day. What I remember is that she had the strength to obliterate herself from her parents’ memories in order to save them, and then after enduring a hellish torture session at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange, had the fortitude to hold on to one of her hairs. Polyjuice potion, anyone?

Do you have some ideas about who to add to the list? Want to continue this discussion? Please send me your thoughts.


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