Bad Ass Babes (With and Without a Man)

This essay is something of a sequel or companion piece to a previous article I wrote.

Early science fiction and fantasy tends to be mostly male-oriented. Which is to say, the main character and a large percentage of the supporting cast will be male, and female characters generally have tertiary roles more often than not restricted to “love interest,” “femme fatale,” or “innocent.” Even when the female character has a primary role within the story, she’s usually sidelined in favor of the Hero of the piece. Because of this, I generally paid more attention to/identified with the male characters because it was very rare for a female character to have the same depth of personality and character motivation as a male one.

It’s interesting to note that since the writers of said early science fiction and fantasy stories were for the most part male, I had a general belief that male writers were unable to write convincing female characters. Oddly enough, this dualism didn’t extend to female writers, who I felt could write convincing male or female characters. No, I have no idea why I thought this. (It’s possibly rooted in some kind of pseudo Mars and Venus meme.)

As new writers came onto the scene (or at least, as I became aware of them), my opinions about the ability of male writers to create a female character changed. What mostly changed my opinion were books with female writers who really didn’t write female characters all that well and male writers who I felt were able to create engaging female characters without turning them into Mary Sues. In addition, more books were coming out with female lead and supporting characters, and those women were often extremely badass.

With all that in mind, here are a few of my favorite badass female characters. Many of them will be combat-oriented but there are quite a few who are not. I’m going to be covering mostly literary characters, with a few side trips into manga/anime and comic books.

Ilisidi (C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner Universe)

Ilisidi is the very elder stateswoman of a civilization where you can file for assassination as easily as filing for divorce. (Both are very easy to arrange for among atevi.) She has immense political influence, and it is much more preferable to have her as an ally than as an enemy. Bren Cameron, the protagonist of the series meets her when he’s sent to live on her estate for a while because of a difficult political situation. (And also because he is the difficult political situation.) She is a very fierce, very cranky dragon with a conservative bent and no tolerance for foolishness.

Izumi Curtis (Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa)

Izumi is an alchemist, and the teacher of Edward Elric and his brother Al. Her trademark phrase is “I’m just a housewife!” and it’s most often said just before she does something incredible, like turn a sandbag levee into stone. Despite having a medical condition because of a human transmutation, she manages to kick some serious ass. (Her personality is such that her students Ed and Al regard her with a combination of terror and adoration.)

Ariane Emory (2.0) (C.J. Cherryh, Union/Alliance Universe)

Ariane Emory is the clone of an old dragon of a woman who was considered to be one of the “architects” of Union. Since she was raised to have the same basic personality of her predecessor, she’s just as much of a dragon, though with a slightly different ethical standard. She is terrifyingly intelligent, and even at a young age very skilled at manipulating people. (She does not need to physically kick your ass in order to kick your ass. Chances are good she’s all ready owned you, you just don’t know it yet.)

Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan (Lois Bujold, Miles Vorkosigan Universe)

Cordelia is impressive in a larger than life sense. She isn’t a lot like the general run of female protagonists in many science fiction and fantasy books. She’s a lot older, with more experience and maturity Her family adores her, her extended family is in awe, and her enemies tip toe very carefully around her because they all remember her “shopping trip” and what she brought home from it (the head of the guy that tried to usurp the throne). Despite that, she isn’t a combat oriented character–instead she is a very maternal figure with and ability to solve problems and give advice.

Ista (Bujold, Chalion-verse)

Your first reaction to Ista (in The Curse of Chalion ) is “poor Ista.” As you discover exactly why she’s half crazy with horror and despair, you think, “ow, yes, you have FML.” Ista is a failed saint who accidentally made things a lot worse because she tried to treat a miracle as if it were magic that would respond to a specific ritual (hint: miracles generally don’t work that way). The results got a lot of people killed, and Ista has been living with the sense of failure ever since. In Paladin of Souls, Ista decides to break free from the past, by having something of a midlife crisis that turns out to be a call to service of sorts from the Bastard, the god of Unexpected Stuff That Comes Up When You Least Expect It, who decides she is shiny and would make a great saint. Ista would beg to differ (I think she’s one of the few heroines I’ve encountered who responds to the Call to Adventure with total exasperation).

Honor Harrington (David Weber, Honor-verse)

Hi. Honor is a Mary Sue. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though I prefer the earlier books to the later ones. (Which are kind of * “shark-week” for me, since they don’t have a lot that’s new except for very long world building essays about the tonnage of the new space ship design.) Honor Harrington is a very strong, determined woman. A combat-oriented heroine who is written as a apolitical (because she sucks at politics) juggernaut with Strongly Held Opinions that are often expressed with her fist as with her words. Weber created a very strong female character, and I was impressed with her and her take-no-prisoners attitude.

Jame (Kencyr-verse, P.C Hodgell)

Jame is a tornado of “wtf,” and ten pounds of awesome in a five-pound bag. What drew my attention to her was her wry sense of humor and her completely blasé attitude to the strange things that happen around her. (These Strange Things are usually extremely chaotic, strange, or dangerous–or all three at once. Jame is a very talented girl when it comes to Strange.) She’s a character with a code of honor, though she doesn’t possess the best moral sense in the world. Another factor for why I love her so much is possibly because she’s a character who wants to learn and discover everything (even if sometimes she’d almost prefer to be ignorant, thanks.)

Illyana “Darkchilde” Rasputin (Marvel comics)
Illyana is possibly an example of convergent evolution is fantasy/sf heroines. She has a great deal of similarity in personality with Jame, though she has a darker, literally diabolic edge. (Some aspects of her origin also have parallels with Jame’s situation. Belasco wanted Illyana so he could summon Chthulu; Gerridon wanted Jame because he needed a new Dream-Weaver since the old one’s warranty had expired.) She is mischievous, brave, clever, and short tempered and occasionally very, very depressed. (Usually about the circumstances that led to her becoming the ruler of a dimension filled with demons.)

Lessa (Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffrey)

Lessa is a bitch. By which I mean she is a very determined woman with a fierce intelligence, and near-sociopathic tendencies when she gets angry enough. She waged a one-woman guerrilla war against Fax, the Lord Holder who conquered her family’s Hold and murdered her entire family. (Why she was doing this entirely without any assistance from supporters or retainers isn’t very clear.) She is capable of cold-blooded murder, and is quite able to end you without a qualm or hesitation, despite not being combat-oriented. (She will just sneakily arrange for you to die.) Unfortunately, instead of allowing Lessa to keep these aspects of her personality, McCaffrey opted to “tame” her via F’lar, the Benden Weyrleader. The very things that made her interesting to me were muted or played down to fit in with a more “traditional” romantic heroine.

Lilith Iyapo (Lilith’s Brood/Xenogenesis, Octavia Butler)

Lilith is a brave and intelligent woman thrust into a completely strange situation. (One that would seem to belong to an early science fiction pulp featuring the traditional **BEM clutching a swooning heroine in its tentacled grasp.) Her greatest strengths lie in her ability to communicate and work with others. She is a character who is quite capable of rescuing herself, (it seems as though Butler apparently decided that it would be fun to have a character like this and then put her in a situation she couldn’t rescue herself from. As narrative/plot device it works really well).

Segnbora d’Welcaen (Tale of the Five series, by Diane Duane)

Segnbora–is a mess. Because of a childhood trauma, she had been completely blocked off from being able to use the powers she had been born with, and spent most of her time after that trying to compensate by recreating herself over and over again. (She went off to become a bard, a master swordswoman, a skilled sorceress, but she was never quite able to complete her training in any of these things because what was blocking her off from her power was also blocking her off from everything else about her life/herself which in turn repeatedly set her up for failure.) That she’s also a loyal friend, brave, and usually kind offsets those parts of her personality that are darker and unhappy. A complex and interesting character that I’ve always been fond of.

Rosette Christopher (Chrono Crusade, by Daisuke Moriyama)

Rosette is a brave and stubborn character of the combat-oriented type. She is reckless and enthusiastic, who also has a few moments of wisdom and insight about situations that come up in the story. She is very much a tomboy type though she does have the occasional “girly” moment (which is brought out more in the anime than the manga.) She also has a very short temper, and a very physical way of showing her aggravation. She is a very skilled marksman (though this is much less obvious in the anime than the manga) and is very effective exorcist, though she has a tornado of disaster effect about on par with Jame’s. (If you want an entire building to collapse or an ocean liner to run aground, Rosette’s your girl.)


* As in, “jumped the shark.”

** Bug Eyed Monster, used to indicate any non humanoid alien life form, whether or not they have bug eyes or not.

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